After the surgery (Ch. 18 1/2)

Arielle eased the door open, peeking around it cautiously, not sure in what condition she would find him.

When he heard the creak, though, Russ propped himself up in the hospital bed and turned towards her, smiling slightly. He gave a brief welcoming wave.

Ari smiled back and continued on in. He was upright. And he was smiling. Those were good signs.

“So…” she ventured, coming closer. “You did it! You survived.”

In response, the singer raised his eyebrows, and then quickly knocked wood on the dresser table next to him. They both laughed, Russ’s a dry chuckle. He then gestured towards a wipe off board lying nearby.

“Oh-yeah!” Arielle acknowledged. “Some sort of reaction to the anesthesia?”

Russ nodded and pantomimed throwing up. A lot. Then he rubbed his throat. Too sore to talk.

Ari grimaced along with him. “And then your pain meds too?” she queried.

At that, he pretended to scratch at his arms and chest and the gagging motion again. “Dilaudid” he wrote on the board. Then he held out his arm which had an “allergic” band on it. He shrugged as if to say “How was I supposed to know?”

You, have a reaction to medicine?” She quipped.

He made a face that said “I know, right?” He had definitely followed the worst case scenario throughout the whole treatment process. Possible side effects? Every one-check-right on cue.

“Your mom told me,” Arielle continued. “But-you don’t have to talk-or write-if you don’t feel like it.”

At the mention of his mother, Russ’s eyes widened. He grabbed the wipe off board, quickly erased “Dilaudid” and started scribbling frantically. Ari stood there watching until he finally held up the board, a gleam in his eyes: “You flew my mom and Ava in? You did NOT have to do that! I will pay you back for that, you know!!!!” Heavy emphasis on the exclamation points.

Even in silence, he could still yell, Arielle marveled. “No biggie” she shrugged.

Russ tilted his head to the side in his familiar way. Come on

“Listen,” Arielle said, “She wanted to be with you. Mothers worry. They’re supposed to worry, right? Besides, what else are frequent flyer miles for?”

Russ acquiesced, nodding. He erased the board thoroughly again.

“They’re settled at your place and I think your mom has already kicked out the cleaning lady and is doing it all herself” she joked, knowing Mrs. Gibson’s penchant for cleaning. Russ rolled his eyes. Ari looked at him more seriously. “She has to feel like she’s doing something. You know, this makes people feel so helpless. They want to do something for you but they don’t know what. And if this is what makes her feel better…” she trailed off.

The singer sighed, understanding. The reactions he’d gotten after his diagnosis had varied from well meant but overwhelming sympathy, to awkward clichés, to complete avoidance. All of which Arielle had warned him about. It was as if she’d written a “What to Expect When You’re Diagnosed with Cancer” manual and every response had been right on track.

“But this is about you-so you can’t worry about their hang ups. You have to worry about yourself and saving your energy for recovering.” Ari continued, surprising herself at her own Nikki-speak.

In response, Russ gave a weak thumbs up.

“And Nikki has Ava all set up with visiting the gym tomorrow. She got new batting cages and wants Ava to check them out.”

At that, Russ smiled. His daughter, the softball player of the family, would love that. Nik, as usual, knew just what to do to welcome people.

Then he noticed Arielle was still standing. He began to wave her to sit down, and then saw the guitar strapped across her back and frowned questioningly.

“I brought an old friend” she smiled, pulling it down across her, unzipping and removing her acoustic.

“The Martin-” Russ scrawled. “I remember you!”

Arielle nodded. “I thought you might just want to rest and hear a little music. Is that OK?”

“It would be lovely” he replied, via the board, and then lay back onto the pillows.

As she was grabbing in her bag for a pick, Ari noticed he had the body pillow she’d bought him months ago. This time with the blonde pin up pillow case on it. He saw her gaze and laughed. “It’s great!” he wrote, “You were right-it really helps my back in these crappy beds.”

“Good! Glad you’re getting use from it” she chuckled. Holding the guitar up for a moment, she asked “Any requests?”

Russ shook his head, leaving Arielle to decide for herself. She checked first to make sure the door was closed so as not to disturb any other patients, then, closing her eyes, she envisioned her dad in a similar bed, but in their own home. There were many times he hadn’t had the ability or strength to talk either. When nothing seemed to comfort, she would just play. Beatles usually started it. With that in mind, she began the first few notes of “Dear Prudence”.

The singer shut his eyes as well, relaxing into it. After finishing, Arielle segued into “Blackbird”, then “Julia”, one of her favorites. Then she went on to “Calico Skies” by Paul McCartney. She was getting the strangest sense of déjà vu, almost expecting to open her eyes and be sitting on the old couch next to her dad, Spirit the dog at her feet. The thought that both of them were gone now brought tears to her eyes. Cancer…if only that bitch didn’t have to take all the good ones… The surge of anger surprised her, especially along with tears; it had been a long time, why did she still feel this way? Was there ever an “over”?

The sound of Russ shifting in bed to reach for his water bottle brought her out of her semi-trance. She set the guitar on her lap. “I’m sorry, I got caught up. Is there anything you need?” As she looked over, she noticed a little photo album on his nightstand, on the cover of which was printed, “Those were the good old days”. “What’s that?” she asked, curious.

Russ set the water down and wrote on his board: “A Nikki thing. Thought it would cheer me up” He made a funny face, handing the album over to her. “Which it does sometimes, but…sometimes it makes it…worse…”

Trust Nikki with the pictures as always…Ari thought, reaching out for it. In seconds she was laughing. “Oh my, it’s all from-”

“The good old days” Russ wrote, smiling wryly. There were pictures of Stone Cold from when the girls had first met them, 12 years ago. Some live shots of the band on stage, but mostly them hanging out after, arms around one another, laughing, goofing off.

“Oh wow!” Arielle remarked, as, flipping through it,  she got to one page of her and Carrie. Posing together on the back of a couch, she had on a tight purple dress with a big wide belt, her long spider legs dangling over the top, smile a wide Bleaney-type. Carrie, on the other hand, was dressed more demurely. “Guaranteed that was a straight up Limited Express outfit” she smirked.

Russ leaned over to see which one she was looking at. Then he sighed dramatically. “STUNNING!!” he scribbled on the wipe off board. “What was my problem?”

“Nothing. Unless you consider being married your ‘problem’?” Ari handed the album back to him as she again took up the guitar.

In response, Russ just groaned. Touche! he wrote on the board. Arielle gave him a crooked smile and went back to playing another Beatles song. Then she switched to Dire Straits “Why Worry”.

“Beautiful!” he mouthed. He meant her playing, not just the song itself. As the years had passed, she had become an even better, more rounded player, always learning, improving. It was easy to hear that,  with his practiced ear. Such talent!

Although his eyes were shut and he was lying silently, Russ had been listening to each song and automatically naming the title in his head as she started: “Dear Prudence”, “Blackbird”, “Julia”, “Across the Universe”, Dire Straits…then…what was this one? He frowned in concentration. It had a lot of minor chords, and sounded bittersweet. He considered himself pretty knowledgeable on Beatles songs, maybe not as hard core as Arielle, but knowledgeable enough. Still, he didn’t recognize this one.

His eyes flickered open. Propping himself up more, he reached for the wipe off board and wrote just “?”

“It’s an original” she explained, continuing to pick.

“So sad! What is it about?” he added to the board.

Arielle looked up at him. “You” she responded, that little smile again.

At this, Russ sat straight up. For the first time since she’d been there, he actually spoke: “You wrote a song…for me?” he croaked out.

Ari looked over in alarm. She made the Shhh… motion towards him, not wanting him to bother his throat.

He ignored her. “What’s it called?”

Ari paused. “’I Wish You Would’”, then clearing her throat, she corrected, “’Wish You Would’”.

The singer gave a strangled laugh. This time he grabbed the board and wrote “I BET!!!!” He started with the frantic scribbling again as she continued the melancholy song. “Wish I would-what? Get hit by a car? Get kicked in the balls? Drop off the face of the earth?”

Silence. Another smile, with the hint of a wink. “Yes.” She replied simply.

Russ lay his hand across his eyes for a long moment, shaking his head. Then he looked at her. Said nothing. Just nodded. He erased his outburst and added “Fair enough.”

Her long fingers playing over the strings, picking softly, Ari quantified, “Sometimes..”

“But also…” Hmm, how much should I reveal to him? Well, did it really matter?  He was happy now, she was happy. They had long since moved on with their lives. “Sometimes…call. Just call.” She reached back into her mind, the guitar sounding as wistful. “Leave her, run away from it all, it was a mistake, pretend it never happened.” Ari laughed at the memory of herself. “Total fairy tale, totally unrealistic. But that was me then. Naïve, deluded…”

“You were not naïve.” Russ countered on the board. “You were trusting. A giving person. Like no one I’d ever met. Like people are SUPPOSED to be.”

Arielle kept strumming as they were both thinking back to their old selves.

“It was ME that was wrong.” He continued. “You did nothing wrong. I didn’t deserve you.”

“But then I realized…” she continued, echoing what Mick had said, “It would never have worked out. You were what you were back then. Different women, living the life…You know what they say, ‘If he does it with you, he will do it to you’…”

Russ frowned. She was probably right, but…he still didn’t like admitting that part of himself.

She looked straight at him. “I wouldn’t do that to anyone and I wouldn’t want it done to me.”

He nodded. I know you wouldn’t

“I would’ve spoiled you rotten and you would’ve broken my heart.” Ari concluded.

Pursing his lips, the singer scribbled on the board, “You did. And I did.”

Ari thought of what Nikki had told her not long after it had all happened. She sighed again. “Oh Russ, you were just trying to do the right thing! If you would have left your wife and daughter…that would have been wrong. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the cause of that. I am not that person.”

“Yeah well, sometimes the ‘right thing’ sucks!” Russ contended. They looked at one another and laughed sardonically.

“They say that everything happens for a reason.” Arielle commented. “I don’t buy that. Somethings things…just happen. And they suck. If you look for a reason, you’ll drive yourself crazy. You can’t get stuck in ‘what if’? You have to be satisfied with the fact that sometimes you’ll never know…” she finished softly. Noticing the time, she started to get up, putting her guitar back in the case. He really did need his rest and she was sorry she hadn’t totally given it to him.

But, on a roll now, Russ sat up straight, his eyes burning with some kind of quest in mind. She waited patiently as he scribbled, putting her picks and capo back into the zipper case “What if I would’ve… ” But he quickly crossed that out and corrected “What if something had happened that first night? Would you have thought I was just a jerk and never talked to me again?”

Arielle considered, and then shrugged. “Russ, I don’t know…how can you know something that didn’t happen?”

Switching gears, he erased, and then added, “If you could go back, would you change anything about  Toledo?””

A long pause. “No,” Ari replied slowly, carefully. “No, I think it happened just the way it was meant to.” Finally, after all the time she’d spent dwelling on it afterwards, it came down so simply to her: that was the way it was supposed to have been. Any other alternative…would’ve been worse. Or not to have met him at all. That wouldn’t have been right either. Even with how it had ended, she didn’t regret what they’d experienced either. There HAD been good in it too. Realizing this filled her with a strange kind of peace.

“It was just…” she fished for the right words, “the wrong time.” Then she got up, gathered her things as Russ watched silently from the bed. “Well, I’d better go now” she started, looking at him for a long moment, torn between wanting to sit and stretch the time out, and feeling awkward, needing to leave.

As she got to the door, Russ cleared his throat and rasped something out. Arielle turned, her hand on the latch. She looked at him questioningly.

“Right. Person.” He repeated firmly.

Ari paused. “Yes” she agreed, and then gave him a parting smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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FYI: this is a basic skeleton of the story

Not all chapters in order-just a basic frame work for now. Many gaps I have to add to, possibly change parts of it or add alternate endings-I write as I’m inspired, not chronologically. But I think you get the gist of it with what’s here so far 🙂

I have them numbered for now, but there are gaps in between chapters, so they will fluctuate over time. I wanted to get them in at least a somewhat chronological order until I’m finished.

Field trip with the chaplain (18)

A sudden knock on the door brought Russ out of his depressive fog. He shifted his gaze to see a head poking through at the same time as the door opened. He caught a quick glimpse of buzz cut, just as a voice called out, “Are you decent?” before stepping into the room. Standing in front of him was a guy about his age, clean shaven, in a suit. Russ frowned. “I told them I didn’t want a chaplain.” he grumbled, then deliberately turned his head the other way.

The stranger was momentarily mystified. “Huh?” he said, then looked down at his tailored suit. “Oh, this thing? I’m not a chaplain. Ah, hell no. I’m Mike, Shanna’s-I mean, Dr. Hainley’s-“ he corrected quickly, “husband. We’re on our way to some hospital thing later on.” When Russ at first said nothing, he went on, “Remember, you told her it was OK for me to stop by?”

Still scowling, Russ gave a quick wave of the hand. Oh yeah, “Recommended counseling”. Eh. “Yeah, yeah.” It was hard to get unused to living his life by doing what he wanted, when he wanted, and if he didn’t want to be bothered by something or someone, well then that was it. This disease had started to change that a little though. There were few people he would override his feelings for and do as they suggested. Dr. Hainley was one of them. He trusted her with his life. He had no choice.

Mike raised his eyebrows, cocking his head to the side, in a gesture similar to one Russ often used. “You don’t look too visitor friendly right now if you don’t mind my saying.” he observed.

The singer paused for a moment, then concocted a faux smile. “Forgive me for not being my usual ray of sunshine self, but I just got done having my very first sponge bath by a 70 year old, overweight, distinctly unattractive, male nurse. And this was after I threw up my delicious lunch of 4 cans of white paint-otherwise known as Ensure, into a plastic bedpan. So…” he finished sarcastically, “I’m not exactly the happiest son of a bitch you ever met right now.”

Mike gave him a long look. Then he nodded coolly. “Let’s take a little field trip.”

Russ blinked at him. “What?”

“I mean, get up, let’s get out of here.” He jerked a thumb towards the door.

The singer shook his head. “Uh-if you haven’t noticed…I’m not exactly mobile here, you know?” he spread out his arms to indicate the IV lines and pole. “I’m a…” he affected a scholarly tone “’fall risk’”.

Dr. Hainley’s husband just stared back at him. Then he looked around the room and gestured towards the corner. “Ever take a ride in a wheelchair?” Russ looked over too. He didn’t have to say anything, it was written all over his face.

Mike shrugged. “Unless you want to sit and admire the beautiful artwork for a few more hours until you fall asleep. Maybe.” He nodded towards the painting covering the wall directly in front of the bed. Russ had been staring at it for days now and counted every flower in the field, had memorized every detail of the bucolic countryside, the expressions on the peoples’ faces, even the way the dog’s one foot was lifted off the ground. He’d been debating with himself whether it was a Chocolate Lab or just a mutt. He was starting to see it even with his eyes shut. Enough. Russ sat up straighter in the bed and made as if to swing his legs over the side.

“Hold on.” Mike advised, pushing the wheelchair over. “Don’t get all jacked up on me now.” He arranged it next to the bed, pulling out the foot rests in a quick motion.

Russ looked down at him. “You do that so well.” he remarked drily.

Mike had a slight smirk on his face. “Yeah. Let’s just say I had a lot of practice.” Then he stood up. “It’s all yours.”

The singer looked at it at first like it was an instrument of torture. “I’m not handicapped.” he announced defensively.

“Of course not.” Mike retorted. “But you would be if you fell and broke your leg, hip, or worse. Then it would be…” he gazed at the ceiling dreamily, “sponge baths by ‘hot’ nurses indefinitely.”

Russ frowned and grudgingly eased himself off the bed into the chair. He reached around helplessly for the IV lines and poles, but Mike had already swept everything together expertly and clipped it to the top of the wheelchair.

“Ready to roll, rock star?” he quipped. The singer only grunted in reply. Nonplussed, Mike pushed him out the door, whistling as he did so. As they moved down the hallway towards the elevator, the nurses at first looked at the patient in the wheelchair, their eyes opened wide, then at who was pushing him, and were even more in shock. What are you doing with that asshole of a patient? was their silent inquiry. Mike just smiled and winked.

The entire way to the elevator, Russ kept up a litany of complaints: “Can’t believe I’m in a freakin’ wheelchair. Holy hell, a damn cripple!” Though his helper said nothing in response, the singer went on, regardless, mumbling, “Sponge bath! I’m a grown damn man.” Then, “Goddamn Ensure-tastes like shit.” He didn’t notice that he was by now on the ground floor and was going through the lobby. Mike just continued to push him, silently. “I haven’t puked this much since I was—” he suddenly shut up as they were outside, the sunshine bright and glaring in his face. He looked up at Mike, his expression half annoyed, half curious. “Where are you taking me?” he growled, not in the mood. He clutched at his emesis basin reflexively.

Ignoring him, Mike took a deep breath, smiling up at the blue sky. “Beautiful!” He was admiring it for so long, he didn’t notice Russ was staring at him expectantly. The singer cleared his throat.

“Oh!” Mike jumped, snapping out of it. “Places you’ve never been!” Russ rolled his eyes. “Somewhere your girlfriend goes a lot. She’s a popular visitor there.” he added cheerfully.

Russ wanted to punch that smile off his happy face. The whistling that accompanied it made it even worse. He grit his teeth and muttered, “It’s Dr. Hainley’s husband, be nice. It’s Dr. Hainley’s husband…

Mike glanced over in amusement. “Talking to yourself now too? Maybe I should take a detour to the Psych Ward?”

Russ gave him a glare, the same glare that usually warned most people to back off. Instead, Mike smirked. Who the hell does this guy think he is? He doesn’t even know me! Russ opened his mouth, shut it, then opened it again. Damn it, he was going to wipe that smart ass grin off this jerk’s face! Doctor’s husband or not. He cleared his throat again in preparation.

Mike raised an eyebrow, regarding him with that same condescending amusement, continuing to push him along his mysterious route.

“Maybe you live in a sunshiny world full of puffy white clouds & little butterflies, but not everyone does, buddy. You could work on your sympathy a bit! There are people out there who are suffering, you know…who have serious problems and illnesses that are out of their control.” He bit the last few words off angrily. “We’re not all walking around like you, smiling at everything, dressed in monkey suits, living in a fantasy world. Get real! I mean—“ His voice trailed off, noticing they were now inside a new building.

Unlike the ward he was in, the walls were painted bright, cheery colors like sunshine yellow, robin’s egg blue, cotton candy pink. He started to get a sinking feeling. He dared a quick look out of the corner of his eye up at Mike, but the oncologist’s husband’s face was expressionless and he said nothing, just kept up with the whistling. Then he saw the pictures. Some crayoned, some finger painted. Everything from stick figures with huge heads and unidentifiable blobs that were probably family members, to detailed drawings of super heroes fighting hideous monsters with arms like syringes and faces like IV bags. And yet, others that simply said “Hope”, adorned with flowers and smiley faces. He shrank down in his wheelchair.

Still, Mike continued to push him, silently. Nurses dressed as clowns and cowboys walked past, giving him waves. And…he could hear…music…laughter…coming closer as they were headed down the hallway. And then…they got to a huge room, full of toys, games, balloons…and…kids. Some of them sitting at tables, working on puzzles with the nurses or family. Some lounging on bean bags in front of a huge TV, watching others play video games. Some in wheel chairs like him, hooked up to IVs. Some couldn’t even sit and were propped up in hospital beds, pale and bald. Also like him. All young. The fire drained out of him. He’d been had and he knew it.

Mike stopped at the threshold of the room and leaned down to Russ’s level. The pleasant façade was off. “What were you saying about suffering?” he asked in clipped tones. The singer shook his head, speechless.

When Russ still could not respond, Mike took a deep breath, then continued, “Listen, I know you’re supposed to be this big shot rock star, but you whine like a sissy!” he shook his head in disgust.

By now, Russ had tears running down his face. Head in his hands, he was shaking. “God…” he gasped. “They are so young!”

“Knock. It. off.” Mike commanded with a frown. He grabbed a box of tissues from a nearby nurse’s station and tossed it at Russ. “We’re not going in there until you get a hold of yourself.”

Russ then looked up, gasping, fumbling at his nose with the tissues, surprise and dread in his eyes.

Mike pursed his lips. “That’s right. We’re going in.“ He looked at the singer with disdain. “Shocker for you though-being told what to do, right? Big spoiled rock star, with his entourage…groupies and super models, eh?” he sniffed. “Not used to someone talking to you like this, huh? Been a long time? Well guess what?” he leaned down again and said the next few words slowly, sternly, “Time to get over yourself.”

He stood waiting as Russ rummaged with the tissues, wiping his eyes, blowing his nose. “You know, you’ve been treating the nurses and doctors around here like crap!” he accused. ” And they are trying to help your whining butt.”

Russ nodded dumbly. There was going to be no escaping this. He wiped a hand across his eyes one last time and gulped. Mike shook his head again, muttering, “Pathetic!” as he pushed him through the doorway.

Instantly his demeanor changed. “Hey! Hey!” he called out cheerfully as the room’s occupants turned to look. Nurses and parents smiled. Some of the kids working at the art table waved and shouted, “Hi, Mikey!”

Mikey? Russ thought, randomly. That sounded like the name for a little kid, or a nice guy…not this…beast of a drill sergeant. He shook his head, trying to clear it.

“I brought a visitor!” Mike announced, gesturing down at the wheelchair. He kicked one of the wheels, startling Russ, forcing him to look up. “Smile.” He said under his breath.

The singer emitted a teeth baring grin, forcing himself to look around the room. “God, you’re not at a press conference…” Mike muttered, through the side of his mouth. “Quit acting like a stupid idiot.”

Russ’s faux smile faded, struggling to form into something more natural.

“This is Russ…” Mike introduced him to the room. “He’s a…musician.” He explained. “A famous rock star!” he expounded. Russ frowned. When the kids and parents gazed at him blankly, Mike looked down at the singer and shrugged. “Not part of your fan club, I guess?”

Then, deciding to lighten up on the sarcasm, he began pushing him around the room, stopping first in front of a boy who was working with Legos. Skinny, but with a bloated face, he wore his bald head with pride; someone had drawn a Superman symbol on it with Sharpies.

Mike introduced him as “This is Greg. He’s…16, now, right?” he teased.

Greg laughed. “Nooooo…. 8!” and continued with the Legos, staring at the box every now and then to get his bearings. It was a replica of the Titanic, intricate in detail.

Russ stared, impressed. He reached out his hand to touch it, respectfully. “You…you did all this yourself?” he asked, surprising himself by blurting it out to a kid he didn’t even know.

“Yeah.” he replied shyly, handling another piece.

Mike patted him gently on the shoulder. “Don’t let him fool you. Greg is a Lego master.” He gestured to a display case in the corner. It was filled with other Lego sets. Russ had just enough time to glimpse the White House and the Two Towers from Lord of the Rings before Mike pushed him on. “Greg has a rare form of lymphoma.” he explained. “Diagnosed when he was 5. He had a lot of stomach aches, throwing up… At first they thought it was appendicitis, but then he started spiking fevers and had complications. Turned out he had a tumor the size of a grape fruit in his stomach.”

Russ shuddered as Mike went on. “He’s had 2 surgeries now, chemo, radiation, the whole bit. They’re hoping the latest bone marrow transplant will help.”

Bone marrow transplant? Russ gulped. He’d heard about those. Couldn’t even imagine the pain. And two surgeries? He was afraid to try even one. “Is he…gonna be OK?” he whispered, out of earshot of Greg.

Mike looked at him. “I don’t know.” he replied honestly. When Russ appeared stricken, he went on, “We hope so. But you don’t know.”

He had already moved on to another kid, this time a little girl, seated on a piano stool. So that’s where the music had been coming from… “This is Kaitlyn. Katie.” he corrected, as the girl looked up with a smile. And what a smile! Freckled covered face, Russ could only guess her hair had once been red; she wore a Dodgers baseball hat to cover her bald head. He reached up to touch his bandanna covered one, feeling a sort of kinship, at the same time thinking he wasn’t worthy to be around these kids.

“9 years old and a virtuoso!” Mike informed Russ, as her mother sitting on a couch nearby beamed. “A musician, like you. Sometimes she and your girlfriend duet.”

Katie perked up. “Is Angel here?” she asked excitedly.

“Nah, not today.” replied Mike. Both Katie and her mother looked disappointed, but they quickly masked it when Mike asked what she was working on next. Smiling, she started out with the notes Russ instantly recognized as “Hey Jude”. Unconsciously he began singing along under his breath, mouthing the words. She was halfway through the song before he noticed that she was playing both parts with her left hand, her right hand dangling uselessly by her side. Huh?

When Katie finished, both he and Mike joined in applause. She stood up and gave a little curtsy. Man, did she have a mega watt smile! Russ was instantly charmed. As she was showing something to Mike in her piano book, the singer gathered up the courage to talk to her mother.

“Umm..hi…” he began, holding out his hand to shake hers. “I’m Russ. Your daughter is a great pianist. She’s gorgeous.”

“Thank you. I’m Carol.” She responded, accepting his gesture. “Nice to meet you.”

“I noticed…” he started, sneaking a quick glimpse back over to the little girl, “That Katie is only playing with her left hand…?” he let the end of the sentence dangle, not sure how to go on with this, how to word it, what to say without sounding like an idiot.

But this mother was a veteran. She knew what he was wondering and had a response, probably well rehearsed, before he even finished. “Katie had a brain tumor when she was 7. Started complaining about headaches, her stomach hurt…” she had a world weary expression as she went on. “Thought she was just trying to get out of going to school, you know, typical kid. Do you have kids?” she interrupted herself to ask Russ.

He nodded, looking down at his lap. “Yes. 4.” he whispered, picturing them all in his mind now.

“So you know.” Carol continued. “You don’t think-oh-brain tumor. We’d give her a Tylenol and send her off…things would be OK. Then she had problems balancing too, more headaches, throwing up, so we took her to the pediatrician. And that’s when…”

Russ was shaking his head as she kept going. “She actually used to be a guitar player. Really a prodigy. But the surgery and treatments caused nerve damage to her right hand. She tried, but…couldn’t play anymore.”

By now Mike and Katie had finished what they were doing; she had noticed they were talking about her, and with an expression that showed she was embarrassed at them doing so,  cut in: “So I switched instruments.” Shrugging, as if it was as easy as that.

Russ shook his head in wonder, sneaking a glance at her mother, who raised her eyebrows as if she couldn’t believe it either. “Some people have that gift of musical ability. But he said you…you’re a musician too?” she queried, then, “Sorry, I…don’t follow the stuff out today….” If you’re supposed to be famous, I don’t recognize you…was unspoken.

Russ waved away her apology. “It’s OK. Yeah, I’m in a band. I’m the singer. Or…I was…”

Carol gave him a questioning look and he pointed at his neck. She nodded, tacit understanding. Before she had a chance to say anything, though, Mike stood up. “I want you to meet someone else before we go back” he told Russ.

“Nice meeting you” he said to Carol, too overwhelmed to know where to begin to say anything else.

She nodded again, with a polite smile. Then, in a low voice, “I wish you well.”

“Thank you” Russ choked out, giving one last glance to Katie, who was happily moving on to another song, oblivious to, or maybe, transcending, the drama of so many sad stories in the room.

He was quiet as Mike rolled him across the room to a corner by the window. Gazing around the room, watching the kids, trying to read their parents’ expressions, wondering how the hell they could stand sitting here, helpless to some freakin’ disease that was ravaging their baby?  He could not even fathom…

He was startled out of his ruminations by Mike’s voice. “This is Elizabeth” he announced. Russ noted that his tone of voice was different than with the others; not as upbeat and joking. Then he looked up and saw why: an impossibly tiny little girl lay in a  huge hospital bed. Bald as the others. So damn small! His heart flew up in his throat. Oh my God, how do you let this happen? When he turned to look up at Mike, he saw beginnings of tears in his eyes too this time.

“Elizabeth has lymphoblastic leukemia”, he said softly. Then he nodded acknowledgement to the nurse who was by her side.

“Jesus…” Russ breathed. “How old is she?” he felt he was going to lose it any minute, despite Mike’s warnings not to do so.

“A little over a year.”

Russ closed his eyes. The same age as Devon, his grandson. Good God.

“She likes to watch the bigger kids” the nurse explained quietly. “We bring her in here when her mom’s not able to be with her. It seems to calm her down.”

The singer could not think of a single thing to say, he kept staring at this tiny girl with the bluest eyes and the face of an angel.

“She’s a single mother. Father not in the picture. 3 other older siblings” the nurse went on to explain, seeing Mike nodding for her to go on, to tell Russ her story. “So she’s working two jobs, raising her other kids. She comes in as much as she can. Sometimes spends the night. Sometimes other relatives come in too. They try not to leave her alone too long.”

Jesus…Russ repeated to himself. The father in him couldn’t resist; he reached out and stroked that tiny arm tenderly, whispering, “Hi, baby…” she turned her head and just stared at him, at this stranger touching her. She just looking at him, silently, as he continued to whisper, “You’re such a pretty girl, Elizabeth…”

Mike and the nurse gave each other looks over the singer’s head. He didn’t notice, he just kept talking to that little angel, transfixed by her constant gaze.

Then it was Mike’s turn to clear his throat. Looking at his watch, he announced, “We’d better get going or Shanna is going to come after me.”

The nurse, knowing Dr. Hainley, laughed a little. “And we don’t want that!”

“No, we do not.” Mike agreed, laughing in return. “She’s already ticked enough that I rode here with the suit on. Just got it dry cleaned! she said.”

“Only you, Mike!” the nurse admonished, shaking her head. She gave a polite smile to Russ as Mike grasped the wheelchair handles in preparation for their exit.

“Bye sweetie…” Russ called to Elizabeth as they turned.

They left the room, back down the hallway, to the elevator. Retracing their trip back to Russ’s building, they did not say a word the entire time; they didn’t need to. Mike knew the silence was doing its work.

They got to his room, Mike wheeling him in, pushing the foot rests back, rearranging the IV pole to its original position, everything in reverse. He watched as Russ gingerly moved from the wheelchair to his bed, this time without a word of complaint.

They looked at each other and nodded, man to man. “Bye, rock star.” Mike quipped with a wink, heading out the door.

After he left, Russ lay in the bed, unmoving. The silence was deafening. He closed his eyes, mentally exhausted, and fell into the deepest sleep he’d ever had at the hospital.

 

He awoke much later to the sound of a cart creaking into the room. Blinking, startled, he shook the images of his trip to the pediatric unit he’d been dreaming about out of his head. Looking from his bed, he saw Mike again, this time in regular street clothes. He threw his hand over his eyes in dismay.

“Ahh shit, not you again!” he groaned.

Mike only laughed. That’s when Russ noticed the cart had balloons and a cake on it. “What the…?” he began.

“Hey I heard someone was having a pity party in here…” Mike joked.

In response he got a middle finger. “Screw you, Hainley!” Russ grumbled, struggling in his covers to sit upright and get a better look. Strangely, he felt after that experience, that he could talk to him that way, even though they’d only just met. There was something about this guy.

Mike pushed the cart closer, then grabbed a chair, casually pulling it up next to the bed, and sat down. “Nah, just kidding. It was my birthday. They got me a cake at that thing we went to. Thought I’d bring some back to share with you, if you’re up for it.”

Russ frowned. “You are going to be nice to me? Now there’s a switch.”

Mike averted his eyes for a second, chuckling to himself. “Yeah….” he began. “Shanna told me to pay you a visit. Sometimes she sends me in for her ‘special’ patients..”he explained. “But…when I told her what happened, she said maybe I went overboard. A little?” he raised his eyebrows with a little smile. “But…I think I got my point across.”

“You bastard.” Russ replied, but then smiled grudgingly. “Point made. Point taken.”

Then it was as if the walls went down. They were immediate buddies.

“Great.” Mike responded. “Now I don’t have to worry about Shanna kicking my ass. Too much.” “Anyway,” he went on, gesturing to the cake, “Dig in. Have some, please.”

Reaching up, Russ took a tiny slice, unsure how this was going to go down after the earlier episode with the Ensure. But he knew that whatever the results, it wasn’t going to be the end of the world. So he threw up again. So what. He was getting to be a pro at that.

“Elizabeth is adorable, isn’t she?” Mike asked.

“A sweetheart.” Russ agreed solemnly. “God, how do these parents do it?”

His new friend shook his head. “How do any of them do it? You just keep walking, one foot in front of the other, brother. What choice do you have?” he swallowed his mouthful of cake, rinsing it down with some chocolate milk he’d brought along. “Shanna told me you have kids, right?”

“Yes, “ Russ nodded quietly, “4. And a grandson, not much older than Elizabeth.”

Mike was nodding also. “We have kids too. Twins.” He expounded. “Angus and Alice.”

At that, the singer shot him an incredulous look. “Angus and Alice?” he repeated.

His friend laughed. “Yeah. Shanna’s a classic rock fan, what can I say? They’re 2.” He added in explanation. “Little hellions sometimes. Take after their momma!” he laughed and popped another piece of cake into his mouth.

“How many times do you have to go into that ward before you stop losing it?” Russ wondered, hesitatingly taking a bite of the cake.

“Oh…” Mike replied. “You don’t ever get over it, you just learn to mask it. You try to concentrate on the kids, what you can do for them, or…a lot of the time, what they can do for you. They don’t sit around crying about their illness. Why should we? It’s a waste of the life they do have left.” Then he added. “It took a while for your girlfriend Angel to get used to it. She said she had to give herself a pep talk the first couple of times. Then even later, sometimes she would walk out smiling and then go into a storage closet and bawl her eyes out.”

This time Russ picked up on the “girlfriend” part. “You said that before…” he mused, remembering, now that the focus wasn’t all “Me Me Me”. “Girlfriend. What girlfriend?”

Mike laughed long and hard. “Oh, I forgot you’re a rock star! One of the many, I guess. How do I expect you to remember just one?”

The singer rolled his eyes. “Riiiight… money for nothing and my chicks for free. Seriously, what are you talking about? Angel?”

Taking another swig of the milk, Dr. Hainley’s husband waved his hand in the air, gesturing. “Tall, blonde? Wears black a lot? Visits you sometimes? She comes in to play guitar for the kids.”

Ohhhhhh! It dawned on Russ. “You mean Arielle. Not Angel.”

“Ok” Mike shrugged agreeably. “I just know that’s what everyone calls her. Nickname?”

Russ closed his eyes, groaning a little. “No. If it’s a nickname, it’s my fault. I uhh…one of my drug induced ramblings in here…” he explained, not wanting to go into detail.

“Mmm…”

“Now she is never going to get rid of it.” the singer lamented with a sigh. “And she’s not my girlfriend.”

“No?” Mike looked up in surprise. “She’s here to see you enough, I just…assumed. Met her a few times, seems really cool.”

Russ nodded slowly. “Oh yeah. Very. “ he got a wistful look on his face and repeated, “But not my girlfriend.”

“Why not?” his friend asked, then jumped in, answering his own question, “You have too many others, right? Living the life?”

“No.” Russ said with studied patience. He had been 100x more annoying to Mike than the other way around. “She has a boyfriend already.”

“Ahh!” from Mike. Then, “Hey, sorry for the slam in the kid’s room, but honestly, I’ve never heard of your band. Don’t listen to the stuff that’s out now either. It’s mostly crap. Shanna told me the name of it, but, well…”

“Stone Cold.” Russ told him. “We’ve been friends since grade school, grew up in the same home town. That’s actually how I met Arielle. She and her friends went to a club where we were playing once. We all ended up becoming friends. Her best friend even married my drummer.”

“Cool. So, you guys never even dated?”

The singer paused for a long time before answering. “Yeah. We did.” His expression was melancholy though. “Long story.”

Mike looked up in interest. “Didn’t work out, eh? Incompatible differences?”

“No…” Russ began slowly. “We had a lot in common. Clicked right away.”

“High maintenance, then?”

“Never. The most easy going girl I ever met. She could have fun grocery shopping!” he marveled, remembering.

“Jealous then? You said you were in the band. One of those ones that wanted you to spend more time with her? That kind of thing?” Mike guessed.

“No. Not Arielle. She was either jamming with us or off doing her own thing. She actually helped promote us a lot. Got us some big breaks.” Russ admitted.

“Ok, then, you had kids. She wasn’t the kid type?”

“Oh my God, no, my kids loved her! She was always doing and buying little things with them. They were so pissed when she quit coming around.”

“The…?”  Mike raised his eyebrows up and down knowingly. Then he added. “Sorry. If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Nota problem.” Russ said quickly.

“Then?”

Russ let out a long sigh. “I was married.”

“Ahhh….” Mike nodded. “I get it. She was the other woman.”

“No!” the singer exclaimed adamantly. “She wouldn’t let herself be.” He added quietly.

Catching on, Dr. Hainley’s husband said, “Oh…so you had this picture perfect marriage you didn’t want to mess up?”

At this, Russ shook his head miserably. “No. Far from it. She was a cheating, alcoholic, drug addict. Has nothing to do with our daughter.”

Mike stared at him. “Let me get this straight: you had a girl who was easy going, not after you for the money, loved kids, sounds like she loved you, good looking, good loving…and you choose…the crazy one? Dude, what the hell?”

The singer was still shaking his head.

“Man-“ Mike blurted out. “You are an asshole!”

Russ smiled grimly. “Thanks, bud.”

“So.. who dumped who?”

The singer thought back to the scene in Ft. Wayne. Then later in Toledo. He shrugged hopelessly. “It was a draw. I guess you’d say.”

“Sorry, but…”  continued Mike, “sounds like you screwed over your soul mate. Any chance of…?”

“No. I told you-she has a boyfriend. She’s dating Joe Elliott.”

At this Mike sat straight up in his chair, his eyes huge. “Joe Elliott? Def Leppard! Daaaamn…Now I see…”

“Mmm hmm.” Russ pursed his lips. “So you know who they are, huh? But not us?”

Mike was grinning while shoving more bits of cake into his mouth. “Ah hell yeah, who doesn’t?” He started singing “Photo-graph! I don’t want your…photo-graph. I don’t need your…”

“Right.” Russ cut him off quickly. Then he sighed. “Well it’s too late now. That’s water under the bridge.”

“Why the hell does she come to visit then? Too nice for a guy like you.” Mike shoved the plate over closer to him. “Eat the rest of this. Or dump it. Whatever. I gotta roll.” He reached for the leather riding jacket he had slung over the back of his chair. “Later, brother.”

Russ stared down at the remainder of the cake as Mike opened the door. Then he stuck his head back in briefly. “Joe Elliott?!” he mocked one last time.

“Screw you, Hainley!” the singer growled. He could hear Mike’s laughter echoing all the way down the hall.

Hospital Visit II (16)

Arielle breezed through the lobby, stopping by the front desk to pick up the hospital’s version of a backstage pass. She silently thanked God no issues with that today, at the same time wondering again why she was here. What is the point? I have no inspiring insight!

Despite the encouragement Mick and Nikki had given, that they thought she’d be helping Russ just by talking to him, Ari was dubious. We haven’t seen each other in years, come on, get real…what am I going to tell him that is going to make any difference?  But then she checked herself, remembering her new revelation, inspired by Nikki : if she was here now, it must be for a reason. Most important mission today: get him to tell others in his circle so Mick can have some backup.

All the medical knowledge she had gleaned from her research online swam in her head as she went up in the elevator- statistics, treatments, figures… It was overwhelming. She struggled to remember the gist of it-at least she could be more knowledgeable and helpful in that way.

As she headed down the hallway, her musings were interrupted by a throaty growl: “Get. Out. Of. My. Room!” She stopped cold. Oh my God. It was Russ! She could hear a flurry of soft voices in reply, their words indistinguishable. Then, as she got closer, “Leave me alone!” Arielle’s heart thudded in her chest. Good Lord, what am I walking into?  So much for my “mission” today. She stopped at the door, hesitant. It was wide open and she could see a group of nurses around Russ’s bed, bending over him. One of them looked up, turned her head as she heard the clicking of Arielle’s shoes on the polished floor. “Oh!” she gave a sigh, half of irritation, half of relief. “I think Angel’s here!”

Arielle gave them a confused look. “Excuse me?” she looked from the nurses to Russ. “Should I come back at a better time?”

“Oh no, you’re fine.” one of them replied. She looked back at Russ’s incensed face with a placating smile. “Mr. Gibson, Angel is here to see you!” she said in a sing song voice. “We’ll come back later.” she advised, as they fled the room.

Ari stood there stunned, wondering what had been going on. She didn’t have long to wait. After a count of 10, Russ burst out, “Bunch of freakin’ fuck ups! They’re supposed to be the best of the best and they can’t even take my damn blood! Look at this!” He held out his arms for her inspection. They were sprinkled with multiple needle pricks, some of them starting to bruise. “I look like a goddamn junkie!” His eyes blazed and his already damaged voice grew even more hoarse as he raged on. “I can hardly sleep, but whenever I do, they come into the room sticking me with some shit, then they come back a ½ hour later to get my blood pressure. Then they come back again to give me some kind of treatment. Let me freaking sleep!”

Arielle just listened to his outburst, saying nothing. How did he manage to yell so much when he had throat cancer? He was all anger, but she somehow sensed more to it. “You’re scared” popped out of her mouth before she even realized she was thinking it.

That jolted Russ out of his tirade. For a split second he looked at her with a combination of panic and appreciation that she seemed to understand what he was going through, but then he blinked and glared at her, his expression  saying “Of course, dumbass!” He wavered between denying and admitting it, then blurted out, “Hell yes I’m scared! What do you people think? This sucks! I’m tired of it.” He said faintly, “I don’t want to die!” but then changing his tone, went on, “But if I have to have one of those fucking robot voices, I’d rather be dead!”

“Fucking robot voice”? Only Russ! Ari curbed her natural response, which was to rush in with, “Don’t talk like that! You’re going to be fine!” Everyone always wanted to say things like that. But they weren’t always going to be true. A lump in her throat, she instead managed to get out, “Of course you’re scared. Anyone would be. That’s normal.”

He let out a weary sigh, as if relieved to have been given permission. They sat there in silence for a long time. Then he added, irritation now masking the embarrassment he felt at revealing that to her, “I don’t want to ‘be brave’ or any of that bullshit! I don’t want to be some poster child for cancer patients.”

“You don’t have to be. Be whatever you want to be.” Arielle responded calmly.

He sighed again, staring at the ceiling.

“When have you ever listened to what people told you to do anyway?” she added, smiling a little.

Russ looked at her out of the corner of his eye, with a grimace that looked like it may have become a grin, but stopped when he groaned, “Dammit, now I gotta take a piss!” He rolled over awkwardly, stiff from lying in the bed so long. Arielle moved back to give him his space. He gripped the metal bedsides, pulling himself upright and planting his feet on the floor. Yanking his IV pole irritably along with him, he stood up, started to take a few steps, then stopped, closing his eyes. “Whew, head rush! What the hell?” he mumbled, shaking his head to try to clear it.

Ari looked at him in concern. He took a few more steps, then started to crumble. Alarmed, she immediately reached out and took his arm. He looked sharply at her, at her hand on his arm, as if he wanted to shake it off too, but muttered “I’m ok.” instead. Still, she followed him to the bathroom, watching anxiously as he kept pulling the back of his hospital gown together.

“Don’t be checking me out!” he warned. Arielle rolled her eyes, but relieved, at least, that a bit of his smart ass attitude still existed. He disappeared inside, and she let him, knowing there were grab bars just in case. Then he called out, “No peeking!”

Ari just shook her head. She wanted to retort “I’ve seen it before!” but instead held her tongue. She could hear him muttering to himself, then silence. Then, “Dammit, I can’t even piss!” He came back out, and looking at dignified as he could manage, stomped back to the bed. Arielle lingered close by, trying not to look like she was ready to help him even though she was. Despite his attempts to keep himself covered, his gown flapped open at the back anyway. She struggled not to laugh, at the same time thinking, should I be finding humor in it at all? Where was the sweet, repentant Russ from the last visit?

As soon as he settled back onto the bed again, the nurses reappeared at the door. His eyes darted over. “Ah, hell no!” he bellowed, hiding his arms under the covers.

The younger nurse, wearing scrubs with pink frogs all over them, pursed her lips in determination. “Mr. Gibson, you know we need to take your blood.” she began, sounding as though she were speaking to a toddler. “The doctor needs to check your levels.”

He picked up on her condescending tone immediately and gave her a black look that should have killed. Arielle grimaced, remembering that same look he had often given to promoters, bar owners, other bands-anyone who was trying to give him shit. Oh boy, they don’t know they picked the wrong guy! she thought, settling down in a nearby chair to observe this scene with raised eyebrows.

The two nurses, working in a team, moved closer to the bed, Russ staring at them as if gunslingers facing off. Then they moved over him, fussing with one arm, then another, trying to find a good vein. Neither could, after multiple tries. They looked like two birds fighting over a piece of bread. The older one attempted to smooth things over. “Now, Mr. Gibson, I know this is a bother, but please, try to be patient. It’s Amber’s first time drawing blood…”

What?! Arielle snapped to attention. All those needle pricks…the bruising…and they have a newbie taking his blood a thousand times? Her mind was jolted by a flashback of her dad going through the same thing once. Ah hell no was right! She looked at Russ; by this time, he had given up, staring at the ceiling in surrender. “Enough!” she announced, standing up from the chair. They looked at her in surprise. “Can’t you see what you’re doing to his arms? You don’t keep sticking him over & over!” Ari shook her head in disgust. “Where is his doctor? You need to get someone else-someone who knows what they’re doing-to take care of this!” she commanded. By this time, Russ was staring at her too, his mouth hanging open. Was this the old Arielle he knew?

The nurses attempted a reply but Ari cut them off with a curt. “Now.” They both darted out the door.

The room was completely silent, Russ still staring at her.  Then a female doctor strode into the room along with the older nurse. Long dark hair, with a slight build, she nevertheless carried herself with authority. Surveying the scene, she demanded, “What is going on with this patient?” Her in-charge tone shut even Russ, who was about to go off on them again, up. Then she moved over to him. “Mr. Gibson, what can I do for you?” Arielle noticed that Russ recognized the doctor and immediately relaxed, an expression of trust on his face.

The nurses spoke up. “We were trying to take his blood but he’s not being cooperative.”

The doctor gave them a quick look. “I was talking to Mr. Gibson.” she corrected, turning her attention to him again.

Whoa! Score one for you! Arielle thought. She liked this doctor already.

In response, Russ just held up both badgered arms. “This  is what they’ve been doing. All damn day!” he added.

“They can’t find a good vein and he’s having trouble standing up, had a dizzy spell, and can’t go to the bathroom.” Arielle chimed in, ignoring Russ’s glare. “Could he be dehydrated? Even on an IV?”

The doctor was shocked. “Samantha-“ she barked to the older nurse. “Get an IV team in here-stat.” Wordlessly, both nurses disappeared. The doctor followed them with her gaze, then turned again to Russ. “Mr. Gibson, I’m sorry you had to go through that. They should have stopped when they realized it wasn’t working. I apologize. We’ll get a team of experts in here now to make it better.” She stood up, examining the bag of fluid on his IV pole. “It’s rare, but you can still be dehydrated even on an IV.” she commented. “We’ll adjust the flow and that should help.” “And you’re right,” she nodded towards Arielle, “When you’re dehydrated, the veins shrink, they’re harder to find. But there are ways around that, don’t worry. The dizziness could also be from low blood pressure. I’ll have that checked for you again.”

She glanced over towards the door, seconds before the IV team came in. After giving a few instructions, the doctor turned to Arielle, offering her hand. “Hi, I’m Dr. Hainley, Russ’s oncologist. You must be Angel!”

There it was again! Angel?  Arielle frowned in confusion. “Uh-no-my name’s Arielle…?

“You were here earlier too, right? You’re the first visitor for him I’ve seen, and I think he needs that.” She lowered her voice a little. “I’ve been treating him since the beginning. And he’s having a rough time of it. It’s nice for him to have his girlfriend for support.”

“Umm…I’m not his girlfriend…” Arielle corrected. “I mean, I used to be, but…that was a long time ago, and…” she stopped, seeing Dr. Hainley’s vacant look and knowing she sounded like an idiot. “I’m not his girlfriend. Just a friend.” she finished.

The doctor nodded. “Well, ok. Friend is good too. Russ is one of my…” she smiled, “model patients. He has quite the rep here!” They both looked over at Russ, who was now being attended to satisfactorily, one of the IV techs having wrapped his arm in a warm towel to open up the veins. Then they laughed, instantly on the same wavelength.

Arielle could see why that look of trust had come over his face as soon as Dr. Hainley walked in the room; she liked her immediately too. “I’m sorry,” Ari mumbled an apology, “I didn’t mean to tell you your job. I just…well, I’ve been in this situation before, and…”

But Dr. Hainley waved that away. “No worries. We are a big hospital, and do have some of the best care in the country. But unfortunately sometimes things still happen. It’s good to have patients and their…friends…involved in their care.” There was no typical doctor ego tone in her voice. “I’m glad you made me aware of it.”

Ari smiled slightly in relief. “And..what is this…Angel stuff?” she asked in a low voice, so Russ couldn’t overhear. “Those other nurses…they both said that to me too? I wasn’t sure if they were being sarcastic or what?”

“Ohhhh…” the doctor laughed. “That was from yesterday. He had some…discomfort..” she explained, “and the medication made him…a little happy.” “And he kept talking to everyone about how Angel, or an angel had come to visit him Monday. Kept asking where the angel was, when was she coming back?” She smiled. “Some of the meds do that sometimes. But he was fine. We finally put two & two together when we realized he had actually had a visitor, he wasn’t just hallucinating.”

Arielle was stunned. Angel? He thought of her as angel?  She stole a quick glimpse over at Russ to make sure he hadn’t heard their conversation, not wanting to embarrass him. Now she felt even more guilty for not coming back the very next day. She shook her head in disbelief as Dr. Hainley excused herself, moving over to Russ’s bedside again to check on him.

Two other nurses came in-not the Dumb & Dumber team, Ari noted with satisfaction-one checked his blood pressure while the other adjusted his IV. In less than 10 minutes an issue that had taken all day to develop was resolved. Just on one doctor’s word. Amazing! she thought. As all the nurses left the room, it was quiet. Only Dr. Hainley remained.

“So, Russ…” she began. “How are you doing otherwise? What’s on your mind?” Ari was surprised to see that she grabbed a chair and sat down next to him, waiting expectantly when at first he said nothing. “Come on, I know there must be something.” she prompted, the hint of a wink in her eye.

Russ gave her a look as if to say “Are you serious?”, opened his mouth, shut it, thought for a moment, and then replied, “Since you ask…”

“Go on.” Dr. Hainley nodded, waiting. Arielle’s eyes darted between the two of them, waiting for the barrage she had experienced from him earlier.

He propped himself up on his elbows, gestured with his chin towards his arms, then looked back at the doctor. “Thank you.”

She nodded again. Understood.

Russ then cleared his throat. “This bullshit of being woken up every hour on the hour. I’m trying to sleep, I can’t freakin’ sleep, just as I think, ‘ah hell yeah!’, they barge in again, sticking me with something, adjusting something, dammit! I told them to knock that shit off but they said ‘Mr. Gibson, we are under orders, there are tests we have to do and this is part of the procedure’…” his voice had become high pitched, mimicking a female. “I get that. I realize I’m not at the Hilton. But…” His eyes blazed again and he left the sentence dangling. “Whatever food they bring me…” he glanced at the tray table nearby. “I can’t eat it. It tastes like crap. Like…metal or something…” he let his voice go softer, reluctant to admit it, and added, “I can’t swallow much.”

Dr. Hainley was nodding, taking notes on a clipboard, as Russ continued, emboldened by her willingness to let him get up on his soap box.

“I have a dozen different people coming in, telling me all this different shit…” He sighed. “Look, I’m a musician, not a medical expert. I can’t understand what they’re talking about! Speak English, you know?! Can’t get a straight answer out of anyone. All I know is I’m not getting one of those fucking robot voices! You can just kill me now if that’s the plan.” “And,” he gestured under the bed sheets. “You gotta do something about these gowns. I’m tired of my ass sticking out.”

Arielle covered her mouth with her fist, her eyes wide. This was vintage Russ Gibson! She then looked over at the doctor out of the corner of her eye, curious to see her reaction.

But Dr. Hainley had been unfazed by his rant and continued to listen without interruption. She waited politely for a few beats to make sure he was finished, then asked, without a trace of irony, “Is that all?”

He gave a terse nod. “For now.”

She looked down at her clipboard for reference and then responded. “I get you on the interruptions. They are annoying. And yes, we do have to do tests. Some are unavoidable. But I will check with the nurses to see what can wait until you’re awake. And if you’re having trouble sleeping, there are medications we can give you. Just let me know.” “The food.” Dr. Hainley continued. “We can have a dietician come up to speak to you about more…appealing alternatives. But if you continue to have issues swallowing,” she looked him in the eye, “We may have to use a gastro tube.”

Russ looked at her as though she had just mentioned using a medieval torture instrument, opened his mouth to protest, but the doctor cut him off firmly. “I remember we talked about this before. If you don’t-or can’t-eat properly, it affects your treatment and recovery. I see here where at first they gave you…” she consulted the clipboard, “Ensure. And you didn’t care for those.”

“They tasted like paint! No one should drink those.” He grimaced.

The doctor nodded. “I know they’re not exactly a shamrock shake,” she agreed, getting a smile out of Arielle. “But they’re full of nutrition and calories, and right now-“ she eyed his gaunt frame, “That is priority #1 for you.”

He frowned like a petulant child, but kept his mouth shut.

“As far as the gowns…” Dr. Hainley went on, “Say no more. We can get you some scrub pants that are more…fashionable.” She smiled. “Less revealing, for sure.” Then she paused. Out of all of that, Russ seemed most pleased about the pants. “But…on ‘thefuckingrobotvoice’-“ she ran it all together just like he had-“I have no clue what that’s about?” She cocked her head to the side, the only thing that had stumped her. She looked questioningly at him.

Arielle struggled not to laugh, wondering again if it was appropriate to do so, as Russ, looking uncomfortable at first, said nothing. Then he burst out, “You know what I mean-those…those damn things they put in to talk”-he grabbed at his throat. “They sound like  robots! ” He did his best rendition of one: “They-are-really-creepy-ass.”

This time Ari couldn’t help herself and finally did laugh out loud. Dr. Hainley just stared at him for a moment. Then she said, slowly, “You’re referring to an electro larynx.”

Russ shrugged. “Whatever. Weird sounding things. I don’t want to scare little kids away from me. And I can’t sing like that.” His expression showed quite clearly that he expected to sing again. Not to be able to do so was not even an option.

“Russ…” the doctor began slowly. “How much do you know about your diagnosis? Those are for laryngeal cancer. The voice box. You have what’s called oropharyngeal cancer. Different area of the throat.”

He looked both embarrassed and defensive at the same time. “See what I mean?” he waved a hand in the air. “All this terminology! I’m not dumb, but…there are dozens of you different medical people telling me things, and it’s all been thrown at me at once.” He looked down at his lap, picking at the blanket which covered him. “It’s not like I was ready for this, you know! It’s overwhelming.”

Dr. Hainley nodded quickly. “Sure it is! It’s a lot to absorb. That’s understandable.” She gave him a look. “And I know you’re not dumb.”

He bit his lip, nodding back. With that gesture, he looked both proud and vulnerable at the same time, and Arielle fought the urge to go over and hug him.

“It is confusing, for sure. And with the stress of a bad diagnosis, you’re not in the right frame of mind to process much at all, let alone the complexity of something like cancer. And it’s harder when you’re doing it alone.” The doctor added. “But”-she said sternly. “That was by choice. Your choice.”

Russ looked up sharply and Ari was even surprised by her sudden change in tone.

“I’ve been seeing you as a patient over these past couple of months”, Dr. Hainley went on. “You came to your appointments, your treatments alone, never once did you have someone with you.” She glanced over slightly at Arielle and continued, “And even now, you’ve been hospitalized all week, and you’ve had no visitors until now. You specified it that way.” Russ was just staring at her, silent.  The doctor nodded, to herself,  continuing, “I know your profession. I can understand wanting to keep things private. I have many patients in similar circumstances. I get that.” “And…I know it’s a lot at once. Hard to decide what to do. You’re…” she searched for applicable emotions-“confused, overwhelmed, afraid, and, quite frankly, pissed off!” He nodded at all of those. “It’s hard to accept. And even harder to tell your loved ones.” Dr. Hainley acknowledged. “But you aren’t doing yourself any favors by going it alone. It’s too much for one person to carry.” she finished.

Russ was completely silent. Arielle gazed at the doctor in amazement. Wow. She just said it all! I know she’s an oncologist, she’s used to dealing with this, but…

“So I was glad to see that you really had a visitor the other day.” Ari was relieved to see that the doctor didn’t bring up the “angel” episode; she didn’t want to embarrass him any more when he was starting to open up about it. all. “That’s why I first didn’t believe it and neither did anyone else.” she explained. “It seems to have made a difference.” Russ looked out of the corner of his eye at Arielle as the doctor went on. “But I saw your face when she told me about your dizzy spell, trouble urinating… We have signs all around here”-she pointed towards one near the door-“telling patient friends and family to alert us immediately of any changes or concerns in your behavior or symptoms. It’s important they do this, because we’re a big facility and things can fall through the cracks if no one tells us. We have many patients, the families just have one-you. They are the ones who know you best and can see these things first.” She took a breath, then shook an accusing finger at Russ in a gesture that reminded Ari of Nikki. “She was trying to help you. And I suggest you take that help.”

Whoa. Arielle turned her head slowly to stare at the doctor in admiration. She had never seen someone put someone else in their place as well as Dr. Hainley had just done. And without raising her voice.

Slowly, grudgingly, Russ nodded.

The doctor shook off her lecture tone. “Ok, I’m done being a mother. Let me switch back to doctor mode.” she laughed. “Now, I have some time here. I’d be glad to explain your diagnosis and treatment options for you. You’re a fighter. I can tell.” She smiled. “And you can fight better when you know what you’re fighting. Agreed?” Again, Russ nodded. “But I can’t discuss a patient’s personal information with someone else without your permission.” Dr. Hainley explained. “That is totally your choice.”

He turned his gaze to Arielle, still sitting in the chair. For a long moment they just looked at each other, then he whispered, “I don’t have a problem with that.” Ari gave him an encouraging smile in appreciation, knowing he was taking a big step. Instinctively, she got out her phone and started typing in notes.

“Ok then.” Dr. Hainley began. “And I’ll explain this in non-technical, confusing terms. The throat is divided into different areas. What you have is oropharyngeal That’s in the back of the tongue, the soft palate, the tonsils.” she explained, making a quick drawing on a spare piece of paper to show him. “Nothing to do with the voice box. She moved closer to him and handed him the paper, pointing to each area. “Remember your first symptoms?” she queried, “The sore throat? The trouble swallowing? Well, that is because it started here…” the doctor made a circle at the base of the tongue, then looked up at him to make sure Russ understood. He was nodding.

“Cancer is divided into stages. We figure that out by doing tests-biopsies, scans…” she continued.

“Those damn needles.” Russ grunted, remembering the biopsy.

“Yes.” Dr. Hainley agreed. “They take samples of the tissue to see if the tumor is benign or not. Unfortunately yours was malignant. Then we did the other tests to see how large it was, how far it had advanced, if at all, did it go into the lymph nodes or other organs…”

Russ’s mouth was set in a line, concentrating. Arielle could tell it was all starting to gel for him. Whether that was enlightening, or even more scary, she wasn’t sure.

“So after all of that, we were able to determine it’s Stage III. Which means it’s spread into the lymph nodes. Which can be treated.” The doctor advised. “And I’ll be honest with you. Stages can change, it can spread. Every patient is different and all have choices. It can be treated by chemo, radiation, or a combination of both, like you’ve had…or…surgery…”

At the mention of that word, Russ snapped to attention. “No way. Not doing that. No one’s messing with my throat.”

Dr. Hainley was silent for a moment, just looking at him. “No one can force you to do anything. But I think…from what you just said…you may be thinking that the surgery is what damages your throat. But, really, it’s the radiation” she informed him.

Arielle didn’t realize she was nodding, thinking of her dad after a round of radiation. Towards the end it was twice a day, 5 days a week, 7 weeks straight. He was completely wiped out afterwards.

“Depending on the patient and the diagnosis, chemo and/or radiation are used first sometimes to shrink the cancer. Then we keep doing scans to see how much, or if, it has. If not, we can do surgery-laser now-to remove as much or all of the tumor that we can. Some do that first. Then,” she finished, “if it’s gone, we monitor. If not, we use chemo or radiation again to follow up.”

Russ stared, amazed. The doctor must have read his mind because she continued, “I think your surgery fears are unfounded. What they do is called a neck dissection. Sounds creepy, but really they just take out the tumor and surrounding tissue or nodes that have been affected. You are generally OK to talk afterwards. I won’t lie, it’s it’s the radiation treatment that’s brutal” she said soberly. “As you have found out so far…”

No one said anything for a while, digesting all of that knowledge. “Stage III orolaryngeal cancer can be treated. All stages can be treated. Not always cured, but treated.” The doctor informed them. “There is always hope.”

Russ sat up straighter in the bed, considering. Then, “Yeah. That’s another thing…all I wanted to know at first was, ‘Am I gonna die? How long do I have?’” he admitted in a low voice. “But all these doctors could say to me was shit like ‘Oh, Mr. Gibson, we don’t like to get into that…each patient is different. I could go out after I’m talking to you and get hit and killed by a bus!’” He demonstrated yet another example of his vocal mimicry. “God, I hated that condescending bullshit tone!” Russ shook his head. “Comes down to it, they probably aren’t going to get hit by that bus. But I do have cancer. Which could kill me.”

Dr. Hainley was nodding in sympathy. “I know how you mean. I hate to hear them say those kinds of things too. Such a glib answer to someone who needs the truth. I’m sorry not all doctors are straight up with you.”

Russ looked up at her with childlike honesty. “I’m sorry not all doctors are like you.”

The doctor smiled. “Thank you. I appreciate that.” She came over and patted his hand. “But doctors are human too. It’s uncomfortable for them to give time frames. They don’t want to be proven wrong. Or to give false hope. But I’d rather be as honest as I can so that my patients can live their lives the way they choose. It’s true every case is different. But from what I see, I think you have a good shot at beating this.” she informed him. “But a lot of that is up to you.” She raised an eyebrow, then looked down at her watch. “I’m sorry, but I have to get going. I hope I’ve been able to answer at least some of your questions.”

“You’ve answered more than anyone has since the beginning.” Russ replied. “And I thank you for that.”

“You’re welcome, Russ.” Dr. Hainley stood up from the chair. She gazed down on him for a long moment and then said, “I may not always have good news for you. But I promise I will never bullshit you.” Then she turned to Arielle, noticing that she had been taking notes the whole time, “And just to let you know, there is a patient library down the hall. You can get more information or use the internet to check into any other questions you have. Or let me know. I’ll get to you as soon as I can if you need anything.”

He nodded. “I will. Thanks again.” he rasped, then grabbed his water bottle.

The doctor noted this. “Are you in any pain?” she asked quietly.

Russ stopped mid sip. Then nodded, not wanting to admit it.

She patted his arm. “I’ll get something for you stat. Take care, and let me know if you need anything.”

She began to walk away, and Arielle followed her to the door. “Dr. Hainley?” she began quietly, so Russ couldn’t overhear.

The doctor turned around.

“I just wanted to thank you again, for being so…having such a good bedside manner. I could see that took a huge weight off of him. I know doctors are busy and it’s nice you took the time out with him.”

The doctor smiled. “No problem. I like Russ. He’s a character!”

Ari wanted to respond, “You ain’t said shit!” as her father would have said, but instead she laughed along with the doctor.

“He’s a straight shooter.” Dr. Hainley went on. “I like that. He reminds me a lot of my husband Mike. Neither of them give, or take, any crap.”

Arielle nodded in agreement. “Oh noooo, not Russ!” Then she added, “And it’s easy to see you don’t either. Sorry if I’m being personal, but you seem to speak from experience?”

It was a moment before the doctor responded, a far away look in her eye. “You’re right. I’ve been there too, unfortunately. Mike had lung cancer-Stage IV. Went through living hell. But survived. So that’s why I told Russ there is always hope. You never know.” Then she gave Arielle a questioning glance. “But you said you’ve been in this situation before? Are you a cancer survivor?”

At this, Ari looked down at the floor, her throat suddenly tight. “No,” she finally choked out, “It was my dad…Stage IV lung cancer too. Only, he didn’t survive.”

In Dr. Hainley’s eyes, Arielle saw concern.  But she didn’t immediately start in with any of that empty stuff Ari had heard from people when they found out her dad died; “I’m sorry for your loss”, “I’m so sorry”- meaningless things people said when they didn’t know what to say. No-she’d been there too. With that sad similarity, they didn’t need to say anything else. Instead, the doctor nodded, tacit understanding.

Then she  continued,”I’d like him to meet Mike someday. When the time is right. He’s a certified counselor.” She added in explanation.

Arielle raised her eyebrows, imagining Russ’s reaction at the recommendation of a counselor. But knowing it was probably necessary.

“Of course I respect the patient-doctor confidentiality, but if there is a special case I think he might help with… I make sure to ask my patients first if it’s ok. Though…I don’t want to push it with Russ… I’m not sure he’s ready for more visitors yet, at least, not strangers…but maybe this will get him thinking, open him up more?”

“I hope so.” Arielle whispered.

“Well, nice meeting you.” the doctor said in polite dismissal. “I have a feeling I will see you again sometime .” She smiled, then reached out, shook Ari’s  hand warmly before heading down the hallway.

Ari started back towards Russ’s room, then stopped short. a sudden heaviness in her chest. The polished gleaming hospital floor, the nurses walking past, the smell of hospital food mixed with disinfectant… the constant beeping of machines from throughout the hallway…. it was too much. Instead of walking back in the door, she leaned against the wall, then bent forward, the blood rushing to her head. Breathe. Breathe. Get your head straight.

Looking up again, though, every patient going past in a wheelchair was her dad. She averted her eyes, looking across the hall to the patient laying in his bed, but instead saw her dad’s face. Taking deep breaths, Ari closed her eyes, trying to block it all out. Come on, come on…she told herself…quit being dramatic! You are not having another emotional outburst like the other day!  If her dad were really here, he’d be shaking his head wondering what the hell her problem was. She could see in her mind’s eye that silent stare he used to give her when she was doing something ridiculous. Never had to say a word-the stare always did it.

Frowning, Arielle shook it off and turned towards Russ’s door with determination. As she walked in, a nurse was just finishing hooking up an IV of the pain meds Dr. Hainley had ordered. Russ’s eyes were shut, but when he heard her, they flickered open, settling on her.

Ari sat down again and for a while they were silent, just staring at one another. She fidgeted with her shirt sleeve, picking off imaginary lint. “Dr. Hainley seems really nice.” she observed.

Russ grunted. “Yeah.”

“And that’s a big thing, having a doctor you can trust.” Arielle added.

The singer only gave a jerk of his head as a nod. It was so quiet that Ari could hear the hands of the clock moving. She looked out the window for a while, vaguely watching the clouds drift past. Tick tick tick

Finally Arielle couldn’t stand it anymore. “So, good news about the fucking robot voice, huh?” she burst out.

Russ’s nearly got whiplash from swiveling his head to face her. He stared at her, unblinking, then burst out laughing. Soon, she couldn’t help it and joined in too. They gave each other incredulous looks-should we be laughing about this?-but kept laughing, wiping tears out of their eyes.

Finally forcing himself to stop, the singer gave Arielle a long look. “Thank you.” he said simply. “It’s been a while.”

Ari gave him a little smile in return, nodding.

Then he leaned back onto his pillow, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. “Ahh shit…” he let out. He lay there for a while, not saying anything, tapping his fingers distractedly on the bed rail. Then he lifted up the water bottle, took a sip, started to put it back, hesitated, then took another sip. Back to the finger tapping again. Then, “So you think I should tell everyone?” His tone was half defensive, half uncertain.

Finally, after an hour, we get to the real point of my being here! Arielle opened her mouth, shut it, then looked at Russ out of the corner of her eye. He was watching her carefully. He’s testing me! she thought.  She opened her mouth again. “No, not everyone.” she began carefully. “Believe me when I say I understand where you’re coming from.”

Russ raised his eyebrows, waiting for her to go on.

“But I do think you should tell a few select people in your circle. Only ones that you can trust absolutely. Until you know more of what’s…” she started to say, but Russ cut her off with a nod.

“And that way it’s up to you…to reveal how much, and when, to everyone else. When you feel you’ve got a plan. Then you have the power.”

The singer kept his gaze on her. “The power, huh?” a mix of sarcasm/bitterness in his tone.

Ari shrugged. “That’s just my opinion. You asked.”

He was clenching his jaw now, staring at the ceiling.

Boldly, she went on. “At least tell your family for God’s sake! Do you know what you’re putting them through, not knowing anything, not hearing from you in…in…a long time? I mean poor Mick has had to run interference for you, getting all the calls, putting people off, making up excuses…he’s wrecked, Russ! Nobody but him knows what’s really going on. They think…they think…” Ari finally ran out of steam, too emotional to go on.

Russ turned his stone cold stare back to her. “They think what?” he bit off each word.

Arielle lifted her face from her hands to look back at him. “They think you’re in rehab!” she blurted.

The singer’s eyes grew wide. A long pause and then they both started laughing again.

“ME?” he was incredulous. “If anyone, it should be-”

“Nikki & I both said if anyone, it should be Darin!” Ari said simultaneously and they both laughed again. In the back of her mind, she wondered again, should I be finding humor in this? After what Steve was going through? But then again, she had a feeling that he’d be joining in, sharing their gallows humor.

“Jesus!” Russ exclaimed. His tears from laughter had started to turn into real sobs. Arielle stopped laughing, studying him carefully as he tried to compose himself. “What the fuck is my problem?” he wondered aloud, echoing the same thoughts Ari had just had out in the hallway about herself. He rubbed his eyes forcefully, then sighed. “You don’t get it. I can’t tell my family. It would kill them. My mom….” he looked up at the ceiling and shook his head. “You remember her being sick off & on…well now the diabetes has gotten worse. Lots of complications. She can’t handle my health issues on top of her own!”

“And my dad-” he let out a derisive bark of a laugh. Arielle just nodded, pursing her lips. “My brothers & sisters?” he left that one dangling, uncertain. Still, she said nothing. “My kids?” he choked out. His gaze was on the ceiling again, as if looking to it for answers. He said nothing for a long time, just shaking his head, then, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it”, his eyes glistening.

Ari reached out for his hand. “Yes you can” she responded softly. “Russ, the doctor was right…now, of all times, you need backup. A support group you can trust.”

A long pause and then, sotto voice, “Well maybe Jimmy… I can call him…he’s close by…yeah…get him to call the kids…”

This time Arielle shook her head. “No, Russ” she interrupted. “You can’t ask your brother to do that.”

The singer blinked in shock at her calm, but insistent tone.

“Russ,” Ari cleared her throat. “People have already covered for you long enough. Mick is at his breaking point.” She knew he was desperate, and she was going to have to rain on his parade, but… “This is your responsibility.” He listened as she went on. “I know it’s hard, I’m sure it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever do,…” She struggled for words, trying to think how Nikki would put it. Her life coach way of speaking. “You have to find a way to start dealing with this. Your kids deserve to hear it straight from you-no one else.” When he said nothing in response, she ended with, “You were always the tough guy, so now’s the time, you’re really going to have to be.”

He looked at her long and hard. “You give me too much credit.”

She shook her head. “No,I don’t think I do.”  Shifting in her chair, she continued, leaning forward to look him in the eye, “Look, I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Be warned…you’re going to get a lot of different reactions…”

She tilted her head to the side, remembering. “People who you thought were your best friends…your family…avoiding you, not knowing what to say. Or blaming you, somehow, for causing it to happen…”

Russ was nodding as she explained. He knew exactly how she meant because he’d been blaming himself ever since his diagnosis.

“I’ll be honest with you…the first thing they will say-maybe not to you, but to others, is, ‘Oh, he smoked, so what does he expect?'” Ari mimicked. “You’ll get the emotional ones who say they want to help, what can they do for you?” She looked down at her lap. “But then they fall apart the first time they see a bed pan or hear you throwing up.”

“But then…” she recalled, “you’ll also get the ones who stand by you no matter what. They’re there to drive you to treatments, run out to do your errands, come over and mow your yard…” She ran a hand tiredly through her hair, pushing it back. “One thing throughout this-you will find out who your real friends are. You’ll be surprised.” Arielle finished, bringing herself back into the present.

The singer considered all of that. “But how…so…how did your dad tell you?” It came out in a near whisper.

That stopped her short. “He didn’t” she replied bluntly. “I found out. By overhearing him talking to Carrie’s dad. Actually-” she corrected herself bitterly-“It was more like arguing. Roger was lecturing him that he needed to be honest with me. Sit down and talk about it.” Ari pictured the scene, walking into the house, seeing the looks on their faces, surprised she was home so soon, wondering how much she had heard. She’d heard all of it.  “He knew for a long time and never told me. Thought he was sucking it up or protecting me, I never figured out…” Ari mused, then looked up at the bed to see Russ’s eyes fluttering closed, then opening. He didn’t hear a word I said…she thought ruefully. Oh well.

She watched as his eyes continued to open and shut, he was drifting off somewhere into his med-induced la la land. Good, he probably needed that. She wondered how long to stay, was she tiring him out? Had he had enough? when suddenly his eyes opened wide and he announced, “I’m hungry!” He said it with surprise though.

Arielle looked around her for the tray table, but it was empty. Then she looked towards the phone. “Oh- good! Do you…want me to call & have them bring you something?”

“For Oreos!” he continued, as if he hadn’t even heard her. He had a dreamy smile on his face. “But only the white part.” he clarified, as if giving an order.

Ari gave him a strange look, but then laughed a little too. She couldn’t help it.

She looked again at the phone. I really should call the cafeteria… “But Dr. Hainley said…you’re supposed to be eating…nutritious things?”  Ari finished hesitatingly. The threat of the stomach tube still lingered in the air.

Shhh!” Russ was holding several fingers over his lips, the sound buzzing through them. “Dr. Hainley doesn’t have to know.”

Oh boy

The expression on his face brought back memories: that “Don’t worry about it, everything will be OK” grin. It had always been infectious. Ari started to get out of her chair, paused mid motion, then thought, Oh hell, at least he’s eating SOMETHING.. and grabbed her purse.

When he saw that she was really going to do it, Russ looked at her, raising his eyebrows. Questioning.

“Ok.” Ari whispered, nodding.

“Yay!” he shouted.

She turned around, halfway at the door, finger on her lips. “Russell James! And you know,” she added sternly, “If you’re worried about your voice, you’re not doing it any good by all this talking-and yelling- you’re doing.”

In response he rolled his eyes. “Ok, mom” he mouthed.

As she headed down the silent hallway, Ari thought, what am I doing? Like I’m on a clandestine mission, helping a little kid get away with something? Then she remembered her dad, and his odd cravings for things like powdered sugar donuts-or Slim Jims-and his favorite, cherry sherbet-at any hour of the day, and she kept going, down the hall to the elevator, figuring the cafeteria was probably on the first floor. There had to be vending machines around there.

Once down there, she followed signs, and then the smells, of food. Sure enough, several vending machines arranged like sentinels across the one wall. She scanned them critically: you have to have Oreos! Yeah, this was a hospital, and it was southern California, but…

“Yes!” she shouted, her hand shooting out at the same time that she finally spied them. Double Stuff even! A stranger studying them next to her jumped in alarm. “Sorry” she apologized, fishing in her wallet for change. Change? These things were $2 a piece! Are you kidding me? “Ridiculous!” she mumbled, then shrugging, stuck in a $10 bill. It’s been so long since I had Double Stuff…yummm…

Arielle grabbed the handful that fell out, while the guy next to her gave her an odd look. She smiled back and headed to the elevator again. Halfway out the door, she noticed a refrigerated machine full of Ensure. Guilty, she stopped. She wasn’t exactly helping him to have the right kind of eating habits he needed for this. And he wasn’t like her dad, he didn’t “belong” to her. She didn’t want to be responsible for encouraging him in a negative way…

Impulsively she paid the cashier for a bottle of chocolate Ensure too-the biggest bottle they had- reassuring herself on the way out. She was KINDA helping him…right?

As she got back to the singer’s room, she peeked in cautiously, not knowing what to expect. He’d been from one emotional swing to the other since she’d been here-angry, afraid, crying, laughing… Bi polar. No, tri polar, if there was such a thing.

But this time, he was motionless, his eyes shut. Oh great, he fell asleep after I went to get this junk! She was just thinking of leaving him alone, cutting the visit short, letting him get his rest, when his eyes flew open. He spied the cookies clutched in one hand and clapped. Then he saw the other hand and frowned.

Before he could protest, Arielle gave him a look that she hoped was as commanding as Dr. Hainley’s had been. She held up the Oreos. “You can have one of these—” she informed him. “When you drink some of this.”

Russ stared at her. “You’re evil” he accused her.

Ari raised her eyebrows, holding up both items. “Double Stuff!” she taunted. Then, “Deal?”

He scowled. Mumbled something. Then nodded reluctantly.

She unscrewed the lid of the Ensure and handed it to him. He looked at it as if it were poison.

“Come on, it’s chocolate…” she encouraged him. “How bad can it be?”

Russ gave her one of his infamous looks. “Have you ever tasted this nasty shit?”

“Actually, yes I have.” Ari responded, thinking, but not telling him, and you’re right, it IS nasty shit! She waited, watching as he slowly put it to his lips. She dangled the Oreos enticingly.

He started to sip it, then stopped. “How much do I have to drink before I get a cookie?”

Oh, we are bargaining now? Arielle smiled. “One BIG sip, one swallow, one cookie.”

The singer sighed. Shuddered. Then took a big gulp.

Ari handed him a cookie. “Here’s your chaser-quick!”

He snatched it and immediately twisted the chocolate part off. “Gotta get rid of the lid!” he announced, discarding it on the bed. Then he scraped his teeth across the white part, greedily. “Oh yeah, that’s what I’m talking about! Good stuff.”

Arielle watched in amusement. Russ noticed and gestured towards the remaining Oreos magnanimously.

She took one, imagining Nikki’s disdainful face, then shrugged, twisting the chocolate “lid” off and joyfully scraping the filling off with her teeth. It had always been her favorite way to eat them too.

They continued that way, the exchange of an Oreo for another sip of Ensure, until finally Russ shook the bottle triumphantly: empty!

Ari gave him a thumbs up, then handed the remaining package over to him as his reward. His eyes lit up for a second, then he closed them with a smile, ignoring the cookies.

Let him get some rest…she thought, and used that pause to go to the bathroom. While inside, she remembered him stumbling in earlier, telling her not to peek. She smiled. It was good to know despite all this, he still had some of his old self in there. He was going to need that part of his personality, she thought grimly. It was going to be a battle.

Arielle pulled out her phone from habit and saw several texts and voice mails had popped up. She had had it on DO NOT DISTURB since the night before. Scanning through to see who they were from, she was surprised to find out how little she cared. She thought of returning some of them, then had second thoughts. No, they could wait. She did tap out a quick response to Joe, though, who was checking in to see how things were going. Doing so made her “homesick”. She missed him…

Well, by tomorrow night…she thought, giving herself a quick glance in the mirror on the way out. Then she’d be back to her crazy life again.

As she re-entered the room, she heard Russ in a deep discussion. With himself. “I know you did.” He was saying. “Everyone did. How could you not?”

Ari approached him slowly, frowning. “Russ? Are you OK?” she queried.

He ignored her, his face growing more animated. “Well, you can’t always get everything you want!” He paused, as if hearing a response.

Arielle kept staring. He really thought he was talking to someone else.

Then his smirk faded. His voice got quieter. “I know…I know.” he was agreeing. “I should’ve. But then…I couldn’t.” Then he growled, “Dammit, I missed the boat!”

At the sound of his rage, Ari went over to his side. “Russ? Russ!” she interrupted him, smoothing his arm. “Who are you talking to?”

“Rob.” the singer replied with an exasperated sigh.

Even though she knew it was pointless, Arielle turned around, scanning the room. His gaze was on the chair she had just left. “Rob…Richardson?” she verified.

He gave her a stupid look. As if it wasn’t totally obvious.

Ari shook her head a little. “Uh..Russ..” How do I say this to him? “Russ, umm..Rob’s not here.” She said quickly.

The singer stared right at her. “So what’s your point?”

Ooookay… Arielle nodded, biting her lip. Chemo brain has begun… Russ had already moved on, conversation done, his eyes shut. She gingerly approached the chair, half expecting to see a ghost, and sat.

Whoa. He’d been through a whirlwind of emotions today. It was exhausting for her, she couldn’t imagine how it must be for him. What was going on inside that head? She sat in silence, just watching him. Hoping the pain meds were doing their job. His conversation with imaginary Rob hadn’t sounded too positive. Whatever it was they were discussing. She hoped he was in wherever his happy place was now.

Then she decided it was time to leave. She started to get up, but somehow he sensed it and woke back up again. “Don’t go yet” he whispered, and reached for her hand. Did he even know who she was? Was he imagining someone else there?

“Okay…” she whispered back, sitting back down yet again. “Ok, I’ll stay for a little while longer.” She stroked his arm distractedly. She’d always been one of those “touchy feely” types, she couldn’t help it. Half the time she didn’t even know she was doing it.

“I missed the boat…” he repeated sleepily.

“What boat?” Ari asked, going along with it.

He didn’t answer her directly, just shook his head. “It was my fault. All of it. Rob is right.”

Not knowing where he was going with this, Arielle just said soothingly, “There are other boats. Don’t worry.”

“I ruined it.  I’m sorry…” he kept mumbling.

She shushed him. Whatever it was he was worried about, whatever imaginary world he was remembering, there was nothing he could do about it now. “It’s ok, it’s ok …” she told him.

Then it was back to the present. “How am I going to tell my kids?” he protested again, tossing his head side to side in agony.

“You will find a way. You will.” Arielle assured him softly. “Let people help you, Russ. They’ll want to. Accept it.” Was any of this getting through to him?

A long moment of peaceful silence. Then his lips started moving. It sounded like he was… singing? Ari bent closer.

Angel…angel eyes…angel eyes…” he was repeating.

Oh. A shock went through her and suddenly it all made sense. “Angel Eyes”…her old nickname.  Oh my God. That’s what he’d meant! Oh no… She was surprised to find tears gathering now, but they were happy ones. Yeah, it hadn’t ended well, but…those were some fun times while they lasted. And I was going to hate him forever... she reminded herself. What was the point? She leaned down and said with a smile, “I’m not an angel, Rusty.”

Then she brushed all the cookie lids into her hands and into the trash can. Getting rid of the evidence. She stuck the one remaining half finished pack into his tray table drawer.  “For later.” she advised, though not certain he was even listening.

He said nothing. Eyes shut, relaxed by the combo of the meds and her hand on his arm. They sat in silence. Memories were flooding back to her, only they didn’t upset her anymore. More like she was warmed by them instead.People made mistakes. Life happened. No sense dwelling on it forever. Ahh, that was an innocent time and so much had happened since. Now that she’d gotten that sudden burst of forgiveness-what a relief it was. She hadn’t even realized she was carrying that weight around with her all these years.

She was brought back to the present by Russ. He was laughing again. Quietly.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

He started to whisper something, then coughed. She bent down towards him.

The singer laughed again. “You were a bitch to those nurses… I loved it!” he smiled sleepily, then drifted back off once more.

Arielle sat there, smiling, holding his hand. Then, finally, when she was satisfied that this time he really was asleep, and it was really time to go, she got up. “Bye Rusty” she whispered, then quietly left the room.

.

“The Houseguest” (17)

Russ made his way gingerly down the hall.  One slow ass step at a time, he was still having some dizzy spells from the treatments, and well, you never knew…couldn’t be too cautious anymore. He tried to push the image of himself as old and decrepit out of his mind and instead focus on the task at hand: getting to the kitchen. It was spacious, and with Nikki’s stylish touch, it was definitely the center of the household, the gathering place for all get togethers, and the meeting place first thing in the day for Nikki, Mick, and whomever their guests were at the time. For the moment it looked like it was going to be him, Russ thought ruefully. Ever since his first hospitalization, Nikki especially had been bugging him-ok, she was ‘concerned’ for him, he conceded-to come stay with them. Said she was worried he wasn’t taking care of himself-not eating right, not exercising, not taking meds or vitamins or whatever he should be doing. Probably a thousand things I shouldn’t be doing, he thought wryly. Hell, that’s what got me into this condition in the first place! A shitload of chemo, drugs, radiation, puking…oh yeah, but wait-there’s more!-don’t forget about hair loss! Diarrhea from one drug! Constipation from the next! Constant fatigue, dry mouth, mouth sores too.

He shuddered as he got down to the last few steps into the room. Shuffle. Stand still. Wait. Grab the wall or whatever was closest to steady him.“The Big C”. Who’d have thought? Hmmm…maybe somewhere along the line of drugs, drinking, smoking…he would have realized, maybe, just maybe…there would be consequences? I am only 40 and I feel-and look- like I’m 80. No. Russ stopped that train of thought immediately before it could grow and roll around in his mind all day, tormenting him. It was hard, though. As soon as he stopped a bad thought, another one would pop up. It was a day long battle. He attempted to comfort himself with the new mantra he’d been given: This is not the time for blaming yourself. Use your energy to get better.

Russ sighed as he got to the entrance of the kitchen. Get better. That’s what I’m going to do. Yeah, right. Well, maybe at least eating something would make him feel better. Maybe give him more energy. Although with all the treatments, what he ate either tasted weird/bad or he didn’t have an appetite at all, Dr. Hainley had told him he needed to force himself to eat, even small things, throughout the day. Make him fight this better. No way he was going back on the feeding tube! Fight. Yeah, that’s what it was-a continual battle. For many things. He pushed that out of his mind though, and walked in. Sunshine was streaming through the windows and skylights, sounds of birds outside, the smell of coffee…Mmmmm…for a moment Russ closed his eyes, basking in it. Life. It was still good, right?

“Morning, Russ!” Nikki called out cheerfully from the sink, her back to him. “I got your place all set.”

“Hey, thanks.” he mumbled, moving over to the huge center island to sit. A bowl of so-good-looking-they-almost-looked-fake fruit practically sparkled in the middle. Beautiful, probably hand made by Nikki, place mats and napkins adorned the table top. The scent of fresh flowers filled the air. He felt like he was living in the middle of a Martha Stewart dream. Ahh yeah, some bacon and eggs, maybe, a cup of coffee at least…

Instead, Nikki handed him a large glass of some mysterious greenish-gray liquid. “Here you go!” she announced with a smile. “And the rest is on your plate.” Dumbfounded, he looked from the liquid to his plate, seeing a grayish-green muffin. Huh?

“Spinach, broccoli, and beet juice!” she informed him. “And kale bran muffins.”

Russ could only continue to stare. He felt Mick’s gaze on him, and looked to see the drummer holding up a homemade granola bar, making exaggerated mouth smacking noises. “Delish!” he chuckled.

The singer looked from the plate, to Nikki, and back again. “Jesus, I don’t have to worry about the cancer. YOU are gonna kill me!”

Nikki spun around from the sink. “Russell James!” she exclaimed, as Mick laughed, spitting out the carrot/cucumber juice that he’d dutifully attempted to sip. “It’s full of nutrients.” she attempted to explain. “Spinach has lots of iron for the blood, bran for your heart,  broccoli is good for diseases like….” She stopped her listing for a moment.

“Like cancer, right?” Russ cut in. “Hmm, well a little too late for that!” he muttered sarcastically.

“Now, Russ!” Nikki sighed, a little embarrassed at her slip up. “It is made with pure love!” she insisted. As Russ stared at her dubiously, she continued, “The more you drink it, the more used to it you’ll get.” The singer glanced over to Mick, who started shaking his head in the negative until he caught Nikki looking at him. He quickly corrected himself: “Sure. Sure, babe. Absolutely.”

“You two!” Nik shook her head in mock disgust, turning back to the sink. As she did so, Mick felt he was safe again, and rolled his eyes at Russ. “I saw that!” she cried.

The singer gave Mick a triumphant look, raising his eyebrows as if to say “You’re busted too, bud!”  Then he held onto the glass and stared at it, the dread plain on his face.

His drummer, suitably chastened at first, laughed again when he saw Russ’s expression. “Just like Arielle!”

At the mention of her name, Russ turned his attention from the glass to Mick. “How do you mean?”

Still laughing,  Mick started to open his mouth to reply, looked over to see if Nikki was paying attention, then shrugged and continued anyway. “Oh yeah! She tried the same thing on her. Except I think it was spinach, broccoli, and brussel sprouts.”

“Brussel sprouts?? What the hell?” Russ shuddered. He shot a sharp look at Nik.

“Avocado and fennel.” Nikki corrected. “Good for stress.” she informed them. “And God knows, that girl needs something!” she tsk-tsked, always in concerned mother mode.

“Good to know.” Mick replied glibly, then continued to Russ’s questionning look. “She had the same face you did-‘what the hell?’. But, you know, they hadn’t seen each other in a while and I think Ari felt kinda…obliged?” the drummer guessed. “So…she takes a sip…and…” By this time Russ was starting to smile with him, just picturing it. “And I have to tell you…” Mick went on, “those years in California before she moved to New York she must’ve really learned some acting skills!”

As he was saying this, Nikki started turning around from the sink, her ears immediately perking up. Russ’s smile grew wider.

“And her face. When she saw Nik looking her way, though, her face went totally blank.   She takes the glass slowly, tilts it…” Both Nik and Russ were paying rapt attention now. “She takes a sip… ” Mick pantomined with his glass, “And…pauses for a minute. Then she says ‘Wow. Interesting.'” At that, Nik smiled. Russ frowned, thinking…You mean she LIKED it?

Mick was grinning though, he waved a hand in the air. “No-I’m not done yet. She takes this sip, says this, then as soon as Nikki turns away, she has that same expression that she started out with: what the HELL?! I swear it was like Linda Blair in the Exorcist! ”

The smile on Russ’s face was now stretched wide. “And then she whispers to me…’Mick-iHop!’ We snuck out later when Nikki was staring at her candles again.”

“I was meditating!” Nik protested, before saying, “You two did NOT!”

Russ burst into laughter; real, genuine, laughter. The first that Nikki and Mick had heard from him in a long time. For a few moments, they just listened, enjoying the rare moment of pleasure for him. Then they looked at each other and smiled.

The singer laughed a long time, then wiped the tears from his eyes. “Ahh, Arielle…” he reflected, a soft smile on his face. “That so sounds like her!” Then, “How is she doing lately?”

Nikki shook her head. “That girl! She’s all work. Never takes care of herself. Between the Michael Jackson gig and dealing with Steve’s issues…”

Mick frowned as Russ nodded. Kept quiet with the fans, it was well known in the rock & roll circles that Steve Clark, Def Leppard’s guitarist, was having alcohol issues. In and out of different rehabs, unable to play like he used to…

“And I don’t think Joe appreciates how she’s trying to help him!” Nik then announced sharply.  Russ looked up in interest as Mick shook his head. He had met Joe a few times now and liked the guy. Steve was a cool guy too. But he loved Arielle too and someone else’s issues were the last thing she needed.

Nikki stopped herself from going into it too much. Not her business. Ari was a big girl. “Well, it’s just a lot on her right now. Barely hear from her. I had her on Skype the other day and I asked her if she was taking care of herself, eating right, you know? And what does she do? She grabs a Twinkie, shoves it in her mouth, and says ‘See? I’m EATING!’ Then she blows me a kiss, shouts ‘I love you!’ and hangs up.”

This time, Mick and Russ were in hysterics. Typical Ari. Despite the years that had gone by, some things about her hadn’t changed.

Russ kept smiling, enjoying the sense of release that fit of laughter had given him. But then Nikki interrupted his happy place: “So. Though she DID go to iHop…” she rolled her eyes in disapproval, “She DID take a sip. And so, Russell…” she gave him a stern look.

The singer gulped, looking at the glass and then at Mick. Mick shrugged, as if to say, “Hey, dude, I can’t help you now”. Panicking, Russ said, “But…but…I don’t know, I have this restricted diet now. I probably should check with my doctor first. Maybe I’ll give her a call tomorrow!” he said brightly.

“Oh, I took care of that for you already.” Nik smiled sweetly. “I talked to Dr. Hainley and she said that would be a great idea. Lots of nutrients. And easy on the throat.”

The look on Russ’s face was priceless. He slumped on the stool, defeated. Dr. Hainley. Damn her! Then, hell, it was better than that damned Ensure they’d forced on him at first. Well, maybe. He shuddered.

Seeing his expression, Nikki softened a little. She came over to him and put her arms around him, hugging him from behind. As she squeezed him, she said, “Russ Gibson, you know I love you, don’t you? We ALL do. Just trying to look out for you.”

Russ nodded grudgingly. “I know…” he muttered, still not completely happy about the situation. “Next best thing to a mom since she can’t be here.”

“Or a big sister!” Nikki suggested. The singer rolled his eyes in reply.

 

 

 

“Spoiling 101” (Ch. 11)

Russ finally slammed the phone back down in its cradle, ending his misery. Groaning in frustration, he retreated to the couch, his head in his hands. Arielle grimaced; for the past ten minutes, she’d been witness to a hysterical rant from one of his exes. Even from across the room, she could hear the high-pitched screaming and whining. It had sounded strangely to her like the sounds crows made when fighting over food. Damn! This is what he has to put up with? she marveled. Good Lord. Surprisingly, to her though, the singer had not once responded in kind. Instead, he let the verbal abuse go on and on, occasionally holding the phone up in the air while rolling his eyes. He’d even banged the phone against the wall a few times, held it back up to his ear-yeah, she was still going on-banged it against the wall again, then back to listening. No effect whatsoever on the harangue. Then, towards the end of the conversation, he finally spoke up, other than the “yeahs” and “uh huhs” he’d been spitting out the rest of the time; “I’m hanging up now.” he’d said, robotically. One last bang against the wall and finally the torture was over, the phone silent. Ari’s ears were still ringing.

She sat down next to him on the couch, studying him cautiously, unsure at first how to respond. No wonder they were exes! She tried to be fair and think oh yeah, I wasn’t there, I don’t know everything that happened, it takes two, but…still…damn!

Russ spoke first, though, so she didn’t have to. “Sorry about that”, his voice garbled by coming through his hands.

Arielle sighed in sympathy. “Which one was that? What was her problem?”

“Mandy’s mom.” he replied.

Ari had an instant mental picture of the little blonde girl who had played in the leaves with her last time. Adorable! Hard to believe she came from such a nasty troll.

“Wants more money. Of course.” Russ continued, “What the state takes out of my paycheck not enough for her, apparently. She thinks I have some hidden stash from ‘playing the rock star’” The singer added sarcastically. He collapsed back against the couch, his eyes shut. Letting out a long sigh, he continued, “Which, ha ha, I don’t, as you can tell.” When Arielle was silent, sensing he needed to get this out of his system, Russ went on. “I mean, I pay my damn child support! I am not a deadbeat dad! I provide for them better than any of their mothers do. I bust my fuckin’ ass”-he pounded the couch for emphasis, startling Kashmir, who until then had been sleeping peacefully next to him-”with two jobs, and still…that’s not enough?! What else can I do? Says she‘s taking me back to court again for more support. She just knows I have more I’m hiding and her attorney will dig this up.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “What else am I supposed to do?” he repeated, gritting his teeth in frustration. “I can’t afford to pay any more. But I can’t afford the attorney bills either. Dammit!”

Ari continued to study him, silently, processing everything. She hadn’t experienced any of the other exes yet, but was pretty sure this episode was representative. Then she spoke up. “So…I don’t get it…you have to pay for an attorney, but she…doesn’t?”

“She has a public defender.” Russ explained. “They go off your earnings.” He then went on in a rush of words, and it was obviously something that he needed to vent. “She claims disability off and on, so she doesn’t have a steady job to base it from. I, however,” he made a grand gesture with his arms, “make too much. So basically I’m screwed by a mathematical equation.”

Digesting all of that, Arielle finally said, “Disability? For….?”

“Because she’s fucking crazy!” the singer exploded. At this outburst, Kashmir leapt from the couch and tore across the room.  “Sorry.” he said again, to both the cat and Arielle.

Ari reached out and put a hand on his arm. “No,” she corrected him, “I am sorry. For you. Is this…normal?” she asked, pity and amazement in her tone.

Russ shifted uncomfortably. “Well…for her, yeah, but no, I mean, they’re not all like that, you know.”  He looked at Arielle again, not wanting to insult her just for being female, “I mean, it’s just… well, you know…it‘s…complicated.” he added, his voice trailing off. Then he continued, firmly, “My kids are my responsibility. I get that. I just wish things were more fair. But…fair is relative.” He immediately felt guilty; who was he to talk to her about ‘fair’? She was looking at him with nothing but sympathy, though, so he finished, “I will always have my kids’ backs.”

Arielle squeezed his hand. “I know that. And everyone else-unless they are crazy-knows that too.” He nodded grimly, but despite that reassurance, she could feel the weariness coming off him in waves. “Listen,” she claimed, “I know what your problem is.” Russ raised an eyebrow, as if ready to hear another lecture. Instead, Ari pressed on, “You need a break. We all need one once in awhile. So…” she stood up straight in front of the couch, as if she were one of her professors addressing a lecture hall,  and announced in an authoritative tone, “welcome to Spoiling 101!”

The singer looked up at her, his former exhausted expression replaced by a mixture of surprise and curiosity. He started to smile as Ari switched back to her own tone of voice, “And it starts–with the right music!” She got up and went over to his stereo. It was the first thing she noticed when she went to someone’s house, and told her a lot about them. Like her, Russ had a massive collection of just about every style of music. She flipped through it, considering some, then discarding them. Russ had started to get up, but Ari turned around, stopping him by holding up her hand. “Nope-I got this.” she informed him. He gave her another little smile and sat back down, obedient.

Finally she found what she thought was appropriate: a collection of cello pieces featuring David Darling. She was surprised, but on second thought, not, at finding this amongst his music; she knew he liked cello as much as she did, and David Darling was one of her favorites too. Arielle placed it in the CD player, and hit “repeat all”. Looking over at Russ, she said, “Now..you don’t have to worry about lawyers, disabilities, money-anything. All you have to do for now is just relax.” She then went around and dimmed the lights, completing the peaceful atmosphere.

Ari came back to the couch to find him sitting there, watching every move she made, wondering what was in store.  She studied him for a while, then said “Take off your shirt.” Russ’s eyebrows jerked up. “Whoa, easy!”

“And lie down,” she commanded, quickly giving him a “And no, it’s not what you think” look. His initial leer gave way to an apologetic smile. He pulled off his shirt, waved it around stripper-like, and tossed it across the room. Then he made a mock seductive pose lying sideways on the couch. Ari just shook her head in amusement. Perv! “No, other way.” She gestured for him to flip over face first on the couch. Dropping to her knees next to it, she whispered in his ear, “Now, close…your…eyes…”

Wow, he is doing everything I tell him! Arielle thought. Hmm, I think I could get used to this! She smiled with one corner of her mouth as she reached out for him, putting a hand on each of his shoulders and pressing gently. She remembered when her dad was sick, and with all of the stress and pain that came with it, they had called in a massage therapist to come to the house. Watching, Arielle had learned a lot; not only did it feel good to get the tightness out of your muscles, but the therapist had explained that it released toxins from the lymph nodes, something especially important for someone who had cancer. Eventually, she’d had it done herself, and started practicing on others. Must have been the guitarist and sometimes pianist in her, using her hands to make things better. And really, what more could you ask for in life?

She moved from his shoulders to his back, just testing it out, finding where the worst spots were. For him, they were everywhere. She immediately felt a rush of pity; who would have known he held all this inside? He sure never acted like it. What a front! “You are really tense…” she remarked to him.

“Yeah…” he let out a bitter laugh. “Imagine that.”

“Aww…” she soothed, moving up to his head and neck. “I’ll do my best to make you feel better. Have you ever had a massage before?” she added.

“Well…uh…not this kind…” he replied. They both laughed. “I mean-not professionally. No.” he corrected quickly.

She explained briefly to him that she’d learned it from a real therapist and it was a form of Swedish massage. Russ only half-listened; he was already drifting off: the effects of it, along with the music, anesthetizing him.

She ran her fingers gently through his hair, marveling at it: long, shining, no split ends-damn, really didn’t deserve to be on a man, she thought enviously. Then she put special emphasis on the pressure points of the temples, rubbing in a circular motion. Then lightly on his head, down to the most important part, for him, his throat. She spent a lot of time there, massaging downwards, her hands graceful. He hadn’t moved once the whole time, it was like he was dead to the world.

Alarmed for a moment, she leaned down and whispered “Are you OK? How is it?”

In reply, Russ let out a long sigh. “Heaven.” he croaked sleepily.

“Well let me know if anything is too much or too little.” Arielle instructed him, moving on to his shoulders again.

The singer started to say “Uh huh”, but the words didn’t come out, so instead he just attempted a nod, his head lolling uselessly. Whatever, I don’t care, anything….

The testing over, she got up on the couch behind him and she slid her hands under his shirt, touching his skin lightly. Goosebumps! she smiled. Then, moving on, Wow, I can’t believe how tight his shoulders are! Ari marveled, massaging the area right next to them. She would have to get a little tougher here to work these kinks out. “This might hurt.” she warned.

His only response was a slight twitch as she applied more pressure. Then he went limp as a rag doll. Poor guy! She thought, continuing on, to his upper back, midsection, lower back.

In truth, giving a massage was almost as soothing for her as getting one. She drifted off too, thinking of that conversation with his ex, and the situation that had precipitated it. Thinking back over his life, from his father abandoning his mom when she was 15 and pregnant… becoming a father himself for the first time at 18…then all the drama that had followed in those relationships and marriages… Working 12 hour days in a factory and then coming home to either practice all night or go gigging…Plus taking care of his kids on top of all that. No freakin’ wonder he was a mass of nerves! He’d mentioned having chest pains over the past year and being afraid he was having a heart attack-but that an EMT friend had told him no, those symptoms sound more like a panic attack. And sure enough, when he’d seen the doctor, they’d confirmed it. Then worrying about his mom with all her health issues…he could use this, like, every damn week! she told herself.

The music went on, the masterful cello by David Darling, and she felt herself going into a trance too. The whole time Russ hadn’t moved or said anything, other than blissful sighs.

Arielle finally got to the point where she felt she could consider it “done” when she noticed his breathing had gotten deeper. She looked down at him. His eyes closed, face tilted to the side, he was completely out cold. Wow! she thought again, removing her hands softly, so as not to disturb him. He must have really needed it!

She sat there staring at him, thinking, hmm, now what? Then, it was about dinner time…she could make him something to eat. She tried to think, what would be something he would like, that maybe he didn’t have a lot? Hmm…a guy living alone, probably not used to home-made dinners or working like he did, time to make much more than microwave food. .

Arielle got up slowly, careful not to disturb him. She remembered he was a heavy sleeper, which would be to her benefit.  Treading lightly, she made her way to the kitchen; that would be a start. See what he had to work with. Opening the fridge, she saw what she had almost expected: the obligatory bachelor fridge-half a gallon of probably soon-to-spoil milk, a dish with a stick of butter on it, some pops, other unidentifiable stuff, and of course, a case of beer. To be fair, she knew that since he’d been working so much, and especially when he didn’t have his kids there, he didn’t bother to stock up. Didn’t worry about himself, just them. Hmmm…looks about what I would have in mine too, Arielle observed.

She turned to the freezer, which had some frozen pizzas and a few packs of vegetables. She got one out, shaking it. It was hard as a brick and freezer burnt. Ugh, no. Then she glanced over in the corner and saw a bag of potatoes. Examining them closely, she noted they were still fresh. They’d do.

The sound of cello drifted into the kitchen as she took out a couple of potatoes, scrubbed, and poked them with a fork a few times. Aluminum foil, aluminum foil…I hope you have some…. Ari rummaged under his kitchen sink. Bingo! Half a roll left.

She wrapped the potatoes and poked them with the fork again, then reached for the stove, setting the oven to preheat. Hmm…now what? She stood there thinking, racking her brain for ideas, but creativity in the kitchen had never been her thing. Remembering there was a Bi-Lo down at the end of the street, she considered making a quick stop there. Start everything fresh and new. But did she have time? Would Russ wake up? Ari glanced into the living room to see him still comatose on the couch. Good.

Then she thought…how about a steak? And how could she cook it? Did he have a grill?  Come on, all guys do! She hadn’t thought to notice the other times she was here. She went over to the back door which overlooked the deck and yard. Yes! A gas grill. Creaking the door open, she examined it, turned it on to check to make sure there was enough propane, did it work? Another yes. Whew, Ok, now I have something to work with…she told herself, going for her keys. And just in case he does wake up… she grabbed a Rolling Stone magazine that was laying on the end table. Taking out a Sharpie that she kept ever-present in her purse, she scrawled “Be right back!” across the front, laughing to herself when thinking of how she’d done that the last time with the Stats book. Glancing back again, she tiptoed out the door and closed it quietly.

Once at Bi-Lo, Arielle decided to get a shopping cart instead of a basket. Why not stock up for him since he hadn’t had the time lately? Unlike her last shopping trip with him, she knew she could make it in and out in a hurry. Hmm…a fresh salad would be nice…she thought, heading for the produce section. Probably he didn’t have time to eat too healthy either. She tossed a bag of the pre-made stuff-easier-as well as some cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, and chick peas from the salad bar. She did remember seeing a bottle of ranch dressing in his fridge that still looked edible-did salad dressing ever really go bad?-so no need for that.

Ari headed down the pop aisle and got him another case of Coke. Then on to the cereal aisle, throwing a few boxes in-some disgustingly sugary stuff like Fruity Pebbles and Cookie Crisp that she knew that kids would like when they came back. Oh yeah, Pop Tarts too-strawberry, Mandy’s favorite!

Then she moved on to the pasta aisle, throwing some soups, spaghetti, Ragu, in the cart. Spaghetti-Os-yes! She threw some cans in too, smiling as she passed over the Beef-A-Roni. She also put in some condiments-ketchup, mustard, even syrup-that was stuff you could always use.

Going up and down each aisle, Arielle scanned the shelves and tossed in her cart whatever she thought he might need. It was starting to be fun, surprise shopping for someone else. She got to the back of the store-the meat section-ugh! But hot dogs-yeah, kids always ate them-she threw a couple of packets in the cart.

She thought back to cooking for her dad-when he did eat, that is-she’d learned to mask her disgust at meat, block it out. Whenever he got an urge for something, whatever it might be, she was out the door and to the store, excited that he had an appetite for once. A lot of the time she would cook it only to have him eat a bite or two and then either say it tasted weird-an effect of the radiation-or he’d get sick-but, at least he’d gotten some nutrition for the day, for which she was always grateful. Not that she was by any stretch a cook, but she tried. Her family that lived nearby had finished off a lot of the meat meals she’d created that her dad hadn’t been able to finish. It was hard when buying for one; the portions were prejudiced; always in family size.

Arielle shook her head, bringing herself back into the present. Whatever she got for Russ, if he didn’t finish, he could give it to someone in his family or even Mick down the street. She studied the steak section-of course filet mignon was the best and that’s what he deserved. She tossed a packet in and then remembered…steak sauce, oh yeah! Do they use that on filet mignon? Better go back!

On the way there, she decided to add a loaf of bread, some more butter, peanut butter, grape jelly, some frozen items. Eggs and cheese too-kids liked grilled cheese-and PB & jelly sandwiches. Oh yeah-milk too-but not a gallon; that would go bad faster. OJ, yeah.

Arielle was tossing things in quickly, thinking she should get back soon, hoping he hadn’t woke up yet. Then, as she was dashing to the register, she thought…oh no, I forgot dessert! Hmm hmm hmm… something quick, simple. Yeah-hot fudge sundaes! She grabbed a carton of vanilla bean ice cream and some hot fudge sauce. Seeing a display of wine at the end of the check out, she added a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, hoping that they wouldn’t ask for her ID; fake though it was, it usually worked.

Quickly placing everything up on the belt, Arielle was just wishing she could be out of there fast and back in Russ’s kitchen, getting dinner ready. Luckily the cashier was a young guy, and could see she was in a hurry, and didn’t say anything to her. Whew! She got out of there hassle free, sprinting to her car, the cart out in front of her.

Once she got back to his house, Arielle wrapped as many bags as she could around her arms, wanting to make just one trip. She pushed the door open, peeking around it quietly. There he was, still lying like a puddle on the couch. Good.

She went back and forth from the car to the front door, dropping bags off on the door mat, then going back for more. Next she tip toed repeatedly to and from the kitchen, placing the bags on the counter, putting things away quickly, while placing the potatoes in the oven. Those would take longest. She’d bake them a little first before putting them on the grill along with the steak.

Arielle rummaged through his cupboard, getting the bowl ready for the salad. Plates, silverware, napkins-all ready. Wine-open. Two glasses-check.

She had just gone out to start the grill and was standing there staring down at it when she felt a presence behind her. She jumped as Russ put his hands on her shoulders. “What are you doing?” he asked in wonder, his voice still gravelly from sleep.

“Spoiling 101, lesson 3: a good dinner!” Ari declared, turning to face him.

He looked at her, his gaze moving from the items on the counter, to her face, and back again, what she was doing slowly starting to process in his brain. “Arielle, you don’t have to–”

She put a finger over his lips. “Shhh. Go back to the couch. This is my gig!”

When he paused, she gave him that same look he always gave her; the head tilted to the side, hands on hips. “Ok, ok…” he backed away, palms up, mock afraid, and retreated to the living room.

She got everything ready, put the potatoes on the grill with the steak, then poured two glasses of wine. Carrying them into the living room, she announced, “First course!” cheerfully.

Russ reached for his glass, still a stunned look on his face. “Listen, I’m sorry I fell asleep on you. That was rude.” He shook his head in disgust.

Ari gave him a look. “Rude? No way-that was a compliment. It had its intended effect.”

The singer considered that. “’Intended effect’” he repeated, the words rolling off his tongue slowly, as if he was testing them out. Then he raised his eyebrows, sighing, “You sure know what you’re doing!”

“It’s easy when you have the right subject.” she replied, raising her eyebrows right back.

He laughed, enjoying the pampering despite himself. What a change that was from what he was used to…  He took a sip of the wine and pronounced it delicious. Then he looked over at her, not saying anything.

She felt his stare out of the corner of her eye and turned with a smile. “What?”

“Thank you.”

Arielle put her glass down. Studying him for a long moment, she then leaned over, put her hands on his shoulders, and began kissing him slowly, casually, like they had all the time in the world. “Sorry, I just…can’t resist you…” she murmured in his ear.

Russ sighed, leaning back against the couch, his eyes shut. “Who said you had to?” he quipped.

Ari smirked at that, and had just begun running her hands through his hair, something he always did to her, moving her lips down his neck, when she jumped up in alarm. “Gotta check on the steak!” she explained, dashing from his arms. Russ’s eyes flew open, his expression saying What? Huh? Steak?

She came back into the room a few minutes later, having flipped the steak and gotten the salad ready. “Just a few more minutes!” she informed him.

The singer was still trying to catch his breath. He nodded at her dumbly, and then she came back over, straddling him, back to where they’d been.

Just as he was getting into it again, Ari again jumped up, her internal timer having gone off. Before she left, she slyly ran her finger around the rim of his jeans, mimicking her actions on the first night they’d met.

His eyes opened wide. “Oh no you don’t!” he exclaimed, grabbing her wrist before she could do it again. “Don’t you dare tease me!”

“Who said I was teasing?” Ari tossed over her shoulder as she walked out of the room.

Russ collapsed back against the couch again. He closed his eyes, smelling the steak as she was preparing it, trying to get his thoughts and himself under control again.

Ari came back into the living room with a table-cloth. Clearing everything off, she put it across the coffee table. Then she went over to the stereo, choosing what, to her, was more appropriate dinner music. Jazz, of course. She put on a compilation CD, smiling back at Russ as she did so. Then she disappeared into the kitchen, coming back with a dinner plate.

As she placed it in front of him, Russ got down from the couch, positioning himself next to the table, cross-legged. “Wow! You, a vegetarian, made me filet mignon?” he gasped. Then it occurred to him, “Wait…Where did this …?” He looked up in amazement as she brought in the salad, baked potatoes, and more wine. He knew right away that she’d made a clandestine shopping trip. While he had fallen asleep on her, no less.

Arielle saw the look on his face and knew what he was thinking. Guilt. Don’t deserve this. She brushed that away. “Enjoy,” she coaxed. “That’s what Spoiling 101 is about-you!”

He shook his head, taking a bite of the steak. “Perfect!” he enthused. “You did it just right.” Then again, “Thank you.”

All these thank yous! “My, you are so polite!” Ari joked, then said, “My pleasure!” turning to eat her salad and potato.

They enjoyed their dinner, mixed with laughter and conversation about everything and anything-whatever it took to keep his mind off his problems, Arielle made sure. This was supposed to be all about him. Let him deal with attorneys and child support later. Not tonight. She could see that former stress and tension had disappeared from him; his body language was noticeably relaxed, and he laughed easily, the weight of the world off his shoulders, at least for now. Seeing that, knowing that, made her happy, and that was enough for her.

When they finished, Russ tried to get up to help her take everything back, but she refused, shushing him. “I saw in the TV Guide where there’s a good old movie on tonight.” she announced, switching on his TV. Something funny, to keep him in a good mood.

She smiled as she flipped the channels, and then Russ cracked up laughing as he saw it: Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “Oh my God!” he crowed. “This is so me! I swear to God they made this about me.”

Arielle smiled; she remembered him saying that once before. Now that he was otherwise occupied, back on the couch again, she gathered all the dishes up, taking them into the kitchen. Since he didn’t have a dishwasher, she took her time, hand washing them, putting everything away, wiping everything clean again. All the extra groceries were put away, and the leftovers wrapped up for another day. He’d had to do nothing and she was proud of that.

Going back to the couch, she snuggled in next to him, pulling the blanket over them both. The perfect evening! she thought. He was relaxed, he was happy, and it had taken so little. It was well worth it, she decided. Then as a commercial came on, she remembered, “Oh yeah-let me know when you’re ready for dessert.”

“Dessert?!” he asked. “You mean there’s more?”

“Of course!” she replied, starting to get up. “Do you want it?”

“Well…sure…” he replied, trying to get up too.

She gave him a look. “You’re being treated tonight, remember?”

“You always treat me…” he mumbled, out of earshot, as she walked away.  Any minute now he was going to pinch himself and wake up in the real world again. Instead, he watched as Jeff Spicoli had a pizza delivered to Mr. Hand’s class and Arielle returned with a giant hot fudge sundae, topped with peanuts she had found in his cupboard after the fact.

“Mmmm!” the singer gushed, noting she had put extra fudge on it.

They continued watching the movie in comfortable silence. Russ was licking the spoon greedily and saw her watching him out of the corner of his eye, an amused expression on her face. Abruptly, he set the bowl down on the table in front of them. “Come here,” he said, in a low voice, reaching out with the remote to turn the TV down.

She moved even closer, and he impatiently took by the arms, pulling her over so that he was cradling her side by side. “What a night!” he sighed. “You…Ari…you are something else…” he marveled, unable to put it into words. Instead, he ran his hands through her hair and down her arms.

Completely soothed, Arielle thought, Ahh-nice! She tilted her head back to look up at him, a little smile playing around the corners of her mouth. “I know we didn’t go anywhere or do anything special, but I was with you so I don’t care” she confessed. When he didn’t respond at first, she lay her head against his chest again, letting out a contented sigh.

For a while, there was nothing but the sound of them breathing, the TV muted in the background. The feel of his fingers going up and down her arms, smoothing her hair away from her face. Then his grip tightened, and Russ leaned down to whisper in her ear, “I love you.”

Arielle felt her whole body stiffen. Wait? Whaaa? She opened her mouth to respond, but felt her breath catch in her throat.

Russ’s expressions mirrored the emotions going through his head. He paused, as if girding himself up mentally. She startled at the deep breath he took before speaking up again. “I’ve been wanting to say this for a while now but I just…” the singer started, then said, “And I can’t decide when I realized it…if it was because of George Harrison or the pig tails? I mean, Ari, I have never met someone as…as”-he fumbled for the appropriate words-”giving, unselfish as you! The band loves you, my kids love you… You have helped us so many times, you are always doing nice things for everyone.”

On a roll now, he rambled, “You…you cook meat for me even though you hate it, you like the same music as me… you ‘get it’, you know?” Another deep breath. “You kick ass on guitar, you’re…good at other things.” He smiled slyly. “I can talk to you about whatever without getting a screaming lecture. That’s nice” he sighed in reflection.

Russ stretched himself out on the couch as a more serious expression came over his face. “You’ve been through some real shit in your life, and you’re still…a beautiful girl. Person.” He corrected quickly. “Inside and out. So I decided…it was probably always.”

Oh. My. God. Arielle felt the proverbial insides-turn-to-mush. She flipped around quickly to face him, opened her mouth, ready to say something equally as touching, but what came out was, “George Harrison or pig tails?”

The singer gave her a look. “So I try to be all romantic and everything, I pour out my heart, and this is what I get?” Then he burst out laughing, lightening the tension he’d been feeling from this reveal.

Arielle continued to stare at him, zombie-like, as he went on.

“The George Harrison,” he explained with exaggerated patience, “was your church gig, remember?”

Ari had a mental flashback of the time she’d invited Russ, Mick, and Nikki to see her play at Mass. “My Sweet Lord” she thought, just as Russ said it aloud. He’d been bugging her ever since she’d met him that she should play out, not waste her talent. When she finally told him she had a gig, he sure wasn’t expecting this.

She thought back to his bemused expression as he had walked in the church doors; awkward, but instinctively reaching to touch the holy water. It was a tie as to who felt more out of place: Russ, a born and raised lapsed Catholic, or Mick, who hadn’t been in a church since he was baptized. He had kept teasing the singer that a lightning bolt was going to strike at least one of them as soon as they walked inside.

“When you started playing, you looked over at me and you had the cutest little smile on your face” Russ recalled, as the images came back into her head too.

I didn’t tell any of them what I was going to play. It was my choice, made church-appropriate. That’s why I was smiling. I know they were probably expecting a hymn or something. Not that. But…this simple little thing affected him…? My expression?  If she remembered correctly, when she had looked over at them, Mick was smiling as always, Nikki rolling her eyes, and Russ just shaking his head. Typical Arielle. She’d had no idea it had triggered what he was telling her now. He hadn’t mentioned anything afterwards at the time either, other than asking why she hadn’t played lead-because I like the rhythm guitar better on it, she’d explained-and laughing about the nun playing the tambourine. They’d just all went to Denny’s for breakfast and that was that.

“Mmmm….” Russ reminisced, “I could have hugged you for about an hour. You looked so sweet, strumming up there, that smile on your face.”

Really? Arielle was amazed, as the singer continued. “And the pig tails. How could you forget?” he asked, mock offended.

It instantly hit her: Mandy. The hair- do! For as long as she could remember, little girls always liked to fix her hair; her younger cousins would want to brush it, fix it up, like a human Barbie head. Now it was Nikki’s job. She was used to it. It didn’t faze her at all. You want to try to tame this crazy hair? Go for it! But this…had an impact on him?

The singer continued, running his hands through her hair again as he elaborated, “You had a million pig tails all over your head. Every damn barrette in the house. You must have felt like a total idiot. But, you went out in public like that and thought nothing of it.”

Ari remembered: Rob had stopped by on the spur of the moment, and Mick, Nikki, and everyone else decided to go out for pizza. Mandy had just finished the masterpiece hair do; painstakingly, as Russ had noted, putting every accessory possible in her hair. She remembered the smirk on Rob’s face as he had commented, “Nice, Air!”

When she’d gotten up to join them to head out the door, Mick had turned around and said, “Uh…don’t you want to…uh…take those out?”  The expression on Mandy’s face. She had just taken hold of Ari’s hand, wanting to ride with her in the back seat, and was gazing up at her expectantly. Arielle had smiled back, then declared, “Absolutely not! I want to show off my beautiful hair do!”

Everyone had shaken their heads, and they’d continued out the door to the pizza place. Nothing more had been said. Of course, she got  strange looks from other customers, but Arielle hadn’t cared. She was used to doing goofy things like that and it didn’t bother her in the least.

“You did that, just to make a little girl happy.” Russ commented. For a minute it looked like he was going to get choked up, but he shook it off and switched gears. “I mean, I know you like Duran Duran”, he sing-songed, “But I can overlo—”

He was cut off, though, by Arielle, who had finally snapped out of her daze. Overcome, she threw her arms around him and kissed him.

“….overlook that…” Russ finished dreamily, his eyes shut.

“I love you too” she managed to get out.

“You do?”

“Of course I do, silly!” Arielle replied. “How could I not?”

He breathed a sigh of relief, and she could feel his whole body relax. Was he worried? Geez, how did he think she was going to respond? To something as beautiful as all he’d just said? She fought the giddy urge to blurt, “Tell me again! Tell me again!”, or go on to tell him more, all the reasons she felt that way about him too, but as she felt his arms tightening around her again, something told her that silence was better.

They lay together like that the rest of the night; Arielle on top of him, arms wrapped around, head on his chest like a pillow, neither of them wanting to break the mood. Russ pulled the blanket back over top both of them and turned off the TV. Ahh…total bliss… she thought, drifting off to sleep.

 

She awoke to a scream, not realizing at first that it was her own. Sitting straight up, eyes open but not seeing, in pitch black darkness.

Even Russ, normally a heavy sleeper, couldn’t make it through this. His heart thudding, he jolted upright too. “Ari, Ari! Jesus, what is it?” His eyes darted around the room-burglar?-while groping on the floor for the closest weapon.

Her hands clawed at the covers, she was looking around wildly, disoriented. Then he realized: nightmare.   “Arielle!” Russ said firmly. “You’re in the bedroom.” Are you supposed to wake someone up during a nightmare? Dumbstruck, he couldn’t remember if it was that or sleepwalking, but then thought screw it, and continued breathlessly, “I brought you in here after we fell asleep! So you’d be more comfortable” he added. Remember? No, I guess not…

When his words didn’t register, he took her by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “You’re. in. my. room.”

She was breathing heavily, still not entirely conscious. Ok, ok, snap out of it! Russ thought, reaching for the bedside lamp and flicking it on impatiently. He looked over just in time to see Arielle’s hands clench, then open again-it looked like she had dropped something?- then she collapsed back onto the bed.   The room now softly illuminated, he stared down at her for a few seconds, momentarily speechless. What the hell?!

It was then that Ari began to come to her senses. She looked up to see him gaping over her, a shoe in one hand, and her eyes widened.

Russ looked dumbly at the shoe. That had been the first thing he’d grabbed when he was reaching for something with which to defend himself. “Oh-” he apologized quickly. “I thought there was someone in the house.”

“And that was your weapon?” she mumbled,  turning her head towards the nightstand. “Why didn’t you just use the lamp?”

“Well, yeah, uh…” Russ began, flustered, then stopped, semi-irritated. “Excuse me but, I wasn’t exactly thinking straight when I heard this piercing scream in the middle of the night, you know? I was trying not to piss myself!”

Arielle groaned and flopped an arm over her face in embarrassment. “I’m sorry. It was the nightmare.”

Russ nodded. “Uh huh. I kinda figured that out” he said sarcastically. Then he closed his eyes, letting out a long sigh, placing a still trembling hand on his chest. “Damn!” He took several deep breaths again to calm down. “I mean, Jesus, you scared the shit out of—“ he stopped when he heard her crying. “Ari!” his eyes got huge. “What is it? Are you ok?” Of course she isn’t-she’s crying, you idiot!  He leaned over to see her nodding her head.

“I’m sorry” she repeated,  while stubbornly shoving the tears away with her fists. It was futile, though, because as soon as he replied, “No, you’re not OK”,  she burst into sobs.

The singer scooted closer to her under the sheets, propped up on an elbow. “Ari, Ari, What’s wrong? What is it?” he repeated firmly, soothingly. She was shaking and wouldn’t look him in the eye; instead she covered her face with her hands. He stroked her arm and with real concern, asked, “What is it? What happened to make you scream like that?”

Arielle took a deep shuddering breath.  Ignoring his question, she instead burst out, “I’m so embarrassed!”

Russ waved that away. “You said ‘the’ nightmare.” He had picked up on the distinction. “What was it about?” he asked more quietly.

She squirmed uncomfortably on the bed, getting up her courage. Russ waited patiently, continuing to stroke her arms until they quit shaking.

“My dad” she then replied.

Russ nodded. With that emotional of a reaction, it figured. “Talk to me.”

“Uhh…” she let out. “It was…the night he died.”

The singer gulped and took her hand protectively, his expression saying, “Go on..”

“I relive that night over & over in this nightmare.” Arielle explained, still sniffling and wiping her eyes. Still feeling awkward. “It’s like I can’t shut my mind off about it.”

Russ squeezed her hand. “I’m sure it’s hard to” he got out, the words dry and chalky on his tongue.

They lay like that, no words, for a long while, then he said, “You want to tell me about it?” “You don’t have to.” he added quickly.

Arielle took a breath, then it all came pouring out. “I had a shit day at school. Flunked an Algebra test, and it wasn’t long after I’d broken up with my boyfriend, so I was feeling that too. Carrie had driven me home because my car was in the shop.”

She had been staring straight up at the ceiling the whole time, not meeting Russ’s eyes. “All I wanted to do was crash” Arielle sighed. “Go to my room, shut the door, put on my headphones, crank up the music. Forget about the day, you know?”

Russ nodded wordlessly as Ari went on. “I was thinking, great, it’s almost 4 o’clock, soon hospice will be here, they’ll hook up the morphine drip, and I can chill.” She paused, then said guiltily, “I admit it. I  was not in the mood to be a caretaker that night.”

Again, Ross nodded. Understood.

Arielle’s gaze stayed on the ceiling as she recited the rest of the evening’s events as if she were reading them from a book. “Just as I walked into the kitchen, the phone rang. My first thought was, ignore it, but I picked it up. I was on autopilot after the day I had.” Another sigh. “It was the hospice lady. She was stuck in traffic. There had been a car accident. She was going to be late. Not sure how long.”

“Carrie was still there, she’d walked in quick to say hi to my dad. He was asleep so she walked right back out. Saw my face and when I told her about the nurse, she said ‘I’ll call my dad.’”

When Russ looked at her questioningly, Ari explained, “Carrie’s dad was a corpsman in the Air Force. Plus they were buds. Just like me & Carrie.”

“Okay.” It came out as a whisper.

“Did we ever tell you that?” she wondered out loud.

The singer opened his mouth, nothing came out. He shook his head instead with a slight shrug. He felt a sensation of impending dread, yet at the same time, anxiety,  to find out what happened next. Gotta hear it. Don’t wanna hear it.

“And I was relieved.” Arielle admitted. “I should’ve said, been nice and said, ‘Oh no, that’s ok. I’ll handle it until hospice comes.’ But I didn’t feel like handling it.”

As she continued, Ari became more at ease in revealing herself to him; his silence, his non judgment, encouraging her to go on. “So, Carrie called her dad. And he was fine with coming over. They lived about…10 minutes away. So I figured, I’ll go in, check on him, see if he needs anything, then when Roger comes, I’ll take a shower, go to my bed, get under the covers, and-forget.”

Russ was spellbound; he’d been staring at her the entire time, unable to tear his gaze away. His hand travelled aimlessly, distractedly, up and down her arm, as she spoke. She appeared not to notice.

“So Carrie left for work, and..I went into the living room. That’s where we had the hospital bed. When hospice came, they brought all kinds of equipment: oxygen, walkers, bedside commode-which he hated-and the bed. It was easier to have him on the first floor.” Arielle explained.

“Sure.” Russ agreed.

“I’d been sleeping in the den next door for a while. On a futon. Just in case.” She paused, closing her eyes for a moment in reflection. “Ahhh…I slept like crap on that thing! Always listening  for any sound, any movement-did dad need anything? Was he coughing? Was he calling me or just talking in his sleep? Did he need another dose of pain meds?” her voice trailed off.   “I was always on alert. I jumped straight up at the slightest noise. And sometimes for no reason at all. I’d get up, look in, nope-he was ok, false alarm. Or, he wanted a drink, or had to pee. You know…”

As she was explaining all this, Russ continued to stare at her, shaking his head, amazed. It was bad enough for a person suffer like that, but what had it taken for someone else to have to deal with watching it happen every day?-and she was just a teenager! Damn.

“Sometimes he’d need a breathing treatment,” Ari kept on. “And I learned how to help him with those. But the worst was the pain, because I felt like I couldn’t do anything. He had about a dozen different pain meds, half the bottles were almost still full, because they’d say they weren’t working, or started him on something else… I had a whole grocery bag full of pill bottles.”

Russ closed his eyes, shaking his head in disbelief. She mentioned giving breathing treatments so casually, like it was something everyone did all the time.

“Sometimes I’d have to call the doctor. Sometimes take him to the ER. Ohhhh how he hated that!” she recalled. “All those swear words he learned in the military…”

It was the first time during the conversation that either of them were able to find humor. Arielle smiled and Russ companionably let out a weak laugh.  But Ari quickly snapped herself back to the night’s events. “I walked into the living room. And…I needed to change the sheets.” she said quickly.

Russ nodded curtly; no further explanation needed.

“But he was in a mood! Would not work with me. So it went like this: ‘Dad-roll over, DAD-I need to pull the sheet out!’ I mean, he weighed less than me at that point, but still…hard to change the bed when he refused to move. And he cursed me the whole time. Well, not really at me.” she quantified. “I know it wasn’t his fault. I know he wasn’t in the right frame of mind.”  Then she got a proud look on her face. “I want you to know, that, even after all he went through, my dad was one of the toughest men I ever knew. I tried as hard as I could to help him keep that dignity.”

Russ was nodding ruefully. “That’s a Marine for you” he agreed.

“But he was being a pain in the ass!” Ari continued.  Russ took her hand, squeezed it.  “It was a struggle. But I got it done. Just shouted back at him when he shouted at me. He hated being helped when he first got sick, but then later, only wanted me to do it.  It was so frustrating! When we finally called hospice, he was ticked at me for days, wouldn’t talk to me. But it was a family decision. And I think in a way, he knew we had to. You know?”

“Sure.” Russ concurred.

“Put the bed stuff in the wash. Got him dressed. New sheets on. Got him settled.” Ari sighed. “Just as Carrie’s dad got there. Thank God. I just about ran up the stairs to the shower as soon as the doorbell rang. I didn’t have to say anything,” she added, “Roger knew.”

“I get in the shower-finally! Must’ve been in there 20 minutes” she laughed a little. “The water, the fan, drowned everything out. Went into my room. But stopped on the way, listening. It was habit, you know?”   “Nothing.” Her expression showed relief. “Nothing. I just heard Roger talking to him, had the TV on in the background. I could relax.”

Russ had moved closer to her, feeling her emotions as she was describing all of this, almost as if he were experiencing them too.

“I was in my bed. Under the covers. Like this.” She patted Russ’s comforter. “Music on. Mind off. I don’t know how long I was zoning. I know it was still early but I was wiped out. Maybe I even fell asleep. But I heard this…voice, sounding like it was coming from far away. I thought I was dreaming it. I ignored it. But then, I heard this knocking on my door.”

Russ tensed up involuntarily, listening, spellbound again.

“It was Carrie’s dad. He was telling me my dad was hungry. Hungry! Well, right away I was excited. It was hard to get him to eat anything; he had no appetite. Or he’d want something, you’d make it, he’d take 2 bites, then not like it. If he wanted something, anything, no matter what it was…I got it for him.”   “So Roger asked, could I go get my dad some sherbet. Ross’s cherry sherbet.” Ari took a deep breath. “But you could only get that at Fazio’s grocery store, which was in the next town over.”

“You weren’t feeling it.” Russ said immediately, picking up on her vibe.

Ari shook her head. “I remember staring at him for a minute. I know he could read my mind. But he didn’t say anything. But it was Roger asking. And I figured…he wouldn’t ask me if it wasn’t really important, so I got dressed again. Got up. Of course I wouldn’t say no. It was my dad.”

Her eyes flickered around the room. Russ noticed her lips starting to tremble and waited patiently, encouraging her by squeezing her hand again.  He swallowed awkwardly, sensing what was coming up in the pit of his stomach.

“And that’s where the nightmare starts.” Arielle announced.   She finished the rest, her voice like an automaton.  “Came back from the grocery store. Walked in through the kitchen. Got a bowl. Got him some sherbet. All the lights were on but I didn’t notice until I walked into the living room. It was so quiet. I was holding the bowl. I walked in the doorway. And then…” Her voice started to get shaky. “All the faces. Looking at me. The nurses. Hospice. Roger. Their expressions. Sad. Pity. I can still see them. I was too late. He was gone.”

“Oh Air…” Russ breathed.

“I did not expect it!” Ari cried out. ” I know that sounds stupid, after all he went through. I didn’t expect it” she repeated.  “Not that night. I thought I’d have…some kind of….warning?”

Is that stupid?” she asked him.

“No.” he gulped,  “Not stupid at all.”

Arielle sighed, not quite believing him. “I wasn’t…ready.” she added sadly.

“And…that’s why you…after you saw….the…your scream?” Russ struggled to get it out.

“No.” Ari replied quickly. “I didn’t scream then. Just the opposite. I fainted.”

“Fainted?” he echoed.

“Yeah,” she gave a short, tense laugh. “First and only time in my life. Passed out right in front of everyone. I came to and didn’t understand what had happened. I saw the bowl, the sherbet, the spoon, on the ground. And then me.” “I see that over and over too. Blue bowl with white stripes. Red blob of sherbet. Silver spoon on a tan rug.” She shivered.

Arielle had told the whole story, stony faced. Russ was amazed at her composure.  He bit his lip, fighting to hold back his own tears.

She then looked over at him and said, “I’m sorry.” again.

“For?”

Ari turned her head away. “For scaring you. And being all…emotional!” She used the word reluctantly.

Russ pushed himself up on one elbow, staring down at her, aghast. “Sorry?!” he exclaimed. “Sorry? You have every right to be emotional-that was your daddy!”

At that, Arielle burst into tears again,  instinctively reaching for him, burying her head in his chest.

Russ gathered her into his arms.  Oh great, I made it worse…just when she had stopped crying.  “Ahh, Ari, baby, I’m so sorry.” he whispered.

“I…I was being so…so rude!” she burst out. “I was arguing with him earlier. I should have just shut up and done everything. He was dying, for crying out loud! Why did I have to act so selfish?”

“You didn’t know,” he responded quietly. “How could you have known?”

“I didn’t  feel like helping him! How shitty is that?” Arielle chastised herself. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye to him, or tell him I loved him or any of that kind of stuff” she lamented.

“Ari, he knew. He knew” Russ insisted.

She didn’t seem convinced.  Instead she sniffed and wiped her nose and eyes with her hand, at the same time apologizing for getting it on his  chest.

He took a breath.  “Would you please stop apologizing?” he commanded evenly, yet sympathetically.

“Sorry! she sniffed again.

Russ rolled his eyes, then shut them. He could feel her body still shaking from crying. He kept on smoothing her back helplessly.

Then, for lack of anything else he could think of to do, Russ sang. Starting with a hum, then into quiet words, he sang, “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad… take a sad song, and make it better…”  The first song that came to mind.

It did the trick, though. As he sang it the second time around, Arielle’s crying gradually subsided, and the desperate grip she had on him loosened until, as he shifted, her arms fell away from him, slack. Her eyes shut, Russ could feel her breath coming out slowly against his neck.  At peace. Maybe. Finally.

Russ stared up at the ceiling, wide awake although he was mentally exhausted from being witness to that episode. And she said she had that nightmare before? How often? Damn.

All around him was only the buzzing sound of silence. He lay there, trying to process what had just happened, what she’d gone through. Then he looked over at her face; reddened, puffy eyes ringed with smudged black from eyeliner, a trail of tears down her face through the rest of the make up, her nose still wet, her hair, as usual, wild, everywhere. She was worn out. Asleep, like he should be. Though he knew there was no way he was going to be able to fall back asleep after all that.

Russ looked back at her face again, the strands of tear-wet hair stuck to it. He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. She didn’t stir.

The singer flopped back against the mattress, staring at the ceiling again. Then, groaning, he surrendered to the inevitable and dragged himself out of bed. Might as well get a cup of coffee after taking care of business, he told himself, stumbling into the bathroom.   He stole a quick glimpse in the mirror on the way out: the same visage with blue-grey eyes and sunken cheekbones stared back at him disinterestedly. He frowned and flipped it the bird. You skinny bitch, he told himself. Skeletor. Ehh. What the hell did someone like Arielle see in him? He’d never look like one of those hottie big hair rock stars. Good thing Keith Richards started the heroin chic look.

Still feeling anxious after listening to all of that Russ told himself,  I  need a cigarette…bad.  Coffee could wait. Priorities. He fished a pack out of his jacket that was hanging over one of the kitchen chairs where he’d casually tossed it the night before. Then he headed outside to the back deck. Although he’d been a lifelong smoker, and this was his own house, he’d never smoked in it. He remembered what his childhood home had smelled like growing up, how his mom had scrubbed the walls until they ran with yellow-tinged water, that musty scent  that clung to the curtains and the furniture… The family had gotten used to it, but when visitors came in, that was the first thing they noticed. And couldn’t stand it. He didn’t want his kids to have to deal with that. After all, it was his bad habit. So he’d always taken his cigarette breaks outside. At least I’m not a total inconsiderate ass like my exes say…he thought ruefully, as he lit one up, leaning against the railing. The wind was starting to pick up, so it was a couple of tries until it took. He cupped his hand around the cigarette, then  inhaled, feeling the calmness come upon him.

His mind kept going back to Arielle lying in his bed. Poor kid. Kid? Sometimes she seemed like one, but…other times she was mature beyond her years. He exhaled as he looked into the back yard. The snow was really starting to come down now, landing on the play set and sliding board he’d built for the kids in the fall. He thought about when the guys came over to help put it up. And Arielle making and jumping into piles of leaves with Mandy. He could still hear his daughter’s infectious giggle. And Jake climbing the trees with her. He smiled, taking another drag off the cigarette. How badly Mandy had wanted to play on the set but it wasn’t finished yet. Ari had taken the kids inside and distracted them by making cookies with Nikki. It had made the job go that much easier. Oh, how Mandy had cried when Arielle had to leave! Russ smiled again, watching the snowflakes falling; small, steady flakes that meant business. It was now on the streets and driveway. He sighed. It would mean shoveling later on. He took one last drag and then tossed it into the little sand filled coffee can he had sitting in the deck corner. Pushing himself off the railing, he decided to make that cup of coffee.

As he headed into the kitchen,  he flicked on the kitchen light, pausing at the coffee maker. Had he remembered to get coffee the last time he was at the grocery store? Shit. Probably not. And he knew the milk left in the fridge was too far gone. Probably had chunks in it by now. Greaaaat. Honestly, with working 12 hour shifts and then practicing…he had to admit grocery shopping was the last priority on his list. Usually he counted himself lucky if he grabbed a burger and fries on the way to a gig. A cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts on the way to work. Breakfast of champions! He’d make a point of stocking up on a few things if he had the kids that weekend, but otherwise…

By that time he had opened the fridge to check on the milk. To his surprise, instead of the probably rotting carton and the few cans of pop he remembered seeing in there last time… it was…stocked! Salad, ketchup, mustard, butter, eggs…jelly… Russ stared, then started moving things around to see better. Actually having to move things around! That was a first. What the hell…? he wondered, rubbing his eyes, wondering if maybe he was still half asleep.

Then as he opened the cupboard to get the coffee…not only coffee, but there was cereal, Pop Tarts, spaghetti, sauce, a loaf of bread…peanut butter…not the generic kind!… soup, Spaghetti O’s… even cat food-the expensive kind- for Kashmir. Oh my God, Arielle! She’d struck again!

He opened the freezer, knowing, before he did so, that it too would be filled just like the fridge and cupboards. Ahh, Ari… he shook his head in wonderment. You are a sweetheart! Was there no end to the spoiling?

He pictured her back there still sleeping, who knew what kind of dreams were going through her head now? Somehow, with all the favors she did for him, the band, and his family, he felt he could never repay her, would never able to measure up to that. Though, at the same time, he didn’t think she expected him to. It’s just that…he felt guilty he couldn’t do more.

Then he thought…everything Arielle did…was so simple, so natural. Somehow it was always just what someone needed, something that was perfect for them. Nothing dramatic or forced. Russ decided, as basic as it might be, he’d do what he could. Comforting her, singing to her…and…he would make her some breakfast.

He glanced out the window again and noted the sun was coming up. Better get started. Pancakes…he thought with a smile…lots of syrup!

Balancing everything on a tray, the singer entered the room. Hazy light was beginning to stream in through the blinds, and Arielle started to squirm as she heard him.

She blinked up at him, as he grinned, holding out his offering: pancakes, heavy on the syrup, scrambled eggs, toast, and a cup of coffee in his other hand. Gasping, Arielle first felt for her face, patting the tear ravaged, make up worn areas. Then she ran her hands frantically through her hair in an attempt to fix it. Useless. Groaning, she finally just held a pillow in front of her, blocking his vision.

“Stop it. You look fine. Now, would you please take this tray before I spill it all over you?”

She hadn’t thought of that. “Oh! I’m sorry.” she apologized, immediately dropping the pillow and reaching for the tray.

Russ gave her his look. “What did I tell you about apologizing?”

Ari lowered her head and bit her lip to avoid saying “Sorry!” again. “Pancakes! ” she gushed. excitedly. “And oooh…look at all that syrup!” Then she stopped herself and, attempting to get up from her prone position, said, “You didn’t have to do anything for me, I’m the one who freaked you out in the middle of that night! I’m-”

The singer held a hand up in the air before she could continue. Then his expression softened. “Angel Eyes…” he began, using his private nickname for her, “You do so much for other people. Please, for once, let someone take care of you.”

She hung her head, and, with effort, said “Ok.” Then, “Thank you!” quickly.

Russ set the tray  down gently on her lap, the coffee on the end table, then disappeared back into the kitchen to get his plate. Returning, he bent down, inquiring politely, “Mind if I join you?”

Her mouth full of pancake, Arielle smiled, the syrup sticky on her lips. That was all the invitation he needed. Leaning over, he kissed her softly. He had intended it as just a friendly wake up call, but as they said about good intentions… Every time he moved, though, he felt a weight on him, moving from his legs to his back. “What the hell?” he questioned, stopping in the middle of a kiss. Then they heard the purring: Kashmir. Arielle giggled as the cat stuck her nose into both of their faces. She reached out to pet her, but Russ said firmly, “No. No! Get out of here!” He tried lifting her from them, but she kept digging her claws into him and climbing right back up again. “You are ruining the mood!” he declared as finally, tired of the constant struggle, he scooped Kashmir up and dumped her outside the room, shutting the door firmly. “There!” he sighed, then came back to bed.

They ended up making love, and it was soft, gentle, and comforting. Afterwards Arielle lay back under the covers, eyes closed, a little smile on her face.

Russ looked over, past the breakfast tray that had been casually pushed out of the  way. “What is it with you and pancakes?” he wondered aloud.

Ari’s eyes flicked open. “Best…breakfast…I…ever…had” she quipped, in imitation of him from that first time back in her dorm.

The singer caught on right away and let out a dirty laugh.

She then rolled lazily over, snuggling next to him. As her eyes flicked open again, she caught sight of the bedside clock. Immediately she sat straight up. “Wow! I should probably get up & get a shower & everything…I know Nikki wanted to get an early start back because she has to work.”

In reply, Russ got up and  pulled the curtain aside. Outside was a white blur. He could barely see his car in the driveway. “You’re not going anywhere” he concluded, shaking his head.

Ari gasped. She hadn’t even realized it was snowing.

“You can go take a shower though…let me heat up the breakfast, since we got…distracted…” He smirked as Arielle blushed. “I’ll give Mick a call over there & see what’s going on” he added.

Ari grabbed the sheet and wrapped it around her as she  disappeared into the bathroom. Russ was watching her appreciatively as she did so, then picked up the tray and headed back to the kitchen.

Arielle stepped into the shower, turned on the water as hot as she could stand and then basked in it as it streamed down on her. It was a relief to get feel clean again, waking her up, snapping her out of that nightmare. Ugh, that emotional explosion she’d just dumped on Russ. She shook her head. Poor guy! Like he wanted to experience all that. She couldn’t wait to get makeup back on and look decent again. She got out of the shower’s warmth reluctantly, dressed, and started putting on her makeup. She couldn’t get rid of the embarrassment-of freaking him out-and bawling like a baby in front of him. And this wasn’t the first time, she reminded herself; she had gotten teary eyed at Darin’s that one night they’d gone to practice. Ugh. She would really have to start sucking it up better. No guy wanted to be around some girl that cried all the time.

She didn’t realize she had drifted off until she heard a knock on the door. “Hey, how long are you going to be in there? Your food is getting cold…again!” Russ informed her impatiently.

“Oops-sorr-” Ari began, then cut off the apology, not wanting to tick him off . “Almost done!” She told him instead, deciding to just forego the hair dryer and let it dry naturally. At least her makeup was on. Thank God. How he’d seen her just  now was bad enough. Ugh. She took one last look in the mirror and opened the door to find Russ sitting back in bed with the tray on his lap. He gestured her towards him. The smell of hot coffee was heaven. She felt her stomach growl and so gratefully got under the covers, eager to get back to breakfast.

“Ok, let’s try this again…” Russ took a debut bite of scrambled eggs.  “I mean, who knew that pancakes were an aphrodisiac?” Arielle blushed. “I mean, I’m seriously going to have to stock up!” he went on with a grin.

They ate in companionable silence for a while, watching the snow coming down harder out the bedroom window. “Oh yeah-” the singer spoke up, “I called Mick and he said they heard on the news that it’s not supposed to let up until later on. They haven’t even gotten the snow plows out yet.” “So,” he raised his eyebrows, “you are going to be stuck here for a while.”

Ari made a mock disappointed face. “Oh damn!”

Russ just smiled. He had actually been thinking the same thing.

“This is really good, ” she told him, taking a bite of pancake. “Thanks!”

“Not a problem”, he replied. “I mean, I owe you one…or two…or 100…” Ari started to shake her head when he continued in a sly tone, “I noticed you went grocery shopping…”

She opened her mouth to protest; that it wasn’t that much, don’t worry about it, but he stopped her with a simple, “Thank you. You know you did not have to do that. But I appreciate it. I appreciate everything you do” he added seriously.

They continued to finish their breakfast as the wind picked up outside; they could now hear it howling. It was officially a blizzard.

“So, uh-” Russ started gingerly, “I was just wondering..”   “And you can tell me to fuck off, it’s none of my business or whatever you want, but…

Ari raised her eyebrows at that beginning.

“This nightmare,” he began, more strongly this time. “You said you have had it before?”

She nodded reluctantly, swallowing a bite of scrambled eggs.

“Have you ever…seen someone about it?” he questioned.

“Seen someone?” Arielle asked. “You mean a counselor or something?” she shook her head, lips turning up in distaste . “It’s not like that in our family. I mean, I wasn’t raised that way. We just…I don’t know…deal with stuff on our own.”

“But,” Russ persisted,  “do you have anyone you talk to about it? Nikki? Carrie?”

She shook her head. “I mean, they know the basics, but…honestly I don’t talk about it much.”

“I don’t want to bother you then” the singer interjected. “Like I said, tell me to mind my own damn business if you want. I just feel bad for you to have this happen all the time.”

“Well, ” Ari informed him, “this was the only time I ever disturbed anyone with it. So I’m sorr-I mean, I apologize”, she corrected herself quickly. “Usually I’m by myself. Thank God. And I don’t think I scream all the time.” She shuddered, still embarrassed.

“I wonder what triggered it? ” he mused.

Arielle shrugged. “I don’t know…maybe from getting the groceries, I was remembering going to the store that night?”

“Or maybe nothing did.” Russ reasoned. “Sometimes things make no sense.”

“I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to follow any pattern. I guess it’s like…it’s like it’s my mind trying to convince itself that he’s really gone?” she deduced.

“How long has it been since he…passed? I don’t think you ever told me?”

“It’ll be 9 months next week.” Arielle replied immediately.

“Wow, that’s…not so long ago.” Russ observed. “No wonder you still think about it. I mean…you’re always going to think about it…that’s not what I mean. I mean, I hope you don’t have dreams about it like this all the time…” He was starting to blubber and he knew it. “Oh fuck it! I sound like a total ass. I’m sorry” he told her finally. “I’ll just shut the hell up.”

She smiled a little, squeezing his arm. “No, it’s OK.  It’s not as much anymore. It’s getting better now. I’ll be OK” she reassured him. “To be truthful”, she added quietly, “You are really the only one I’ve really…said much to about all this. I actually can’t believe I went on like I did…”

“You must have needed to.” Russ guessed. Then he looked straight at her. “I’m flattered then. Thank you for trusting me.”

Arielle smiled again. Somehow with him it was easy. He’d been easy to talk to from the first night they met. It continued to surprise her.

They finally finished their breakfast and Russ moved to get up and take everything out to the kitchen, but Ari stopped him. “No, you go take a shower, I’ll clean up.” When he started to protest, she gave him a look. “I insist.”

“Ok, okay…” Russ waved her away and sprinted out of bed. A warm shower would feel great right now, he thought as he took a look out the window again. Seeing the swirling white mass made him shiver, even being inside.

Arielle headed out to the kitchen,  stopping to pet Kashmir, who was back to sleep on the couch again. She put the eggs and syrup away, wiped off the stove and counter. She was just starting to rinse off the dishes in preparation for washing them, when the lights flickered, then went out. She paused, a dish in hand, the water still running, looking up at the kitchen light. Nothing. She nudged the water off with her elbow. Then she looked out into the living room. Complete blackness too. Not even the hum of the refrigerator.

So the sound of Russ in the shower was even made even louder by the lack of any other sound. She went into the bedroom and politely knocked on the bathroom door.

“Yeah what’s up?” he called out, in the midst of rinsing his hair.

“Uh-the power just went out” she informed him.

Russ opened his eyes, noticing now the bathroom lights were off. “Aww shit!” he exclaimed. “Ok, let me finish up and I’ll be right out.”

In the meantime she went back out into the kitchen. Might as well finish the dishes. At least that still worked. She could see what she was doing a little bit from the windows. She opened the curtains more to let more light.

Russ joined her, freshly dressed in jeans and a Zep tshirt. “Shit!” he mumbled again. “Bet some dumb ass hit a pole.” He stood there for a second, thinking. “Well, it’s going to start being as cold as a bitch in here soon. Electric heat.” he explained. Then he too noticed the lack of noise, specifically from the fridge. “Fuck! And you just stocked it up!” he ranted. “God knows how long it’s going to be like this….” his voice trailed off.

A light bulb went off in Arielle’s head. “Well look-“ she gestured outside to the snowdrifts. “We got a natural fridge and freezer!”

The singer looked at her as if she was a genius. “Yeah!” he agreed. They immediately put their boots and gloves on. Ari handed him items one by one from the fridge and he made little holes for them in the snow drifts that had gathered on his back deck. Then she started on the freezer items, sticking the ice cream, hot dogs, pizzas, and frozen meals wherever she could make room. In disbelief, they looked at each other and laughed.

“This is like Little House in the Prairie or something!” Ari declared.

“You know what is gonna taste damn good after it’s been in here awhile?” Russ announced, “Beer!” He started taking single bottles from the case  and sticking them in the highest drift. “I’ll see you in about….an hour” he told the bottles as he did so. Arielle was in hysterics by now. This was so reminiscent of the Beef-A-Roni episode!

Just as they finished, the phone rang. Russ shut the back door, with a “Whew!” and a shiver and went over to answer it. It was Mick.

After listening for a while-as usual Mick’s mouth ran a mile a minute-Arielle and Russ giving each other knowing looks the whole time-the singer held his hand over the receiver and turned to Ari. “Mick says that it’s our whole block and the next 5 over.” Then, “The electric company said it’s going to be a while.”

“What? No dumbass hit a pole?” Ari questioned.

Russ laughed. “Well, probably that too.” Then he turned back to the phone. “Oh-Nikki wants to talk to you.” He handed it over to her.

“Having fun yet?” Nik joked.

“Yeah, we just put the contents of the whole fridge out on his back deck” Arielle replied.

“That’s a great idea.” She turned away from the phone and yelled out to Mick. “Mick-they just stuck their stuff in the snow!”

Ari could hear the drummer responding. “Good idea-let’s do it!”

“It’s freezing in here!” she told Nikki.

Arielle Chagrin Xander…” her friend started in her ‘are you an idiot?’ tone,  “Just stay in bed all day-get busy!” She said in a perfect Bleaney imitation,  then laughed long and hard so that even Russ could hear her. Arielle shook her head and handed the phone back to Russ, who said a few more words to Mick and then hung up.

They stood for a few second and looked at one another. “Well?” the singer shrugged. “I think Nik has a great idea too.” He pointed to the bedroom. “I’ll get a bunch of other blankets.” He started for the hall closet.

“And I think the coffee is still warm.” Arielle advised, heading back to the kitchen. She rummaged around in the cupboards until she found some of the kids’ lunch boxes-Thermoses!  She quickly filled them up, just as Russ shouted, “Hey, there’s a bottle of whiskey above the fridge!”

“Another great idea!” Ari yelled back, pulling over a chair and climbing up to retrieve it.

They met back in the bedroom. She was starting to shiver. Russ went over to his dresser and started going through it, pulling out sweatshirts and socks. “Here-“ he commanded, tossing them over to her. “Put on as many layers as you can.” He started doing the same. They glanced at each other and laughed again; they looked ridiculous.

“I was always known for my fashion sense” the singer quipped. He was shivering too. “Come on-“ he pointed to the bed. “Let’s get under the covers!”

They dove under the comforter, and yanked every blanket he had found over top of them. Russ pulled her close to him, their arms around one another. They snuggled desperately together for a moment and then he looked down at her tenderly, and out of the blue, said , “I do love you.”

She’d spent the night wondering to herself if he’d really said that. Wanting him to repeat it but not wanting to sound like a girly girl asking him. So she smiled and hugged him tighter. “I love you too.”

“This isn’t so bad, is it?” he asked. “Freezing. In the darkness. But, he held up the Jack Daniels bottle, “We got whiskey!”

Ari held up her G.I.  Joe Thermos. “And we got coffee!”

Russ quickly grabbed his Barbie Thermos and clicked it to hers as a toast. Then they laughed again.

“So…doesn’t it feel weird not to have had a gig last night?” Arielle asked him.

Russ opened his Thermos, pouring in a splash of the Jack. “Yet another great idea!” he announced. Then, “Yeah, doesn’t happen often” he agreed. “But that’s the life. My life.”

Ari was nodding. “I feel naked without my guitar sometimes.”

“Well hey-“ He struggled out from under the mountain of blankets. “I have an acoustic. Maybe you can play a little. Before your fingers freeze anyway.”

He brought over the Martin and she handled it gently, tuning it quickly by ear.

“What are you in the mood for?” he asked.

Ari responded by starting up with “Dear Prudence.”

“Good one!” Russ approved, then started singing softly along.

They went through several of their favorite Beatles songs until Ari finally had to put the guitar down. “Sorry-I can’t feel my fingers anymore.” she admitted. He nodded.

Their conversation then naturally turned to music, as it usually did. She told him about the Paul McCartney concert she’d seen with her dad; how he did a whole tribute to John, with huge video screens showing a montage of pictures of the former Beatle. Then, how the whole crowd had put their arms around one another as he sang “Hey Jude”. She’d looked up in amazement to see tears in her dad’s eyes.

“A good memory of your dad, huh?” commented Russ softly. She nodded. “Tell me about him… You know, something I always tell my kids when they have nightmares,” it suddenly occurred to him, “I say, ‘replace that with something good. Think of something fun, something happy instead of what made you scared’.”

So that turned into a conversation about her dad, the concerts he’d taken her to, the times they played guitar together, the little lawn concerts she grew up doing at her grandparent’s farm.

“Sounds like a great dad”, Russ mused. “I wish I had good memories like that.”

“You don’t?” Arielle queried. “Not even a few?”

He shook his head. “Not really. All I remember of when he was around was him fighting with my mom. Making her cry. Trying to smack me around.”

Ari shuddered.

“He was and is a total dick.” Russ said. “He never even sees my kids. So I have no time for him.”

“So compared to you, I was lucky…” Arielle thought out loud.

Russ considered. “I don’t know…what do you think? Which is worse-to have had a good dad and lost him, at least knowing what a good dad is like, or to have a dad who was never around so it was like you lost him already?”

Neither of them could answer that. And Arielle was starting to feel sleepy again. Russ let her go, and eventually drifted off himself, cozy next to her.

They woke up sporadically, to have another sip of coffee/whiskey and made a quick dash to the bathroom. Checking the weather outside. Listening for snowplows. Then falling back into a lazy sleep again. Sometimes they would talk about something random, then fall into a companionable silence.

Hours past and the phone rang, jerking them out of their lethargy. It was Mick again. It was starting to clear up some; the roads were looking better and in fact some cars were passing by and sounded like they were doing OK. He and Nikki were shoveling off the front porch.

Russ looked over at Arielle and groaned. “As much as I hate to…” he started. She knew what he meant and immediately got up to find her coat, hat, and gloves.

He waved her away. “No no no! You don’t have to help me-go back and stay warm.”

But she insisted. “Of course I’m going to help you.” Just as she said that, though, the lights flickered, came back on, then flickered off again. Both of them stood open mouthed, staring at up the ceiling light. It stayed on.  Then they heard the hum of the fridge again and the blinking of the microwave clock.

“Woo hoo!” Russ shouted. “Let there be light!”

Arielle laughed, but at the same time, was thinking, Dammit, I could stay here all day…and all night again! Instead, she went over to the deck to retrieve all the fridge items, as Russ headed outside to shovel the sidewalk.

When she had finished putting everything back, she joined him to do the driveway. He had an extra shovel by the front door.  Working together, they finally cleared everything out. They took a break, panting, leaning on their shovels, just as they saw Nikki’s big boat-like car pulling up. Ari’s stomach did a nose dive. No, I don’t want to leave yet! she screamed inside. But…

Russ was his usual gregarious self, laughing and joking with Nikki, explaining how they’d been drinking whiskey and coffee to stay warm. Asking how all of Mick’s cats and dogs were doing over there in the cold.

He sounds so happy! Arielle thought. And I just want to start throwing a temper tantrum because I don’t want to go back. Ugh.

Finished with their job, the singer invited Nikki into the house to get her a Thermos-Batman-of coffee for the road. He warmed up Arielle’s. “Just give them back next time I see you” he shrugged. “The kids have plenty of these.”

Nikki sat and chatted with him as Ari gathered her stuff, prolonging it as much as possible. Looking at the couch, where he’d told her he loved her for the first time, longingly at the bedroom where’d they’d spent the day together under that mound of blankets…

Finally, she could put it off no longer. Nikki was telling him she had an Econ test tomorrow and she would have to cram for it now because she’d spent the whole time here.

Arielle wanted to cry. Didn’t she feel as bad leaving Mick as she did Russ? What is wrong with me? I’m like emotional Jell-O today or something? She kept petting Kashmir distractedly. The little gray cat purred contentedly. She was the lucky one, she got to stay.

Did Russ feel the same way she did? It was hard to say; his face was his normal self. He told them to be safe on the way home. He was reassured to see that Nikki had chains on her tires. 

As they were heading out the door- a trip which Ari made as slowly as possible, letting Nikki get to the car way ahead of her- the singer stopped Arielle and hugged her, hard.  It seemed like he was waiting for Nikki to get away from them. “I don’t want you to go” he whispered firmly in her ear.  Ari could only shake her head in agreement, those embarrassing tears starting to form in her eyes again. Then, as if sensing this, he released her from his grip with a big smile. “Call me when you get back so I know you’re OK, alright?” 

She gave him a quick kiss and headed out to the car. Back to school. Reluctantly.

“Seeing him again”/after Ft. Wayne (Ch. 13)

All night long he’d been watching her and she knew it. Whether up on stage performing, or during a break between sets, Arielle could feel Russ’s eyes on her. She stood in a corner of the club, enveloped in shadows and smoke, and smiled to herself. He’d tried all the tricks. Making all the moves he knew she’d liked, pouring all the raw sex and energy into every note and drawn out scream. The band had played so many of her favorite songs, she was surprised there hadn’t been a mutiny. The singer had even stooped to exaggeration of his usual stage antics, making suggestive remarks and ogling all the girls in the front row. He’d even gone so far as to pull one of them up on stage with him and do a bump and grind routine. Of course it was the one with the gigantic fake boobs spilling out of her too small bustier.  She was certain he was doing it purposely, knowing how she felt about her lack thereof.  Ooh, good thing his troll isn’t here! She would have raised hell, Arielle thought wryly, pregnant or not! She remembered him saying to her one time: “I always told any significant other that they didn’t have to worry about the ones throwing themselves all over me, the obvious ones. It’s the one watching me quietly in the corner, giving me the eye, that you should worry about.” Hah, she thought. She can have your lame ass!

Why is he trying so hard to hurt me? Ari wondered, when I didn’t do anything!  Was he really that cruel?  What he was really doing was making a total ass of himself. And for what? Why?  He was the one with the wife. His rationale made exactly zero sense to her right now.

She hadn’t intended on coming tonight at all. Nikki had had other plans and Carrie, or course, wasn’t “allowed”. Problems with the boyfriend. Again. When Mick had called and told them Stone Cold was playing up at Roxanne’s in Toledo, for probably the last time, Arielle had had second thoughts. And third ones. Even though Mick and Nikki weren’t dating anymore, and even after all that had happened, they had remained friends with Mick. At first she’d been pissed and wanted to hate all of them, but then thought, is it really Mick’s fault his singer is a cheating asshole? Is the entire band responsible for one of their member’s actions? When it came right down to it, the responsibility for revealing Russ was married was Russ’s and Russ’s alone. Well, maybe they could have told her, but…as Nikki had said, there was that “guy code”.

Although she was still somewhat involved in the band’s promotion through Steve, she hadn’t actually seen any of them since that night in Ft Wayne. Did she really want to put herself in that position again? Then the image of Russ’s face popped into her mind: his eyes downcast, hurrying off the stage past her, not even acknowledging her with as much as a glance! The bastard hadn’t even called her to apologize-to explain-whatever. Nothing! Was this what she deserved after everything?  Then she knew: she had to do it for herself. She would show Russ Gibson that she was made of far tougher stuff than he imagined.

A nudge on the shoulder brought her back to reality. It was Rob Richardson, his guitar slung low around his neck. The band had taken another break and she hadn’t even noticed, lost in her thoughts.

“Hey!” he exclaimed, giving her a big hug. The axe banged against the barstool as he did so.  “Oops!” They both laughed. Then he added, “Good to see you again.”

“Hi Rob” she smiled. “Same here.” The guitarist backed up and took a long look at her. His eyes scanned from her black body suit to her face and back appreciatively. “You look great!”

Arielle pushed a stray wisp of hair out of her eyes and sighed. It was amazing what a few months without an appetite could do to you. “So do you, Rob. Like always.” She smiled up at him. She could say that without worrying about it sounding like a come on, because it was so obvious.

Rob tossed his hair self-consciously, the closest he would come to a blush. Covering his embarrassment, he gestured towards his guitar. “Got a new one.”

Arielle leaned closer. “Another Gibson!” she remarked.

“Of course.”

“Of course”she agreed, reaching out to handle it. “Les Paul…this is one of those new Custom Lites, isn’t it? What a beautiful color!”

“Sonic Moon glow.” Rob informed her. Then he reached for the strap. “Do you wanna?”

Arielle nodded enthusiastically. “Sure, thanks!” When Rob had removed it from around his neck, Ari took the axe respectfully, the way  a guitar aficionado would, running her hands down its body and across the strings. “Pearl inlays. Humbucker…” she was murmuring. “That’s great.” Her hands traveled up to the frets. “Rob, this is a sharp looking guitar!”

“Well, I got it from the advance.” Rob grinned. “So I can thank you for part of it.”

Now it was Arielle’s turn for modesty. She leaned down so that part of her hair hung across her face. “Oh, stop!”

Rob looked around quickly. “So, did you come here alone?”

Arielle stood up straight. “Yep!” She could have brought someone, but that would’ve meant she cared enough to make him jealous.

Rob nodded, immediately understanding. “To tell you the truth,” he said more softly, “I didn’t really expect to see you again at all. I mean, after…” He let the rest trail off.

Arielle waved it away, but Rob continued, “I never got a chance to talk to you that night, and well, I just wanted to let you know I thought…” He paused, swallowed, and then finished with  “Well…I’m just glad you stuck with us anyway.”

“There’s more to a band than the lead singer.” Arielle said wisely, continuing to handle the guitar. “It takes each member to make the band. Just because one of them happens to be a lying, cheating, son of a bitch asshole—“she let out a deep breath—“doesn’t mean the whole band is that way.”

The corners of Rob’s mouth twitched in amusement. “No comment” he remarked, then glanced down at his watch. “We still have a little bit of break left. Could you use a drink?” He gestured towards the bar.

“Sure.” She replied, handing his guitar back to him. They made their way across the room, past pool tables and the usual bimbos in their revealing outfits, staring like dogs in heat at Stone Cold’s lead guitarist. Wondering who that bitch was with him? Some things never change, Arielle thought with a smirk. But then again, a lot of things did… She realized with a start that soon she wouldn’t be doing this, walking through clubs with Rob or any of the rest of them. Just sitting down at a regular bar and being waited on like any other customer. That night at Crucial with all its excitement and promise was only the beginning. With their extensive promotion, performances, and of course the recording contract with Atlantic, SC was starting a whole new road to fame, fortune, and whatever else the music business threw their way. Instead of little bars and clubs like The New York, Crucial, and Skiddles, they’d now be playing fair grounds, halls, even arenas. Being the opening act for groups they used to cover. Unreachable, like all the rest.  And even now, struggling to remain neutral, she still  saw only the best for them in the future. Though now that she wasn’t involved with Russ anymore…she wasn’t part of their future. She had to keep reminding herself of that every now and then.

As they sat on the barstools Rob noticed the change in Arielle’s expression. “Something wrong?”

Ari blinked. “Oh-no…I was just thinking…all this—“she spread her arms out to indicate their surroundings. “It’s not going to be much longer. You guys will be leaving it.” Unable to help herself, she finished quickly, “And pretty soon you’ll be on tour and famous and I’ll never see you again.”

“Oh stop!” Rob mimicked her earlier remark. “I know that you know that’s not how it works.” He looked at her with his  air of authority, then decided, “Ari, you need a beer. Badly.” He pushed an ice cold Mick Dry in her direction. “This is on me.”

“Thanks.” Arielle said shyly, embarrassed at her outburst. Then she pivoted around, looking for the band bitch table. “Hey-looks like you’re here alone tonight too,” she observed. “Where’s Tina?” Tina was one of his more “steady” girlfriends-what the band would refer to as a “wife”-although that word had a  different meaning for her now. Was I ever considered a ‘wife’ by anyone? she mused, but then quickly put that question out of her head: of course not, I wasn’t obvious. And for good reason.

Rob let out a long sigh, pushing the hair back off his head. For a moment he said nothing, just took a swig of beer.

“Uh oh,” Ari said, a note of apology in her voice . “Sounds like forget I asked?”

Rob’s expression turned sour. “Long story.”

“Oh well then. None of my business.”

“No, it’s ok.” Rob responded. “She dumped me a couple days ago. But pretty much shit was going on the whole time.” When Arielle nodded at him in understanding, he went on. “A lot of things. She didn’t like my crazy band schedule, never seeing each other, not being able to go out like a normal couple…you know how I mean.”

She raised her eyebrows in reply: Hell yes, I know! At least.. I used to know…

He continued, “Well, I heard she was going out with Brent now anyway.”

Brent? You mean your old guitarist?! But I thought he was….” Arielle stopped before she finished with “married”. Like that meant anything anymore.

“Yeah.” The guitarist looked down at the bar. “I kinda always wondered if she was messing around with him when he was still with us. Maybe that’s why his wife became an ‘ex’. Something was always weird…” he trailed off.

“Wow, she’s crazy!” Arielle blurted out. Then, recognizing a kindred broken heart, she said simply, “I’m sorry.” They had been together for a long time…

He laughed bitterly and took another sip of beer. “Well I guess we’re in the same boat now, huh?” He raised his bottle to hers as a toast. “Single again!”

“Please. Like it’ll be a problem for you!” Ari scoffed. “You could have any girl you wanted, always could. Look around this room!”

Rob shook his head. “Been there, done that. I don’t want just ‘any girl’. What’s the point?”

“Well, Geez!” Arielle replied in mock amazement. “I didn’t know a man could think that way, let alone a musician!”

“Well then, I guess you picked the wrong musician.”

Before Arielle had a chance to respond,  the guitarist  got up  from his stool. “I got some stuff I want to check on…maybe we’ll catch ya later?” he mumbled and dashed off into the darkness of the backstage area. His beer was still sitting there, unfinished.

Arielle sat still, trying to absorb their conversation.  So he was single now, huh? She smiled. Oh boy, wouldn’t these girls here just go wild if they knew? Although most of their type wouldn’t let a girlfriend or even wife stop them. Hmm…there’s that nasty word again-wife-she thought cynically. She hadn’t known Tina that well, only maybe said hi to her once or twice when they bumped into each other at gigs. She and Nikki had never been part of the “band bitch” group, never sat at the designated table, had not wanted to be involved in that drama. They were the outcasts by choice. Why had she even bothered dating Rob if she knew what his lifestyle was like? Ari wondered. Maybe she expected him to give it all up for her? Like supposedly Brent had done for his girlfriend? Hah! Well, that hadn’t worked for Russ and any of his previous relationships either. And Rob especially, always had the women all over him. That couldn’t have been easy for her to deal with. Ah hell, another waste of a relationship… And “the wrong musician”? What had he meant by that?

As if on cue, Russ came sauntering up to the bar. Arielle could just see him out of the corner of her eye, looking at her but trying to act like he wasn’t. She could almost hear his thoughts: Oh yeah, I’m just here to get a drink, minding my own business, yeah, that’s it.. Her heart was pounding and she could feel herself stiffen. Jerk! Prick! Asshole! she wanted to scream. Scream while ripping his hair out. And a kick in the balls for good measure. She was sure those were all things Carrie would have done, and she was mad at herself for not being good at it. Instead, she prolonged the last few sips of her Mick Dry, trying to steady her shaking hands. Then maybe he would get his drink and leave and she could go back to the dark corner again. That way it would be him who had walked away. Again.

No such luck. He sure was taking his time, staring at the drink menu. Come on, you dick, a Jack and Coke, you know that’s what you always get! she thought, gripping the barstool with one hand and her beer with the other. And oh yes, he had to reach closer her way to grab the bowl of peanuts. You don’t even like peanuts! Arielle wanted to shout. Nevertheless, he ate each one methodically, pushing the shells onto the floor. The crunching was getting on her nerves. And now her beer was down to backwash. No way was she going to go down there to order another one! She reached for the napkins instead, killing time by wiping imaginary foam from her mouth. Come on, leave, you S.O.B.! she shouted inwardly. Just piss off and leave me alone! Go back to your ridiculous stage pantomimes, your stupid dancing bimbos, and…

“So what are you doing?” It was Russ. Somehow he had made his way to her side without her noticing. The moment had come-and she sucked at confrontations. Gulp! Ok, quick-how do I do this? How do I act? What do I say? Bitch him out? Or play it like I don’t give a damn? After a pause, in which she prayed her voice wouldn’t betray her, Arielle replied, “Having a drink. This is the bar, you know.” Then she added, “Getting on with my life” with a flash of bravado. Screw you and your casual attitude!

“Yeah,” Russ agreed snidely. “I can see that!”

The gasp came out of her mouth before she could control herself.  “What the hell do you mean by that?” She swiveled to face him, jumping down from her bar stool, nervousness overcome by surprise.

“I saw you hitting on Rob. Falling all over him and his guitar, just like all his other little groupies!” The singer smirked, taking a swig of his drink.

Ari could only stare at him.  He had never talked to her like this!  She was speechless. Russ took advantage of it, continuing in his wise-ass tone, “I mean, really, a guy in the same band? It’s pretty obvious…not too original…” he added, leaning closer to her, a condescending look on his face. “Arielle, don’t make a fool of yourself. It’s not worth it.”

“No, Russ,” she replied, “You weren’t worth it.”

For a moment they stood there staring at each other. Then his facade was gone. “Really?” he choked out.

Seriously? You have the balls to act hurt?  Disgusted, Arielle wanted to turn away but she forced herself not to. He needed to hear about what he’d done and she was going to be the one to tell him. Come on Ari, you can do it! she told herself. Don’t let him get away with this!  He probably expected her to just…fade away? Oh no, I’m not going to be like “the others”. Those ones that you just….and on to the next. Nor was she going to turn into the hysterical female and cause a scene. Nope,she was going to do this her way. It wasn’t Carrie’s way, but… Continuing to look him straight in the eye, she replied evenly, “Can you blame me for thinking that?”

The singer sighed, closing his eyes. He gripped the side of the bar, looking as if he was about to collapse. Ari said nothing, letting the silence do its work. Then he reached out as if to take her arm, to offer affection, but had second thoughts. His hand hung awkwardly in the air as Arielle glared at him. “Do not touch me.” she warned. “And-” she added, becoming more confident, “Don’t you ever talk to me like that again.”

He pulled his hand back as if it had been electrically shocked. “Ari…” he began, tripping over his words. “I-I-I…” He looked down to avoid her razor sharp gaze. “God…” He glanced up again, checking for a sympathetic look. Instead, she was silent, her eyebrow raised, as if to say, “Yes?” She refused to make it easy on him.

“I’m…sorry” he was finally able to get out.

Arielle gave a terse nod. “So am I.”

Russ tried again, looking at her, his eyes pleading for…what?- understanding? empathy? Honestly, how had he expected her to act? she wondered. Then he sighed again and whispered, “Come here. I need to talk to you.” He turned, looking back to see if she was following.

Ari shook her head. “We are talking.”

“No. I mean…somewhere more-private.” the singer explained. He saw her dubious expression and added, “Please.” He motioned towards the corner. Arielle followed his gaze. Well. They probably had to get back on stage soon anyway. This shouldn’t take too long. Huh! Let’s hear what he has to say! A bunch of B.S. no doubt… She reluctantly followed him back to the dark area where she’d just been. As they got there, she could tell Russ was girding himself up for what he was about to say. He alternated between looking up at her, then at the ground, his hands fluttering around helplessly; they were used to reaching for her, touching her, but now they couldn’t. She regarded him coolly as he struggled to speak.

“Ah, Ari…” he started. “Dammit!” When she didn’t reply, he went on, the words tumbling out of his mouth, “I didn’t know-I didn’t know she’d show up! We were separated. I hadn’t seen her in months. She’s-we-” he paused to push the hair off of his forehead, “We haven’t gotten along in…well, forever…it was fucked from the beginning. It’s been…I’ve been wanting to get out…it’s been living hell.” he admitted. “And then…I met you.” He sighed, full of sighs tonight, finally getting the courage to look at her face for more than a fleeting glance. His hand reached out again for hers, but stopped. “And you were just so….different! You were the first one to make me wanna go home and say ‘that’s it!’…and…then I find out she’s….. ”

Arielle’s eyes grew wide despite herself. He was going to leave his wife for her?

“But…you know how I feel about kids. You know what happened with my dad. God Ari! I never meant to hurt you, I swear I didn’t! But… I can’t hurt her either. Or my child. I’ve fucked everything else up I ever touched-I need to try to..do it right this time?  I should’ve told you sooner. I know it. But I couldn’t resist you! I’m a fucking asshole!” He noted her expression: Yes, you are, and???? “Jesus, Ari…” Arielle heard the agonized tone in his voice and for the first time, looked at him without complete hatred. “I loved you-I love you! I wouldn’t lie about that.” He reached for her hand again and this time she let him take it, but made it as limp and lifeless as possible. He sighed at feeling her touch. “How could I not?”

It was touching him again that did it. Arielle felt herself weakening, but forced herself to keep steady.  “Do I look like an idiot?” she demanded. He jerked his head up quickly in shock. “Because you made me feel like a…total fucking idiot.” Russ shook his head in the negative. “No, no…you’re not…” he mumbled frantically.

“You broke my heart!” she cried out.

Aww…Arielle…” Russ turned his head away and she could see that he had completely lost his composure. Wow, she thought at first, but then, Good. Now you get some of what I’ve had for the past few months. Don’t you dare, don’t you dare! she warned the tears that were starting to form in her eyes too.  Yet at the same time she felt her stomach drop and bit her tongue hard.  Why did it have to turn out like this? Dammit! The back and forth conflicting emotions were driving her crazy. Ari fought between the urges to punch him in the face or to collapse in his arms. No, couldn’t do that anymore. He belonged to someone else now. Correction: he had never belonged to her in the first place.

He finally turned back to her, and she willed the tears away so she could at least have the satisfaction of looking at him  dry eyed while he wasn’t.  “We could-can we-still…talk? See each other?” he asked, desperate.

She knew how he meant. Arielle shook her head. He kept staring at her,  as if that would change things. “I won’t put myself in that position” she replied firmly.

Russ bit his lip and nodded. He reached out to hug her, then stopped awkwardly.  In that instant, Arielle caught a whiff of his cologne. The kind she had bought him…not just for Christmas or a birthday, but just to do it, just like so many of the things she had done for him over the past year . She closed her eyes to block out the memories. Unthinking, she put out a hand as if to touch his face, then dropped it. Instead she forced the emotions out of her expression,  squared herself up, and turned to leave. She had to walk away-to get out of there. Now.

She didn’t know where she was going as she walked-couldn’t see, couldn’t think straight. The people, the pool tables, the booths-they were all a spinning kaleidoscope before her eyes.  Her heart pounded and she felt seasick. Russ’s face. His tears! And then—Arielle kept walking, now heading to the exit sign-the air inside had suddenly turned oppressive; she could hardly breathe. Air-I need fresh air-she thought, desperately, hoping no one was following her. She felt hot too and realized it was from her face, now red and streaked with tears. Oh thank God it’s dark in here! And thank God he hadn’t seen her in this condition. She dodged cocktail tables and their former occupants, her mind continuing to spin. Music was blaring from the juke box. Some Alice Cooper song. Where was the door? The noise started fading away as she got to the hallway. She passed someone retching in the corner and kept moving. The ticket booth. The bouncer. A push on the door…

Then Arielle was finally outside. Relief. The contrast between it and the club was like a slap in the face. Cool air. Quiet. She looked up and saw stars everywhere. And then she paused.  Did I make a mistake? The thought suddenly gave her hysterics and she stood on the sidewalk, bawling, then trying to catch her breath.  She turned around to look at the club door, for a split second wanting to run back in, change her mind. But no. And did she expect to see him coming running out after her? No. Instead she forced herself to take deep breaths, focusing on finding her car. She finally spotted her Firebird under a street light and rummaged in her purse for the keys, just wanting now to get out of there as fast as possible.

Once inside, Arielle collapsed in her front seat, the crying beginning to hurt, and the images in her head starting to make her sick. His face, cocky, when he first approached her. Her smart ass responses. Then that hurt look when she told him he wasn’t worth it.  In some corner of her mind, though, amidst all the hurt and anger, was this…when I smelled his cologne…for a second there, standing next to him…I might have done it!  The realization of the choice she had made and what she had come close to making caused Arielle to gag. She suddenly leaned out the door and threw up.  My God, am I to the point that I would make myself that low? Just to get some kind of…attention? He’d just said he ‘loved’ her. Is that what it was-love? Well, maybe it had been, but not anymore. What the hell did she know about love anyway, she had to ask herself. Obviously fuck all!

All that time between Ft. Wayne and now…with the tears, moping, not eating-Arielle had tried to convince herself she was getting “over” him. And the other guys she’d met since then, when Nikki or her other friends forced her to go out…in reality she had been just going through the motions. Deep inside she had  still wanted Russ, no matter what she tried to tell herself. His picture on a dartboard.  Shredded notes. I hate him! He’s a jerk! All of that bravado had been a farce. It had all come down to seeing him again.  She still felt wounded. I’m weak! She told herself. I hate it! I hate it! I hate him for making me that way! And I hate myself even more for letting him.

Arielle finally composed herself enough to turn on the radio and start the car, pulling out onto the highway. She could just hear her dad saying, “What a pretty mess you are!” with disgust.  She  resolutely brushed the tears off her face. Enough. Between sniffs and gulps of air, she asked herself, did I keep my pride? Yes, I think so. At least, in front of him.  She then took a look at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were already pink and swollen, the makeup a soppy mess. She wanted to remember this face. How pathetic. And she vowed to herself, never again…..

Ft. Wayne (Ch. 12)

Arielle peered out into the darkness at the upcoming road signs and frowned. “Shouldn’t we be going west?” she asked Nikki in the passenger’s seat.

Nikki held up a little piece of paper Mick had given them. “His directions say towards Napoleon.”

“Well, this road goes both ways-but Indiana is next to Ohio,” Arielle gestured with her hands, picturing a map of the states, “So it has to be left.”

Nikki shrugged. “West is left.”

“Gas station time!” Arielle announced, using her tried & true directions solution. She spied a doughnut shop nearby and decided to try that instead. The sooner they got on the right road, the better. Stone Cold was playing after nine and no one had been really sure how long it would take to get to the club. The anticipation was driving her crazy. They had to get to Ft Wayne-soon. It was her birthday and Russ had promised something special for her that night. What it was, she had no idea. Mick wore his usual conspirital smile whenever Arielle was around and wouldn’t divulge any clues.

“This will be a birthday you’ll never forget!” Russ had boasted when he invited the girls to Crucial, the club in Ft. Wayne where SC would be performing. Any further questioning only got his disapproving, head tilted to the side look and more of Mick’s maddening smiles. They hadn’t even told Nikki, not trusting her to keep a secret from her friend.

And now they were lost out in the middle of who knew where, with less than an hour to spare. Nikki and Arielle slid out of Nikki’s car into the doughnut shop. Immediately, heads turned. A group of old men leered obviously over their cups of coffee. A fat man sitting with two staring waitresses grinned, his mouth crammed with tobacco. Oh my God, really? Arielle thought. You’re old men and you still act like dogs in heat? Give me a break-you’re my dad’s age! Eww. Trying to be oblivious, she looked for the cashier. “Excuse me,” she began, leaning over the counter. Dozens of day old doughnuts stared back at her. Nikki was trying to pull her mini skirt down a little more, disgusted by the lecherous looks.

“We’re trying to get to—“Arielle glanced at Mick’s paper again, “Route 6 to Ft. Wayne. Can you tell us which way to head?” As the cashier was explaining, Ari & Nikki both felt eyes burning down their backsides. Ari shifted uncomfortably, wishing she had something to cover herself up with. Nasty. “Thanks a lot.” she said quickly, after scribbling down the directions. She gave Nikki a look that said “Let’s get the hell out of here!”

The fat man grinned one last time, a stream of tobacco dripping from the corner of his mouth. “Need an escort?” he guffawed. The girls ignored him, practically running to the car.

“Oh God, that was so gross!” Arielle shrieked, leaping into the driver’s seat. “Let’s find this place-fast.”

“I feel like I need a shower.” Nikki agreed, reaching for the volume on the stereo. Cranking up the music was the only way to get those disgusting looks out of their minds. Immediately the sounds of one of Stone Cold’s “basement tapes” blasted through the car.

“Walkin’-the dog!” they both sang out, Arielle pounding the steering wheel to the beat, while scanning for road signs. “Hey Nik, what’s the speed limit here, anyway?” she asked. Just then they both saw the police car sitting in an empty parking lot.

“Oh shit…” Ari moaned. Could she get away with it?  No such luck- the police car pulled out after them, its lights flashing. Resigned, she brought Nikki’s big, boat-like car to the side of the road. “Hide your beer.” she hissed, looking in the rear view mirror as the cop approached.

A young officer stooped to look in the driver’s side window. Arielle handed him the registration and her license without being asked. No sense playing games when she knew she was guilty.

“I’m so sorry.” she began, “But I’m from out of state, and we are totally lost. I must’ve stopped to ask directions a million times, I’m probably late, and I have no idea what the speed limit is.”

“Thirty five.” the cop informed her, glancing from her license to her face.

“Oh.”

“And you were doing 53.”

“Oh.”

“This isn’t your car?” he questioned.

“No, it’s hers.” Arielle gestured to Nikki, who smiled winningly. “But I’m better with directions. Well, most of the time…” she finished, embarrassed. Geez, can I sound more like a moron?

The cop only stared. Then, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Uh-sure.” The girls sat straight up in obedience. They weren’t in a position to argue.

“Where are you going anyway?” he suddenly grinned, letting them off the hook. Both girls breathed sighs of relief.

“We’re going to see some friends of ours in a band play at Crucial in Ft. Wayne.” Arielle explained.

“Ft. Wayne?” he laughed. “Boy, you really are lost.” He handed back the license and registration without a second glance; oh yeah, here-take these, I don’t need them. “What band is it, by the way?”

“Stone Cold.” Nikki spoke up, flashing him another friendly smile, just in case. “She’s dating the lead singer.” she gestured towards Arielle, who had a mix of a blush and smile at the same time.

“SC?.” the cop exclaimed. “They rock! Really, you guys know them? That’s so cool.” Nikki and Arielle both laughed at his enthusiasm. Could this be any more surreal?

He stepped back from the car, straightening his cap. “How about if I give you a police escort up to the road you’re supposed to be on? You just follow me.”

Both girls’ eyes widened. Oh my God, they really were in the Twilight Zone! Could this be happening? They nodded dumbly. “Sure, that would be great. Thanks!” Arielle gushed. Holy shit, talk about dodging that bullet….

As he walked back to his cruiser, Nikki and Arielle gave each other looks. “Hey Ted,” Arielle said in her best ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ voice, “We’re totally getting a police escort.”

“Excellent….”

 

The cop finally pulled off the road right before an on ramp. He signaled for them to pull over as well, and got out of his car. Arielle rolled down the window, still in shock.

“Keep going this way, “he advised, “and the rest of those directions you have should be fine.”

“Thank you.” both girls chorused. Right now they were his #1 fans.

He then leaned in the window again. “Well, have a good time tonight. Hurry up, but not too much.” he laughed as he walked away. Then he called back, “And happy birthday, Arielle.”

 

“We’re finally here!” Arielle exclaimed, pulling into the crowded parking lot.

“Wow-this place is awesome!” Nikki’s eyes took in the huge white building, looking full moon-like in the middle of a very dark night. Multi-colored lights danced around its edges, illuminating the cars within their reach. A giant neon electric guitar was suspended over the doorway.

“It is great.” Arielle agreed, taking in everything with wide eyes. It was sometimes hard to believe that Stone Cold had come so far in the time she’d known them. One look at this club, this palace, and memories of the many practices in freezing sheds and garages, and gigs in seedy bars, seemed incredible. Now here they were, with a pending recording contract, and a new following, and she was dating the lead singer as Nikki had pointed out. Could this be any more of a fairy tale? A surge of an indescribable feeling went through Arielle. She was so proud of them for finally making it! She knew how hard they had worked to get this far, that other bands had competed for the same things, and various assholes had thrown up road blocks one way or another along the way…but it had all paid off. And in her mind, she was privileged to be a small part of it. She considered them all like the brothers she wished she’d had; she’d do anything for them and they knew it. She loved these guys. Mick, always so friendly and talkative; Rob, awesome guitarist, and the “hottie” of the band, but didn’t act cocky about it; Darin, was just Darin, and Russ….

“Ari! Are you going to park or what?” Nikki shouted from the next seat, reminding Arielle that she was still sitting in the parking lot, staring into space.

Quickly she snapped out of it, and spotted a parking space that had been there right in front of her.

“My God, you have the goofiest-assed look on your face.” Nikki commented, glancing sideways at her. Then, “You’re thinking about Russ, aren’t you?” she teased. The darkness hid Arielle’s blush. “You really like him, don’t you?” Nikki continued as they got out of the car. This had been her standard joke to Arielle ever since they’d met the band, but as time had gone on, it had become more of a statement than a question. Nikki had always had an almost eerie perception about these kinds of things, but for anyone looking at Arielle around Russ, as much as she tried to be cool, it was obvious.

Ari looked up at the stars and sighed. Despite what it looked like from the outside-the complications, the drama, the “baggage”-the answer was a definite “Yes.”

 

The inside of Crucial was just as spectacular as its outside; dimly lit, it gave one the sensation of being in a huge cavern, with guitars, drumsticks, and various other musical instruments hanging from the ceiling and walls, Framed and autographed photos of the famous and near-famous adorned the entire stretch of wall behind the bar. The stage, located at the very end of the building, was larger than most bands running the circuit would ever see.

“Wow…” the girls breathed upon their entrance.

“It looks like the Hard Rock.” Nikki commented. Ari nodded.

The club was packed; it was no wonder that the line outside had stretched the parking lot. People were everywhere-standing in corners, crammed into booths, lounging at the bar, and anywhere they could find a space. Arielle scanned the room, seeing wild looking guys with incredibly long hair wearing shredded jeans or tight leather, typical bimbos eying them lustfully, and band techs shoving back and forth from the stage.

“Did we make it on time?” Nikki wondered out loud, remembering that there were two other bands playing tonight, and Stone Cold was last. Mick had talked up the second band, Wrek Havoc, so the girls didn’t want to miss them either.

“We must have” Arielle mused, “or the line would’ve been shorter, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Good thing we have connections, or we’d be standing out there all night too.” Nikki looked around for a table, a chair, anything. Hopeless. “I guess the guys are backstage. Want to get a drink?” she suggested. They both looked at the bar and frowned. It was going to take forever to get served there.

Suddenly they saw Mick coming from the back room. He had a giant smile, as always. “Hey-You made it!” he shouted, trying to hug them both at once.

“Yeah, just barely.” Arielle laughed dryly. Mick looked curious. “Oh just wait, you won’t believe this one.” she continued.

Mick raised an eyebrow, used to the girls’ escapades. “Did you get a drink yet?”

“Are you kidding?” Nikki gestured towards the crowd at the bar.

Without another word, the drummer walked through the people, up to the bar. They started to part as though he were Moses going through the Red Sea. Everyone recognized Mick, staring in awe.

“Sam!” the girls heard him call to the bartender. “I need two Mick Drys” then he pointed towards Ari & Nikki. “These two ladies get drinks on the house all night tonight. We’re celebrating a birthday.” He winked at Arielle.

“Ooh.” Ari mocked as the curly haired drummer returned with two ice cold beers. “Impressive.”

Mick only grinned. “Hey, it pays to put up with some people…long enough for it to pay off, anyway.”

As if on cue, Rob Richardson came sauntering up. The eyes of every nearby girl were on him. “Well speak of the devil.” Mick commented.

“Just call me Satan.” quipped Rob. He then hugged both girls too. “Hi, you guys. Thanks for coming. Looks like you’re our fan club tonight.”

“This whole club is your fan club.” Arielle declared, spreading her arms wide.

Rob’s gave her a twisted grin. Then he tossed his hair casually and looked toward the stage. “How much longer till Wrek Havoc?” He asked Mick.

The drummer consulted his watch. “Oh, about 10.”

“Well then, I guess I gotta go back and fix my hair.” Rob joked, making fun of Nikki’s obsession with her own. “I don’t think it’s poufy enough, do you? Do you have some mousse or something I can borrow?”

“Oh, shut up.” Nikki pushed him playfully.

Mick just smirked, sipping his beer and enjoying the bantering. Then he said, “Did you guys find your seats?”

“Seats? Where?” Nikki and Arielle chorused. “There’s no room left in this place.”

In reply, Mick pointed to the stage. The girls craned their necks into the darkness over dozens of heads to see a lone table, front row center, with a “reserved” card on top.

“That’s for us?”

“But of course.” Mick smiled. “Go ahead and sit down. I’ll be back in a while, ok?”

“Thanks!” both girls shouted, beaming at him. Police escort, on the guest list, free drinks, and a special table? The night couldn’t get any better.

“I’ll tell Russ you’re here.” Mick called over his shoulder, his eyes glimmering with some kind of secret.

“Oh no…what’s he up to?” Arielle wondered, cautious.

“Don’t ask.” Nikki advised, sipping her beer. Arielle nodded. It was probably better that way, knowing him. As they moved towards the table, someone suddenly laid his hands on each of their shoulders at once.

“Hey.” It was Darin. The girls jumped simultaneously.

“You scared the shit out of me.” Nikki accused. “Thanks.”

The bass player just laughed. Then he looked long and hard at Arielle. “Hey, you look really good tonight.” He checked himself and added, “Both of you do.

“Thanks!” Nikki bubbled, accepting it for both of them.

“So do you.” Arielle replied. She’d never really thought of him in that way, but he could be as incredible looking, just like Rob was, if he wanted to be. With long legs encased in tight black jeans, rips in all the right places, and a black shirt opened to the waist, revealing an assortment of odd necklaces, and his dark hair like a cloud around him, Darin was getting just as many stares as Rob for once. And it was weird that he would make such a compliment, especially to them. She didn’t think he ever even noticed either of them other than they were girls who dated his band members and every now and then gave him snacks and alcohol. Oh well…a strange night was getting stranger…

“I mean it, you really do.” he repeated, as if she hadn’t heard him. Then he disappeared after Mick and Rob.

“Wow..” Nikki marveled when he was out of sight. “Did you see how he was slobbering all over us? Damn! He’s looking hot tonight.” There was a gleam in her eyes that Arielle recognized as Nikki’s man hunting look. She’d found a “scope” for the night. But Darin?

“What about Jeff?” Arielle reminded her of the guy she’d been seeing back at school for the past couple months. The one that she waited by the phone for when he was out with other girls, the same one who had left a skinned rabbit on their doorstep when he thought he’d seen Nikki with another guy. Arielle hated him with a passion.

“He’s being a dick.” Nikki huffed. “I don’t see a ring on this finger so I can do whatever I want. I’m sure he is! He’s probably screwing some bimbo right now.”

Yeah, most likely…Arielle agreed inwardly. She’d heard these tirades from her roommate like clockwork ever since they’d been dating. Just when Jeff pushed Nikki too far, she would insist that she hated him, that they were done. She was just using him for something, just like he was using her, Nikki would say, as if that made it all right. Why shouldn’t I get something out of him? She would explain. Then later she would soften, and make excuses for him, saying things like, “Well it’s better than nothing.” To Arielle, it WAS nothing. She hated to see her friend degrade herself like that. She was so pretty, so nice, so worth more than that; she didn’t have to settle for that treatment. There were tons of guys who would gladly go out with her. But there was something inside Nikki-disbelief, lack of confidence, fear? Who knew? But nothing Arielle ever said to her made a difference. She’d just go back on the same cycle again. It was frustrating.

“Why don’t you go out with Mick?” Arielle suggested, for the hundredth time. “He’s such a nice guy.” But her plea, as usual, fell on deaf ears.

“I did.” Nikki sighed. She did like him, agreeing with Arielle that he was a nice guy, but for some reason seemed to prefer the bad ones who treated her like shit, not a sweetheart like Mick McKagan. Arielle thought about taking it further, but shut her mouth. She already knew it wouldn’t get her anywhere.

“This is definitely gonna be a night to remember.” Nikki predicted, glancing around the room, dismissing the Mick conversation. Excitement was written all over her face.

Arielle had to agree. And hey, she was no psychologist, she had no right to butt into Nikki’s love life and tell her what to do. God knew she had enough of her own issues, she had no expertise on relationships. Giving advice on love would be the last thing she would attempt to do. Hell, she didn’t even follow the advice everyone else gave her. Time to shut up-Nikki was a grown woman, it was up to her to run her own life. Forget about all that……it was her birthday…one more year and she’d be 21. Let tonight be one of those nights where nothing could ruin it.  A night to remember.

 

“Happy birthday, dear Ari…” sang a familiar voice. Russ! Arielle turned in her seat to face him, her smile now turning to a grin. There he was, standing right in front of her. Lead singer. She stared up, taking him all in: long brown hair, the tall, angular body, his face with those eyes that could always look right through her. How did I get so lucky? Me, with someone like this?

He yanked an empty chair away from a vacated table, not caring that its occupant would soon return to standing room only. Then he sat down, draping his long spindly legs around the front of the chair, leaning forward with a piercing gaze. “You look hot.”

The words went spiraling down through her body like a long shiver. Even after all these months now of being around him, the effect was still the same.

Some of her friends, her cousins, would ask her…What is it about him? What is the attraction? Some were blunt about it: “Damn!-what’s wrong with him? He is so skinny!” or versions of that theme. Comments about his profession, his marriages, his kids…not the usual boyfriend material for sure. The nicer ones said things like “It’s not like he’s…GQ material.” and just let the comment dangle out there.  But, she wasn’t a supermodel either, she told herself. So it wasn’t as superficial as appearance. His weight, his looks, had always been a sore point for him, something he’d dealt with, like he did many things, by using his self deprecating wit. She always sensed the hurt behind it, though, and hated when he put himself down like that. You are not ugly! Ari would chastise him. No, he wasn’t a typical heart throb, 6 pack ab kind of guy, but that had never been her type anyway. To her, he was good looking, in his own way. It just wasn’t the first thing that attracted her to him. No, it was more than that. It was a combination of his no BS attitude, the way he could always crack her up, the eternal life of the party… Plus the “commanding presence” of being a front man, and…something else she couldn’t put into words. A charisma all his own. Definitely had never met anyone like him. They had clicked instantly, music being a big reason, but otherwise, it was a bond not easily explained. So she didn’t try anymore. Let people think what they wanted.

Snapping out of her reverie, Ari smiled, and trying to be cool, just said “Thanks. Same to you.”

“So what do you think of this place?” Russ asked, his arms spread to indicate the entire room. “Long way from Darin’s garage, huh?”

“Russ, you guys are really going to make it!” Arielle enthused. “This is great.” Unwittingly, she had reverted to her “uncool” self. There was so much she wanted to say, and she wished she could put it more eloquently, but it always came out stupid and gushing. “I’m so proud of you guys.” she went on, despite herself.

For a few moments, the singer just stared at her, saying nothing. Little did she know, that mix of innocence and positivity was one of the things he liked the most about her. Being in the business, he was only too used to being told what he wasn’t, and couldn’t do. Cut throat competition, scheming managers, rejection, these things were the norm for a band. An encouraging person you could trust was a rarity.

Instead of saying all this, though, he instead touched a hand softly to her face. Ari jumped a little, surprised at this uncharacteristic show of tenderness in front of everyone else. Even Nikki noticed, though she pretended she wasn’t watching. Then he whispered in her ear, “I really do love you. No matter what.” and got up and walked away.

Huh? What was that about? She didn’t realize she was staring into space until she felt someone’s gaze burning into her and she looked to see Mick waving furiously. “Hello?” he shouted over the music.

Ari blinked and smiled, wondering if she looked the same as she felt. Darin was watching too. “Hey, I’m the one who’s supposed to be stoned.” he protested, noticing her vacant expression. “What have you been smoking? Give me some.”

Arielle just laughed, trying to concentrate on the band. Come back to earth, come back to earth, she told herself. What is your problem? It was pretty much impossible to hold a conversation at this decibel, and for that she was grateful. Mick had ordered another round of Mick Drys, and Ari quickly reached for a cold one to steady her nerves, forgetting the one right in front of her. She had the urge to run back to the dressing room, find Russ, but somehow her legs wouldn’t move. It wasn’t what he’d said, but the way he said it. Something…was different. Arielle turned around in her chair, scanning the audience. Come back! Dozens of faces stared in return, wondering why she was so important as to be sitting with two of the band members of Stone Cold.

Ari saw Mick and Darin getting up out of the corner of her eye. They were shouting something at Nikki. Mick patted her shoulder and waved his goodbye. “We got to get back.” he mouthed.

Arielle nodded and waved back. She wanted to tell him to tell Russ something, but really, what? Then they were gone before she had a second chance. She looked over at Nikki, who gave her an excited smile in return. A night to remember….

 

And then SC hit the stage. Immediately a roar went up from the crowd, already more than a little drunk, as well as psyched up for the band’s performance. In the echoes of their cheers and applause, Arielle could hear she and Nikki’s meeker responses during all of Stone Cold’s old practices, could see Darin’s little garage, in the back of her mind. The assorted trash all over its concrete floor, the occasional mouse sneaking in; this vision contrasted with Crucial’s spectacular appearance she was seeing now. Was this really happening? Was the band finally going to get some well-deserved luck?

Ari looked over at Nikki and knew she was thinking the same things. Both of them tried their best to clap and cheer the loudest.

First Rob, then Darin and Mick ran the strip of red carpet to the stage. Then Russ…he leapt up the steps casually, grabbing the mike stand with a long drawn out scream in response to the audience’s. It only made them cheer louder.

“Damn!” he shouted, making a mock-surprised face, “that’s a pretty loud welcome.” More cheers. “This is our first time here in Ft. Wayne”, he continued, affecting a mischievous expression, “And you know how it is with ‘first times’…” The crowd whistled and jeered. “So we’ll do our best to make it a night to remember.”

Then Stone Cold tore into their opening song, Tesla’s “Heaven’s Trail”. Rob’s guitar started out the bluesy opening riff while Russ strutted from behind the drum riser, mike in hand. Then all the instruments came together at once, exploding in song.

You know I’m on a…slick trip I’m always ready to kick ass up on the stage, I’m in a rage, yes I’m having the tiiiime of my life..” Cheers erupted from the audience. “Yes indeed, what a sweet sweet life it IS...” he continued, moving over to Darin and Rob.

Damn…Arielle was thinking, captivated. He sounded just like Jeff Keith. No, better. She remembered that time he’d sung “Love Song” with her in her dorm room and couldn’t believe they’d come so far from that. Finally they were going to go from being bar band hackers to genuine recording musicians. It was a chance, all bands knew only too well, that didn’t come along very often. And even so, there were no guarantees that the band of the moment would be able to stay there. In fact, few did.

Arielle found herself singing along, tapping her feet and fingers to the beat of the songs she knew so well, having heard them played by SC hundreds of times. She knew exactly how they would perform each song, from when Russ would grab the mike, shake the hair out of his eyes, lean back and shout out the words. Every moment, every nuance by the band, Ari and Nikki knew by heart. They also knew every song in the set by order, and all the little “surprises” that the band had planned. Still, it never got old.

As the first song ended, Stone Cold wasted no time in segueing right into their next number, the original, “Walking the Dog”, one of their best live songs. Once again she waited for the entire band to pause, come together at the mics and sing the first word. Then Russ would stamp one foot down, whirl around, and shout out the rest of the line.

She looked up for Mick, almost hidden behind the drum set, casually spinning the sticks through his nimble fingers. Darin was moving to the beat, playing his bass as if it was the most important thing at the moment. But Ari and Nikki knew, however, that he was slyly scanning the audience for his “girlfriend” of the night. Arielle shook her head and gave him the thumbs down as she saw the object of his interest, a too-thin blonde wearing a skimpy faux leather dress. Darin hid his grin behind a cloud of black hair, and the crowd had no idea how the little play had just transpired.

Meanwhile, Rob was spinning and whirling around, looking like a true rock star. He wouldn’t have to scope for girls; they would all be competing for his affections after the show, each one more insistent than the one before. But even with Tina not here tonight, Ari had a feeling that Rob would probably let them all buy him a few shots and inexplicably end up leaving alone.

Ari turned her attention to Russ again and grinned. She knew he would be too busy playing up to everyone else, in performance mode, but maybe he’d notice her on one scan by. Then the music slowed down, and the familiar sounds came through the crowd. “Pretender.” she and Nikki mouthed to one another. They loved this song. Especially by Stone Cold. It always sounded much better by them. The crowd settled down, some swaying side to side, holding up lighters.

Arielle sat in a trance, letting the music go through her, watching Russ as he closed his eyes, “Time goes by, it leaves you by yourself, sometimes…” he began, then it happened: he suddenly looked right at her. His eyes never left her as he continued, “Don’t know why, but it’s up to you to tell…no lies…” The singer’s voice was magical, lifting the crowd up and back down, holding them and taking them with him. She was mesmerized;  even having been to dozens of concerts, had not experienced a connection like this.

Then he winked at her and broke the spell as the song gained momentum. How does he do that?  Damn, he made it an art. Well, that’s what lead singers do, but…

As the set went on, the band only got better. She knew they got tired of playing the same old covers, but it was a necessary evil, so they would always add something unique, to make it more their own. The crowd didn’t care-they had the same enthusiastic response to everything Stone Cold did. “Ain’t Misunderstandin’”, the first original, got everyone going, just like it had back when they’d first started out. Looking up at Russ’s huge grin, Ari knew he truly was having the time of his life, that he was doing what he was meant to do. She was thrilled for him; how many people got to experience that?

It seemed like the first set was over too soon, as Russ and the guys waved their thank yous, promising to come right back, and reminding everyone to “tip your bartenders and waitresses, because if it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t be the way you are now.” Amidst the cheers and applause, the members of SC scrambled offstage, still wearing their “stage masks” which they would casually discard when they were out of sight of the fans, to become mere mortals again. But somehow Russ Gibson never seemed to be able to let go of it as easily as the rest of them. He hung onto every last scream and clap, bathing in the adoration. Then as the others ran off to the dressing room, he came off stage, paused, and put his hand on Arielle’s shoulder. She would later feel that gesture, the pressure of his hand on her, for weeks after.

“I’ll be right back.” he leaned down and whispered. She looked up at him and saw him not just a man who just happened to be able to sing, but as the person he most wanted to be-someone with exceptional talent, destined to go far. And then he was gone.

“They sounded great!” Nikki commented, after the excitement had died down just a little. There was still a sort of charge left in the air.

Arielle nodded enthusiastically. “Everyone seems to love them.”

“Yeah, well, we loved them first.” Nikki joked.

At the mention of the word “love”, Arielle shut down, staring off into a trance. Nikki gave her a look. “Ar? Is there something in your beer that none of the rest of us got? You’ve been acting dopey all night.”

“Oh, Nik…” Ari began, then felt that stupid mushiness again. What is wrong with me? she asked herself. It wasn’t like he’d never told her that before. And she to him. But it was something she didn’t bring up with anyone else; it seemed too… important to just blab to the world. And although they were her best friends, Carrie and Nikki would warn her off, lecture her some more. She knew they meant well, but…

“You’re in love!” Nikki shouted, in the loud way she could get sometimes without being aware of it. “I knew it. And Russ is in love with you.” she went on, as the room suddenly got much quieter.

Arielle blushed. She wanted to grin like an idiot but people were watching. “Nikki!” she hissed, instead, looking around in embarrassment.

“Well duh, it’s about time.” Nikki went on, the beers helping her to ignore Ari’s caution. “I mean, really, took him long enough to freakin’ say something! Damn. Russ Gibson in love?”

Bystanders were now looking over at their table, nudging one another and pointing not so discretely at her. Guys were giving her the once over and girls were examining her, wondering what made her so special.

“Nikki, stop.” she tried to downplay the attention, her face on fire.

“So what did he tell you? What’s he doing now? Where’d he go?” her friend bubbled with excitement.

“I don’t know.” Arielle sighed, mentally drained. “I guess back to change with the rest of them.”

“I bet he really has something really special planned for your birthday then.” Nikki’s eyes sparkled. “Oooh, I can’t wait to see what it is!”

“Oh Nikki, don’t make such a big deal out of—” Suddenly she stopped, her words like breath in cold air. There was Russ, walking through the club, back from the dressing room. With his arm draped around a woman’s shoulders. A very pregnant woman.

“Oh look, there’s your lover boy!” Nikki called, causing every nearby head to turn.

To Arielle, it would always seem like it had happened in slow motion, to be replayed over and over in her mind for months after the fact: Russ and the woman getting closer, the people looking from Russ to Arielle and back again. They knew. She knew. It was in the possessive way the woman clutched at him, her hand like a claw, a mean, tight smile. Very “band bitch”. The stiff, guilty look on Russ’s face, walking like a man on his way to the gallows. Everyone was staring. Total silence. And Russ couldn’t even look Arielle in the eye. In fact, he didn’t look her way at all; he went past, to a nearby table, with his eyes trained on the floor.

Arielle sat like a zombie, unable to stop staring at the two of them. Her face had now drained completely of color and she couldn’t speak. There was a pain in her chest that was intensifying with every second she looked at them, yet she couldn’t turn away.

Oh my God, Russ is still married! He has a wife. And a pregnant one. My God.

She could feel a part of her wanting her to go over, do a Carrie, and say something withering to both of them. Throw some punches, scream something-but she couldn’t get herself to move.

It came pouring out in her mind instead: this…woman…his wife…clinging to him in this tacky dress. My God, it would be bad enough, but especially for a pregnant woman. Her junk is hanging out all over the place. Eww. How could he want to be with that?

Her mind raced: Where were you when I was busting my ass promoting your husband and his band, when I was spending hours in the recording studio, mixing their demo tape, huh? When I was in the garage, listening to them practice, over and over? When I was babysitting his kids while he was rehearsing with Mick? Oh yeah, and how about the many times I was with him, in his bed, huh? Was it your bed too? She felt like she was going to throw up just thinking of it.

Gritting her teeth, she turned her internal tirade back to Russ. And you, you…lied to me! She was stunned at the thought. How could this be? When you were sleeping with me, you were also sleeping with her. When we were out at clubs, watching bands, going to the grocery store, or any of the stupid little things we did together, was half of you mentally back there with her? All those things you would say and do that I thought were so sweet…you were really bullshitting me?

Tiredly, she thought, Why did you even bother? But at the same time, another part of her mind couldn’t believe she was thinking this way about the man she had loved for the past several months now. He’d just said he loved her only an hour ago. And suddenly she was supposed to make a 180 degree turn and hate him? Her mind was now 100 shades of screwed with.

The woman was preening and fawning all over him now. Gross. He had never liked that kind of attention. The look on her face was all triumph: “I’m married to the lead singer! I’m having his child! I’m going to be rich when they make it big! Worst of all, though she was pregnant, she was downing shots. Father of the Year didn’t even say anything about that?

Meanwhile, Russ was staring down at the table like a beaten dog. Arielle had never seen that kind of expression on his face; she couldn’t imagine him ever being subservient to anyone, especially a woman. Russ, whipped? No freaking way. He looked as bad as she imagined she did, but Arielle couldn’t spare any feelings of sympathy for him. What the hell do I know about him? she thought, her face impassive. It had taken only a matter of seconds to realize:  Nothing.

She reserved the worst of her derision for herself, though: she was the dumbass for not figuring this out long before. What clues had she missed? How naive was she to trust him? Nikki, Carrie, and Bleaney had been right all along! She had almost become the “#4” they had all warned her about. Only, Arielle corrected herself, she would technically have been “#5”. My God. She felt like the biggest idiot on earth. Well, he was right about one thing at least; it was a birthday she’d never forget.

She hadn’t moved since they’d walked in together, hadn’t really been conscious of anything else until she felt Mick sit down on her left. How long had it been? Minutes? An hour? She had no concept of time. You’re an idiot, you’re an idiot, you’re an idiot! kept running through her mind.

“Hey, what’s wrong with—” the drummer began, to Nikki, but then saw where Arielle’s gaze was permanently fixed. Instantly his expression changed. “Ohhhhh shit…”

“Mick, what the hell is going on?” Nikki demanded, whispering away from Arielle, still not completely understanding.

The drummer could barely speak. He searched for words. “Why the hell did she come here?” he said to himself.

“Who?” Nikki questioned.

“Oh my God…” Mick still couldn’t believe his eyes. “It’s Barb. His wife.” Mick grabbed a beer and took a calming gulp.

At the mention of a name, Arielle shuddered. She didn’t want to put a name to a face, didn’t want to make her into a real person. Of course she’d known he was married before, he’d told her all that. He couldn’t believe she had accepted him, his past, his kids, so easily, but that wasn’t her style. She hadn’t had a traditional background either, so she didn’t judge. At the time, she’d been impressed with his honesty; it made her feel closer to him. Hah-honesty-what a laugh-selective honesty is more like it! Why, why, if he’d told her about the other ones, if he let her into his life with so many other things, why couldn’t he be honest with her about this?

“Wife? Russ is married?” Nikki shouted, the beer finally catching up with her. “That fucking asshole.” she pounded the table and made as if to get up and go over to bitch him out. Mick stopped her with a look.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe she is here! That bitch.” He finally turned to Arielle, his face full of concern and fear for what to say. “Ari,” he began, to her turned away face, “Ari, I’m sorry. I never thought she would show up tonight. Barb never comes to see us play. She lives in Cincinnati. They’ve been…separated…having problems for a while now. She runs off with other guys all the time…or back home to her mom..” Nervously, he went on in a rush of words, “I don’t think he knew she was coming. He wouldn’t do this to you. They don’t even get along-it was a wreck of a marriage from day one.”

Arielle still did not turn around. “Nikki, let’s go.” she said hollowly. Nikki looked at Ari, then at Mick. “Come on, Nikki.”

“Aww Joe,” Nikki began softly, “We’ve had too much to drink and it’s a 2 hour drive…”

“I want to go home.” Arielle said, tears forming in her eyes. Oh God, please, not in front of everyone. It was enough that everyone was already staring at her.

Mick watched this exchange uncomfortably. “I’d take you home if I could,” he offered quietly, “But I really can’t leave now.” He thought for a second. “I can take you back to the hotel if you can wait until this set is done…” but he realized that wasn’t going to help what was going on now, and bit his lip.

Nikki kept glancing furtively over to Russ’s table, then back to Ari. “Do you want to go sit in the car? Or outside? Anyplace else?”

But something had switched off in her mind. Arielle shook her head. No, let him see what he’s done…Why should I be the one to have to leave? I didn’t do anything wrong. Why should I make it easy on him? She mechanically grabbed a beer, flooding her throat with it, tasting nothing. “No.” she replied, to both Mick and Nikki.

All around her, the night went on. The club was still as crowded, packed with fans that had no idea who the members of their favorite band really were, what their private lives were like. All the audience saw were four guys who played just for them, would be a backdrop to their alcoholic binges, and then cease to exist until the next weekend came. No one cared what happened when the houselights came back on.

Mick, for once in his lifetime, had no idea what to say. And Nikki was still dumbfounded, coping with it by also downing beer after beer. They both tried to at least get Ari to go to the bathroom, to get away, go out for some fresh air, but she refused. Darin came by and silently dropped off a shot of vodka, his way of trying to make her feel better. Arielle took it, and the others that followed.

Gradually, she became numb, thanks to a little help from her friend alcohol, resigned to the fact that she was stuck the rest of the night watching her boyfriend with his wife.

As always, the show went on. Stone Cold got back up and continued their last set, amidst even more frenzied cheers. Arielle watched, just like she’d always done, like a chicken with its head cut off. She gave a panoramic scan from each band member to the next, wanting to scream “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” but the numbness won out.

Seeing him up there, singing just as well, no different than ever, making the same wisecracks and moves as before, she tried to convince herself that maybe it never happened? Maybe I can still go up to him, go have a last drink after the show, spend the night with him. Just like I was planning to do. Things were still the same, right? They had to be. Except they weren’t.

When SC was finished, Russ ran off stage like a shot. None of the customary basking in the limelight. The look on his face as though he was about to throw up. They all headed straight for the dressing room as a group for once.

Mick called an aside to Ari as he went by. “I’ll get back as soon as I can and get you out of here, ok? Stay here.” he promised. He had planned to take them back to the hotel as soon as he found out where it was. They could sleep it off there.

Ari nodded, looking like a bobble head, and seeing only a blur and someone going “blahbblahblah”. Time passed, the club was clearing out, and Mick was nowhere to be seen. Then Darin came sauntering over, holding his bottle of Absolut.

“Helping any?” he gestured to Arielle’s last shot glass. She tried to nod, but her head just flopped around aimlessly.

“Guess so.” Darin laughed, toasting the air and taking a swig. His many bracelets jangled as he did so. Nikki, just as drunk or worse than Arielle, stared at him, mesmerized.

“Uh, you guys going back to the hotel?”

“Yeah.” Nikki shouted quickly.

“Well, let me finish this & we can go.” Darin downed the rest of the bottle in one gulp. “OK, finished.”

Nikki jumped up eagerly, just mindlessly following a command. It wasn’t until they’d gotten halfway across the room before they realized Arielle was still in her chair, sloping halfway to the floor.

“Oh, Joe.” Nikki called drunkenly. Weaving on her feet, she went back and grabbed Arielle’s hand, yanking her up. Ari stumbled along through the room, bumping into chairs and people along the way. She didn’t even feel it.

“Hey wait here by the door.” Darin instructed them. “Let me go find Mick. He’ll want to follow us to the hotel, I don’t think he knows where we’re going.”

Nikki frowned. She wanted to leave. Now. With a sigh, she leaned up against the wall and began fixing her hair in the reflection from the box office sign, a gesture that was automatic, no matter how intoxicated she ever was. All that was registering in her head now was: Darin. Cute. Hotel. Nothing was registering in Arielle’s mind.

“Come on, Darin!” she complained. Time seemed to be passing so slowly. Fans were leaving in clumps, some staggering, some just barely. The smell of stale cigarettes and beer was overwhelming, drifting through the remnants of a night of rock and roll. No one noticed a blonde dressed completely in black, leaning up against the wall with glazed eyes and a vacant expression. Life went on.

“Hey, I can’t find Mick anywhere.” It was Darin, now wearing a jean jacket and carrying a red duffel bag. “Do you mind if I hitch with you guys to the hotel?”

Nikki’s reply: “Sure.”

“Cool.” was Darin’s blunt response. It was impossible to tell if he was interested or not. “Well then, let’s go. I’m ready to party.” he added, smiling. His crazy green eyes were even more green from being drunk. Nikki was definitely enraptured.

“But….” she began with a slur, “I should not be driving. I am DRUNK.” she said that last part proudly, handing Darin her car keys. He shrugged, and they headed outside. This time Arielle automatically followed.

They had just gotten in the car when Mick came running out of Crucial’s side doors. “Hey!” he shouted breathlessly. “I’ve been looking for you guys.”

“Yeah, we were looking for you too, man.” Darin lit a cigarette, squinting. He blew out a puff of smoke.

“You guys heading back to the hotel?” At Darin’s nod, Mick went on. “Mind if I follow? I have the van, but I’m lost here.” He looked at Arielle with sad eyes. “How’s she doing?”.

Darin shrugged, taking another drag of his cigarette.

“I’ll be back in a second, ok? I’m getting the keys for the van, so don’t leave without me.” Mick took one last sympathetic look at Arielle, who was now sliding half in and half out of the car, and hurried back into the club.

They waited. And waited. Darin was on his third cigarette and Nikki was getting anxious. “If Mick’s in there talking, you know him, he’s gonna be there forever.” she groaned.

Darin nodded, flicking his ashes out the window. “Yeah. Let’s bail. He can catch up with us later. I gotta get my drink on.” He put the car into drive and pulled out of the parking lot, totally putting out of his mind that Mick had told them he had no idea where the hotel was. Then he said, “Hey, I gotta jones for Taco Bell.”

Nikki’s eyes lit up. Pintos and cheese, extra cheese, no tomatoes. Her favorite. Nothing better to eat after a night of drinking. However, the only place in town Darin actually knew was the hotel, so they drove around aimlessly, looking for a Taco Bell. It had started to rain when they left, and had now turned into a downpour. Finally they found a main road and drove up and down it, scanning each side. Her eyes blurred, Nikki was nevertheless the one who spotted the golden bell sign. She pointed excitedly, causing Darin to shout, “Helllll yeah!” He grinned and pulled into the drive through. Nik stared as he ordered item after item, finally turning to her and asking “What did you say you wanted?” They didn’t even bother asking Arielle, who was still passed out in the back seat.

That jones fixed, the bassist then set about finding the hotel. “I think we go down this road.” Darin would say, pointing his Absolut bottle in a certain direction. “Look for a Days Inn.” Finally he muttered, “I think that’s it.” and swung the car into the hotel’s parking lot. It was packed, and she could hear music blaring already.

“Uh, 242, yeah, room 242.” Darin muttered, grabbing his duffel bag. Nikki gave her reflection one last look before getting out of the car. Her hair was flat. But Darin probably wouldn’t notice, the state he was in. She was hoping maybe she had a chance with him tonight. No offense to Mick. He was nice for sure, but she wasn’t ready to be tied down to anyone at this point; my God, the girls were only 20. There was time for that later. Much later. Until then…

Arielle followed, her glassy eyes fixed only on a blur that was their backs. Occasionally one of their voices seemed to snap her out of it, but only for a second, and an invisible screen would come down once again, shutting out her senses. It seemed like they’d been walking around the hotel too many times, was all she could process.

“242?” Nikki asked again. She hadn’t seen numbers that went up that high.

“Yeah.” said Darin. “I mean, I think so.” He strained his memory. “Well, maybe it was 246…or 236…something like that.”

“Well why don’t we just follow the music? It’s got to be one of those.” Nikki suggested.

Darin looked at her as if it were a novel idea. “Yeah.” his eyes gleamed with drug-induced happiness. Nikki imagined he was smiling just for her. This was a good sign. Maybe she really had a chance with him tonight?

“225!” He exclaimed out of the blue. Even Arielle jumped at his burst of inspiration. “Room 225, that’s where we’re going.” Now it was official.

As they neared the corner of the building, a guy who resembled Cousin Itt popped out from behind a door. “Daaarin!” he shouted raucously, waving a bottle.

The bassist gravitated towards the alcohol, almost drooling with the thought of more. “Scott-hey man-what’s up?” he replied vaguely, a one track mind.

“Everything, dude.” Scott laughed, almost as stoned as Darin himself. “The guys got some good shit.” He made motions of smoking a joint. “What took you so damn long?”

Immediately Darin became alert, striding into the crowded noisy hotel room, his “I am a rock star, get me wasted” mode clicked on.

Bodies were strewn all about the inadequately sized room. Some passed out, some about to be. There was a huge new trash can in the center of the room. It had been converted into a cauldron of several different alcohols. Stolen ice buckets served as drinking glasses, with the occasional hand dipping in for another taste. A couple of people passed an apple back and forth, which, on second glance, was a makeshift bong. Also, mysteriously, all the of the lampshades were missing. Darin was in his element.

“Hey, have a seat!” he shouted to Nikki, motioning vaguely. He had remembered his manners somewhat. It was almost as deafening as the club. The TV was blaring, unnoticed, over by the sink, overwhelmed by the sounds of someone’s jam box hooked up to a Marshall amp. Once you walked further into the room, you could see that there was an open door in the middle, connecting two rooms. Scary to think what could possibly be in the other one, judging by the first room.

“Nikki, this is Tom, Steve, and…what’s your name, man? Oh yeah, Psycho.” Darin made the introductions amidst halfhearted waves and shouts. Clearly these were “his” people, not friends of the entire band.

Although they were mostly blurs, Nikki smiled a charming Bleaney smile, hoping they would think she was his girlfriend.

“Hey, she’s wasted.” someone commented, passing the apple bong on its round again. Those in the corner looked over to see Arielle lying halfway in the door, her dress hiked up to her lacy black underwear. This was where she’d fallen, and passed out, upon entering the room.

“Hey, she’s not too bad either.” Another guy commented, eying the display with a drunken leer.

“Why don’t you go introduce yourself to her—” someone began, the rest of the sentence cut off in a burst of collective laughter. Just then the door crashed open. A group of guys charged in, nearly steamrolling Arielle, holding a complete USA Today newspaper stand above their heads. Their cheers of triumph nearly drowned out the chaos. It was a strange sight for what remained of Ari’s vision. She opened one eye, then closed it lazily again. She was still collapsed on the floor, but now had been shoved back against the wall.

“Papers, everybody!” shouted one of the guys. He grabbed something heavy off the table and started smashing the front of the stand. Quarters fell out in a metallic rain. Immediately everyone converged on the spot with uplifted hands. Papers fell out and were torn to shreds within seconds.

“Did you see the clock?” Darin proudly asked Nikki, who was shielding herself beside him on the bed. He pointed over his shoulder to a Subway Sub clock, acquired earlier that evening in the same manner. Nikki just nodded, hoping to be alone with him at some point in the evening. This wasn’t exactly what she had planned. “Have a drink.” he offered, holding out a grimy ice bucket. Shuddering at first, drunkenness conquered her disgust and she shrugged. Hey, if Darin could do it

“And who’s this, Dare?” the bong people asked, their attention now riveted on Nikki’s tight outfit and cleavage. Any other time she would’ve thought “Oh great, here we go again.” but tonight she decided to use what she could to her advantage.

“Hey, this is Nikki. She’s an old friend from the old days.” Darin replied in his slow drawl. “She’s Mick’s chick.”

“Ohhhh.” one guy remarked, disappointed.

“No I’m not.” Nikki said quickly, putting her arm around Darin. “We’re just friends.”

“Where is Mick anyway? Where’s Rob and Russ?” Someone asked.

Darin shrugged, his philosophy of life in that one gesture. “Never showed, man. Who knows?”

“And he blows off a knock out like you?” the one guy asked, staring at Nikki. She smiled a little in return, grateful to have some attention paid to her at last. Maybe it would make Darin jealous and he’d start looking at her like she was looking at him. Take a hint, dammit. She thought furiously. Was Darin for real?

“What is Mick’s freakin’ problem?” the guy continued. He passed a container of something lethal looking to her. “Come over here and have a drink…on me.”

“Literally.” muttered his perverted friend.

Darin had meanwhile shaken her arm off him and was now scooping more alcohol out of the trash can. Nikki took one last look at him. Well screw you. She said to herself. Damned if I’m going to throw myself at you all night. Really, it shouldn’t be this much work. Obviously, the alcohol was more important to him than she was. Stumbling, she made her way over to him. He seemed pretty cute; in fact, almost like Darin with the long black hair. Then again, she was starting to see double, so who knew?

“All right!” he shouted, patting her thigh. “Forget about drummers. All they do is beat off anyway.” His friend roared with laughter.

There was a knock at the door, which at first went unheard and grew persistently louder with each pound. When still no one answered, the door opened by itself.

“Hey.-Hel-LO!” shouted an extremely tall guy.

“Hey, buddy-y.” called one of the drunken mass, reaching up to give him a high 5. Soon there was an attentive group surrounding the newcomer.

“What’s up Tony?” Darin mumbled, recognizing him in spite of his inebriated state.

“Not as much as here, that’s for damn sure.” Tony observed, having stepped over a collage of USA Today remains, pocket change, beer cans, and a semi-conscious, seminude, blonde. “Just wanted to let you know that the guys are next door if you want to stop by. Hey, you don’t have a bottle opener, do you?” He glanced at the disarray once more. “Why do I ask? Well anyway, come on over later.” and Tony was off with an amused look.

“Who was that?” Nikki asked one of her new friends, who was trying to slide his hand up her skirt. Her eyes were starting to glaze over and she couldn’t believe she’d just seen this giant of a man. Was she really that drunk?

“Oh.” he jumped, caught. “That’s Tony Richards, Wrek Havoc’s manager.”

Nikki became electrified. She remembered the singer looked a little like Bret Michaels. “They’re staying next door?” she asked, more to herself. Obviously Darin couldn’t give two shits about her. And these stoners were starting to get on her nerves. She kept seeing an image of their lead singer in her head…he was hot. Extracting herself from the guy’s lap, she scurried around the room, looking for a bottle opener. It was like trying to find your lost contact in a swimming pool. Tripping over bodies and other paraphernalia, she finally spied a screwdriver, of all things, in the sink. It would have to do. She ran the obstacle course one more time on her way to the door, then noticed Arielle still laying against the wall. In her drunken state, all that connected for her was: She is laying down. Her eyes are shut. Therefore, she is sleeping. “Aww Joe Joe.” she slurred, “Poor Joe Joe, you’re tired.” And sleeping people should have a blanket. As much as she’d had to drink, Nikki still reverted to her natural caretaker role. Looking around the wrecked room, she tried to find a blanket. But everyone is sitting on the beds? I can’t use the blankets. Finally she looked straight up and saw the curtains. Ooh. Nik reached a hand up, yanking and yanking until the rod broke and both the curtain and the rings came falling off. No one noticed or cared. She proceeded to tuck it around Arielle, all the time mumbling, “Joe Joe’s cold. Go to sleep Joe Joe.” Then she picked up the screwdriver and headed next door.

 

Moonlight filtered through the curtains of the hotel room, casting an  eerie glow throughout. Silent at last, except for the buzz of subdued white noise from the TV, it was finally free from the night’s abuse. Bodies scattered throughout the room in various positions of repose.

Then, as if an apparition, Mick McKagan stepped into the darkness, through the door that had been left carelessly open. He nearly tripped over a lump on the floor in front of him. Stifling an expletive, the drummer looked down. He gasped. “Ari?” There was only a muffled response. He bent down quickly in the half light. “Arielle? Are you ok? It’s Mick.”

“Mmmmm…” A passing car spotlighted the scene for a moment and Mick raised his eyebrows in shock. Not only was the room a complete disaster, but Arielle was laying almost naked in the middle of it. With only a… was that a curtain?… covering her.  He could see she had goose bumps from the night air and didn’t even know it.

Mick looked around the room again in disbelief, his anger growing. All the guys in the room had beds, while they left an unconscious girl lying in basically her skivvies. The gentleman in him was shocked. He thought of waking the others and giving them a piece of his mind, but after what he’d just been through, he decided to take the non-violent approach instead. He’d deal with Darin later. Mick clumsily pulled Arielle’s dress down, hoping not to offend her.

“Do you know where Nikki is?”

“Uhh…”

God, she’s bad…Mick thought, alarmed. It gave him flashbacks of the night in Toledo, right after they’d first met. An alcoholic binge, for other reasons entirely, but caused by Russ. Again. What had happened here? Looking at the state of her dress, he hoped nothing…physical. He cringed at the thought. Where was Nikki? He thought of her eying Darin, of all people, and got ticked off all over again. And then there was Arielle, a total sweetheart, screwed over by Russ. What a freakin’ mess this night had been. If only I had known this was how it would turn out, he told himself, I would have made sure she had waited with me after the show. Let Nikki have Darin if that’s who she wanted. At least we could’ve talked it out instead of drinking it out.

He tried reaching around her waist. It was like lifting a dead weight. “Come on Ari, work with me here. I can’t do it myself.” Mick grimaced, trying again. Sure, he was used to moving all his heavy drum equipment, but a female was just a little different.  This was going to be harder than he thought. Man, were her legs long.

“Ari?” the drummer said again, hopeful for some kind of response. Nope. He racked his brain for a solution, and then decided to take off his jean jacket and tie the arms of it around both of them, so her front would be to his back. That way he could somewhat do a piggy back carry.

“Oh man…” he sighed as he headed out the door. Her  legs dangled, feet scuffing on the sidewalk as he made his way to the van. It was going to hurt her later, but he couldn’t think about that now. He had no idea where her shoes had ended up. As he was dragging her out, Mick couldn’t help but be pissed with Russ. Leading Arielle on like that, just a young kid, really. My God, she was just turning 20 today. And he was…what, 7-8 years older? Old enough to know better, for sure. Couldn’t he see she was an innocent in their world? Of course he hadn’t told her he was still legally married. She had to find out like this.

Everyone hated Barb and always had. Mick wasn’t lying when he’d told Arielle that it was a wreck of a marriage from the beginning. He had been there. Best man at the wedding, he’d stood next to Russ, whispering in his ear, “Don’t do it, man. Just go-now. I’ll handle the guests.” And he’d meant it. But no, Russ had felt…obliged? Who knew?-and had gone through with the charade and had it bite him in the ass ever since.

The night was quiet, the rain had washed away the noise and chaos of the evening, and now the only sounds were an occasional car going by in a spray of leftover downpour. Mick heaved Ari a little higher on his back and plodded on to the parking lot, feeling guilty that he probably should’ve warned her off about the singer from the get go. Why had he not told her Russ was married? If not at first, then later on. Too bad if Russ didn’t like it. It wasn’t right! Sure, that first night in Toledo, he’d played along. But he’d never known it would go this far, that the two of them would immediately click. He just thought Arielle was a nice girl, the same as Nikki and Carrie were, and would be a good distraction for Russ, especially after the hell year he’d been through with Barb-first she was with him, and then she wasn’t; running off with one guy after another, then coming back to him, and then going off to live with her parents. Her drinking problem put all of theirs, including Darin’s, to shame. If he’d known how this would all turn out, would he have encouraged Arielle to “be with” Russ that first night? He wasn’t so sure…

He had known Russ since they were kids. So he had seen the way he went through relationships. Despite his looks,  he was definitely a player. Whether married or not. Even taking away the fact that he was in a band, he’d always gotten the women, much to everyone’s, including his own, surprise. There was just something about him that the ladies were into. Whatever it was, Russ sure wasn’t going to question it.  And the bad habits he had were only magnified by the business he was in. It was a world custom made for him. About the only thing Russ gave a shit about was his music. Singing in a band was his life, his dream, and everything else took second place. Although, Mick had to admit, the man was a devoted father, believe it or not. He loved his kids, all 3 of them, to 3 different women. And now another one on the way from a 4th. Good Lord.

His devotion to Stone Cold, whether it be practicing all night, late weekends, going to gigs, or working long hours to support his music habit, as he called it, was bound to be hard for a girlfriend or wife to handle.  Chicks would expect those long walks, holding hands, romantic dinners. They wouldn’t get it with Russ Gibson. It would take a special woman to be able to understand and accept that. It didn’t seem to bother Ari at all, to Russ’s amazement. He was used to the whining, possessive types: You’re not paying enough attention to me! But Russ & Ari seemed to be on the same wavelength, as scary as that sounded. That was one of the main reasons why Mick hadn’t said anything to her. After that time in Toledo, when Russ had revealed that nothing had happened between the two of them, Mick was totally amazed. Russ and a good looking woman, and they “just talked” all night? Yeah, riiight. That was a first.

The age difference, the looks, the life experiences, had not mattered. Mick had seen the changes in his best friend. After she had left that first morning, Russ had had a huge smile on his face that he kept the entire day.  And as time went on, he had seemed refreshed, like he had the world off his shoulders. In truth, the rest of the band was happy to see it, because he had been walking around like a zombie pretty much once he’d gotten married this last time. They were happy to see him back to being himself. So…Mick had kept his mouth shut. Not my business, he’d thought.

For once, Russ could go to as many practices, play whatever gigs, stay out as late as he had to, and wouldn’t come home to a bitch session. Arielle didn’t care,  and even encouraged him.  She thought it was cool; she was a hell of a guitar player and into her music just as obsessively as Russ was. There were many times she stayed to watch them rehearse, helped them set up, and even, if she could be coerced into it, played back up guitar with them once in a while. She was young, yeah, maybe not as experienced as they were in the lifestyle, but she had ideas of what it was like; the clichés of drinking, drugs, girls…no illusions there. Jealous? It seemed as if she had the attitude: I like you, I think you like me, but I’m not going to tie you down, you be with me by your own choice.

And don’t even get me started on all the publicity she and her friends did for us …Mick shook his head, thinking about it. Way beyond the call of duty. All the guys in the band loved her-she was like their mascot. Thanks to her connections, they were better off than they would have been had they stayed in the same old rut. The band’s attitude had been,  hey, we aren’t getting any younger, we all need our day jobs. The club circuit was probably as far as they’d go. It wasn’t that bad. Although Mick always sensed Russ had more ambition than the rest of them. “Bullshit” was Arielle’s attitude. You guys have talent. You need to use it. Until she’d come along, it had been the same old-same old. Though she would never take credit for it, Ari had been the one, at least the initiator, to kick things into gear. Too bad Russ had screwed it up.

Mick cursed himself again for not telling her about Russ. Maybe he should’ve seen how involved they were becoming & said something about it? Would it have made things worse? Would they have listened to him? Somehow he doubted it. At heart, Russ and Arielle had the same stubborn personality.

The type of girls that the band normally were exposed to, were, for lack of a nicer word, skags. The kind that put themselves out there, coming on strong. And if you were having troubles with your crazy wife, or hell, even if you weren’t, most guys were not going to pass that opportunity up. The easy ones didn’t matter. But the Arielles…they were different, and didn’t come along very often. She was like a revelation for Russ. Not that he was now a saint, but… Maybe he didn’t expect any better because of what he was used to? Ahhh…enough of this girly girl thinking, he sighed to himself.

“Ari, I’m really sorry. ” Mick lamented.

Arielle rolled around on the back seat of the van where Mick had finally placed her. “Mick?” she muttered, her eyes fluttering open. She almost fell off the seat, then righted herself. “Oh God, what happened? Ugh, I feel like crap…” she rubbed at her make-up worn face, picked at her hair. “Why am I in here?” Her voice was rough and scratchy.

Mick was watching her. “Do you remember anything you did after you left the club?” then, “Did anyone…hurt you?”

Arielle looked down at her disheveled dress. “No.” she shuddered. “No, I would remember that.”

The drummer sighed in relief. “Do you know where Nikki is?”

Arielle strained her mind for an explanation. It gave her a headache. She held her head as if for extra support. “Well…we all came back to the hotel…I think we went to Taco Bell too?” she spoke slowly, piecing the details together. “I also remember…Darin. And a bunch of quarters falling out of the sky?” she frowned, thinking, now that makes no sense, would I have imagined that, being so drunk? She continued to try to fix herself up, messing with her hair and smoothing down her clothes. “I don’t know where Nikki went. She was sitting with Darin and then…” she looked confused. “Weren’t you with us?”

“It’s a long story.” Said Mick.

“Mick, all your stories are long.” Arielle coughed, closing her eyes.

The drummer laughed. At least she still had her sense of humor. But for how long? Until she remembered why she was so drunk? Ehhh… he wasn’t looking forward to reminding her. And he didn’t want to tell her why it had taken him so long to come back out in the first place. He’d confronted Russ after the last set. He felt like he had to, for Arielle. After seeing that look on her face all night, he had to do something. Nikki was in no shape to. And thank God Carrie wasn’t there, because in shape or not, she most definitely would have confronted both Russ and Barb…and it would not have been pretty. So, the drummer had done it his way: he’d waited until Russ was alone in the dressing room backstage. Facing away from him, pretending to gather different things into his bags, but Mick knew Russ knew he was there, and was just trying to avoid a scene. The drummer could not think of what to say, he just kept staring until finally Russ turned around. He’d been picking things up and setting them down, faster and louder, as he felt the stare burning into his back. He turned to face Mick and sighed. “Listen, no lectures, ok.”

Mick had just shaken his head at his old friend. “What the hell did you do to her?” he asked, not expecting a response. “You really fucked  up.”

Russ could not look him in the eye. “I know.” he’d said, almost in a whisper. Then the troll, aka, Barb, had come in. Drunk and probably stoned as well, she came strolling into the room as if she owned the place. And Mr. Big Shot Lead Singer reverted to a dog on a leash. Mick couldn’t even stand looking at her. He left with a grimace.

Back in the present, he instead explained to Arielle, “Well, I told you guys to wait for me at the club. But you didn’t, and I had no idea how to get to the hotel. No one gave me directions. I was stuck with Darin’s girlfriend, whining all night about how he blew her off.” That had been so annoying. Sally had ridden around with him in the van too, looking for the hotel and Darin, until he finally got so sick of hearing her, that he dropped her off at a friend’s house and came back to try again.

Girlfriend?” Arielle choked out, fixated on just that part of the story. “Darin has a girlfriend? He sure as hell didn’t act like it.” Then she stopped, seeing the hurt look on Mick’s face. “Ah, Mick, I’m sorry, buddy. I know you like Nikki. I don’t know what her problem is. But I know it’s not you…”

Mick just nodded. “I get it, don’t worry.” Then he went on, “So I drove all the hell over the place looking for a Days Inn. It gave new meaning to the phrase ‘Wander Indiana’”, he laughed drily. “It was more like, ‘I Wander where the hell I am!” Arielle tried to laugh.

“It was pouring, I was on empty, no money to get more gas, so I had to find someone. I finally found you guys here.”

“We left without you?” Arielle concluded.

“Yeah, I don’t know who told you to leave, but I was pretty pissed. I told them to wait.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Hey, it’s not your fault. You looked pretty well gone by then. I guess Nikki had ‘other plans’.” He added bitterly. “I could tell she had the hots for Darin.”

“Where was everyone else? No one else knew where to tell you to go?”

“Well, Rob left with some friends, and Russ had already—” Mick began to explain. Then the moment he dreaded happened: Arielle began to cry. Drunken, involuntary sobs that couldn’t be held back.

The drummer froze. Now what? There was nothing he hated worse than to see a girl crying. What could he say?

Arielle cried on, not even knowing she was doing it, not being able to control it. Strands of hair spray caked hair fell into her face and she pushed them out impatiently. Now the feeling was coming back, spreading throughout her body. That’s why I was drinking. That’s why I feel like hell. Images popped into her mind now: Russ walking in with another woman. Pregnant, ugly woman. The looks on everyone’s faces. Slow motion. Stop! Arielle screamed to herself.

Mick jumped as though he had heard her scream. “Ari, I’m—“

But she cut him off, looking into his eyes. “He’s still married. They never cut it off.” she said, for the first time out loud. She wiped her nose on her dress, not caring.

Mick nodded sadly. The expression on her face was enough to make him want to cry too. What else could he tell her but the truth?

“And it’s my birthday.” She continued, as if trying to make sense of it in pieces. “But he told me that he loved me, and he was gonna give me a surprise?” she sounded confused. It didn’t make sense. How could everything over the past year be suddenly different after only a few hours.

At the mention of the word “love”, Mick groaned. God, Russ, it was bad enough, you had to go and tell her that too? Mick now looked at Arielle, still sobbing uncontrollably in the back of the van, her whole body shaking. It gave him chills.

“What…what was my surprise supposed to be?” she demanded, between gasps of breath. “He said he was giving me a surprise. You knew what it was, you kept smiling at me about it.”

Oh God…Mick closed his eyes. That damn birthday surprise. Why the hell did she have to bring that up? He couldn’t lie; she’d known that he’d known about it for weeks. Oh dear Lord, he thought…then swallowed and decided he’d just get it over with and tell her. She was already crying her heart out, could it get any worse? “Well…” he started, watching her sniff and wipe her nose on anything within reach. “Well…he, uh, he was going to do a song for you. Like a dedication.” He added quickly, hoping she would be satisfied with that. But no, she continued to stare at him expectantly, wiping her eyes now too, trying to stop crying, but not quite able to yet.

“It was…Steelheart. ‘Angel Eyes’. He said it was your favorite.” Mick said all of this as fast as he could, as if it get it over with.

There was a full minute of silence. ‘Never Let You Go’, by Steelheart. The first song they’d…. It took that long to register with Arielle. Then she burst into even louder, more pathetic sobs. Mick had no idea why that song especially made it worse for her, but he looked at her sadly anyway. She was truly pathetic. A mess of tangled and wrinkled clothes, no shoes, runny make up. Big wet blue eyes and a runny nose she kept wiping on everything. The sympathetic drummer did the only thing he could think of; he quickly hugged her, patting her soothingly on the back. “Don’t worry, Ari, it’ll be…”

He stopped, dropping his arms at the familiar sound. She was throwing up all over his back.