This story is dedicated to the late Cing, Ashley Mizuki Robins, and everyone I met at Lake Juliet.
I need to stop doing this to myself. The guitar – I need to focus on the guitar instead. C'mon, Ash. You can do this on your own.
Ashley closed her eyes, steadying her palms against the worn wood of the red guitar in her lap. She wrapped her fingers around the fretboard with one hand. She plucked her pick against the strings with the other hand. The gentle sloshing of the lake was the accompaniment she had desperately been seeking all day. The sun was on its way down over Lake Juliet, and Ashley Mizuki Robins was inclined to enjoy the time to herself against the orange and yellow haze cast across the waters. It had been a busy day of socializing and camping, but now she needed some time to herself. Time to drink in the sights and the sounds of the lake's tranquility before she was back at university again. Back to where he was, where they were, and...-
Stop it. Guitar. Back to it.
With a forced sigh through tightened nostrils, Ashley opened her eyes back up. She strummed at the strings in repetition, trying to get her flow going. Get the rhythm back, get the chords realigned in her fingers the way they were in her head. Strumming, strumming...She repeated the chord progression for a couple of minutes. She began humming the harmony part. It was the part she had gotten so used to singing. Her practice trailed off, allowing her to readjust her position, her grip, clear her throat.
But it wasn't clearing her head. And playing her guitar always cleared her head...What was up?
She chewed at her lip a little, swallowing saliva and humming the chords once more. A moment of quiet passed before she attempted singing along with her guitar.
"~The river, the river, it tumbles on down; A blue flood, a true flood; it crumbles a-...~"
Her voice caught, and she coughed, the practice run stopping as soon as it had started. It had been some kind of a sob that her throat had gotten stuck on. She forced another cough, trying to clear her passages. But they were already clear. It wasn't the lungs or her throat that weren't working right...
I can't even finish the first verse? Really? Why does it...hurt so much? Why is it so hard? This isn't fair. Why does all the unfair stuff happen to me? No. Nevermind. I'm fine. I'll play this song. By myself. It's my song. Not his. I'm not just going to let him take it away from me. He can have his stupid band. His stupid bassist. His stupid...-
Ashley's heart skipped a beat, jarred by the sensation of her hip being rattled. The world, previously faded from her consciousness, reformed around her in a startling instant. There she'd gone again, blacking out and getting lost in her head. Her cell phone had vibrated, calling her back to reality.
Flinging out an angry, short-lived chord, Ash let the guitar rest in her lap as she fidgeted her phone out of her pocket. Her white cargo pants were tight at the hips and loose at the ankles, just the way she liked them – they were white, matching her hair, but despite being new, already a bit grass stained from her camping adventure. After finagling her flip phone out – a device bedazzled in eclectic stickers of flowers, Pinkie Rabbit, and stars – she popped it open to check the message.
[From: janet][where u at mrs rockstar? ur not at bobs shack!]
Ashley groaned internally, cocking her head back and glaring up at the branches of the tree she was sitting against. Janet, an old high school classmate of hers, was also in the area that weekend, visiting her reformed cousin Elizabeth. When Ash had first met Beth, two years prior, she had never imagined the two would maintain contact. True, Ashley's Dad was still working under Beth's father, but it was more than that. After everything that happened at JC Valley, the research company their fathers worked at, both Beth and her dad seemed to be making things work, setting aside their troubles, shedding away the layers of insecurities that had brought out their aggressions when Ashley had met them. Ash was a bit envious in that regard – she wished her Dad would turn over a new leaf, but it just wasn't to be. And another thing: 'Mrs.' Rockstar? Nope. It should be 'Miss' now, right? But Ashley hadn't mentioned the breakup at the social gathering earlier that afternoon. No one had asked her about it – well, they'd asked about the band, and she'd curtly explained her departure. But that had been it.
Everyone else had occupied the lunch conversation at Bob's Snack Shack quite a bit, many of them with good stories and good news...Tommy and Sam were living the Animal House life – no surprise there. Bob's grand plans for opening that online store had brought a bit of success, but not enough for him to totally close up the diner. Then again, Ashley was sort of glad in a way, as she was now finally able to appreciate the food when she had a chance to visit the lake. JC Valley as a company was putting itself back together and devoted to researching anti-pollution venues rather than memory research. Ranger Dan was in better spirits than Ashley had ever seen him – which was saying something, given how cheery the man was to begin with. Janet, like Ashley, was working her way through her first year of university, and Elizabeth was alongside her as a classmate. There was talk of aspirations, talk of romances, talk of all of the things that were going so well for everyone – if not as speedily or handily as they might have hoped.
Ashley hadn't wanted to weigh things down with her mediocre if not depressing recent events. Grades were iffy, none of her new college friends felt authentic, the breakup was still a fresh wound, and her music 'career?' Ugh. Suffice it to say, leaving a band put a musician a step back. It had been a solid month since she'd performed anything live in front of a crowd. Ashley had spent the past week during break desperately trying to take two steps forward, but...Her efforts at converting old, unused lyrics into original songs was proving...disappointing. She'd always relied so much on him to do the compositions...And now, on her own, she was feeling painfully aware that she'd neglected that side of things.
That was the rough and risky part about building your life around another person – building your craft around another person's talents, your future around their plans, and your social life around their friends. If it fell through, where did that leave you? Huh? It left you lost. Lonely. Bitter. Frustrated. Without any...-
-Rrrrrmmm!-What?! Oh...The phone again.
That recurring skip of her heart as she was yanked out of her own head had been happening a lot in recent days. She had to get it together and stop spacing out so much, or everyone would notice. And then she'd be given a hard time about ignoring their advice...
Reluctantly, Ashley checked the phone again. Yep. Sure enough. Couldn't even wait five minutes...
[From: janet][hello? earth to ash. whats up? whered you go?]
[Reply][To: janet][practicing for tonight. need space. i'll be there later.]
As soon as she'd finished watching the little [Sending...] envelope animation conclude, Ash found herself regretting typing out the phrase [need space]. No way a girl like Janet wasn't going to read into that.
With an irritable sigh, Ash ran her fingers through her bangs, curving them off of her eyes from where the lakeside wind had set them. She dropped the phone in the grass to her right and wormed her arms back around her trusty red instrument. Aw, shoot. Where was she at? It took a minute to re-acclimate her hands to the right chord progression that the song started off on. Naturally, as soon as she'd gotten her muscle memory back on track...-
Ashley ignored it at first and continued to play for a couple of minutes. She couldn't bring herself to practice singing. By forgetting the lyrics for a bit and just letting her fingers dance with the strings, she found a few moments of genuine respite. But it wasn't to last. The thoughts began to creep in through the cracks of her consciousness and the notes slowed to a stop.
What if Dad actually shows up for once? What if he makes a scene? Or what if he doesn't show up, like last time? Dad...Urgh. What you said yesterday still hurts. How could you say that?
The topic of Dad was sore at the moment. Ash had avoided telling him about the breakup – he'd found out through Jessica, which Ash should've seen coming. It wasn't like a secret or something...She just didn't feel comfortable talking with Dad about dating stuff. It was the sort of thing she wanted to tell people on her own terms, anyway. At the right time. But with Dad, stuff like that rarely ever felt like the right time. They'd gone and grown distant again. At least now Ash was so busy with college that she barely had time to feel bummed about it...Away at school, Dad couldn't come visit her on the weekends, but even before she'd left for college, he'd been slipping on that, too. It was a cycle by now. He'd try to make up for lost time, only to let things go, more and more. It wasn't as bad as it had used to be, Ash could give him that. But they still never really did much together on the occasion they did see one another.
The last time they had talked was over the phone the day prior, when they'd gotten into an argument. She'd held her punches, but really, this was more out of emotional exhaustion. He'd gotten surprisingly offensive, though, calling her out on a number of things. Letting grades slip, not staying in touch, not seeing the doctor...Well, but she didn't need to see a doctor. She was perfectly fine. "You seem unwell," he'd said. "I really think you should go back to seeing the physician." How could he have said something like that? After all the times he'd abandoned her, left her to take care of herself...Didn't he realize she was independent? Didn't he get that she'd had no choice but to learn to take care of herself? So what if she spent some time in her head? If she had an illness, a physical problem, of course she'd see a doctor. But spending time to herself, just thinking, that wasn't-...That didn't mean she was sick or something, she just...-
I have to stop. I'm doing it again.
With a sharp inhalation, like waking up, Ashley caught herself from stumbling too deep into thought. She inhaled the lakeside air, listened to the rolling waves, gazed at the tussling branches above. She'd almost gone and done it again. It was really bad today for some reason. Then again, it seemed to be happening more now that she was by herself...Maybe taking some space wasn't what she'd needed, after all. Or maybe the familiar and missed sensations of Lake Juliet were bringing out these ep-...Ick. No. They were not 'episodes.' They were just...moments of deep thought. Was that really so bad?
[From: janet][space? whats wrong? u were really quiet today.]
[Reply][To: janet][nothing's wrong. i'm fine. see you guys in a bit.]
Nice one, Ashley. You're a terrible liar, like always...Even in a text message.
Ashley set the phone away again and mustered what focus she could into practicing. She made herself sing. She made herself play. Mechanically, she practiced, forcing the song out. It took about ten minutes until she managed to get through one solid playthrough, and even then, she wasn't satisfied. It just...didn't sound good. She felt like a fish out of water, flopping around. No surprise, really: Ashley Mizuki Robins wasn't the singing sort. She played guitar, and she wrote lyrics. That was what she'd learned to get good at. Half-geeky-Caucasian and half-geeky-Japanese, that was her genetic makeup. She probably didn't have a 'cool' gene in her body, much less any inherited gifts in the arts. With an ornery look about her, Ashley bumped her head against the tree she was leaned back on. So much for this special spot – the big tree by the lake shore. It worked for her friend Matthew, maybe, but it wasn't working for her that day. On that subject, Ash was a bit disappointed that Matt hadn't been able to make it. It had taken a while, but after the boy had sorted things out regarding his missing dad – a story unto itself – he'd ended up accepting his uncle's provisions regarding boarding school in London. Ash was happy for him. He was moving on, growing up...
Matthew Crusoe, the budding scientist-to-be, was doing well for himself. They'd chatted over IM the week prior. He'd regaled to Ash all about the excitement of being off on his own at a fancy British school with fancy British teachers and fancy British foods. And it sounded like he'd gotten a fancy British girlfriend recently, though he was coy about it. Ashley was still learning to pick up on that sort of thing – romantic implications. She'd barely survived a relationship herself. She didn't have the energy to be worrying about others' love lives. It was rough business. She'd never been good with romance. It was always something other people had to point out to her – when people were supposedly flirting, that kind of thing. Her radar just didn't seem to pick up on it. She hadn't even realized it when it had finally happened with her – and him. Her friends in high school had found it to be 'obvious,' and she refused to believe it – to see it. They'd spent so much time together because they were in a band together, obviously. By itself, that was nothing special. But by halfway through Senior year, he'd asked her out, and not knowing what else to do, she'd said 'sure.'
Dating him had at first felt more like a social obligation of sorts, like she was only doing it because, well, she never had. But he'd grown on her. Plant a flower in your garden, and even if you don't water it or tend to it, nature has a way of providing the sunlight and the rain just by the flower being there. That was how it had been, how she looked at it. But the roots had grown too deep for their own good. Loneliness and a garden devoid of flowers made the one that grew all the more precious, after all.
Oh, that's actually a good idea. I need to remember to turn that into a song lyric...Hm.
'Growing in the garden, all I've put my heart in...-'
But could she really even write a break up song if she'd wanted to? Ashley was a sensitive soul, after all. She wasn't ignorant to the notion that every messed up thing regarding her murdered mother and wayward father carried issues. Even so, Dad's implication from their chat the day prior was infuriating.
Memories. Good ones. Think of a good memory, Ash. A happy one. Turn that into a song...
Her first kiss immediately came to mind. Which was dumb. It hadn't been special. By all accounts, not memorable. But Ashley was the sort to remember seemingly innocuous things like that, especially when a new sensation was involved. She didn't care to dwell on it in that moment. No, a different memory would be better, because that one still hurt too much. Her brain skipped ahead, like a DVD player skipping scenes forward, trying to get to that part of the movie she actually wanted to see. Nope, that was painful, too. So was that one. That one, too. It was there somewhere...A memory she wanted to sit on.
Warm breath against the back of her neck. Her fingers sliding against ivory keys with hesitation. They were heavy, weighted keys. Not like that keyboard of his. His calloused hands rubbing at her bare biceps, goading her to give it a try. The breath on her neck got warmer, closer. Damp contact against the skin on her right shoulder. Such warm lips. Always warm lips. Her cheeks burned happily, like a campfire on a warm summer evening. Her fingers pressing against the keys. Sour notes, giggling, humming laughs into her ear. Shoulder rubs of reassurance. Kisses of encouragement. Trusted hands clasping her own from above, directing fingers on which keys to approach. Pressing down. Hesitant chords. His warm, tense presence leaning against her from behind. His tension loosening her. His hands taking over the keys. Strings singing from their wooden chamber. His voice joining them. Just...singing, everything was singing. So good. He was so good. Mesmerizing. A choir of ivory and metal and wood and him. Chords burned into her brain, a melody she could never forget, yet one she couldn't remember. Faded notes, lost in the warmth of capable hands, striking chords against her frame, hitting the right notes, a merry melody sung between lips as...-
A steep gasp through her nostrils flicked Ashley's brain with needed oxygen as she was brought back to the present by a ringtone. Again? Seriously? What a pain...Ugh, and her cheeks were burning up just from the memory...It was such a nice memory, too.
And there it was – the sting of reality. She realized her eyes were damp. Her heart was getting overwhelmed again...
The musical tone which had jarred her from her memories struck a third time.
Oh, duh. It was her phone.
Aw, shoot. Not now...What was it this time? Probably yet another apology that he was going to be late, which would later become a follow-up apology that he wasn't going to make it at all.
The gentle breeze sweeping over the lake had pushed some strands of white hair back over Ashley's face. She'd been growing it out past her shoulders, but she wasn't much of a stylist. Spitting out hair irritably, she answered her phone.
["Ashley. Where are you?"]
"I'm at the lake."
["Really? I just got a call from Bob asking when you'd be showing up."]
"I was there for lunch. I'll be back later. I'm...by myself right now."
["Why? I thought you came here to see your friends."]
"Y-yea, I did. I mean, I am. I'll be back with them again soon, I just...-"
["You never called me back. I had no idea when you got here or when you were coming."]
Maybe if you paid attention yesterday when I'd told you...
"I've had my own stuff going on, Dad."
["What kind of stuff? Music stuff?"]
"Friends? Practice? Why, did you want to see me or something?"
["Ah, yes. Practice. You're guitaring tonight."]
Wow. You actually remembered, Dad.
["I'll do my best to make it, Ashley."]
["I just have this one minor detail I need to wrap up."]
["If I'd known you were coming so soon I would've saved it for tomorrow, but...-"]
"Yea, OK..." Mm, maybe a little too much unintended sarcasm. Dad picked up on it. Like he was learning to socialize, or something.
["Listen, Ashley, I'm...still upset with you. Problems are best solved as they arise. But we can talk things through. I will see you tonight. I promise."]
Uh-huh. OK. Sure. Like the word 'promise' means anything to us anymore...
Ugh, stop it, Ash. Stop sounding so whiny! You're not a whiner. Try harder here.
["What time are you going to be at Bob's?"]
"About an hour."
["Excellent. I'll do my best."]
"All right..." Ashley sighed.
Try harder."Sounds good," she added wistfully. "It'll be nice to see you."
["Yes, it...has been a while, hasn't it?"]
"Heh. Three months. Yep. I've been busy."
["I suppose we both have. And you're spending the weekend here, correct?"]
"Today and tomorrow," Ashley corrected as politely as she could. She'd already gone over all of this with him yesterday. For a scientist who'd devoted so much of his life to the pursuit of understanding memory, Dr. Robins was pretty darned forgetful.
["Ah, yes. Good. That's good. You...wanted to do some proper camping tomorrow, right?"]
"Mm..." Ashley nodded absent-mindedly. Oh, duh, Dad couldn't see it. "Sure, I think I'll still be up for that."
["Maybe catch some fish with your old man?"]
Ashley laughed through her nose, her eyes sliding over the lake's orange glow.
"I'm not so sure either of us will manage to do that," she teased. Had her father even figured out how to hook a worm yet? Ashley didn't know a thing about fishing, either. Maybe Ranger Dan could give them a hand – as embarrassing as that might be. But it'd be better to be laughing at themselves than arguing...
["Ha, well...We'll have to do our best. Besides, we could use some life-form samples from the middle of the lake for testing."]
Ugh. Really, Dad...?
"I guess we'll see," Ashley eked out. She kind of wanted to just let it be for now, come back and dive into things when they were in the same room.
["Well,"] Dad said after a moment of odd silence. ["I should let you get back to practice."]
"All right. Thanks."
["I love you."]
"Love you, too, Dad..."
After hanging up her phone, Ashley turned the device off. She needed some time without the distractions. She was going to buckle down. No more straying into thoughts or memories. Just her and the guitar. Just her and the songs.
The walk back to the residential section of Lake Juliet was slow and somber, and Ashley did her best to absorb the tranquil sights and sounds around her rather than focus on her frustratingly unproductive practice session. She'd gotten so used to running around the lake area – just dashing from one point of interest to the next – that it was refreshing to not have anything pressing to worry about. She could just walk, drink it all in. Typically on a long walk like this, she'd listen to some tunes on her music player – she still had that old keepsake one from Dad – but in her current mindset, she just knew that doing so would only serve to aggravate her with envy at the skills of others.
The trails were beautiful at twilight. The stars were starting to show up above, and they weaved together with the clouds to create a natural painting she could never see as clearly from her city campus. The way the whole picture reflected on the lake's calm surface that evening made it all the sweeter.
Why can't I do it? I want to create music that makes people feel the way this place makes me feel. That's possible. Right? Of course it is. I've heard songs that do it. Why can't I do it? Am I just...not good enough? Do I need more practice? Do I need to try making it on my own, hash things out that way, or...find a new band? Do I have what it takes to be a lone-star musician to begin with? I'm not so sure I'm strong enough for that kind of weight. I can't even handle what's on my plate right now, much less all the craziness of being a rock star.
Like I'm going to be a rock star at all...Who am I kidding, here?
Her head flashed with fragmented memories of the past few months. Pre-canned e-mail auto-replies and voicemails, feedback from friends...
[Your recent entry, 'Hotel at Dusk', is incompatible with this contest's parameters. Please review our submission requirements and revise your submission under the proper category in order for it to be considered. We look forward to reviewing this year's entries!]
"That's great, Ash. It sounds good. Pretty good, yea. But where's the vocals at?"
[Sorry! Your entry was not selected for the next phase of the contest. But don't despair! We'll be back again next year! Keep at it, Rockstar-In-The-Making!]
["Thank you for your submission, Miss Robins, but unfortunately, your music isn't what we're looking for right now. It just doesn't have the right kind of energy to it."]
"Sorry, Ashley. I'm just not feeling it. Where's your partner at? I think that's what's missing. It needs more soul to it. I know that's harsh, but you asked for my honest opinion."
"It's lovely, Ashley.""Really, Jessica? You're not just saying that? You like it?""Ash, of course I like it. I like everything you make!"
"Oh. Heh. Right..."
I was an idiot. I was wrong. 'Just want something bad enough and you'll get it.' That's how I used to think. What I used to tell my friends. But that's not right. That's rubbish. That's not how the world works. You can want it, you can work for it, you can even give up everything...and still fail. Still lose what you worked so hard for.
Like Mom and Dad did.
Now I'm just failing, too. Carrying on a legacy of failure.
I can't just give up, though. No, I'd never do that, not in a thousand years. But how am I supposed to make it when I can barely pl-
"Huh?!"Ashley's chest jumped with alarm at the voice calling to her from behind. Dangit. She'd let it happen again. She had to regain her bearings. Was she even walking in the right...-? OK, yea, still on track. Duh, of course she was, there was just one path.
"Is that you, Miss?" inquired the figure she was about to cross paths with in the dusky park trail.
"Hello...?" Ashley said timidly, announcing her presence.
"Ah, so it is you," greeted the familiar and relaxing tone of Ranger Dan. The pudgy man in the tan ranger uniform was sauntering toward her, heading the opposite way that she was.
"Hi, Dan," Ashley bid with a calmed smile. It was dark enough where it was beginning to get hard to make out finer details, but she could see his squinty-eyed smile above a chubby nose.
"Long time no see," he jested with a chuckle. She'd just seen him that morning.
"Heh, yea," she warily replied, readjusting the guitar case strap on her shoulder.
"Off to play a show at Bob's, is that right?"
"Yep. Yep..." She nodded complacently.
"Whatcha doin' all by yourself out here? Where's your pops?"
"You know him," Ashley sighed.
Dan laughed sheepishly, scratching his nose with a knowing nod.
"Aw, say it ain't so," he sympathized.
"All right, I...won't say it," Ash joked with a shrug. This got a bit of a laugh from Dan, which shifted into an empathetic sigh.
"It's hard to pull the Doc from his work, huh?" Dan noted.
"Mmhmm..." A nod from Ash. "I'm about to go see him in a bit, though. A-and I'll be here tomorrow, too. And so...-"
"Ah, that's nice. He told me ya'll are gonna do a fine bit o' fishin' in the morning."
"That's the plan," Ashley hesitantly mumbled, tousling the hair on the back of her head. "To be honest, it'll take a miracle to catch a single fish between the two of us."
"Well, now," Dan cocked his head with a wry smile. "It's not about the fish, is it? It's about spendin' quality time with your pops..."
"Right," Ashley acknowledged. Yea, that was a good point.
"So," Dan glanced about the area – he had a habit of doing that, just glancing about. "Whatcha been up to at Lake Juliet on your lonesome?"
"Oh. Y-ya know, just...practicing."
"Ah! But out here? On a chilly day like this?" With his hands on his hips, he cast a gaze out across the lake at twilight. "Why, Miss, I'm sure if you'd just asked Bob, he would've been just keen with letting you use the diner for practice."
Ashley knew that full well. In fact, Bob had made the offer when she and her friends had finished their lunch.
"Ha, yea, you're probably right," said Ashley courteously. "Guess I just needed some fresh air. I don't get out much like this anymore!"
"That a fact? Oh, yes, your pops mentioned you're off at university now. Studying hard?"
"Yea," Ashley breathed out tiredly. "Maybe not hard enough," she muttered under her breath. With a sullen shrug, she explained, "It's been nuts. I've been...getting distracted, and now I'm bit stressed out, to tell you the truth."
"Aw, now, that's a shame. I'm sure it's been tricky. Higher education ain't a simple thing. But you just stick with it, Miss. Bright lady like you? You're goin' places, just like your old man."
"Thanks, Dan." Ash nodded. "I'll give it my best shot." She appreciated the ranger's ever-present enthusiasm. Did he ever get sad? She hoped not.
"Well," Dan grunted, patting his plump tummy. "The old belly furnace needs some fuel right quick, and I've got one more round to make before dinner time, but I'll be seein' you at the Shack soon enough!"
"Sounds good," said Ashley, starting to walk onward and waving him off. "See you in a bit!"
"Safe travels, Ashley!"
Ashley was left with an endeared glow in her gut as she continued on, like the man's radiantly optimistic and encouraging attitude was lighting her way to the cottages ahead. She was sure glad that a man like that had his eyes watching over this beautiful place – and looking out for Dad, at that.
Before too long, Ashley found herself passing by her Dad's cottage – the first on the left. And toward the right, Bob's Snack Shack greeted her with the wafting scent of fried foods. Her stomach felt like it was gurgling just at the smell. Lunch felt like a small eternity ago.
Ashley entered the diner, welcomed by its laid back atmosphere. A country kind of twang echoed throughout the joint over the weathered speakers. The place was presently empty, save for its namesake, the owner, who greeted her with a casual wave. Bob was a rotund man with a scruffy face and a baseball cap that Ashley swore must've been glued to his head.
"Oh, howdy," he bid her, hunched over the main countertop strip of the diner. He was tapping away at a laptop.
"Hey, Bob," Ashley said, lingering by the door. She glanced around the empty joint. The scuffed tile flooring, the rickety wooden furniture, and the photographs on the walls...It was a pleasing, relaxing scene.
"Was startin' to wonder when you might show up," Bob said, staring contemplatively at his laptop's screen.
"Heh." Ashley shrugged as she approached. "I'm...trying to be a rock star, right? I guess that means you all have to get used to me being fashionably late."
"Hah!" Bob grinned, pushing himself up from his computer and pointing a sly finger her way. "I like the way you think, kid."
This exchange melted the corners of Ashley's ice-cube mood.
"Is this seat taken?" Ash continued her jovial streak with a facetious smirk, gesturing to one among many empty stools.
"Eh, I'm sure he won't mind if ya borrow it," Bob brought the sass back. "So. Ya hungry?"
Ash nodded, leaning her guitar case against the counter and taking a seat.
Bob offered, "How about an SRB, huh?"
"I just had one of those for lunch," Ash reminded.
"So?" retorted Bob.
Ash laughed through her nose and popped up one shoulder.
"You talked me into it," she muttered with a small smile.
"I'll whip one up for ya, fresh n' hot," said Bob, twirling his round self to his freezer and preparing to get the grill going. "You look a little cold."
"Ah, yea." Ashley pushed hair back over her shoulder and scratched her neck. Felt like she had a mosquito bite or something. "I was outside for a while there."
"Didn't bring a jacket?" wondered Bob as the grill sizzled before him.
"Ain't college supposed to be makin' you smarter, kid?" Bob teased, prepping the rice buns.
"Supposed to," said Ashley with a dulled smirk, folding her hands together in her lap. She latched her ankles against one another and stared blankly at the countertop, lamenting on her string of 's comment reminded her of something Dad had said the day prior.
["I thought you were smarter than this, Ashley..."]
"College is harder than I was expecting..."
["That's why you need to be putting your best step forward, instead of focusing on boys, or...or guitaring, or...-"
"Dad. That's not it! I can't you'd...-!"
["What else could it be, then? Unless you're hiding something else from me?"]
"I didn't hide anything! I don't need to tell you every single detail of my life."
["Like your episodes? That's not a minor detail."]
["I have to ask Jessica how you're doing because you keep avoiding the subject. Now I know why."]
"Dad, that's personal. That's not your business."
["I'm your father, Ashley. Your safety is always my business."]
["...Why haven't you seen a doctor yet?"]
"Because I'm not sick."
["Something is not well with you if you're passing out like this."]"'Like this?' Like what? How would you know? When do you even see me?"
"You there, kid?"
"Huh?" Ashley was sucked back to the diner, to the smells of a fresh meal on a plate before her. Her heart jittered again from the shock.
Bob was glancing down at her with a concerned look.
"I tried askin' if you wanted somethin' to drink, but...nothin'. Was worried you'd fallen asleep on me! I didn't think I was that boring...Ha."
"Oh..."With warm cheeks, Ashley sniffed, rubbing her finger against the edge of her nostril. Felt like she might be catching a cold from being outside. "Um, sorry," she said to Bob. "Just...lost in thought for a minute."
"Well, now's the time to get lost in my cookin'!" Bob jeered back, tidying up his supplies now that the meal was prepared.
Ashley stared at the steam slowing rolling from the nigiri-styled dish. On the plate before her sat 'burger' of red fish meat and sauces wedged between two patties of rice. The Salmon Rice Burger had become Bob's specialty food – and Ashley's late mother Sayoko had been the one to inspire the dish years ago. Every time Ashley ate one – which wasn't all that often, really – it brought a taste of nostalgia. It was something, perhaps minor, that Sayoko had left behind for the world to enjoy. Something out in the open, not hidden away behind research and secrets and laboratories. Of course, a Japanese dish in an American diner wasn't the only thing Sayoko had left for the world: she'd also left a daughter. And Ashley wanted so badly to...become something worth giving up a life for. Music wasn't just a hobby or a passing interest, it had become a calling. Not just for her, but for her Mom's sake, too.
"I know, I know," said Bob in jest, drawing Ashley out of her head again. "The SRB's a real majestic piece of art," he said, remarking on how she'd been sitting and staring at it. "But it's a lot more beautiful when it's in your mouth, kid. You gonna wait 'til it's cold, or what?"
Ashley worked her hands around the food, gripping it in her fingers.
"Bob," Ashley said, recalling a comment Bob bragged about this particular food. "I thought these were just as good cold."
"...Aghh," Bob grunted with a smirk, tossing his cleaning rag onto the countertop by the grill.
Ashley, content with her attempts at humor, chowed down on the delicious, hand-cooked meal. She managed to keep herself in the present while she consumed it, taking in the sounds of Bob's twangy taste in music, the business end of a phone call he received, and the slow, steady tapping of his laptop keyboard.
"How's the online store going?" she wondered inbetween bites, watching him study his screen with narrowed eyes of contemplation.
"Eh? Oh, it's...-" He fidgeted his cap to scratch an itch on his head, then realigned it. "Well, I ain't gonna lie: it hasn't been gangbusters, but it's a boat I'm keepin' afloat."
Ashley nodded with understanding. She knew the feeling. She let Bob work a bit more as she finished eating. She enjoyed the relative tranquility. Bob was a man who loved his chatter, but he also comprehended the value of slow, restful moments. Her food all but gone, Ashley was licking her finger, adhering stray rice beads from the plate and cleaning it rather thoroughly.
"Scarfed that one down real quick," Bob observed, grinning.
"They're really good," conceded Ashley. "Thanks. Um...-" She already knew the answer to the question, but it was the courteous thing to do to ask. "So how much do I owe you?"
Bob's head slowly turned her way with a dry look.
"Kid," she insisted flatly. "It's on your dad's tab, don't even worry. Oh, actually...-!" He snapped his fingers at her, an idea dawning on him. "Yer playin' a little show here real soon, right? So, there ya go. Dinner's on the house, then."
"Ah..." Ashley's full, satisfied stomach squirmed a little at the thought. She was rapidly losing her confidence in performing that evening, but she'd already gotten all of the plans arranged. She couldn't let people down. "Come to...think of it...-" she started up slowly, getting up from her seat. She swiveled her guitar case a bit, considering if she was ready. "I could probably do with a little more practice before then," she cited. "Do you think I could...-?"
"Have at it," Bob merrily advised, flicking his arm out toward the empty space in the corner of the diner. "Already cleared out a spot for ya – pull up a chair and have fun."
"Thanks," said Ashley, feeling the SRB's magic working through her system. Maybe this would all turn out OK.