33 - Jessica
"Five minutes," the attendant sticks his head around the door, a headpiece fitted behind his ears and his hand held up to show five fingers. As if I hadn't heard him the first time.
I nod, stretching a smile that says 'I'm definitely not nervous' over my lips, one that is designed not to look as uncomfortable as I feel.
He grins widely - like he's not used to even remotely pleasant guests in his dressing rooms - and his disembodied head disappears again, the door closing with a soft click.
"Okay, Jess," I mutter to myself, sitting in front of the mirror, nervously fluffing up my hair again - for about the fifth time since I got here. "You are not nervous. You are going to go out there and rock it." It feels lonely in the dressing room. Empty. Hollow. They've stretched a mirror to cover the whole of one wall – a trick to apparently make the room feel bigger. But that only proceeds to make me feel smaller. Tinier. Insignificant.
My mind hasn't left my apartment. It's still swimming there, caught in between tangled nets. Within names. Sam. Chris, Ashley. Matt.
Flashes of Mike screaming after me within the darkness. Of his hand reaching for me as my chest had heaved with pain, lying on that elevator grated floor. Of my voice scraping against my throat simply saying his name. I had wanted to feel his hand against my cold, tear stained cheek so much. Right then. Just to know he was real.
My body aches as if I can still feel the red, hot lashes across my chest. I choke, tears catching in my eyelashes before breaking through and dribbling down my skin, smearing my make up.
In the mirror, I watch my hand hover over the scars over my chest, as if I'm not even registering that I'm doing it myself. For a second, the mirror flashes back to the me back then. Plaits and underwear and scars. Dirt smeared over my skin. Vulnerability shivering in my watery eyes.
And then there was Matt. The luck I'd run into those hell-filled mines. My guiding light.
If it hadn't been for him, I'd be lying on that cold, rock floor, a jumble of dead bones and rotting skin.
When did I forget about them? When did I shove them away? I don't think I can even pinpoint a specific date anymore. It had just happened. My body had convulsed, instantly activating my self-preservation button. And my radar had bleeped violently over their heads, warning me that they were a threat. That they would make me crumble, make me a mess. I hadn't wantedto be a mess. And yet it was them all along. They were the ones who would help me survive. Not tear me down.
It has been other people I've been surrounding myself with that have been tearing me down.
The secure expression I've been working on for the last half an hour – held together by lip-gloss - deteriorates in seconds.
"What is it, Greg?" I groan, forcing my voice to sound irritated. Despite my tangled stomach, my guilt claiming my skin. I can't lose my guard in front of Greg. He's like a predator that waits for its prey to lower its guard. And then he pounces. Tearing me up into pieces.
Greg pushes the door open and sticks his head around it. "I've come to see my favourite, money winner!" He grins - although it looks more like a grimace on his face – and swiftly invites himself into the room.
"Cut the crap, Greg," I mutter, swivelling around in my chair to face him, narrowing my eyes at him. My heart is thumping in my chest. I can't remember the last time I looked Greg in the eye. Probably when he'd last treated me to champagne after a successful tour. Now that I think about it, it wasn't exactly the most innocent action. He was at least ten years older than me. And a hot-blooded male. That was probably another one of his tricks. I had been so blind, I couldn't see it.
I'd always denied it. But Greg intimidated me. I'd always avoid looking him directly in the eyes, in fear that I'd see something that would horrify me. He looked fairly ordinary; with his regular, flat brown hair and regular brown eyes. Yet, underneath his skin lay a beast. One that was only ever selfish.
"What do you want?" I take a breath, finally dragging my eyes up to stare into his. I lift my chin up, pushing confidence into my bones. You can do this, Jess. Don't let him take advantage of you anymore. It's like a layer of skin has been peeled from my eyes and I can finally see who he really is. Black muscles pulse underneath his skin, maggots crawling within his twisted bones. His blood pours through his veins like tar, sticky and black.
He's a monster.
Greg smirks, amused at my antics. "I'm here," his low voice rumbles as he narrows his eyes powerfully at me, leaning down to pull his face closer to mine. "To make sure you don't ruin this for me, got it?"
I swallow hard. I'm convinced that Greg can see my fear riddling underneath my skin. Like my sweat. His breath stinks as he sneers at me, clasping the arms of my chair as he blocks me in. And for a second my heart believes he's going to rape me. He's going to grab me and force himself on me and break me.
But then he chuckles darkly and pushes himself back to his feet.
"You think too lowly of me," I say, despite my erratic breath in my throat.
Greg's lips quirk up at one side as he glances at me nonchalantly, his arms crossed over his chest. His shirt creases unnaturally around his shoulders and I catch a glimpse of his sweat stains, making me grimace. "Is that right?"
"Yes," I spark up, sitting up straighter and feeling courage push itself into my bones. "Because," I swallow, setting my jaw and sweeping my hair off my shoulder, snapping my eyes on his. "I'm going to go in there and do my job."
"Just like always, huh?" Greg scoffs, shaking his head. It's a dig at me. To him, I'm always the same. I never take risks. I never change things up. That makes it easier for him to use me. And I can see, by the way his eyes narrow challengingly at me, that he knows I know that.
"And then," I breathe, searching for some kind of words that will hit him in the gut. "Once that's done, I'll... I'll..."
"You'll what, Jess?" He raises a single eyebrow, chillingly amused. He uncrosses his arms, sticking his hands into the pockets of his jeans, as if he doesn't expect a single, intelligent word to come out of my mouth.
Suddenly, I'm filled with anger. Defiance. He has no right to think that about me. He doesn't know me at all. For a brief second, I feel like a lion, about to snarl at him. And bite him too.
My jaw tightens, and I'm shooting up to my feet and - due to my incredible skills developed over the years - manage to not to trip on my heels. "I'll quit. And start my own company, work for myself!" I set my hard eyes on him, feeling a surge of confidence and self-worth. Why hadn't I ever done this before?
Greg scoffs, letting out a humourless breath of a laugh escape his mouth. "You?" He stands straight in front of me, shaking his head and looking me up and down. My skin churns as if I can physically feel his greasy eyes all over my body. Just one downward stare from him makes me feel small. It always has. He's always been the one with the power. I'm just his pawn. I feel like I'm shrivelling up. Turning into dust. "You wouldn't get anywhere on your own. You're nothing without me."
No. No. He's wrong. I'm everything without him. It is him who made me nothing.
"One minute!" The attendant returns, that same, pleasant smile on his face. And he quickly ushers me out of the room.
But I have one more thing to say to Greg.
"I'm sure I'll see you in court after this," I smile sweetly, sending him a meaningful glare.
Greg shakes his head, laughing like he's amused. "And what are you going to sue me for?"
I tilt my head thoughtfully, feigning a pleasant expression. "I'm sure I'll find something." And then I'm leaving him standing gaping in the middle of the room as I take my first – and possibly last steps – onto the stage.