I kept walking until I found myself standing in the middle of the hospice parking lot, but I couldn’t remember where my Jeep was. I couldn’t remember the last time I was outside of the hospice walls. The rays of the sun felt as if they were assaulting me for hiding for so long. Rummaging in my pockets for my keys, I wondered if I should go back inside to the room they had given Jacob to get my belongings.
Clicking the alarm on the keys helped me find my Jeep, and after climbing in, I sat heavily into the driver’s seat. I glanced in the backseat where my guitar case was propped up against the back window. Just whom was I kidding? Everything I owned was in this vehicle. I just needed to leave, so I started the engine.
I peeled out of the parking lot as if my tailpipes were on fire. I had more than 400 miles to cover and I wanted to do it as fast as I possibly could. Heading straight to the I-90 New York State Thruway, I stepped on the gas as hard as I could.
I placed my phone in the speaker cradle on my dashboard and called Lea hands-free.
“Grace? What’s wrong?” the disembodied voice of my best friend answered.
“Jake’s gone, so I’m coming back. My room still empty?”
“Oh, Gray.” Her pet name for me touched my heart. “Of course, it’s empty. I don’t even know what to say. Jake was...”
“Please don’t. It’s over and he’s not in any more pain. I’ll be back sometime tonight.”
“Conner and I are going to watch his friend’s band play later. Text me when you get in and I’ll message you the address, in case you feel up to going out.” Oh Lea, you’re so used to my stoic episodes. Maybe a night of music and drinking would be the answer to my prayers, or at least it would numb my mind of this harsh life.
“Conner, huh? Sounds like a plan. I’m almost on I-390 now. I’ll see you in a few.”
“Oh man, you’re doing about 90, aren’t you? Don’t kill yourself, please, I know you have a death wish, but I’d like to see you again, and in one piece, please. Besides, I really want you to meet Conner.” Her voice did nothing to hide her feelings for him and it made me smile. Lea was such a beautiful soul. She deserved to find someone who could make her smile.
“I’m not driving anywhere near 90,” I replied. Well, 120 was nowhere near 90 in my mind. “I can’t wait to meet Conner too.” I clicked off the phone and pushed the Jeep to go even faster. The traffic was uncharacteristically thin and I found myself weaving through cars as if I was invisible. If only I could be invisible, or at least not feel this sad world. If only I didn’t have to be so...human.
In the solace and loneliness of my front seat, while I sped through the world in a blur, my tears fell free. I separated my mind from my body as I always do, and let the sorrow wash over my soul. The sky slowly grew darker as my world tilted itself towards the moon. Great dark clouds assembled above, crowding the heavens and it opened up. Hail pelted my windshield and the rain poured down, matching my mood. All of it was making me feel as if the heavens were mocking me.
I made the seven-hour trip in five hours, crying all the way. At exactly 9:15, I had my few belongings back in the small Manhattan apartment that I began renting with Lea so long ago. I sat down on the big brown couch we bought at a secondhand store downtown and looked around. Everything was the same. It was as if I hadn’t left six months ago and Jake was still kicking pancreatic cancer’s ass. One foot in front of the other, just keep moving forward.
Lea had texted directions to the bar to me, which read, Walk out door. Turn right. Walk around corner. Find big sign that says Boozer’s. Get smashed for Jake.
I walked back to my room and stripped out of my clothes. My shirt had gotten soaked with my tears. I changed into an old comfortable pair of jeans and a small white T-shirt, thinking Lea would complain about how plain I looked. Then, I slipped on a pair of black stilettos that had been left in my closet. I hoped the bar wasn’t too far, because I had a feeling that later on I’d be stumbling home barefoot.
Splashing water on my face in the bathroom was the only thing I did to freshen up. I didn’t even bother looking in the mirror. I grabbed my jacket and ran my fingers through my hair to tame the tangles as I walked out the door. I was never one to care about how I looked on the outside. That wasn’t the real me anyway. Not that I didn’t appreciate the way I looked now, I just didn’t feel it mattered, because how you look doesn’t change what’s in your soul.
Making my way down the street, I found comfort in the busy New York City sounds; the taxis flying through the streets, people talking, laughing, and shouting. Like me, everything felt raw and alive in this city. Raw and still very much alive.
Boozer’s kept an enormously cheesy neon light over its open front doors and the music from inside was drifting out into the street. I was enamored with it before I even walked inside. The front windows were made of small panes of glass that were foggy from the cold February night. Old-fashioned lanterns hung from the old world brick façade, making the building look as if it belonged in a small romantic Tuscany village, and not on a New York City Street.
An enormously chiseled looking man stood inside the opening of the bar and winked at me as I walked in. A bright red STAFF shirt clung to his body as if it was painted on; his expression looked like he wanted me for dinner. Too arrogant. However, that didn’t stop me from wondering if he’d thought I’d be a main course or just an appetizer.
I scanned the crowded room for Lea and spotted her right away. Of course, she was the one dancing on top of the table in a booth near the stage against the wall. Everyone was talking and watching the band play music that was a mix between rock, blues and alternative. Nothing spectacular; average music, and I tuned them out.
I expertly navigated myself through the crowds of people; the sound of the music drowned away from my ears; I barely noticed when they stopped playing. When Lea saw me, she grabbed me in her arms and pulled me up onto the table with her. “You’re home! Oh God, Gray, I’m so sorry. Come on, talk to me!”
I held her at arm’s length and gave her a small smile. “There’s nothing to say that hasn’t already been said. Let’s not talk about it, okay?”
She took a flying leap off the table and dragged me with her. I almost fell flat on my face, but she thunderously dragged me to a small crowd of guys who were looking at me in confusion.
Lea marched me right up to a tall blond guy. “Conner! This is my best friend in the whole entire universe. Grace.” She turned her head to me and yelled over the crowd, “Gray, this is Conner. The One!” Mad giggling ensued and with it came an exact measurement of just how drunk she already was.
Conner, aka The One, arched his eyebrows slightly towards Lea, and then gave me a huge smile. I couldn’t help but smirk at her, sighing inwardly. Yes. The way he looked at Lea, well, most girls would kill for a guy to look at them the way he looked at her. My heart leapt for my friend, because she deserved to find her One, as she called him. I reached my hand out to shake his and instead he grabbed me in a bear hug and lifted me off the ground. “Welcome home! Lea’s been talking about you nonstop for the last six months. I was beginning to think that she actually made you up!”
I laughed. “Well, thanks. I’m happy to meet you too!”
He gently settled my feet on the floor and wrapped his arms around Lea, who was looking up at him lovingly, and swaying a bit. “I’m really sorry to hear about your brother. Lea’s been crying since you called.”
What could I say to that? Nothing, really. Lea knew Jacob her whole life. If I really wanted to think about it, the truth was that Lea knew Jacob even longer than I had. I didn’t think about it though. The second the thought entered, I wiped it from my mind. I couldn’t think about those things. Right now, I just really needed a drink.
Lea staggered closer to the table and grabbed two beers. “Where’s my pitcher of margaritas?” she yelled to nobody in particular.
Conner shook his head and laughed. “You drank it all. Have some beer for now, because you’re going to pass out on me if you keep this up.”
Around us, the movement of the crowd escalated with excitement. I looked around the room to find the cause. A man stood in front of the room on the small stage with a microphone in one hand and a beer in the other. “Are we having fun yet?” he screamed at the audience. Not waiting for the yells of replies to die down the man keep talking. “Welcome to Boozer’s! Drink until you pass out, and we’ll let you sleep on the floor! Let’s give it up for our house band, Mad World! Ladies, stay off the stage, but you may throw as much of your clothes at them that you want!”
I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the emcee, and then stopped when I noticed all the bras and underwear haphazardly hanging from the rafters on the ceiling. Wow.
Cheering erupted as a group of three guys ran onto the stage. The volume exploded to an ear-piercing decibel and a small lacy black bra went sailing from the crowd, landing in the hands of the fourth member of the band, who strolled, relaxed and unaffected into the middle of the stage.
Lea grabbed me around the waist and pulled me through the crowd. “This is the band. Come on; let’s stand on the side over here. In a minute, we won’t be able to see through the sea of half-naked girls!”
Wobbly, she climbed back on top of the table we had occupied earlier and held out her hand for me to follow. I followed her up and still grasping my hand, she continued climbing over the leathery cushions of the booth, right onto a wooden shelf in the wall and we plopped down on a deep-set windowsill.
I sat next to her and wondered how many times in the last six months, she sat there and listened to her boyfriend’s friend’s band play. How long had she smiled that satisfied with her life smile? I wondered what contentment felt like. I shut down the thoughts again. I was worn out, but I was definitely happy that Lea had that smile on her face.
I followed her glance to Conner, who stood in the crowd of people and looked back at her with a matching smile. It felt as if I was in the room alone with them and I was intruding in a private moment.
The crowd was in a complete frenzy, when a rough, sexy voice poured a velvety haunting song into the microphone. I couldn’t help but look up to see the match to the voice. How I had been capable of not noticing him before was beyond me. He was perfection. I couldn’t even have matched an adjective to him if I’d tried, but perfect would be the closest fit, and it still wasn’t good enough to describe him.
He was looking through the crowd with intense eyes, as if he was searching for something. Then his expression eased into a sexy smoldering smile. His short dark hair hung thick and unruly, cut in uneven layers. It looked tousled, as if some lucky girl had just run her hands through it backstage. Ah, maybe that’s who it was that he was searching for.
Lean toned muscles stretched beneath the skin of his tattooed arms. One perfectly sculpted hand caressed the mic stand; the other ran through his perfect hair. His husky voice whispered its song. It silenced the crowd as if he was a god.
What use is a tomorrow?
I’ve endured forever
There’s little hope.
I drown my sorrow.
His voice slowed and stopped; a sad melody began on a piano. He stepped back from the mic, never taking his eyes from the crowd, leaned back and reached for a jet-black guitar.
A fast drumbeat broke through the silence, followed by a bass and his soul retching guitar rhythm took my breath away. His voice entwined with an anguished piano chorus and the crowd roared to life. They sang along with the words, as if it was the most popular song on the radio.
Lea nudged me, “They’re mind-blowing, aren’t they?”
It took a moment for me to find my voice. “Yeah, mind-blowing.” Just listening to that voice was sending shivers through my body, and the way his hands moved over that guitar, holy crap!
She gave me a knowing smile. “Yeah, the first time Conner brought me here and I heard Shane play, I thought of you. Inspiring, isn’t he?” She understood how much music could move me. How many nights did I play for her to go to sleep when we were younger, for every heartbreak and every tear?
Stretched in front of us, the crowd seemed to double. Girls sat on top of their date’s shoulders. People danced on top of tables and a long line of scantily clad females were writhing against each other on the bar, vying for the band’s attention.
Lea and I looked at each other and fell into each other laughing. “Come on, Grace, let’s take our shirts and bras off and show these girls how it’s done!”
I shook my head and laughed even harder, “Girl, you take your bra off over here, and those puppies of yours will knock your friends off the stage!”
She smiled with pride, “Hey, you’re just as boobilicious as me! Come to the bathroom with me. The room is spinning and I don’t wanna ask Conner to carry me in!”
Boobilicious? I nodded my head and helped her down. We passed Conner and all his friends, who were sitting around a table at the edge of the crowd. He waved me over and handed me two icy cold frozen margaritas. Lea stumbled ahead of me through the crowds, wobbling through a hallway towards what I guessed were the bathrooms.
I tried to follow her, inching my way through the crowd, and carefully holding on to the two drinks. Of course, I lost sight of her and was stranded in the middle of a crowd of hot, sweaty dancing strangers. Great.
Before I knew where I was, I heard a loud commotion in the crowd behind me. A fight had broken out among a group of extremely drunk guys. I continued to move forward in the direction I thought Lea had drunkenly walked. She had to be even drunker than I thought to have lost me and not realized it.
As the brawl got more out of control, I found myself smack in front of the stage. A smaller blonde haired girl and I found ourselves trapped between the stage and the fight, when an elbow from one of the guys rammed into her and she bounced off me, causing both of the ice cold drinks to spill down the front of my very white tee shirt.
The crowd was chanting and screaming at the brawlers, but all I could look at was the icy cold fabric clinging to my skin. Of course, there was the fact that I had a lacy red bra on which now could be seen through my now very wet tee shirt. I threw the empty plastic cups down to the floor. “Crap! Son of a...”
Black leather motorcycle boots jumped from somewhere above me and landed at my feet. Startled, I stepped back. The lead singer, Shane, had jumped off the stage and was now staring down at me with a flirty smile on his face. “Wow,” he smirked.
I rolled my eyes, backed up another step, only to be shoved from the fight that was going on behind me, right into his arms. I pushed off him as if I landed on fire. His eyes were ice cold blue.
He pulled me away from the group of guys who were wrestling with the bouncer now. I covered my wet shirt with my arms, feeling completely naked.
One of the other guys from the band, the drummer, jumped off the stage next. “Come on, Shane!” He grabbed Shane by the shoulder and pulled him towards the fight.
“Yeah, one sec, bro,” he answered his friend, but never took his eyes off of mine. He grabbed his tee shirt from his waist and pulled it over his head. He was all smooth muscle, as if he was painstakingly chiseled from marble. Oh my, I hope I’m not drooling.
He shoved his shirt into my hands and smiled a wicked smile. “Sorry your drinks spilled...but not really.” Then he winked and dove into the fight behind me to help the bouncer and he disappeared into a crowd of flying fists and legs.
As everyone around us continued to cheer on the fight, I headed for what I hoped was the bathroom and found Lea on the floor of a stall hugging a toilet. When she heard the door close, she lifted her head and gave me a half smile of embarrassment. “Gracie. I’ve been chemically inconvenienced and I don’t think I can ever leave this toilet. Take a picture of this so I remember never to do it again.”
“Lea, I have a huge file folder of those pictures on my computer. It won’t stop you.” I knelt down next to my best friend and pulled her blonde hair from her face. I grabbed a ponytail holder from the front pocket of my jeans and tied her hair back.
Her big brown eyes looked into mine and I saw tears fill the edges of them. “Jake’s really gone?”
I nodded. Saying anything would make me start crying again.
She moaned, heaved into the toilet again, and I just rubbed her back. “How do you do it, Gray? How can you watch people die over and over again? I can’t even imagine him not in this world anymore.”
I sat back and leaned against the door of the stall. My eyes flitted over the small space, amazed at how clean it actually was for a bar. I didn’t want to talk about this; about anything. I didn’t want to feel anymore. This was hell. “Lea. He suffered. He was too good for this world; no one should feel that pain. I wish it were me, Lea. I don’t know how I do this. I don’t know anything. I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.”
“I don’t want you to say you wished it was you. I almost lost you once, you were my miracle.”
I hugged her tight. “Let’s get off this floor, okay.” I helped her up, took her to the sink, and helped her wash up. I hoped she would drop the subject, but I knew she had to grieve somehow for Jacob. After all, we were closer than family.
We grew up next door to each other, born the same day, she five minutes before me. Our families said we were destined to be best friends; like sisters. Our mothers and fathers were best friends. When I was fourteen, I lost my parents in a horrific car accident and I almost died. I did, actually. For two minutes, I clinically died. Months later, when I opened my eyes, I was a different person. I remembered Grace’s childhood, I knew all her friends, her crushes, her pains. However, the real Grace moved on, her beautiful spirit evaporating like raindrops into the heavens. Only I stayed behind, stuck here, as if I was super-glued to the earth. My soul’s punishment for something that happened so long ago.
After my hospital stay and my rehabilitation, Lea’s parents took Jacob and me in, not that we needed for anything. My parents had a life insurance policy that was astronomical, so Jacob and I would never want for anything. Ever.
Jake didn’t live with us long though. He was eighteen, used some of our inheritance to go to Cornell University in Ithaca, and lived on campus. Lea and I visited him as much as we could and he came home every holiday. We were a family.
I knew she needed to grieve.
“Hey, what happened to your shirt? You’re sopping wet! Nice bra.”
I looked down, remembering the spilled drinks and I laughed. “A fight broke out in the middle of the bar and I kind of got caught in it. I spilled our drinks all over myself.”
“Ah, man, our drinks spilled? Were they margaritas? Did you kick their asses?”
Leave it to Lea to think that I should kick someone’s ass over a spilled drink. I stripped off my wet shirt and put on Shane’s dry one.
“Where did you get a shirt? Did you come with extra clothes? Did you go shopping without me? What the...”
“The singer, Shane, right? He took off his shirt and gave it to me.” I cut her off before she asked anymore of her dumb drunk questions.
“Shane gave you the shirt off his back?” Her expression was sheer confusion. “Be careful of that one. He’s slippery like a fish.”
I wrapped one arm around her waist and helped her drunk-walk out of the bathroom. “I think I can safely say that you have nothing to worry about there, because he’s definitely not my type.”
She leaned her head against mine as we exited the bathroom and she giggled. “Gray, there’s no such thing as your type, that’s for fairytales. You gotta just hook up with a bunch of wrong guys for a while and have fun.”
I missed her drunken soliloquies. It hadn’t been the same being so far from her and listening to her being a mother hen to me over the phone.
Conner was obediently standing outside in the hallway and looked beyond relieved when we finally emerged from the bathroom. He grabbed her and helped her walk over to the table where the rest of the people he was with were sitting. The crowd in the bar seemed to have thinned out and the stage was empty. I wondered how long we had been on that bathroom floor.
We sat around the table and Conner gave Lea a bottle of water that she sipped continuously. Lea politely introduced me to Conner’s friend Tucker.
Conner worked in a large accounting firm; Tucker had just finished law school and he was working in his father’s firm. The two of them and all the members of the band had known each other since high school.
To confuse me even more, Conner and Tucker were explaining to me that most of them were roommates and they all lived in the same apartment building. It all sounded like a bad episode of Friends to me.
“Hey, how’d you like the brawl?” a voice called from behind us.
We all turned to see Shane, pulling a chair to the table between Lea and me, with a confused looking blonde who stood next to him. The blonde looked around and seemed to wonder if she should sit or stand, then decided to sit on his lap and start nibbling on his ear. He was still shirtless and the blonde had the biggest set of silicone breasts I had ever seen in real life. They were so enormous, I wanted to see if they’d make a big pop if I poked them with a fork.
“Ugh, Shane, get a kennel for your lapdog. The sounds of her slopping your ear is making me wanna hurl again,” Lea muttered.
The blonde stopped and looked at Lea. “Jealous much?”
I watched Lea’s knuckles turn white with the force of her grip on the table. “Yeah, I’m always jealous of Shane’s conquests. They are the equivalent of a blow up doll with the brains to match.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Blondie snapped.
“See, you just proved my point.” Lea looked at me and smiled. “Maybe if we use big words, it will leave?”
I shrugged and laughed. “Lea, you know you should never have a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent.”
“Shut up, skanks! You’re both just jealous.” Blondie yelped, puffing her giant silicone chest out at us.
“Slut,” Lea smiled.
I gave the blonde a serious face. “Yeah, listen you should really stop now, because I’m betting on the smartest thing that ever could come out of your mouth is a penis.”
Lea lost it and the water she was drinking burst from her mouth and landed all over blonde Amazon breast girl. She jumped off Shane’s lap and scrambled to her feet. “Shane! Stick up for me! She just got me all wet!” she whined and then she stomped her foot like a kid having a tantrum.
Lea and I bumped heads laughing. I tried not to, but I looked at Shane and he was staring right at me. I held his gaze. His eyes were crystal clear blue and breathtaking. I wasn’t used to seeing people with eyes so piercing. Usually people mentioned it about my eyes, which were light gray, almost silver.
He smiled at me with what I guessed was the smile he used to make most girls act as if they’d suddenly dropped fifty IQ points. I felt nothing. Truthfully, I felt bad for the blonde.
The muscles of his chest flexed, but I pretended not to notice it. He wore his sex appeal like a medal, mentally undressing me. I rolled my eyes at him and shook my head. “Hey, thanks for the shirt before. Would have been cold walking home like that.”
Blondie stomped her foot again to get his attention, but he didn’t seem to notice. “This is the one you gave your shirt to? I want a shirt too!”
I looked to Lea and gave her the let’s get outta this bad soap opera signal and stood up. I turned to blondie and smiled. “Just think of it like this, I got him half-naked for you already. Try to enjoy yourself. He looks like someone who has a land mine in his pants.”
“Huh?” She gave me a really confused look.
“You know a land mine; small, hidden, and explodes on contact.”
Shane’s eyes widened for a split second, and then he stood up and leaned against the table blocking my way past. “So you must be Lea’s best friend, the one she grew up with and talks about all the time, huh?”
“Must be,” I snapped.
His grin became wider. “Do you have a name?”
“Yes, I do,” I replied, but not telling him.
Lea started laughing at our standoff. She folded her arms and watched. “Conner, watch her outwit him, just watch.” Her slurred words made her sound like a cartoon character.
Shane glared at Lea and back to me and smiled devilishly. Ice cold eyes. “I’ll just call you Red then, since I can’t get my mind off that sexy little bra I saw you in before.” His smile lifted up in one corner challenging me.
I leaned in really close to him and slowly lifted my eyes to meet his. “Why not Lacy? Or, did you miss out on the soft silk and lace material it was made from? Too bad, you’ll only get to see the color. You know, if you’re going to be a smart ass you should start with being smart, otherwise, you’re really just an ass. Enjoy the rest of your night.”
I held my palm up to his face when he tried to talk. “Please, save your breath, because you might need it to blow up your date later.” I walked past him and out the front door.
Lea was giggling behind me. “Gray, I think you made history in there, as the first girl ever not to jump into bed with Shane Maxton after he gave one of his Coochie Award winning smiles.”