“Damon, would you at least think about it? Is your decision the be all, end all of our careers?”
“No, Razor, I’m just not ready.”
“Look, Rolling Stone magazine is a big freaking deal, man! I get that you’ve been in it before so maybe it’s not as cool to you, or whatever, but they want to interview us! It’s for one of those tiny articles at the beginning of the mag that no one even reads, but it’s damn good press. Do you want to play droll country covers in Tootsie’s for the rest of your life, or play our own stuff? This is it, fame in the United States, something you’ve never quite achieved, and now it’s calling your name!”
Damon shook his head, “We aren’t ready Razor.”
“Ready?” Razor exclaims, “What is it with you? We’re more than ready! We’ve been at this for almost four years now, building a name in the city, playing every street corner and dive bar on the strip. Why did we do this you ask? We’ve been waiting for our big break! At least that’s what I thought this was about.”
“It’s about the music, Ray. The music always comes first.”
“Alright, it’s about the music, but after that it’s about our big break. This is it!”
Damon looks up at his energetic friend, wondering if Razor knows what the real reason is that he can’t get on board the speed train to success. It wasn’t as if Damon enjoyed living in their cramped cabin, counting every penny to make sure they ate for a week. If he felt like he could take that next step, he would. But, she wouldn’t let him.
As if Razor could read his mind he asks, “Is this about Kaylie?”
Damon’s brown eyes flicked to the emerald green ones of his best friend, and in that one look, he confirmed all of Razor’s suspicions. He hated that he was letting him down, but without Kaylie his music never seemed to flow quite right. It was as if he needed her to be any good, and he hated her for that. Why was she such an important part of making music? What about her made him so much better? Damon had never been able to put a finger on it, and he was sure that he probably never would. But, until he achieved the same sound he had been making with Kaylie all those years, he wasn’t going to go pro again. He couldn’t do it if he didn’t feel completely committed, and even though Razor and he had a good thing going, it wasn’t perfect.
“Dude,” Razor says, “You know I get it. It’s hard to let go of something you had for so long, but you have to. It’s not healthy to wait around for something that’s never going to come your way.”
“Look,” Damon replies, “In the four years we’ve been doing this, have I ever steered you wrong?”
“No, I suppose you haven’t,” Razor sighs.
“Exactly, so when I say we aren’t ready, we aren’t ready.”
“That’s bullshit Damon and you know it.”
“Kaylie is out there somewhere living without you, why can’t you do the same and go on without her?”
“You really want to get into this, Ray?”
“Yeah, I really do. This concerns the future of my career, so I think I deserve to know what the hell is going on in that stupidly handsome head of yours!”
“She makes me better, Razor. That’s it. That’s really all there is to my relationship with Kaylie Cruz. My sound, my attitude, everything is just better with her around. Without her I feel like a shadow of the Damon I once was, and believe me, I know how melodramatic that sounds.”
“Damon, I get it. But, do you remember how beaten down you were when you first came to Tennessee? You weren’t better. If anything, you were worse, a shadow of yourself as you so eloquently put it. She broke you in the end, and now you need to drop the crutch and walk on your own. Well, you know, I’ll help, but other than that you are completely on your own.”
Damon smiled, “Just give me some time to think, would you?”
“Of course, I have to take a trip over to the Horseshoe Tavern anyway.”
“Uh huh, is Max tending bar there this evening?”
“Yeah,” Razor said, clearly blushing.
Damon and Razor had met Max Lyons at the Horseshoe one night when they had been playing a gig there. Five minutes into their conversation and Damon couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Max wasn’t shy about how much he liked Razor, and Razor wasn’t shy about how much he liked the attention. The two of them had gone on a few dates since meeting, and Damon had never seen Razor happier. After everything that had happened to Razor a few years back, Damon couldn’t help but break into a grin every time he saw the two of them hold hands, in public no less. It was good to see his friend move on. It made him wonder why he couldn’t do it himself.
“Have a good time. Should I expect you home?” he asks.
“Let’s hope not,” Razor replies, winking, “I’ll see you later!”
“Bye, man,” Damon says as the door to the house closes behind Razor.
Their little cabin had slowly been fixed up over the last couple of years. The roof only leaked occasionally now, and the siding had been completely replaced. Regardless, Damon wouldn’t trade this home for anything. He still loved the wide open spaces, and the lack of neighbors. He wasn’t sure he was ready to give all of this tranquility up in exchange for fame.
Razor had never truly experienced notoriety. It seemed glamorous, but in actuality it was completely exhausting. There was always someone to talk to, or somewhere to be. You were never truly alone, never at peace. Fame swallows people whole, he thought. It had gotten Kaylie, who’s to say it wouldn’t get Razor too. He couldn’t lose any more people. It might break him, permanently this time.
There was a knock at the door, very harsh, as though it was demanding Damon come and answer. He hadn’t been expecting anyone, so when he opened the door and saw who was standing on the other side of it he was even more confused.
“Hey there, Damon, long time no see.”
Damon just stood there, not saying anything. He did his best never to think about Kaylie, but what are the odds that, on a day that he’d been thinking about practically nothing else, her best friend would show up on his doorstep? It was eerie. What was he doing here?
“Are you going to let me in?” Kyle asks after a few too many seconds of silence.
“Oh, uh, yeah sure, come on in,” Damon says holding the door open for his thin, blonde guest.
“Interesting place you have here. Never pegged you for the outdoorsy type.”
“Yeah, well there’s a lot of things you don’t know about me,” Damon replies, regaining his momentum.
Kyle shrugs, “I suppose you’re right. We never were the best of friends.”
“True, so you won’t mind then if I ask you why you’re here.”
“No I wouldn’t mind.”
“So… why are you here?”
“Oh, right, uh… I’m here on behalf of Kaylie.”
“She asked you to come here?”
“Not exactly, but I’m doing this for her own good.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s gone a little… crazy? I’m not sure how else to describe it.”
Damon could feel his heart hammering in his chest, “Kyle, what happened?”
“We left Japan a few years ago, not long after the two of you split. Since then we’ve kind of been all over the place, never really settling in once place for more than a few months. At first I thought it was just Kaylie trying to get you out of her system by spending a lot of money, and going to places where she could make new memories, you know, without… you.”
Damon shifted uncomfortably, “But?”
“But, I realized later that it was much, much more than just running from you. She started getting thin, and then I realized that she was skipping a few meals here and there. Pretty soon, I was having a hard time remembering if she had eaten at all in the last forty-eight hours I’d been with her. She got so thin, Damon, I’m surprised she didn’t just break in half.”
“And you just let her get that way?”
“Of course not! Paula and I practically begged her to get help, but she claimed she was fine, just feeling a little sick, and that she would be better soon. I kind of think she had herself convinced that her story was true. I think she might still think it’s true, I honestly… I don’t know what’s going through her head. I used to be able to read her like a book, but not anymore.”
“Okay, so she’s anorexic. Why are you coming to tell me this? She kicked me to the curb remember? Kaylie doesn’t want my help.”
“But, she needs it.”
“Why? Why are you or Paula not good enough?”
Kyle sighs, “Her mom just died last week, stage five lymphoma. Kaylie had a mental breakdown. She cried for about four hours straight, and after that the screaming started.”
Damon was completely taken aback by Kyle’s words, he had very fond memories of Kaylie’s mother, but he didn’t want Kyle getting any ideas about how much he cared, “She’s grieving, Kyle, it’s normal.”
“Believe me this was far from normal.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because of what she was screaming.”
“And what was that?”
Kyle nodded, “Your name over, and over until she finally lost her voice. After that she just stared at the wall of our hotel room in Prague rocking back and forth for almost a day. Thankfully we were in the penthouse where none of the other guests could hear.”
“Why would she yell my name?”
“I don’t know, but Damon she needs help, and I don’t think anyone else is going to be able to convince her to get it.”
“Let me get this straight, you want me to fly to Prague and convince Kaylie Cruz to go to rehab?”
“Honestly, no. What I really want you to do is fly to England, spring her out of the British psych ward where she is currently under observation, and then take her to Boulder, Colorado.”
“What?” Damon exclaimed. “And this would be helping her how?”
“I realized that you aren’t the only thing she’s been running from. Kaylie’s mom has been sick for years, even before the two of you broke up, and Kaylie knew about it. She didn’t go to visit her mother once, and now her mom is dead. She’s harboring all this guilt, and she’s pushed everyone out of her life that she has ever felt any real feelings for. She needs to confront them, head on. That means she needs to go to her mother’s funeral, see you, see her father, and make peace with herself. If she doesn’t do that, there’s no way she will ever beat this.”
Damon wasn’t sure he had ever heard Kyle speak so intelligently, or so openly to anyone before. He was known for being the life of the party, but not because of his knowledge on any number of topics (unless knowledge of how to do a freakishly long keg stand counts). This took Damon by surprise, but more than that, it made Damon listen, truly listen, to what Kyle was really saying.
Kaylie was pushing people away, not just Damon, but everyone around her. She was sick. Maybe that was the cause of all of her partying, of everything that she had been doing when Damon finally decided he’d had enough. Could he have missed all the pain she had been going through? Was she that good at hiding her feelings? He had to know. He had to try, for the sake of trying, to get through to Kaylie and make her realize that having people in your life is a better alternative to feeling completely alone, even if the people you love get hurt.
“Okay, you’ve convinced me.”
“Good, we leave in an hour,” Kyle replies.
“How did you know I would agree to come with you?”
“Well, I’m not psychic, so I didn’t. But, I hoped you would. Now get packing, we need to book it to the airport.”
“I’m going to have to ask you to purchase another ticket. I can’t do this alone, Kyle.”
“I’ll be with you.”
Damon gave him a look, “You know what I mean.”
Damon took out his phone and hit Razor’s contact.
“Do you miss me already?” Razor picks up.
“Ray, I need you to come back here.”
Sensing the urgency in Damon’s voice, Razor’s joking demeanor quickly fades away, “Damon, what’s wrong?”
“Uh, I need you to take a trip to London with me.”
“It’s kind of a long story, but in short Kaylie needs me, and I can’t go this alone.”
There’s a short pause, “I’ll be there in five, dude, no worries.”
“Thank you, Razor.”
“Don’t mention it. This is what we do right? You were there for me with John, now it’s time for me to return the favor.”
“Alright I gotta pack up, see you soon.”
Damon hung up the phone and then sprang into action. He wasn’t sure how long he’d be gone so he packed all the essentials and couple changes of clothes. He slung his duffel bag and his guitar up over his shoulder just as Razor was walking in the door.
“You’re taking your guitar to England?”
“Hey, wherever I go, Susie goes too. You know that.”
In the corner of the room Kyle groans, “Can we just get out of here? We are going to miss our flight.”
Razor points to Kyle and asks, “Who’s the fag?”
Damon bursts out laughing allowing the stress of his current situation to momentarily dissipate.
“Takes one to know one, loser,” Kyle shoots back.
“Ooh, I like ‘em feisty,” Razor replies.
“Razor, this is Kyle Everhart. Kyle, this is my roommate, Razor Smet.”
Kyle holds out his hand, “I’m Kaylie Cruz’s best gay. It’s nice to meet you. Now if you could just get that little butt of yours in gear that would be great.”
Razor smirks, and shakes Kyle’s hand saying nothing. Then he heads back to his room to pack a bag. The next few hours of Damon’s life pass in a blur before his eyes. The airport and most of the flight are plagued by fear, fear that Kaylie won’t want to see him, fear of what she will be like if she does, but mostly, fear of what might happen to her if it turns out he can’t help her. Would she ever recover?
Razor did he best to keep his friend’s mind off of things by watching movies or making small talk, but by the end of the flight he was deep in conversation with Kyle, leaving Damon to his own thoughts. For being so different, the two of them sure had a lot to talk about. When they finally touched down in London, the two of them had exhausted every topic from the state of the American economy, to who wore it best on the red carpet at the Oscars last week. Eerily, they agreed on practically everything they talked about, and even had to be shushed by the stewardess a few times for getting “too rowdy”. Damon was annoyed, to say the least. Razor wasn’t helping him at all, and wasn’t that why he came in the first place?
Razor was silent on the taxi ride to the sanitarium, as if he knew Damon wasn’t pleased with him.
“Okay, I have to warn you two about something,” Kyle says. “Kaylie… well she isn’t herself.”
“I think we’ve established that she’s very sick, Ky,” Razor replies.
“No, I don’t mean just the anorexia. The trauma she’s put herself through has caused some mental issues as well. A lot of times she isn’t sure where she is, she sometimes doesn’t remember people that should be familiar to her, and she has hallucinations and dizzy spells quite often. It’s a rare side effect of her illness, but her doctors think that the anorexia, plus the pain and guilt she has put herself through over her mother, has caused some kind of psychotic break in her mind. I just want you to know, especially you Damon, that she might not know who you are, and not to take it personally. It’s her disease that does it.”
Damon nods, but says nothing. In his mind he begins to numb himself, hoping not to feel much when he sees Kaylie, at least not at first. He has to keep a level head about all of this, or he might lose himself the exact same way Kaylie had.
The institution Kaylie was admitted to was actually very nice. It wasn’t like any mental ward or asylum Damon had ever seen on TV. It was a large white building with rose bushes in the front yard. The first floor had a large lobby full of patients, some obviously more afflicted with mental illness than others. There were various paintings from the impressionist era on the walls, and symphonic music played over speakers. The orderlies were all dressed in maroon scrubs, their sneakers making very little noise against the carpeted floor.
The nurse at the front desk smiles widely as the three boys walk up to her, her blonde bob shining in the fluorescent lighting, “Can I help you gentlemen?” she lilts in a textbook British accent.
“Yes… Janice,” Kyle says, reading her nametag, “We’re here to see Kaylie Cruz.”
“Oh, how sweet, she’ll be positively overjoyed to have visitors. A regular people person, she is. Just sign in, all of you, right here,” she says pointing to a clipboard on the desk. “She’s having a rather good day, I’m happy to report. No episodes, perfectly lucid, I don’t think she’ll give you much trouble anyway.”
After they had all signed in Janice gave them each a nametag that let all the orderlies know who they are, who they were there to see, and for how long. Damon’s breath became increasingly short as Kyle led Razor and him up the stairs to Kaylie’s room. Janice had informed them that Kaylie was doing well today, but would she still be alright when Damon walked into the room? It had been so long, how did she feel about him?
They reached a room at the very end of a long, stark white hallway and Kyle turned to them, “Let me go in first. I’ve been here before, so it won’t be a shock to her. I’ll prep her for you Damon, okay? Just wait for my signal.”
“Okay,” Damon nodded, barely getting the word out.
Kyle nodded in reassurance and opened the door to Kaylie’s room.
“Hey gorgeous girl, how are you doing?” he exclaims and closes the door behind him. The minute the door latches shut, Damon turns and stalks down the hallway.
“Hey!” Razor yells, running after him. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I can’t do this,” Damon replies.
“What are you talking about? Damon you are the most confusing human being I have ever known. All you’ve been doing since you left this girl is try to find an excuse to get back to her. Now you have your excuse, she needs you, and you’re running away. I don’t get it.”
“What if she hates me? Or worse, what if she doesn’t remember me?”
“You make her remember. You sing to her, or tell her a story about an amazing time you two had together, or if worst comes to worst you kiss the girl! Damon, don’t give up on her before you’ve even seen her. Don’t assume she’ll react a certain way. From what you’ve told me, she’s a surprising girl. Give her a little credit.”
Damon swallowed, not sure what to do. Razor was right, and yet every part of his body was telling him to run in the other direction and never look back. At that moment, as if the universe was deciding for him, the door to Kaylie’s room opened and Kyle poked his head out.
“Hey, she’s ready for you, you guys. What are you doing way down there?”
“Come on, Damon,” Razor urges, “You can do this. Go rescue your damsel.”
Damon closed his eyes and sighed heavily. The walk back down the hallway seemed twice as long as the first time, as if everything was suddenly happening in slow motion. And then he was in the room, and he was looking right at her, but was it her? She had Kaylie’s face, but she was… different. Her hair, which had always been sleek and long, was cut into a short bob that barely hit her chin. The chocolate brown eyes that Damon had stared into on more than one occasion were bloodshot and sunken into her face. And then there was her body. What had once been a muscular, athletic temple was now willowy, and thin. Kaylie had wasted away to practically nothing, and Damon had not been there to help her.
What had he done?
“Hello,” she said to him, and even her voice had changed. It was quiet, weaker, almost like a murmur, instead of the defiant, headstrong tone Damon had come to love.
“Hey there,” Damon replied. “Uh, how are you?”
“How do I look like I am?” she asks, her tone almost bitter.
“You look beautiful,” Damon answers almost immediately.
“And you’re still a bad liar.”
“I’m not lying.”
“Damon, what are you doing here?”
“Kyle asked me to come.”
“He thinks I can help you get better. Little does he know I’m the last person you would ever listen to.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me. I just feel light-headed every once in a while. That’s all.”
“Of course, do you mind if I sit?”
“I guess not.”
Damon takes a seat next to her on her bed, a small, wiry thing that creaked from use. He didn’t really know what to say next, so they sat in silence for a moment.
“I, uh, brought you this,” he said handing her a leather bound notebook, like the ones she used to write lyrics in. “I thought maybe writing would be therapeutic for you or something.”
Then Kaylie said, “So what have you been doing since I last saw you?”
“Music mostly, with a friend of mine down in Tennessee, do you remember Razor Smet? I used to play with him before.”
“I do my best not to think about before.”
“Right,” Damon replied. Silence ensued again. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t bring up the past, it would only upset her. But, what if Kyle was right? What if bringing it up was the only way to help her? He had to try something.
“Do you remember the first time we played together, like onstage? It was at the Pizza Shack, remember, in Boulder.”
Kaylie didn’t respond.
Damon pulled his guitar out of its case, “How did that song you wrote go? Uh…”
He tried to remember the cords to Kaylie’s first song. It had been for a friend that had died of anorexia. Her death had made Kaylie realize how important it was that she get better. Maybe if Damon could play it, she’d remember that again.
Finding the right fingerings Damon started to sing, “Like a shooting star across the sky, you kiss the clouds and softly sigh, goodnight.”
Kaylie’s part of the song came next, and as she opened her mouth Damon was sure she would sing with him, but instead she said, “Stop, please stop.”
“I think you should go, Damon.”
“Kaylie do you remember why you wrote that song?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Why not? What was her name?”
“Her name, Kaylie, your friend’s name!”
“I don’t want to talk about it!”
“Kaylie, you need to. Tell me what her name was.”
She’s quiet for a minute and then she mumbles something.
“Maeve,” she practically whispers, “Her name was Maeve.”
“Maeve, now was that so hard? Can you remember the lesson that Maeve taught you? Do you remember how you felt when you found out she died, and more importantly why she died?”
Kaylie shakes her head.
“Come on, Kay. You can do this. You have to do this, or it’s going to win.”
“The monster, Kaylie, you’re letting the monster beat you. But, you are strong enough to beat it. I know you are.”
“But, Damon,” she says, pulling at his hand, not really looking at him, “It’s so much easier just to let it win. Can’t I just stop fighting for once? I have nothing left to lose.”
“You can let it win, sure. But, you do have something left to lose, multiple things in fact. So don’t you believe for one second that there isn’t anything left to fight for.”
She turns away from him and pulls her knees into her chest, “What’s left for me, Damon? Please, enlighten me.”
“I am,” he replies, voice shaking. “I’m left. I’m here for you, and I— I still love you Kaylie. I never stopped. And then there’s Kyle. He is worried sick about you. He tries not to show it, but I think I know him better than he thinks I do. Not to mention somewhere across the pond you have a heartbroken father that I am sure misses you more than anything, and friends that haven’t seen you in years. I am almost positive that they would all welcome you back with open arms, Lauren and Payson, Sasha, Summer. Don’t tell me there’s nothing to fight for, because everything is still there, you’ve just pushed it all away so it can’t hurt you.”
“It’s better that way.”
“Is it? Look where you are Kaylie. Is this better?”
She doesn’t say anything for a while, just looks at him as if she is trying to decide whether or not he’s really there.
“You… You love me?” she asks finally. “Even after all the crap I put you through, even after how I pushed you away? Even after… the other men, and the drugs?”
“Even after all that, I can’t get you out of my system.”
Kaylie looks away.
“Play me something,” she says finally. “Play me something new.”
“Uh, alright,” he replies. “Do you mind if I ask Razor to come in here and help me?”
“I guess not.”
Damon gets up and opens the door. Razor and Kyle both walk in, hovering very close to one another.
“Hey, sing ‘Still Need You’ with me would you?”
“Oh, sure thing man,” Razor replies, shooting Kaylie a sweet smile. She didn’t smile back.
They started the song, and as Razor and Damon’s harmonies flowed seamlessly together, Kaylie began to perk up. It wasn’t much, just more eye contact, the corner of her mouth upturned. By the end of the song she was sitting back with her eyes closed, just listening and when the last chord sounded she sighed audibly.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anything like that,” she says.
“Like what?” he asks.
“So… real,” she replies wistfully, like she’s remembering a dream. “You wrote that Damon?”
“Tennessee was the right place for me to mend my soul. I found everything I’d been missing in my backyard, well, Razor’s backyard. There are fields there that you can sit in, and see nothing but grass for miles. It gives you a sort of ethereal, earthly feeling. It let me see the more important things in life by erasing all the bullshit from my memory.”
“Do you want to go there?”
Her eyes shoot up, “Are you serious?”
“Completely. I think the fresh air will do you a lot of good, that is, if you don’t mind entering the United States.”
Her demeanor changed then. All the joy and hope in her eyes dissipates, a look of fear set in its place.
“Kaylie, what did Maeve teach you?”
“Damon, I can’t. You just don’t understand.”
Damon hesitates, “Is this because of your mom?”
“Who told you about that?” Kaylie demands.
“That’s not important. You need to confront this Kaylie. Your mom died, and you were too afraid to confront her in life, but you can honor her in death. She wouldn’t want you to be this way Kaylie. She would want you to be healthy and happy, even if it’s hard at first.”
Kaylie had a pained look on her face, like she didn’t want to hear what Damon had to say. All of a sudden her demeanor completely changed. Her face twisted into a terrified grimace, and she started to scream:
“Leave me alone! I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Just go away!”
Kyle rushed to her side, “She’s hallucinating,” he explained.
“What is she seeing?” Razor asked.
“It’s hard to say. A lot of times she sees her mother, her father, sometimes Lauren or Sasha, but mostly she sees Damon.”
“What?” Damon asks.
“I don’t know why. The doctors think it has a lot to do with what she feels most guilty for. Try to talk her down from it.”
Damon took Kaylie’s shoulders to try and stop her from thrashing around. Her eyes were wider than he thought they ever be, and she was shaking uncontrollably, even with his arms around her. He turned her to face him, their noses inches apart.
“Kaylie, hey, look at me!”
Her eyes were glossed over, like she was looking past him instead of directly at him, lost in some kind of trance.
“Kaylie, what you’re seeing isn’t real. I’m real. Look at me. Kaylie!”
As if someone had flipped a switch, Kaylie’s vision suddenly came back into focus.
“But, you were just---“
“That wasn’t me. I’m right here.”
She looked confused for a moment, and then a wave of realization hit her full force. Her lower lip trembled as the tears began to fall down her face. She threw her arms forcefully around Damon’s neck and sobbed, for what felt to him like forever.
“What’s happening to me?” she asked, finally calm enough to speak.
“I don’t know,” Damon replied. “But, I’m going to help you get better.”
“Do you promise? Do you promise you won’t give up on me?”
Was she really here? Was this actually happening, or was it another hallucination? Damon said that she’d been having a lot of them lately, so Kaylie was never completely sure that what she was seeing was real. She felt his hand on her elbow now, guiding her forward, keeping her steady with the smallest touch.
She had worn pink today. What a stupid idea that had been. Everyone else was in black. Black was the color you wore to funerals. Her mother would have hated that. She would have wanted every color of the rainbow in attendance, with flowers in their hair, and smiles on their faces. Instead people were wearing black. Kaylie wanted to throw up.
“Are you okay?” Damon asked her.
She nodded, not wanting him to know that her insides felt like they were turning to mush. She wanted to be strong, like he was always telling her she was. Was she? Kaylie could never figure out why Damon had come back to her. He had told her so many times how horrible she was. Or had that been in one of her dreams? Honestly, she had no clue.
“Are you ready for this?”
This time she shook her head, knowing that Damon was already aware of the answer to his question. He would know she was lying if she said yes.
“I’ll be with you the whole time. Tell me if you get overwhelmed and I’ll get you out, okay?”
“Okay,” she whispered back to him. He was too good to her. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it as hard as she could, which she soon realized, was not very hard at all.
The funeral home was teeming with people. Apparently her mother had been very popular in life, although Kaylie didn’t recognize most of the people there. None of them recognized her either, and she didn’t blame them. Lately, when she looked in the mirror she didn’t recognize herself either.
“Do you want to go say hi to your Dad?” Damon asks, pointing out Alex Cruz’s familiar form across the room.
“Okay, let’s go sit down then.”
She followed Damon, trying to keep her head down, hoping no one would see her. But, soon enough she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Kaylie, is that you?”
Damon turned first, and she saw a look of surprise register on his face before saying, “Hey there.”
“Damon, hi. Wow, Kaylie you look so… different.”
Kaylie turned, knowing who she would see, but was surprised nonetheless. Lauren Tanner stood there, wearing a black maxi dress and pearls, her hair up in a classy chignon adorned with a flame red flower that made Kaylie think, once again, of her mother. Lauren looked different, but not in a bad way. Her strong, athlete’s body was still intact, her skin was tan and flawless, and age, it seems, had done her justice. However, what was truly surprising, was a number of other things. To begin with, on one side of Lauren stood a teenage girl, practically a carbon copy of Lauren, who could only be her daughter. On her right side, even more surprising, is a man in a wheelchair that looks extremely familiar. It only takes one look at his sandy brown hair and warm, chocolate brown eyes to know that he is Brian Kmetko, Emily’s younger brother. But, even more surprising than all of that, is the size of the ring on Lauren’s finger, not to mention the swollen size of her stomach. Kaylie stands speechless.
Lauren fills the silence, “I’m so sorry for your loss, but I’m glad to see you came. It’s been so long,” she said, holding out her arms for an embrace that Kaylie accepted awkwardly. She spoke true; it had been a very long time since Kaylie had seen Lauren. So long, that it was hard to believe they had been best friends throughout most of their lives.
“Damon, Kaylie, you remember Brian Kmetko, Emily’s brother.”
“Hey, Bry,” Damon replied, shaking Brian’s hand. “Long time, no see.”
“You could say that again. It’s actually really great to see you man.”
“So you and Lauren are…?”
“Engaged,” Lauren answers. “We’re waiting to have the wedding until after the baby is born.”
“Congratulations,” Damon replied. “I’m not going to lie, I never really saw that one coming.”
“Neither did we,” Lauren says taking Brian’s hand in hers.
The young girl, on Lauren’s left snorted then.
Lauren’s smile disappeared as she turned to the teenager, “And, this is my daughter Chantal, known to her friends as Cha-Cha. She has an obnoxious nickname and an attitude to match. Chantal, this is Kaylie Cruz, a very old friend of mine, and her… boyfriend, Damon Young.”
“It’s nice to meet you, and I’m very sorry for your loss,” Chantal replied, her voice bringing back a flood of memories of Lauren at her age. It was like going back in time. It made Kaylie’s head hurt.
“Thank you, Chantal. It’s very nice to meet you too. Lauren, you look beautiful, and I’m so happy for you and Brian.”
Lauren looked taken aback, like she hadn’t expected Kaylie to say anything nice to her, “Thank you, Kaylie. That means a lot to me. Have you talked to your dad yet? I’m sure he really wants to see you.”
“No, I haven’t. I, uh--- I just need to sit down for a minute. Excuse me.”
Kaylie hobbled over to a chair near the back of the home. Her ankles felt like they were about to snap. How did she become so weak? When did high heels suddenly become the most difficult thing in her life to master?
This is what happens when you stop eating altogether, and the only thing that feeds you is your guilt.
She shook her head, trying to clear out all of the bad thoughts like the doctor at her rehab center had once told her to do. She needed to focus on the task at hand. This was about making amends, dispelling this remorse she had been holding on to for so long. She got up from where she was sitting, and walked over to Damon, who was still conversing with Brian. Grabbing his hand, she excused them and walked over to the line of people waiting to give condolences to her father, her heart hammering in her chest.
When it was her turn to walk forward, and she knew her father had spotted her, she found that her feet were locked in place, unable to propel her forward. She was frozen, looking at her aged father. He looked beaten, weathered by time. Kaylie couldn’t even imagine how she must look to him, all sunken in and feeble.
“Kaylie, oh hija, it is so good to see you. Thank you for coming,” he gingerly wrapped his arms around Kaylie, as if he was afraid he might break her.
“Thank Damon. I don’t think I’d be here without him.”
“Damon, thank you for bringing my little girl home,” Alex said, hugging him with more force.
“Daddy?” Kaylie says suddenly.
“Yes, sweetheart, what can I do for you?”
“Would you mind if I said a few words during the service? I feel like---“Kaylie’s voice broke. “I feel like that would be very therapeutic for me.”
“Absolutely my darling girl, your mother would have wanted it. And also, your mother would have loved that dress.”
Kaylie noticed then, that her father was wearing an orange dress shirt and a tie to match. She smiled at the thought that there was someone else out there that knew that’s what her mother would have wanted.
As the funeral service started Kaylie sat down in between her father and Damon, clutching each of their hands as tightly as she could. There were other familiar faces in the room besides Lauren’s. Steve Tanner was there also with a stunning brunette woman that Kaylie could only assume was his wife. Payson Keeler’s parents were there with a young girl, who looked to be about Chantal’s age, but Payson herself was nowhere to be seen. There were also three teens in the very back row, two girls and a boy. Kaylie didn’t know them, but they were notable because their faces were nearly identical, framed with blonde hair, and all three of them were built like gymnasts. When the pastor called on her to say a few words about her mother, Kaylie’s hands began to tremble. Could she do this? Damon squeezed the hand he was holding, attempting to steady her.
“Come with me,” she whispers.
He nods and silently follows her to the podium that stands behind her mother’s closed coffin. Her mother had never been extremely vain, but her father had explained that the chemotherapy had changed her appearance so much, she no longer resembled the Veronica Cruz they had all known. It would be a disservice to her to have people remember her that way.
Kaylie cleared her throat quietly, her hand still clutching Damon’s as she began talking, “Ronnie Cruz was… an amazing person. She was a great singer, a good friend, an amazing cook, a horrible dancer—but mostly, she was the best, most supportive mother a girl could ever ask for.”
Kaylie paused, unsure of what to say next. Damon squeezed her hand again, this time in reassurance.
She continued, “I’m sure many of you who know me, or who have seen me on a cereal box in your life time, can tell that I am not exactly… able-bodied anymore. I have, for my entire life, struggled with anorexia. It was actually my mother who first noticed when I stopped eating. She was the only one worried about me at first, the only one who saw past my mask to the root of my disorder. She cared fiercely for the people around her. She cared for me. I repaid her by trying to forget that she even existed.”
Kaylie couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.
“Now she’s gone, and I feel all of this guilt and shame for abandoning her, for making her go through her illness alone, when she was always there to help me through mine. I was scared of losing her, and now I’m just so sad that I never came to say goodbye. Sometimes, I feel like my heart is going to just, fall out. And now, I think maybe it has.
“But, one thing my mom always told me was how much she wanted me to be happy. So I am going to do my best to be happy, and get healthy again, and just live, for her. For Veronica Cruz, my beautiful mother who will be missed by everyone whose life she touched. She was a lover, and a fighter, and now she’s at peace. I love you Mom.”
“Great work guys, let’s call it a day,” Emily clapped, high fiving each one of her elite gymnasts, male and female, as they exited the floor. Every Thursday she reserved the gym for all of her Olympic-bound gymnasts to get together and have a team workout. Each of them went through a routine and got constructive criticism from their peers. It was a good team building exercise, and something Emily wished she would’ve had when she was at the Rocky Mountain Training Center.
Returning to the Rock had been difficult. There were familiar faces everywhere, and they weren’t all happy to see her. Lauren had been especially receptive to her return, but Emily was sure that had a lot to do with the fact that at the time, she had just started dating Emily’s brother, Brian. Which was just another thing that had taken some adjustment.
Upon arriving in Boulder Emily had thrown herself directly into her work, hoping that in time being here wouldn’t seem so strange. Four years later, she was happy to be calling Boulder home again. In actuality it was a great place to be raising her boys, much better than the bustling craziness of a city like Las Vegas. The twins were wild enough in Boulder. Add a big city, and their teenage years would have been nothing short of a “Jersey Shore” episode. It made Emily cringe just to think about it.
“Hey Mom!” Liam exclaimed as he walked through the door to the gym.
“Hey sweetheart, how was school?” she asked, walking toward him.
“It was pretty alright, I guess.”
“How vague to hear,” Emily teased him. “Are you here to pick up Ayla?”
“Yeah, we have a thing to go to tonight.”
“Again with the vagueness.”
“It’s no big deal.”
“I’m sure it isn’t, honey. Just make sure you’re home by ten, and make doubly sure you get Ayla back for her curfew. I really don’t need Payson to be mad at me. She’ll start a revolt or something.”
“A mutiny against the head coach,” he nods, dramatically. “I’m sure Dad will be on your side at least.”
Emily laughed, “Here’s to hoping. Ayla should be out in a minute, I kept them all over the hour, lost track of time.”
“Okay, is Dad in the office?”
“Dad is right here!” Austin Tucker exclaimed from behind, suddenly wrapping his arms around Liam’s neck and ruffling his shaggy, brown hair. When he finished, Liam’s hair was sticking up in all directions, full of static.
“Dad--- Jeez, what’s your problem?” Liam grumbled, trying to fix the damage Austin had incurred before his girlfriend showed up and saw it.
“Oh, did I mess up your hair? I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there Chantal, I thought you were Liam. The resemblance is uncanny.”
Emily laughed, harder than she had laughed in a long time. Austin smiled at her and leaned in for a kiss.
“Alright, get a room you crazy kids,” Tyler said walking up behind them. “You taking Ayla out tonight?” he asked his brother.
“Cool, Chantal said to tell you that Ayla said to wait for her in the park, and that she’ll meet you out there.”
“Oh, alright, catch you later Mom. Bye, Dad. I love you guys.”
“Bye sweetie, be careful!”
“I will,” he replied, and exited the gym.
Emily sighed, “They grow up so fast.”
“They sure do. I can remember a time when this one was barely taller than my elbow,” Austin said, punching Tyler lightly on the arm.
“Ow!” Tyler yelled.
“God, since when are our kids such wimps?”
“I’m not a wimp!” Ty yelled back.
“Oh, really?” Austin said as he mocked Tyler’s exclamation from a moment before.
“You are on a roll today, babe.”
“I know. I live to torment our children.”
Emily smiled as he called Tyler and Liam, not her children, but their children. Hearing that meant more to her than a thousand ‘I love you’s’. Austin had started coming to their home regularly after he had convinced her to move back to Boulder. The twins, who never really had a strong male influence in their lives, took to him immediately. When Austin proposed to Emily a few months later, both of the boys asked if they could call him Dad, and Austin told them that nothing would make him happier. That was the moment that Emily had become completely sure of him, and he had been nothing but wonderful and supportive since. She found a new thing to love about him every single day.
“What about you, Ty? You taking Cha Cha out tonight?” Austin asked.
“No, she’s mad at me. I’m not actually sure what I did, so I’m just going to wait for it to blow over. It always does in the end.”
“So Pizza Shack for dinner?” Emily suggested.
“Sounds good to me, but I don’t think April will approve. She’s on some low-carb diet.”
“Oh please, she’s an Olympic gymnast, she needs her carbs. Tell her she can suck it up.”
“You can tell her. She’s frightening.”
“Who’s frightening?” April Beloff asked, coming up behind Tyler.
“Uh, Joan Rivers, the plastic surgery has seriously gotten out of hand,” Ty replies.
“Smooth,” Austin mouths to him.
“Ugh, I agree with you there. That woman looks like the Joker, and I’m not talking about the somewhat attractive Heath Ledger version. I’m talking full-on comic book make up.”
“Pizza Shack sound good for dinner April?” Emily asked.
“On a low-carb diet, yes, I know. Suck it up for one night, and enjoy some deep dish pepperoni, huh?”
A smile formed slowly on April’s face, “Okay, fine.”
“Where are Amber and Mark?”
“Amber is on her way out as we speak.” April said.
“Mark should be out any minute,” Ty added.
“Okay, I have two things to take care of in the office and then we can get out of here,” Emily told them.
“Alright, we’re going to head out to the car, okay Ems?” Austin replied.
Emily made her way to her office, passing along ‘good job’ and ‘great practice’ to each gymnast she passed. She had a great group of hopefuls for the upcoming Olympics, and a lot of them were still young, which meant they could possibly compete in not only next year’s games, but also the games that were going to take place in four more years. Besides Tyler, and the Beloff triplets, Emily was training Payson’s daughter Ayla, Lauren’s daughter Chantal, a kickass vaulter from North Carolina named Chelsea Yetz, and a boy that had been living in France when the NGO recruited him, named Sean Perot. All of these elites were capable of making their respective Olympic teams. All of them were capable of taking gold. Emily couldn’t be more proud of what she had built here in Boulder. She only wished she could have told Sasha how truly grateful she was for the opportunity.
Emily sat down at her desk and began filling out the last of her paperwork for the day. She really needed a new gym manager. Unfortunately, Summer was hard to replace. She sighed as she realized just how much work she really had ahead of her. She picked up her phone and dialed Austin’s number.
“Yell-oh,” Austin answers.
“Hey babe, why don’t you just take the kids and go? I didn’t really grasp how swamped I am here.”
“Okay, but you should come meet us if you can. I feel like I’ve barely seen you lately.”
“I know, I need to hire a new manager. I have so much to focus on with the actual training of my gymnasts. I really don’t need all of this paperwork on top of that.”
“What about Lauren?”
“It’s a thought. Listen I’ve got to go, okay? I’ll call you when I’m on my way home.”
“Bye, Ems. I love you.”
“And I love you Austin. Bye.”
She hung up the phone and dove back into the pile of bills and press releases sitting on her desk. It had been quiet for so long, that when someone knocked on Emily’s office door, she nearly jumped out of her chair.
“Sorry,” a deep voice says, “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m looking for Sasha Beloff.”
Emily looked up at the man standing in the doorway. He was tall, with curly, dark hair, and a brooding disposition. She recognized him almost immediately.
“Damon?” she stammered.
A look of confusion crossed his face, quickly rendered into realization of who he had just come face to face with.
She said nothing.
“How are you?” he tried, but she wasn’t having it.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“Uh, like I said, I’m looking for Sasha.”
“He is no longer employed here. I’m the head coach.”
“Wow, uh… Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” Emily snipped. “Can I help you with something?”
“I wanted to ask if it wouldn’t be too much trouble to bring Kaylie in for a visit. She’s been going through some things lately, and I think it might be good for her to come back to her roots, maybe motivate her to get back on track.”
Emily could feel the anger rising in her chest. How dare he walk in here and talk to her about Kaylie Cruz, she felt like she wanted to explode, but instead she simply said, “Interesting.”
“You, caring about someone, it’s fascinating.”
“At least tell me where I can find Sasha. Maybe he can help her.”
“Boulder Memorial Hospital, room number 407.”
“Look, Sasha and Summer were in an accident a while back. I am the head coach of the Rock now, and I am telling you to get the hell out of my gym.”
“What happened to them?”
“None of your business.”
“Don’t you call me that. Don’t act like you know me. And by God, do not think that you can just walk in here after deserting me and our unborn children and that all shall be forgiven. Damon, you broke me, and you ruined our family. So, I think when I ask you to leave, the least you could do is listen.”
“Trust me, I don’t think I’m entitled to anything. I just really owe this to Kaylie,” he pauses, “Did you say children, as in more than one?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“Okay, fine. What happened to Sasha?”
Emily sighs, “Look, a lot has changed since we last spoke. It was sixteen years ago after all—“
“You’re avoiding the question, Emily.”
“I don’t owe you an explanation for anything!” Emily explodes. “You left, and so did Kaylie! I’ve been here. I’m raising Sasha’s children for Christ’s sake! Kaylie doesn’t deserve to know anything about what happened to him. She abandoned him just like she abandoned everyone else, and that’s all there is to it. You know, you two really deserve each other. You’re both experts at running away from your problems. And you know what else? I have waited a long freaking time to tell you that. Now, please… get out of my gym.”
Damon was stunned into silence. Emily was sure he would turn and leave, and he might have if Tyler hadn’t walked in the door at that very moment.
The reason Emily had recognized Damon so immediately before, was because looking at their sons was like looking at his clones. The older the twins had gotten the more they looked like him. They had his shaggy, dark brown hair, his grey-green eyes, his heart-shaped face, and they shared the constant look of intense frustration, that was Damon’s go to expression, whenever they were concentrating on anything. It was no secret when Tyler walked in that he was Damon’s son, and Emily knew it wouldn’t take Ty calling her ‘Mom’ for Damon to realize it.
“Hey Mom, Dad says he’s not leaving without you,” Tyler says, sizing Damon up, but not really registering that anything was off. “Can we get a move on? There are four starving gymnasts in the car. It’s only going to be so long before we start picking each other off.”
Emily smiled, “I’ll be out in a minute if it’s that important I come along.”
“We haven’t seen much of you lately. I think that’s the only reason he’s freaking out about it.”
She turned back to Damon, softened by the appearance of their child, “Look, my family is waiting for me. If you honestly think coming back here will help her, fine. But, don’t make a huge deal out of it, and try to come after 3:00 when most of the training is over with. I don’t need any distractions for my athletes. After that I want you out. And, don’t take her to see Sasha. Trust me, it isn’t a good idea.”
“Thank you, Emily. I’ll be going now,” he said, taking one last incredulous look at Tyler before walking out of the office and exiting the gym.
Emily sat down in her desk chair and put her head in her hands. Had that really just happened? Was Damon seriously back in her life after all this time? It was surprisingly hard to see him again, and reeling from the shock, Emily couldn’t hold the tears back.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” Tyler asks, like he’s six years old again, comforting Emily for all the same reasons that seem to keep repeating themselves.
“Nothing,” she says, blowing her nose into a tissue.
“Who was that guy? Did he upset you?”
Emily got quiet then, “That was Damon Young.”
Emily sobbed some more.
“Mom, don’t cry. Tell me why you’re upset.”
She shook her head, overcome with sadness for her son. With the next few words she uttered his whole world never be the same.
“Damon Young,” Emily paused, breathless, “Is your biological father. He left us before you and your brother were even born, and now he’s back. But, he isn’t back for us. We were never what he wanted, and I don’t think we ever will be.”