The dry air swirled around me, forcing a harsh cough to escape my throat. Big, silent clouds of silvery white dust danced around my boots and traveled halfway to my knees as I stepped away from the bus. My hand shot up to my face, trying to hide from the blinding sun. The burning white sunshine made it impossible to look further than a few inches; it blazed through the air like a galloping horse, quick, solid and beautiful.
My body half turned to Ara, still trying to protect my eyes from the sun, and extended my hand to help her step off the bus. She reached for it, to my surprise, but then quickly pulled it away, letting her fingers close over the wobbly side rails instead.
It sent a shuddering pang of remorse shooting down my spine, I should be used to it by now, but I wasn’t. I could feel the distance between us, and on that bus I finally realized why it was there. We were as physically close as two people could become, but we had never connected the dots emotionally. That became our downfall, the tear in our relationship. I could see it a whole lot better now. That still didn’t take away the ache, or the longing, and I shoved it down somewhere inside of me, hoping it wouldn’t show. Tried to pull my eyes away from Ara and focus on the people scattered around us. It was nearly impossible to do.
It looked like Cheryl was going to avoid us. She didn’t turn our way as we walked past the bus and over to where most of the crew stood, she seemed absorbed in a conversation with a few of our audio guys. She probably thought I was going to chew her a new one, but I was actually grateful that she did what she did. It given me time to think, to take a good look at all the crazed directions my life had taken, both bad and good.
No one crowded me, tried to get my attention. We were standing in the middle of what looked like nowhere, yet they all kept their distance, engrossed in their imaginary discussions and problems that I knew didn’t exist. I hadn’t been briefed beforehand on the day’s agenda. I knew my concert wasn’t until tomorrow so I figured we wouldn’t have rehearsal or anything like that until sometime later today. I half expected to see my plane somewhere out there in the middle of all that wide-open space, listened for it’s gunning motor and high pitched whining. But there was nothing, just lots of low, hushed voices, and lots of white, swirling dust.
“Are we in the dessert?” Ara’s soft voice came from behind me, she brought up her hand trying to see around her better.
“Sure looks like it.” I could hear my own confusion as I glanced down at her before looking back up for a crew member I could talk to, demand answers from.
“What are we doing here?” Her voice held as much curiosity as mine and without thinking about it I shrugged at her.
“I don’t know Miss Ara,” I reached up and adjusted my ball cap, looking down into those eyes, knowing she deserved so many other answers besides this one, “But I’m going to find out.”
Before I could take one step, I could see Cheryl, her eyes finally shooting up in our direction. She took a quick breath before stepping out around one of our crew and making her way towards us.
Ara fell silently by my side. She hadn’t moved away from me since we stepped off the bus. As corny as it sounds, I was glad she hadn’t, it still made me feel like a man, like her man, even though I absolutely knew I wasn’t.
“Jackson, Ara, how are you guys? I’m sorry about the bus Ara, it was the only way to get you guys safely out of there.” Cheryl’s voice started a mile a minute, then trailed off as if she didn’t know what else to say. Her eyes held a hint of surprise since we both were listening to her intently instead of arguing with her.
“It’s okay Cheryl, I understand. Do you have my things? I need to leave today. I mean, I’m supposed to leave today.” Ara’s voice shook slightly.
“I have them.” Cheryl smiled quickly at her, then shot her eyes up to me, “I have yours too Jackson. But you see, the thing is...” She wouldn’t look at either of us anymore, her eyes shifted down to the ground. “Rick called me, kinda at the last minute. The plane had a couple of problems, it’s not here. But even if it were, you can’t leave Ara. Billboard magazine wants to do an interview…uhh…with both of you.”
I could see the change in Ara’s eyes immediately. Her usual bright eyes went wide, and she took a half step back at Cheryl’s words.
“I don’t have time for an interview.” I cut Cheryl off. I wasn’t in the mood for games today. “And neither does Miss Ara, I promised her she could use my plane to go home today. Where is my pilot?”
It bothered me, that no one told me about this interview and that they were trying to bully Ara into staying for it. It would make me break my promise to her, and I didn’t want to do that.
“I know I told you that your plane was already here Jackson, but that wasn’t the truth, I thought it was here, but it turns out it’s back home in Nashville, needed to be serviced or something and they found a couple of things they had to do to it. And you do have time for an interview, besides, it’s right now, right over there.” Cheryl pointed.
Both Ara and I followed that pretty little finger, I could feel the frustration already festering inside me; neither of us had seen it because it sort of blended in with all the white sand and light. A large white canopy tent was set up past the buses and trailers. I just stared at it for a couple of minutes, and glanced back at Cheryl warily, this was more games, I knew it, and it was time to stop. “What is this for? Who set this up?” I asked point blank.
“Billboard and Rick set it up. They want to talk to you both since She Ain’t Mine is country’s longest running number one for the year. It for an article, and it should actually be really good.”
I kept staring at Cheryl, and arguing with myself at the same time. This was another set up, another trick. It might get me what I wanted today, but it would never get me what I wanted for the rest of my life, and I finally knew that, finally understood.
“Tell them I said no. It’s not going to happen. I made a promise to Miss Ara and I intend to keep it.” I shoved my hands into my jeans, and dug in my heels. I didn’t want Ara to leave just as much as Cheryl didn’t, but forcing her to stay wasn’t going to change anything.
To my surprise Ara took a step towards Cheryl, her hand still shielding her face from the sun, “Cheryl, I can’t do an interview, I’ve been in these same clothes, I know I don’t look presentable.” Ara’s voice shook again. I wasn’t sure if it was anger from not being able to go home right away, or fear of having an interview. Maybe she was just plain tired of being with me.
Cheryl gave me a quick glance before turning back to Ara, “It’s okay Ara, I made sure there was enough time to get the both of you freshened up before the interview. There are some outfits you can pick from in the dressing room. I guess that’s only if Jackson wants to do this.” her voice trailed off as her eyes darted to my face quickly.
Ara wouldn’t look at me, she kept her eyes steadily on Cheryl, “I think Jackson should do this, this is important for his record, right? For his fans? I’ll leave right after, it’s not going to take long, is it?”
“It shouldn’t take long.” Cheryl shook her head, but I interrupted her, frustration showing in my voice, before she could continue.
“You don’t have to do it Miss Ara, the interview, I can do it by myself. I know you want to go home.” I moved myself in front of Ara, invading her view, forcing her to look up at me. Her eyes were already staring back at me, wide and beautiful, they never failed to look into my soul, touch places I managed to keep out of everyone else's reach.
“It’s okay Jackson,” her voice was soft, and those pretty brown eyes wrapped my heart around them.“I don’t mind. I’ll leave right after, I promise.”
Cheryl ushered her away before I could say anything else, turning back to me just to give me this “you idiot” look. But I was done with the games. There would be no more games from this point forward.
I was a wreck stepping off that bus. Really. I didn’t want to leave it. Wanted to stay inside, with Jackson.
You see, I couldn’t shake the memory of waking up on that sofa, my head resting so peacefully on his shoulder, feeling his chest rise and fall as he slept next to me. I just stayed perfectly still, kept my eyes closed, and let the feelings this man ignited in me run free. I wanted to remember what it felt like to be close to him, feel his warmth, his strength. I kept imagining him waking up and turning to me, pulling me up over him, sliding my oversize tee shirt off my body and running his hands across my shoulders and down my breasts. I wanted to feel him inside me, and it was all I could do not to slide my arm across his chest and cling to him for dear life.
My body throbbed and my heart ached. This was such a wicked, wicked game we gambled with.
And we both lost.
But I let myself linger in it, surrounded myself with it, because I knew once this bus ride was over that we were over. I wouldn’t be coming back, not ever.
I didn’t know if Cheryl was making it up that Jackson’s plane wasn’t working, I didn’t care really. My mindset was so intent on leaving that very minute, when she announced I couldn’t leave I went blank for a second. I could tell Jackson didn’t want to do the interview, and he most definitely didn’t want me there. That was clear.
That familiar overprotective Ara emerged only when I realized that this interview would probably be good for his career. It would be good for him. I shouldn’t be the reason it didn’t happen.
“Come on Ara, we only have an hour, I need to make sure our stylist is ready.” Cheryl briefly touched my arm and urged me to start moving, making me take a few steps ahead of her. I didn’t turn to look back at Jackson; I hoped he wasn’t to upset with me.
Cheryl spared no time in getting me all prettied up. She showed me a pretty yellow dress hanging over a dresser drawer, and these cute little flats that matched. She started with my hair first, making me sit on this big salon like chair, tilting my head back, using this big basin to wash my hair.
“We’ve known each other almost a year now Ara, you know that?” her voice was light as she worked. It was just the two of us. I didn’t know where the stylist was.
“Yeah, doesn’t seem like it though.” I smiled at her. It really didn’t feel like almost a year, it felt like we’d known each other forever.
“So, can I be honest with you? I mean really really honest?” She kept right on working, squirting some shampoo in her hands; her words made my heart start beating a little faster.
“Sure, of course.” I didn’t know what else to say. I was actually curious to what she was getting at.
“You might not believe what I’m going to say, but I hope you do. Ever since you walked into our lives, from that very first day, you’ve changed every one of us. You made us feel like we were all family, that you belong with us, and we all love you.”
For some reason Cheryl’s words brought a lump to my throat, her voice stayed steady, never wavered. “But the biggest change, the best change, was the one you created in Jackson.”
That made me jerk. Stiffen in my chair. She pretended she didn’t notice, her hands worked steadily along my scalp, but I know she did. She kept right on working, never missing a beat.
“I’ve known Jackson a long time, way before he was a big star, and way before Layla. He was this sweet, loyal, down to earth country boy. Plucked right out of the cornfields, full of manners and silly jokes. Everyone liked him right away, and boy could he sing. We did a lot of things to change him, and he let us, but the sweetness in him, that stayed, his loyalty, that never left, and his heart, well, he wore it on his sleeve most of the time, I can tell you that, but he never gave it away, not to Layla, not to anyone. He liked her, I could tell, but he married her for us, because it was time for him to settle down. That was just one more way to catapult him to stardom. He stayed loyal to her, but not out of love. It was so our careers could keep thriving, even hers. And it haunted all of us, because we just stood there and let him do it, even though we knew he shouldn’t have.”
I sat straight up in my chair shaking my head at her words, not caring that the water started dripping down my back. My trembling hands clenched the sides of the chair tightly, listening to everything Cheryl was saying. She reached for a towel and moved closer to my side so she could dry my hair.
“The guilt was awful, you know. We all found out Layla was cheating on him before he did. We didn’t know how to tell him, we stayed quiet for a long time. I watched him curl up in a ball on his bed and not want to get out of it for days. But it wasn’t because his heart was broken, it was because he was so afraid he was letting us all down, he thought he failed us, when in reality, we failed him. In fact, I’ve never really seen his heart broken, until he lost you.”
I could hardly breathe. Cheryl’s voice pierced my heart in the worst way, my brain buzzed at the incredulity of her words.
“I know you’re divorced.” Her words were quiet and simple. Final. “He doesn’t know, but I know.”
“How?” That was all I could whisper, nothing else would come out.
“Rick. Rick told me. Rick knows everything, all the time. It’s his job to know about everyone who surrounds Jackson. He’s the one who knew Clint was heading into Phoenix, he knew when Layla starting living with her producer. He knew when you got divorced. He won’t tell Jackson. Jackson specifically told him not to update him about you anymore. Ever since that day in Phoenix when he came face to face with Clint, Jackson thought he was destroying your life, and it tortured him. That’s why he let you go Ara. He was being the same old Jackson, putting absolutely everyone else first, before him.”
My head was in my hands, searing hot torment flowed through my veins.
“Do you remember when you went to his house?” She kept right on moving around me, dabbing a bit of hair cream in her hands and massaging it through my hair, still throwing my mind and heart around with her words, “He was so happy and so nervous that you were coming. He went out and got two new horses just because of you. That shocked us all, because when he first built his house, he already had horses, four of them, he rode Beauty all the time, but no one every touched the other three, so he gave them away.” Cheryl reached behind her and grabbed a pretty pink comb; she started sliding it through my wet hair gently.
My head was still spinning, a million questions in my mind, but nothing was coming out. I could only sit there and listen.
“I know he hates the crowds. He loves the singing, the writing, but the people, I think they scare him, he’s always careful around them. I can tell right before his concerts end, how he rushes to get off stage. He’s always been like that, except the times when you’re there, you bring something out in him, no, you bring out the best in him and it shows.” Cheryl put her comb down and reached out, her fingers touching my wrist. “Come on, let’s get you changed.”
My movements were tight and short as I followed Cheryl to wear the dress lay. There were so many things I wanted to ask her, to tell her.
“I promised him…” I didn’t know where to start, how to explain, “I told him I would never get in the way.” My voice cracked, low and hollow. “Even now, he’s still married, his career would suffer if they found out. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”
“I know,” Cheryl soothed, turning away from me and picking up the dress, “But he’s crazy to think he can do this without you. I was hoping the bus ride would help him figure that out.”
There wasn’t any more time to talk after that. The stylist breezed in and finished up what Cheryl started. I just sat quietly in my chair trying to absorb everything Cheryl told me. I believed her this time, felt it in my heart that this was true, yet I still struggled internally with it.
I was still conflicted as I walked with Cheryl over to the white tent. She chatted about Billboard magazine, didn’t talk about Jackson anymore, she’d given me what she thought I needed to know.
It was hard not to try and search Jackson’s eyes, to look into all that green, look for the truth Cheryl had just told me. He was serious, talking quietly with the reporter. They both rose from their chairs when Cheryl and I approached them.
“Here’s our beautiful star. Arabella James.” The young man grinned broadly at me, squeezing my hand tightly, and inviting me to sit down in the chair next to Jackson.
My mind was a mess, I was just so acutely aware of Jackson sitting next to me, of everything I’d just found out, that I shifted awkwardly in my seat, hoping I would find my voice so it wouldn’t come out all squeaky and high.
“Miss James, it’s obvious your sweetness and beauty have made men all over the world fall in love with you. What’s you life like being Jackson Stone’s main girl? How long have you been involved with country music?” The young reporter wasted no time directing his questions to me.
I just stared at him, searching his face, unsure if he was being genuine, and it took me several seconds before I could answer.
“I…I love country music, and my life has been so amazing, because of Jackson.” I stumbled over my words, “He’s been really wonderful to work with and I’m so grateful to him.” I hoped I made sense, and that my voice didn’t shake.
He smiled at me, accepting my answer and turned to Jackson, “Every song that had Miss James in the video has hit number one for you. Are you aware she’s a hot commodity right now, and there are rumors about the line of offers she’s going to have once she’s out of your contract.”
Jackson didn’t look bothered by the question; he gave the reporter a tight, polite smile and nodded his head, acknowledging the reporters words but didn’t offer any other type of response.
The reporter turned back to me, “If you think your life has been a whirlwind so far, just wait a couple more months, several stars have already voiced their interest, including mega hot Jason Aldean, and Florida Georgia Line…”
It was taking everything I had to stay in that chair. This kid was ridiculous and the obvious way he was flirting with Ara was causing me a slow burn in my seat. Of course every other country singer wanted Ara in their videos, who wouldn’t? I just didn’t like it that it was being thrown in my face that my time with her was up, that someone else was going to try and walk into her life the way I had.
“Billboard’s also excited to be the ones to announce that you’re going to be honored with the Songwriter’s Visionary Award Tuesday night at the Isleta Amphitheater in Albuquerque along with Garth Brooks and Jamey Johnson…”
Now he had my full attention, I turned my head towards him at the same time Ara let out this excited gasp. There was no denying the honor, or the delight at hearing those words.
“So congratulations, to you both. Billboard would also like to ask Miss James if she would be willing to present the award for us along side with our president of the company who will be speaking at the event.”
Now I was really sitting on the edge of my seat. Ara looked shocked at first, but then she turned to me and smiled, this brilliant, proud smile, and I realized exactly how thrilled I truly was.
I stopped listening to anything else the kid had to say. I smiled and nodded at the appropriate times; still to excited to think of anything else really. Something like this was what I worked hard all my life for. The acknowledgement of the songwriter is so often overlooked, but really, without the songwriter, the artist had nothing.
Ara looked so pleased, her eyes were back to being bright and full of life. She kept turning to me and smiling, doing this little hop thing in her chair that brought out the hormonal fifteen-year-old boy in me.
Pleased with our responses and the reactions he had gotten out of us, the reporter thanked us both for giving him our time and told me he would call me before the magazine got released. He mentioned he would be attending my concert the next evening and the event on Tuesday, mostly for pictures, the interview part was done.
Ara smiled and shook his hand, still bouncing a bit on her tiptoes, giving him a smile of thanks. Her hair swung around her when she looked over at me and I couldn’t help it, I gave her this great big assed grin and goofy chuckle.
She squealed and brought her body close to mine, she didn’t hug me, but let her shoulder press into my chest, “Oh Congratulations!” she giggled, tilting her head slightly so that her cheek rested against the material of my shirt. It felt so good to have her near me…I could smell her shampoo, feel the softness of her arm. Peace and contentment washed over me, this right now was genuine.
“You must be so excited!” She giggled again, stepping back away from my chest and looking up into my eyes. Her cheeks were this rosy pink, and those long eyelashes hypnotized me.
“Thanks. I’m pretty excited. This is a big one.” I grinned down at her, sincerely glad that she was sharing this with me.
"I can tell! I’m so proud of you.” Her eyes were sparkling, and it took every ounce of willpower not to bring her closer to me again.
“I know the reporter already asked you to stay to present the award, but I want to make sure it’s okay with you. Would you stay Miss Ara, for a few days? You can come to my concert tomorrow...” I couldn’t even finish my sentence; she was already happily nodding her head. I couldn’t stop grinning, or stop that little jerk my heart did every time she giggled and bounced around me. I was suddenly tired of fighting what I felt. I didn’t want to pretend anymore, about anything.
We both grinned at each other again, and she pushed back some of her hair that was falling over her face, I just kept watching her, something else was happening here, I couldn’t quite say what, she didn’t know it yet, maybe I didn’t have it all figured out, but it was there.
I didn’t make any fancy arrangements, didn’t bully Cheryl about hotel rooms or connecting doors or anything like that. I just let it all be. Gave Ara time to breathe, time for me to breathe too. We were all staying in a hotel this time. It was a nice one, nothing over the top. Cheryl took care of it, and because she did, there were three rooms between Ara’s room and mine. I didn’t mind, didn’t make a fuss. I thanked Cheryl for taking care of us, walked Ara to her door, and returned to mine.
I didn’t even realize I was whistling as I passed myself in the hallway mirror. My own image caught my eye, and I turned to face myself, tilting my head just slightly. Who was that guy? Why was he here? And where was he going? My mind pondered, it was only now that it was beginning to make a little bit of sense. I stared at myself some more, Good looking though, I chuckled, and headed to the restroom to take a quick shower.
Nothing could change the elation I felt coursing through me when I found out Jackson was going to receive a songwriting award, or the relief when the interview finally shifted away from me.
I stopped trying to hide the excitement and pride I was feeling for him. I wanted to throw my arms around him and tell him how much he deserved this. I didn’t even think twice when the reporter asked me to stay. I guess I should have thought about it, maybe asked Jackson if he wanted me there, but he beat me to it, turning to me and asking me to stay in that sweet southern accent that never failed to bring me to my knees.
I could see Cheryl smiling at us from around the corner. She kept everyone away, kept them too busy to come up to us, I still had her words tucked away inside me, and I don’t know if that’s why I was feeling this way or if it was the light I saw in Jackson’s eyes or his sweet grin, either way, for the first time in forever I was feeling happy, and I think Jackson was too.
My room was so pretty, simple and beautiful. I spent the better part of the evening just walking around, my fingers sliding over the wooden fireplace and down the silky drapes. The silence that surrounded me didn’t fill me with ache or loneliness. I was perfectly content to walk around and marvel in the beauty around me. Cheryl told me she would pick me up at six for dinner, and she herself looked bright and happy when I opened the door for her.
“Come on Ara, let’s go eat. Jackson and the guys are at rehearsal. We stop by later on to watch.”
“Where are we going?” I asked her, grabbing my bag and jacket as we headed out the door.
“I have the urge for a great big loaded hamburger, and fries, how does that sound?”
“That sounds perfect.” I smiled at her, suddenly ravenous.
The burger place was no bigger than small garage, there were just four tables, but it was clean and neat, and the owner was very friendly.
Ara and I sat down to enjoy our meal, giggling at each other every time we had to wipe our chins with our napkins.
“I’m glad you stayed,” she said between bites, “I didn’t think you would.”
“I don’t mind, I think it’s important for Jackson’s career, that’s what I’m here for.”
“Really? Is that all? Just his career?” Cheryl tilted her head to the side, she wasn’t joking, so for once I decided to be honest.
I gave her a small smile, “No, of course not. I’m not going to lie; I love being with him, listening to him sing, watching him do an interview. I’m excited that I’m going to see him win that award, from the way his face lit up, I’m guessing it is a pretty important one.”
“He’s wanted that one forever.” Cheryl finally smiled at me, a glint of pride in her eyes. I wasn’t sure if it was for me, or Jackson.
“Well it’s about time he gets it, I’m sure he’s deserved it forever.”
She chuckled at me, “I like it when you get this way.”
“What way?” I shook my head at her.
“This way. This overprotective nobody better mess with my man way.” She giggled, “You’re the only one that does this, and he lets you.”
None of the guys noticed us at rehearsal. We were too far away up in the skybox for them to see us. I just sat back in this red leather reclining chair and watched Jackson sing. The audio/video guy was using the big screen so I could see every expression Jackson made as he went through the motions of his concert. He didn’t play his guitar that much, he didn’t really need to practice that I guess. It was still enthralling to watch, in fact, it seemed he was much more emotional out there in an empty stadium, than when it was filled.
Between songs the three guys goofed around on stage, laughing and joking with one another. It was almost like watching teenagers out there having fun, and even though I wasn’t a participant, I was giggling and laughing with them. Cheryl just kept smiling at me, that same light in her eyes.
I felt so much lighter walking down all those rows of seats to make it to the stage once rehearsal was over. Cheryl chirped away about all the different concerts that had been played here, waving up to Dustin at the same time. I listened to her with a free heart, looking up on stage where Jackson stood. He was smiling, his eyes resting on the both of us.
Just that smile made my heart swell. I still didn’t think he would ever be mine, I mean I knew he would never be mine, but I was finally content in realizing that even if was just a short, fleeting moment, we shared in each other’s story, we somehow managed to connect in the craziest of ways, and even though Cheryl claimed I changed his life for the better, I knew he had done the same to mine.
“Great rehearsal Cowboy.” I smiled up at him, he looked adorable as ever, his hands tucked inside those jean pockets.
“Thank you Ma’am.” He took a couple of steps and hopped down from the stage onto the dirt floor where I was standing. “The guys want to grab a couple of beers but I told them no drinking night before the show, I bribed them with cheese fries and triple scoop sundaes, you two ladies want to come along?”
“I never turn down ice scream.” Cheryl laughed as Dustin took a flying leap from the stage to the ground. “What do you say Ara?”
“Sure.” I grinned, feeling surrounded by friends, “I could go for a triple scoop.” That made Jackson chuckle, and he tipped his ball cap to me before turning to holler at Brett to hurry up.
I spent more time watching his eyes than eating my ice cream. He sat between Dustin and Brett, elbowing them just to watch their ice cream fall of their spoons. He joked around with Cheryl challenging her to a cheese fry-eating contest, which she lost within seconds.
And when we were finally done, Brett drove us out what seemed like the middle of the desert. The air was dark and crisp, just the tiniest of breeze floated across our faces.
“The moon is always awesome here.” Brett put the SUV in park and pushed open his door. Both Dustin and Cheryl followed suit.
“Come on Ara,” Cheryl waved me over, “Come look at this view.”
I slid across the seat and out the door; Jackson was already standing next to Brett. Both of them had their faces turned up to the sky, and for some reason it reminded me of the day when Jackson and I looked up at the clouds, except now, it was the five of us.
“It’s beautiful.” I breathed. The moon literally looked on fire, bright, bold, and almost orange in color. It made the night sky shine, threw a heavenly glow all across the ground.
“You could make an entire song about something this beautiful.” Brett said thoughtfully, not tearing his eyes away from the sky, “You should try it Jack.”
Jackson didn’t say anything at first, the silence is what caused me to tear my eyes away from the sky and glance over at him. His was looking up, somewhat deep in thought, a few beats of silence as he stared at the moon. He made it look natural, the way his chin came down and his head turn. He looked right at me, blinking a couple of times before he answered Brett.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything look more beautiful than it does tonight.” Then he smiled at me, slow and sweet. My breath caught in my throat, but my mind didn’t get all scrambled up, it knew just how to respond, and I smiled back genuinely glad I had decided to stay.
That feeling stayed with me, all through the night and into the next day. Cheryl and I got ready for the concert together. She stayed behind with me instead of going ahead with the guys. We giggled like teenagers doing each other’s makeup and I let her put my hair up with this light blue ribbon. She didn’t deposit me back stage, she actually placed the both of us right down in the first row, in the middle of the crowded madness.
“I’ve never seen it from down here before. Are the girls always this pushy?” She tossed a sarcastic glance at a few of nearly drunk girls around us and rested her eyes on me.
“You learn to push back.” I joked, but I really did mean it. I had already elbowed a few girls who were trying to wiggle their way up in front of me, but there was no way I was giving up my spot to them. I actually couldn’t wait to see Jackson up there again.
“Well aside from the girls, it’s pretty cool down here. Better than backstage.” Her eyes shot up to the stage, she knew the sound cues, we were just seconds away from the guys stepping out to perform.
“I always like it down here too.” but my words were cut off by the screaming. The boys had bounded out on the stage with more energy than I had ever seen before. Both Dustin and Jackson were already at the center of the stage jamming out on their guitars under the spotlight. Brett made his way to the drums, banging out the beats to the songs. It was still thrilling to see, and before I knew it I was waving my hands in the air with Cheryl and singing all my favorite songs.
Whenever the light hit Jackson’s eyes I could see this different sparkle in them, this bright spellbinding sheen that made his whole face light up. He was grinning and singing, waving to the crowd, encouraging them to sing along. It was such a different and magical experience, I couldn’t really explain it. He wasn’t doing anything directly towards me, he glanced my way a lot, smiled at me as he sang, but he spent a better part of the evening engaging with his fans and I could see them eat it right up, respond to him eager and happy.
And right at the end, it made me so proud that I literally gasped out loud when I saw it. Jackson waved goodbye to his fans, thanking them for coming out and spending the evening with them, he did something else, something I never seen before. He placed his mic back on the stand and pulled his guitar back so it was resting on his backside and took a couple of steps forward. His hand stretched out and even though it was just his fingertips, he let his fingers brush over the throngs of outstretched hands waving in the air all excited to be touching him. The cheers just got louder, hoots and hollers and happy exclamations all floated above our heads.
His eyes caught mine one last time, right as he was done, as his fingers glided over the very last fan. I was so proud, ginning and laughing at the excitement that surrounded me, I just bounced on my tiptoes and clapped as hard as I could. He grinned, that sweet little boy grin of his, and then he winked and mouthed, Thank You Beautiful, and walked off stage.
It didn’t scare me this time. I thought it was because Ara and Cheryl were down there that it was making me feel somewhat safe, but the more I sang and smiled at my audience, the more I could see in their faces their happy responses. The more I encouraged them to sing, the louder they tried, and when I reached out to let them barely brush their fingers across mine, they nearly burst with excitement.
Why had I been so afraid of them for so long? They were people, just like me, had ups and downs, just like I did. They needed me to take them away from their problems even if just for a few hours, and when I was singing, I realized I needed the exact same thing from them.
Nobody here was trying to hurt me, and it was a great feeling to experience. If nothing else, Ara taught me that, and I would be forever grateful to her.
“You did it.” She smiled softly at me when I walked her to her door later that night. We were all still on a high from the concert. You could hear Dustin and Cheryl giggling from behind their hotel door, and Brett had some loud music coming from his room.
I just nodded at her, a bit of a shy grin taking over my face. I never got tired of seeing her proud of me.
“I knew you would, eventually. I knew you would see it.” Her smile got bigger as she said that. It made me chuckle.
“It was actually a pretty cool experience.” I kept grinning at her. “They didn’t bite.”
That made her laugh, her delicate voice sounding like music to my ears. “You made a lot of people happy. They’re never going to forget that experience.”
“I’ll fit more time at the next concert, so that I can do it longer, make more time for them.”
“They’re gonna love you more for it.” She promised, her eyes still so bright and beautiful. Seeing her eyes like that still touched me, still made me want her. I knew that wasn’t ever going to change, but I didn’t want it to change, to go away. It was going to be the way I would remember her, it would always remind me of the gorgeous loving woman she was, of the woman I should be with.
I just stretched out my hand to her, much like the way I just did with the concert audience, let my fingertips hover close to hers. She smiled at me again when she saw that, and slowly her hand reached out on its own and closed over mine. She squeezed my hand gently all while looking up into my eyes. “You played amazing, and you sang amazing too, don’t ever stop that Jackson. That’s your gift, it was meant to be shared. I can’t wait to hear the song you write about the moon, I know it will always remind me of this.”
She quietly made her way into her room, letting her fingers slip out of mine.
I could still feel her hand when I scribbled those words and phrases into my journal.
I could still feel the warmth and softness.
The strength and the courage.
The affection and love.
It all wrapped around me, encircled me until I understood even more.
The words I wrote down today, those were easy, they flowed right out of me as long as I didn’t try and stop them. The other stuff, that was harder, because I fought with myself. I was my own worst enemy.
I tried to get more comfortable on my hotel bed, digging through my bag for the package of beef jerky I always kept with me. A small velvet box tumbled out to the ground when I pulled out my sweatshirt from the bag. It made a small thump as it hit the floor. I scooped it up and studied it, remembering why I had bought it, and what it was for.
It would never get used, I knew that. It would stay shining and beautiful like it was supposed to, but never get used.
I should have tossed it back inside my bag, but my heart didn’t want to do that just yet. Instead I placed it by my bedside, open. I watched the moonlight bounce off of it, watched it sparkle and glisten, even in the dark. It was like my own personal nightlight, it would stay with me always…