Des: Rick made some demands. So before I follow through, let me do some speculating.
"Thank you, everyone," Jay said with a smile and a suave wave of his hand. "We'll be here for one more night! Tell all your friends to come see us, for it may be your last chance. Again, thank you and goodnight." His thumb hovered over the microphone switch.
"Remember to tip your waiters and waitresses," Meg whispered from the piano, nudging him with her pointed shoe.
"Oh! Remember to tip your waiters and waitresses." One more smile. Make eye contact with a few of the people. Turn off the microphone.
"Are you tired?" Meg asked with a smirk as she turned off her own mic and closed the piano. "You seem a little disoriented."
"Tired is the least of my problems, kiddo," Jay said. He loosened his tie. It was the red one, his favorite. It matched Meg's dress. Her favorite dress. His favorite tie. Their favorite outfit. He felt like dancing when they wore the color red, but so far he hadn’t had been given the opportunity.
"Is there something wrong?" The hem of her dress twirled as she picked up sheets of music he had discarded onto the marble stage.
"Hmm. I'm alright." He watched her, eyes transfixed on her momentous dress, the freckles on her ankles, the golden curl of hair brushing her cheek. "Here, let me put those away." He took the music from her hand and stuffed them thoughtlessly into the front pocket of a binder. He stared at it a moment. "Do you remember the trip to South Dakota after my senior year?" he asked quietly.
Meg glanced at Jay sideways and gave him a glossy smile. "Of course. Why?"
"I was just thinking about the songs we used to sing. ‘The Valley Song’. ‘My Heart Will Trust’. You know." He sighed. "Eh, it’s okay. You probably don't think about them that often. I mean, it’s been a while."
"Are you kidding?" she laughed and pulled her shoes off with a look of relief. "I will be loyal to those songs into my grave." She leaned up and kissed is cheek. "I'm going to bed. Get some rest, okay?"
Jay nodded his head as she turned towards the stairs. He watched as Meg stepped up quickly, her feet seeming to sigh as they hit the carpet. When they had first started this business, she complained about her feet a lot. But something had happened in the past year, something in the way she looked at him when she felt a twinge in her toes. He could see it in her eyes; something had changed.
He tucked the black music binder under his arm and after speaking briefly with the head of the hotel, headed up the stairs. His shining black shoes sounded padded and silent on the carpet. His right hand slid smoothly up the railing, though somewhat trembling. He turned to the left at the top of the stairway and was immediately greeted by the sound of Meg's voice. He paused at her door, listening hopefully for the song that had awakened his love for her voice so long ago. It wasn't there. He sighed somewhere between fatigue and disappointment and went to the next door, shuffling into his own room.
The binder was dropped just inside the door, which he didn't bother to lock behind him. He pulled off his tie, jacket and crisp collared shirt as he made his way to the bedroom. After collapsing onto the blankets, he managed to toe off his shoes before falling into an exhausted sleep.
* * *
Jay woke slowly, making many disgruntled noises on his way to the bathroom. He noticed the stitching from the comforter on the bed had left an imprint on his face and if he’d been feeling better he might have smiled at that. He shaved with great precision, feeling no hurry at all to start his day. He had noticed, after all, that it was barely six o’clock. The early-winter sun had yet to grace the city with it’s beams, so nothing was yet demanding him to be lively.
He put on a pot of coffee and leaned his bare stomach against the counter. His body began to absorb the smell of coffee and he sighed. He leaned further and pressed his forehead to the cupboard. The coffee dripped into the pot slowly, with deliberation, a steady song of tiny black plops followed by an angry sounding hiss. It was a beat that once upon a time could have been a desperate, slow acoustic song he would make up on the spot during a Thursday afternoon practice.
This morning had started just as all the others. Wake up slowly. Shave with a shaking fingers like a junkie. Make coffee and think about Meg. Day after day, morning after morning, show after show after show. When he was younger, he despised routines. He could never decide whether to show up to practice late or early, or sometimes he would completely forget about it. He mutilated classic tunes and made them jazzy or punk-rock, or sometimes he’d make them steady like a train—Karah and Meg would smile and say it sounded like a song from an old western. He loved mix ups. But he had gotten older. He and Meg had gone on the road. And though he was sure that every hotel was different, each lounge had a unique quality, he had moments where he wanted to bust out in a Johnny Cash song and scare the audience.
It had been so long since the routine was broken. Too many months without a moment of fear, a spark of spontaneity.
His body slowly slid to the kitchen floor and he leaned back against the cupboard. "Six years," he breathed into the darkness of the hotel room. It had been six long years since he'd asked her to do this with him. Do this. To come on the road with him. No, he didn't ask. He demanded. Straight out ordered her to do so, with details and plans and that cocky smirk glued to his features.
It had been sunny outside on the last day of that long trip. They sat in the soft green grass and watched the squirrels play in the trees. "You," he had said to her, pointing with a dirty finger, "You are going to do it with me."
"When you turn twenty-one you're going to be a lounge singer with me. You're going to amp up your piano skills and we can travel the country." He paused to give her a beaming smile, and then a magnificent idea popped into his head and his eyes lit up. "In fact, I'll sit on the piano and sing. I'll even wear a dress. You can be the man! You can wear a suit!"
"Maybe. But I won’t be the man. And you’re not wearing a dress.”
“We can both wear dresses!”
“Well… maybe. But only if you're the ugly one." Meg tore at some blades of grass with her hands that were covered in dirt equal to his. She looked around at the others. Jay's girlfriend Melissa, the other singers Karah and Brianne. For a split second he thought maybe he'd made them uncomfortable but they all seemed to agree that Meg should join him.
"Maybe," she said. "We'll see."
And four years later she had said yes. He had been exhilarated. Finally, they would set out on the grand adventure. He and Melissa had broken up by then. Everyone in the core group of friends had graduated, and the band had dispersed after Meg and Karah started their internship. It seemed nothing was holding them back. 'The world is waiting for your voice,' he had told her, and it made her flash that adorable, nervous smile just like all the times he boasted and praised what a beautiful voice she had.
The coffee maker beeped softly on the counter above him and Jay pressed a hand to the tiles and hoisted himself up. He noticed vaguely that Meg was awake in her room, and singing loudly to wake herself up, as he poured a cup of coffee. It was an unfamiliar song, and yet it enticed him. His fingers suddenly itched for the steel strings of his guitar. How beautiful it would be to stand with her again on that quiet, simple stage back home in the church, their voices blending and dissolving into each other, yet still defined and genuine in themselves. The lights of the sanctuary would be brilliant and distracting, and they would complain about the heat. Microphone cords would be entangled with discarded music sheets at her bare feet and his bracelets would hang from the corner of a music stand. They would meet eyes in the middle of the song and he would revel in her harmonies.
Jay stared hopelessly into the swirling black depths of his coffee, his mind lingering on the image of him and Meg back home on the stage. She would wear her sandy colored hair down. She would have jeans on, and flip flops tossed to the floor. He would wear tennis shoes and sweatshirts and no one would want to take his picture when the show was over. They would laugh about the whole lounge idea, a subtle kind of laughter that bubbled with secrets. He would kiss her when she laughed.
There was the terrible sound of porcelain shattering as Jay pitched his mug at the kitchen wall. He stood staring at the coffee dripping down the pale yellow paint, his entire body practically vibrating with some frustrating, paralyzing emotion he couldn’t yet describe. It moved through him, boiling almost, setting every nerve on fire, and it escaped his lips in a broken whisper.
“I never kissed you.” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t. I won’t. Not now. Not after… I just…” He crumbled to the tiles with a soft thump. “Can’t.”
The door to his hotel opened somewhere behind him and Meg’s feet tumbled towards him. “Jay?” she called out. She barely caught sight of him on the kitchen floor. “Jay!” She took a moment to observe the situation. Porcelain shards everywhere. Coffee dripping down the wall. Jay in a puddle of distress on the floor. She tiptoed around the glass and knelt in front of him, resting a gentle hand on his raised knee. “Jay? What happened?”
He dropped the hands that had been covering his face. “Nothing,” he said shakily. “I’m fine. Don’t… don’t worry about it, kiddo.”
“Nothing did not happen here. But I can’t make you tell me.” She stroked his dark hair, her fingers brushing his scalp. “You don’t have to go through this alone, Jay. You shouldn’t do this alone. It’s so much easier to just… talk about it.”
A sad sort of laugh bubble from his throat. “I knew those words would come back to haunt me,” he said with a smile reminiscent of the trip so many years ago. “But I don’t think I should talk about it. Not yet at least.”
“Alright. If that’s what you want.” She stood up and offered him a hand. He took it, and they stood in the kitchen awkwardly, gazing with frustration at the mess he’d made.
Meg shrugged, took a wet washcloth and started on the wall. “Would you pick up the glass, Jay?” He did so silently, barely wincing when he pricked his fingers. The washcloth made a soft hollow sound as it rubbed against the bumpy wall. Porcelain fragments of the mug clinked and echoed as they fell into the metal trash bin.
When Meg was satisfied with their cleaning job, she shooed Jay over to the table and filled too fresh mugs with coffee. As she set the cups down, she noticed a deep sigh heave his shoulders. She sat down with a heavier heart than she’d been standing with. “Are you sure you’re alright, Jay?”
“Really, don’t worry about it.” He took a long drink, his nose buried within the edge of the mug. “You’ve had those pajamas forever, haven’t you?” he asked, daring to reach out and touch her striped knee.
“Since the year we went on the trip,” she said with a smile. “They’re comfortable. Remind me of home.”
“You’re going to kill me for this, but they really do make you look more relaxed, kid.”
Meg’s hands tightened around her hot cup. “You see why I wear them, then. So much better than say… a dress. Or perhaps a suit, maybe?”
“Alright, alright.” He took another sip, pondering something for a moment. A boyish grin split his face and he piped up, “I have an idea you won’t refuse.”
She scooted closer to him. “I’m listening.”
“Let’s go out today. We’re up early, we’ve got hours and hours of spare time. They don’t need us back here until five o’clock. We can go out in our pajamas. All day.”
Meg’s eyes widened and she nearly spilled her coffee. “It’s forty-five deg—.”
“I don’t care how cold it is.”
“You’re not wearing a shirt!”
“Alright, I care how cold it is. I’ll wear a shirt. Any other thoughts before I get my shoes?” He was almost falling out of his chair he was so excited.
“Jay, you’re insane. Is this going to end up like that tree fiasco with Aaron where you accidentally influence some young, naïve people and cause a scandal?”
“Definitely not. But you have to admit that was really funny.” Jay stood up and took their cups to the kitchen. “Especially when Dennis said they had to re-root the tree, put it back in the ground and make it stay up somehow.” He chuckled lightly.
“Re-rooting a tree. Yes, it was funny. Now, go get some clothes on. I’ll be right back.”
As they traipsed around the city in their pajamas Jay suddenly felt like he was in a sappy romantic film with some pretty acoustic background music and there are out of focus clips of them smiling and him buying her flowers. He felt unusually happy, and he could tell she was having a great time too. They had breakfast and coffee at a small café, talking idly about the old days and their next stop on the road. Through the window they watched a man play his saxophone on a street corner for an hour. The sun came out eventually, but it didn’t get warmer, so they tried to stay moving as much as possible.
At lunch, they bought a sandwich, and ate together. They sat in a park with pigeons and fed them the bread crusts. There was an old fountain, complete with mildew stains from fallen leaves and evidence that many birds flocked around it to take baths. Meg tossed a penny in, her lips moving with an unheard wish. Jay regarded her silently, watching the way the soft wind played with her un-done hair, the sunlight dazzling her eyes. Her left hand moved idly through the water, catching on a leaf, making her own tiny ripples in the fountain already moving rapidly from the falling water.
Jay touched her arm. “Will you wait here?”
“I’m running back the hotel to get something,” he said as he stood. “Don’t move.”
She nodded, staring after him as he swiftly departed. And then she waited, staring in at the water, and beginning to shiver. Not twenty minutes later he was back, holding a guitar.
“Where did you get that?” Meg exclaimed, jumping up from her seat.
“There was a country band doing the afternoon show,” Jay replied with an exuberant grin.
“So you stole their guitar?” she said with a dumfounded look on her face.
“No, I borrowed it. I asked if they had an extra and they did, so I borrowed it.”
Jay didn’t say anything for a long moment. He gazed at her, almost unwilling to speak. Because I saw your beautiful eyes, he could say. Or maybe, You make me want to sing. He could even go as far to say, I love you. He pursed his lips, debating on the right words, or on whether he should use words at all.
“Jay? Are you alright?” She sighed. “Are you trying to tell me something without using words? Because…it’s not working that great.”
He was wishing that he had bought her flowers on the way back but his fingers strummed some fantastic chord and he was suddenly distracted. He kept playing, waiting for lyrics to come, opening and shutting his mouth hoping that something magical would happen and he would think of a song on the spot like he’d been able to in high school. He continued strumming, and the sound reverberated up his arms, moving higher in depth and density, the tune rising and falling with the beat of his heart, swarming in the air around him so that he couldn’t breathe, and he felt that if he swallowed he would taste the music.
“I have stood by your side for many years,” he sang softly, finding that his heart skipped a beat when the words escaped his body. “I have held your troubles, and soothed any fears. And when I’m with you the world doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter at all. Because together we rise. Together we fall.” He took a breath, still reeling at the fact that he still had this ability.
Meg looked stunned, and stepped backwards towards the fountain where she practically fell back onto the bench. She folded her arms around herself, fighting off cold or nausea she couldn’t tell.
“I have watched you come alive,” he began again. “And now I’m going to take a dive. I can hardly find words to say, how you have lead my heart astray, how you captured me and by the way…” His breath caught in his throat as she caught his eyes. “By the way… I think I love you….” He strummed a moment more, letting the words sink into her, hoping they would sink the way two people in love embrace.
She had looked away by the time he stopped playing. It looked as though she were trembling, and he put the guitar down. “Meg…I…” He sat down next to her and put an arm around her shoulders. “Meg? Say something.” She seemed to lean into him for a moment, like she wanted to be closer. And then she was standing up, walking away, towards the entrance of the park.
“Meg! Come back here!” Jay went after her and grasped her wrist. “Meg? Is this really what you’re going to do? You’re just going to run away again?”
She pulled her wrist away. “I’m fine.”
“I know what you’re thinking, Meg.”
“You don’t know! You can’t know!” She paced in the grass, waving her hands with frustration. “You’re my friend, Jay. A very good friend. But you weren’t there. You don’t know.”
“You’re running away. Just like you ran away from all the others. But why?”
“Why did you run away from them?”
“Joe. Alexander. Ben.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I’m fine. You don’t know!”
“I know you, Meg.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Jay sighed. “I know you don’t. But it’s like you said… it’s better to talk about it… you don’t have to go through this alone… Please, I just want to understand why. At least give me that.”
Meg paced the grassy floor, chewing on her lip, debating silently. And then, “Alright. I’ll tell you why. Joe was a pot-head, Jay. Everyone knew that. I’m not the only one who ran away.”
“He was comforting you, not trying to seduce you.”
Meg wrapped her arms around herself again. “I know that.”
“Alright, so what about Alexander?”
“He ran first. I just… you know… came tumbling after. Besides, he and I are friends now. Everything’s okay.”
“What about Ben?”
“He was a liar, he used me. Even you thought I should get away from him.”
“It’s true. You had good reason to run from him.” Jay pulled her towards him, gripping her shoulders gently. “But why me? Why are you running from me? I thought…”
“What did you think, Jay? That I would forget what you said? That I would forget what you did, what we’re *doing*?” Meg’s voice broke and with it Jay’s heart. “I thought this would work, after Karah and I got back. I thought we could go on the road and that everything would be the same.”
“Meg, I’m sorry.”
She began walking again. “I’m going back to the hotel. Don’t forget the guitar.”
She took an extra long time preparing for the show. Jay kept hoping her mood would lighten, waiting to hear her singing through the walls. But she was quiet. His paranoid side came out then and her silence made him think maybe she’d drowned in the bathtub, been electrocuted, or kidnapped somehow. But at four-forty-five she was outside her hotel room, wearing a long, glittering black gown.
“I thought we were wearing blue,” Jay said, gesturing at his tie.
“Sorry. I forgot.” Her voice was rather subdued, as though she’d worn it out with silent sobs. He could see that she’d been crying by the puffiness around her eyes that she couldn’t manage to cover up. “I’ll get a blue sash. Or something,” she said, turning back into her room. “I’ll meet you downstairs.”
“Shouldn’t we go down together?”
“Just go!” she said roughly, tempted to slam the door in his face.
Jay walked down the stairway alone, his feet feeling heavy, though not as weighted as his heart. He found his hand shaking on the railing again. When he stepped down onto the stage, there was a spattering of applause, and he managed to give them a smile. He took the microphone, turned it on, and said with another smile, “Good evening, and welcome to this fine establishment. My name is Jay Hessinger, I’ll be singing for you tonight. My better half will be down in a minute.” There was some soft laughter. “You probably shouldn’t let her know that I called her my better half. Although, I think she already knows that I’m the ugly one.” More laughter, louder this time, and Jay looked over just in time to see Meg on the stairway, gripping the railing tightly, her eyes meeting his with such traumatic force he felt a chill go down his spine.
Meg stepped cautiously onto the stage, the short heels of her shoes clicking on the marble. Her gown flowed elegantly around her ankles, and a long, navy blue shawl hung loosely around her shoulders.
“And here she is, the lovely Megan Eytchison,” Jay continued, this time giving Meg his dazzling smile. “Meg will be singing for us tonight, as well as playing some magnificent piano.”
Meg plastered a smile on her face and sat down at the baby grand, her shaking fingers hovering above the keys. She jumped as Jay put a hand on her bare shoulder. “Will you be alright?” he whispered warily.
“I’m fine, Jay. Let’s just get this show over with.”
The evening seemed to drag on forever. The people applauded and some of them danced. Afternoon turned into evening and Jay could hear the fraught, yet subtle, sadness in Meg’s voice. She sounded terribly weary, and during some of their favorite songs he could almost hear her voice break with tears. Evening faded into night and the large window behind the stage displayed the starlit sky. And then it was eleven o’clock. Jay reminded the customers to tip their waiters and waitresses, and people scattered back to their homes and hotel rooms or the airport.
When it was over, Jay watched in dismay as Meg went straight to the bar. She hated alcohol. She didn’t even know how it affected her because she’d never had enough for it to do anything. Yet there she was, sitting with some colorful drink, the shawl slipping off her shoulders unevenly.
He approached the bar carefully and sat down next to her. She barely glanced at him before returning to the blended, icy contents of her glass.
“Meg?” She didn’t say anything. “Are we not talking now?”
“What’s there to talk about?” she retorted in a tired voice.
“I…” Jay took a breath. “I said I loved you, Meg. I meant it then and I mean it now. I know it would be a complete lie if you said you didn’t love me. I still don’t understand why you’re running away…why you’re rejecting me… when you feel the same.”
Meg’s shoulders shook with something between a sigh and a sob. “You knew what I was afraid of, Jay. Everyone knew. I talked about it all the time. But you wanted to go on the road anyways. You wanted it to be just me and you.”
“You said you didn’t have anything else to do. You said it sounded fun. Isn’t that why you said yes, Meg? Because you wanted to have some fun? I know you miss home, I know. I do too. But isn’t this worth it? A couple years from now, we—.”
“I don’t want to wait years. I already waited. And the thing I feared most happened. Do you remember us? All of us?” She clutched feebly at her shawl. “Unified. In everything. I never felt so loved in my life and I never, ever wanted that summer to end.” Jay could hear the tears in her voice, could see them threatening in her sea-like eyes. “Don’t you understand what they meant to me? What you, and I, and all of them meant to everyone. You didn’t have to make us special. You didn’t have to say, ‘Let’s go on the road and be different.’”
“I thought you wanted to be different.”
“That’s why Karah and I did that internship. And we’re different now, I guess. But we didn’t have to become all high and mighty to be different. You wanted to do this. And now we’re … separated.”
“Set apart. Secluded. We’re just separated.” She sighed again, and this time the tears let loose down her cheeks. “They were my life, Jay. Karah and Brianne… Aaron… Ray… David… all of them, Jay. The ones I haven’t named, even. Didn’t you love them, too?”
“Of course I did. I loved them just as much as you. I just… didn’t think about the separation, I guess.” Jay sighed and called for a beer. The glass came, and he cupped his hands around it and tried to think of something he could say to make things better. He nursed his beer hopelessly, and Meg turned her face away from him.
“Well, we’ll be pretty close to home tomorrow night,” he said eventually, hoping it was enough.
Meg turned back to him sharply, her hair flipping brilliantly in the soft light of the bar. “I don’t want to be *close* to home! I want to be home.” Tears flowed anew, and her lower lip trembled. “I want to dance in the street with Karah. I want to make cupcakes with Mia. I want to laugh with Andrea. I want to have a jam session with Ray and David. I want to hear their voices, see their faces, feel their arms around me.” She slid down from the stool and immediately tripped, crumbling to the floor.
The fall triggered something in her, and she began to sob uncontrollably. Jay flew from his seat and reached out, but she pushed at him weakly. “Leave me alone!”
“Meg, please just let me—.”
“Let you what!” she exclaimed between sobs. “Let you ruin something else in my life? Well, you can’t! There’s nothing left to ruin! It’s too late!” She pulled off her shoes and after she had managed to stand up, threw them at him. “It’s too late!”
“Too late for what, Meg?” Jay asked, his arms still reaching towards her. His hands were shaking, and he felt that at any moment he was going to break into a million pieces.
“It’s too late to fix this. They’re gone. Everything is gone. I don’t have a home anymore. There’s nothing left.”
Jay took her by the shoulders again, and despite her struggles, somehow trapped her against his chest. “Shh, that’s not true.” She twisted and turned, trying to escape. But she was so tired, so exhausted from lack of sleep and one of the longest days of her life put together. She gave up and rested her forehead on his shoulder. Jay wondered idly what scent she was wearing, before he realized she was probably going to pass out at any second, and gripped her tighter. Around him, the hotel was quieting down. All the people watching the show were gone. The bartender was in back, doing inventory or something else in solitude. They were alone in the giant lobby of the hotel, a jaded couple so completely attached but hating each other in the same breath.
He felt her falling, and deftly swung her legs up, carrying her like a small child, her head still resting on his shoulder. “Meg, you alright?” She mumbled something incoherent, and he headed towards the stairway. He left her shoes in the middle of the floor.
Later, she was sleeping in his bed, the comforter folded over her body, over the glittery black gown and her tousled hair, over her tear-stained face and her fearful, broken heart. Jay sat beside her, looking with adoration and concern at her sleeping form. He had discarded his shoes, his jacket, his tie. The sleeves of his starched, white, collared shirt were rolled up to his elbows, and he’d undone the first few buttons. Gazing down at Meg, he felt at peace for the first time in weeks. And yet, the things she had said to him after he confessed his feelings for her had really gotten under his skin.
He did miss them all, he realized, while fiddling with the corner of one pillow. He too wanted to laugh with them, hear their voices, feel the touch of a familiar hand. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was letting himself feel guilty for separating Meg from the people that had brought her to life. He felt as though he’d let her fade, he let her brilliance and love for life simply dissolve into the background of an artist’s busy life.
But was she right about going home? Was it too late? Had her worst fears come true? It was possible that they didn’t even have friends at home anymore. Maybe they didn’t even have a home. He thought of something she’d said once, about how after the trip she realized that her house wasn’t her home. Her home was with those she loved, with those whom she felt secure and happy with. He recalled slightly his own room being an alien place, and how when she had made that comment he felt the first spark of love for her.
It took him three seconds to cross the room to the telephone. He dialed their manager’s number with slow fingers, praying that the man was awake. “Hi, Mark? Yeah, it’s Jay. Sorry if I woke you. Yeah, um, could you do something for me? Cancel our next couple shows, any in the next month. Yeah, something’s come up. Yeah. And one more thing… get us the next flight home.”
* * *
Meg was still slightly delirious in the morning. She mumbled something about being able to perform at the show that night, but Jay didn’t say anything about the tickets. She explained in hushed stutters that she was having a panic attack and it would go away eventually. Jay wasn’t exactly satisfied with that but it appeared there really wasn’t anything he could do to speed up her recovery. She managed to get into her pajamas by herself, deciding they were the most comfortable thing to wear while traveling and that she didn’t need his help. He assisted her in packing up her bags—after which he hastily packed his own things without bothering to fold anything. When the time came, he called one of the hotel workers to take their bags down to the lobby and he carried her down the stairs. She didn’t resist. And he appreciated that.
The taxi ride to the airpot was long because of traffic and Meg took a nap on Jay’s shoulder. He stared down at her blond head, smelling her gorgeous hair, breathing in the fact that this might be the closest he’ll ever get this closer to her again.
When they arrived at the airport Meg was still asleep. Jay was lifting her out of the taxi when she awoke suddenly and insisted that she be put down. He did so, and she managed to walk into the airport before she realized just how many people she was surrounded by. She put a hand to her forehead and hid her eyes from the crowds.
“Here,” Jay said softly, pulling her against him. “Just walk with me, you’ll be fine.” She walked stiffly beside him as they piled their bags onto a cart and made their way to an elevator. They checked in their bags, Jay thinking wistfully, as he always did before flights, that he really should carry a guitar with him. Getting through the security lines was a slight trauma for Meg since she had to go through alone—they made her take her shoes off, and her fingers shook so much she almost started crying.
By the time they boarded the plane Meg was near the state she had been in the previous night and trembled silently against Jay’s shoulder. Jay sang to her quietly, warily, afraid she would object to his coddling or that someone would walk by and hear him. It was a rather silly thought he had, to be embarrassed that someone would hear him, but he became nervous about singing when he wasn’t on stage.
After the plane took off, Meg seemed to calm down a bit. She turned towards her window, breathing deeply, attempting to compose herself. She watched the clouds move past them in an eternal race around the earth. The ground slowly descended from sight and they moved into the foggy oblivion above. Jay watched with her, and watched her, until she fell asleep.
He didn’t feel as though he could just watch her the entire trip—not that he didn’t want to—so he glanced around for something to do. He hadn’t brought a book to read and he’d read the pamphlets in the seat pockets enough times to become a flight attendant. Looking towards his feet, he noticed Meg’s purse. Jay hesitated a moment before picking it up. The cotton handle was smooth and worn under his fingertips. He remembered idly her telling him that she’d made the purse. She bought the fabric, and without a pattern even, sewed together the pieces. He reached inside, touching first her camera, and then a tube of chapstick, and when he landed on her wallet he decided it was probably the safest thing to explore. He removed the wallet and opened it. There were a few twenties in it, a drivers license, membership cards to bookstores and Costco. And on the left flap there was a rather thick plastic photo holder. It took a bit of work to get it out of the wallet, but he managed.
The first picture was one he recognized. It was a studio picture they had taken together, in their favorite outfit, the red colors slightly blinding. But along with that brilliance it seemed to be a cautious color, warning against becoming too bright. It was such an odd picture. She was sitting at the piano, her gloved hands pretending to play at the keys, while he lounged on top of the piano. He remembered how he didn’t know where to put his feet—he was too tall for the piano.
He flipped the picture, and was surprised to see a picture of an old friend, Daniel. His dark chocolate hair was plastered to his forehead and, with a daring look in his eye, he gazed towards Meg’s all-seeing lens and blew bubbles out of a yellow bubble wand. His eyes had changed so in the few years that Jay had known him. Meg had influenced him greatly towards a more peaceful living—he had done away with trying to just be the funny guy and had realized just how much he cared about people.
The third picture was of Meg and Karah. It was a self taken photo, Jay could tell. He had often seen Meg reach out one arm, angling their faces towards the camera, smiling in a happy, thoughtless pose. After that came pictures of her family, and more pictures of the girls, all dazzling and silly. And then there were the boys, with their hands holding up precious guitars and their eyes alight with a musician’s high. There were photos of children from their long trip, and of sunsets and memories. And finally, at the very back, he found a picture of himself.
It was the second morning of the trip. The morning they had all climbed from their beds with heavy hearts and bruised spirits. It was a cold 88° as well, which was odd for South Dakota. He and Meg had donned their gray sweatshirts. Not matching, just gray, and warm like home. They caught eyes before the day started, saying silently, “We’ll be alright.” In the picture, the cuffs of his sweatshirt were brushing his knuckles as his hands moved frantically, strumming the chords of ‘My Heart Will Trust.’ The children had watched. Meg sung that song with every piece of her heart and he could almost feel it breaking while looking at the picture she had taken. The image brought tears to his eyes. He took a deep breath. It was so long ago. The memory seemed fragmented, lost among a thousand thoughts and ideas and a million memories. His fingers itched suddenly for that old guitar and his tongue was dry for the words of Meg’s favorite song.
* * *
Meg slept the entire trip. She woke up momentarily, whispering that she would feel better after a nice long nap. She’d already taken several long naps but Jay didn’t mention it. When they arrived at the next airport, Jay half-carried her out. She didn’t see the signs telling her she was back home, any of the signals that might give away the fact that Jay had given up his pride. People would stop him, saying in gossipy voices, “Is she alright? Do you need some help?” Eventually he let someone get them a wheelchair and after that people left him alone. He headed to the baggage claim. He was reaching out for Meg’s suitcase, when another hand bumped into his, and to his surprise, there stood Mark, their long-time friend and agent.
“Mark, what are you doing here?” Jay asked in exhausted tones, forgetting about the suitcase. “I mean, I know I told you we were going home, but…”
Mark smiled. “You sounded a little distressed on the phone. I decided to meet you here, just to be sure you were alright.”
“Oh, we’re alright. I mean, I’m alright. And Meg’s alright. But… we aren’t really. Do you know what I mean?” Jay sighed. “I’m sorry. Never mind.”
Mark smiled again, though there was a spark of confusion in his eyes.“ I’d like it if you let me take you guys… wherever it is you’re going.” Mark held out a hand, reaching for the suitcase that had come around the belt again. His warm brown eyes held a sort of sympathy that Jay hadn’t always appreciated.
“That’s fine,” Jay said after a long pause. “Meg really needs to get home.”
“Looks like it. She okay?”
“It’s… a long story. I may tell you eventually. But for now, let’s just get going.”
The car ride back to Meg’s long-empty apartment was tedious and gave Jay’s legs a nervous twitch. He kept glancing at her sleeping form next to him, wondering what her reaction would be when she woke up and saw that she was home. She had to accept it. Maybe she wouldn’t accept his apologies, or even his love, but she had to accept the fact that he’d given her what she wanted. She wanted to come home, and he’d respected her wishes. It occurred to him suddenly that their relationship was most likely over. Their life on the road was no more. It hurt, but it felt like the right thing.
Sitting in the car in front of Meg’s apartment, Jay hesitantly woke Meg. She lifted her head from the back of the seat, wincing at the crick in her neck, and stared up at him blearily. “Jay?”
He said mostly nothing. He helped her out of the car, took her suitcase up to her front steps. She followed blindly, looking at the ground, one hand wrapped tightly around his elbow. And then she looked up at a very familiar door. “Oh, Jay…” She held her hands over her mouth, tears coming to her eyes.
The darkness of the evening was consuming Jay. It crawled under the hood of his sweatshirt and made the tips of his fingers grow numb. He dropped Meg’s suitcase on the step and stood there awkwardly for a moment, before finding his hands resting on her shoulders. He considered kissing her. She looked so delicate, and fragile, like that woeful morning of the South Dakota trip, when they met eyes in the sunrise calmness.
But then Meg caught his gaze. And she wanted to say, ‘What have you done?’ And she asked herself, ‘What have I done?’ But no words escaped her lips. She was silenced by the pain and desolation she found in Jay’s eyes. He was pale, shaking, his hands trembling on her shoulders. She was flung into memories of South Dakota, of the trip home. A clear image of Jay crying broke her heart for the thousandth time. He had stood, unflinching, quivering with fear and an ache that was still left unspoken. And he had said in a tremulous voice, “It’s so much better to just… talk about it. Tell someone. You shouldn’t have to go through things alone. It’s just easier…to talk about it…” And there he was again, she thought, coming back to the present. There he was, standing in such brokenness it seemed it was a form of confession. She had known he was broken so long, had witness those slight encounters with his tears, had shared frail moments of vulnerability.
A shaky breath escaped his lungs. “I don’t think I’ll see you again, Meg. I’m sorry.” He flung himself down the stairs and back towards Mark’s car, ignoring Meg’s weak pleas for an explanation.
* * *
For the next several months, Jay found himself existing in complete solitude. He lived in coffee and Fritos, eating well only when he was invited to dinner at his parents’ place. Mark called him often, setting up solo shows for him at local coffee shops and lounges. He attended a few, but performing without Meg felt so deliberately cruel, almost like a punishment he’d given himself.
One day in early December, winter swept in with a torrent of fog and ice. Jay had not left his house in several days, and had the sudden impulse to go to Starbucks. He put on his gray sweatshirt, grabbed his guitar, and drove a few miles down the road to a shopping center. He parked, and gazed solemnly towards the grocery store.
He entered the store first, his feet demanding an explanation for their return to such a place. The customers inside were slightly frantic, buying tubs of hot cocoa mix and apple cider, breathing into their fists. Children pointed longingly at balloons and cookies, or some other meaningless toy at the checkout line. He continued walking, slowly, feeling more and more panicked with every step.
To his left, he could see the lounge of the grocery store, where a few tables were set up, with chairs, and an imitation fireplace. His feet protested, but he veered towards the lounge. It had been so long ago that he had graced those chairs with his presence. So long since he had sat with the others there, laughing and conversing about things that people never expected teenagers to say. They had been complimented many times by adults eating there.
He dropped into one of the chairs and ran his numb fingers across the plastic topped table. And then it hit him. The conversation they’d all had with Meg over six years ago. They sat in the darkness of the lounge, briefly looking towards the window for rides home, their hands twisted in grocery bags and lips pursed around water bottles. “I am… terrified…” she had begun. “Terrified that this will end. That after we graduate, when we’re gone, nothing will be left. And we will become what we have been trying to escape. This unity we have fought so hard for will be meaningless. Are we going to let that happen?” The look on Meg’s face was haunted, her lips parted with a breath of fear.
“Jay? Is that you?”
Jay looked up tentatively, worried that it would be Meg and he would have to face the fact that he now remembered how he had failed her. But it wasn’t Meg.
“Ben.” Jay said harshly, his fingers tightening on the edge of the table. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I still live in town.” Ben nodded at him with that condescending expression. His light colored eyes were hidden by dark wavy locks of greasy hair. His arms were wrapped around a plastic bag full of candles, though his bony arms could be mistaken for candles as well were it not for the fact that his skin was still half-a-shade darker than white. He had grown so thin that his shoes looked like they didn’t fit around his ankles.
“I figured. But what are you doing?” Jay was fighting the urge to get up and strangle the man, rip out his poorly-grown beard, and break all his candles.
“Oh, didn’t you hear? I started the New Life Monastery a couple miles out of the city limits. It’s kind of secluded, you probably haven’t seen it.”
“Don’t you remember? I’m a Buddhist.”
And then Jay remembered. He remembered those spring afternoons Meg spent avoiding her cell phone, avoiding talking about what happened. Ben had lied to her about his religious choices, lied about why he was going out with her, had used her until there was nothing left to take. And then, when she opened up about what had occurred, Ben lashed out at her and threatened to tell her secrets.
Jay had no control of his next course of action. Something stirred in him, something that smelled like fire and boiled like blood. The earth seemed to turn and twist at his feet as he sprung from his seat, topping the chair to the floor, and the last thing he remembered was knocking the bag of candles from Ben’s scrawny arms.
* * *
An hour or so later, Jay found himself sitting in the pavilion outside Starbucks, strumming on his guitar. His fingers were shaking. Something on his head was throbbing. He was slightly aware of the fact that his lips were numb, and so were his hands. His rear end had practically frozen to the cement bench he was so cold. The notes flowed numbly from his guitar, not warming his fingers or his heart.
The city was mostly empty. There were mothers and small children grocery shopping, and the regulars at the Starbucks. The few people that did walk about were bundled up to their noses, almost faceless within their scarves and hats, hidden from the dreaded cold. Jay asked himself why he hadn’t thought to dress warmer, and then decided he didn’t deserve to be warm.
He realized vaguely that he had stopped playing. He was fading in and out of consciousness, noticing the parts of his body that had finally given up feeling. And then he heard a voice calling his name. It was a voice he didn’t like to hear shout. He couldn’t understand why, and forgot about it. Perhaps it was God, calling him home, ending his misery once and for all. The voice became louder, and just when he thought he would see the light, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Jay? What happened?”
Jay looked up blearily and gave a weak smile. “Hey, Dennis.”
“What happened?” Dennis asked again, faintly touching the bruises on the young man’s face. “Aren’t you cold?”
“I’m fine,” Jay replied with a giggle. Something terrible like madness was rising out of him. It might not be so bad, he thought to himself. It might be so horrible to be crazy and frozen, to lose myself. He barely noticed that the guitar was being plied from his hands, that Dennis was helping into the Starbucks, ordering some coffee.
When he looked down, his hands were wrapped around a hot cup of coffee and the madness that had struck him suddenly was gone. He took a deep breath. “I’m okay.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Dennis chucked into his own coffee cup. Jay looked up towards him, grasping for the first time who it was sitting in front of him. Dennis. Old friend. Youth leader. Guide through some of his darkest days. He noticed with a tinge of guilt and admiration that Dennis’ hairline had receded, and his curls had gone a lighter shade of gray. “So, are you going to tell me what you ran into with your face?”
“Oh,” Jay said softly, wincing. “I ran into Ben. You know…”
“Yes, I remember Ben.”
Jay nodded. And waited for Dennis to ask him what had happened. He regarded him expectantly, his eyes tensing when there was no question to his statement. And then he remembered. Dennis didn’t start conversations with questions. He waited for confessions, mostly. If he did ask a question, he asked for permission first. It was his way of trusting his youthful friends, and letting them trust him. Jay smiled slightly. “I’m not really sure what happened.”
“Not yet. But let’s start off at the beginning. Since when did you start hanging out in this area again?”
“Couple months. Meg and I… had a falling out, I guess. I took her home. I’m not really sure what she’s doing now but…I have to be honest… I’m miserable.”
“I can tell. I would ask you what the fight was about, but I have to tell you that I’ve already seen Meg.”
“You have? When?”
“Here. Or the church. She misses you. I’m going to assume you miss her as well by your mental—and physical—state at the moment.”
“Oh right. I was going to tell you about that.”
“Go right ahead. Let’s start with the miserable part. This morning.”
“I woke up. I saw the fog. I went to the grocery store. And I… I started remembering things. I remembered the lounge talks and how terrified Meg had been that this disparity would happen. I saw Ben. And I remembered… I don’t know, I just remembered Meg, and he made me angry.”
“Ben’s not very strong, Jay,” Dennis said with a grin. “What did he hit you with?”
“Bag of candles,” Jay sighed and took a deep drink of his coffee. “Eventually, after I, you know, managed to stand up again, I decked him a couple good ones. He kicked me. And after he hit me with the candles again, I didn’t get up. I mean, I was awake. But he started talking so I listened.”
“I take it he gave up the fight?”
“He said he was a peaceful person so he wouldn’t press charges. Then he left.”
Dennis shook his head and laughed softly. “He never did know how to make a good exit. Interesting, to say the least, but never very well done.”
There was a silence there. Jay wasn’t sure if the conversation had ended, or if Dennis was waiting for him to choke up some more information. He bit his lip, and then, “I do miss Meg.”
“Then why, may I ask, are you working so hard to stay out of her life?”
“I ruined her life!” Jay said with frustration. “You talked to her, Dennis. She… missed everything. I took her away from the unity everybody shared, and from the church, and from basically everyone but me. I mean, I can use the excuse that I just loved her so much, and I could tell you about all the fun we had and how beautiful life seemed. But I took away pieces of the girl I loved in so many ways I don’t think she can love me anymore. I don’t know if that was selfish or thoughtless but either way I don’t deserve to be with her in any fashion. She can’t still love me, Dennis. She can’t.”
“That’s what you’ve led yourself to believe, and I won’t stop you. Yet.” The old man gave him a devious grin. “But let me ask you another question. Why did you break up with Melissa before you left?”
“Well, I was going to leave, and…”
“You’ve left before. For long periods of time, too. What was so special about this?”
Jay inclined his head slightly, baffled. “You can’t be serious.”
“You could have broken it off with Melissa any time. What was it that made you do it the day before you left? It sure got the rest of us talking.”
“I don’t know, okay! I didn’t… love her anymore? Maybe?” Jay stood up and paced the area around their table. “I was leaving indefinitely, Dennis. Meg and I were gone for two years, and I don’t think that would have worked if I was still attached back here. We would have had to come so often. That makes sense, doesn’t it?”
Dennis nodded. He stood and walked back to the counter to order himself another black coffee, leaving Jay waiting in confusion for a few minutes. And there was something in his eyes stirring, something that was all-encompassing to Jay’s dilemma. When he returned, Jay had sat down again.
Dennis took a sip of his coffee, looking at Jay over its lid. And then he said cautiously, “What if that attachment could have saved Meg?”
It was something Jay hadn’t considered. What if that had saved Meg? What if coming home more frequently could have kept her from losing the unity she had lived for? She never would have been angry with him. Then again, she might have fallen in love with him even more so, and Jay had a hunch that Melissa might not like that. But Meg had hidden it. She had kept the truth from him for at least two years, she could have kept it longer if Jay was still with Melissa.
“I could have saved her,” he mumbled. “But I would have been a liar.”
“I stopped loving Melissa long before I left,” Jay said heavily, tones of guilt overriding the shock of his confession.
“I know.” Dennis smiled.
Jay laughed suddenly. “You know, I used to watch you talk to Meg, and you would get this look on your face like you knew exactly how she was feeling, knew exactly what she was going to say next. And you just did it to me. But how did you know?”
“Jay, I don’t want to be cliché with you because you’re not fifteen anymore. But sometimes you can be in love with a person and be unaware for a lifetime. I may be hard to believe but you started loving Meg the day you made her the harmony girl. She could have gone the rest of her life thinking she was mediocre but the fact that you made her stand out among your millions of friends… that is what changed everything.” Dennis stroked his beard idly, still smiling. “It would make sense for you to say that you broke up with Melissa because it would make your career chaotic. But what I saw in the actions you took was an attempt to get under Meg’s skin.”
“I guess…yeah. That makes sense.”
“Good. I’m glad you agree. Do you think you’re ready to talk to her then? Let her forgive you?”
There was a twinge in Jay’s chest and a stream of bitter remarks flooded his mind. He had to escape the conversation. He had to go home and put ice on his face. He wanted a hot shower. He wanted to sleep and never wake up. He wanted to turn back time. He wanted anything but what he had done and where he was and who he had made himself. “I’m sorry, Dennis. I have to go.”
* * *
Later in December, Jay was still unwilling to talk to Meg. He had spent most of that month trying to decipher his muddled thoughts—thoughts of Meg, of what Dennis had said to him, and of his own guilt. He spent a great deal of his time at Starbucks, writing out his thoughts in song or simply moping around. Mark had set him up with numerous holiday shows and he let them occupy his mind for a few hours a week. Playing the guitar managed to make him feel better most of the time, and he’d learned to appreciate that false contentment.
He was sitting in the Starbucks across from the church on Christmas Eve. It was evening, but still he sat out in the darkness, his gloved fingers strumming lightly on his guitar. Snow fell softly on the little town, powdering the tops of cars and the roofs of houses. He could faintly hear singing from the church. The Christmas hymns rose from its brick walls with such a familiar exuberance. Down the street, a small cluster of people were singing a dreary Christmas carol in front of the Walgreen’s. He thought of how odd it would be for him to just walk into the church and start singing with his old friends. Oh, they would talk, surely. He hadn’t been to church since he and Meg returned home, and before that… he couldn’t remember when. The people would say he wasn’t worthy to come in with them. Would whisper behind his back about what had he been doing with his life, and what he had done to Meg. He hadn’t had contact with any of them in too long, it wasn’t as though they were still his friends.
It was then that Jay realized how lonely he had made himself. It was Christmas Eve, and he was spending alone in the snow. He hadn’t bought presents for any of his friends—not that he had even spoken to them. He had slightly avoided his parents and his little brother and sister. He could scarcely remember the last time he smiled. Again he thought of what would happen if he just went over to the church. The red, green, blue and yellow lights flashing around the roof were comforting. Then again, those same lights were strung from a thousand other buildings. He tried desperately to think of the church as “just another building.” If he didn’t make it special, it wouldn’t be so horrible to go inside.
A flash of red streaked across the highway. “Jaywalking?” he said aloud with numb lips, his mouth dry. He took a sip of his coffee, though it had been cold for quite some time. Whoever it was, he probably didn’t know them, didn’t want to talk to them about why he was experiencing such deathly solitude on the eve of the greatest birth.
And then, before he could protest fate, before he could run from reality and hide from the moment, there was a voice hovering close to him. He stared down at a pair of very pointy black shoes. Then the hem of a red dress. And two small, callused hands clasped together. He glanced over an antique pearl necklace, skipped up to a pair of stormy blue eyes, and went back down to gaze at a perfect mouth, saying his name.
“Jay? I… Can I…?” Jay remembered vaguely that Meg was rarely speechless. He also remembered the guilt weighing him down into his seat, and scowled inwardly.
“Meg.” He tilted his head and for the first time took a good look at her entire face. She had not changed. Much. But there was a deep sorrow in her eyes, something fathomless and still unspoken, like a secret that everyone knows but no one dares to speak for fear it will become tangible.
“Jay, we need you over there.” So the statement was out. She hadn’t come just for him. It was “we” needed Jay. Over “there”. “They” needed him. Not Meg.
“It’s Christmas Eve, Jay. And we’re singing. And some of us thought maybe you’d…I thought…” Her breath rose in front of her face, cloudy and mocking, and she shivered hopelessly.
“Don’t say that.” There was a flash of anger in her voice. And then, “But why?”
Jay lowered his eyes. “I just can’t. You know why.”
A silence invaded the dark space between them. Jay could feel it like the snow, could taste it like coffee on his tongue, saw it just as clearly as the pain in Meg’s eyes. He broke it, whispering, “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t even understand what you’re sorry for, Jay. I don’t understand… What happened to you?” She sat down next to him on the bench, and he couldn’t help but smile at the way her dress twirled and ruffled around her legs.
“Just what you said would happen,” Jay said in voiced tainted with bitterness, but he wasn’t sure if it was towards himself or Meg.
“What could I have possibly said that would make you decide to leave my life completely? What have I said that made you think that after you took me home, I didn’t want to be around you anymore?”
Jay took a long time answering. He tried not to be distracted by the fact that she was actually there, sitting next to him, speaking to him. He tried to ignore the way the snow made her look angelic and that when her skin flushed from the cold, the endearing freckles on her arms were much more defined.
“You said I had to be the ugly one.”
“I did?” Meg took a breath to think. But it all came back to her. South Dakota. Dirt under her fingernails. Feeding squirrels in the grass. The wild, uninhibited look in Jay’s eyes. “I did. But this isn’t what I meant. Are you trying to tell me that you feel like you don’t deserve me? Because…” Her voice broke.
“Yes, that’s what I’m trying to tell you!” He stood up and began pacing the concrete. “You made me the ugly one, Meg. You let me keep you from home. You didn’t say anything. I don’t know why you wouldn’t say anything but you just didn’t. And that makes me the bad guy, I suppose.” He shook his head. “As though you’re perfect!”
“No, I’m not. Did it ever occur to you that I’m the one at fault here?”
“Oh, and how? By letting me take you away from everything you loved? By being so damn nice about everything that you didn’t want to tell me I was wrong?”
“No, you don’t get it. I made myself the ugly one because…” Her voice broke again, and she took a breath. “Because I made you the ugly one. I blamed it all on you. And that’s not fair. You keep saying that you don’t deserve me, you think that it’s all your fault, but you have to understand that I’m human too!” She closed her eyes and a few tears slipped down her cheeks. “I’m human too. I’m just as guilty. I have just as many flaws.” She opened her eyes again, and there within them a sort of reflective epiphany came to light. “I’m not perfect! And I shouldn’t have made you the guilty one.”
Jay sighed, noticing his own throat constricting with emotion. “And I should not have made you the innocent one,” he said softly. "Meg, I—.”
“I love you, Jay,” she said in a slightly haunted voice. She stared up at him through the intensifying snow, through the downtown lamplights, the fog-thick breaths of winter, and the clear holiday melodies from the church. It was the look of desperation, the sound of hope and joy. It was the most beautiful thing, she was the most beautiful thing, that he had ever seen.
He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to hold her and forgive himself and forgive her and forgive the world for being so broken. He was completely lost in her over-bright eyes, and he felt that if he could simply drown in her, the brokenness of the world would be alright with him. He would forget all his struggles and every stab of pain if he could simply be consumed by her.
Instead, he grasped her hand tightly and they sprinted back across the street to the church, smiling and anxious. He paid no attention to the awkward glances his way as they stepped frantically down the aisles, and ignored the whispers of shock and inquisition as he did a quick sound check on his guitar and his microphone. It did not occur to him that he didn’t know what to play. The words would return to him, the chords would flee his fingers in acoustic jubilance like they had so long ago. The familiar stage welcomed his booted feet and the microphone was no stranger to his frozen lips.
Meg sat down at the piano and watched him as he stared out into the audience. He had glanced at the music in front of him, and already she could see his hands gripping the neck of his guitar, anxious to play. Behind them, Ray held his bass with a tense impatience, and David rested his cheek against his microphone, his hands sliding around his guitar strap awkwardly. They were nervous, and slightly irritated, but the excitement buzzing around Jay made them seem shallow.
She began. Her fingers flew across the keys with a serene, surreal effect. Her cheeks still flushed, she breathed out roughly before the words left her lips. Her favorite Christmas song began to fill the air as Jay and David came in on guitar, then Ray came in, slowly building the rhythm. Her heart wanted to pound out of her chest. She couldn’t believe she was here, couldn’t believe that Jay was there on the stage, couldn’t remember the last time they had shared this stage. He seemed to sense the tension of the moment and, keeping his lips on the side of the microphone, turned to look at her.
And she realized, he had done that before. Years ago. A lifetime ago. In a very estranged world, when they were younger, different people. Still he had twisted his body at that angle, had held her gaze with such desperation, marveling, and wondering. She smiled at him through the lyrics, lips trembling, finding that the flush in her cheeks increased and the piano felt very far away. She was unaware of the whistling wind outside, rushing up against the bricks, pushing the snowdrifts into flurries and pressing the flakes to windows and walls. All she knew in that minute was how blind she had been to the beauty of the journey she had taken with Jay.
The lights flickered, the sanctuary filled darkness for a moment that stretched an eternity, causing Meg’s heart to flutter. When the lights returned, she realized she had stopped playing. It caused a sudden burst of shaking laughter, tears of hysteria rolling down her cheeks. The song was definitely over, as was the Christmas Eve service, because the emotions roiling out of her weren’t going to let her focus for a few more hours. Just the past half an hour was certainly causing a slight degree of panic, what with the sudden shock of singing with Jay again, and there was definitely the fact that she was falling for Jay all over again.
Jay turned back to her as the lights flickered back on, and something inside him came alive when he saw her eruptive laughter. He moved the two feet towards her, bent slightly, and with a breath that took an eon to escape, he kissed her laughing lips.