The Sister 2
This isn't a story about falling in love, but it is a story about finding love about finding a love that I thought I'd lost and would never hold in my grasp again. I can remember losing it. It didn't flutter away on soft wings like a butterfly escaping from a child's homemade net. Oh no, I held it fiercely. Clutched it to my breast. Enslaved it and was enslaved by it. And yet, despite my efforts, it still escaped me. I awoke one morning, and it was gone.
Do you remember how, whenever I lost something, you would tell me to start looking in the very last place I expected to find it? Well I should have taken your advice, because I found my love again in the strangest of places with the help of the most unexpected of people. Then again, maybe it wasn't a strange place or an unexpected person after all it just seemed that way at first.
Listen to me, would you? I go from romantic mushball material straight into the most confusing paragraph ever written. You probably don't recognize me at all. Well, don't worry. Although I've changed a lot since we were last together, I'm still your shoot-from-the-hip, tough-as-nails bodyguard. I just need to explain everything to make you understand. I owe it to you. I owe it to me.
So let me take a deep breath and focus. And start at the beginning.
"I don't see you on the list."
I stared at the man's uni-brow, then tried to locate his neck, which seemed to be missing.
"Look again," I prompted, easily able to see my name on his clipboard, even upside down. "MacMillan, Charlie. It's about a third of the way down."
"Charlie's a boy's name," the Neanderthal declared. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
I could have done a lot of things. Telling him to fuck off crossed my mind. That's what I said to you when you uttered the very same words. Do you remember? Instead I simply replied, "I'm the babysitter."
"Oh." He grunted. He looked me up and down, taking in my stance and my muscles. I suppose I met with his approval. As if I cared. "Oh," he repeated, staring again at his list of approved names and finally making a check mark next to mine with a battered ballpoint pen.
"So I can go in?" I asked, raising an ebony eyebrow.
"Go ahead," he said, moving the metal barrier aside as if it weighed less than his IQ. "Room 1115."
I didn't waste breath to thank him, just passed through the space he'd made and headed into the building. I ignored the envious looks on the faces of the people who pushed against the temporary fencing outside the hotel. They'd shown up at dawn, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idol. Everybody has to have a hobby, I suppose.
I decided to take the stairs. It allowed me to mentally prepare myself for meeting my assignment while grabbing a moment of exercise. I could also check out the security in the hotel. As I climbed the echoing stairwell, I thought about my job. I hate babysitting, as you well know. Pretending to be a friend or hanger-on instead of the deadly protection that I really was just because some pampered starlet didn't like "heavies" around her. She'd rather create some fantasy that life was just one big pajama party.
Well, I've got news for you, you little spoiled brat, real life is full of death and violence and hatred not flowers and kittens and multi-million dollar record contracts.
I reached the eleventh floor and blew out a frustrated breath. I wasn't exactly starting the assignment in a great state of mind. But nobody said I had to like the people I protected. As long as I didn't let my antipathy interfere with my job, I'd be fine. I'd worry about my state of mind when the work was over and I was left with an empty apartment and a bottle of scotch.
The doors to the stairwell weren't being guarded, and I walked out into an empty hallway. I added the oversight to my mental checklist. I found room 1115 and knocked twice, sharply. The man who answered was a twin of the guy downstairs, except he was wearing shorts and a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt. The forced casual look just never works.
"Yeah?" He glowered at me. All I could think about was where he was wearing his gun.
"I'm the babysitter," I said, glowering back.
"Guy at the elevator didn't say you were coming." His glower turned into a confused frown.
"Came up the stairs," I replied, folding my arms across my chest and waiting for his bulk to move from the open door.
He grunted, processing my answer. I decided to make the connection for him. "You need to put someone at the stairwell door."
He pulled on his earlobe. I took that as a sign of comprehension. But I wouldn't put money on it.
"Tony, is that room service?"
The voice came from deep inside the hotel suite. I have to admit, it didn't sound familiar. But it had been a long time.
"It's my replacement," Tony replied, shouting over his right shoulder.
"Cool!" The girl shouted back. "Send her in and then could you call downstairs again? I ordered room service hours ago."
"I'll speak with the front desk personally on my way out," Tony replied, stepping aside so I could enter, and then taking my place in the hallway. "I'll see you tomorrow, Belinda!"
He lumbered down the hallway, not waiting for a reply. I shut the door and turned to face my assignment for the day. That's right: Belinda. The latest in a long line of teenaged female pop stars. But Belinda was bigger than Britney, Christina, Avril, Michelle, or any of the interchangeable others put together. Her first album sold more copies than any female artist before her, twice over. Her second album was a few weeks away from release and promised to outsell the first one. In addition to those accomplishments, she'd played and sung the lead in a Disney animated musical that out grossed any other Disney film, and was preparing for a concert tour that had sold out at every venue. At nineteen, she was one of the richest entertainers in the business, and easily one of the richest teenagers in the world.
And the last time I'd seen her, she begged me for a hot fudge sundae, which she ate and then puked up all over the back seat of my Trans Am. You laughed so hard you almost peed yourself, until I made you clean it up.
It had been ten years since I'd seen her, which hadn't changed me much, though it had seen her go from a gawky kid in braces to a beautiful, self-assured young woman. With blue green eyes so familiar to my heart they stole my breath away. She recognized me immediately. I watched the slow progression of our shared history travel across her features.
"Hello, Belinda." I tried to keep my face impassive. This was a job, just a job. I could get through the day. Keep everything locked up deep inside. This girl sang songs about cute boys and falling in love "for the first time". She'd spend the day reading about herself in Teen People magazine, talk on the phone with her latest squeeze for a few hours, and then I'd ride with her in the limo to her opening night gig. She'd lip sync to her hits; I might get lucky and be able to smash a few heads if anyone managed to crawl on stage. Then I'd escort her back to the hotel and be relieved of duty. It would be simple and boring and uneventful.
"Wow, Charlie! I had no idea. Come on in." She waved me into the suite and moved a guitar off the love seat. I recognized the instrument, the tell tale dings and scratches, and my stomach clenched so suddenly I saw stars. I tried to look away, but my eyes refused to cooperate, tracking it until it was moved out of sight. Belinda noticed and smiled sadly.
"Yeah, it's her guitar."
I watched simple, boring and uneventful fly out the window without so much as a backward glance. It angered me, and so did Belinda's sad smile. Anger had become my best friend. We went everywhere together. I put my arm around it and hugged it close.
"Hello, Belinda," I said through a tightly clenched jaw. "The first thing I'd like to do is review your plans for the day."
That wiped the smile from her face. She looked uncertain, as if she were crossing a bridge that she assumed was secure, and suddenly felt it moving beneath her feet.
Her expression settled as she caught her mental balance. I didn't mind; I could keep the turmoil up all day if I had to. Hopefully, she'd learn and keep things simple.
"I'm waiting for brunch to be delivered," she began. "As you probably figured, it's late. As soon as I eat, I'm heading to a meeting with my manager to discuss some business, then I head to the venue for a sound check. After that, I'm going to the Los Angeles Medical Center to visit with some patients, then I'll head to the concert."
I nodded, filing away each appointment and considering the security issues. It certainly wasn't as simple as I'd expected her day to be. But it was doable.
"How many people will be accompanying us?" I asked.
"Oh, it's just you and me," she replied.
"Really? I guess I expected "
"A posse?" She had a crooked smile. The braces hadn't fixed that. I'm sure the magazines described it as adorable.
"If that's what you want to call it," I said. "Don't rock stars always travel with a dozen people make up, hair dressers, personal assistants, hangers-on?"
"Some do, I suppose." She shrugged. "I don't."
"Just one bodyguard."
"Just one babysitter," she corrected. She seemed amused at the term. "And I wouldn't have that if I had a choice. But the record company insists. And there are a lot of whackos out there."
"Well, your record company is right," I said. "You need protection. Not everyone wants to hurt you, but there are people out there who just want to touch you or get your autograph or grab a lock of hair. Harmless stuff if one person wants it, but not so harmless if thousands do."
"Did Beth have obsessive fans like that?"
She shouldn't have asked the question. Not like that. Not like it was just another inquiry in just another conversation. I could hear anger growl inside of me, a gleaming claw lashing out at the casualness of the question. Belinda must have seen the shadow of the beast on my face, and her open expression slammed closed.
"S-sorry," she stuttered. "I didn't mean..."
"It's all right," I said, my emotions once again caged. "It's a fair question. Yes, your sister had obsessive fans. She also had a lot of people who hated her. Hated her for her politics, her sexual orientation, her spiritual beliefs. All of the things that she spoke about and sang about." I lifted an eyebrow and took in the innocent face before me. "I wouldn't expect you to understand that, of course, since none of those things make it into your songs."
She looked surprised, like a child whose puppy has nipped her. I had unbalanced her again, and I smiled inwardly, deciding she was surely learning her boundaries.
"I guess you haven't heard all of my songs." Her smile was a smirk, topped off with a slight shrug of her shoulders, telling me that she knew she'd turned the tables on me, and could do so again. My counterstrike was forestalled by a knock on the door, and I stood up quickly, glad for an excuse to temporarily end the battle.
"Room Service." The words were slurred with boredom, an obvious sign that they were spoken dozens of times a day. I still looked out the peephole to check, then picked up the walkie-talkie that Tony had left near the door and radioed to the guy at the elevator.
"This is the babysitter." I waited for a response, which took far too long to come.
"Yeah?" The voice that crackled over the equipment sounded even more bored than the room service waiter.
"I've got room service outside. Did you OK him?"
"Yeah. He checked out."
"Right. Next time, don't make me call you to ask."
I put the walkie-talkie down, barely registering the sarcastic reply, and opened the door to the waiter. He was young, about the same age as Belinda, and he looked as bored as he sounded.
"Thank God!" Belinda cried, coming toward the door and the food that was being wheeled inside. The kid looked up at the sound of her voice, suddenly not so bored. A close encounter with a celebrity will do that to you.
"Whoa, Bendy, just hold your horses," I said to the excited rock star who was hopping a little with excitement. It was the hot fudge sundae experience all over again. "I'll take care of this. You just sit down."
She pouted slightly, but retreated. The teenager scowled, angry at me for interrupting his encounter. I just signed the receipt and smiled pleasantly.
"Check with the guy at the elevator for your tip," I said as I closed the door behind him.
"Is it safe to come out now?" Blue green eyes twinkled, and grew even more excited when she spotted the food. "Oh goody. They make the most amazing Belgian waffles here. I ordered plenty, so help yourself."
She approached the food like an invading army, dividing and conquering with precision.
"Do you realize you called me 'Bendy'?" She asked after a few moments of consuming her waffles and coffee.
"Did I?" I hadn't realized it at the time. The childhood nickname had simply slipped off my tongue. "I guess it was seeing you around food again."
"You remembered the hot fudge sundae incident." She grinned ruefully.
"That and a dozen others." I grinned back, feeling some of the tense ache leave my shoulders. I appreciated the safe place the conversation had retreated. "I see your appetite is as huge as ever."
"Yeah, I guess so," she replied, her rueful grin morphing into a sunny smile. "But I promise I won't make a mess in the backseat of the car today."
"Good, because that was nasty, especially for Beth."
I said the name out loud to make her realize that it could be mentioned but on my terms. We would stay in the distant past, when we were teenagers and Belinda was a little tag-along, carrying her teddy bear or Barbie doll, begging us for candy or ice cream or pizza. Groaning at us when we stole a kiss or two, but never telling anyone, just like she promised.
"You have whipped cream on your nose," I said, then frowned when she wiped at it with the back of her hand. I handed her a napkin with an exaggerated frown. "Jeez, Bendy, I can't take you anywhere."
She stuck her tongue out at me and we settled into the comfortable past.
We drove to Belinda's meeting in her Porsche Carrera. After getting over the shock of not traveling in a limo, I convinced her to let me drive. She gave me directions to her manager's office and I quickly crossed town, enjoying the power of the car as I zipped in and out of traffic on the congested freeways.
"I suppose you have to come in with me," she said as we pulled into the parking garage. She looked from me to the gleaming office building, then back to me again. I'd been observing her all morning, watching as the confident young woman turned into a shy, tentative little girl. When she was nervous, she had a habit of pulling on a lock of her blonde hair and sucking on the end. It was something I thought I'd broken her of when she was eight by telling her she'd get worms. But the habit was back, at least on this sunny early afternoon.
"Don't you want me to go in with you?" I couldn't understand her behavior. Of all the places to get nervous, outside your manager's offices surely was low on the list.
"No I mean yes. I mean, I do want you to go in with me," she replied, nodding her head for emphasis. Then she added, a little less firmly, "If that's OK."
"It's my job." I lifted an eyebrow my own little habit, I suppose.
"Oh. Right." She smiled, but uncertainty was still a shadow in her eyes, turning them as grey as the sea on a stormy day.
"Belinda, how are you, my love?" I suppose I should have been impressed that the head of a big management firm personally greeted his client. I wasn't. She was the reason he was wearing a tailored Armani suit, not the other way around.
"Hello, Jason." Belinda smiled artificially and allowed herself to be air kissed.
Jason? Weren't all managers called Artie or Mort? I wondered this as Belinda gestured toward me.
"Jason, I'd like you to meet Charlie MacMillan." The man turned, obviously annoyed at having to waste his precious regard on me. "Charlie was Beth's lover."
It took a moment for him to remember that Beth was Belinda's older sister. Another for the term "lover" to register in his brain and cause just the tiniest of twitches in the corner of his eyelid. Neither moment went unnoticed by Belinda or myself.
"It's wonderful to meet you, Ms. MacMillan," Jason said after his significant pause.
He held out his hand and I ignored it. He was plastic covered in a patina of slime. I didn't want to get my hand dirty. He artfully turned the snub into a gesture toward his secretary.
"Claudia, take care of Ms. MacMillan while Belinda and I have our meeting."
"Of course, Mr. Donovan."
I checked out Claudia as Jason led Belinda into his office. Her auburn hair was pulled into a severe French braid, and her brown eyes were sharp and cold.
"Can I get you something to drink?" She asked, and I realized that was all that "taking care" would entail.
"Mint tea," I replied.
She picked up the phone and I wondered how far my order would go down the corporate totem pole until some poor underling finally put a dusty tea bag into a cup of tepid water. I settled down to wait, watching the comings and goings in the busy office. I had forgotten to ask how long the meeting was supposed to run, but we had a busy day ahead of us, so I figured I could make it without resorting to picking up the year-old copy of Vanity Fair.
Less than fifteen minutes went by I wasn't even close to reaching for the magazine, and my tea was nowhere to be seen when I heard raised voices coming from Jason's not quite sound-proof office. I looked at Claudia, but she was obviously well practiced at ignoring muffled shouts from her boss's meetings.
I couldn't hear what was being said, just an occasional word or two. It was obvious that Belinda was doing most of the shouting and Jason most of the placating. I stood, prepared to do something without having a clue what, just as the door was flung opened by a red-faced Belinda.
"Belinda, please," Jason pleaded as he followed her out of his office. "Try to be reasonable."
"I am being reasonable," Belinda replied. Her voice was steady and did sound pretty damned reasonable. "I've stated the facts to you, Jason. From now on, I sing what I choose to sing. Our meeting is over."
She turned on her heel and strode toward the elevator. I was a step behind, already checking out the people who stood in our path. I could hear Jason gasping for breath like a gold fish that's been scooped from its tank by a naughty kitten.
"I'll see you after the show tonight," he finally managed to croak.
Belinda didn't answer or look back as she entered the elevator and pressed the button for the parking level.
"You sure got his tighty whities in a twist," I said with a smirk as we headed down.
"It was just a little difference of creative opinion," she replied, trying to act nonchalant, but looking way too chalant.
"Don't tell me," I said, rocking on my heels as the elevator arrived on our floor, "you thought the lyrics of your next song should be 'ooh, baby, baby' and Jason wanted it to be 'ooh, baby, ooh.'"
"Do you practice that?" she asked sharply.
"Practice what?" I gestured for her to stay in the elevator until I'd examined the garage for suspicious occupants.
"That disdainful sneer," she clarified when I finally allowed her to exit. "Did you stand in front of the mirror and work on it until you had it just right?"
"No, it just comes naturally, actually." I sneered again to prove my point.
"Well, I'd appreciate it if you kept your opinion of my musical abilities to yourself, along with your disdainful sneer. I know that Beth wrote better songs, had a better voice, and would never have a manager named Jason. I just don't need to be reminded of that every time I look into your face. OK?"
I deserved that. And I suppose you're clapping right now. You should be. The soft, almost desperate words were like a slap that brought me out of a stupor. "OK," I replied humbly.
That moment was the beginning. But I still had so far to go.
The posse that Id been wondering about earlier was obviously hanging out at the OK Corral or more precisely, the venue for that nights concert. Once we made our entrance, they descended on Belinda like wasps on a can of soda. It was way more people than I was comfortable with, and I told her to give me a signal if she didnt recognize anyone, then I backed away from the maelstrom. She was pleasant and friendly to them all, even when they poked and prodded her, but I noticed a muscle flutter in her cheek, as if they set her teeth on edge.
Once the costumes had received their final fittings, the lighting had flashed through every pastel shade, and the stage had been turned, lifted, and split into pieces, the music finally began. As she sang a few verses to help get the sound levels right, all of the frustrations and annoyances of the day me being top of the list seemed to fall from her like leaves on a crisp autumn afternoon. The rigid set of her shoulders relaxed and her face lost the tense lines that had made her look years older. She lost herself in the music. If you could call it music.
I will not sneer, I will not sneer, I will not sneer. I dutifully repeated my new mantra as I listened to trite lyrics accompanied by a mediocre band. I rolled my eyes and wondered if that was an acceptable expression. Eventually I decided it probably wasn't. After another few minutes, I rubbed my face. It was beginning to ache with the effort of staving off my natural expressions.
Since the venue was obviously secure and a few security people were wandering around, I figured I'd occupy my face by feeding it. Like disappointed kids at Christmas and white shoes on used car salesman, you can always count on a good food around pop stars. I located a roadie feeding frenzy, and pushed my way to the table like a cow butting her way to the feed trough.
I had just taken a bite of my bagel when the music coming from the stage changed. The band had mercifully stopped playing, and I could hear the haunting melody of a single guitar accompanying a pure, angelic voice. I couldn't quite make out the lyrics, but I was sure I'd never heard the song before. Despite that, it was somehow familiar. I had to hear more, so I headed back toward the stage. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, the song had stopped. I arrived in time to see Belinda exchanging a few last minute instructions with the sound technician. Once finished, she placed the guitar in its case the same case that I'd carried more times than I could count and looked around until she spotted me.
"Time to go," she said, smiling her crooked smile.
"Was that one of the songs Jason didn't want you to sing?" I asked, walking with her toward the exit.
I hadnt meant it to be a barb. But even when I wasn't trying, I seemed to hurt her. Her face lost its light and the tense lines returned. "Yeah," she replied simply, then walked into the glaring sunlight of the afternoon.
Once back in the car and heading toward our next appointment, I tried to think of a way to apologize. Yeah, I know. "I'm sorry" would have been the obvious choice. But I was debating whether to augment it with a "truly" or a "really".
"I'm really sorry." Belinda beat me to the punch. And she went for the "really".
"You have nothing to apologize for," I replied.
I thought she meant the comment about the song. Maybe she meant the comment about the sneer. I was wrong on both counts.
"I planned this trip a long time ago, and I can't back out now. I wouldn't have made you come, but there might be a lot of people there and if there's not at first, crowds usually grow when word spreads. So I guess you have to come in with me to watch my back. But if you want to check it out first and then go somewhere to wait, or return to the limo, or whatever, I—"
"What are you talking about?" I'd understood every word, and there were certainly plenty to listen to, but I still had no idea what she meant.
"The hospital," she explained. After registering my blank expression, she added, "I'm going to visit the oncology department, talk to the people with the worst prognoses. I know it will be tough for you."
"It won't be a problem." I slipped on my mask, its features blank and dispassionate. I had sculpted the mask during weeks of sleepless nights. It fit me like a glove. Unlike my disdainful sneer, this expression was a part of my soul, and could not be controlled.
"I'm really sorry, I just—"
"It won't be a problem," I repeated, no louder but with the tenor of finality.
She gazed upon my mask as the words sank in and then paused, evaluating the situation. Finally she sighed, and turned away from me to stare out the car window, allowing me the point without conceding the match.
We arrived at the medical center and I prepared for the next volley.
The hospital was everything I expected it to be. The staff exuded an air of confidant caring and the smell of disinfectant barely covered the scent of desperate suffering. The patients eyes held every emotion from hopelessness to resolution to stark terror. Belinda was greeted by an inordinately pleased crowd and spent the next two hours singing, telling stories, signing autographs, and sometimes just sitting quietly, holding a hand or lightly touching an arm or a bald head. Her kindness was staggering, but I viewed it all through my mask, watching through a buffer of manufactured indifference.
When our allotted time was up, I caught her eye and pointed at my watch. She patted the shoulder of the woman shed been speaking with and stood. I saw her sway and took two quick steps toward her.
"Sorry," she said with a grimace. "I guess I got up too fast."
Her face paled and I thought again about the time and how long it had been since shed eaten. Some babysitter I was. "We need to get you some dinner."
"OK." I knew her meek acceptance was a danger sign, and I rushed her through her good-byes and out to the car.
"I have some granola bars in the glove compartment," she said. "Ill be fine with that."
"Dont worry," I said, starting the engine. "I know a place near here where you can get some decent food and no one will bother you."
I pulled out of the parking garage and headed to the diner. She took a bite from a granola bar, then leaned her head back against he seats headrest, staring pensively out the window. I waited for her to say something, but she didnt speak. I suppose she was hoping that my own thoughts were ruminating on the events of the day. I thought instead about the bottle of scotch that was patiently waiting for me at home, and we drove the rest of the way in silence.
"I remember this place," she said as we walked into the diner. "We came here when I was little. You bought me a cheeseburger the size of my head."
"Thats right," I replied, leading her inside and escorting her to a booth. The waitress followed behind us, carrying water but no menus. She knew my order.
"The usual, Charlie?" she asked, popping her gum.
"Yeah, Lacy, thanks. And for my friend as well."
"Coming right up."
"Am I going to find out what the usual is?" Belinda asked with a curious smile.
"Yeah," I replied. "When it arrives."
As friendly banter goes, it was pretty pathetic, but it was as close as we were going to get.
"Are you doing OK?" She turned sea green eyes on me. They were like opened doors, beckoning me inside where it was safe and warm.
I turned away from the offered comfort.
"Of course I am. Why do you ask?" I know my own eyes were as cold and bleak as sparkling ice shards.
"Im sure that was hard for you," she added, her expression still offering sanctuary.
"Why? Because my lover died of cancer?" I was tired of the dance, and suddenly wanted it over. "What did you expect me to do, break down?"
"Im sorry." She turned her eyes away, the doors shutting so loudly I expected people around us to turn and look. "Forget I said anything."
I suppose I could have left it there. Simply returned to our safe, artificial conversations. I spoke because she would have said something eventually. At least thats what I told myself at the time.
"Im sorry Im not living up to your expectations."
"I dont have any expectations," she replied softly. "I cant even imagine what you went through, or what she went through."
"Dont make it more complicated than it is," I said. "One night I went to bed with my lover at my side and when I woke up, she was gone. No note. No explanation. It took me months to find out why shed left me. By the time I tracked her down, she was dead. She wanted to die without me. She got her wish. End of story."
"She wanted to spare you the agony of seeing her suffer from a horrible, painful death," Belinda said. "She made the ultimate sacrifice because she loved you."
"Don't you think I realize that?" I hissed.
I thought the words would send her back on her heels. Instead she gazed steadily into my eyes.
"Then why can't you just—"
"Just what?" The words were bitter against my tongue. "Just get over it? Get on with my life."
"No," she said. Her eyes glowed with a gentle but intense fire. "Why can't you just forgive her? Then maybe you can forgive yourself."
"Here you go," the waitress announced, putting down two heaping plates. "Two cheeseburgers and fries. I'll be right back with your chocolate shakes."
I ignored the intrusion and life's pathetic sense of timing and thought about forgiveness. Such a simple concept. Too simple, in fact. It was obvious that someone as young and innocent as Belinda would suggest such a panacea. She would soon learn.
"I can't eat this," Belinda said, eying the food and grimacing as the shakes arrived.
"Yes you can," I replied.
She looked at me dubiously.
"Please," I said. "Just eat. You need something in your stomach if you're going to get through that concert tonight."
She opened her mouth to say something more, and I had no doubt she would talk all night if I let her. I sighed, picking up my own burger. "Eat. We can talk some more after the concert."
I didn't plan on carrying through with the promise. And her eyes showed that she knew that. Still, she complied with my request and we settled into a cease-fire, eating quietly. I tried to relax, but felt like a soldier who had wandered out into no-man's land to retrieve the wounded. My brain was pretty sure it wouldn't be shot at, but my reflexes were a tougher sell.
After spearing my last fry and plopping it into my mouth, I glanced at my watch.
"Are you ready?" I asked, pulling some bills out of my wallet.
"Let me pay for it," she said, reaching for her own purse.
"No, I got it."
The words were mechanical, falling off of our tongues without conscious thought. And as we left the diner, I took a deep breath, pleased that the day was almost over.
We arrived back at the venue and I began to relax. I was used to the organized chaos of it all, could lose myself in it while performing my job with consummate skill. I left Belinda in the hands of her posse and went to check on security. It was several hours before Belinda took the stage to rapturous, orgasmic applause and I settled into the edge of the stage, just out of sight.
Halfway through the show, Jason joined me. I decided to present him with my disdainful sneer. I didn't think Belinda would mind. He ignored me, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on his client.
The concert had gone without a hitch. Belinda had sung all of her hits from the old album and all of the soon to be hits from the new one. She'd had one encore, singing a song from the Disney film. I glanced at her as she passed me to return to the stage for her second and final encore. She watched me as I recognized the guitar strapped across her shoulder, then she flashed a feral grin at Jason. He seemed about ready to say something, but she rushed back out on stage, turning the audience's chanting into screams.
She sat on a stool that a stagehand brought out, strumming the guitar softly until the tens of thousands of fans quieted. It took awhile, but she waited until only a murmur remained.
"My sister, Beth Fairchild, died of cancer six years ago." Her words were quiet, but seemed to take flight and glide into every corner of the auditorium. "She wrote the song I'm about to sing for her lover." She paused, looking out across that expanse of faces, and somehow managing to meet every eye. "It was a song she wanted to sing to her, but couldn't. Until now."
Jason swore under his breath and then pulled a cell phone out of his pocket as he hurried away. I suddenly realized what Belinda's argument with him had been. I thought about the wars we had both been waging, and then I simply closed my eyes and listened to her song.
I'm leaving, my love, across the great sea
At dawn I set sail on the tide
And I know if I asked, you'd do all that you could
Slay dragons to stay by my side
You'd slay dragons to stay by my side.
Will you remember me when I'm gone far away?
Will you call to my heart even then?
Will you whisper my name,
Hold tight to my soul,
And blow me a kiss on the wind?
Just lay with me now and hold me all night
I'll drown in your smoldering eyes
Just kiss me, my love, as we melt into one
Sing angels to sleep with our sighs
We'll sing angels to sleep with our sighs.
Will you remember me when I'm gone far away?
Will you call to my heart even then?
Will you whisper my name,
Hold tight to my soul,
And blow me a kiss on the wind?
And when I am gone and you're here all alone
And you fear that you'll see me no more
I swear to you, love, when my ship's journey ends
I'll wait on that far away shore
Yes I'll wait on that far away shore
And I'll remember you when I'm gone far away.
I'll call to your heart even then.
I'll whisper your name,
Hold tight to your soul,
And blow you a kiss on the wind.
Yes I'll blow you a kiss on the wind.
Just blow me a kiss on the wind.
She looked at me as the music faded, and I swear for a moment I saw you looking through those sea green eyes. Of course, my vision was blurred from the tears that pooled in my eyes and turned the stage lights into rainbows. She walked off to thunderous applause, but I don't think she heard it. Or maybe she just didn't care. She'd done what she'd set out to do: sang a song that she wanted to sing. And I knew without a doubt that it was going to be the first of many.
"Thank you," I whispered when she joined me back stage. I pulled her into a quite corner. A few of the posse approached, but she gave them a warning look until they retreated.
"She gave that song to me before she died," she explained with a melancholy smile. "She wanted you to hear it."
"I'm sorry it took so long," I said, feeling guilt twist my insides.
"So am I," Belinda replied, then quickly added, "I'm sorry you had to go through so much pain for so long."
"It's my own fault. I was stupid. I was just so wrapped up in my anger, I "
"You were in love," Belinda interrupted. "Don't apologize for what you shared with Beth. Your love was so strong it nearly destroyed you."
I nodded, knowing her words were true. Yes, it really could be that simple.
"Talk to her," Belinda said. She smiled at my confused frown. "Write to her. Tell her what happened. She deserves an explanation."
And so that's what I'm doing, Beth. Writing this all down just as Belinda suggested. I wanted to tell you how I found our love again, thanks to your baby sister.
How could I have let our love slip through my fingers? How could I have turned my back on it? Denied it? Closed my heart off to it? I very nearly never found it again.
And when we next meet again, you have my full permission to kick my ass. I'll even understand if you don't talk to me. As long as you don't stay mad too long. I need to hear your voice again. I need you to sing to me again.
And in the meantime, until we meet up, I think Ill stick by your sisters side. I think she could use a champion. Aww, what am I saying? I could use a champion your sister can take care of herself. I have a feeling we're going to make a hell of a team.