The Voice

                                                      

Warning: this is un-beta’ed but I wanted to share because it’s complete and I’ll be torturing you all with unfinished stuff for a while 😉

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I shook my head at the finger pointed at me urging for me to join Tammy on stage.  I was already three drinks in and I had the courage to join her, I just didn’t want to.  Instead, I tried looking everywhere else except in Tammy’s direction.  I turned to Nancy who was sitting beside me.  She had just ordered another drink and was thanking the waitress.  I tried to start a conversation with her when I felt a tug at my shirt.

“No,” I mouthed at Tammy shaking my head left to right.  I turned around letting my hair act as a shield pretending as if no one could see me.

“Come on everybody,” Tammy said into the mic, “who wants to hear Grace up on the stage,” her words were slightly slurred but the crowd still burst into cheers, “come on Gracie.  Everyone wants to hear you.”

I hated being put on the spot.  I didn’t like the fact that everyone wanted me up there.  I hated it because I wasn’t one to let them down, I’d give them a show.  I didn’t like being the center of attention anymore.  Some of the time I’d freeze forgetting the words of the song.  I’d been booed a time or too off the stage because I didn’t do anything but stare at the crowd before me as the image of them would blur and focus.  Yet, they always came and they always wanted to hear me.  There wasn’t any time, lately, when we’ve been out to the karaoke bar that it wasn’t packed with people just waiting until I got up enough courage to take that stage.

The crowd erupted into a chant of my name that somehow always made me feel as if I could conquer my fear.

“Gracie….Gracie…Gracie…”

Tammy brought her hands together over the microphone and pouted her lower lip whispering, “please,” she begged silently, “they want you,” and she winked.

I rolled my eyes.  She wasn’t going to relent until I got up on that stage and sang at least once.  I sighed and stood up causing the crowd to cheer even louder than it already was, if that was possible.  I heard whistles and clapping getting louder with each step toward the stage.  I had to admit, it was a good feeling, the fact that they wanted to hear me.

“So,” I said into the microphone thankful that I wasn’t squeaky or shaky as I spoke.  I stepped to the middle of the stage, “how ya’ll doin’ tonight?”

“Not as fine as you,” a male voice shouted from the crowd.

“Somebody cut off Mr. Morris over here,” I teased toward the bartender pointing to where the voice had come from then whispered into the mic, “I think he smuggled a flask of Jack Daniels in here again.”

Laughter exploded from the entire bar.  This was what I missed about being up here.  This was why I loved doing this so many years ago.  But, things change.  The beauty and curse of growing up in and living in a small town was you can’t get away from some things you otherwise might be able to in suburbia.  They wouldn’t let my fear plague me, they’ve loved me through it all.  They’re like an extended family.  Yeah, they’ll let you know when you’re awful, but they’ll always support you.

Tammy’s choice for me was ‘Ain’t no Sunshine’ and the music started up.  The crowd grew silent waiting for the lyrics.  I knew this one by heart.  My Mom and I would sing it together at night before I’d go to sleep when I was little.  So I closed my eyes singing along to the beat, just letting the music move me.  It wound down to the end of the song and I graciously thanked everyone when they hooted and hollered loudly.

“Oh my God,” I huffed as I sat back in our booth, “why do you make me do that?  I hate being up there and you guys know this.”

My heart was thumping a mile a minute.

“Because,” Tammy defended, “that stage is where you belong.  After that performance you just did, I now know for a fact that you were born to be up there.  Mark my words, honey, someday you will have a record contract.”

“Just like that, huh?” I asked skeptically.

“You don’t even realize,” was her response which settled an uneasy feeling in my stomach for some reason.

“Tam,” I started to argue, “you are drunk and so is half this bar.  Everyone is listening through three shots of whiskey…at least.  You know everything sounds better that way.”

“That and in the shower,” Nancy chimed in.

“Whatever,” she mouthed and stuck her tongue out at us.

I shook my head, “hey, I have class tomorrow and it’s nearly midnight, we have to go.”

A collective moan escaped the table.

“Stop it!  I told you I couldn’t stay late tonight and I’m not leaving you two here.  You dragged my ass here, now I’m dragging yours home,” I said as I pushed them out of the booth to head back to our apartment, “go, on now.”

~oOo~

I stumbled into the kitchen blindly searching for the coffee maker, too tired to even care that I hadn’t flicked the lights on.  Five hours of sleep was not pretty on me.  I poured the water into the tank and scooped out the grounds putting them into the basket before turning on the machine that was going give me a magic potion to pry my eyes open.  I don’t know why I thought it was such a good idea to go out on a night right before a big exam.  If I didn’t pass this test, I was sure to fail the class.  And I needed this degree to further my career.  But, karaoke night had been a tradition for the last five years straight now.

“Anyone else think it’s fucking bright in here,” a grouchy voice mumbled behind me.

“I haven’t even turned on the lights yet, Tam,” I countered, “it wasn’t my idea to go out on a Wednesday night, anyway.  Don’t bitch at me.”

Tammy stumbled to the couch and threw herself on it dramatically pulling a pillow over her face, “It’s tradition, can’t break tradition,” Tammy chanted before admitting, “I’m just going to hibernate right here for the day,” she muffled through the pillow, “don’t bother me unless the building is crumbling down.  On second thought, don’t bother me at all.  I’ll just stay right here.”

I snickered at her theatrics and watched as the brown water slowly dripped into the pot.  It was high time we cleaned this thing.  It seemed to brew slower and slower.  I was practically counting the drips when the front door swung open so violently it bounced off the wall.

“Eeeeeeee,” the squeal that screamed from the doorway even made me cringe.  I covered my ears and I wasn’t the one who was hung over, “it worked, it worked, it worked!”

“Are you effing serious,” Tammy said shock in her voice as she sat up too quickly and grabbed her head.

“Whatever you two are talking about, I don’t even want to know,” I started to head back to my room when my giant Barbie of a friend blocked my way.  How did she get here so fast?  She could hardly contain the grin that was growing on her face.

“Nanc, I said I don’t want to know,” I reiterated staring into her bright blue eyes and tried to get by her only to be nearly close lined when her arm shot out.

“Oh, yes you do,” she said slyly raising an eyebrow, “you’ll want a say in what you pack, I’m sure.  Unless, of course, you would like us to pack for you.  I’m sure I could find some cute little skirts, low cut blouses and nice tall heals that would fit you from my closet, make sure to leave any and all t-shirts and sweaters with your jeans and sneakers at home.”

I placed my free hand on my hip and narrowed my eyes at her.  I didn’t like the smugness of her voice, “I seriously doubt I’d fit into anything you own…what did you guys do?” I asked sharply.

“Does Logan Miller ring any bells?” Tammy chirped from the couch and quickly covered her mouth like she wasn’t supposed to say.

A shiver ran through me.

“Tammy!” Nancy barked, but it was too late, damage was done.

“No,” I gasped covering my mouth with my free hand.  I hadn’t heard that name in ages, at least I tried to tune it out.  I tried to steer clear of any and all ‘Logan Miller’ gossip.  It was a difficult task seeing as how his face was plastered on nearly every magazine I walked by and managed to be on the TV almost nonstop, but I’d found a way to keep it a minimum.

“Yes,” the both said together nodding and grinning.

“You know how I feel about crowds and the stage!  I can’t do that!  How am I supposed to perform in front of a camera?  Knowing millions of people will be watching?” I felt the panic starting to wash over me, my hands starting to shake, “Logan Miller will be there…I…I…I…”

I couldn’t think.  This was un-be-live-a-ble.  My supposed best friends who should know me better than I know myself were plotting behind my back.  Scheming a way to trick me into a singing competition because I’d never willingly subject myself to my own worst fear.  Did they want the world to see me fail?

What if everyone though I was horrible?

What if all this time I was really a warbling idiot?  The only people who’d really heard me were the people I grew up with, had they been honest with me this whole time?

What if Logan Miller heard me and had to try his best to let me down that I’d never make my dream of becoming a recording artist?  What if I had to hear from him that I should just find another dream?

I’d make a fool of myself on national TV.

I’d make a fool of myself in front of Logan Miller.

What if he remembered?

What if he didn’t?

“Grace, seriously, you’re being way too dramatic,” Nancy chided tucking the envelope into her back pocket, “besides, they don’t even see the contestants faces.  It’s not the crowd that gets you all worked up, it’s the stage and you won’t even be on one.  You’ll be behind a wall or in another room or something.”

“I’m being dramatic?!” I probably shouldn’t be shouting at them, but it just came out, “have we forgotten the talent show of ninety-two?  Did we just magically block that all out?”

“Grace, we were in high school,” Tammy responded slightly annoyed from the couch falling back to lying down, “that stage was old and rickety.  It was bound to happen sometime.  Unfortunately, it happened to us.”

Up until that fateful day I had loved the stage, couldn’t get me off it if you tried.  I loved seeing the smiling faces, people dancing and singing along.  I made people happy.  I let them, even if it was for only one little moment in time, just forget about everything and enjoy themselves.  My parents did everything they could to give me some stage time.  They drove all over the state and crossed state lines to get me to any competition.

That is, until I was performing one day dancing up and down that stage working up the hundreds that had gathered and heard a board creak.  I’d ignored the sound at first, but then when I made my way back across the stage I stepped my foot right through the floor.  Everything after that seemed to be happening in slow motion.  I heard something cracking above my head.  A collective gasp came from the crowd.  I heard my name being shouted from backstage telling me to watch out.

Watch out?

What was I watching out for?

I wrapped my hand around my leg trying to pull it out.  My instincts told me I needed to free myself and get out of there, but my foot was lodged in the floor and I couldn’t move it.

I looked back at my best friends, slash, back-up singers, their mouth’s hanging open in shock.

I turned to the crowd watching them point above my head, whispering back and forth to each other.

I looked up just in time to see the stages curtain and lighting and everything else attached to it falling toward me.  I was doomed.  If the thing didn’t kill me, it was sure to hurt really badly.

Only, it never hit me.

Instead I felt the air leave my lungs as I was pushed away and fell backwards a few feet and my head hit the stage.  I tried hard not to fall under unconsciousness before I could see who my savior was.   I had my suspicions, but I needed to know for sure.  My eyes locked with his immediately, steel grey eyes crinkled with worry.  I think I tried to give him a smile because I still remember the smile he gave me before I couldn’t stop the sleep that over took me.

Apparently, I found out later, a small army of people had rushed the stage to get me out of the way.  No one was injured by the stage curtain, but I suffered a minor concussion, a twisted ankle and a total irrational fear of the stage ever since.

Rumors started flying of different boys that I went to school with who had come to my rescue and some from other counties that were there for the competition, but no one confessed.  No one could quite remember exactly what happened.  And I never offered up my theory.

“I wonder if Logan has changed since becoming famous,” Nancy mused breaking me from my thoughts.

“Oh, what-ever,” I reproached unable to stop myself from becoming defensive, “you hardly knew the guy.  None of us knew him.”

She narrowed her eyes at me, “speak for yourself, my dear, I’ll have you know he dropped his note pad with his songs in it when we were in Austin and I picked it up handing it back to him.  We had a conversation.”

“And what exactly did that consist of,” I challenged, “hey, you dropped this, oh, thank you, oh, you’re welcome?  Come on Nanc, none of us really knew the guy.”

Whoa, stand down there girl.  They’ll get suspicious.  It’s been years, we don’t need to open up that can of worms.

“Seriously?”  Nancy waived her hand at me, “defensive much?  What the hell is wrong with you?”  She stared at me for a moment looking for any one of my signs that I was hiding something from them.  “Anyway,” she started back slowly and I relaxed a bit, “you have to admit, it’s been kind of neat to watch someone we knew shoot up in stardom.  How many people can say that they knew who he was before he became who he is now, you know?  We all saw each other at the same talent shows, same auditions, yet he’s the one who made it.”

“Yeah,” I huffed under my breath.

At least, I meant for it to be under my breath.

I think they heard me, though.

“Wait, Grace,” Tammy seemed to suddenly remember something.  Please tell me she suddenly remembered there was a big shoe sale this weekend or something, “isn’t he the one who saved you on that stage?”

Nope.  No such luck.

I took in a deep breath wishing they’d just drop the whole subject and let out a loud sigh, “There were a lot of theories, Tam.  I don’t know for sure, concussion, remember?  Look, I’m not going, okay?  Final…answer.”

Why did that sound like more of a question than a decision?  I wasn’t made for the stage.  I wasn’t meant to become some big recording artist.  That stage was trying to tell me something that day.  The fact that Logan was famous and off living his dream was proof enough to keep me from doing something I should just let go of.

They both sucked in a loud breath of air…and then screamed.

Yes, I did say that no one knew who pushed me out of the way that day.  With all the chaos no one was paying attention, we didn’t have any press coverage of the competition so there weren’t any professional photographers.   There were plenty of proud parents around, but no one was quick enough on the camera to get a good picture of the whole scene.  All that was left was hearsay and gossipy rumors.

I’d been so embarrassed by the whole scenario I didn’t want to add on top of everything that I knew who it had been.  Especially after we learned of his recording contract he’d signed a few weeks after that incident and the immediate buzz surrounding him as he shot to stardom.  I couldn’t ruin that for him.  Even though a small part of me wished I would have been brave enough to seek him out.

“Why in God’s Heaven did you not say something all those years ago?  You’ve been keeping that from us all this time?” Suddenly Tammy’s hangover didn’t matter anymore as she shot off the couch running into the kitchen and practically throwing me into a chair.

Little did they know that was only a small sliver of what I was keeping from them.

“Because it wasn’t really a big deal,” I downplayed, “it wasn’t worth the media attention it was sure to bring him.  I didn’t want to do that to him especially after he started his tour.  You know what would have happened.”

“Oh, you’re going now,” Nancy declared shushing me with her hand in the air before I could protest, “get packing.  We leave tomorrow night.”

~oOo~

How I got talked into this I’ll never figure out.  How a grown woman who had put her foot down on more than one occasion and firmly said NO was now sitting in the back seat of a Toyota Corolla that was shooting towards Los Angeles at scary speeds I couldn’t quite wrap my head around.

Yet, here I sat…sweaty palms and all.

And I couldn’t stop my left leg from bobbing up and down.

I suppose I could have been persuaded by the phone call I received from the executive producer after he’d heard the tape I’d never sent.  Kept going on and on about how he knew I was going places and wanted his show to be the spring that propelled me there.  Yea, I had my girls to thank for that.  Sneaky little bitches.

If I was to be really honest, I’d have to admit that the final push to get me to go was getting a phone call from Logan.  Well, maybe I should rephrase that because it wasn’t really him live and in person, but a recording of his voice saying how much he’s looking forward to my participation. Even though it was a generic recording that was most likely sent to every contestant that was to be on the show, just hearing his voice after all these years brought a smile to my face.  I actually saved the voicemail recording and had listened to it every time I thought about not going.

It was very persuading.  I suppose that’s what brought upon the sudden desire to do something crazy.  Would he be angry at me for coming?  Would he be happy that I’d come?

After a day of driving and a few pit stops to pee, we finally pulled into the City of Angels.  Not really sure why it was called that.  There wasn’t anything angelic about this place and there definitely weren’t any angels roaming around.

Tents were set up along the city streets, makeshift houses out of cardboard boxes and sticks and sheets littered alleys between buildings.  Shopping carts piled high with apparent treasures were being pushed along by young and old.  Guys with their pants half-way down their asses limp-strolled along nodding their heads at one another when they passed someone they apparently knew.

“I hope we’re staying at a decent hotel?” I questioned and eyed a homeless man who was walking beside us while we were stopped at a red light.  His long dirty grey hair fell loosely to his shoulders.  He was dressed in an old ratty coat he’d most likely dug out of a trash bin somewhere and was talking to himself as he pushed one shopping cart in front of him and pulled another behind.

“Don’t worry, the network set us up.  I’m sure we’re staying in a top notch hotel,” Nancy answered.

The light changed to green and Nancy pulled away from the intersection separating Los Angeles and ‘Tinsel Town.’  She drove us carefully through the crowded streets until we finally pulled into the Beverly Suites where we apparently had reservations.  We pulled into the valet parking and they helped us bring in our bags.  We checked in, stumbled up to our room with our bags and fell onto the beds exhausted.

“Tomorrow’s a big day,” Tammy reminded me.

“Don’t remind me,” I couldn’t help but say it.  I could feel my nerves starting to wear on me.

“Relax,” Tammy assured, “all I’m saying is that we’d better get some sleep.”

~oOo~

Auditions were being held at the Kodak Theater.  It was more amazing in person than when I’d seen it on TV for award shows.  We walked through large double doors in awe of the stage before us.  The inside was more intimate than larger venues with seating above on a second floor as well as directly in front of me and only probably about fifty rows before you reached the stage unlike some places I’d seen concerts at where you could go hundreds of rows out.

I was ushered into the back while the girls were told to sit in the audience to wait for me.  My girls reassured me that I would be great and they’d be right here when I was done.  A big part of me wished they could go back stage with me, but I knew that this was something I had to do on my own.

I was put in a room where there was only a stool, a pair of head phones and a microphone.  I was instructed to put on the head phones and wait for further direction.

My palms were sweaty once again and I wiped them on my pant leg before I placed the head phones over my ears hearing the judges chatter back and forth waiting until all the contestants were ready to perform.  There was a females voice, another males voice and Logan’s.  It was deeper than I’d last heard it, but unmistakably his.

And that’s when my leg started its bouncy thing again.

There were ten of us that were to perform today, from what I gathered, and by the end of the day there would be just two that would end up on the actual show.

No pressure.

“Grace Adams,” I heard a voice say into my ears startling me slightly.

My stomach flip-flopped.

It was him.

“Yes,” I said my voice cracking slightly and was no more than a whisper.

I cleared my throat.  How did he still do that?

“We’re ready when you are,” his voice was deep and silky smooth sending shivers down my body as he spoke.

I cleared my throat again, “okay,” and took a deep breath closing my eyes.

Instead of chancing it, I decided to stick with Ain’t No Sunshine and surprisingly, they let me sing the whole thing.  When it came to the end of the song, another voice, this one the female, asked for me to hold on.  Defining silence seemed to last forever before I heard them come back.

“Grace,” the females voice cheerily chimed in.

I was a little disappointed wanting to hear him again.

“Yes, ma’am,” I answered softly.

“Oh, good Lord, dear, please don’t call me that.  Makes me feel old,” she giggled, “I have to say, you were wonderful to listen to.  Perfect pitch, tone was polished and I personally closed my eyes and just let you take me on your journey.  Loved it!  Have you taken lessons?”

“Thank you,” I answered unable to hide the grin she produced with her compliments, “and no I have not taken any lessons, but I have been singing all my life.”

“You are very welcome, honey, you have been blessed with a beautiful voice.  Now, just hang tight, okay.  We’ll get right back with you.”

Suddenly I was in silence again and very disappointed.  I hadn’t gotten to hear his voice again or his opinion of my performance.

Had he liked it?

Did he hate it?

Did he know it was me?

Did it really matter?

I slumped my shoulders and sighed.  What was wrong with me?  This had been a bad idea.  I should have stood my ground more…I should have never gotten in that car…I should just take these headphones off and…and…and…

“Ms. Adams,” his voice washed over me like melted chocolate.

What the hell was wrong with me?

“Yes,” I answered in a whisper.

“Please wait in dressing room C,” he instructed and I felt my heart thunder against my chest.

“Okay,” I answered removing the head phones fighting the urge to run to that dressing room.

Or maybe it was an urge to run as far away from here as I could.

Which of those two I was about to do, I wasn’t quite sure.

I opened the door of the room I was in and asked a stage hand for direction to the dressing rooms.  He sent me down a narrow hallway.  Both walls had lettered doors and I found the one marked with a ‘C’ opening the door and stepping inside.  The light was already on, a simple shaded lamp in the corner of the room.  It revealed a clichéd picture before me.

An oval mirror surrounded by round light bulbs was attached to a white painted table top, a matching simple wood chair in front of it.  To the left of the room was a coco brown love seat with a square coffee table in the same simple decor of the room.  In the middle of the table was a bouquet of daisies placed in a short, square navy blue vase.

Various posters of bands and acts that had performed or were scheduled to perform for the next few months adorned the walls.  Some had been signed by the artists.  Some were simply names of groups.  While a vast majority of them were pictures of the members.  And standing alone on an almost life size poster was Logan.

My eyes stopped on the picture of the grown up version of the boy I remembered.  His hair was still the dirty blond I had loved to run my fingers through yet, slightly longer than I recalled.  Obviously tousled by a stylist, I couldn’t help the urge I had to touch it.  The smirkey smile he was giving squinted his steel gray eyes slightly.

I found myself walking slowly toward the poster, my fingers reaching out to touch it.  I stared into the picture of his eyes.  He didn’t have that spark like before.  Something was missing.  He looked sad through the happiness he tried to convey.

The sound of the door handle being turned made me jump.  I sure didn’t want to be caught ogling by one of the judges, so I turned around smoothing down my black tank top and tucking a strand of hair behind my ears.

I was unprepared for the sight before me.  He seemed to have stepped right from the poster I’d been looking at a moment before.  Seeing him here, live and in person, took my breath away.  His faded, holey, blue jeans hung right at his hips, a chain connected to a belt loop swooped to his back pocket.  The bright white t-shirt hugged his now well-formed chest and stopped short of the black belt that wrapped around him like I wanted my arms to be.

Good God, he’d grown into a beautiful man.

He cleared his throat snapping my eyes to his and I realized that I’d been staring a little too long below the belt.  My lower lip tucked between my teeth as thoughts I should probably keep to myself started popping into my head.

And maybe it would be a good idea to remember to breathe.

He smiled that smirkey grin that used to get me.

I felt my face grow warm.  He knew what I was thinking, where my mind had gone.  I could tell by the look in his eyes.  He had always been good at reading me.  So much for keeping my dirty thoughts to myself.

“Gracie,” his voice was thick and quiet making it come out more like a question.

It was all I could manage to simply nod at him.

He took another step into the room and when he did, two giants attempted to follow him.  They were his body guards, I was sure, and I was suddenly disappointed we wouldn’t be alone.  He put a hand out and stopped them and for whatever reason, they allowed him to shut the door and leave them on the other side of it.  It was just the two of us now and suddenly I could smell this intoxicating, beautiful scent.

“I’d recognize that sweet voice anywhere,” he took another step closer and I swallowed down the lump in my throat, “and you’re even more beautiful than I remember.”

Dear Lord, my knees were going to give.

“Yeah, you too,” it left my lips breathlessly and I felt slightly silly for saying it.

He grinned that lopsided smile looking away shyly.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” I suddenly snapped out of my stupor, “my friends sort of tricked me into this.  I should go.  I shouldn’t even be here.”

I started for the door, but he stepped into my path.

“Don’t be sorry,” he chuckled moving yet another step closer passing me to sit onto the couch and motioned for me to sit down beside him, “I’m actually really happy to see you, you have no idea.”

I moved over toward the couch without thinking about my actions.  I must have made a weird face at his comment because he laughed again and it tugged at the corners of my mouth.  I didn’t even realize how much I missed hearing his laughter.  I must have forgotten after the years that passed.  I decided that it was my new favorite thing to hear.

“You are?  I mean, I didn’t expect you to even remember me after getting your big break.  I thought you just forgot about me.  I mean you never called, or wrote, or tried to get a hold of anyone back home.  You just sort of disappeared,” my nerves made me babble, “although, I’m sure there’s been plenty to keep you busy.”

He smiled that smile I remembered from long ago and shook his head at my rambling, “Gracie, you haven’t changed one bit have you?  You still ramble when you’re nervous and turn five shade of pink when you look at me.”

He paused and for a moment, I saw a faint hint that glimmer come back.

“There were never any other girls, Grace.  My damn publicist watches me like a hawk.  They took away my phone, they monitor all my calls, letters, emails…and time just seemed to slip by so fast.  Has it really been seven years?”

I finally sat down on the couch beside him because my knees just couldn’t keep it together anymore.

How was it that he could still do this to me after all this time apart?  We were just love-struck teenagers for God’s sake, weren’t we?

I nodded nervously trying to figure out what to do with myself.  I crossed my legs, uncrossed them, laced my fingers together, untied them and wrapped them around my knees.  I was a nervous wreck and I wasn’t quite sure why.  I’d never been like this around him before.

I thought I’d come to terms with this.

I thought I’d gotten myself past all this.

While I was busy fidgeting, he slipped his hand over my trembling ones.  His hands were warm and so large they covered mine completely.  His touch sent my heart racing violently, a tingle running up my arm and my face heated up.

This was just crazy.

“Look, Gracie…I really, honestly, meant to call or something.  Things got crazy, my schedule was nuts and when they took my phone, I lost everything.  All my contacts, phone number, addresses;  I couldn’t even get a hold of my boys back home,” I could hear the apology in his voice.

I nodded, “I suppose I get it.  I don’t like it, but I get it.  I mean, we can’t change things.  It is what it is and you’re who you are now.”

I was still staring at our hands wishing I had tried harder to fight to not have come.  This had been a mistake.  Things were being stirred up that I had long ago thought I had done a pretty good job at burying.

“Gracie, I’m still me, I haven’t changed any.  The only thing that did change is, I didn’t have you in my life anymore.  There hasn’t been a day that goes by that I haven’t thought of you,” he continued, “I thought I was hallucinating when I saw your name on that sheet.  Hell, when you spoke it wasn’t more than a whisper so I didn’t put two and two together until I finally heard you sing.  There’s no way I’d forget your voice.  I had Diana talk to you so I could gather myself and come see you.  How are you?  You been okay?”

I huffed fighting the burn behind my eyes.  Keeping my head down, a tight smile flashed across my face.  I wasn’t going to cry in front of him.

“I can tell you tried real hard, didn’t you?  You know, it’s the same old shit at home.  Not much changes in a small town,” my tone came out a little harsher than I had intended.

My vision started to blur, my chin quivering.

I was not going to cry in front of him.

“Grace, I’m sorry, I had no choice after I signed that contract.  I was young and stupid and I didn’t know what I was doing.  Neither did my parents, really.  They took everything from me.  I wasn’t allowed to contact anyone except for my Mom and Dad.  I was so lost without you.”

“You were lost?”  I finally let it out, battle over, floodgates opened up like a storm on the Mississippi and I turned to look him in the eyes, “you were lost?!?  Do you even realize how difficult it was not to say anything after you left?  I had no one I could talk to…no one!  Because I couldn’t let anything hurt you or hold you back.  I kept everything in here,” I placed a hand on my chest, “because I wanted to see you succeed without the press making it any harder on you with small town gossip.  So, I told no one about us.  Not even my girls knew.”

“God, Gracie,” he squeezed my hand and I looked back down, “I don’t know what else to say except I’m sorry.  I never meant to hurt you.”

“Too late for that, now, isn’t it,” I whispered as tears silently trailed down my face dripping off my chin and falling onto his hand.

He reached his free hand over and gently brushed his thumb across my cheek pushing aside the tears that were never-ending before cupping my face and tilting my chin up.  I closed my eyes  and leaned into his touch unable to help myself .  I hadn’t realized how much I missed him.  How much I’d missed us.

He’d been a big reason for my confidence on stage.  I’d always liked to perform, but he’d tell me how much the crowd needed to see me perform, how happy it made them and I had the ability to work that stage like a seasoned pro.  The accident on top of him leaving just left me devastated.  I lost that confidence.  I lost that ability to run that stage.  I’d lost everything.  I didn’t want to leave this couch or this moment, ever.  Because for the first time in a long time I felt that connection we had.  I couldn’t stand to lose him again.

“I’ve missed you,” I whispered before I could stop myself and sniffled, “so much.”

“You have no idea,” he replied and I let him pull me into an embrace.

Ten years of frustration, worry, hurt, longing all came out on his shoulder.  Yes, we were only teenagers when we’d met and fallen for each other, but there was something there.  Something deeper than just physical attraction, something that neither one of us could explain nor deny.

We’d kept our relationship a secret because, at the time, we’d both been competing at the same talent shows where the same scouts were sure to be.  And coming from a small town, we knew it would spread fast.  We thought it would complicate things.

“You of all people don’t need this stupid show, you know,” he said as he kissed the top of my head, “you’re perfect.  In fact, you should tour with me.  Open my shows. ”

I sat up, eyes wide, “what?”

I couldn’t believe what I just heard.  Did he mean it?

“You heard me, there has to be a reason for you to walk back into my life,” he cupped my face and looked desperately into my eyes, “let’s not lose each other again.”

“B-b-but, I can’t,” I started feeling that terrible fear gripping at me.

“Why not?” his question was innocent, but I could see the disappointment in his expression as it fell at the idea of me walking out of his life again.

“I mean, I physically can’t.  I’m terrified of the stage anymore,” I admitted hoping it would remove the frown from his face, “ever since you left, I have these horrible flash backs, I freeze up…I just can’t.”

“Let me help you,” his smile was back, “I can help you get past that.”

“I don’t know if I can.  And what about work, I’ve got school to finish, and what about my girls, I can’t just walk out on them,” I had responsibilities I couldn’t just leave behind even if every fiber of my being was willing to do just that.

“I don’t start my tour until this season of this show is over.  It’s not like I’m asking you to uproot your life, I just…I was hoping, maybe, IT might still be there.  At least for you.  This would be a good opportunity for us to spend some time together.  Please, just give it some thought.”

My eyes locked with his.  He was serious.  All this time I’d thought that he’d bailed out on me and gone on to something bigger and better that what we had in that small town.  Had he really been just as much of a mess as I had been?  Did it really kill him as much as it had me to be apart?

“Please,” he pled, “just think about it.  I don’t think I could go another ten years of not seeing you again.”

My girls were pacing the lobby when I emerged from the double doors.  I could hear their chatter as I walked up.

“Do you think she did okay?  I hope we didn’t push too much.”

“What if she’s mad at us?”

“Relax, I’m not mad,” I announced walking up to them.

They squealed a defining scream running up and tackling and squeezing me as they jumped up and down.

“Soooooo,” Tammy started.

“Did you make the cut?”  Nancy finished.

“Ummmmm, sort of,” I answered.

It sounded more like a question than an answer.

“What the hell does that mean,” Nancy squinched her expression at me, “you’re either on the show or you’re not.”

“It’s a little complicated,” I sighed.

“How is it complicated,” Nancy started and looked at me carefully, “oh, honey, you’ve been crying, you didn’t make it?”

They both cooed and brought me in for another hug.

“Would you guys let me explain?” I asked exasperated, I just couldn’t get out what I needed to say, “I’m coming back.”

They both looked completely confused.

“Wait, I’m not quite sure I follow?  You’re on the show or not?”  Tammy asked.

“I know I have a lot more explaining to do than this to the two of you, but I’m not on the show,” I took a deep breath and said it as if it was one long word, “I will, however, be touring with Logan Miller.”

The Voice.

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