Writing is simply satisfying yourself.

~Mental Ninja

15

Kando could see the colossal mansion at 2650 California Street from blocks away. He’d been warned on his way, when he was asking for directions from people – which he didn’t quite like to do because he was the leader of an undercover organization – that the owner was notorious around the area for his wild ragers, and that his residence, nicknamed the “Sin Sector”, was the center around which rumors of nefarious happenings frequently circulated, although their details would remain perpetually ambiguous. In recent months, however, the talk had very much quieted down due to reasons yet unknown. Kando had heard speculations of the owner’s death, relocation, or simple change of lifestyle. Feeling the muscles in his limbs tense in uncertainty as the building loomed ever closer, he reminded himself that this was only hearsay from plebeian street-people he was asking for directions from. But he recalled the last AWGWGC meeting and acknowledged his irrational fear of rumors. In any case, the arguably most dangerous and wanted WGWG on his watch list had directed him to this exact address, and that was a veritable source of trepidation. Kando steeled himself; he’d waited a good part of his life to meet this dude face to face.

Sure, there was a possibility that his nemesis wouldn’t even be there. He’d said to come and meet him, but there were, after all, rumors of him moving away, taking the sin of Sin Sector with him. But then why else would the man lead him to this spot? Was there a patrol of snipers waiting to take him out at the door? Or even worse, a patrol of WGWGs ready to surprise-serenade him with atrocious singing? Kando shivered at the thought as he approached the mansion, which now seemed unrealistically towering and also blindingly bright.

Someone is in there. 

He stepped onto the glittery tarmac. There were no bullets, no Caucasian crooners. Instead, a guard bowed to him as two valets opened the gate. Letting out a sigh of relief, Kando stepped down the little concrete path traversing two shimmering rectangular pools, towards the transparent door of the house.

About two yards away, he saw through the door a woman running excitedly towards him. At lightning speed, she burst outside. She was moderately pretty, skinny, brunette and looked to be in her mid-twenties. Kando paused; the woman didn’t. He was utterly confused; she looked utterly certain. Before he knew it, she was on him, arms around neck and lips on lips. 

“Oh, Brian, I’ve had such a wonderful time. Thank you so much,” she sighed into his ear as soon as it had finished.

Was this the ambush? What the devil was – Kando’s head was still spinning. “I’m ” he choked between breaths. “I’m ” It was the first time he’d kissed a girl. It was glorious. “Yes,” he finally managed. “I’m Brian. Brian Kando.”

The woman nodded, her eyes lighting up with recognition. “Ah yes, as you told me,” she said, and extended her hand. “Hannah Blackwell.”

 

***

 

By now Colton had tried three times to fit his key into the lock of his San Francisco apartment. His shaking right hand, however, seemed bent on preventing him from doing so. The doctor had told him it would be a side effect of emotional perturbations.

Emotional perturbations. Of course. Who wouldn’t be perturbed?

In frustrated desperation he jammed the key a fourth time, and this time it went through. He turned the lock and the thick, sickening thock of the click filled him with revulsion. Instead of opening the door, he laid his head on it, breathed deeply and closed his eyes. The throbbing of the cuts in his left hand suddenly intensified, and images of the evening’s occurrences swam up to meet him.

 

“I had no idea you were even here,” he said. His right hand gripped the red velvet tablecloth in an ineffective effort to conceal the tremor.

“I was busy,” answered Jessica. She hastily diverted her gaze to his plate. “You’re not eating.”

“Don’t change the subject,” said Colton coldly. “I, Michael Colton Dixon, am your boyfriend, Jessica Elizabeth Sanchez – ”

“Don’t use my full name, Colton.”

He ignored her. “So how is it that I had absolutely no clue that my Grammy-winning pop diva girlfriend’s last tour stop was today in San Francisco until I heard it from Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance, two guys working in fucking heavy metal? I had to walk into the concert with their free ticket. You couldn’t even make time for me. ”

“You know how stressful a tour can be, Colton,” whispered Jessica. “I swear I didn’t mean to spite you. And I’m making time for you here, right now.”

“You never contacted me once,” continued Colton, calm and unsettling, his left hand involuntarily closing around the neck of his glass. “For the entirety of the last two months you never contacted me ONCE.” At the spike of his voice, his fingers tightened around the thin, delicate crystal. “Seriously, Jessica, how fucking busy can you possibly be to not have the time to send your boyfriend an email or a text saying, ‘Hey! I miss you!’ or ‘Hey! My tour ends in San Francisco on this and this date!’ or, ‘Hey! I’m not fucking around with some other dude while you’re working your sorry ass off trying to make it as big as I am!’ “

“Colton, stop.”

“Or are you?” His voice dipped to the quiet and menacing calm, and his tone turned nasty. “That Mariah Carey song. That wasn’t for me. You sang it with such emotion, didn’t you. And oh, I know quite well what they’re saying online.”

“Colton, you’re being completely ridiculous. The internet is full of crap. It’s just a song. I’m supposed to sing it with emotion. It’s what singers do. Come on, J.Lo told us on Idol, remember?” Jessica attempted an easing smile.

“Idol, Idol, Idol. That’s what it all goes back to, isn’t it? You just can’t let it go. It’s like a fucking fixation.”

“Colton, you’re scaring me. You’re not usually like this.”

“Am I?” Colton smiled unstably. “Perhaps you should be. Maybe I am scary. And you’re right. I’m not usually like this. You made me like this.”

Jessica was silent for a long moment. “No,” she finally said, looking him in the eye. “I was wrong. You were always like this. This is you all over. Always jealous, always paranoid, always imagining what isn’t there. And maybe there are things I don’t tell you, like my belief that I don’t need to report every single detail of my life to you like you’re my legal guardian, or the fact that your overpossessiveness makes me want to break – ”

She nearly jumped as the piercing sound of shattering glass cut her off. Indifferent of the abrupt silence and the room full of eyes he had drawn, Colton glanced casually at the jagged remains of the glass he had smashed into the window.

“Ah, yes, that’s something I don’t usually do,” he said nonchalantly, still gazing at the glass and his bleeding left hand. “Break things. I think I might start, though. It’s rather fun, isn’t it?” He directed his steely glare toward Jessica. “Wouldn’t you know. You’ve broken so many things. Hearts. Promises. Trust. What next, Jessica? You gonna break a marriage? A family?”

“Please stop.”

“Break up with me? Are you kidding? You broke ME.”

Both of them fell silent. Jessica looked down, tears stinging her eyes. Colton’s expression did not soften. He had run out of tears.

“You never knew how much I loved you, did you?” he said, quietly.

“I did,” whispered Jessica. “And I tried. But I could never fully return it.” A tear fell from her cheek. “I’m sorry.”

“You should be.” Red-threaded fingers shoved a bank note unceremoniously across the table, and when she could finally bear to look up, he was gone.

 

And he’d come back here alone, bleeding, spiteful, overwhelmed by emotions he could not express. He’d wanted to cry and release them, which was why he closed his eyes, but he wasn’t crying. Perhaps it hadn’t gotten to that point yet. Or perhaps he was far past it.

A vibration in his pocket jerked him to his senses. He removed his phone from it and saw the alarm. His daily reminder. A rush of panic and an immediately following wave of relief shot through him. That’s right. Almost forgot.

 

***

 

He trudged listlessly to the desk drawer, the sleek mahogany-wood bane of his daily existence. All the while as he dragged his feet unenthusiastically across the carpet, he was aware that every second he wasted, every second he was late, was making things worse. It wasn’t happening yet, but he could feel it. His tremors seemed slightly more violent, the stings from the cuts just a bit sharper. He’d be there soon, he told himself; he’d open that drawer, do what he had to do and it would all be over before it started. But for some reason, part of him was trying to delay it. Part of him craved it, that uncontrollable feeling of being afraid…

As he sat down in front of the desk, he relished it. He heard the bottle screaming his name. Colton. Colton. You idiot. Closing his eyes, he inhaled the musty apartment air, his heart palpitating; it was thrilling just to test his resistance to the hallucinations. When he opened his eyes, however, a corner of one took notice of what was lying on top of the desk all the while. Something that hadn’t been there this morning: a photo of some sort.

Colton felt sick. The lights were dim and the photo had been shaking when he picked it up, but who was on it was unmistakable.

Phillip and Jessica, in their Carly-party get-up. How could I forget? Lip to lip, up against the wall. The bitch. The bastard. Really? Back then? Already? What about the – I knew there was – I knew – Hands holding her face. Arms around his neck. Kissing him back. So it was all true. Having a mighty fun time there, aren’t you, you soulless fucking backstabbers? I seriously can’t believe –

Colton’s stomach lurched, and it took all his strength to keep down its contents. His cerebellum felt like it had just been steamrolled by a train. The photos were living, moving now. Moving in ways he could go his entire life without seeing. Lips on his neck, hands down her back, loosening her dress, the whole scene turning sideways and taking them with it. Make it fucking stop. Fuck. FUCK! He squeezed his eyes shut, slammed the photo upside down and threw open his drawer, fumbling in the dark for the syringe and small bottle of liquid. Just as he closed his fingers around them, he noticed that there was black Sharpie-scribbled text all over the back of the photo.

Holding it steady with his left hand, Colton read the note thoroughly and carefully. He kept his calm throughout, though he was fully aware with every word that it was the last straw. He held the tears in all the way to the end. But they did not relieve him.

An insane decision suddenly held him in its grip. He slowly loosened his own on the bottle and syringe.

He wouldn’t need it anymore.

 

***

On the first page of our story

The future seemed so bright.

 

The polished wood of the piano keys felt like daggers and syringes in his left hand and through his punctured veins. He’d practiced and played this song to perfection once upon a time, and every missed note was erupting shrapnel in his perfect-pitch ear.

 

Then the saint turned out so evil

I don’t know why I’m still surprised.

 

Emotion through song. He finally understood it, here as the walls were beginning to collapse around him. He’d sung it like a robot in the past, nothing but words added to musical notes, feigned emotion contrived from mere technicalities in cadence and tone, but now… Yes, he felt it now. Full points on Idol. Safe. He could be at the Grammys. They’d be dazzled. They’d feel it too. They’d speculate that something was wrong with him. And of course they’d be right. Too right.

 

Even angels have their wicked schemes

And you take that to new extremes.

 

Debris from the disintegrating ceiling crashed to the floor, just missing him but ravishing him with the rush of chaotic sound. Sparks jumped at him from the body of the grand piano, singing his skin. Raising his head, he closed his eyes and slowly inhaled the potent fragrance of smoke and burning wood. He laughed feverishly and imagined her singing the next lines.

 

But you’ll always be my hero

Even though you’ve lost your mind.

 

As if on cue, the piano burst into flames. Wooden boards descended all around him from the ceiling, and a circular wave of heat rose up and wrapped him in its pressing embrace. He’d be safe, his tears would not drown him, nor would the fire char his flesh – if he kept singing.

 

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn

That’s all right because I like the way it hurts

Just gonna stand there and hear me cry

That’s all right because I love the way you lie.

I love the way you lie.

 

She’d sung it with him in Manila. February 2013. The saint, the angel, the betrayer, the trigger – singing with him what she eventually would cause years later. Ironic. Why did he love her? She was a liar. She never cared. And he could not forgive her for it. But he could also not forgive himself.

 

Sweat mixed with tears and ash as he pushed on. The walls cracked and slumped inwards as the flames surged for him. The temperature soared and hot air seared his throat as the song built up to a crescendo and blood from his exhausted fingertips slickened the keys, coral red on black and white.

 

So maybe I’m a masochist

I try to run but I don’t want to ever leave

Till the walls are going up

In smoke with all our memories

 

Colton hit the crescendo just as the basement exploded and engulfed him in the pyre. Eyes still shut, he felt the permeating pain of fire against skin and through flesh. It deluged him from all sides, shooting through his core. Immersed in death.

 

Our memories.

 

His hands, which felt like someone else’s, slowed to relent the piano; the notes faded, and the flames receded into his mind from whence they came.

Colton took a deep breath. The fire had revitalized him, and though it had disappeared, his brain continued to race haywire into eighty-three dimensions. It fed him wild confabulations and schemes from a dark part of his soul he never knew existed. Then, somewhere, somehow in the spiderweb, one of them caught his fancy. And suddenly he was unwaveringly certain that Jessica would not be forgiven. She would indeed be getting what she deserved for the last months and the last four years.

Just a few emails would do.

14

The dimmed auditorium looked like the lair of an evil mastermind, lit on every side by wall-sized monitors showing maps, complex blueprints and detailed profiles of various men. These futuristic elements clashed eerily with the occult aspects of the room, such as the faint yellow light of the chandeliers drooping from the ceiling like giant spiders, and the candles glowing in a circle on the central oblong table. The four who sat around this table, their faces illuminated by candlelight from the chin up, looked and felt more like they were in a séance than in a business meeting. But they knew that it was business – serious business. And for the man who sat majestically poised at the table’s head ready to lead the convocation, it was nothing less than his life’s purpose.

 

“Welcome to the ninth annual Anti-White Guy With Guitar Coalition congress,” announced Tedius Zanarukando dramatically. He emanated a spark of intense passion for his work that was atypical of his usual stoicism. “I am your leader, Tedius Zanarukando. Kando for short.”

 

“You’re not our leader, Tedius,” the dark-haired Caucasian man to his left replied snarkily. “We all equally hate white guys with guitars. That’s why we’re all here.”

 

“That is where you are wrong, Never Going Home,” retorted Kando.You may hate white guys with guitars because they are killing American Idol. I, however, hate them from the depths of my soul. There is no one in this universe who could ever dream to hate white guys with guitars more than me. To destroy them is my mission, my destiny. And it is the mission and destiny of our coalition.With that, hed strung into his answer the cue for their commencement ritual. Now all four members gave one strum of an imaginary guitar with their right hand, then raised it and dragged an extended thumb over their necks in a cutthroat motion.Death to the white man,they declared.

 

With a guitar,added NGH uneasily.

 

Yes, yes, with a guitar,mumbled the rest of the team diffusedly. They seemed to have forgotten.

 

Would a speaker like to present the first point of interest in this meeting?said Kando.

 

The only woman in the panel raised her hand.Master Kando.

 

What was that, Linda? Oh yes, please speak, Master Kando,he said, chuckling at how amusing he was. Then he put on his serious face.The focus of todays meeting will be on a very severe crisis that has proliferated across the interwebs and puts not only the entire anti-WGWG world at risk, but also, and most importantly, ME.

 

The fourth member, a buff Latino in shades and a hoodie who looked as if he was trying to stay undercover, groaned in annoyance.This better not be about what I think its about.

 

Please do not interrupt the speaker, Stefano Langone,said Kando.

 

Jessica Sanchez is not having an affair with Phillip Phillips,said Stefano.And even if she was, its none of our business. Shouldnt we be focusing on WGWG issues that affect the entire world instead of your own petty concerns? I remember the days when the AWGWGC was relevant and not seen as silly by the public.

 

It is totally not silly,snapped Kando.It is totally our business, and it totally affects the entire world. Phillip Phillips is a highly dangerous character whose terrible voice is capable of initiating World War III. He is a great threat to the existence of a civilized and peaceful society, and the idea of my biggest star act Jessica Sanchez possibly seeing him makes me unable to sleep at night. I wish to eliminate him once and for all, by any means possible.

 

Where are you even getting all your info?asked Linda.Ive never heard of this rumor.

 

Its being spread online by a select group of shipper fans called PhilJess fans that went to see her shows,said NGH.To my knowledge the PhilJess ship was started back in 2012 during AI. The shippers would analyze every single motion and photo of them together and come up with elaborate romantic explanations. While the movement has since died down, it seems quite a number of them have been coming out of the woodwork after analyzing the new wildly popular encore song that Jessica is now singing on tour.

 

Which is?

 

My All by Mariah Carey,said Stefano. Hed been searching away on his laptop, and now a projection of a blog showed up on one of the screens.Check this shit out.They began to read the blog entry.

 ___

Is there reignited spark between old American Idol rivals Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips?

 

Jessica Sanchez, world-renowned superstar, reunited with obscure singer-songwriter Phillip Phillips two months ago at a celebrity party hosted by Carly Rae Jepsen. The reason I sayreunitedis that while most people dont know this, they were in fact the top two contestants on the eleventh season of the reality show American Idol. And get thisPhillip actually won.

 

What was the reason to this sudden meeting? Its no secret by now that the new hit single released by J-Chez, entitled I Lost You, was entered by Phillips himself into the songwriting competition she had been holding at the time. Phillipsmasterful composition struck a chord (no pun intended) with the audience, and the single has since gone platinum within the space of two months. But could there be more to the former rivalsrelationship than just musical collaboration?

 

Indeed, there had been some mention ofchemistryandcute interactionsbetween the two during their run on Idol, mostly by fans who call themselves PhilJess shippersbasically a group of people who envisioned them as a couple. Those rumors were shot down due to their age difference and Phillips commitment at the time. However, with Phillip now reportedly separated from spouse Hannah, some spicy speculations have been cooking up, especially in light of the two most critically acclaimed numbers from J-Chezs setlist.

 

One of them is, of course, Phillips song, whose lyrics depict a despairing person who realizes he has lost the love of his life and tries to make sincere amends. Its an interesting choice of a song to write to J-Chez, and an interesting choice on her part as well. And the sincerity of it all! It leads me to wonder if they might have had a past romantic stint that was kept low-key. But before you denounce this as just speculative bullcrap, hear me out. Theres more.

 

The second song, the encore song which comes right after that one, is where it gets interesting. Jessica Sanchez first changed her encore from her coronation song, Change Nothing, to Mariah Careys My All, at her Chicago show. Since then, it has become one of the most popular numbers on the tour, mostly because the emotion she shows during this performance is so tangible that there is no doubt she feels every single word. These particular lyrics caught my eye, however: Cause I cant go on, living in the memory of our song. Our song? What is this special song, and who are you sharing it with? Oh, you tease us so, Jessica. Could it be the one you just sang? And if it is true, is the rest of My All also accurate to what youre feeling?

 

Of course, there is an obvious catch: Jessica is committed to Chrystyl Myth lead singer and fellow Idol Colton Dixon. Could My All simply be Jessica missing her boyfriend, currently recording in San Francisco? Or could she be singing about somebody else?

___

 

Yeah, so basically its a lot of speculative bullshit,said Stefano.

 

I agree. Theres no evidence that supports it,said Linda.Just a whole lot of paparazzi bullshit. The AWGWGC is above that.

 

I dont think you realize what serious business this is,persisted Kando.Its on the interwebs, which means its serious business.

 

Relax, Kando,said NGH.Its a celebrity rumor. Those arent usually true. I think we should move on to more constructive topics.

 

Meeeeeem,complained Kando, shifting in his seat indignantly. But he didnt try to further the argument.

 

I think what I have to say before Kando interrupted me was rather constructive myself,quipped Linda.

 

By all means,said NGH.

 

Linda took a deep breath.Gentlemen,she said,A few days ago I intercepted a message from our greatest WGWG enemy.”

 

Stefanos eyes widened.Wait a second. You dont mean – ”

 

“Yes, him,” said Linda. “Our long-time nemesis, who has been in unreachable hiding for the past year. I intercepted the exact coordinates of his current location.”

 

“Wait, that doesn’t make any sense,” interrupted NGH, confused. “We don’t have any interception apparatus whatsoever.”

 

“Now that’s where you’re wrong,” declared Linda proudly. “You don’t know this, but the AWGWGC email inbox, which I moderate, is built to intercept secret information and has successfully done so with our sworn enemy, he who wields evil powers in wreaking and leading WGWG havoc, he who shall not be named.”

 

Stefano stared at her. “So basically he emailed you with his location.”

 

“He’s in San Francisco,” said Linda loudly. “I shall project the results.”

 

The email appeared on the screen, and they all read it silently to themselves, completely bewildered.

 

I know you’ve been looking out for me, Mr. Zanarukando. Well, come get me. I’m on 2650 California St., Presidio Heights, San Francisco. But you won’t need that; you can’t miss it. Want to destroy WGWGs? Now ‘s your chance to start with the biggest and the baddest. One catch, though: note who this message is addressed to. Only that person should come. Reckless enough for the challenge? Ready, set, go.

 

Regards,

 

Still Remember Me?

 

“Why would he do this?” mused Stefano. “Seems a bit off. I’d advise against it.”

 

“Kando?” asked NGH uncertainly.

 

Kando was staring blankly at the screen, lost in his own thoughts. “I suppose,” he said slowly, “I’ve been worrying myself over a perilous and world-threatening rumor…” The team rolled their eyes. “But,” he continued, “but, this resurfacing of our enemy, who presents an even higher global danger than Phillip Phillips,  is worth my full attention. I think I will take the trip to San Francisco, and considering Jessica will be performing there in two weeks, I may find out more about the bothersome rumor after all.”

 

Linda randomly burst into tears. “Don’t go, Kando,” she sobbed. “He’ll kill you.”

 

Kando held her hand and saluted with the other to a blank space. “I know, Linda. But as supreme protector of the world from the horror of WGWGs, it’s a risk I bear the responsibility of taking.”

 

***

 

But the only thing saving me is your love

Loving you is saving me.

Won’t you take me from the clouds buried in grey

All the colors are mixing in my head, can’t see which way

Only see you out of thousands coming my way

You’re all want to see, all want to touch and feel in every way…

 

The words of his final song at a well-received gig he had just returned from floated in Phillip’s head. Once again, every word had been true. He was surprised at how well it reflected his situation, which did not exist at the time he wrote the song. It fit like a glove: loving Jessica was saving him. It gave him a purpose to drive himself through each day, motivations to find and land more gigs at which to perform, and most important of all, an increasingly enduring sense of happiness. He began needing wishful imagining or intoxication less and less, since he had memories. Actually, it was anything but easy to resist his addiction, but she kept in regular contact, to his pleasant surprise, and he was constantly reminded that he needed to be happy for her. She wanted him to be happy. It was the least he could do to make up for everything else, and it was altering his own life in dramatic ways. He wondered if this was the true essence of a relationship, though he couldn’t really say if what they had was one.

 

But motivation wasn’t the only way Jessica was saving him. A day ago he’d received a check in the mail from his long-estranged label, which up until then had put his promotion funds on an indefinite halt and threatened to drop him if his detrimental habits continued to affect the quality of his music, or if he continually failed to bring in an acceptable profit. The letter that came with the check informed him that his albums and tracks had been given a substantial boost thanks to his collaboration with Jessica Sanchez and her promotion of the single on tour. Its success had convinced the label to reinstate some of Phillip’s privileges and consider supporting a new single, that is, if he was working on any new material. Entrusted in the check, of course, was the revenue the label had received from his tracks that owed itself to Jessica’s free and extremely effective promotion.

 

On his way back home from the gig, Phillip had been torn on what to do with the money. Maybe he wasn’t in J-Chez’s financial circumstances, but he was managing, and getting better. He knew the most prudent thing to do at this moment would be to save it and keep working hard to ensure that his streak continued. He would’ve done it without hesitation, if there hadn’t been something specific he wanted to do with the money. Jessica’s tour was coming full circle around the US and ending at San Francisco in two weeks. After two entire months, he wanted nothing more than to fly there and meet her. She missed him, he knew, from their conversations and the songs she sang on tour, which had spawned some rumors that made him nervous. Nevertheless, he knew he had to pay her a surprise congratulatory visit and see her one last time before she left for Asia.

 

Now, staring at the check, he was strongly swaying toward that choice. His heart swelled at the mere thought of seeing her again. It reminded him of that rogue phone call two months ago, that surreal moment when she’d said Colton had left her. Colton… he hadn’t heard much from him. The last time he had, it had been from Jessica, who said he was working in San Francisco.

 

He became aware of his fingers gripping the check far too hard. Colton was also in San Francisco. Suddenly, Phillip felt uneasy. He was almost certain that Jessica had not told Colton. But what if he had found out on his own? He must have heard the rumors. What if he sees me – or me with her? But then again, it was all ridiculous. San Francisco was huge. The odds of them meeting were rather low. Also, what did it matter? They had broken up, hadn’t they? Still, Colton was his good friend… if it had to be done, how could he possibly explain?

 

He just had to make sure he could avoid that situation completely. There would be a time in the future, when he and Jessica were really together, that he would tell Colton the whole story. He deserved to hear it, but not now, when everything was still so confusing. But Phillip also had himself to think about. He had the right to pursue happiness.

 

As he ordered the plane ticket and vowed to stay out of Colton’s way, he felt the same rush of uncontainable excitement that he did that fateful night. The quiet ecstasy, the hazy moonlight, the warmth of their embrace. He closed his eyes and smiled, recalling the slightly faded memory, noting that the redness of her lips and the red fabric of the futon remained as vivid as ever. Bright red. Now the same color reminded him of something else. It was the exact same color as something else he’d seen. When had he seen it? What was another exciting moment that had made its way into his memory bank without him knowing?

 

Phillip dropped the check. He had suddenly had two realizations, one of them that chilled him to the bone.

 

The first was that he’d seen that same red during the kiss at the party.

 

The second was that he finally understood why the fedora man had seemed so familiar.

 

It had not registered in his state of distraught – or perhaps he had repressed it – but he now very distinctly recalled that as he raised his head to watch Jessica run away, he had seen a head wearing a red fedora walk with its back to him a little farther off in the same direction.

 

And judging by the man’s relative position to them, he seemed to have walked from the hallway, and in that case there was absolutely no way he could not have seen them.

 

Shaken, Phillip looked at the confirmation message of his ticket order. He decided to not contact Jessica until after the show.

Hola.

Hey guys, I know Chapter 14 is really late. The reason for that is because I just started college. I left my country for the US on 8/13 and I’ve been preparing for stuff, making friends, going to classes etc ever since. But I swear, I swear I’m working on it. I’m already done with one page. Really sorry for the delay! But I promise this story will be finished. :)

13

The sheer magnitude and density of the excited crowd that surrounded him made Phillip feel like he was drowning in a human sea. He had never seen so many people in one place in all his life. Then again, this was the first time he had ever attended a J-Chez concert. And his heart soared at the thought that out of these tens of thousands of fans who idolized, revered and possibly desired her, the woman about to come on stage and dazzle them all with her iconic talent only had eyes for him. 

He had been able to get a front-row seat, and he had literally been sitting on its edge when the lights went out and the entire stadium started screaming. He shot out of his seat like a maniac, joining his fellow fans’ chants of “J-Chez! J-Chez!”, feeling no shame as a grown man (there were a considerable number of them) losing his shit over a pop idol because she was the pop idol, his pop idol, who had his heart, and he hers, at least for the most part. 

When she descended dramatically onto the stage on a pure white riser and the crowd deafened him with cheers, he felt his eyes welling with tears. It was rather moving to fully appreciate first-hand just how far she’d come, from the modest and shy teenager with a big voice and big dreams to the edgy, vibrant, universally adored young star sparkling under the neon lights. From a fellow friend and contestant to…whatever they were now. He knew he had had no part in it, but he couldn’t help feeling proud. She’d said she was proud of him when he won Idol. It must’ve been a similar kind of feeling. 

When she turned around, her eyes met his, and shined as she broke into a ecstatic and genuine smile. Her gaze never left for the next few minutes, even as she began the high-octane opening number that lit up the stage with fireworks and equally explosive vocals. 

Phillip could only watch, enthralled, as she coursed through her setlist, which was thrilling, powerful, playful   and emotional all at once. Although he recognized several bits and pieces of choruses and catchy hooks from constant radio play, he hadn’t had time to give any of Jessica’s songs a good listen, but it didn’t matter. He allowed himself to be awestruck by her incredible versatility as she rocked the stage with tunes of various genres, all catchier and more entertaining than the last: fun colorful dance pop, dizzying club bangers, spicy hip-hop filled with attitude, and strong soulful ballads. Then there were the ones tinged with alternative rock that made him instantly jealous, because he knew Colton had written them for her. 

By the time it was all over, Phillip felt exhilarated. It was one of the best concerts he’d seen. But the best was yet to come. As all the lights shut down at the end of Skinny Mini, he heard the first guitar arpeggios of his song drifting from the darkness. Chills swept over him as her delicate, haunting voice glided through the air, whispering the words like a secret. He saw the prophetic dream play out before his eyes. It was deja vu. Everything was exactly the way he remembered it. When the city opened up and he stepped onto the sprawling beach, the stage slowly lit up in white. At the moment she turned around, he was suddenly bathed in light.

She was wearing a T-shirt, jeans, Converses and no make-up. Jessica Sanchez, not J-Chez, was looking straight at him with a smile, singing the chorus to him.

If only I could turn back time

And tell my heart to change my mind

I’d stop my life from fading to black

'Cause I lost you

Won’t you take me back?

It took him a while to realize that there was a spotlight being shone on him, and only him. He felt another wave of chills. She hadn’t told him about this, but he couldn’t think of a more touching surprise. It strongly reminded him of the urban legend surrounding Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight, in which Phil Collins supposedly invited the man he’d written about, the man who deliberately let someone drown, to his concert, upon which Phil then shone a spotlight onto the murderer and sang the song to him, exposing the crime. This was much the same, and just as dramatic, except… she was professing her love, and out of all these people, only he knew. It was a public moment, yet it was their moment.

It was completely unexpected, but somehow, just like he had expected. He waved back excitedly as his tears fell. 

The song drew to a close, and the audience erupted into cheers. It was a hit. There was no denying that it was the best performance of the night. The cheers were louder and lasted longer than those of any other performance, but as long as they lasted, the spotlight remained on him. Phillip noticed that many fans were now looking at him curiously. 

“Hey guys,” said Jessica. “That’s Phil. He won the song contest, and he wrote the song I just sang.”

Now they were cheering for him, and it was thunderous, overwhelming, unreal. It brought back nostalgic memories of the old, and limitless fantasies for the new. He felt happy, and he felt alive. He couldn’t have asked for anything better.

He was a very lucky man.

***

“Phillip Phillips is NOT coming along on the tour,” said Kando flatly.

Jessica was exasperated. “He wrote the song that’s already pushing 50k in one fricking day. Can’t you give him a break? He’s my old friend, and he’s a struggling musician who is working his way out of alcoholism and depression. I just want to give him a chance.”

“All that does not change the fact that he is a boring WGWG who has a one-octave range and who never should have won over Jessica Sanchez in American Idol Season 11.”

“KANDO!”

“I want you to listen to me, Jessica Sanchez,” Kando said seriously. “Phillip Phillips only outsold your iTunes and Walmart EP by rigging the sales. The American Idol finale was also rigged. The numbers were manipulated by the producers to stage the Phillip Phillips win. It is obvious because choosing Phillip Phillips over Jessica Sanchez is like choosing Myspace over Facebook. It is like choosing Spam over Russian caviar. It is like choosing Sarah Jessica Parker over Megan Fox. It is like – ”

“Okay, you know what, ENOUGH. I’m just going to ACCEPT the FACT that you’re STUCK in 2012, but let me ask you this. What’s so bad about a WGWG when they can write hit songs, huh?”

Kando’s face was suddenly centimeters from hers. This shocked Jessica. He actually looked intimidating. “He’s white,” he said simply. “With a penis, and a guitar. And I hate white guys with penises and guitars.” He glared at her even more menacingly and grabbed her shoulders. “Let me tell you that I disowned my own daughter when she married a WGWG in secret. And that was when I started hating them even more.”

“Who’s your daughter?” asked Jessica nervously.

“Jasmine Murray.”

“Oh.”

Kando had looked away. “My American Idol,” he whispered. Jessica was almost expecting him to begin crying, but alas, Kando was Kando. He turned back immediately, cold and unforgiving. “I am not letting that White Guy with Guitar on MY bus, on MY tour, with MY star act. If you even try to wheedazzle over that and I catch you, I will fire you. Do you understand?”

Jessica was strangely reminded of Ariel being forbidden by Triton to go meet Eric. She felt downright humiliated by Kando berating her as if he were her dad. She did not want to negotiate anymore; there was no foreseeable way she could convince him. “Fine,” she said. “Fine.” Then she turned and left, her heart shattered.

***

They met backstage in the dressing room of the stadium as planned, at 2 o’clock, after all the press, fans and security had gone, and after she’d informed the authorities that she had some private matters to sort out. 

“What’s the news?” he said after a long embrace.

She shook her head. “My manager won’t have it. He hates white guys with guitars. Especially you.”

“Me? What did I ever do to him?”

“You beat me on AI, and he just won’t…” She sighed sadly. “Let go.” 

“I won’t let go,” he whispered, holding her tightly.

“I don’t want to,” she said tearfully. “But we have to. I just – ” She choked on a sob. “Oh my god…I think I’m going to miss you so much I won’t be able to handle it.” 

“You know I’d follow you anyway if I had the means,” he said. “But I’m damn near broke and my label’s going to drop me any minute. But…. I would, if I could, Jessica. I’d do anything for you. Just… the stars were not aligned for us this time…”

She burst into tears, which soaked his shirt. She could feel him quivering ever so slightly, and realized he was trying to hold in his own sobs. 

“Let’s keep in contact,” she said, as their crying died down.

“Alright,” he agreed. “Thank you for the gift today… I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”

“We’ll meet each other again, won’t we?”

“If the stars align.” He didn’t sound certain. 

“Let’s make it last,” she whispered.

He nodded. “Let’s find a way.”

Their lips met in the darkness, tenderly desperate, despairingly passionate, never, ever wanting to leave.

“Goodbye, Phillip,” she said, touching his cheek.

“Goodbye, Jessica,” he answered. But as she turned to leave, he reached out and put his hands on her waist.

“Naw… you ain’t getting out so easy.”

She giggled. “Fine. Just not too loud.”

“Something to remember me by,” he said as he undid the buttons of her blouse.

With a hoarse laugh she pushed him off his balance, and they fell backwards onto the couch into the dark.

***

Hannah Blackwell got off her taxi and marveled at the giant mansion that towered over her. The lights were on, meaning Brian was there, and she finally felt relieved that she wasn’t being conned after all.

She reported her name to the guard, who let her in the gate, which was opened for her by two valets. When she opened the door, she gasped at the luxurious décor, the bright chandeliers and the impossibly vast hall. She also noticed unsettingly, however, that the house seemed to be completely empty.

“Brian?” she called. There was no answer.

She roamed around, confused, until she noticed a note on a table in the center of the room. It read:

“Dear Hannah:

I’m out right now. Will be for a few weeks; got some business. But feel free to explore the place and get comfortable with it. Make yourself at home. Remember to put your son in the baby room on the second floor. There’s food in the fridge, or you could make a call and room service will bring you what you want. There will be fresh delivery of food every week, so you don’t have to worry. Everything you could possibly need or imagine is here for you, and I promise you will have the time of your life. There is just one simple rule you need to follow. Do not ask anyone around you about me, or who I am. If you do, I will find out, and I will evict you. However, if you follow this rule well, I will grant you ownership of this house after one month. Have fun.

Love,

Brian”

Hannah frowned. She felt like she’d gotten herself into a reality show or game of sorts. But then again, free food, free fun, gorgeous mansion? What was not to love? Sure, she’d play along.

***

Two months passed as Jessica toured the country. She loved being on the road, visiting and re-visiting her favorite cities, meeting her enthusiastic and supportive fans, and singing her heart out on stage. Together with doing what she loved and living the glamorous life, touring was one of her favorite parts of being a star. This time around, however, she couldn’t help wishing that Phillip was there to share it with her.

It was all right at first. During the day, she immersed herself in her work and tried to enjoy the experience as much as possible. Then in her free time or late at night, she would call him or wait until he called her, they would talk about their day and she would lie awake listening to his voice until she fell asleep. He sounded happier with every passing day, which made her happy to know that he was dealing with her absence well, and that she was doing her part to help him over the dark part of his life. Occasionally he would join her in her outlandish adventure dreams and they would escape from murderers, jump through portals or fly through the air on an transparent stream of musical notes. Those were the ones from which she woke up wishing she could sleep for just a little longer.

But as the days rolled on and blurred into each other, she began missing everything about him.  It started to feel like he belonged there in an empty space that insisted on following her wherever she went and existed. While comforted by the crowds that gathered at her shows, she always remembered that he wasn’t there. In their chats she told him how much she missed him, and cried quietly when he hung up. Worst of all, she began to have nightmares about Colton. It started with recurring dreams of the Top 7 elimination, in which Colton accused her of cheating on him in front of the audience. There were ones in which he confronted her on a dinner date, and ones in which he turned into Kando and fired her. Then they got a lot scarier: they became violent. He was not a violent guy, but her guilty conscience twisted his character. Colton hitting her. Colton beating her with a chair. Colton strangling her so hard she woke up gasping for air.

For several days after she’d had one of those nightmares, she would feel too bad to talk to Phillip. It was one of those days as she stood alone on stage with the lights darkened, in front of tens of thousands of screaming Chicago fans. The Windy City chilled her biting cold heart, but the fans’ passion warmed her, and she was thankful for them. She’d just finished the last song of her setlist, and they were now rallying up an encore chant. After a few minutes had teased their appetite, they went crazy as the lights finally came on with her in the center of the stage. Instead of her usual encore number, Change Nothing, however, another song was floating in Jessica’s mind. She’d talked to it with her band, but no one else. She picked up the mic, and the audience fell silent.

“This one’s for everyone who’s missing someone right now,” she said. “It’s called My All by Mariah Carey.”

Her guitarist played the first notes. She closed her eyes, channeling the opening runs through her heart.

I am thinking of you

In my sleepless solitude tonight.

If it’s wrong to love you

Then my heart just won’t let me be right

'Cause I've drowned in you, 

and I won’t pull through

Without you by my side.

Cheers rose from the audience, who were witnessing a never-before-seen level of pure emotion from their idol. 

I’d give my all to have

Just one more night with you

I’d risk my life to feel

Your body next to mine.

'Cause I can't go on

Living in the memory of our song.

I’d give my all

For your love

Tonight.

At that moment, Phillip’s words ran through her head: They called it the most emotional performance of the night. That’s ‘cause I was feeling every word. I did that with all my covers. I sang about things I was really going through, things I was really feeling. Here she was, doing that, pouring her soul out in all her pain and longing. She suddenly wondered if her words could betray her secret…

'Cause I can't go on

Living in the memory of our song.

I’d give my all

For your love

Tonight.

The reception was incredible. As she closed the song with a tender run, the screams commenced.  They were louder and lasted longer than for any song she’d ever done. She realized this was a lock for a permanent part of the setlist.

A tear fell from her face. He was right. Pain could be used to one’s advantage.

***

Zacky Vengeance, the rhythm guitarist of Avenged Sevenfold, was fooling around with a track he just recorded.  They were on break, and he and Syn were lounging about in the studio.

“Hey Syn. You know J-Chez is coming to San Francisco?”

Syn glanced at him skeptically. “You listen to J-Chez?”

“Hey, no shame, man. I like her,” said Zacky. “It’s in two weeks or something. Wanna come with me?”

“Pretty sure Colton is going to make us go,” drawled Syn. 

“Speaking of Colton… where is he? I can’t sync the track he recorded for some reason.”

“Doctor’s appointment. Has one every Wednesday. Thought you knew.”

“Hm. Should I be worried?” 

“Don’t think so. It’s probably nothing.” Syn carried on fiddling with his guitar.

“So. J-Chez.” Zacky took a swig from his beer. “SF’s her last stop before she goes to Asia. I got tickets.”

“Real aficionado. Such a Blujay,” taunted Syn.

“Come on, bro,” said Zacky, slapping him on the shoulder. “You coming with me?”

Syn shook his head. “Unless I have to, think I’ll pass.”

12

She laid her head on his chest, feeling his gradually decelerating heartbeat against her ear. He stroked his fingers gently through her slightly tangled hair, and she sighed contentedly, closing her eyes and clasping his other hand tightly in hers. Then they relaxed and let the quiet ecstasy of the moment absorb them, voiding their minds of every sensation except the complete, uninhibited, unrestrained experience of each other.

The edge of the futon gleamed a vibrant red, lit by a sliver of moonlight sneaking shyly through the crack in the curtain. Phillip smiled at its beauty and, still holding Jessica’s hand, reached up to open the curtain slightly, so that the sky was visible and the moon illuminated their faces. He gently touched her lips, his thumb staining with what was left of her lipstick, which in color resembled the scarlet leather that was accommodating both of them. She smiled and opened her eyes tiredly.

“So…what did you want me to do with the song again?” he teased.

She slapped him playfully on the cheek, laughing. “You knew this was going to happen.”

“And you didn’t? You’re the one who called me here.”

She didn’t answer, but only giggled that giggle he loved and put her hands back around his neck. He knew they were both right. They’d both expected it. Not that he could complain. 

“That was nice,” he said. 

Another slap. “Nice? That’s all you can say? Most guys would kill for this chance and all you can say is ‘nice’. But yeah.” She breathed out slowly.  “That was nice.” He could feel her smile on his skin. “Really nice.”

“Five years,” he said. “Five. Damn. Years.”

“Still feels like yesterday, doesn’t it,” she replied, a bit wistfully.

He idly shifted strands of her hair away from her little heart-shaped face, admiring her beauty quietly. He was exhausted, as he was sure she was, but not enough to not realize that a conversation was obviously in order. Aside from each other’s names, they hadn’t really said much. He’d start it, he decided, and show her his playful side. So he leaned down and kissed her ear, touching it lightly with his tongue. 

“Tell me a secret,” he whispered.

With a wry little half-smile, she turned her head to face him. “You really hurt me.”

He sighed. “I’m sorry… I really am.”

“Mm.”

“I was young, and stupid. I didn’t know what I wanted.”

“Nice excuse. I was younger than you, and I knew exactly what I wanted.” She reached up with one hand and tapped him on the nose. “You.” She held him tighter. “Anyway, it’s your turn.”

“Ummm…a secret…let’s see,” Phillip mumbled. “Oh. Volcano. Top 4. That was for you.” 

Jessica snorted. “That’s a secret? I knew that, like, the second I heard you singing it. It was to make me give up, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. Obviously it didn’t work.”

“And you had to do it on live TV. Couldn’t you have told me privately to bug off?”

“They called it the most emotional performance of the night. That’s ‘cause I was feeling every word. I did that with all my covers. I sang about things I was really going through, things I was really feeling. It was a competition; I used pain to my advantage. Besides, I guess part of me was hoping you wouldn’t get it.”

“Okay, if you really thought I didn’t get it, how did you feel when I sang it with you on tour?”

Phillip thought for a moment. “Awkward.” 

She burst out laughing.

“Like you didn’t know what you were singing,” he continued.

“Are you kidding? I volunteered to do backup with you. I wanted to make you feel bad,” she said darkly.

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing. That’s just evil. I mean, at least it was less direct than me just telling you, ‘Hey, Jessica. What I am to you is not what you mean to me. So get out of my life’ kind of thing.”

There was a momentary silence as she thought about this. “Well, it definitely was a beautiful way to break a girl’s heart,” she murmured.

“I’m sorry… okay, your turn.”

“I got one. Speaking of making someone give up, I did the same thing.”

“What, with me?”

“No. With Colton.” She ignored a pang of guilt for lying about him. “Remember DeAndre? I went out with him for a while, right? That was just to get Colton to give up.”

Phillip’s eyes widened, and he snapped his fingers. “Ohhhh. So that’s what that was all about. I thought that was weird.”

“Obviously it didn’t work,” she echoed, drily. Then she shifted her body upwards so that her face was directly above his. “I’m tired of secrets,” she said. “Let’s grill each other.”

“Is that…” he stammered, blushing hard again. “Is that, uhh…” 

She let out another peal of laughter. “You’re so weird, Phillip,” she giggled. “No. It means asking difficult questions.”

He grinned. “Great. ‘Cause I’m way too tired right now. You go first.”

“Okay.” She touched her nose to his. “What was I to you, and what am I to you now?”

“You were…” He kissed her. “The one I didn’t realize I loved. And you are…” He kissed her again. “The one I can’t live without.”

“Mmm.” She kissed him back, long and slow. “Your turn.”

“Was I better than Colton?” 

“Phillip! What a question…”

“Come on. I wanna know.”

“He wears a purity ring,” she said, and they both burst out giggling.

***

Colton had never felt so sick in all his life. He was not only airsick, but somehow, sick with fear. It had started with the strange figure who passed him at customs and nearly froze him to the core. Then he’d boarded the plane and begun walking down the aisle to find every single passenger looking at him. 

He’d broken into a cold sweat and walked faster, disturbed by the feeling of their dilating eyes staring him down as if he were naked.  When he’d finally reached his seat, he’d breathed a sigh of relief and looked back to see that the attention had abruptly vanished.

Yet even now, he continued to feel watched. His heart was palpitating like a man in immediate danger, and he couldn’t seem to relax or take a deep breath. And then there was the voice in his head. Silly, it said, cackling. Silly. Silly Colton. 

He gasped in pain. His ring finger was suddenly throbbing, and he stared in horror at the metal ring that looked and felt like it was contracting and cutting into his skin. He struggled to tear it off, but when he finally did, the pain had gone and his finger was unscathed. Confused and stunned, he put it back on, breathing shallowly.

He got up and walked down the aisle to the bathroom. He needed to wash his face, get a grip, calm his nerves, something. But he was feeling so weak he could barely walk straight. Standing outside the restroom door, he laid his head on it and closed his eyes. 

When the door opened, he almost fell over backwards. The shock had brought him to his senses, but he was even more surprised to see the woman who had just left the stall.

“Hannah? Hannah Blackwell?” he said in disbelief.

Hannah’s eyes widened. “Colton Dixon! Hey! Omigosh, I love Chrystyl Myth!”

“Thanks,” replied Colton, smiling. “What a coincidence.” He paused, suddenly thinking he understood the strange person he had passed. “Is Phillip with you?”

Hannah looked at him, awkward and hesitant. “Um… actually, he isn’t.” She bit her lip. “I’ll let you go first. I have a free seat. Come over and we can talk.”

“Sure.” Colton nodded briefly and stormed past her into the restroom. He slammed the door and threw up in the sink.

___

“So you’re separated now?” he asked slowly.

He was sitting next to Hannah, while Phillip Jr. slept soundly two seats away.

She sighed. “I couldn’t stand him anymore. I had to get away.”

“Hm.” He had to admit it surprised him, as when he knew them they had seemed quite loving. But four years was a long time, and he’d heard of the problems about her and his career. “So who do you have in San Francisco?”

“Family.”

Colton looked unconvinced.

“Fine.” She sighed again. “I met someone. Online.”

“Huh. I see.” This really surprised him. “Whatever happened to the sacred Christian vow of marriage?”

“Colton, you don’t know what it’s like being married to him,” she whispered desperately. “It colors your entire life with grey. Imagine your entire life in Phillip-T-shirt grey.”

“So what’s his name?” 

“Brian,” she answered.

“Interesting,” mused Colton. “This is random, but I’m actually also meeting a Brian in San Francisco.”

“Really? Who is it?”

“Brian Haner. Synyster Gates. The lead guitarist of this band I’m working with there.”

“Cool.” Hannah sipped her drink. “You know, I’m kind of excited. My Brian gave me this address. It’s a mansion in this beautiful part of town. You should come check it out.”

Colton shook his head. He couldn’t be less interested in Hannah’s new boyfriend. “Thanks, but probably not tomorrow. I’m exhausted. I’m probably gonna go directly to my place in San Fran and sleep for two days straight.” 

She nodded understandingly, and continued talking. He wanted to listen, but he was finding it hard to pay attention because the nerves and fear were suddenly coming back, as a completely irrational worry began to creep over him.

The voice in his head was so loud it almost seemed like a separate entity. Look at the idiot who left Jessica alone in San Diego, it said mockingly. Seen him? Now look to his left. That’s Phillip’s soon-to-be-ex-wife. She left Phillip alone in San Diego. Now, guess who’s alone in San Diego? Phillip and Jessica. Congratulations, Michael Colton Dixon, you absolute genius. 

“Are you okay?” said Hannah worriedly. Colton tasted blood on his lip. He’d been chewing it dry.

“I’m alright,” he muttered. “Look, I hope you don’t mind, but… I kind of need to go to sleep. It’s nothing against you. I hate planes. I’m gonna… go back now.”

“Oh. Of course,” she said. “It was nice talking to you.”

“You too. See you at the airport or around San Fran, maybe.” He picked himself up and headed towards his seat, his head spinning. 

What do you think they’ll do? What do you think they’re doing right now?

Silly. 

Silly Colton.

***

It was Phillip’s turn for the grilling. They were sitting up now, sharing a blanket, her head on his shoulder.

“What happens now?” he asked.

“I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that,” she sighed. “Well…” She looked at him a bit sadly. “I’m going on tour.”

“I want to be there with you,” he insisted.

“Hmm. Let me talk it out with the authorities. Something tells me…” She shook her head slowly.

“This isn’t just once… is it?” He squeezed her hand tightly. “I love you,” he whispered.

“I love you too.”

They stayed quiet for a while, replaying the words in their own minds.

“Come to the first show,” said Jessica. 

“Heh. I bought my ticket, like, before I wrote that song.”

She smiled. “Come to the first show. And we’ll see from there.”

“Okay.” He tightened his grip on her waist and leaned so that their heads were touching. 

Jessica glanced at the fluorescent digital clock on her desk. 4AM.

“It’s late,” she murmured. “You should go.”

“I know it’s late,” he said.

Jessica started giggling. 

Phillip looked at her, confused at first. Then it dawned on him.

“Oh no. Don’t. Don’t make me – I won’t.”

“Come onnnnnn,” she coaxed. “I loved it. It was a nice song.”

“I’m not gonna do it.”

“Aww, please… Pretty please. It was so beautiful.”

He heaved a sigh. “Fine.” After a little pause, he began to sing:

I know it’s late.

I know you’re weary.

With a smile, Jessica started singing along.

I know your plans 

Don’t include me.

“We’ll see,” she said softly.

Still here we are,

both of us lonely.

Longing for shelter,

from all that we see.

He opened the curtains a little bit more, so the starlight shone through.

Look at the stars.

So far away.

We’ve got tonight.

who needs tomorrow?

We’ve got tonight, babe.

Why don’t you stay?

He gazed into her jet black eyes. He was feeling every word. 

Let’s make it last.

Let’s find a way.

“Okay,” she whispered.

Turn out the lights.

Come take my hand now.

We’ve got tonight, babe.

Why don’t you stay?

“That was beautiful,” she breathed. Then she laughed. “And now I sound like Steven Tyler.”

“Yeah, you did. But it was beautiful because of you.” He grinned. “Your turn.”

“I knew you’d say that. Thankfully I do have a song in mind,” she replied. She began singing, and he joined in as they held each other close:

Close your eyes.

Give me your hand, darling.

Do you feel my heart beating?

Do you understand?

Do you feel the same?

Am I only dreaming?

Or is this burning an eternal flame?

Deep inside, they both knew it wasn’t a dream. In a dream, this would last forever.

11

JULY 25th, 2017

TWO DAYS BEFORE BBLOVE TOUR

8:00PM

“Bye, skinny mini,” said Colton, kissing Jessica. “Good luck, and be good.” He winked. “I’ll be back soon.”

“I’ll make sure she doesn’t misbehave, White Guy With Piano,” droned Kando.

Jessica ignored him. “Bye, baby. Work hard, stay humble,” she said, returning the kiss. Then Colton turned and walked past customs.

He blinked. He broke into a cold sweat and his heart started racing feverishly. He thought he’d seen someone pass by him from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t see his face clearly, but it filled him with unexplainable fear.

___

9:30PM

Jessica remembered she’d forgotten something at her studio and returned to get it after sending Colton to the airport, but it didn’t take very long for her to fall asleep there again. Now she woke groggily from insane adventure dreams she couldn’t remember. She could only remember that they made her happy.

She imagined his plane taking off right at this moment, and she laid on her futon, feeling alone, and somehow…free. In fact, it felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulder as soon as he walked into the gate. She’d never noticed it there before, or more likely she had just gotten used to it. Now it wasn’t there, and she felt light, physically and mentally. It was as if Colton’s presence was always accompanied with a certain amount of pressure…

It was forty-six hours until she opened her tour in front of tens of thousands of fans, so she had made up her mind to go home and get some rest for the evening before the final rehearsal tomorrow. As she was a bit hungry, she decided that before she did she would make herself something to eat, so she began her journey towards the kitchen, which was a lobby and five rooms away. 

When she opened the fridge, she smiled a little seeing microwavable food and ingredients for a quick sandwich, but even more at the full bottle of Absolut Vodka. 

Going home would not be happening.

___

Lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling, Phillip felt strangely thrilled.

He’d wondered about who Hannah was seeing and for how long. His conclusion was that he didn’t care. He’d wondered where he would be if one of the two eerily coincidental key events had not happened: had he not seen the magazine, he would have gone with his plan of making it right with Hannah, and be totally crushed when she told him she was leaving. And had Hannah stayed, he would have had to make it right with her, obliged and loveless, while having seen the magazine and knowing that it may not have been over with Jessica. His conclusion was that it didn’t matter. It had somehow all played out this way. He’d seen the magazine, and Hannah had found someone else. Hannah was flying off now, and he felt alone, and…free.

Now he wondered if he’d just imagined Jessica returning the kiss. 

What if she hadn’t? What if he was just being delusional? Well, many people were delusional nowadays. He’d read somewhere that one in four people had some sort of mental disorder. Anyway, if she hadn’t, he would just get devastatingly crushed again and fall back into depression. Nothing new.

But what if he hadn’t imagined it? Excitement tingled in his fingertips. It would mean that he hadn’t lost her, not completely. It would mean that somewhere in the back of her consciousness, some part of her heart – however small – still belonged to him. Just the thought of it made him dizzy. Could it be… they could still…..? All the possibilities… and complications. There was still Colton. He closed his eyes, inhaling and exhaling deeply, and admitted to himself that forbiddance did not discourage him in the least. Quite the opposite: it aroused him.

He suddenly had a burning desire to find out the truth, and take it from there. Then he remembered he hadn’t asked for her number at the party.

Phillip facepalmed, his heart crumpling like paper. He wanted to scream at himself. He’d gotten his hopes up for nothing.

___

10:00PM

She was tipsy now, and thought about the last dinner she had with Colton alone on the Idol tour, when she told him she was now with DeAndre.

“DeAndre?” asked Colton, confused. “Jessica… what about us?”

“I’m sorry, Colton,” she answered. “DeAndre confessed. And he’s my best bud. I like him.”

“I’m your best bud too,” he said. He shook his head in disbelief. “Were you seeing the two of us at the same time?”

“No,” protested Jessica. “I swear I wasn’t. You know DeAndre’s always been my bestie. And he’s nice, funny, cute…”

“Everything I’m not.”

“Colton, don’t say that. He confessed.” She looked him in the eye. “You never confessed,” she said softly.

“Are you telling me I still need to say those three words for you to hear? Don’t actions speak louder than words?” Colton asked incredulously, trying to conceal his anger. “And what about these –” He waved his hand in between the two of them. “– things? These evenings out? Don’t they mean anything?”

“Colton, I’m really sorry, but I’m lonely and I just need someone I can be with for real right now, who’s of… my age, a relationship that won’t be seen as… improper.” She sighed. “I know it’s stupid. But I’m sixteen.”

Colton was silent for a long time. “No,” he finally said. “I understand.” He put his hand on hers, across the table. “If he hurts you, I’ll always be here for you.”

The truth, which was never spoken that evening, was that she’d talked to DeAndre about everything, and he had agreed to go public with her and pose as her official boyfriend, so that Colton could give up once and for all. The truth was that she knew how much Colton loved her, but as hard as she tried she could not get herself to fall for him as she’d fallen for Phillip, and she felt he deserved better than a half-hearted girl. The truth was that  the thought of a relationship with Colton scared her. He was so unpredictable. The way his mood changed within seconds from calm to furious was frightening. He loved her too much, and trying to return it gave her pressure. His protectiveness could get too close for comfort. It was almost as if he was obsessed with her. She hoped going official with DeAndre would end that obsession. 

She was wrong. After tour ended, he stayed in contact. He did all he could to continue their friendship. He IM’ed her, remembered her birthday, congratulated her on her album releases and sent her gifts when they went gold and platinum. She began to gain a kind of awed respect for him and his persistence, and so she accepted his unspoken offer to remain friends. She invited him to her parties, attended his, grew close to Chrystyl Myth and congratulated their milestones. It was well-known in the celebrity circle that Colton Dixon and J-Chez were great friends. This went on for three years, and when Colton finally confessed to her in the same restaurant they had had their last date, she decided to give him a chance. 

But there was always that… pressure. He hadn’t changed a bit, and now that they were really dating, it only intensified. She blamed it on herself. She took it to herself to feel passion for him. She’d romance him, seduce him and take him just before home run (he always turned it down). He was beautiful, and she desired him physically, but it was never fulfilled. Slowly she was able to cultivate emotional desire and force the tension down, but it was never gone, lurking beneath the surface.

Now Phillip was back into her life. She could have never expected the suppressed feelings that were rising up now. One look and she knew she had never completely gotten over him. All she could think about now was how over the past year she constantly had to tell herself, in silence and out loud, that she loved Colton. As if she would forget if she didn’t remind herself enough. How she called him Mike, to reinforce the contrived intimacy.

I’d forced myself to love him, she realized.

Colton was gone, for now. With the empty house and her thoughts of the past, she suddenly felt painfully lonely.

Out of the blue, it occurred to her that Phillip’s name card was in her handbag.

No, Jessica.

___

Email. Phillip remembered he’d sent her the song through email. Maybe he could ask her through that. He considered it for a long time, but eventually ditched the idea. That was her official email, her Interscope email. He would not risk it registering in the company’s database or however those things worked. Also he vaguely recalled Jessica had mentioned Colton’s address in the advertisement. The song competition was over, but how impossible was it that Colton would still check her email, more than likely out of paranoia? 

He sighed in frustration and lay back in his bed. This whole thing was ridiculous. He was a nobody going for a taken celebrity, with a somebody boyfriend who was probably right next to her.

___

Jessica stared at the card in her hands. 

She felt reality warping. It had only been twenty-four hours, but somehow she missed him so much. And really, what could it hurt to call? She’d had the idea of apologizing about the previous night for some time now. She could call him, apologize, clear up any misunderstandings, and feel less lonely for just a little while. That would be it. Just a simple phone call. She would have the American and Asian tour on her mind for the next three months, and no time for anything else. 

So why were her thumbs shaking as she typed the digits in one by one into her phone? And why did her heart begin to race after they were all there and her finger hovered above the Call button? 

Colton would never forgive me, she suddenly thought.

At the last moment, she changed her mind. Her hands fumbled with the phone, intending to turn it off and put it away, but it slipped, and as she’d been lying down, the phone dropped on her face.

“Ouch.”

When she picked it back up, she stared at once in horror and odd delight to see the call going through. Her face had pressed the Call button. She almost laughed out loud.

___

Phillip heard his phone ringing and nearly choked on his drink.

That couldn’t be Hannah. She was on the plane. But who else would bother calling him this late at night? He squinted at the caller’s profile. Unknown caller, a number he didn’t recognize. Probably a wrong number. 

But he couldn’t help dreaming of the delusional.

He pressed the answer button skeptically. “Hello?”

Jessica almost dropped her phone again. Her heart felt like it was about to explode. And of course she could not speak a word.

The line crackled. “Hello?” his voice repeated. “Hello? Who is this? Is this a prank call or something?”

“Hi,” she answered. A quick whisper. She wasn’t sure why she was whispering.

Now it was Phillip’s turn to be speechless. 

“Hello? Hello? Is this a prank call or something?” she teased.

A few more seconds of silence, then he exhaled in disbelief. “You called me.”

“Yeah, I did.” 

“No, I mean, you called me, so how could I be a prank caller?”

“Right. Whatever.” Jessica giggled. 

That giggle is unmistakable, thought Phillip. “So, what’s up?” he asked.

“What?” She sounded airy, dazed.

“Why’d you call? What’s up?”

“Oh.” More giggles. “Nothing. Just wanted to talk.”

Phillip raised an eyebrow. “Are you drunk?”

“What?” Jessica pretended to be shocked. “Why would you think that? I’m offended, Phillip.”

His heart did a somersault. “Just a guess.” Bad move.

“Just kidding. I’m not offended. And to answer your question……kiiiind of…?” Jessica laughed. “What about you?”

Phillip’s harsh laugh was less light-hearted. “I just came back from jail and Hannah just walked out on me. What do you think?” Not even five minutes in and he was already telling her about his personal life. But it didn’t bother him at all.

Meanwhile, Jessica’s heart had picked up again. Hannah had left him? So he was alone too. Who knew. Don’t overthink this. Do what you were supposed to do. What was it again? Oh, and say you’re sorry! It’s a tragedy!

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she whispered. “Well, I can be your drinking buddy,” she suggested, more cheerily.

“Why are you drinking?”

“I’m just bored. And…” She sighed. “Colton just left – ”

“He left you too?” interrupted Phillip. So she was alone too. Who knew. 

Jessica froze. She suddenly decided not to finish her sentence. 

“Yes,” she lied.

He was silent for a moment. “Damn, I’m sorry…… Are you alright?”

He sounded so concerned. She couldn’t bring herself to answer.

A sickening thought dawned upon him. “Oh shi……was it because of me?”

“No! Don’t think that.”

“It was because of me.”

“No, it wasn’t. Well… you know Colton. He’s just so controlling, and jealous. And he has mood swings. If he’s even a little suspicious, he gets all bitter. And he gets suspicious for the smallest things. I swear sometimes I think he has voices in his head. Sometimes…” She sighed dejectedly. “I wish he was less tough. Less serious, less wired, warmer, more easygoing. You know…more like you.”

He was aware of his face getting warm. “Oh, uh…uhm, well, you gotta understand him, you know. I mean, you’re Jessica Sanchez, and uh, he probably feels a lot of pressure and all…”

“Pressure? Heh.” Jessica chuckled sarcastically. She wanted to change the subject. She wanted this to be happy. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“Sure,” said Phillip. “By the way, I’m sorry,” he added quickly.

“Let’s see…oh, right. Speaking of being sorry. I need to apologize to you,” she said.

“Huh? Apologize?” Phillip was confused, but also anticipant. “About what?”

“About last night.” 

“Oh.” He tried to sound calm as his heart skipped a beat. “Don’t worry about it.” 

“No, I mean it,” she said. “It was rude of me. And I just left without telling you. I’m really sorry.”

“Actually, I’m the one who left without telling you, so I’m the asshole,” said Phillip. “So I should be the one saying sorry. And I was actually the one who…well…you know…”

“Kissed me.” The words sounded shy, but subtly playful.

“Yeah.” He felt himself blushing. “Last night was weird.”

Jessica giggled. “Kind of.” They both fell silent for a moment. “It was fun, though,” she said, almost as an afterthought.

“Hm?”

“It was fun.”

“You mean…”

“I mean, the party. Meeting you, talking to you, dancing with you.” 

“Oh. Yeah.” He smiled. “I think so too.” 

“Did you miss me?”

This caught him by surprise, but he decided to tell the truth. “I did.” He breathed out. “So much.”

“So did I,” she said softly. And again there was silence between them, a silence they enjoyed.

“Jessica?” said Phillip. The first time he’d said her name. He could taste it on his tongue. 

“Yeah?” So smooth, so vulnerable, a little fatigued.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“You can ask,” she replied. “But I can choose not to answer.”

“Alright.” Phillip took a deep breath. He wasn’t sure where he was going with this now. 

“Come on. What is it?” She could feel her smile on her cheekbones. She had a mind of what he was going to ask – or not ask, for that matter. She knew him too well. He was far too shy.

“It’s like this.” Phillip cleared his throat. “Uh… about yesterday. I mean last night. When I… you know…” His face felt like it was on fire. “When I……did you…. kind of……jeez, what am I saying…”

Jessica was giggling like crazy. “Phillip, do I have to ask and answer your question for you?”

Phillip let out a sigh of relief. “Yeah… That would be nice.” 

“When you kissed me, did I kiss you back? My answer is yes.” She tried to sound carefree and nonchalant, but felt herself blushing too.

So there it is, thought Phillip. There’s my answer. And he admitted to himself that he’d never felt this thrilled since…well, since he met her. But he had another question, which was considerably easier to ask. 

“Why?” he asked. “Why did you do it?”

“Well…” said Jessica thoughtfully. “I love…” She hesitated. “Your song. I love your song, you know.”

“I see.” Phillip smiled to no one. “I’m really glad you like it.”

“But it’s not perfect.”

“It’s not?”

“Nope.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I need it to be perfect, Phillip.” 

“Well, uh… what’s wrong with it?” he asked uncertainly.

Ever since his comment about Hannah, an insane idea had been lingering in the dark of her mind, and now it burst forth before she could stop it. “You should come over and help me fix it.”

Phillip wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “What?”

“There’s some problem with the sound. Some bits of the track sound weird. I think you compressed it too much when you exported it – ” 

“Look, tell me what’s wrong and I can just send you the remastered version through email – ”

“Do you have any idea how annoying email-correspondence is? They don’t go through, or you attach the wrong file, or it goes in the spam folder or whatever. And Dropbox takes forever to load.”

“Right. How about – ”

“It just isn’t sounding the way I want it to sound. Oh, and I have questions about some of the lyrics. Since you wrote the song, you should be the one to fix it.”

He was flustered. “It’s half past ten.”

She only giggled. “You’re considering it.”

“I’ll drop by tomorrow. Just make sure the paps allow it,” he joked.

“No chance. The paps camp in my yard from eight to five. But that’s at my house. I’m at my studio now. And no one knows I’m here.”

“Then I’ll go at seven.”

“Phil, I have a full day of rehearsal tomorrow and I’m releasing this song on iTunes first thing in the morning. It’s gotta be now.”

Phillip sighed in frustration. “You’re not going to make me drive drunk for the second time in a row.”

“You don’t have to. I’ll text you the address. You can take a cab. But I need you here,” she said earnestly. 

“I’m a little effed up at the moment – ”

“Do whatever you need to do. See you later,” she said softly, hanging up and leaving Phillip completely floored.

He wasn’t completely sure what just happened or what he was just asked to do.

But he would risk it to find out.

***

He was at the doorway listening to her Guilty Conscience bell when she opened the door.

It was as if they were magnets.

hey guys. just bored.

Warning: Semi-spoilers!

So I’m imagining what happens to Colton at the end while listening to his cover of Love The Way You Lie, and I swear, I felt like crying. :’( He is arguably the most complex character, and probably my favorite to write. Well, it’s kind of a tie between him and Phillip, but they’re complex in different ways, and as the story progresses you might begin feeling more sympathetic for Colton than for Phillip.

Now that we’re up to Chapter 10 (I’m roughly guessing it will end at Chapter 17-18), who’s your favorite character so far from What I Am To You? Vote here! :) 

Oh yeah. I have a sneaking suspicion PhilJess fans are going to love the next two chapters. XD

thank you for the new post :) love it. felt it. please continue the story. philjess FTW!
Anonymous

Thanks a lot for this comment. <3 Loved it, felt it :) That I will. I’ve got the basic idea for the rest of the story already. Hopefully this will be the first ever novel fanfic I finish. Hopefully. :P

10

Author’s note: I’m aware of the recent developments in the real world. Don’t let them bother you. True to my dedication to make fiction plausible in light of real events, I’ve already worked it into the story, and being that DeAndre’s role in this fic has been nonexistent, it’s not a very dramatic one. But I must remind all my fantastic readers that fiction is different from reality. While reality is full of problems and things that don’t go your way, fiction is the wonderful world where you can make sure they do. :) Please keep these two worlds separate, and enjoy the next chapter!

___

Hannah Blackwell jolted awake from her nap and realized that it was 4PM.

Thirty minutes late.

She’d gotten up early in the morning to take care of the baby and write a two-page shopping list for Phillip. Then she’d fallen right back into bed, exhausted, and not without a reason: on top of her overwhelming  responsibilities as a mother, she’d stayed up for hours listening to the heartbreak ballads on J-Chez’s album and crying her eyes out.

For quite some time now she had been getting the feeling that her marriage with Phillip was falling apart. They barely exchanged a word anymore; the silent treatment of the previous night was nothing new. Once in a while, a bout of depression or a night of binge drinking would throw their tense relationship over the edge into overdrive. They would fight, vent all their frustrations and grievances, reconcile in tears, and lapse back into sullenness with that fight added to their accumulated list of frustrations and grievances. It was a vicious cycle that Hannah was sick of, and it was comforting to let out all the pain through tears as J-Chez’s poignant belts filled her ears. But staying up all night also lost her some sleep – an all-important facet of life now – resulting in her oversleeping, and making her thirty minutes late.

She scrambled from the bed and turned on her computer. She didn’t have to, because just as the computer started up, her cell phone rang. Her heart nearly exploded. She knew she was acting silly, like an immature little girl, but she couldn’t help it.

His soothing voice filled her ear. “Good morning, Hannah Banana,” he teased.

She giggled and blushed. “How’d you know I was asleep?” she asked, knowing it was a silly question. He always knew what she was doing.

“Why else would you forget to go online?”

“Sorry I overslept. Got up early to take care of Phillip. Both of them,” she chuckled.

“Right.” His voice always softened when she mentioned Phillip, and he would always sigh. “How is he these days?”

“The same,” she said, shrugging to no one. “Doesn’t really talk to me. Drinks. Doesn’t take care of the kid. Walks around in a trance all day.”

“Damn. I’m sorry.” He was silent for a moment. 

“Don’t be. It’s just the way it is. I’ve gotten used to it.” She fell silent too, feeling like she was burdening him with her problems. “But it’s not all bad,” she said, trying to brighten the mood. “There’s some interesting stuff. He’s gotten back in touch with his friend. You know Jessica Sanchez, right?”

“J-Chez? Of course I know her,” the voice replied. “And I know your husband’s friends with her. Hannah, I know what they say about people you’ve never met, but I promise you I’m not a sixty-year old pervert who’s clueless about modern music.”

Hannah laughed, silently swooning. He was so funny, sweet, caring and grounded. “I know you aren’t,” she giggled. “Just asking. Anyway, she invited him to Carly Rae Jepsen’s party just yesterday. Can you imagine what those celebrity parties are like?” she said dreamily. “All the lights, all the glamour. Everything’s perfect. No worries. No emotional troubles like mine.” She sighed wistfully.

“Heh. I wouldn’t count on that,” he said drily. “I’m pretty sure celebrities have enough personal problems to go around. Wait a second. Phillip didn’t take you along?”

“No, he went on his own.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“I know.”

“You deserve that kind of life.”

Hannah said nothing.

“Hannah, Hannah.” The voice on the phone had dropped to a low almost-whisper. “Is he home?”

“No,” she whispered back. Her heart was racing.

“Hannah,” he said again. Adoringly, tenderly. “Would you like to live that life?”

“Yes,” she whispered. “I would.”

She heard him chuckle once, lowly, like she was hearing him smile. “Then come with me,” he said. “I can give you that life. And more. I love you, Hannah.”

Tears were streaming down Hannah’s face. She was shaking. “Oh my gosh,” she sobbed, shaking her head.

“Why not?” he continued. “Hannah, I’ve told you the truth and nothing but the truth. Bring your son. I can take care of him. I promise, I’ll be the father and the husband Phillip never was.”

“I want to believe you,” cried Hannah, her voice trembling. “But this is just… insane. And I want to be with you. I really, really do. But – ”

“No buts. I’ll do anything for you, Hannah. Just come up north and I’ll give you and your son a life you can’t even dream of. Lights, glamour, money, cars, I’ve got it all. But I’ve got love for you, Hannah. That’s something you deserve.”

“I can’t believe this is happening,” breathed Hannah, still sobbing. “It’s all happening so fast, and –”

“This isn’t some cheesy romantic drama, so cut the crap,” he suddenly snapped. “This is for real.”

“But…how?”

“No time to waste. I’ve booked your flight up here for tonight at 9:30.”

“Oh my gosh.”

“It’s now or never, Hannah. Do you want to stay with your useless drunk husband, or do you want to come with me?”

“I – ” Hannah’s home phone was ringing. She tried to wait it out, but it wouldn’t let off. “I’m sorry, can I put you on hold?” 

“Of course.”

Hannah let out a sigh of relief: she could avoid the decision for at least a few more minutes. She picked up the home phone. “Hello?”

“Is this Hannah Phillips?” asked a deep, stern voice she didn’t recognize.

Hannah frowned. “Yes… may I know who this is?”

“San Diego police department,” the voice answered promptly. “Your husband’s been in some trouble and he asked us to contact you.”

Somehow, she was not surprised. “Trouble…? What kind of trouble?”

“An altercation in a grocery store. He’s currently in detention.”

Hannah sighed. She knew what he wanted. Her final sacrifice. “I’ll be there in an hour,” she said.

One hour would be enough to pack.

***

An hour earlier, Phillip Phillips had been walking around in a trance at the local Kmart. He’d been there for at least three hours now, hovering silently between the aisles, the shopping list Hannah had given him dangling listlessly in his hand. Clearly, he wasn’t really focusing on shopping for groceries. He just didn’t know what else to do. Aimlessness had struck again.

To him it seemed unreal that the party had only been yesterday. He’d gone back so far into his past to relive it that it seemed like it had been days, even weeks ago. Perhaps it was because he was trying to forget what happened. As he loitered around like a ghost and idly picked up the list entries along the way, he started to think that maybe now was finally his time to let it go. He’d already ruined any chance he had. He’d end this ridiculous mission. He’d go back to Hannah and his kid, treat them right, take them home to Leesburg, give up drinking, build his career from the ground up. Start all over, from square zero. There was nothing more he could do. They were all he had left, and perhaps, just perhaps, all that he ever had. He was right; he’d lost Jessica. For good.

What of her, anyway? Hannah was his wife. Maybe he didn’t love her, but he was still married to her. He had his responsibilities. Perhaps if he tried, they could still make it work. But as the absentminded Phillip bumped into another shopper and hastily apologized, he was brought to his senses. He remembered how Hannah screwed him over, how she insisted on interfering in his career, how her rude and possessive behavior turned off fans and media alike. He remembered their fights, and realized all he ever felt for her was responsibilities and morals. I married her because I had no way out. That’s why I was miserable. Now she’s all I have. I got myself into this. Now I have to fix it.

Have to. Need to. Ought to. Should. Responsibilities. Obligation. Love was never in the equation. It got completely sucked out of me.

He decided to finally pay for the groceries and return home to Hannah. He’d tell her he wanted to make it right and buy the next ticket back to Leesburg. But as he trudged to the counter line, part of him remained reluctant. Am I really willing to settle for this for the rest of his life? Is there no other way? Am I sure I can change? And most importantly… do I want to?

For no reason that he could fathom at all, the fedora man came to his mind. He stood behind the person paying and thought about the mysterious guy as his eyes wandered around and about the counter. They fell on a magazine shelf next to it that was right in front of him, and he instantly froze cold.

He was staring right at the newest issue of Maxim Hot 100, and on the front cover was no other than Jessica Sanchez. She was wearing a metallic black bikini that showed off her bronze skin, sleek curves, perfectly angular waist and straight, slender legs. Her pose, elegantly seductive with attitude, also emphasized the firm shape of her chest, which was new to Phillip. He felt numb, paralyzed by both frustration and intrigue. She was incredibly sexy, and that much skin was just… rather… Breaking into a sweat, he became aware that he was probably looking like a pervert, glanced around nervously, but was eventually drawn back to Jessica. He picked up the magazine and stared into her face. Who are you now? he thought. Why do you haunt me? Her eyes looked like they were hiding a sly secret. Her full lips gleamed red. He suddenly realized that there was something about them. Something important about her lips. He strained to remember, closing his eyes and visualizing the events at the party. There he was again, in the hallway, kissing her against the wall. He could feel her lips against his, moving against them…

It hit him like a train all at once and almost knocked him over. She had kissed him back.

“You gonna buy that?” 

Phillip blinked. He glanced upwards, where the bored clerk was staring at him in amusement. He looked back, saw that an impatient line had collected behind him, and realized he must have been standing there for at least five minutes. 

He felt his face burning red. “Uh – ”

“Come on, make up your mind, big guy,” drawled the young male clerk. Several people in the line chuckled.

“You know what,” muttered Phillip, reaching for the magazine shelf. “Can I just put this – ”

“Awwwww, come on! Why don’t you buy it, bro?” jeered the clerk, his tone mocking. “Here, let me see.” With one deft swipe, he snatched the magazine out of Phillip’s hand.

The clerk’s eyes instantly filled with malicious enjoyment. “Oh yeah. J-Chez, huh,”  he said. The line erupted in laughter. “Yeah, man, I respect your taste. Nice taste in bitches,” he continued, slapping Phillip’s shoulder. He nodded slowly, flipping through the pages. “Oh, damn. Fuck yeah.” Then the clerk stared Phillip in the eye, laughed, and leaned in to whisper in his ear. “Let me tell you, man, she’s a fucking slut to be real, but I would rail that shit so hard she’ll be screaming the names of all the dudes she slammed when she was sixteen.”

Phillip punched him so hard in the face that the clerk’s head smacked the back of the counter behind him, his mouth covered in blood. The line gasped in shock and the person behind Phillip tried to hold him back, but only managed to feebly grasp the edge of his shirt before Phillip literally jumped over the counter, completely overcome by rage. Before the dazed clerk could react, Phillip swung another right hook at his eye, blackening it instantly. By the third smack to the temple, the clerk was coming around, and smirked recklessly despite being in pain. “You wanna fight, big shot?” he sneered, catching Phillip’s fist in mid-air and socking him in the stomach. Phillip doubled over and the clerk smashed his head against the counter, delivering a sharp blow to his mouth and splitting his lip. By now the other shoppers were yelling for help, and some were desperately trying to pull the clerk away. They scattered as Phillip lunged at the younger man, overwhelmed by a senseless desire to hurt somebody. He speared him to the cold linoleum and lost all control as his knuckles dented the clerk’s bleeding face blow after blow, releasing all the stress, anguish and fury that had built up over the course of five years…

When they were finally pulled apart, the bruised clerk insisted on calling the police, claiming unwarranted assault. Before they arrived, Phillip heard through the ringing in his ear some murmurs from the crowd. Fought over a magazine. J-Chez. Wasn’t he the one on TMZ? The police arrived and listened to the clerk’s twisted report. Phillip made one reference to the clerk’s poor attitude, but said nothing more. He followed the cops away obediently. He did not care or listen to anything they were saying.

She had kissed him back.

***

“How much was the bail?” asked Phillip. He winced from the cut on his lip.

It was 6:30. They were on their way home from the station. Hannah was driving, and up till now they had not exchanged a single word.

“Not enough for you to worry about.” Hannah’s reply was curt. Her eyes remained on the road.

The short-lived conversation ceased. They drove on for another minute, but the unspoken tension was about to be broken.

Without warning, Hannah pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. Phillip looked at her questioningly, but she continued to avoid his gaze.

“You know, this is my final sacrifice for you,” she said softly.

Phillip raised an eyebrow. “Final sacrifice?”

“My final sacrifice in the form of fifty dollars. The last time I’ll give something up for you. The last time I’ll hurt for you, suffer for you, die for you.” 

Phillip said nothing.

She turned to him and looked him in the eye. A tear fell from her face. “I’m leaving you, Phillip.”

He said nothing.

“I’m taking the baby,” she continued. “I have – ” She hesitated. “ – family in San Francisco. They’ll take care of us.”

He said nothing.

“Say something.” She began to cry. “Say something, you fucking bastard,” she sobbed, her voice trembling. 

He looked back at her nonchalantly. “What’s his name?” he asked calmly.

Hannah burst into tears. “He can give us a better life than you can,” she whispered.

His gaze remained steadfast but relaxed. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Hannah. And now that there’s nothing left for you to say, allow me to speak my own mind.”

“Of cour –”

Before she could finish, he slapped her hard across the face, so hard she gasped at the sting.

“I think you should be grateful,” said Phillip quietly, “that I beat up that clerk at the grocery store before we did this.” He grabbed her chin forcefully and turned her head to face him, just like Colton did to him. “Hannah, you completely ruined my life. You know what you did. For my career, for everything. I’ve been thinking, and I realized I married you out of nothing but responsibility. My consciousness has been working hard trying to convince me that I love you, that it’s right to love you. Staying with you, marriage, Phillip the third. But it’s not working out.” He spoke steadily, making sure she heard each and every word. “Look at you. Being enticed by some stranger who’s got the money and the cash. Honey, you’re just in it for the fame and fortune. My fame. Isn’t that why you followed me around and suffocated me? Huh?” He noticed his voice was rising, but he did not want to show any more anger, so he paused and let himself cool down before he finished. “And look what happens when I’ve lost all of that.” 

Now it was Hannah’s turn to say nothing. She could only cry.

“I’m sorry, Hannah. If only you were too. Goodbye. It’s been a nice run.” Phillip kissed her cheek, opened the car door, stepped onto the sidewalk and began walking. He refused to look back.

***

He reached the apartment gate just as Hannah exited it, carrying his son and three suitcases. Looking at the baby, he suddenly felt a rush of guilt and love for the child that he was leaving behind. He was his father, and he loved his kid. But he knew he couldn’t let guilt control his life anymore.

“Goodbye,” Hannah mumbled. 

But Phillip had already walked past her.

9

It was 10AM when Jessica, who was taking a quick nap on her futon, was woken by her Eminem-tuned doorbell.

For the last four hours she had been at work, mastering the instrumentals and trying to record the song. The first show was in two days, she had to release it on iTunes before she could debut it live, and she knew her fans in San Diego, the first stop, were expecting to hear it. But the first two times she attempted to sing Phillip’s lyrics, she couldn’t hold in the tears.

Alone and away from cameras, she was still Jessica Sanchez, emotional, deep, melodramatic. And in light of the events that took place the previous evening, the overwhelming sincerity of his guilty, repentant words hit her in the heart. Her feelings were a mess: it tore her apart to try and reconcile Phillip’s message in the song with the sheer degree of pain he’d caused her five years ago, and, of course, the fact that she was with Colton.

The third time she broke down crying, she became frustrated at herself. She’d only completed half of the vocals in two hours, and the rest was always screwed up by the accidental sob, choke, or voice break. Driven as always by her steadfast work ethic, she decided to settle down and get a grip so that she could get the job done. Then a great idea hit her. She texted her producer-manager and told him to come earlier than they had scheduled. She hated him, and figured that he would annoy and irritate her so much just by being there that she wouldn’t feel like crying.

It was probably him out there now. Jessica dragged herself out of the comfy futon and shuffled down the hall to the door, feeling like she hadn’t slept in ages. When she opened it, however, she was surprised to see Colton standing there with his mischievously awkward smile, holding a take-out box.

“Sorry to pop in unannounced,” he said. “But I figured you had a rough night, so… I got you breakfast.” He grinned and handed the box to Jessica. “IHOP. Your favorite.”

“Oh, honey… you shouldn’t have.” She hugged him tightly, but as touched as she was by his thoughtfulness, she couldn’t help feeling slightly uneasy as she was reminded of her nightmare. 

He smoothed her hair, leaned down and kissed her gently. “How’s my angel doing today?” he asked tenderly, touching her cheek. 

Jessica only smiled and pulled him inside with one arm, as he shut the door behind him. “I thought you had a CM fan-meet?” she asked, looking quizzically at him, trying her best to sound curious and not unwelcoming.

“I did,” he replied, giving her another little kiss. “But I’m your biggest fan.”

A few minutes later, they’d settled down in their familiar spaces in the studio: Colton slouched in his rolling chair, and Jessica in front of her computer, quietly eating her breakfast and working on the track. “How’s the song going?” Colton asked casually. In truth, the sheer idea of Jessica singing a song written by Phillip was starting to intimidating him. “PP’s given you quite the challenge, huh?” 

Jessica heard the acerbity in his voice, and was suddenly gripped by a burning need to tell the truth. She took a deep breath. “Colton…”

“Mike,” corrected Colton coolly.

“Mike.” Her heart skipped a beat, like she’d done something wrong. “The song’s taking me a while to record because… well, it makes me cry.” Now it pounded, as she actually had no idea how he was going to react.

His reply came naturally and immediately. “It does?” There was nothing unusual about it, except there was a tiny break in his voice.

“Well, you know, the lyrics are really touching, and sincere, and genuine.” Jessica sighed. “And it just made me think of the old times, and…well…how I used to feel about him, and what he did to me, the way we didn’t speak, and – ” 

“Jessica – ”

She was rambling. “– the lyrics really make me feel like he’s realized his mistakes, he’s really sorry about what happened, he misses me and he wants to make it up to me, and how maybe he hopes that we can – ”

“Jessica.”

Something in his voice made her blood run cold. Then a passing remark Heejun had once made came to Jessica’s mind: Colton has a really bitter side. He’s very tough. It was that bitterness she’d just heard now, seeping through the syllables in her name. It chilled her to the point that she couldn’t speak. She could only sit there, paralyzed, expecting Colton to start yelling at her – or even worse, burst into tears. She’d actually never seen him explode, but she had a gut feeling this was going to be their first fight. It was her fault; she’d gone too far. How could she do this to him? He’d been so considerate, not just for the day but for five entire years…. 

“Jessica, it’s okay.”

She blinked, not sure she had heard right. 

“Turn around. You’re right. We should talk about this.”

There was no bitterness there, only understanding. Somehow, it made her feel worse. Still, she listened and turned around slowly, dreading the emotional breakdown.

It never happened. Colton rolled his chair over to her, his nearly perfect face fraught with concern. Jessica looked down at the floor. She didn’t deserve such kindness. 

“Jessica, look at me.” His voice was as firm as the grip he now had on her chin.

She basically had no choice, as he turned her head to face him. 

“I know you used to love him,” he said quietly. “You’re remembering your past love, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But you have to remember something else, which is the way he hurt you.”

Jessica nodded weakly. His hand was hurting her a bit.

“Think about how he played with your heart. Volcano. The finale. The tour. Maybe you don’t remember, but I remember it all. And you know why?”

Jessica didn’t answer.

“I was there from the start, Jessica,” Colton whispered, his eyes shining with tears. “I was there for you from the very beginning. What happened to you, happened to me. I felt your hurt like it was my own. And there you were, loving the one who treated you like a fling, and treating like a fling the one who loved you.” A single tear finally rolled down his cheek. “It hurt, you know that? You hurt me.”

“I’m sorry, Mike.”

“No, don’t be. Just…please. I don’t want him to be the one who gets between us. And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want it either.” Colton put her arms around her waist and pulled her close. “Just think of last night as a reunion with friends. He’s married, with a kid. He has his own life, and we have ours. The song is great, and we’ll give him the money. After that, we don’t ever have to cross paths again.” 

“I’m sorry,” Jessica whispered again.

“It’s alright.” Colton smiled and kissed her forehead. “I know you can get over him,” he said, hugging her tightly.

Even in the warmth of his embrace, Jessica felt the color drain out of her face. The tone of Colton’s voice was identical to the one he had in her nightmare.

These voices, I hear them, I hear them, and where they go I’ll follow, I’ll follow, I’ll follow!

Jessica let out a sigh of relief. Eminem always saved her at the right times. She had to have the coolest doorbell in the country. 

“Who’s that?” asked Colton suspiciously.

“It’s Kando. I asked him to come early.”

“You mean that jerk you call a producer?”

“Yeah…”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wasn’t expecting you…”

“That jerk’s at the door? I’ll go get it.”

“No, I’ll do it –”

Colton was already striding out of the studio into the hall, clearly irritated. “Kando, tch. Show him his place,” he grumbled. When he got to the door, he swung it open so hard Jessica could hear the echoes of the doorknob smashing into the wall.

The exceedingly annoying face of Jessica’s tall, brownish-skinned producer carried a tinge of surprise on top of the usual stoicism upon seeing Colton. “Why, hello there, White Guy With Piano,” he said simply.

“I told you not to call me that, Tedius,” snapped Colton. 

“I told you not to call me Tedius,” Kando answered flatly.

“Racist asshole.”

“May I come in, please?”

“Ugh.” Colton just rolled his eyes and started walking back down the hall. Kando followed him, cautiously at first. Then he skipped forward briskly so that he was next to him.

“Say, Colton Dixon,” said Kando. “Are you aware of what your girlfriend is doing with the White Guy With Guitar, Phillip Phillips?”

Colton raised an eyebrow. “Can’t say I do.”

Kando winked at him, and Colton wondered how that eye would look framed by purple. “Well,” said the former breezily, “maybe she can explain to you.” He sauntered on ahead, swinging what looked like a rolled-up newspaper in his right hand, and knocked loudly on the door of the studio. For an apathetic, robotic poker face like him, Kando could get surprisingly energetic.

“Good morning, Jessica Sanchez,” he said when she opened the door. 

“Morning, Kando,” she replied politely. “Glad you could make it.”

The producer marched in and plopped right into Colton’s rolling chair. Colton glared at him in disgust. “Jessica Sanchez, I must discuss something important with you,” Kando announced.

Jessica heaved a sigh. This was going to work. She was already royally pissed off. “What is it?”

“Jessica Sanchez, what are you still doing interacting with that WGWG?”

Oh no, not this again.

“I was completely right all these years,” continued Kando monotonously but proudly. “You should have won instead of Phillip Phillips. You are the best singer in American Idol history. Phillip Phillips is worth 500,000 dollars. Jessica Sanchez is worth one trillion dollars. You see how right I was?”

“Yes, Kando. You were very right.”

“See, Jessica, I am your biggest fan, and I called it from the start that America got it wrong. As your producer today I still believe it. Phillip Phillips is a pawn shop worker who is a barely talented male singer who can hardly sing a note and is a poor role model. Choosing Phillip Phillips over Jessica Sanchez is like choosing sandpaper over velvet. It is like choosing wood over gold. It is like choosing junk food over healthy food. It is like choosing milk chocolate over dark chocolate. It is like – ”

“TEDIUS ZANARUKANDO!” yelled Jessica.

Kando instantly backed into a shell. “Don’t call me Tedius,” he mumbled. “It makes me sound tedious.”

“Which you are,” remarked Colton. 

“Kando, that was five years ago. Can we just drop American Idol, and let it go? I’m more successful than Phillip, okay, I get it. My tour is two days away and I need this song recorded,” pleaded Jessica.

“I’m afraid I can’t let that go quite so easily, Ms. Sanchez,” answered Kando. “I can’t stop you from singing his song, because it’s your decision. But do you know that you and Phillip are at the front and center of entertainment gossip this morning?” He shoved the newspaper into her hands.

Jessica, shocked speechless, opened the newspaper. As she read the article, what color was left in her face drained away completely. 

“What’s wrong, baby?” asked Colton, genuinely worried. She looked like she was going to pass out.

Her horrified expression turning into anger, Jessica tore up the paper hastily. “Lies,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Just, oh my god, I can’t believe it… the paparazzi…” 

“Do you have any idea how bad this looks for me, the CEO of the Anti-WGWG Coalition?” spat Kando. “For my biggest artist to be – ” 

“Kando, stop it. We were just having a reunion,” snapped Colton. “He’s an old friend. And I tell her who she can dance with, not you.”

Dancing, of course,” replied Kando sarcastically. “Oh, and you aren’t the greatest-looking for me either, WGWP. Don’t think because you’re Jessica’s boyfriend that I’ll let you off. So shut your mouth.”

“You – ” Just as Colton took a step to realize the bruise on Kando’s eye, his phone rang.

He glared at the startled robot, smirking with contempt. “You got lucky. Excuse me. Oh, and please work with Jay, not harass her.” He walked out into the hall and slammed the door.

“Hello?” That must have sounded angry.

“Hey, Colton, this is M. Shadows,” came a deep, gravelly voice through the phone. “You okay, man? You sound angry.”

“Shads! Hey!” exclaimed Colton. M. Shadows was the charismatic frontman of Avenged Sevenfold, who he looked up to like a big brother.  “Yeah, heh, I’m having some, um, issues. No biggie, though. What’s up?”

“Syn told me he saw you at the party yesterday,” said Shadows. “And he gave me a great idea. We just got back to San Francisco to write and record. And we want you to join us.”

Colton’s heart skipped a beat, and he almost dropped the phone. “Are you being serious?” he said slowly.

“Yeah, dude. We want you to get in the songwriting but also the recording. Basically, you Chrystyl Myth guys have such a giant fanbase that we want to feature Colton Dixon on our newest single.”

It was only now starting to sink into Colton that the biggest band in the country wanted him to collaborate with them. He was frozen with excitement. “Shads, I would frickin’ LOVE to,” he enthused, when his heart finally calmed down enough for him to speak. “But hey, should I ask the rest of Myth or something?”

“Nah, I don’t think they’d mind,” said Shadows. He hesitated a little bit. “Um, here’s the thing, Colton. We’re gonna be writing and recording your track first thing. And considering how much we fuck around in the studio, we always gotta start on schedule or we don’t finish in time.”

“So uh, when do I have to be there, in San Francisco?” asked Colton. “In like, a month? I kind of –”

“Actually,” interrupted Shadows, “you need to be here by tomorrow.”

Colton’s jaw dropped. “Tomorrow? Matt, my girlfriend’s going on tour in two days.”

“You mean Jessica Sanchez?” Shadows chuckled. “So? ”

“I need to be there for her.”

“You make it sound like she’s giving birth in two days. ”

“Matt, tomorrow is just a bit…” Colton sighed. “Insane. You don’t understand. Jay is going through some stuff. I need to be with her. She needs me.”

“Sure I understand,” said Shadows. “You’re the clingy boyfriend of an international sex icon and you want to keep her in line.” He let out a full throaty laugh. “No offense, but that’s pretty pathetic.”

Colton frowned. “Ouch. That smarts.”

“I know it does, but I mean it. You shouldn’t be interfering in her career. It puts off her fans, which hurts her. And it does nothing for your own career. You know what helps your career? Working with us.”

Colton sighed again.

“Hey,” said Shadows. “If you want to give up the chance bands all around the world die for so that you can go and police your girl around, be my guest.”

“You really didn’t have to say that, Shads,” griped Colton. “My mind’s saying that already.”

“Alright, kid. Call me when you’re sure. No means yes.” Shadows hung up.

Colton stared at his phone for a second, still shocked by the sudden proposition. Then he went back to join Kando and Jessica in the studio. As he watched Jessica record, he was certain the song would send her through the atmosphere and become her mark of legendary status. He realized he craved such a status in his own career. He longed to join the ranks of Avenged in the rock music industry, and now was his golden moment.

By the time Jessica and Kando had finished up the last touches to the song, Colton had made up his mind.

It had taken a while, but he’d finally forced the jealous paranoid whispering in the back of his head to trust her.