He hadn’t been onstage in months. I knew it was a bad idea but he kept insisting that he had to, he needed to, the music was inside him and it was screaming to get out. He talked like that sometimes when he was drunk. These days that was all the time.
It wasn’t a nice place. It killed me to look at that shitty little setup, the dive bar equivalent of a hotel lounge, half the lights burnt out or on the verge of it. It was hilarious — in a terrible, unfair sort of way — to think of James up there, performing for a sparse crowd of uninterested tipsy travelers when he’d once been headlining with some of the biggest names in music. And not that long ago, really.
I was leaning against the wall of the lounge, hidden in the back. I was usually hiding when we were on the road. No one likes to see a rock star with a plain little brunette sulking at his side, they want to imagine that they have a shot with him. And, with James, they did. It didn’t matter that we were just friends, always had been. I learned pretty quick where my place was and it wasn’t on his arm. See, I’m good at negotiating deals. I was the one who handled his earlier gigs, talked to people, got him in the door. I was the one he called “Mouse.”
Once he was in the door, really just hurtling through the door, I sort of got shuffled to the side. James had a manager, an agent, a publicist. Typical rising star sort of thing. I tried to go back to my old life bartending in Wichita where we’d grown up together but he’d just given me those big blue eyes and said no Mouse, stay, I’ll pay you to stay. Be my entourage.
The next few years were a whirlwind of different cities, different states, different countries. I watched James from the back of a thousand different venues and god, he was just so incredible. He’d saunter onstage, give the audience his charming lopsided grin, and just open his mouth… it was magic. There was definitely some truth to his recent plea. There was music in him.
But that night, I knew it was a mistake. The manager and agent and publicist had dropped off once his popularity took a sharp plunge and I was back to handling his offers. Actually, offers isn’t the right word. More like begrudging acceptances. When the hotel had said yes, sure, James could perform a solo set on Saturday — because by now it had to be a solo set, the band members had all slowly fallen away to pursue other careers — I didn’t even want to tell him about it. But he was getting so depressed, it was just me and him in the luxury apartment he was more than likely going to lose unless he made a payment soon and I thought he deserved to know that there was a gig.
“I need this, Amy,” he said, those blue eyes of his looking so tired and sad. “I need this. Mouse, I need to sing. I don’t care where it is. It’s inside of me, the music, and it’s screaming to get out. If I don’t sing…” And I thought he was starting to cry, which was horrible, I’d never in our 18 years of friendship seen him cry so I told him yes, I’d book the gig, he could sing again.
So, standing in the back of that hotel lounge, I was nervous. I was thinking that it was going to break his heart, the fact that these people were more interested in their drinks than his music, but maybe it would help. Just a little. James needed help.
The lights in the room went down. The lights onstage went up. I could feel my heart in my throat. I was just… I knew something bad was going to happen. I just did.
I’d left him alone, see. He said he wanted to meditate, it had been so long since he’d performed that he needed to really zone in on his “creative center.” James gave me a weaker version of his lopsided grin and said he knew it was tonight, this was the gig that would get him back on track and I had made it happen.
I guess it was that, the rare compliment that I thought I deserved a little more often, that caught me off-guard enough to leave him alone. And I shouldn’t have. I should’ve known better.
He crossed the stage except crossed isn’t the right word, he stumbled across the stage, barely catching himself on the microphone stand. James looked up, squinting in the unimpressive lighting, trying to get a handle on how many people were in the audience.
A few people looked up at him and didn’t seem to find anything particularly interesting. Until he opened his mouth.
“I, uh,” he began, and that was the most sense he made.
After that he just babbled. I couldn’t make out any sort of real words, I could tell he was trying to really say something but it was just utter nonsense. I’d never seen him that out of it. I’d seen him drunk, I’d seen him high, I’d seen a complex cocktail of both but he was absolutely out of his mind.
I’d been worried for a while he had evolved beyond his typical vices and this made me certain: he’d scored something hard behind my back and it’s why he sent me away. Heroin, acid. Maybe crystal meth, who knows. But I knew it took something strong to fuck him up this badly.
God, he couldn’t even talk.
People were starting to laugh now. Whisper. Point. James gripped the microphone like a man drowning and kept trying to sing with no success.
Before I realized what I was doing I was moving from the back of the lounge to the stage. All I knew was I had to put a stop to this, I had to get him off the stage, I had to save him.
I got to the edge of the space and whispered his name in a harsh hiss. James looked at me, blue eyes pleading with me, but he didn’t move.
“James,” I said again, and he let out a confused sound, almost like a whimper.
He turned his gaze from me to the audience, not understanding. I mean, god, he was just so fucked up.
I climbed the stairs and took him by the hand, tugging him gently away from the microphone stand. I realized dully that during James’ entire career it was the first and only time I was ever onstage with him.
“Come on, James,” I whispered. He turned to me, looked into my eyes, and just broke.
I mentioned I’d never seen him cry before. Not in 18 years. Not in the whole time we were friends. And at that moment he just absolutely crumbled.
James took a few steps forward and wrapped his arms around me. I’d never been held that tightly before, not ever, not since.
He was trembling. I could hear the sound of little sobs bursting out of him somewhere near my breasts. In the audience, everyone stared. No one was laughing anymore.
I had to get him out of there. I couldn’t let them see him like that. I wrapped my arms around him and started ushering him towards the stairs, off the stage, out of the shitty lighting and away from the stares.
We moved through the little cocktail tables and I felt the eyes of the audience on us, judging, pitying. The relief I felt when we were in the hotel hallway was palpable. I just had to get him to the comped room that was part of the gig’s payment. (I realized then we would probably have to pay for that since he didn’t actually perform. Great, a gig that actually cost us money. A new low.)
But there was more important business to attend to.
“It’s okay, James,” I was whispering in the direction of his ear. “It’s okay, we’re out of there, we’re going to our room, it’s okay.”
“It’s okay,” I said again. We were approaching an elevator but some asshole had one of those luggage carts absolutely filled to the brim and besides it was closing as we approached anyway. I muttered an expletive and glanced around the hall, hoping no one would come up to us as we waited for the next elevator.
“I’m sorry,” James said miserably, and I could actually feel my heart breaking for him.
“It’s okay, James.” I patted his back like a baby I was trying to burp. “What did you take, honey?” The word surprised me as it left my lips; I had never called him that before, but he was clinging to me like a child, and maybe that was what made me say it.
“I don’t wanna say,” he whispered, and I felt his already tight grip get even tighter.
“Okay. Okay. It’s all right.” The elevator dinged and I moved towards it even as it was opening. Luckily it was empty.
The ride up was silent. He just clung to me, shaking.
We got to our room, although on the way James tripped on his own feet and almost sent both of us flying. When the door was closed behind us, I let out a breath I hadn’t even known I was holding in.
I set him down on the bed and he still wouldn’t let go of me. I finally got him to look up at me by taking his chin in my hands and tilting his face up towards mine.
“James,” I said, and saw his blue eyes — the same ones that had asked me to stay, to not go back to Wichita, to stay with him like his tattered old security blanket — were full of tears.
I didn’t want to answer because we both knew he had. Instead, I wiped away tears from his cheeks with the pad of my thumb.
“It’s okay.” I had to protect him at that moment, protect him from the reaction of the audience, from himself. More than anything, from himself. “It’s going to be okay. You’ll bounce back from this. I know you will.”
He blinked hard, let out a shaky breath. I felt like it was a nonverbal way of saying he knew I was lying to him. I could smell whiskey on him, which meant he’d doubled down.
I opened my mouth to say something else and James pressed his against mine.
I was so shocked I didn’t know how to react — I can’t say it wasn’t something I’d wanted, because it was, it was something I’d wanted for a long time. But not, necessarily, like this.
He tasted like cigarettes, alcohol, something unnamable that wasn’t particularly pleasant. Thinking back, I suspect it may have been death.
When he pulled away, miraculously, he was smiling. He was smiling at me with fresh tears on his cheeks. It’s one of the most beautiful, horrible things I’ve ever seen.
“You know what we are?” he asked me in a soft voice. Before I could answer, he said, “We’re one week’s worth of a good thing.”
I didn’t know what that meant so I just helped him get undressed, got him into his bed. Tucked the covers around him like he was six and tried to get into my own bed but he grabbed a handful of my shirt and tugged, begging me to stay.
The next morning I offered to settle the cost of the room and take him home but he said no, he’d meant it, one week.
“One week, Mouse,” James pleaded with me from the tangle of sheets. “Just give me one good week with you. It should have always been you, I know that now. But I can’t… I can’t drag you down with me. I can’t do this in that shitty place, I’m going to lose it anyway, I know. It has to be a week, it has to be with you, and it has to be here.”
His eyes were still blue and they were a little deader than normal — I suspect he was working on one hell of a hangover — but they were clear, for once. He meant what he was saying. For once, after all those years, after all those groupies who came and went, he wanted me.
The previous night I had just held him as he sweat out whatever cocktail of drugs he’d taken, the smell of it on his skin, stark and almost medicinal. But that morning he beckoned me back to the bed and when I went to him (because of course I did) he touched my face so tenderly I thought I was going to cry.
“I love you, Amy,” he said, and he kissed me again, but this time was different. This time he laid me down on the bed, he ran his hands through my plain brown hair, he kissed me like there was only one week left in the world and he needed to make it count.
I won’t bore you with the details of the week. Besides, some things are so precious you have to keep them secret, safe, deep in the cellar of your heart.
When I woke up exactly seven days after the onstage meltdown, dreading the inevitable hotel room bill I’d have to somehow settle with management, James was nowhere to be found. In the space where he should’ve been, nearly hidden by the rumpled curve of a dirty sheet, was a note.
My hands were shaking when I picked it up. One week, he’d said. One week’s worth of a good thing.
I’m sorry I did this to you. I’m sorry I pulled you close and kept you at arm’s length at the same time. It may be hard to believe that I love you but truly, I do, and I always have. But part of me always knew you had to stay at arm’s length or you’d be sucked down into the shipwreck with me.
Because that’s what I am, you know. A shipwreck. I had my moment in the sun and I paid for it. But I’m done paying. I’m letting the bill settle itself now.
Did you know I’m actually a really shitty singer? That’s not just me ragging on myself, I really do suck. Can’t play the guitar, either. It’s like someone taped fat sausages to my fingers. Sounds awful. That’s the real me, you know, the one you never saw onstage until last week.
But the music part, that part was real. There’s always been some sort of magic inside me that needed to come out. When it did, though, my voice was shaky, screechy. Playing guitar sounded like a cat was dying somewhere in an alley. It felt like being a genius with all the cures to the world’s diseases who can’t write or speak. That’s the only way I can describe it, I guess.
So I did what cowards do. Instead of working hard at it, instead of accepting that maybe someone else could make magic with their music, I reached out to the only thing I could think of. And, you know, after all those years of praying God sure wasn’t listening to me. God wasn’t coming through.
But someone else did.
We struck a deal. He’d make me a star and you know what? I didn’t even have to give him my soul, he said. No golden fiddle contest, no signature in blood. He would give me the talents I needed to get the music out and I would bring him what he wanted. One a week.
I guess souls taste better when they’re delivered to you. When they’re snuffed out in pain and terror. I don’t know, he never really explained it to me.
Didn’t you ever wonder why those groupies never stuck around?
Of course you didn’t. Not just because that was the plan, but because you trusted me. Because you’re a good person and I’m not.
That’s 52 a year, you know. One a week.
It wasn’t that hard. Sometimes I took them out behind a venue and strangled them to death. Once, I stabbed a girl and took her purse to make it look like a mugging gone wrong. A lot of times I just gave them too much H and just let them… slip away.
I’m telling you this so you can hate me. So you can realize what I am. I’m a monster who served a bigger monster all to get what I wanted.
Isn’t that sort of what we all do? No. There’s no getting around this. I’ve tried.
The fame, my talents have been slipping because I don’t want to pay him anymore. I’ve gotten away with one a month for a little while, paying him in small doses the way a broke guy might sneak bits of his rent to his landlord, hoping to keep him off his back. But last week proved he’s pissed. He won’t let me get away with it. No welching on the deal. Gotta settle the debt.
Mouse, I’m so sorry. You may not believe me but I’m so sorry. And I’m so grateful to have had you by my side all these years, even though you didn’t know what I was doing, what I was capable of. Even though I didn’t give you what you deserve. It was pretty selfish, I guess. I always knew I could look in the back and see you there, smiling.
You thought I couldn’t see you but you were all I could see.
So now, I’m going. There’s only one way to settle this debt for good. Please don’t go in the bathroom.
I love you, Amy.
I found him in the tub with a needle in his arm. His skin was waxy, those big blue eyes milky and faraway. He was smiling.
I try to remember him differently. I try to remember him onstage in the golden years, that lopsided grin lighting up his handsome face, the magic coming from his mouth. I try to remember him deftly strumming away at his guitar and try to forget what he’d done for years with those hands.
I try to hate him but I can’t because when I look inside myself, inside the cellar of my heart, I know how much it hurts to not get what you need to be whole. How the pain can seem, at times, unbearable. How you would do anything, anything to get that thing you need.
I’ve given it a lot of thought and I think I know what I’m going to do. I mean, I know who to talk to. The right guy to ask. To bring James back.
Besides, I’m used to negotiating deals. I can probably get him down to one a month.
I think I can do that.