The last conversation that changed my life started with the words, “Gaby, we need to talk.”
Exactly four minutes and fifty-five seconds later, I was apparently A) not in a relationship anymore, B) homeless and C) pathetic. Although the whole being “pathetic” part was only known by me… and my best friend… and my parents… and my brothers… and my sister… and my nieces.
Oh hell. Who was I kidding? Everyone knew I was pathetic when my best friend, Laila, told my parents I’d been dumped. She then told everyone else in my family that I had cried my eyes out for a week after my breakup and followed that up by watching My Girl every night for a month straight. The seven pounds and face full of acne I gained from stuffing my face with Spicy Cheetos and glazed donuts didn’t help matters either.
So when Eli, who usually only called me twice a month and was drunk as a skunk each and every single time, called and started our conversation with “Gaby-Gaby” in a sing-song voice, I knew something was up. He never called me by my name unless it had a curse word before it. When he then asked me, “Do you have time to talk?” in a completely sober tone, I was pretty much expecting the apocalypse. Or at the very least, being asked to give up one of my major organs.
I shouldn’t have listened to his offer. I should have known better, but Eli was my weakness in life, and the asshole knew it.
I couldn’t count the number of times he’d wrangled me into doing something for him that I would never, ever do for anyone else. There were the occasions when I had to clean up his puke after he’d drank too much, because if our parents found out they would have flipped. Or when I ate ramen noodles for an entire month because I had to bail him out of jail, and he hadn’t bothered paying me back. Then there was that time when he gave me bronchitis. I’d pretended to have my purse stolen while I was on antibiotics so that I could give him the extra dosage because he didn’t have insurance and was too cheap to go to the doctor. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure that might have been a criminal offense.
I loved my twin brother, even if he was a restless bastard… and the bane of my existence.
“We had to let Zeke go,” Eli explained in that breathless voice so many stupid and oblivious women panted over. “Come on tour with us. Mom said you aren’t doing shit this summer, so I know you don’t have anything better to do—”
Umm… I didn’t have anything better to do, but when someone else said it, it pissed me off.
I was lying down on my childhood bed with my knees to my chest when I rolled my eyes. The ceiling still had the glow-in-the-dark stars I’d glued on them nearly ten years ago; it seemed like they were mocking me, reminding me I wasn’t a kid anymore, and that I needed to get my shit together so that I didn’t have time to stare at them. “I’ve been applying for jobs, thank you very much.”
“Aww, G, you’ve got the rest of your life to work. C’mon. It’ll be fun,” he insisted in that borderline-whiney voice that he used to get me to do his evil bidding.
He had a point; I knew it. I also knew how manipulative Eli was. He was almost as manipulative as he was full of shit, and he was full of a whole bunch of shit.
Go on tour with them, though?
I had a sudden flashback of all the scarring things I’d been through while in their company in the past. If I’d known back in kindergarten what I knew now about these boys, my life might have turned out completely differently. Getting detention at the age of five, right along with Eli, Mason and Gordo should have warned me of what was to come by simply being around them. Because seriously, who got detention in kindergarten? Not surprisingly, they were the three people I’d been with each and every single time I had ever gotten into any sort of trouble.
The problem was that I didn’t like doing things to get into trouble, but it seemed to follow the trio wherever they went.
So yeah, I scoffed, admiring the teal color I’d painted my toenails the day before. “Fun? Hanging out with you on a bus is fun? Are you shitting me?”
Eli made an exasperated noise that got carried away by a gust of air in the background. He’d mentioned they were at a gas station getting fuel. “We’re going to Australia and Europe…” He drew the words out and then paused for a second. “Nothing? You aren’t going to say anything?”
I didn’t say a word and that made him keep going because just saying the names of the two continents wasn’t enough to black out my least favorite memories of going on tour with them years ago.
And he kept going. “Koalas, kangaroos… fish and chips, the Eiffel Tower…”
When I didn’t automatically scream “yes!” he continued on with the bribes.
“Fine. We can pay you 10 percent of our sales plus whatever tips you get, you greedy prostitute,” Eli offered.
Ding, ding, ding.
Ten percent? I could remember how much they made when I’d last sold merch for his band, Ghost Orchid. They had sold fifteen hundred dollars worth of T-shirts and CDs during their concert. Ten percent of the total was one hundred and fifty bucks. One hundred and fifty bucks for six hours of work. Six days a week? And now they were making even more money? The asshole knew that I’d wanted to go to Europe forever, too, but it was the money that had me.
My bank account had taken a crippling hit when I’d quit my job to move back home to Dallas after I graduated.
Taking a look around my childhood bedroom with its robin’s-egg blue walls and band posters plastered all over it, I sighed into the receiver. If I stayed, I ran the risk of looking for a job for who knows how long. I’d have to life with my parents until I found a roommate that didn’t drive me nuts, and I’d have to deal with facing the Spanish Inquisition each time I left the house. On the other hand, if I went with Eli, I knew life would begin to consist of sweaty nights, an uncomfortable bed and dealing with three imbeciles that would sacrifice me to a group of zombies if it meant they would live.
Even more sweat.
Because, really, who likes to sweat? Who’d willingly sign up for a summer of sweating? It’d been fun when I was younger but now…
“C’mon, G, you’re the only person I trust, and I miss you,” he continued, sincerity stringing his words together.
“I don’t know—”
“Three months,” he kept going. “You’ll probably never be able to do this again.”
The reality of his words sunk in. I was single, practically homeless and jobless. Soon there would be bills, work and life in general that would tie me down and keep me down. I’d be a real adult with real adult obligations in no time.
That notion alone had me wanting to puke.
The one and only picture that I still had of my ex with a group of friends sat in the corner of the bedroom and seemed to wink at me, calling me a pussy.
“What are you doing with your life, Gaby?” Brandon, my ex-boyfriend, had asked thirty seconds into the conversation that had changed my life months ago.
“This is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, but this isn’t working anymore,” he’d said to me. The fucking dickwad. The hardest decision he’d ever had to make before that was whether he was going to use too much mousse or too much gel in his hair. Idiot.
Speaking of, why the hell hadn’t I shredded that picture yet? I needed to do it before I forgot again. Sure, it had a group of people in it but that didn’t seem like enough of a reason to keep it any longer. I’d heard of things called “amicable breakups,” but I’d never seen one in person.
It was the collection of posters right above the idiot’s picture that finally drew my eyes away. They were posters I’d collected of Ghost Orchid on different tours over the years. Besides having to act like a babysitter and a nagging wife, and witnessing stuff no sister should ever have a front-row seat to, I’d had a lot of fun each time I’d gone out with them. I wasn’t going to count the last day of the last tour I’d been on, but…
Was I seriously going to go on tour with my borderline-alcoholic brother for three months, all so that I could avoid the inevitable?
You’ll probably never be able to do this again.
I pulled my legs back into my chest and hugged them with the arm that wasn’t busy holding the phone to my ear.
Then I sighed. “Yes, damn it. I’ll do it.”
There was a pause before my twin asked slowly, “You will?” He sounded like he couldn’t believe my answer.
“Have I told you lately how much—”
I cut him off before he had a chance to butter me up. “On two conditions.”
Six hours later, my flight from Dallas to Boston had finally landed.
Apparently buying a plane ticket exactly two hours before the actual flight took off didn’t guarantee a good seat. I’d sat through a four-hour flight wedged between a mom with a really cute baby that had colic and a man who’d probably been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day since the eighties.
As soon as my bag came out of the conveyor in baggage claim, I caught a cab to make it to the venue where Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest were playing.
The fact that just a few hours before I’d been laying on my bed, watching television and debating whether I really needed to eat ice cream or not, didn’t escape me. In the span of a twenty-minute conversation with my brother, he’d bought me the earliest plane ticket to Boston available and ordered me to “start packing, Flabby.” I had no idea how much a last-minute flight like that would cost, but I hoped it was a lot.
It was a testament to my lack of shit-giving that I was able to get all my things together in less than half an hour. I pretty much flew blind as I threw clothes into the same suitcase I’d used a few months ago when I’d been forced to move out of my apartment. My wardrobe consisted of a handful of shorts, two pairs of jeans, T-shirts, a collection of tank tops and racerbacks. A bathing suit, underwear, bras, two cotton dresses, passport, neutral-colored sandals and as many books as I could fit, evened out my trusty vintage Samsonite and backpack. I figured I could buy whatever else I needed because there was bound to be something I forgot, for sure.
Mom and Dad were all-too-excited to have me tag along with Eli. They’d dropped me off at the airport with huge grins on their faces. I hated to think why they were so happy to have me out of the house, so I definitely wasn’t going to go down that road of potential nightmares and nausea. I also think they secretly hoped I’d keep an eye on their beloved youngest boy, their wild child, but everyone knew there was no controlling Eli Barreto. The idiot had been born with hell in his veins.
On the cab ride over, I mentally braced myself for the insanity that was Eli, Mason and Gordo. Mason and Gordo had been in my life for as long as I could remember. I had a brief, blurry memory of being in kindergarten, watching Mason and Eli shove Play-Doh into their mouths while Gordo and I watched in both horror and fascination.
Even though I hadn’t gotten to see them much over the last couple of years, I loved the hell out of them. So much of the first twenty years of my life included the three monsters, there was no way I couldn’t. Once Eli and I got split up into different classrooms in elementary school to force us to make friends, one or the other had been in a class with me… usually sitting next to me, trying to copy my work.
Growing up, I’d been Flabby Gaby. Well, it should be said that I’d been Flabby Gaby even up until the last time I saw them during Christmas. Except now they’d graduated past pulling on my ponytail constantly and intentionally doing things to piss me off. At this stage in our lives, they usually settled for just teasing me, but I wouldn’t expect anything less.
The point was, you could love someone and still dread traveling with them, especially when it was going to be for three months straight.
It’d be fine. It really would be fine. Right. It sure would.
Yeah, I couldn’t even find it in me to completely believe it.
I was wringing my hands nonstop on the cab ride to the venue, and I hoped like hell that my deodorant would hold up through the rest of the night. Glancing at my watch, I realized it was after seven. Eli had told me they didn’t go on stage until at least nine.
When the cabbie dropped me off at the end of the block, I called my jackass of a brother.
He answered on the second ring. “Are you here?”
“No, I’m in Antarctica.” I was already pulling my suitcase down the block.
The marquee was mounted on the opposite corner but I couldn’t miss the lettering.
THE RHYTHM & CHORD TOUR
Eyeing the massive bus parked on the street about thirty feet away, I couldn’t help but remember Pepe, Ghost Orchid’s old van. On the tours I’d gone on with them before, we’d stuffed ourselves into their Chevy fifteen-passenger van and their faded red cargo trailer. With peeling paint, duct-taped seats, and sketchy-looking rigged up doors—you couldn’t help but love Old Pepe. He’d racked up more than two hundred thousand miles before he’d been retired. Some of my fondest memories came in thanks to his loyalty. Now that the band was making money, they’d upgraded to nicer things.
I couldn’t say I wasn’t excited to not have to sleep on a bench seat and pray every day that one of the guys wouldn’t fall asleep behind the wheel on overnight drives, though.
“Flabby!” a voice that had begun haunting me from the moment I’d been born hollered.
I groaned but couldn’t help but smile, excited to see my twin for the first time in more than five months, the longest time we’d ever been apart by far. His bulky and gigantic head popped out from around the corner of the green, silver and black touring bus as he made his way toward me in aqua-colored swim trunks, a white tank, and a flat-brim baseball hat. With hair the same shade of black-brown as mine except it was straighter, the same green eyes, and peachy-colored skin, Eli grinned like he’d just found out Sam Adams was endorsing him.
“Eliza,” I sang out, calling my brother by the nickname I’d bestowed upon him at the age of four.
He flashed a big smile and held his tree trunk-sized arms forward, crooking his fingers in my direction. “Come to me.”
I took Eli in for the first time in almost half a year. He still looked exactly the same… except it looked like he had a hint of a beer gut growing. That was only a slight surprise.
Ever since we’d been sophomores in high school, I’d sworn he used steroids but it didn’t matter how much I looked, I never found any on him. Eli was built slightly shorter than six feet tall with biceps the size of my head and a neck I couldn’t attempt to try to choke because it was too thick. I used to ask him when he was making his professional wrestling debut. He’d then ask me when I was planning on becoming the newest Extreme Makeover contestant. Jackass.
But the thing about him that was the most apparent was how clear his eyes looked. He hadn’t started drinking yet—one of the stipulations I made when I agreed to come on tour. I don’t want to see you shit-faced, I’d told him, and surprisingly, he’d agreed without arguing.
The instant we were close enough, we hugged and then hugged each other some more.
He held me against him for another minute before finally pulling away, resting a palm on each of my shoulders. “When was the last time I saw you?” he asked, eyeing me carefully.
I frowned before slapping his pooch with the back of my hand. “Five months ago, you douche.” He’d been living in Portland for almost a year, and the last time we’d seen each other had been during New Year’s.
He winced. “I’ve missed you more than I’ve missed Rafe,” Eli offered with a smile before hugging me close again, a little roughly, a little too aggressive, and just like him and our relationship.
I snickered into his shoulder. “I’m going to tell her you said that.”
He snorted, another trait we shared; our mom thought his snorts were cute while mine she considered disturbing. It was a real confidence-booster. Thanks, Mom. “I’ll deny it.” He would. Rafe was short for Rafaela, our older sister, who had terrorized us when we were kids. Hell, I think she still scared both of us.
Rolling my eyes, I squeezed his middle. While it was easy to get through day-to-day life when I didn’t have a constant reminder that I missed him, now that I saw him, I realized how much I had. Being near him felt like home. “You’re a little bitch, but I’ve missed you enough not to care you don’t have any balls.”
He hugged me back a moment longer, and then kissed my cheek unexpectedly before shoving me away. I didn’t let the surprise of his affection register on my face. “Well, c’mon. Let me show you where the bus is. I still gotta warm up.”
Pulling me in the direction of the bus’s door, Eli explained what happened with Zeke. He’d been Ghost Orchid’s merch guy for the last two years since my retirement. Apparently Gordo had began noticing that the band was occasionally a bit short on cash a few times in the past, but they hadn’t thought too much about it until the same thing happened on the very first day of their current tour. Not a lot of money went missing but enough that Gordo, who was anal retentive about keeping track of their merchandise, noticed. That morning, Mason found that they were short more than three hundred dollars. According to the merch guy for the other band they were on tour with, he’d seen Zeke slipping bills into his laptop case.
What a moron.
So they left Zeke at a gas station with enough money for a cab and a plane ticket with an overnight layover.
My brother stopped in front of the bus and yanked the huge, heavy metal door open. He motioned for me to leave my suitcase outside.
“I sorta forgot to tell you that we’re sharing a bus with the other band we’re touring with,” he coughed out in a quick sentence, climbing up the tall steps leading inside the bus. The driver’s seat was vacant.
“Oh, yeah?” I asked, really not caring that we were going to be sharing fifty feet of moving vehicle. I’d survived with them in the past in fifteen feet. Fifty wouldn’t be a problem.
He pulled aside a heavy cream curtain that separated the driver’s area from the living space. The space consisted of a flat-screen television behind the driver’s seat. There was a long, narrow cloth couch on each side of the walkway that went straight down the middle of the bus. A small table for two was set up behind the seating area and a kitchenette was nestled before a doorway that led where the bunks would be. The set-up was similar to every other bus I’d ever been in before when I’d visited him on tour.
“Yeah. We’ve been sharing since gas prices started making my ass bleed,” he explained.
“Are you sure the ass bleeding isn’t from too much anal with Mason?” I cracked up, poking my finger into his back.
Eli flicked me off over his shoulder as he walked a little further inside. “I’m gonna fart on your pillow and hope you get stink eye,” he muttered.
I couldn’t help but laugh as I took in the living space, or rather what would be called “home” for the next few weeks. “You’re awful.”
Turning around to smile at me in that same sneaky way he’d done our entire lives, Eli winked, which was never a good thing. Him winking was a warning of trouble to come. “Oh, my tiny, eight-pound, six-ounce baby Gaby. I’m gonna show you awful.”