Chapter 1 - Zoe
“Good luck tomorrow, monkey.” My heart squeezes and my hand tightens around my cell phone. I know that there’s no way I can make it to my daughter’s piano recital, but it still makes me feel like a bad mother to miss it. I’m glad she can’t see the tears in my eyes right now.
“I’m not a monkey, Mom,” Audrey answers with a sigh. “And I’m not small. Could a monkey play piano?”
“Not as well as you,” I smile. “Alright come on, put your grandmother back on the phone.”
“Grandma!” Audrey yells straight into the receiver. I pull the phone away from my ear and cringe as she yells. I listen as their phone exchanges hands and smile when I hear Audrey humming in the background.
“You’ll record her recital for me?” I ask when my mother comes on the phone. My voice is trembling, and I swallow to keep it steady.
“Every minute of it, Zoe. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried. Just… disappointed. This will be the longest I’ve been away from her since she was born.”
“Don’t torture yourself,” my mother says. I can almost see her pursing her lips and shaking her head. “You daughter will be fine. She’ll be great, actually. You’ll realize she doesn’t need you at all, and it’ll make you feel happy and heartbroken at the same time. Take it from someone who knows,” she adds ruefully. “Just finish this job and come back. This contract will be sorted out in no time, and everything will be back to normal.”
As much as I want to fight it, my mother’s platitudes help. Her words are comforting and my shoulders start to relax. I nod.
As if she can see me nod from the other end of the phone, my mom speaks again. This time her voice is soft, and it sounds like a warm hug.
“And Zoe?” She asks, letting my name hang in the air.
I clear my throat. “Yeah, Mom?”
“Try and enjoy yourself. You’re a beautiful, successful single woman. You have some time for yourself now, for the first time since Mark passed. Make the most of it. We’ll be fine. Won’t we, Audrey?” She adds, slightly louder. I hear Audrey giggle in the background.
“Of course!” Comes my daughter’s voice in the distance
I smile. “Give her a big hug for me, okay?”
“I will. Now go. Go to the town bar, have a drink, and relax. I’m your mother and I still get to tell you what to do once in a while.”
I chuckle and take a deep breath. “Sounds like something I can manage.”
“Good. I love you, Zoe. This will all be over soon. Don’t worry about a thing.”
My throat tightens and I nod my head. When I speak, my voice is barely a whisper. “I love you too, Mom. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. Now go and get yourself a drink!”
I laugh and we hang up the call. I’m sitting on the edge of my hard hotel bed without moving. I stare at my phone’s blank screen and take a deep breath.
She’s right. It’s only a couple months, and I already know that Audrey will be fine. If anything, it’s me who will suffer from the separation the most. She’s busy with school and soccer and piano, with her friends and with her grandmother. She’ll hardly think about me at all.
Now me, on the other hand… That’s a different story. When Audrey’s father, my husband, died of cancer when she was two, I felt like my heart would never recover. I still don’t know if it has, and it’s been just over six years. It’s been alright to be alone, because I’ve had her. Now she’s on the other side of the country and I’m kind of freaking out.
For the hundredth time since I got to my hotel, I look at the dingy room and sigh. I try not to breathe too deeply, because the air in the room is stuffy and smells vaguely of mildew. I get up as the bedsprings squeak, avoiding my reflection in the mirror hanging on the wall. I don’t want to be reminded of how old and tired I surely look. Being a single mother with an active job will do that to a person.
I run my fingers over the file on the desk: my assignment. Or rather, my punishment, as I’ve come to see it. I knew that working for a bureaucratic entity like the government could be difficult, but I never imagined I’d get relegated to the middle of nowhere for trying to show initiative. Now I have to implement my forest fire management systems in a National Park on the opposite side of the country.
I should probably be flattered. It’s supposed to be an honor to be sent here, since governments are usually so slow to implement new programs. But the fire that happened here in Lang Creek last year shook the entire Parks community, and my boss volunteered me up as a tribute. Or ‘gave me the opportunity of a lifetime,’ as he described it.
I sigh, shaking my head. Maybe my mom is right. I just need to relax. Tomorrow I drive down to the shitty little town that I’ve been assigned to, and I’ll deal with it then. For now I just need to empty my mind and relax. If I go to the bar and grab a drink, maybe the aching loneliness inside me will go away just a little, and I won’t be worried about what my daughter is doing every minute that I’m away from her.
I swear I’ve never been a helicopter mom, but being a couple thousand miles away from your only child will do that to a person.
I slip out the door and get in the elevator. I glance in the lobby bar and keep walking. It’s dark and empty in there, with a dated decor and a slight sense of melancholy. Not what I need right now.
I’m not sure what I do need, but I head down the road towards the strip of shops and bars that I saw on the drive in. Calling it ‘downtown’ is a bit generous. Soon, I can hear music and people as I round the corner. I turn into the first bar I see.
It’s loud, and dark, and full of people. It’s exactly what I wanted. I slip through the crowd and find an empty stool at the end of the bar. It only takes a few moments before the bartender takes my order.
“Gin and soda, please,” I say, and he nods. I let my eyes drift across the room and feel my lips curl upwards. Somehow, even when I’m a grown woman, my mother still knows exactly what I need. I need noise and people and laughter and distractions, so that all the thoughts in my head will be drowned out.
The bartender drops my drink in front of me and I take my first sip with my eyes closed. As soon as the liquid hits my tongue, my eyes fly open and I put the drink down. He must have emptied half the bottle in this glass. The gin tastes fruity and fresh with that indescribable tangy aftertaste. The bartender chuckles as I stare at my glass.
“Looked like you needed it,” he grins. “First one’s on me.”
He’s an older man with a huge salt-and-pepper beard. His eyes are dark, but kind. I nod.
He grins and turns to another customer.
Maybe I do need it. I’m starting to regret not looking at myself in the mirror before leaving. If he can tell I’m stressed, I must look like a mess. I comb my fingers through my hair and wipe my fingers under my eyes, checking them for streaks of mascara. Seeing my fingers come back clean, I take a deep breath and take another sip.
My heartbeat slows down and my eyes relax. I lean my forearms on the bar and let my eyes drift across the room. Something is happening in the corner, like there’s a hum of excitement surrounding something.
I turn and see a band starting to set up on a tiny stage. It’s more like a step, with barely enough room for the two men to work alongside each other. I lean against the bar, sipping my drink and watching them set up. There are two men setting up the drums and microphones, taking guitars out and testing the sound. The bartender appears beside me and I nod to the band.
“Who are they?”
“Them?” He asks, nodding to the band. “They’re the Mad Hatters,” he replies. “Play here every second Saturday of the month. Bring the house down every time.”
I grunt in acknowledgement and turn back to the band. ‘Bringing the house down’ must have a different meaning here than in the big city. There’s someone new on the step, or the stage, or whatever you’d call it. He’s got his back to me, but something in the way he moves makes my heart jump. He’s standing tall, and his black tee-shirt is stretched across his broad back. I can see the outline of his muscles through the thin fabric. He leans over to pull a cable towards the front, and his shirt lifts up to show the waistband of his underwear.
A blush stains my cheeks.
Why am I blushing? My eyes widen as he turns towards the front, tapping on the microphone and smiling. My heart jumps as I hear his voice over the speakers. It’s smooth and deep, and his smile makes a couple girls in the crowd yelp.
“How’s everyone doing tonight?”
It’s lame and stereotypical. It’s what every rock star and wannabe rock star would say, but it still makes the heat rush towards my thighs. He smiles again and slings his guitar over his shoulder, grabbing it and sliding his fingers over the strings. He strums it once and a few more people yell out.
Then, they play. They play and sing and shout and just as the barman said, they bring the house down. I sip my drink and watch as he sings the first song. I don’t hear a word. I don’t see anything except him, I don’t hear anything except the sound of his voice.