Drab, yellow light filtered in from overhead. Squinting, I fought the stir of panic that had my heart going double time as I read my older brother’s words scrawled across the letter.
Three years, Austin. Three years gone. I gave my life to you, and then I gave you the space you asked for. Now I need you. It’s time.
It wasn’t like I didn’t have it memorized. I’d read the tattered letter what seemed a thousand times. I just didn’t know if I had the strength to do anything about it.
“You about ready?”
Startled by the voice coming from behind, I sucked in a breath before I gathered myself, quickly folded up the letter, and shoved it into my back pocket.
“Yep,” I said. Turning around, I found Damian standing in the doorway to the dressing room that was nothing more than a glorified storage closet.
But hey, what’s that old saying about beggars can’t be choosers?
His grin was wide. “Good. ’Cause it’s a damned madhouse out there tonight.”
Unease rolled through me.
Seemed crazy there’d always been a part of me that’d craved it. The part of me that had hungered to be on the same stage as my brother, Sebastian, and his band Sunder. To be a part of that life. Bringing the thrashing hard rock alive for the fans who ate it up. Giving them an outlet and a voice.
But I knew I could never really fit into that world or fill those kind of shoes.
It’d been nothing but foolish…stupid to even entertain the idea of being a part of something so big. Of something so important.
God knew, I wasn’t even close to being worthy.
Still, I couldn’t kick the need that pooled in my belly, begging for that extreme high I would never get enough of.
It was better than any drug or vice.
The innate need to play and the rush I felt when I gave into the urge.
So I’d settled on these small venues where it was safe and far from the limelight and fame of my brother’s world.
But the longer I played here, each week the crowd seemed to grow.
“Dude…don’t look so freaked out. A crowd is a good thing. You do realize that’s what the whole performing thing is all about, don’t you?”
Asshole had the balls to throw his fingers up and air quote thing.
I huffed a response.
His grin widened as he cupped both his hands on the outside edges of the doorframe, letting the wood support him as he rocked back on his heels, just as casual as could be. “Cory’s wrapping up his last song then you’re on.”
Playing at The Lighthouse really wasn’t all that bad of a gig. It provided enough money to get me by, since I sure as shit wouldn’t accept any more money from my brother.
I’d stopped letting him take care of me the moment I walked out his door three years ago.
But more than that was the thrill of stepping out on that tiny stage. The freedom I found in the song.
And if I was being honest? Maybe…maybe some part of the name reminded me of her. A beacon casting its light on murky, dangerous waters. Calling the lost from the storm.
“All right, then. Let me grab my stuff.”
I went for the old acoustic guitar set in its case and carefully lifted it from the maroon felt. The grainy, worn wood felt like relief in my hands.
It had been my fifteenth birthday present from Sebastian, or Baz like everyone called him. He’d told me music was in my blood. That it bound us together in some way. And no matter how fucking far I’d run from it, I knew he was right.
That he and I were somehow bound.
Just the same as I was bound to the sea.
Damian lifted his chin. “You in for Saturday?”
I shot him a frown as a reply.
“Come on, man. Quit being a goddamned buzzkill. You could at least come with me this one time. I mean, it’s no Hawaii, but the waves around here are killer. Fucking cold as shit, but you can take it.”
Humorless laughter slipped out beneath my breath. “What makes you think anything has changed? Told you before, I’m not interested.”
He shook his head. “That’s what makes no sense. You’ve been up and down the coast, hugging the ocean the whole damned time because you refuse to go anywhere else, and I’d put down bets you haven’t even dipped your big toe in the water. Not once. You scared or something?” He asked it with a sly grin and a taunt, like that could get me to change my mind.
The word didn’t come close to describing what the thought of getting in the ocean did to me, the confused torment that would forever keep me attracted and repelled.
I shrugged like it didn’t matter when it mattered more than anything. Like he hadn’t just scraped right across a wound so raw it would never heal.
“I’m just not interested.”
I kept it as vague as I could, refusing to get into some heart-to-heart with Damian Rodriguez. Not because I didn’t trust him. But because there wasn’t a soul in the world who could truly understand. Not one who would get why I was compelled to stand at the ocean’s feet, bound to it like a prisoner.
Just the same as I was forbidden from it like a castaway.
The only soul who could was gone.
Guilt threatened to rise like the blackest storm. Sent to swallow and devour.
Clenching my jaw, I beat it down.
Since I’d left L.A., I’d gotten pretty good at it.
Pounding it back.
Pretending I wasn’t consumed by the memories of what I’d done. By what I’d destroyed. By every fucked-up mistake I’d made since.
God knew, there were too many to count.
You’d think I’d learn. That I’d figure out a way to stop ruining all the good things I was given.
That hollowed-out vacancy in my chest throbbed like a bitch.
You had to wonder how many holes could be torn into your spirit, gouged into your heart, until there weren’t any pieces left to hold you together anymore.
Damian groaned, but with zero frustration behind it. Instead it was packed with a load of careless ease.
Not a care in the damned world.
If I didn’t like the guy so much, it would drive me straight out of my mind.
“For real, man, it’s a good thing that brooding shit looks so good on you, or I’d call you hopeless. Hell, I bet it’s just an act. Everywhere we go, the girls go crawling all over you. Think you’ve perfected tall, dark, and mysterious. I’m about to start asking for pointers.”
With a forced, teasing grin, I glanced his way. “Hey, I can’t help it if the ladies love me.”
“Totally unfair. You just sit back, not saying a word, and they start orbiting like you’re the goddamned sun or some shit. While I’m over here working my ass off to get one to look my way.”
I stifled a scoff.
More like a black hole.
Just because I was a loner didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy a little company every now and then.
I’d purged a lot of vices from my life. That was one I wasn’t giving up.
Learned the hard way…in the long run making attachments just turned around and bit you in the ass.
Or you just destroyed them yourself.
You crushed the flickers of joy because you couldn’t be trusted to keep them safe.
To keep her safe.
Because you were a failure and all your good intentions turned to shit.
So you just slid through life pretending you didn’t hurt and miss and wish you could go back to the beginning. Make it right. All the while knowing you’d probably turn around and fuck it all up again, anyway.
Damian rapped his knuckles on the outside wall. “‘Do me a favor and think about Saturday at least, all right? You’re going to turn into a vampire or something equally as scary if you keep wasting around in this dive night after night.”
He started to head down the hall, then paused and poked his head back in. “Oh, dude, almost forgot to tell you. My cousin’s place in San Francisco is totally chill for you to come out and play next month. August 14th. It’s pretty kickass. Good money. You game?”
I did my best not to cringe at the question. Did my best to ignore the way the letter folded up in my back pocket suddenly felt like it weighed a million pounds.
Three years since I’d seen my brother’s face. Three years since I’d seen the guys in the band.
So much had changed in their lives since I’d left.
And God, I wanted to be different, too, but I was a whole lot of the same. I mean, that’s what this whole journey had been about.
Becoming something better.
But even though the outside had changed, there were too many moments when I didn’t feel any different than the eight-year-old boy huddled where he hid on the beach.
That was the day I’d torn my soul in two.
The same day Sebastian first lied for me.
The day he’d stepped up to take care of me because he knew I wouldn’t make it any other way.
Didn’t think anyone could understand just how damned bad I wanted to be there for him the way he needed me to be.
I just didn’t know if I had anything to give without it costing both of us more in the end.
“Don’t know,” I answered.
Damian shook his head. “They need to know, man. Can’t hold your spot forever.”
“Something might have come up.”
“Something might have come up?” He drew out the words like a question then sobered as his voice dropped low. “You know you can’t keep doing this forever.”
I scowled. “I’m not running.”
“You sure about that?”
“What about you?” I shot back. “You’re the one who just packed up on a whim and took off with a complete stranger. I could have been an axe murderer, for all you knew.”
Since I’d left L.A. three years ago, I’d been traveling up and down the shores of the Pacific Ocean. When I’d been exploring the northern coast of Washington, I’d played a few times at a small club in the town he was from. He and I had become friends, and by the time I was packing up my stuff and heading south, he’d been packing up his and insisting he was coming with me.
He grinned. “Nah…you might be a morbid son-of-a-bitch, but I’d know a killer if I saw one.” He raised his brows and fluttered his fingers in front of his face. “Spidey senses.”
But that was the thing. He didn’t really know me. Not at all.
“Besides,” he continued, “I might be along for the ride, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know exactly where I’m heading.”
“And just where is that?”
He lifted his hands out to the sides. “Somewhere badass. Some place where I won’t be stuck in a small, dead-end town. I’ll know as soon as I get there.”
If only it were that easy.
Applause echoed through the walls. He gestured with his chin. “Get your ass out there before Craig starts to wonder if his headliner has gone MIA again. Oh, and you should totally ditch the hoodie, man. Girls wanna see what’s hiding underneath.”
I resisted an eye roll as I shrugged out of the thick material I wore like a shroud, fighting off the stir of unease I felt in doing it. Hiding behind it was just so damned much easier. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.”
I slung the strap of my guitar over my shoulder and trailed Damian down the dark hall. A dark hall so much like the ones I’d spent growing up in, where I’d lived on the outskirts of my brother’s band, lost to the music and the vibe and the revelry that ruled our worlds.
The disasters we caused.
The continual trouble we found.
Now, the type of music and the places I played were a world apart, a distance that didn’t quite touch, yet I felt stitched to it all the same.
Drawn and repelled.
I guess I should have known I’d never get far.
Dimness held fast to the room. The upscale bar in Santa Cruz, California was set up with round tables in the open space out in front of the stage that took up the right side of the room, and the area was rimmed by secluded booths with a long wooden bar taking up the far left side. The entire back wall was made of glass, the accordion panes pushed to either side, opening the entire bar up to the patio area that overlooked the sea during the day.
Night had taken hold, and strands of twinkle lights were strung up on the lattice-roofed patio where they extended all the way inside. People were packed into the space, a crush of darkened silhouettes sitting beneath the counterfeit stars donned by the club ceiling.
The din of voices grew quieter as I took the stage and settled myself on a short stool. I situated my guitar on my lap and pulled the mic stand closer.
My heart sped while my spirit swelled, and I was hammered with a crushing wave of fear, regret, and some kind of agonizing joy.
The mess of it damned near made my head spin.
Because in truth? I wasn’t there for any of the people packing the space.
I was there because just like every night, this was where I felt that fragmented piece inside stretching out its fingers. Searching for all that had been lost. For that piece of me I could never reclaim.
Still, I’d spend the rest of my life chasing it.
In the distance, my ear tuned into the sound of waves crashing on the beach.
Letting my eyes drop closed, I strummed a quiet, subdued chord and pressed my mouth to the mic. On a breath, I let the words bleed free, and my voice filled the confines of the quiet club.
It seeped out into the darkness.
When I sang…I always felt so incredibly alone.
Just like I deserved.
Because this nightly tribute was nothing less than a penance.
A fucked-up retribution.
Atonement I would never earn.
Yet tonight, when normally my spirit would feel like it was detached, hovering somewhere afar, I felt grounded.
Wound up in a calmed frenzy.
Tied to a violent peace.
Shivers slithered across my skin, and my throat grew tight as I was hit by wave after wave of a severity I couldn’t shake. Something deep and compelling and just out of reach.
I struggled through the lyrics. Ones that were intensely private, yet blameless to the innocent ear.
I guess there was typically comfort in that.
I was nothing more than a stranger who sang his forgettable song. One he personally would never forget.
Could never forget.
But tonight I felt exposed.
Pried open and picked apart.
Awareness pricked at my subconscious. It grew dense. Thick. Like I was rushed with an undercurrent of energy that pounded in my ears and thundered my heart.
No longer able to fight it, my eyes flew open while I did my all to keep playing his song.
And it didn’t matter that I stared out into a dusky haze where the lights were cast low, faces lost in shadows and bodies obscured in mystery.
It was unmistakable.
The horror and pain that watched me from where she’d stumbled to standing next to one of the tall, round tables.
She clutched her stomach.
Like she could shield herself from my assault.
From my presence.
And it felt like torment and fate.
My throat finally fully locked up and the song came to a jilted end.
She exhaled a tortured breath that I swore I breathed.
Those pale blue eyes glittered in the light.