The war raged and ravaged and tore at the outside world for a year before the draft. The whole country watched grainy news footage of dusty, decimated cityscapes and bleeding, wide-eyed children waiting for treatment in makeshift hospitals. It all felt very far away, before the draft. After, no one could run far or fast enough. The draft would catch up with you eventually, if you were a healthy young man without connections.
Nick Keene had been running his whole life, and he was an expert. He’d started the day his mama killed his daddy in their kitchen. In the high heat of a Deep South summer, Nick had watched the whole thing, had seen his mother plant a knife deep in his father’s potbelly, had seen his father drop, bleed, and close his eyes a final time.
“Nicky,” his mama had implored him, wringing her bloody hands around a ratty dishtowel. “Nicky baby, you gotta say you did it.” She stepped over his daddy’s body, not even cold. She put those stained, raw hands on his shoulders. “You tell’em you did it. Ain’t nobody gonna put a baby on death row. You love me, don’tchu baby?”
He did, in the deep, whole, unconditional way that only children can love, but he ran. He ran and ran until he reached the next state, and then he kept going. He missed his parents, his life, his home, but he never looked back. He was twelve years old, and he’d been running ever since.
Nick Keene became Nick Keys, shirking the weight of a family name and a desperate guilt he couldn’t bear to carry. A string of low-paying jobs took him all across the country, but hard luck followed him everywhere. He fell out with a girl in Omaha after she lost their baby, crashed a car working as a chauffeur in Los Angeles, lost all his money teaming up with a card counter at the tables in Atlantic City, broke a toe on the docks in New Orleans. Whether it was something big or something tiny, Nick couldn’t catch a break.
Things had started to change in Kentucky. At twenty-one, Nick made his money playing music with another runaway. Tommy Flint was the best guitarist Nick had ever seen, and he often wondered why Tommy had never been discovered, especially considering that Tommy’s ex-partner, Rocky Rush, had. Rocky’s music topped charts all over the world. Nick was jealous, and knew Tommy must feel the same, but together, he and Tommy had styled themselves Flint and Key, and they were pretty good.
They hitchhiked when they had to, and took night buses when they could. They’d stay a little while in a town and then move on. Nick didn’t know what Tommy was running from, and Tommy didn’t ask about Nick’s past, and between the two of them, they had enough suffering and fear and bad luck to write ten albums worth of songs. Good songs, songs that made money and got people talking. Nick figured it was only a matter of time before the right person heard the right one, and they’d be set up for the rest of their lives.
On the night Nick got his draft notice, they sat across from each other in an almost empty diner after a bar gig, splitting a Hot Brown and cold pie over steaming cups of dark black coffee.
“What’ll you do?” Tommy asked.
“Shit,” Nick replied, and took another bite of pie. “Shit,” he said again. The white lights overhead suddenly felt too bright, and Nick rubbed his eyes with the calloused fingers of one hand while he considered. “I have to go see my mama,” he finally said.
“I didn’t know you had one,” Tommy retorted, in a mild attempt to lighten Nick’s mood and the terrible enormity of the situation. They both knew the draft was a death sentence.
“I didn’t come from nothing,” Nick said, and put three dollars down on the table. “Everybody has a mother.” He got up from the vinyl booth, heaved his guitar case over his shoulder, and walked out, leaving Tommy behind him.
“Now, wait,” he heard Tommy plead, shocked and distressed in a way that warmed his frightened heart. “Don’t go off alone.”
Nick just kept walking. He heard the door jingle as it closed behind him. He’d never been good at goodbyes.
It took three weeks to make his way home. When he got there, robbed of his guitar at a bus station in Tennessee and sick from hunger, Nick found his mother in the graveyard, six stones down from a tall magnolia tree. He found his father, too, not far away, but he lingered by his mother’s plot, scooping the creeping weeds away with the toe of his scuffed brown boot. He leaned over and ran his fingers along the carved letters of her name, Judith Keene. She’d only been gone for a month. He’d only just missed her. She’d never tried to find him, and he’d never come back to her, not in nine years. He’d never even written her a letter.
Nick walked from the cemetery to the house where he grew up. He stood on the sidewalk, just out of the glow of the one leaning streetlight, and stared at the final ruin of his childhood. The bungalow sat empty and dark, covered in an impenetrable curtain of thick kudzu.
“You’re Nick Keene,” someone said from behind him.
Nick turned, but didn’t step into the light. “What do you know about Nick Keene?” he asked.
A woman took a step towards him, coming into the halo of bright yellow light, and smiled. She was a knockout. Bright auburn hair, ivory pale skin, dressed in a dark blue cocktail dress.
“I know you’re him,” she answered, “and I know you’re hungry. Come on with me and we’ll get you a sandwich and something to drink.”
She turned and started walking, and Nick followed. He was hungry, and she was offering.
“Who are you?” He caught up with her, looked at her delicate profile, and realized she couldn’t be much older than he was.
“I was a friend of Judy’s” she said.
“You knew my mother?” Nick couldn’t recall that his mother ever had close friends, or any friends at all.
“I did her a favor once.”
“What kind of favor?”
The woman didn’t answer. Nick wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.
“Where are we going?” he asked instead.
“My place,” the woman answered. “Everything else is closed.”
“Why’re you helping me?”
“Well,” the woman stopped, “the way I see it, you have no past, not anymore. And if you’re back here, that probably means you don’t have much of a future, either.” She looked him right in the eyes, and held his gaze. “You get drafted?”
Nick looked down at the pavement. “Yeah,” he answered. “I wanted to see my mama one last time. I wanted to make things right.”
“Then the least I can do is feed you,” the woman said, and started moving again.
Nick followed, and lost track of time in the humid night air. He thought they might have gone about a mile, into what was left of downtown with half of its boys away at war, when she walked around the corner of the bank and unlocked a side door.
“Here we are,” she said.
He followed her up a set of narrow stairs and into a large apartment.
“How long’s this been here?” Nick looked around him, at the expensive furniture and the tall windows. “I don’t remember this being here when I was a kid.”
“Sit down,” the woman said, and motioned to a leather armchair in the corner. “I’ll only be a minute.” She walked towards what Nick assumed was the kitchen, and turned the radio on before stepping out of site.
Rocky Rush’s caramel voice flooded the space around him. Nick wondered what his life would be like, if he’d been discovered like Rocky, flown off to Hollywood or New York to record music and become famous and live secure and safe for the rest of his life. All it would have taken was one moment, one right moment in front of the right person.
“Lucky bastard,” Nick grunted.
The woman came back with a plate of club sandwiches and a rocks glass full of something brown and syrupy. “That’s what you want, then,” she said, “to be up on stage, to be a star.”
Nick considered. He took a bite of food, and a swig of what turned out to be good whiskey. His throat felt warm. “I want enough money to live in a place for more than a few weeks. I want a job that won’t end when the project’s done.” His voice started to quiver. “I don’t want to go and fight and die in a country I don’t care about.”
“Your mama didn’t want to die, either,” the woman said. “She told me so herself. Said she’d do anything to stay free and alive. She missed you, though, towards the end.”
Nick realized he’d finished the whiskey. The woman took it and poured him another, standing over him after handing him the glass, swaying lightly to the rhythm of Rocky’s minor key love song.
“Do you play music?”
“I did,” Nick said. He told her about Tommy, and their time together and their songs. “But somebody swiped my guitar outside of Memphis,” he finished.
“That’s too bad,” the woman said. “Luck’s a funny thing, isn’t it?” She sat down beside him, nestled herself right against his shoulder. “I bet you’re every bit as good as Rocky Rush. I bet he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Nick said. He’d finished the second glass by now, and felt himself getting tired. He felt tired all the way to his bones. He leaned his head back. The woman snuggled in closer. He could feel the silk of her hair against the skin of his neck. “Lucky son of a bitch.” Nick closed his eyes and sighed.
“You want it, don’t you? Just a little bit of his luck.”
Nick didn’t reply.
“To be a star?”
“I do,” Nick said quietly.
“I thought so,” the woman said, and kissed him lightly on the lips just as he drifted off to sleep.
Nick woke up alone, with a painful hangover and a heavy ball of dread and fear in the pit of his stomach, and no memory of how he’d come to be in the empty attic above the bank. He remembered, though, that he was going to war, and that his mother was dead. He had no past, and his future was a pine box six feet under the cold ground. He stood up and made his way down the stairs and into the bright sunlight, each step taking him closer and closer to what he knew would be the end.
The closest military induction center was four towns over. Nick walked in and gave his name at a small desk in the front.
“Nicholas Keene,” Nick replied, and gave his birth date as he presented his draft notice.
The lanky soldier behind the desk looked through every piece of paper in sight, and then said, “Hang on just a minute, a’right?”
Nick waited. The soldier came back empty-handed, and told him there must have been a mistake, and that he was free to go.
Nick figured the mistake was on their side, that it would catch up with him eventually, but he went, and he used what little money he had left for a bus ticket that would take him as far away as he could go. On the bus, he sat down beside a paunchy older man in a khaki suit.
“Hey, I know you,” the man said. “You’re Nick Keys, aren’t you?”
The man reached into his pocket and presented Nick with a crisp white business card. “I caught your act in Louisville a couple of months ago,” he said.
“I know your name,” Nick said. He couldn’t believe it. “You’re with Columbia.”
“Sure am. Just down here to see some family, and then I’m heading back up to New York.”
“Oh,” Nick said. He waited, hoped, the man would say more.
“You here alone?” the man asked. “Where’s your partner? You two were dynamite together.”
“He’s still in Kentucky,” Nick answered. “I’m on my own,” he added.
“Well, that’s unfortunate,” the man said. “Are you interested in being a solo act?”
Rocky Rush died in the war a year later. That he had even been drafted surprised his many fans and broke the hearts of thousands of teenage girls. The shock of his death started a movement among young people all over the country to hold the government accountable for allowing so many young men to die in a conflict many of them didn’t even understand.
Nick played his first sold out show the night he heard the news. He wrote a song about Rocky, once he was back in his dressing room and three beers deep. It hit number one, and stayed there long enough to break a record. Nick Keys, the runaway with no home and no family, was a star.
Tommy Flint sat at the bar of a dive outside of Cincinnati, hunched over in his threadbare coat with one hand resting on his tattered black guitar case. He downed a shot of the strongest thing the bartender had on offer, and hummed the chorus of Nick’s latest hit. He laughed, low and bitter.
“That lucky son of a bitch,” he said.
“Who?” a delicate female voice answered back.
“Nick Keys,” Tommy answered, with a little less enunciation than he’d like. “He was my partner,” he finished, and held up his empty glass for a refill.
Tommy lifted his head and turned to see a striking young woman with auburn hair and ivory skin, wearing a blue cocktail dress.
“I met him once,” she said. “I did him a favor.”
“He was a good guy,” Tommy slurred. “Better than all of’m.”
“I’m sure you’re a good guy, too,” the woman said. “And I’m sure you’re just as talented as he is. He probably just ended up in the right place at the right time.”
“Mmhmm,” Tommy replied.
“Luck’s funny that way, isn’t it?”
She held up her hand to signal the bartender, and ordered a champagne cocktail. “This round’s on me,” she told Tommy. “Is that what you want, then? To be on stage? To be a star?”
Tommy downed another shot.
“Just a little bit of his luck,” the woman purred.
“I do,” Tommy answered.
The woman leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I thought so,” she told him.