*Before we begin, an update on Gatsby: He’s feeling better! He’s up and moving around, eating, and asking for cuddles. We’re relieved (that’s probably a massive understatement), and we’re continuing to monitor him to make sure he’s okay. Senior cat life is a roller coaster, but we love him so much and it’s worth it. Thank you to each of you who asked about him and sent good wishes and sweet comments! It made me happy knowing y’all were thinking about him, too. Now on to the story…*
Tori Davis Come Home!
The headline looked up at her from the desk. She focused on her mascara instead. One swipe, two swipes. Counting had always calmed her nerves. Three swipes, four and done. She looked down at the newspaper, and wondered who’d left it here for her.
Country’s breakout sensation returns to her roots with a night of unplugged hits at the old train station. Bristol welcomes its hometown star!
Well, that was laying it on a little thick, but generally, yes, correct. Here she was in the back office of the old train station, using someone’s desk as a makeup stand, her grandfather’s old Martin all polished up and ready to play, just for the occasion.
All she’d ever wanted to do was make music.
She put on her favorite red lipstick. Someone had told her, when she started out, that you can hide a lot of mistakes behind bright red lipstick.
From the door at her back, three solid knocks.
“Come in,” she said.
“Fifteen minutes,” said a small voice.
A shuffle of feet, a rustling of paper.
“Was there anything else?”
“Because I’m almost ready,” she added.
Tori could hear the crowd that had gathered for her, the murmurs and the chants and the claps, and the excitement. She could feel it, humming all through her. Though, it wasn’t really a crowd, was it? More like a group. A small one, less than thirty people, who’d all paid a lot of money for the opportunity to see this close-up, homecoming performance. Somehow, that made it worse.
“I don’t like to let on,” she said, “but I get terrible stage fright. Always have.” She brushed some light, white glitter just above her cheekbones. “So I like to have a couple of minutes before the show just to myself.”
“I’m sorry,” said the voice.
Tori turned around in her chair and saw a girl, maybe about twenty, with a clipboard in her trembling hands and a STAFF badge around her neck. Her knuckles were white. Poor kid. Almost as nervous as she was.
“Don’t be,” Tori said. “Did you want an autograph? I think we have time for that.”
“No,” said the girl. “Well, sure.” And then she added, at about a mile a minute, “I really just wanted to say that you’re my biggest inspiration.” She reached one hand up to fiddle with a strand of hair at her shoulders. “I love your music.” She stepped back toward the door. “Sorry. They told me not to bother you.”
“What’s you name?” Tori smiled at her, and the girl’s shoulders relaxed.
“Amber,” she answered.
“Amber,” Tori repeated. “My best friend growing up had a little sister named Amber.”
The girl’s eyes were big as saucers. Lord, where had that phrase come from, anyway? You couldn’t write that into a song. People would laugh you off the stage.
“Okay, Amber. Come on over here and I’ll sign your badge.”
Amber walked over and took off the lanyard hanging around her neck. Tori signed the paper badge with a blue pen she pulled out of the desk drawer, her own hands shaking. She hoped Amber wouldn’t notice. And so of course Amber did.
“Your hands are shaking,” she said.
“I know,” Tori answered. “Like I said, I get stage fright. I’m always a wreck before I go on.”
“But you’re famous,” Amber said.
“I’m still me.”
Tori remembered, then, how it all started. Community theatre in elementary school, karaoke when she was a teenager, always imitating someone else’s voice.
“I always wanted to sing ‘Strawberry Wine’ when I was younger,” Tori said. “You know that song?”
Amber nodded her head. Tori handed her badge back.
“My mom said that song was too old for me. I put it in every show now.” Tori smiled like the cat who ate the canary, and then winked.
Amber giggled. “I love that song,” she said.
“Me, too,” said Tori. “I like to sing it now, because it reminds me of where I started.”
“Here,” Amber said.
“Well, yeah,” Tori told her, “but not just here, in Bristol.”
Amber raised her eyebrows.
“Here, as me,” Tori said. “As just some girl who liked to sing. I’m still just some girl who likes to sing. They pay me a lot more for it now, though. And if I mess up, I let a lot more people down.”
“You could never let your fans down,” Amber said, quickly and tightly. “We love you.”
Oh, God, that made it a lot worse. Tori swallowed and fought a wave of nausea in her belly. Good grief, there was another one. Who came up with that? Couldn’t put that in a song.
“Have you ever disappointed your mom, Amber?”
“Plenty of times,” Amber replied.
“And did it feel good?”
“No,” Amber answered.
“It felt bad, right? Like, really, really bad? And you thought about it for a long time?”
“Yeah,” Amber said.
“Because you love her.”
“Yeah,” Amber said again.
“And you don’t want to let her down.”
Amber nodded, one solid motion this time.
“That’s how I feel about music,” Tori finished.
Amber stared at her for a moment, and then said, “Music?”
Tori sighed. “Yes, music. I love my fans, but it’s the music that keeps me in this. All I’ve ever wanted was the music.”
She looked at Amber for any signs of understanding, of recognition.
“And I’m terrified every time I go on stage that it’ll be the last one. That I’ll mess up big, and that I’ll never be able to do it again.”
“But you don’t,” Amber insisted. “You don’t, ever.”
Goodness, she was loyal. Tori hated to tell her, “Sure I do. All the time. I even had to go to the emergency room once, before a show. I had a panic attack.”
Amber gasped, just a little, the tiniest intake of air, but Tori heard it.
She added, “People mess up, even at the things they do the best. That’s life.” And then she asked, “How long now?”
Amber looked confused, and then frantic. “Oh my God, I’ve taken up all this time, and they told me not to bother you! I’m so sorry!”
“It’s fine,” Tori said. “It’s really fine.” If she’d been better at this, she might have given Amber a hug. “Just tell me how long now.”
Amber looked at her watch, clearly miserable. “Five minutes.”
“Okay, five minutes. I can work with that.” When Amber didn’t move, Tori added, “Thanks for chatting with me.”
Amber still didn’t move.
“Was there something else?”
“How do you do it?” Amber looked down at her clipboard again. “If it scares you so much, how did you even get started?”
Tori thought for a moment, and then said, “I didn’t have a choice.”
“I don’t understand,” Amber said.
“You don’t choose your family, right? And wherever you’re from, that’s home.”
Something flickered in Amber’s eyes. Good. Finally.
“Music is my family, it’s my home. Nothing else in the world. Just music.”
Amber pursed her lips together, knitted her brow, and said, “I think I understand that.”
“Good,” Tori said. “Now, get going,” she added, not unkindly. “And come and get me at thirty seconds.”
Amber nodded again, another quick, decisive motion, and said, “Thank you, Miss Davis.” And then she left, and closed the door softly behind her.
Finally alone, Tori took three deep breaths. Ten seconds in, ten seconds out. She looked at herself in the mirror, did one more pass of the red lipstick. She looked down at the newspaper again, at the big picture of the famous Bristol arch, placed right beside a picture of her famous face.
And then she got up, straightened her skirt, and slung her grandfather’s old guitar over her shoulder. They were waiting for her. From the door to the office, three knocks.
Home was waiting for her.
Thank you for reading! This is the ninth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.
Here are the first eight stories, if you’d like to read them:
Talk Out the Fire
Jesse’s in the Back Room
Just Like Magic
And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!
The next story will be posted at the end of October.