Piece of the puzzle 2: His fans
Thea does not question her sanity anymore. She was clearly insane to think that coming to his city would ever be a good idea. And how on Earth did she not see that coming when Mark advertised her reading?
The air is heavy around her, making it harder to breathe; and the sea of faces around her gets things out of focus. A thrill spikes in her bones and she shivers. This is not the time. Not the time at all. The outside war she can deal with. Eventually. But this new development, growing inside her chest, crawling inside her soul, darkening her mind is not something she can deal with. Bitter tears fill up her eyes, and she blinks faster, trying to keep them down.
Breathe in for four, hold for seven…
She curses under her already raspy breath, swallowing hard, finding the throat closing in, little wisps of air choking her.
She stands up and, using the movement of the crowd towards the stage, exits through the service door, leading backstage and to the stairs. Here is the old part of the library, the one with the original shelves and musty smell, the one with creaky floors, the one which now is kept private to Mark and Marie. The noises coming from the hall are muffled through the double doors, but still loud, too loud for her to calm down.
His fans are wild tonight, she thinks. His fans are always wild, another heavy thought comes, whisking the first one away.
The air is hot as if someone forgot to open the furnace door, and all the heat is trapped around her. Wiping her forehead, she finds it damp with cold sweat, her body’s reaction to the night’s events.
Breathe in for four…
For how long is she supposed to hold it?
Thea closes her eyes and grabs the rail before using her other hand to clap around her heart, willing it to go slower. To her dismay, her own body is not listening and goes even deeper into despair’s black hole.
In the concert hall, the ovations are loud, almost as loud as the heart-beat drumming in her ears. The new wave of pain kneels her, and she lets go of the bannister to clap her chest with both hands.
Is this what a heart attack feels like? She is too young to have one! Is she though? Recent studies show a decrease of the age for coronary heart diseases, so perhaps she is one good candidate. Maybe she should have been more active, keep up with the yoga classes and with her running group, not hide behind her writing. Maybe she should have been eating healthier and skipped a coffee or two… Recent studies have linked coffee consumption to coronary diseases. But was it a good connection or a bad one? She cannot remember. Although she should. She had researched it for her future novel. Why can’t she remember?
This is not a heart attack. Is something else, something that has been looming over her head ever since she booked her trip to New York. Ever since she opened the webpage of the airline and typed in her destination.
This was a bad idea. A bad idea!
“A terrible idea, Thea…”
Her voice is unrecognizable; rasp and harsh, as the leaves sound in autumn when they fall from the trees.
Whatever it is, it is killing her and, by the time the concert will be over and her friends will look for her, it will be too late. She wants to shout; she wants to grab her phone, but her hands refuse to let go of her heart, and she is clasping her chest tighter and tighter as if to lower the noise of her heart. To no avail. A gasp escapes her dried up lips, and she closes her eyes.
That was not her voice, she may one day not recognize her voice, but that? That is the sound of her dreams, of her nightmares altogether.
She feels a pair of sturdy arms grabbing her, making her wince.
“Look at me.”
Such simple instructions, such little words. She knows she has to open her eyes, but she finds herself incapable of movement.
Ah, the way he whispers her name! There is so much power in a name. Such a deep connection between the lips of the speaker and the ears of the listener that intertwines their souls.
“Hayden, Thea, oh my God!”
That is yet another voice Thea can recognize, not as powerful as the first one, but powerful enough.
“Come one, open your eyes and look at me.”
Hayden’s voice booms again in her ears and she can feel his warm breath on her cheek. His smell is clouding her senses even more, in a comforting way.
“You’re having an anxiety attack. Please look at me.”
His hands are cold and she can feel the indentation of the guitar’s chords on his fingers, and that small detail – so real, so raw, and tied to such strong emotion – makes Thea open her eyes. In front of her, kneeling down to her level, she finds him. His familiar look, that frown on his usually serene face, his lips, his dark blue eyes…
“Good, good. Now, breathe in with me. In for four, one-two-three-four… Come on. Do it with me. One-two-three-four. Good, now keep it for seven, and out with it for eight. Excellent. Again.”
As Thea seems to find her breath again, her mind remembers the other times when he brought her back to reality – to him mostly – with his words and small caresses. Tears well up again, and she shakes her head, closing her eyes.
A growl escapes Hayden’s throat and she can almost see in her mind the way his body tenses. When he grabs her arms, pulling her in, she knows he is not going to let her drown again into the darkness.
“You should know better than to run and hide when you’re having an attack.”
“Shut up, Hayden!”
Marie’s voice makes Thea want to rise and hug her, but he holds her arms still and he will not let go easily. By the look on his face, not this time, no.
The concert hall’s doors open again and a loud cheer fills the room. Hayden’s hold gets possessive and without a sound he stands up, pulling Thea with him as if she is weightless as a feather. The commotion makes her friends round around them and she remembers the KOL concert in the desert, where… Hayden’s perfume is confusing her mind by bringing back memories she had buried for so long, and which are more than eager to resurface once more.
She hears him sigh and knows it is the end of their moment. And, no sooner than she thinks it, he lets go of her arms and turns his back on her. Marie appears at her side, Mark on the other, both worried, as if they are scared she will vanish into thin air. She hated that worried look, copied and pasted on both their faces, she hated that look. Hayden never had it. He had been worried, he had been tense, but not for a moment had he been scared. Thea shakes her head of her unkind thoughts. She cannot expect all people to be Hayden. One in their world is enough. Perhaps not for the group of ladies that just came in with, but for her, one Hayden is more than she wants to have to deal with.
Irwing, the band’s manager, a guy in his fifties comes along, takes one good look at her and turns to Hayden with all the accusations in his stare. To the man’s utter despisement, Hayden does not move from Thea’s proximity, only gets closer.
“Hayden, that was a magnificent show, my boy!” says the newcomer, clasping his shoulder, even if he has to adjust his stance to reach it. “Magnificent! What a treat! And what a PR stunt you pulled! The media is in an uproar! Our sales are up by 5% from an hour ago! Your album will reach the sky, it will be phenomenal!”
“Yes, Hayden,” says one girl, touching his arm, “it was absolutely breathtaking. I have never seen a show of yours so… electric! You always manage to surprise us, to enchant us..”
Hayden releases his shoulder from Irwing’s grasp and his arm from the unrequited attention and steps sideways to check on Thea. To his delight, colour has returned to her cheeks and her breath is regular and deep now. Seeing that, his own breath comes back to normal, and he finds it in himself to smile at the groupies. He nods and shakes hands with them. But when Irwing pushes for photos, he shakes his head. His fans are wild tonight and he is totally unsympathetic.
“I’m not in the mood for selfies,” he growls.
“Ladies, ladies!!” Pete – the band’s bass player – comes in between an enraged Hayden and the girls, a huge smile on his face, and poses for the cameras. “How are you doing this fine night? Happy New Year!!”
“Could we get a group photo?” insists Irwing, pushing Hayden from Thea’s side. “Come on, Hayden, my boy, you made history tonight.”
“Yes, Hayden, please… And is there an afterparty to go to?” begs a doe-eyed beauty, grabbing his arm. On the other hand, the CD with the flames shines bright.
Thea knows that CD. She bought it the day it came out, she listened to it incessantly for the whole week. That damn CD is the main reason she is in this predicament, the reason she flew over the pond to check on them all. His hurt is well written, well sung, well-drawn on that album. From the first song, Burning Hot/Deep Crimson Day, she felt his anger. The next songs were tinged with agony. But on top of it all, sits his rage. No complaints, no sorrow, no melancholy. Pure rage.
She remembers being in her London apartment, on the Thames’ shores, watching the sunset and listening to his album on repeat. It felt painful. It felt raw. It was so good, the entire world shook. And it got Hayden another tour proposal and a few more movie deals.
The giggles of the girls make Thea snap back to the present moment. Her heart feels heavy somehow as if the universe is leaning on it. Hayden is all smiles and flirts, so the ladies are in seventh heaven. Marie grumbles behind her, and Thea struggles to tune her out. She cannot deal with her friend’s mean words. After all, Hayden is free to do whatever. Isn’t he?
When Jake, the last band member, comes in, another wave of fans follow-through, making Mark chastise himself for not considering a bigger security detail for that night. But then again, he never knew the heights of trouble that night would bring. Take Back Friday’s fans are all over the place. Only seeing Jonathan appear, ends his worrying. Hayden did not come alone. His own bodyguards are there and Mark can rest assured they cleared the exits. That way he can go back to the stage to continue the Open-mic night if the other singers will still be up to and for them to retreat to safety.
“Go,” says Marie, knowing his thoughts. “I’ll take Thea up; Hayden can fend for himself.”
Thea hears Hayden snicker and feels the tension building between her friends again; making her wish she were somewhere else.
“Wait,” Hayden says to Thea. “You were here first, perhaps you want a photo to commemorate this day too. Maybe you’ll put it on that website of yours… it will attract readers.”
Thea feels shrinking at his snide, but when the girls question who she is, she feels the need to run. And fast.
“Oh, she is Thea Ha–”, says Hayden, but stops himself short when his manager clears his throat. “Thea Hazel Marlow, a big fan! She’s the author of the Ancient Order, You know, the one based on the Arthurian legends… You read it? It is, after all, a best seller…”
“No,” says one of the girls looking down on Thea, as if she just saw her there. “I only read non-fiction.”
“Well, you should,” says Marie. “You’re missing out. And, as Miss Marlow’s PR, she does not have time for photos and signings anymore. But she invites you to grab a copy of her books from downstairs if there’s any left, and she promises to have it signed for you, Mr Hastings; for you and for your adoring fangirls, of course.”
While Marie pushes her up the stairs, Thea catches a smile from Jonathan, the head of Hayden’s security team, and she feels a pang in her heart. Jonathan always cared for her, always kept her safe and delivered her to Hayden in one piece. Jonathan was in charge of her security, and she knows Hayden gave him hell for what happened that day. She smiles back apologetically, but Jonathan waves her worries away. He does not hold grudges; he is too kind and too lovely to do it, despite his profession.
“Hayden, would you sign my CD?”
“Please sign my t-shirt,” says another, while Thea takes another step, to the attic, with Marie on her tail.
“Jake, could we take a selfie with you and Hayden?”
“Yes, yes!! Can we do it?”
“You’re the best, Hayden!!”
The chorus of fans’ requests and enchanted gasps follow them up to the living room. Marie closes the door and puts her back to it, as if trying to keep it all down, away from her.
“I haven’t seen Hayden in a year! Not since that night. I avoided him like the plague. I should have known he would pull such a shitty trick on all of us… Oh, and those girls… ah, that, that is everything I hate in this business. And yes, I am a big fan of many bands and authors and people, but really? Grabbing and pushing and batting eyelashes? Come on… ”
Thea sits on a chair, hands in her hair. She knew they were not speaking to one another, but she did not know the depth of their grudge. Not until that moment. She also knows Marie’s annoyance with the groupies. They have looked down on her well before she married Mark.
“Are you okay? Can I get you anything?”
“No, please, sit down. Get away from the door, Marie… he will not come upstairs. And even if he will, you cannot shoulder that door all night.”
Marie giggles, hearing her. She knows Thea is right, and she knows her actions are ridiculous, but her anger hurts. She does not understand, although, how Thea is not livid after all that. Calling her a fan… She sits on the sofa, her skirt riding up to her knees. Pulling a pillow to her chest, Marie closes her eyes and whispers:
“I am sorry.”
Thea growls. “You’re not to blame. He is not to blame! Nobody is to blame but me.”
“Now, come on… If he wouldn’t be this… this…. This ridiculously stubborn, all our lives would be waaaay better.”
Thea frowns. She knows he is stubborn. She knows he is proud. She knows all his flaws, and he knows hers. But seeing him on that stage, up there… singing his heart out, for a fleeting moment she forgot it all and got lost in the what-ifs. And that hurt like hell.
“And this new album of his… Oh, yes, it is his. He wrote every single song in there, he composed the music, it could have been Hayden Hasting’s successful, out-of-the-charts solo album, if he would have wanted it. And, mind me, he did not do it out of magnanimity, but out of wanting to control the band. Mr Stubborn Man himself wanted to drag all of us in this deep pit of angst and terror, he is in. To stay in control. To have us all in this war of his…”
The doors open and Hayden, Mark, Pete, Jake, and Jonathan all come in. No groupies, though.
“By all means, lovely Marie, don’t stop on my account. Go on…”
Marie scowls and turns her face to the window, ignoring his presence. Thea tenses and sits up straight in her chair, suddenly aware of her entire composure. When she was in high school, she had a teacher who demanded they all sit up straight and act ladylike, and that same feeling she gets now. She knows she is being watched by all those pairs of eyes, and she feels heat coming to her cheeks.
“You were saying something about the band’s new album, right? An overnight success, if I remember correctly. The third one in a row, but this one has something special in it, doesn’t it? Is autobiographical, right? It contains Hayden Acker Hasting’s own war… Come on, Marie, you were never one to run away from a fight.”
“I have no interest in fighting with you, Hayden.”
Thea’s request is a whisper but has the impact of a hurricane. Hayden stops dead in his tracks and turns to face her.
Well, that was a mistake, thinks Thea, feeling herself shrink.
He corners her. His body is right in her face, obscuring the others. A smile is plastered on his face, one of those grins she has learned to hate, a raw and joyless smile that transforms his face into a mask.
“Please what, Thea? Enlighten me… Please?”
“I know you’re hurt–”
“Really? How so? Have you asked me? Have you answered any of my calls? Letters? Email? How so?”
Thea is on the verge of tears again. She lifts her face to see him, to draw energy from his rage, but his face is depleted. His body is solid as a rock, his face hidden under a mask, there is nothing but darkness. Nothing to feed her anger, but everything to scare her into silence again.
“I’ve listened to it, Hayden.”
Saying his name hurt. She did not know it could hurt like that. Yes, names had powerful magic. He bent under its weight; she got goosebumps.
“And you liked it? Thank you for buying it. Fans like you make it all, all of it, the pain, the solitude, the burn and the misery, all worth it.”
That sarcasm draws Mark out of his stupor, and Thea sees him coming closer.
“Do you want a photo with us? I promise to smile…”
“Hayden, that’s enough!”
“No, actually it is not. I am just starting.” Hayden pivots to see his friends, and somehow he reduces them to silence with the look on his face. He hates that he has this power over them, but today he will use it.”
“I will go,” says Thea while getting up.
“That’s new….” Hayden says facing her. “Things have changed, haven’t they? You don’t ask for your friends’ help this time…”
Jonathan scowls hearing this and Thea looks up right then, to see his face frown and darken. If possible, at that moment, she hates herself even more.
“Come on, Hayden, stop it.”
Jonathan’s plea for peace only gets Hyden riled up again. Thea can feel his anger building inside him, but for her it is too late, she does not wish to face him anymore, deep sadness subdues her whole anger. All she wants right now is to go back to the hotel, pick up her things and leave for the airport.
“I should have fired you that night. I should have fired all of you that night.”
“Hayden, back off, and leave Thea alone.”
“You back off, Jake!” barks Hayden. “She’s more than capable of speaking her own mind. She does not need you to become Prince Charming and save her.”
“No, for that role she has you, right, H.? You’re the only Prince Charming allowed in Thea’s life… Is that right?”
Turning to Jake again, Hayden hears Thea say:
“I’m so sorry, guys, for all this. I’m going. Please forgive me. This was a mistake.”
Blocking her exit, Hayden says:
“You’re not going anywhere until Jonathan clears the groupies from outside. They’re quite wild tonight.
“They’ve always been wild, Hayden! That was one of the problems.”
Marie’s input only brings more tension to both Thea and Hayden, and memories flood both their heads at the same moment.
Hayden is the first one to shake them off.
“We’re all due for a chat, aren’t we? I think we’re long overdue… “
Thea bows her head, feeling his pain, and her heart stops when he says:
“ So, Thea, why?”