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Till I'm Gone

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*

Maybe, Joy thought, maybe-maybe-maybe, her heart beating in arrhythmic counterpoint with the word as she made her way to the dressing room. Her progress was hampered by a steady stream of well-wishers, friends, fans and crew, a line of smiling faces she would have been thrilled to see at any other time.

At the moment, though, she was frantic to get to John Paul. His back had long since disappeared around the corner -- either people didn't put themselves in his path like they did hers, or he was better at ignoring them -- and she wanted to reach him before he left. After the shows he'd started doing that, grabbing his gig bag and slipping out, not even bothering to change.

But tonight had been a good show -- one of the best, the crowd so generous she should be able to ride the buzz for the next week. John Paul had felt it, too; she was sure. Their connection had been solid despite the strain of tour, and every time she'd chanced a look at him, he'd had that small smile on his face: a little baffled, genuinely moved.

So: maybe. Maybe she could talk to him. Maybe, when the music was working so well, there was hope they could figure out the rest.

Maybe -- but no. His bag was gone. Joy stared blankly around the room, her vision blurring as she looked for some evidence he'd ever been there. There was nothing. The room was so empty even Joy felt disappeared.

Somewhere, her phone buzzed. John Paul, she thought, hope rising from the dead even though she knew -- she knew -- there was no way he was the one texting her. But maybe. She dug through her bag but her hands weren't working very well. Nothing felt right. She couldn't find anything. Frustrated, she grabbed the bottom of her bag and dumped it, kneeling to paw through the contents spilled across the floor.

When she finally had her phone in her hands, she took a deep breath and braced for disappointment. Or at least she thought she did. She felt prepared enough. But when she looked at her phone and saw she was right -- of course it wasn't John Paul, of course -- it crushed her to the ground.

The rug felt sticky against her bare shoulder. It was gross. She should get up, but she couldn't do it. She tried to fight the tears but she couldn't do that, either. The crash had been too sudden, too devastating when she'd so recently been so hopeful, and her heart was too broken for silence. So she fumbled for her phone and set an alarm.

Three minutes, she gave herself. Three minutes to wallow in the ache of his absence, and then she would go find him.

That done, the phone slipped from her nerveless fingers. She looked around. The rug was still gross but the couch was impossibly far away, so she stayed right where she was, curled up on the dirty dressing room floor, and wept.

*

The club was not exactly a place Joy imagined she'd find John Paul: electronica loud enough to make her ears bleed, the bass shaking the walls, the only lights a rainbowed disco strobe, the mass of sweaty bodies packed in so tightly it was going to take forever to get to the bar on the other side of the room.

Once she made it, John Paul was easy enough to spot. He was the guy in a rumpled suit, slouched on a barstool looking like he was back in Alabama: no jacket, shirt untucked, sleeves rolled up, tie hanging loose. Even the sunglasses were firmly in place. Joy smiled, happy to see him, her affection undimmed no matter what else was happening or how grumpy he was, how out of place.

She pushed through the crowd to get closer, but once she reached him, she had no idea what to do. It was way too loud for a conversation, and if she were going to shout something into his ear, she wanted it to be good. Nothing came to mind.

All she could think to do was touch him. Hesitantly, she reached out and smoothed her palms across his shoulders. The muscles there were permanently knotted thanks to the guitar, but it was especially bad on tour. She dug her thumbs in where she knew he needed it, and under her hands, she felt him groan with relief and then relax into it. The reaction surprised her into wondering if this is what he'd been doing after shows: getting massages from strangers in after-hours nightclubs.

But no, there was a mirror behind the bar, and better lighting. He wasn't watching her, but he'd seen her coming. And if he hadn't turned to greet her, he hadn't pulled away, either, hadn't stiffened when she touched him, hadn't flinched from her the way he did whenever she got too close on the bus or on the stage. Maybe he'd missed this as much as she had. She worked on the knots in his shoulders until he shrugged her off, and then she wrapped her arms around his waist and dropped her forehead to his back.

JP kept drinking.

Joy lost track of how long she stood there, her arms around him, breathing in the scent of show and sweat and laundry soap, her pulse thrumming to the beat of the music. She was starting to feel better, hope rising once again, because if he was open to her touch, then maybe-- maybe. She went up on her toes. John Paul tilted his head so he could hear, and she said, "Dance with me."

She felt him laugh, almost, his stomach muscles clenching, and he dropped his head back to reply. His lips brushed her ear. "Drink with me."

Joy looked around. There were no open stools, and she was glad; she didn't want to give up the physical contact. It had been too long. So she smiled her brave-face audition smile, and climbed into his lap. He steadied her with one hand and reached out with the other, brushing his thumb over her cheekbone, sending a shock of warm relief through her body.

"You've been crying," he said, not that she could hear him, but John Paul had lips she'd always been able to read. "I'm sorry."

Are you? she thought, but that wasn't fair. He wasn't any happier than she was; he just handled it differently. Very, very differently. And disappeared instead of talking to her about it. And--

"Oh," she breathed, when he deliberately took off his sunglasses and looked at her. She laid her hand on his cheek. "You've been crying, too." His eyes were red and puffy, the pain spread across his face like a bruise. "And you're drunk."

"Workin' on it," he said, eyes on her mouth. He'd never had any more trouble reading her lips than she'd had with his. "Join me."

"Don't mind if I do." Her smile was wobbly but she threw an arm around his shoulders, settled herself more comfortably on his lap, and stole his drink. Whisky, of course, an expensive single-malt, and the dark smoke burn of it as it slid down her throat was nothing to the burn of his hand on her thigh.

"Another?" His thumb stroked up the inner seam of her jeans. She felt drunk already, melting into his arms, and she was a lightweight now, but yeah, she thought. Yeah. If they were doing this, they might as well do it. She nodded. John Paul, fluent in the international language of bartenders, managed to order another round without saying a word or dislodging her from his lap.

He held on tight, one hand climbing higher on her thigh, the other first under her sweater and then her t-shirt, fingers skimming the bare skin of her waist. Joy waited impatiently for her drink, watching his eyes change as she scraped her nails across the nape of his neck, and when the whisky came, he kissed her throat as she swallowed it.

Her empty glass hit the bar. JP looked up, bemused, but she pointed at him before he said anything. "Do not lecture me about how to drink whisky," she said, and when that one-sided grin appeared, she kissed it off his face.

His mouth opened under hers, hot, eager, hungry, and it was all she could do not to turn and straddle him, to seal their mouths together and never let go, climb inside him and obliterate all the distance there'd ever been between them. She tried to hold back, to keep herself under control -- they were in public, for one thing, but she didn't want to seem desperate, either, didn't want him to think she was only sleeping with him so he'd stick around.

John Paul wasn't concerned with any of that. He was the one who deepened the kiss with a ragged groan; whose grip was so tight she'd feel it for days; who seemed to have no concept of where they were. Fuck in the alley, he'd said before they left, and she'd snapped at him not to be crude. But God help her, if he pulled her out there now, she'd go gladly. But he only pulled her closer, kissed her harder, and she could taste how much he'd had to drink but it didn't matter. He was stiff against her thigh. She twisted in his lap, pressing against him until he gasped into her mouth.

"Get a room!" someone yelled, laughing, and maybe it was the whisky, maybe it was JP's hands, but it seemed like a pretty good idea. In a room, they might be able to talk. It wasn't the only thing they'd do, and it wouldn't be the first, but Joy had never wanted him more. A room would be better than an alley. She sank her teeth into his lower lip and dragged her mouth away, her forehead against his while they caught their breath.

When she opened her eyes, it was to find him watching her, inches away but somehow receding. Joy hated it so much she almost screamed. She couldn't climb into his lap and kiss him every time he was -- what, she didn't know. He wouldn't tell her.

"Room?" she asked him, tugging on both ends of his tie to keep him close. His only reaction was a few lazy blinks, and then he leaned around her to order another drink.

He sipped it slowly, staring at her over the rim of the glass. "Where?"

Neither of them knew the city well enough to answer that question. Joy pulled out her phone and pointed at the door. She needed to get out of this bar -- and away from John Paul -- so she could think. There must be a place nearby they could go. She'd find it, tell Nate not to wait up for them, and meet John Paul.

"I'll text you," she said. Maybe they could work this out; she felt better about their chances than she had a few hours ago, or a few days. One last kiss, and then she slid off his lap and turned toward the door.

She got all of six inches away before he grabbed her arm and spun her back around. He was pale, his eyes wild, almost frantic. "JP?"

"Joy," he said, "I--" and for one drunken second she thought he was about to tell her he loved her. His mouth went in that direction, tongue behind his front teeth, but he kissed her instead. It was gentle but no less urgent, and before she knew it, she'd buried her hands in his hair and stepped back between his legs. At this rate, they wouldn't make it to a room. They'd be lucky to make it to the alley.

This time, it was John Paul who remembered himself. "I'll see you soon," he said, his forehead to hers, his whisky on her lips. "Go on now, or I won't be able to let you."

"Let me?" She wrinkled her nose, and he kissed the tip of it.

He jerked his chin toward the door -- go -- and turned back to his drink.

Joy went.

*

The guesthouse was only a few minutes away. It wasn't the Georges V, but they only needed a few hours. She put her hands flat on the reception desk and tried to make sense of her reflection in its surface.

"No bags?" the clerk asked.

She blinked. She smiled. The clerk didn't smile back, but it was three in the morning. He was tired. Joy was drunk. "Just me," she said, spreading her hands. "And my.... when he gets here."

The guy wasn't interested. "ID?"

She blinked again. "What if I pay in cash?"

*

Upstairs, she texted John Paul with the room number and sat on edge of the bed. She stared at her phone for a long time. Her next text, to Nate, was carefully worded: I need some time with JP to work things out. She gave him the name of the guesthouse. She gave him the address. Call if you need anything, it's only a few blocks away. We'll be back for bus call.

Nate's response was succinct: k.

She never heard from JP.

*

At dawn, she trudged back to the bus, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, head bent against the freezing mist as the pressure built behind her eyes. At three-thirty she'd been confused, at four she'd been angry, and at five she'd laid herself across the bed and sobbed until the tears ran dry.

At seven she was dehydrated, exhausted, numb. Even her pregnancy hadn't worn her down like this, and this was stretched out and endless in front of her. She wasn't going to be able to crawl into her bunk and sleep all day. She had to feed Miles, do interview prep, feed Miles, get to the next venue, feed Miles, load in, soundcheck, feed Miles, change, play the show: stand next to John Paul, wrap their voices together, sing.

"Where were you?"

Nate. He was leaning against the bus with his arms crossed. She hadn't even seen him, and she didn't need to see him now to know he was angry.

She ground her fists into her eyes. "I told you," she said, her voice as dull and gray as the morning.

"You told me you were with John Paul."

"Oh." She nodded. She'd meant to be. She didn't know why she wasn't. "Yeah. I--"

"John Paul is on the bus."

She looked at the bus. She looked at Nate. "He's what?" She didn't understand.

"Been there all night. So, one more time: where were you? You know, I thought--" He pulled his hat off and twisted it in his hands, still talking.

"All night? Did he say anything?" If he was trying to force the issue with Nate, they were going to have words. She could feel the anger starting to simmer in her belly. She didn't like it, but it was better than that seeping numbness.

"What?" Nate was staring at her like they didn't know each other. "Did you hear a word I just said?"

Joy put her hands on her head and tried to breathe. "No." She lowered her hands to his chest and spoke slowly. "I'm sorry. I know you're angry, but I did not lie to you. I planned to spend the time with John Paul but he never showed up. I need to talk to him."

It didn't seem to help; Nate kept looking at her like a stranger and pushed her hands away. "At some point, you're going to need to talk to me."

"Of course," she said. "But--"

"Him first. Yeah, fine." He waved her toward the bus. "Do whatever band shit you two do that I can't possibly understand."

"Nate--"

"We leave in fifteen minutes," he called out over his shoulder, already walking away.

*

The bus was quiet. Their tour manager was still awake, sort of: he was sucking down coffee in the front lounge with his eyes closed, and he grunted something that might have been a greeting.

"John Paul?" she asked him.

He pointed. "In his bunk."

Joy took off her shoes and quietly opened the door. It was dark in there with just the running lights on, all the curtains shut tight, the air warm and stagnant. She peeled back JP's curtain, intending to wake him up and drag him into the back lounge to talk or fight or maybe even fuck, whatever they had to do to get over this. She reached for his shoulder and stopped dead.

John Paul was still in his suit, shoes and tie included. On his chest, Miles, sleeping, JP's hand splayed over his back.

Joy's body seized. She doubled over and bit down on her wrist to stifle her sobs, but there weren't any. There was nothing. All her tears had been spent back in that dingy hotel room, grieving for a loss she couldn't name while John Paul slept with her son in his arms.

She had to try four times to stand up straight.

John Paul was awake and watching her. His eyes looked like gunshot wounds. "Nate couldn't get him down," he said softly.

"Uncle JP to the rescue." She heard herself laugh. She hadn't done that in a while. It didn't feel good.

"I can't do this anymore."

She opened her mouth to protest, but again, there was nothing. He clearly couldn't, any more than she could keep trying hard enough for both of them. She nodded. She reached for Miles. She needed to feed him, and do interview prep, and feed him again, and load in, and soundcheck, and feed Miles, and play a show, standing next to John Paul.

- END -