The hiatus was technically over… but it didn’t feel over. Fans had gotten some content from their favorite drummer, sure, but next to nothing from the band’s lead singer. People were starting to notice that Tyler wasn’t making many appearances – had barely been see at all, in fact, since the previous era ended nearly a year before. There was a very good reason for that, of course, even if no one had guessed it. Not even the hardcore Clikkies who’d somehow discovered an entire dystopian world hidden away inside a seconds-long video clip.
Not even the person who was forced to do the interviews on his own, despite his crippling Anxiety.
Josh wasn’t mad at Tyler for dumping the interviews on him. He knew Tyler would never make him face the volley of questions alone if there weren’t a good reason – which only made Josh worry more. There was only one thing he could imagine keeping Tyler from being the band’s spokesperson.
The thought of having to sit down in front of a camera and talk about a complicated concept dreamed up inside his bandmate’s mind made Josh feel like throwing up every time those microphones came out. But even that was eclipsed by the thought of Tyler overcome by the Depression that had plagued him his entire life. When Josh pictured his best friend locked alone in a dark room, struggling to keep the life inside his body, he went cold all over.
And, because Anxiety has a 24/7 gig, Josh couldn’t help but feel just a little bit insulted that Tyler hadn’t come to him for help as he had in the past. He knew Ty had Jenna and all, so it was only natural he’d go to her first but... why hadn’t she come to Josh, if things had gotten that bad? He thought they were closer than that.
Josh was a cauldron of Anxiety, worry, frustration and hurt. A cauldron that was close to bubbling over. When he finished the final interview before the tour began, Josh called Tyler to let him know how it had gone. The call went went straight to voicemail.
“Hey, Ty, it’s me. I just wanted to...”
What was he doing? It wasn’t like Tyler was going to call him back or ask how it had gone. Even when they were together, Tyler was so far away it was like talking to a brick wall. Josh sighed and hung up.
He teetered unsteadily on the edge between absolutely certainty that Tyler had gotten tired of him and the soul-chilling fear that Tyler was sick and not getting the help he needed. Anyone would snap under that kind of pressure. Josh made it until the night before their first appearance back, a pop-up show in London.
That was when he cracked.
They were supposed to do an interview that morning with a local radio station, but Josh had gotten a text just minutes before saying Tyler wasn’t going to make it. No explanation. No apology. Just, you got this, right?
It was hard to believe it was the same person who once watched Josh intently any time he was called on to speak in public, hovering like a nervous mama hen. The same person who was once so attuned to Josh’s moods he could step in and take over the exact moment a question became too difficult? Did Tyler assume Josh had gotten over his fears?
Or, had he just stopped caring?
Stop it, Josh told himself, angry at his own neediness. This isn’t about you.
But fear and doubt weren’t that easy to argue with.
By the time he made up his mind to do something about it, Josh had convinced himself that Tyler was at crisis point and on the verge of making a permanent mistake.
...and that Tyler was just fine, except he didn’t know how to tell Josh he didn’t want the drummer around anymore.
He had to know – now, before he even considered going to the venue to do sound checks. The way Josh felt at that moment he’d bust every head he owned if he got anywhere near a drumstick. It had gone on long enough. Whatever it was, no matter how horrible the outcome, he was finding out. If Tyler was in danger, he’d save him.
And, if it was the other thing...
Well, he might still break every drum he owned.
It was surprisingly easy to get a key to Tyler’s room. Josh just went to Recption and asked for one. Any other time, the thought of confronting staff would have been enough to send Josh scurrying to a different hotel. Not this time.
He marched right up to the front desk without so much as a sideways glance at the very curious onlookers who were trying so hard to pretend they weren’t gawking at him and said, “The key to the Josephs’ suite, please.” It wasn’t a request, but Momma Dunn didn’t raise her boys to be rude.
The stuffy-looking concierge gave Josh a hard look but punched a few buttons on the screen in front of him, swiped a keycard, and handed it over without comment. Maybe the man had been ordered to give the rock stars whatever they wanted. Maybe the barely contained emotion in Josh’s eyes warned him not to argue. Josh didn’t care, either way.
He mumbled a thank you as he turned on his heel and strode purposefully toward the elevators. A pair of teens nearby whispered behind their hands. The moment it looked like they might try to join Josh in the elevator, he jabbed the button to close the doors. He’d managed to go this long without fans recording any outbursts and he planned to keep it that way – but, the way he felt at that moment, he didn’t trust himself. The doors slid shut on their disappointed expressions.
Josh tapped his foot impatiently as the elevator slowly chugged up to their floor. He’d never really cared where they slept on tours but, just this once, Josh was glad the label had gone all out, booking them the best suites in the hotel. The band had practically the whole floor to themselves, which was a small blessing since Josh was either going to scream or cry and, whichever, he didn’t want anyone listening in.
He didn’t bother knocking before he swiped the keycard and let himself in. Throwing open the door to Tyler and Jenna’s suite so hard it banged against the guard meant to protect the wall from people doing exactly that, Josh said, “I don’t care why you’ve been avoiding me-” (a big, whopping lie) “-but we’re talking about this, and we’re doing it now!”
The room was empty.
Face flaming, Josh looked around the plush living room in confusion. Where were they? Why wouldn’t they tell him they were leaving? Deflated Josh turned to leave – until he heard a muffled thump from the closed bedroom door.
“Ty?” he called out. “Jenna?”
He knocked on the door to the adjoining room. “Hello?” There was no answer, but Josh thought he could hear whispering. “Hey, if you guys are naked, tell me before I open this door...”
Nothing. Josh eased it open a crack. The bed was visible from where Josh stood. It was rumpled but unoccupied. Okay... He pushed the door back further. The room appeared empty. Josh had nearly convinced himself he’d imagined the whispers when Jenna’s voice cried out, “Tyler, no!” from the closet.
Josh was really worried then. Tyler had never – would never – do anything to incite that note of fear from another person. Especially not Jenna. Josh was halfway to the closet door when it burst open. A gold and black object flew at Josh, tackling him to the ground, making him do something then he’d never done in his life.
He let out a scream of pure terror.
The big cat raised a paw. Josh’s brain struggled to comprehend what he was seeing. The only thing he knew for certain was that the thing on top of him could kill him with a swipe of that massive paw. It’s been a great ride, Josh thought as the paw came down…
…to land gently on his mouth.
Josh opened his eyes. Staring down at him, so close its long white whiskers tickled his face, was an animal that had no place in a fancy London hotel. An animal so at odds with their surroundings Josh found himself wondering if he’d fallen asleep. If he was in the middle of some horrible stress-induced nightmare.
Jenna’s voice was his only anchor to reality – and it wasn’t as sturdy as he’d have liked. “It’s okay, Josh,” she assured him, stepping out of the closet with her hands raised in a calming gesture. “Just don’t move.”
A knock sounded on the suite’s door. “Excuse me, Mr. Joseph? Mrs. Joseph?”
Jenna groaned. She ran a hand through her hair, which was wild and tangled. Her eyes darted from the door to Josh and the enormous cat pinning him to the floor. “Just... just stay there and don’t make a sound.” She gave him a tired look. “Please.”
Stay there and don’t make a sound? As if he had a choice in the matter!
Josh watched Jenna disappear into the living room with just his eyes, too afraid to move anything else. The cat lifted its head and whined a little as she went.
“It’s okay, Ty,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
Josh stared up in disbelief at the feline face as it turned its attention back to him once Jenna was out of sight. Rich golden fur fading to white at the muzzle, a dusting of black spots, twin streaks running from the corners of it eyes. He knew what it was, but it was too impossible to accept. Cheetahs belonged in zoos and the wilds of Africa, not in a hotel in the heart of London.
There was no way Josh could deny that there was a cheetah sitting on his chest… but knowing what didn’t help him understand why. Why was Jenna hiding a freaking cheetah? And why did she keep calling it...
Low voices filled the living room, barely drifting into the bedroom where Josh and the cheetah stared at one another. Jenna appeared to be assuring hotel staff that no one was, in fact, being mauled by a wild fan. Josh was too busy staring at his actual attacker to care much what housekeeping thought.
It was the eyes, he realized. The cheetah’s eyes were all wrong. Josh might have noticed before, if he hadn’t been preoccupied with the more threatening aspects of the cat’s physiology. The cheetah’s eyes weren’t the brilliant amber The Discovery Channel had taught him to expect. They were a dark, dark brown.
I know those eyes...
Josh knew those dark eyes better than he knew his own. He’d seen them faraway, lost in inner turmoil. He’d seen them filled with hope and laughter. He’d seen them fighting tears, and nearly consumed by fear. They were the eyes of his best friend.
The cat blinked once as understanding crept slowly across Josh’s face. It – he? – lifted the paw from Josh’s face and shifted to sit beside him. Josh pushed himself up on his elbows but made no move to put distance between himself and the deadly predator. He couldn’t look away from those eyes.
The cheetah’s tail twitched.
“Well,” Jenna said from the doorway, “I guess I should explain...”