Several shots ago, the whiskey stopped burning. The inside of the dimly lit club was one big swirl of smoke and colored lights, smiling faces and heavily-lidded eyes. Jackson’s bluesy voice twisted through the place and bounced back at him; a haunting melody. His eyes moved slowly over the crowd. Same old drunks that showed up most weekend nights to drown their sorrows or amplify their good time with the liquid magic. I am one of them though, aren’t I, he thought with disgust. This is my clan; these are my people. His eyes moved back down to the stage in front of him as he sang.
Fingers dancing gracefully over the strings of his guitar as if they had a mind of their own, the music kept the crowd spellbound for the time being. He spotted Jenny standing off to the side of the stage. Alternating lights dyed her hair blue and then red before it shone pale blonde again. She held the tray; the god-forsaken tray that she brought him every night more often than he could count. Most of the time it was at his request, though lately she’d started bringing it before he’d even asked.
An image flashed in his mind of steel-gray eyes dancing with a laugh. He shook his head and finished the slow song, flicking on a fast melody with an earth-shattering beat. He only glanced up for a moment, but he saw her coming in the door, head dipped down, black hair falling silkily over her face.
His legs moved to stand before he’d even made up his mind to do so, his throat working as he swallowed. And then she looked up, the hair falling back away from her face to reveal bright blue eyes, an upturned nose, and a mouth that was too full. It wasn’t the face he’d been imagining; the one that had haunted him for weeks. A sinking feeling caught him with a steel grip and dragged him down, further and further.
Running a hand through his hair, Jackson turned to look at Jenny, whose eyes were soft and compassionate. She’d witnessed the small moment, the hope that must have shone in his face for that split second. Sick with himself, Jackson let one corner of his mouth turn up in a little smile for her, hoping it would say, I’m okay. I’m on top of the world. Nothing could be better.
He snatched the shot glass and downed the whiskey, letting it clatter back to the tray without watching Jenny take her shot, and left the stage. So much for not drinking alone. He had to breathe. He squeezed through the bodies on the dance floor and broke free of them near the exit, pushing the door open and escaping into the muggy night air.
He stood on the side of the building, with his back pressed against the brick, sucking in air as if he’d been suffocating. Never before had Jackson felt this all-consuming panic that coursed through him now. He knew Olivia was safe, because Claire spoke often with Ivanna and Charlotte. It was probably the only thing that kept him sane. Darkness drowned him at the side of the building, only a faint glow leaking over from the streetlight out front. Jackson laughed briefly with no humor. The one thing he’d wanted; the one person who had seemed to make it all make sense. Gone.
“She’s not coming back,” said a sultry voice from the corner. Jackson’s head snapped up and he fixed his eyes on Paula. Her glossy lips turned up into a smile. “Why don’t you ever talk to me anymore, Jackson?”
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Paula,” Jackson said. “Go away.”
She sauntered up beside him, her hand going lightly to his chest. “You know, the last night Olivia was in here, she kissed Joey LaFontaine from high school. Laid a lip lock on him he’s not likely to forget any time soon.”
Paula’s grin told him she was savoring this moment; his suffering. He glared at her for a long moment, and then his hand moved slowly to her neck. A small smile fluttered around his mouth as he moved closer to her. With just a little bending of his mind, he could hear the pitter-pattering of her heart speeding up at his touch. She grinned brilliantly, the devious glint still present in her eyes. Jackson’s voice was low and dangerous when he spoke.
“The lies that come out of your mouth sicken me,” he said. “If you ever say her name to me again…” His jaw tensed and his hand trembled with the effort it took to control his rage. “If you let it roll off that filthy tongue of yours in my presence again, I’ll break your neck.” His eyes were as cold as stone, his words venomous. A blossom of fear sprouted up in Paula’s eye, and he had no doubt she believed what he’d said. A small, logical part of him was sorry for scaring her, but the rest of him enjoyed it and he wished he’d have seen what a snake she was a long time ago. But back then, it hadn’t mattered.
Even after she’d slinked back inside the building with a pout, Jackson couldn’t stop replaying the words in his head. She’s not coming back. He took a shaky breath, and walked back inside the bar, wanting another shot of whiskey. She had to come back. He wouldn’t give up hope. She wouldn’t forget him.
Days blurred together. Most of the time, Jackson did what he could to take it moment by moment. Things were less painful that way. Then he didn’t have to look at the big picture; the months and years that stretched before him like a lonely promise. In one of those moments, when he was slightly drunker than usual, he sat at the bar in Stallott’s, letting modern music blast through the speakers.
“Looks like you have a lot on your mind. Bet it has to do with a girl.” The voice was weathered and rough. It belonged to an older man a few barstools away, silver hair hanging to his shoulders and a curly beard of the same gleaming color. Jackson focused on the man’s face and made out pale blue eyes that twinkled in the neon lights of the club. His hand lingering on the whiskey bottle in front of him, he turned up a corner of his mouth.
“Stupid, right? Of all the things going on in the world; starvation, war, corrupt politicians, murder…the one thing that cripples me is some girl.” Jackson’s tone was bitter but the man chuckled, shaking his head.
“Oh, I don’t know. Better men than you or I have been crippled by some girl before. They have that power you know, like witches.” Jackson eyed the man, who continued speaking after taking a long swig of his vodka. “Of course, there are girls that will come and go, and then there are the girls the likes of which you’ll never encounter again for the rest of your life. The way I see it,” he slapped down a few dollars on the bar and nodded at Rick, the bartender, “you should figure out which category your girl falls into. If it’s the latter, you’d better do something quick to get back in her good graces.”
An odd feeling crept up Jackson’s spine as Rick gave the man another vodka, an eerie sensation. Pouring another shot from the bottle Rick had simply left on the bar for him, Jackson attributed the feeling to the man’s words. “I’m not sure how to do that,” he said, holding the tiny glass between his thumb and fingers.
“Well, what would you do?” The man asked, his mouth forming a smile that crinkled the skin around his eyes. “What would you be willing to do to keep her? To make sure she was yours? To make sure she was safe?”
Jackson cut his eyes back toward the man. He’d never said Olivia wasn’t safe. Something about the man made his skin crawl. After taking the shot of whiskey, Jackson told himself silently to lighten up. He was way too stressed out and he’d had way too much to drink today. He let his arms move out to his sides, indicating himself and all the space around him. “All of it. Everything I had to give or whatever was in my power to do.”
The old man smiled and nodded. “As most good men would,” he said. “What about your own sanity; your own free will? Your beliefs.”
“What does that have to do with love?” Jackson asked, his body tensing for a reason he couldn’t quite explain.
“Well, sometimes, that’s what is demanded of a man who loves a woman, son. For the sake of argument, would you give yourself to have her freely for just a little while? If you could just have the ability to love her for…oh, say a few months, would you give it all up even then? If your time with her was limited?”
Jackson blinked at the man’s confusing words. He felt a little like he’d been asked a complicated riddle and he still had that odd feeling. He ran his hand through his hair. He needed to go home. He wondered if Jenny would drive him. But the man had asked him a question and he found Olivia’s beautiful, cool face passing through his mind. The way her eyes lit up when he’d shown her some new thing she’d never seen; and how when he kissed her she held on for dear life, like he was her savior. Just the thought of it caused an ache so deep within him that he could barely breathe. Would he? Would he give even his own sanity to just have her for a little while? He looked back at the man and nodded.
The man seemed to be studying him for a long moment, and then he smiled again. Standing, he put his hand on Jackson’s shoulder for just a moment, and then put a few more dollars down on the counter for a tip. “Well, she sounds like some girl. Don’t let her get away from you, boy.” And then the man was gone.
The next day, Jackson seemed to have trouble getting the man’s words out of his mind. How was he supposed to keep Olivia from getting away from him? She was the one who had left. What was he supposed to do about it? Sure, he had a hard time telling people how he felt, but he thought he made it pretty obvious to her how he felt about her. He’d even sent her a birthday present. Well, he’d painstakingly chosen the little silver necklace, imagining how it would look against her pale skin. Then, he’d given it to his mother with a muttered, “Would you…” He had given up trying to say any more words, as he couldn’t seem to find them within him. Claire had obviously realized what he wanted, because she’d gently taken the little box and said, “Of course.”
Jackson ran his fingers along the strings of his guitar. It was obvious that Olivia was scared. Jackson laughed darkly to himself. Did she think he wasn’t? The difference was that he wanted her enough to take that risk, and she didn’t. He hadn’t given up hope yet that she’d realize her love for him, but as each day passed, his hope grew dimmer and dimmer. Trying to clear his mind and change courses before his thoughts took him down a dangerous road, Jackson began singing.
At least that was something he would always have; the ability to lose himself in a song. The twanging and soft sound of the acoustic guitar, the emotion he was able to release with each word. This time, when the girl with the dark hair came in the door, he barely glanced at her before looking back down at his hands. He couldn’t afford that stupid moment of hope again. Sing, he thought. No matter what happens in five minutes, in a day, in a month…right now, just sing.
Pathetic how he had to talk himself through the moments of his life. His eyes moved up again and then his heart stopped beating. She was approaching him, holding a tray with two shot glasses. Those smoky gray eyes were shining with unreleased tears, and her mouth turned up into a small smile. The next lines of the song went unsung, the guitar silent. What kind of trick is this? Jackson wondered if he had finally lost it, and blinked, but when he opened his eyes, she was still coming toward him. She stopped at the side of the stage. Her hands were trembling, and her heart was beating so wildly inside of her that Jackson could hear it plainly, even if the humans couldn’t.
The little sun necklace rested on her chest, her hair falling softly around her shoulders and down her back. Jackson remembered to breathe as she spoke, and inhaled shakily.
“I…” She started. What was going through her mind? The way she was looking at him…for the first time since she’d left, Jackson’s hope exploded.
“When I left, I left the only man I've ever loved behind,” she said, her voice low. He vaguely remembered what he’d asked of her before she had left. And now, after all this time, Ahh God, Now, she was answering him. “I left my heart here...with you. I love you in the way I hope you still love me. I was tortured because I wasn't here with you. I've spent hours thinking of what I should have done, and when I close my eyes at night, I see your face. You haunt me until morning.” Olivia held the tray out toward him hesitantly, her own hope taking over the usual coolness of her face. “And James Dean really has nothing on you,” she added, a playful gleam in her eye.
Jackson couldn’t find his voice. There were a million things that surfaced; that he wanted to shout out at her, to tell her, to make sure she understood. There were so many things that he didn’t know what to say first, and so he remained quiet. Seeing his hesitation, she stepped up on the stage, taking his mic in her hand. Despite himself, Jackson raised an eyebrow. If there was one thing that made Olivia squirm, it was being the center of attention.
“Can you guys believe that this guy won’t have a drink with me?” She said, her voice booming out through the speakers in the place. Jackson watched the tears trail down her cheeks, wanting nothing more than to catch them, to stop them from coming, to take away any pain that had ever plagued her. “Now if that’s not the rudest thing I’ve ever seen,” she continued. “What kind of guy won’t toast to my undying love for him?”
She had said it. She loved him. She had come back for him. These were the only thoughts Jackson could translate from the jumble that was in his brain.
“Don’t you nice ladies and gentlemen think that our musician should just take the damn whiskey before I pass out on this stage?” She said. She was crying earnestly now, and Jackson found himself comparing the sight to the other wondrous things he’d seen; sunsets, newborn life in the forest, the beauty of a song just completed. Nothing compared. She was beautiful. So fucking beautiful.
The crowd was going wild now, bringing Jackson back from his thoughts, but one remained. She was his. She belonged to him. He’d known it from the beginning, and now she knew it too. As if waking up from the longest sleep he’d ever been in, he took the shot glass from the tray and smiled at her, putting the guitar down. Finally.
He drank down the liquid, watching her do the same. “I’ve waited so long,” he said. The words came out sounding angry, but she didn’t seem to notice. The smile that lit up her eyes was all his. The shot glass fell from his fingers and before he knew what he was doing, he pulled her to him roughly. Her legs went around him, and the buzz of life that he always felt when he touched her returned.
“I love you Jackson Vance, and I never want to be away from you again,” she said. The emotion present in her eyes; the truth, was almost enough to make him dizzy.
“I love you, Slayer.” It didn’t seem to be enough to explain to her…to tell her the things that were going on inside of him. “So much,” he added, and then giving up on words, he pressed his lips to hers. His legs moved as he carried her away from the stage, his only thought being her taste, her warmth, and the old man’s words. “Don’t let her get away from you, boy.”
This time, he didn’t intend to.