Halfway to Someday
Layla Dorine © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Firelight flickered against the stone mantel of the fireplace, yet despite its warmth, Jesse shivered and huddled in the blankets he’d wrapped around his shoulders. The winds outside had picked up as the sun sank lower in the sky. Now, as the minutes ticked closer to sunset, they howled like the crowds in the stands at every show he’d ever played. Staring into tear-blurred flames, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever climb up on a stage again. His fingers itched to touch his guitar, but what was the point in creating anything with the way his bandmates had turned their backs on him.
“Way to go.”
The sarcasm in Tish’s voice was unmistakable. Whirling, Jesse turned to glare at her.
“You think I ruined the concert on purpose?”
“What are we supposed to think!” she spat, crowding into his space. Didn’t matter that she was shorter, she had a way of getting right in his face. “The way you played tonight was abysmal. The fans didn’t deserve that. We didn’t deserve to have you out there ruining the set like that. You let everyone down tonight, so instead of making excuses, why don’t you tell us what the hell you’re on so you can get the treatment you need!”
“I’m not on anything!” he roared; then Kyle and Griffin were there, crowding him back against the wall.
“You garbled half the words to songs you wrote!” Griffin shot back.
“Not to mention how many times you were off-key and singing in an entirely different pitch than you were supposed to!” Kyle rebuked, staring into his eyes. “Were you drunk up there? High? Are you high now?”
“It was a bad night, okay? Why the hell can’t you all leave it at that?”
“One night is a bad night,” Tish hissed. “Hell, even two nights out of an eight-month tour, but this was what, the eleventh, twelfth time you’ve fucked everything up?”
“Fourteen,” Griffin said. “You’re forgetting the show he had to cut short in Reno, and the one we had to cancel in San Diego when he called and said he couldn’t perform. Couldn’t even bother to come tell us to our faces, he was so strung out.”
“I. Don’t. Use,” he snarled, exhausted, throat hurting as they’d loomed over him like vultures ready to pick him apart.
“Then tell us what the fuck is going on!” Kyle snapped.
Jesse shook his head, defeated, as he stared up into the eyes of his oldest friend. “I-I can’t.”
“You mean you won’t!” Tish chided. “And you’ll drag all of us down with you as our band, our dream, fizzles and burns.”
“It’s not like that. That’s the last thing I want.”
“Could have fooled me,” she snapped, sidestepping him and walking away, leaving the others to follow her.
“I just need time to work a few things out,” he called after them, cringing at the burn in his throat any time he tried to get loud. None of them even so much as turned back to look at him.
Pain sliced through his insides like broken glass, and he cringed and curled inward, rocking in the hopes of easing the ache. It wasn’t fair—he’d never set out do anything that would hurt the band or their music, never meant to get up there and fail or worse, not make it up there at all. But he’d screwed up both his personal and his professional life in all the worst ways possible…well, all except the ways they’d thought. He wasn’t stupid. He’d never use any of the hard stuff; he knew what it could do to bands, and he didn’t drink to get drunk, despite how free-flowing the whiskey and liquor got. Pot was different; it came from the earth, and besides, he only smoked it in the states where it was already legal recreationally. It mellowed him out when his brain was racing a mile a minute, and sometimes, that hazy silence was the only way he could relax enough to sleep. They knew him; they knew how deeply he loved the music, how it was all he had aside from them, and yet…
Did he even have them anymore?
Not knowing the answer doubled his pain, leaving him desperate to make it stop shredding his insides. The wind screamed and he raised his head, stared out the window, and watched the trees wave like angry shadows across the sad, gray sky, before turning his attention back to the song he’d been struggling since morning to write. The half-filled page in the journal on his lap taunted him with all its unfilled lines.
Too soft. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t anything but another feel-good fluff piece like the rest of the shit he’d been writing for the past year. With a growl, he ripped the page out, crumpled it, and tossed it into the flames. Orange licked around white, curling the edges, blackening them before devouring it completely.
Glaring down at the previous song, he skimmed a couple lines, then yanked it from the journal and hurled it into the fire too. The sound of tearing paper brought some sick kind of satisfaction, so he ripped out several more and consigned them to the flames, leaving nothing but the darker pieces he’d penned earlier in the week. Now those words he could connect with.
“Holy shit, guys, do you know what this means?”
They all turned their attention toward Kyle, who was still bent over the contract on the table, rereading every line of the document they were preparing to sign.
“Yeah,” Griffin called out. “It means no more ramen-noodle stew and day-old Bolivian creams. We can finally buy the fresh ones instead of the stale fifty-nine cent kind.”
They all broke into laughter then, the energy level in the room so high everyone was vibrating with it. Tish moved to stand behind Kyle, hugging him and rereading the contract over his shoulder.
“Means we beat the odds,” Tish said, her voice trembling with awe. “We really did it. We got a record deal.”
“Hell yeah, we did!” Jesse laughed, high-fiving Griffin, who caught him by the wrist, yanked him into a headlock, and proceeded to muss up his hair, which turned into a wrestling match that Jesse had no chance of winning. He’d resorted to tickling Griffin instead, their drummer writhing on the carpet as Tish decided to get in on the action and tickle him too. Of course, that had led to Kyle tickling her and all of them eventually collapsing into a laughing pile beside the couch.
Now, as he poured all his angst and rage onto the page, he found it impossible to remember when they’d last laughed together. Back in the studio, maybe, when they’d recorded their last album before the tour? He tried to think back that far, tried to temper the darkness of the would-be song with thin tendrils of lightness and hope, but the only images he could conjure in his mind were angry ones. Bitter accusations hurled at him the way he was hurling sarcasm and ire at the page, dotting it all with a heavy dose of scorn and a metric fuckton of guilt.
Snarling, he scrawled a few more words in the journal then tossed it aside, kicked a blanket off to the side, and squirmed around until his back was against the couch and his fingers were beside his pillows. For several moments, he caressed one of the soft, fluffy pillows before jamming his hand underneath, fingers fumbling below the plush overstuffed feathers, brushing against the coolness of the blade he kept tucked there. He curled his fingers around it, pulled it from its hiding spot, and let the firelight glint off the sharpened steel, the sparkle mesmerizing him for a moment. The flashing red-and-orange hues reminded him of strobe lights. He ran the blade up the back of his hand and arm, watching the tiny lines of blood well up and drip over the scars. Old white lines, angry red raised ones, an endless pattern that disappeared beneath his sleeve. If the photographers ever saw, they’d have a field day selling those shots to every music magazine they could find, which was why he never went sleeveless on stage. Here though, in the solitude of this borrowed cabin, he’d left his scars uncovered, if only to make it easier to carve in more.
Turning his hand over, Jesse pressed the blade against his wrist, traced the sharp edge along his flesh, but didn’t part it. Not this time. It was so tempting though. Maybe later when he dreamed of all his failures and woke up crying again.
How long he sat that way he’d never know, firm grip pressing the knife to his arm, body poised for action, muscles tense, beginning to ache from being held on edge so long. The voices in his ear warred, screamed, raged, one telling him to do it, the other pleading with him to think. All he wanted was the shame to stop and the heavy pressure in his chest to ease up enough to let him breathe.
The wind raged, and he longed to go out in it, throw his head back, and howl until his voice was shot. It wasn’t fair. He’d been scared and sick and struggling with what to do, choking on feelings of inadequacy and rage, a whirlwind of words in his head, and yet he hadn’t been able to string them together. Each time he’d attempted to stammer out something, they’d hit him with another accusation; if anything, that had hurt more than what Troy had done.
His fingers shook, so he pressed the knife deeper into his arm, trying to still the shaking. Pain shot up the back of his neck, throbbing in his temples and behind his eyes, his body coiled so hard it hurt.
There was no one left to believe in him, so why keep fighting? His band was the only family he’d had since his folks died. Without them, why keep playing? Why write another song? Why even bother to live another day? It would be so easy to give in, become another statistic. There was no one to stop him, no one to find the body until spring, and by then it wouldn’t matter—they’d have already replaced him anyway.
Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly, the vicious voice in his head telling him to get it over with.
The two-ton 4×4 fishtailed, and Ryker bit back a curse and gripped the wheel a little tighter as he straightened the steering wheel out again. Heavy white snow pelted his windshield, creating a vortex of gray and shadows. It was like driving into a dream, and Ryker had to tell himself over and over not to close his eyes.
The road veered left, winding toward what he prayed was the end, the trees on each side—tall aspens and trembling pines—swayed, their branches cracking and falling into the road. He hoped there were no large trees down or he wasn’t certain what he’d do. Turning around wasn’t an option, and there was no way to navigate the treacherous road backward. He had gear in the truck, but whether it could sustain him for the night in the cold cab wasn’t something he wished to find out.
The truck bounced, the back end slid, and for a moment, the left rear tire seemed to dip. He pressed the gas hard, white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel as he wrenched it away from the tree its nose was pointed toward. Miraculously, he managed to keep it on the road, sliding and swerving the last twenty feet before the clearing.
Seeing the smoke billowing from the cabin chimney and the dull orange light shining from the window was a relief. He parked carefully beside the green pickup already coated in snow and sighed, rolling his shoulders and feeling the tension drain out of his body with every loud snap and pop. Letting his head fall forward, he rested it on the wheel, the muscles in the back of his neck pulling a little. For a moment, he just breathed, telling himself he was safe and would be warm as soon as he got inside the cabin.
It didn’t stop the images from flashing behind his eyes: smoke, so thick and white it had reminded him of the snowstorms of his youth, reminded him of home and family, only it wasn’t cold. It was hot, and the sky was raining heated metal and burning debris. Everywhere it touched sent a jolt of pain ripping through him, but there was no time to find cover, no time to do anything but claw his way up the road in search of his team.
The winds whipped against the truck so hard, it rocked, throwing him out of the past. A mercy, despite the violence of the storm. He took that as his cue to get out, grab his duffel bag, and head for the door. Every step took effort. The snow was piled high, and some of the drifts were well past his knees. How easy would it be to lie down and go to sleep in it, never to wake again? He forged a sloppy path to the door, complete with an outline of his body when he face-planted inches from the steps. He didn’t want to think of how painful that misstep could have been had he actually struck the steps, or perhaps it would have made life easier for him to give himself over to the cold. Instead, he gripped the handrail and climbed the steps, coming to stand before the door of the cabin.
Knocking loudly, Ryker shivered, pulling his coat tighter around him as he waited. He was about to knock again when the door swung open to reveal wary green eyes in a too-pale face framed by dark, cascading waves of blond hair. Ryker blinked, stunned at the outright hostility that pulled the man’s lips down into a scowl, his trim beard and mustache only serving to emphasize it more. His wrinkled long-sleeved T-shirt was backward and inside out, and it twisted near the waistline, revealing a swath of pale abs. It looked as though he’d hastily donned it on his way to the door.
“Pretty sure you’re at the wrong cabin,” the guy growled, moving to shut the door in Ryker’s face. Slamming his hand against it kept Ryker from being left out in the cold.
“Even if it’s the wrong cabin, which I don’t think it is, there’s a storm coming, in case you hadn’t noticed, so I think I’ll just come in out of it, thanks.” Ryker took a step forward and trying to wedge through the opening. The other man held firm, however, and they stood there glaring at each other.
“Look,” the man snapped, “you could be a psycho or a serial killer for all I know, so you ain’t getting in here. I’ve got enough problems without accidentally ending up dead.”
Ryker felt the impatience radiating off the other man, which was fine by him; he was getting pretty goddamned impatient and cold himself.
“You look—” Ryker retorted, studying the guy more intently through bleary, snow-clouded eyes. Something about him looked really damned familiar. “’ve been on the road for hours. It’s fucking cold out here, and it’s snowing buckets. I’m supposed to be at my cousin’s cabin, which the GPS says is right here. So here I am, and I’ve got no intention of driving anywhere until the shit lets up. My cousin’s name is Kyle—”
Jesse couldn’t believe this shit. When he saw Kyle, he was gonna choke him to death with his own bass strings.
“Morrison,” Jesse finished with a sigh. “Yeah, this is his cabin, though it’s supposed to be my cabin for the next four months. I fuckin’ told him when he offered it that I was coming up alone and had plans to stay that way. So why the hell would he send you?”
“Maybe because not everything is about you. I just ended my eighth tour overseas, called Kyle, and told him that the VA clinic said I needed a quiet place to reacclimate before I start mixing with people again. The way this weather is, I doubt he’d have been able to reach you if you’ve even got a phone turned on. Now, if you don’t mind, we can have the rest of this conversation inside where it’s warm.” Ryker shoved his way inside the cabin.
Jesse stepped back and watched the snow drifting off the larger man, onto the hardwood, slowly beginning to thaw even as new snow blew in from the outside. Between the layers of clothing and the sheer height of the man, he loomed over Jesse, even as he shook the snow from his scarf and hung it on the hook beside the door. Jesse glanced between him, the storm, and the snow slowly covering his vehicle. As much as he wanted to, there was no way he could run right now. Finally, Jesse grumbled, closed the door and stalked over to the drawer in the kitchen where he’d tossed his phone when he first arrived. Of course it was dead, which meant a ton of cussing as he yanked out the charger and fished around for the cord before plugging it in. Fidgeting, he paced as much as the cord would allow as he dialed Kyle’s number, watching the snow-covered man out of the corner of his eye. The guy had taken his cap off, put his duffel down, and was unbuttoning his coat, looking for all the world like he intended to stay. Jesse couldn’t suppress a groan when the guy stood beside the couch, his eyes boring holes through Jesse. Jesse cursed as he listened to the phone ringing, a long string of expletives, the tail end of which greeted Kyle when he answered the phone.
“Yeah, well, hello to you too,” Kyle grumbled, sounding as if he’d been sleeping.
“Fuck hello,” Jesse spat, still pacing, rummaging in the cupboard now for a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass. “You’re fuckin’ cousin just showed up here and—”
“Hey!” Kyle snapped, effectively cutting off Jesse’s tirade. “That’s my family you’re talking about; have some fuckin’ respect. Now, if you would have answered your damned phone when I tried to reach you, you’d have known Ryker was coming.”
“What the fuck, Kyle! I told you I was coming up here to be alone and write some fuckin’ music; if I had known you were gonna pull this shit, I would’ve made reservations somewhere.”
“First of all, nowhere you could have made any reservations is as secluded as that cabin, and secondly, Ryker didn’t call me until after you were already there, and frankly, he needs the solitude far more than you do. So, if you’ve got a problem sharing, you can pack your shit and drive down after the storm.”
“You’re seriously kicking me out of here? Where the fuck am I supposed to go?”
“Home, which you have. My cousin doesn’t, so get over yourself, Jesse. If you leave, it’s your choice, but Ryker is staying; now put him on the phone.”
“Now, Jesse,” Kyle barked.
“He wants to talk to you,” Jesse said as he held the phone out for Ryker. As soon as Ryker took it, Jesse tried to pour, hands trembling so much he spilled a little over the side. Ryker frowned as he watched. If it was anyone else he’d have made a joke about it being alcohol abuse, but it was clear the guy wouldn’t appreciate his efforts at humor. The guy downed it in a single gulp and poured a second, less shaky that time around, but he tossed it back just as fast, then poured a third. Great, a drunk.
“Hey, man.” Ryker was unable to keep the exhaustion from his voice.
“It’s good to hear your voice,” Kyle told him. “Did the trip go okay? I was getting really worried when I didn’t hear from you. The weather channels are all saying the storms are pretty rough up there.”
“It was all good, right until the ending,” Ryker grumbled.
“Sorry about that. Jesse isn’t usually such an asshole.”
Jesse Winters. It suddenly clicked exactly where he’d seen that exotically handsome face and all those tattoos. He hadn’t been able to take his eyes off them since the man answered the door. They’d been on all the CDs and magazine articles Kyle had sent him, several of which had secretly become jerk-off material. Funny, but right now there was nothing attractive about those furious green eyes or the haggard look on his scruffy face.
“Excuse me, if I don’t take your word for it,” Ryker countered.
Kyle’s chuckle could be heard through the phone. “Look, I already told him that if he had problems sharing the place with you, he should take off as soon as the roads are clear. There are two bedrooms, so stay as long as you need. Hopefully, I can come up to see you soon.”
“Didn’t mean to cause any issues. I sure don’t want to be the source of any problems within your band.”
Kyle’s bitter laughter resonated through the phone, unmistakable in Ryker’s ear. “And you’re not; that ship’s already sailed, big time, so don’t worry about it. The cabin has plenty of room, and to be honest, Jesse should be thanking you for your service to this country instead of trying to kick you out in a storm.”
“Right now, I’d settle for him being polite and not giving me shit, at least not until after I’ve thrown together a meal.”
“If he gives you shit, toss his ass in a snowbank. Just…umm…make sure he doesn’t freeze to death. I’d hate to lose my best friend.”
“No offense, but your best friend is a dick.”
“Yeah, he can be. Now do me a favor and put the dick back on the phone. I’ll talk to you again soon. I’m just glad you finally made it back home safe.”
“Thanks, man,” Ryker replied, wishing it were his cousin he’d found in the cabin. A game of cards and a couple of shots of whiskey sounded amazing right now, but he was certain Jesse wouldn’t be up for sharing his booze or playing a game.
“Here,” Ryker said as he held the phone out to Jesse, who practically snatched it from his hand.
“Hey—” Jesse began, only to get cut off again.
“Don’t talk. Just listen,” Kyle hissed. “Ryker just got out of the hospital. He almost died. He watched three of his buddies die. Now, I know you wanted to be alone, but whatever bullshit you’ve got going on don’t amount to shit compared to what he’s been through. As my friend, I’m asking you to stick around. I don’t really think Ryker should be up there all on his own. I can’t stop you if you’ve got it in your head to leave, but I’m hoping you’ll act like the man I know you are instead of the ass you’ve been acting like for the past year.”
And as abruptly as the conversation began, Kyle ended it. The only goodbye Jesse received was that of the dial tone drowning in his ear.
“Fuck!” Jesse yelled and pitched his phone at the wall hard enough to shatter it. Stalking over to the table, Jesse poured himself another shot and then downed four more before finally capping the bottle.
“I only brought provisions for one,” Jesse finally grumbled.
“Then it’s a good thing I stopped on my way up here and grabbed my own,” Ryker retorted.
Jesse nodded, groaned, and stood, wrote cell phone on the chalkboard, then took his bottle and shot glass and stalked from the room.
Shaking his head, Ryker watched him go, too tired to even fathom what Jesse’s issue was. The wind howled, reminding Ryker he still needed to bring his boxes of provisions in, so after yanking his coat back on, he trudged back out into the snow and carefully retrieved them. By the time he returned to the cabin, Jesse was moving around the living room, collecting his guitars and notebooks. Ryker caught a quick glimpse of a sketch of two sea turtles surfing on the backs of sharks before Jesse slammed the sketchbook shut and tossed it into a haphazard pile of blankets. Ryker listened to him grumble as he gathered up candles and CDs, a crate of paperback books and a basket of snacks. As he headed to the kitchen to put his supplies away, he heard Jesse stomp off down the hall, snarling about how the storm couldn’t end fast enough, and he couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
Idiot, Ryker thought, remembering the road and how he’d nearly lost control several times. Jesse’s truck looked to be newer than the one he’d driven up, but that didn’t mean it was heavier, or that Jesse would have an easier time getting down the mountain than Ryker had coming up. With the way these newer vehicles were being built, it was probably lighter and more susceptible to strong winds, meaning Jesse would run the risk of being blown into the guardrail, especially in the open spaces where the crosswinds were particularly vicious. Vowing to give him space and let him cool down, Ryker busied himself with taking off his snow-encrusted boots and mentally plotting out a meal.
He finished in time to watch Jesse roll up a sleeping bag and blankets, another sketchpad trapped in the folds. It dawned on him then that Jesse had been camping out in front of the fire, rather than selecting a room. In truth, it was the same thing Ryker would have done if given half the chance. Sometimes tight spaces were too much. Communal spaces at least offered the illusion of not being alone. If Ryker had to venture a guess, he figured Jesse was a small-space hater since he sure seemed pissed about having company.
With the narrow space between the living room and the hall, it was difficult