Chapter One- Ghosts
The apartment was relatively quiet, the only sounds being the low murmur of the TV in front of me and the hiss of someone opening a liter of soda in the kitchen. I sat on the ratty old couch, my feet curled under me, a blanket across my lap. My eyes were glued to the senseless program on the little TV set, but my mind was elsewhere.
A solid form settled beside me, pulling me out of my thoughts. I looked over at Mike as he grabbed the remote and kicked his feet up on the coffee table, a large glass of soda in his hand. He began flicking through the channels, a habit that irritated me.
"Mike?" I said quietly.
He acknowledged me with a short grunt.
"What's Greg like?"
Mike looked over at me with surprise and confusion in his brown eyes. "My stepdad? He's a good guy. Why?"
I shrugged, turning my eyes to the channel he had selected – MTV. "I was just wondering. You know, my mom and her boyfriend are getting pretty serious and I was just wondering what it would be like to have another stepdad."
"What does it matter?" Mike asked, turning up the volume. "You're out of the house, so if he sucks it shouldn't bother you."
I didn't bother to respond. During the four months I had been dating him, I had never told Mike about Derek and the way things had been for my family. It didn't matter. It had been six years and I had put my ghosts to rest.
The noisy commercial ended and was replaced by the screaming in-house audience of TRL. At the same moment the front door opened and my roommate walked in carrying a bag of groceries.
"Hey Jess!" she called, heading for the kitchen, "Hey Mike!"
"Hey Nikki," Mike answered without looking away from the TV.
I swung my feet to the floor and went to help her unload the groceries. "How was class?" I asked politely as I dumped the bag of sugar into our container, carefully labeled with the word "SUGAR". We had had one too many mix-ups between the sugar and the salt.
"Dull," Nikki groaned miserably. "Tell me again why I am majoring in business?"
I chuckled, having heard this question countless times in the past two years. Nikki was in her senior year at Berkeley, while I had graduated the previous semester.
"Because," I responded, as I always did, "You are going to open your own store selling your photography and you're going to make millions."
She smiled at me. "And that's why I love you!"
The music from the live band on TRL stopped me as I reached to place a can of cream of chicken soup on the top shelf of the pantry. Slowly, I turned towards the living room and moved to stand behind Mike. I stared at the small group of performers on the television, not believing what I saw. It wasn't possible…
Then the camera cut to a close-up of the lead singer. The can fell from my head, landing on the couch beside Mike without a sound. Mike looked up at me.
"Something wrong baby?" he asked.
I gaped at the TV a moment before asking breathlessly, "What band is this?"
He looked back at the little color set. "Um… I'm not sure. I wasn't paying close attention. Last in… Something…"
"Last in Line?"
"Yeah, that's it!" He looked back up at me. "How did you know?"
I didn't answer, but continued to stare at the young man singing front for the band. I knew that voice all too well. I knew that face and that copper hair. Not long ago, they had been my world.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Through the shock, I couldn't make myself feel anything. It had been four years since I had seen him. Four years since he had told me he wasn't going to college, that he was going to try to make it with his band.
"Jessica, are you okay?"
I looked over at Nikki. She had picked up the cream of chicken from off the couch and was staring at me with concern, as was Mike. I shook myself out of my trance and smiled.
"Yeah, of course," I lied, "I'm fine."
"Okay," Mike said as he stood, drawing out the word much longer than necessary. "You're kind of weirding me out, so I'm just going to assume this is a girl thing and go."
He kissed the top of my head and, with a wave to Nikki, slipped out the front door. I moved around the couch and sank to the floor in front of the television as the song the band was playing came to an end. Loud applause and screams came from the audience as the host came to stand beside the lead singer.
"That was the up-and-coming band, Last in Line!" he said happily. "These guys are climbing the charts, with their song, Lost It. Now, let's talk to the lead singer of the band. Ty, tell me about yourself."
Tears sprang into my eyes as the name reached my ears. Ty smiled at the camera and took the microphone. He opened his mouth to speak. I clicked the TV off and leaned back against the coffee table, covering my mouth with one hand, trying not to sob.
"Okay I'm not buying the 'I'm fine' any more," Nikki said, crouching beside me. "Boyfriend's gone. Time to spill."
I turned to look at her, dropping my hand to the carpet beside me. "That was Ty," I whispered. "That was Ty…"
"So you actually dated him?" Nikki asked in disbelief, shoving another large spoonful of ice cream into her mouth.
I nodded and took another bite of my own cheesecake ice cream. This was the therapy that Nikki and I treated each other to any time we had a nervous breakdown or simply a bad date – one large waffle bowl of your favorite MarbleSlab ice cream.
"Wow!" she exclaimed, drawing the attention of the man behind the counter. "I mean, I knew you said that your Ty was a musician, but I never thought that he could be the same Ty from Last in Line!"
I looked up at her in surprise. "You mean you'd heard of his band before?" I was not much into the pop culture scene, so I often received the latest news regarding music, movies, and celebrities several weeks after everyone else. It had never bothered me until now.
"Of course!" she answered through a mouthful of peanut butter cup ice cream, her blue eyes wide in disbelief. "You mean you haven't? Oh why am I asking, of course you haven't!"
There was a moment of silence between us as I contemplated a strawberry in the center of my bowl. It looked too big to eat in one bite.
"So," Nikki said, one hand buried in her blonde hair as she leaned toward me across the little table, "this is the same Ty who got you through the whole Derek situation?"
"The Ty who was your first date? Your first boyfriend? Your first kiss?"
She shook her head. "Unbelievable," she whispered, pronouncing every syllable heavily.
"Can we just drop it?" I asked quietly.
She looked at me in confusion. "Why?"
"I haven't seen him in four years Nikki. I haven't heard from him in three. What's the point of digging up the past?"
She gave me a look of understanding. "You never did tell me how it ended. Not good, huh?"
I sighed and sunk back into my cheesecake ice cream comfort. "Can we not reopen old wounds please?"
She nodded. "Okay. Let's talk about something else. Heard from your mom lately?"
I nodded. "She and Jason are talking about getting married."
"Really?" Nikki asked excitedly. "That's awesome."
I ventured a small smile. "Yeah. I'm happy for her."
"You don't sound it." Nikki had always been observant.
"Well…" I paused, deciding to put that overly-large strawberry in my mouth to by me some time. Nikki waited patiently while I chewed it. At last, I said, "It's not that I'm not happy for her. I'm just… concerned."
"Because of the way Derek was?" When I didn't answer she continued, "Not all guys are scum Jess, you know that right? I mean, your real dad was awesome, right? And Mike's great and-"
I knew who she was about to mention and I cut her off with a sharp look. "Of course I know that Nik. I don't know… I just feel like, without me there, if something were to go wrong… I couldn't help her and Kyle. Plus, Kyle's graduating this year, so she'll be alone with him. I mean, I don't even know this guy Nik. What if he hurts her? How can I just leave my mother alone with him?"
She seemed fascinated by little rant. "I know what your problem is Jess. You have Supermanitis."
"You always feel like you have to rush in and rescue everyone. You'd rather put yourself in danger than see anyone you know get hurt. Supermanitis."
"Well, I appreciate your diagnosis Doctor, but I disagree. I'm just concerned is all. Don't I have a right to be? I mean, my mother's getting married for the third time. That's getting up there in numbers and, forgive me, but I have a little trouble trusting her taste in men."
"Okay, okay," Nikki sighed, giving in after my second tirade.
I broke a piece of the waffle bowl off and used it to shovel more ice cream into my mouth. We finished our treat in silence, leaving me to my thoughts.
He had looked almost exactly the same as I remembered him. His face was leaner and his hair was shorter than the shaggy mop he had had when we graduated, but I would have recognized him anywhere. He still had the same strong and handsome jaw line, the same bright and contagious smile, the same clear and beautiful voice.
But what did it matter. Ty and I were worlds apart now. We had gone our separate directions four years ago and those paths had carried us even farther apart. He was in New York, performing live on MTV. I was in California, working for a small publishing house. But seeing his face…
I shook myself and pushed back the wrought iron chair. "Let's go," I said, picking up my now-empty waffle bowl. "I've got some work to do."
Nikki rolled her eyes as she followed me. "You work too much. Even when you're not at work, you're working."
I laughed at her. "That's no way to show your support. And I did spend nearly two hours with Mike today, so I'm not always working, thank you very much."
"Did you refrain from using your laptop the entire time you were with him?"
I bit my lip sheepishly, not looking at her.
"I knew it!" she laughed. "You are a workaholic!"
"I am not! I just went over a few pages of a manuscript. I wasn't any more than thirty minutes!"
Nikki shook her head, still laughing to herself. "Workaholic!" she muttered.
"Oh shut up," I snapped playfully.
She shrugged. "It's not your fault you're an overachiever. It's just something some people are born with. While you are fighting your way to the top of the publishing industry, I'll be taking snapshots at barmitzfahs and sweet sixteens."
I shook my head. She said that sort of thing all the time, but we both knew she was a much better photographer than that. People all over campus were already buying her prints, some for over a hundred dollars, and she didn't even have proper equipment. When she finally opened her own shop and got the private darkroom she always talked about, she would turn out a good business.
We walked the mile back to our apartment, conversation ranging from why ice cream seemed to solve all our problems and why some men could just suck so badly. Nikki had just gotten out of a relationship. He had cheated on her. Some people's children…
I headed into my room while Nikki set herself down in front of the television again. I didn't feel like taking my chances in front of the traitorous TV set. I opened my laptop and powered it on, brining up the document I had been editing.
I was an assistant to a copy editor at the moment, and he had asked me to go over one of the chapters in a novel the house was considering for publication. I scrolled down the pages until I reached the spot I had stopped and continued reading.
"She couldn't imagine what had brought him back into her life after all these years. It had all seemed so final, the last time they had said goodbye. But now, there he was, watching her with those eyes she knew so well. How could this be happening to her? She felt like her world was spinning out of control…"
I snapped the laptop shut in irritation. Why was everything trying to remind me of Ty? I stood up from my desk and dropped onto my bed, feeling exhausted. Closing my eyes, I thought back to the last time I had seen Ty.
Despite what I had caused Nikki to think, it hadn't been a bad break up. At least, not in the typical definition of the phrase. There had been no huge fight, no major issues that tore us apart. Still, leaving him had left me wounded beyond what I believed possible.
After graduation, we spent most of our summer together. We both talked about college and careers and the future. At first, he sounded like he wanted to go to college. We had both been accepted to Berkeley, far away from the cold weather. It was exactly what I wanted – taking the next big step in my life with Ty right beside me.
It was mid-June when he broke the news to me. He wasn't going. He had called Berkeley and told them that he would not be attending school in the fall. I couldn't believe what he was saying. He wanted to see how far he could go with Last in Line. They were gaining recognition in a few cities around ours and he thought they had a chance of really making it. Obviously, he had been right.
I didn't cry. I didn't break down. Call it an old habit, but I rarely allowed myself those moments. I still felt like I always had to be the strong one. I simple nodded and said, "Okay." That had sort of been the beginning of the end to us.
While I went off to college, Ty got a bass player. He kept in contact with me for almost a year; we were trying to make the long distance relationship thing work. But it didn't. Near the end of my first winter semester, I got another phone call from him.
"I won't be home when you come back this summer," he had said.
When I asked why, he told me that he was moving out. He and the rest of the band members were moving to another city where Adam had an uncle who could help them cut a real demo. He didn't know when he would be back. What Ty said then still stuck with me.
"I don't think this is gonna work Jess," he told me.
"What's not gonna work?"
"This. Us. I don't want to keep tying you down. You shouldn't have to wait around for me."
"So, we're breaking up?"
And that was it. I hadn't heard from him or seen him since. When I went home the summers of my freshman and sophomore years, I received the occasional update from his family. But I hadn't gone home in two years now except for Christmas and the Landons always left town for the holidays now.
I had never cried over the breakup or made a big deal out of it. I just quietly let Ty slip into my past along with the rest of my life from that time. But it had torn me apart inside. I had been completely shattered at the sudden loss of my best friend and my first love. It was a wound that had never completely healed.
With a sigh, I opened my eyes and sat up, returning to my desk and opening my laptop. There was no getting my mind off of him now, so I might as well give in. I logged onto the internet and clicked my way over to a search engine.
In the empty white box, I typed, Last in Line. I was immediately bombarded with thousands of results. I clicked on the link to a fan site and began reading the short biography they provided for Tyler Landon. Next to the picture of his familiar, smiling face, it read:
"Tyler Landon is the lead guitarist, lead singer, and creator of Last in Line. He started the band when he was sixteen as the typical garage band. Ty's voice and talent for writing his own music quickly led the small group, then only consisting of Adam, Kacie, and himself, to get small paying gigs in the local coffee shop. Ty likes to keep most of his personal life away from the cameras, but there is a rumor floating around about him having a relationship with his bass player, Angie Tyson."
I immediately skipped down to the bass player's bio. She had joined the band shortly after I left for Berkeley, so I had never met her. Apparently, she was a childhood friend of Adam's and it had been his suggestion to add her to the band. Again, it mentioned the rumor about her relationship with Ty.
Trying to fight back the strange feelings of jealousy I glanced at the other biographies, pleased to see that both Kacie and Adam had remained with the band and that a keyboardist, Jake, had also joined them.
After surfing through the other websites for over an hour, I forced myself to close the internet. Why was I doing this to myself? So Ty was making it in the music world after all. So he may or may not be dating his bass player. So what? I was happy for him.
Or at least, I should have been. As I changed into my pajamas and crawled beneath my comforter for an early night's sleep, I couldn't help the feeling of sadness and regret that crept over me. Why did I make it so easy for him to walk away? I should have fought harder to keep him. But it was too late now. I squeezed my eyes shut, holding back the tears as I had always taught myself and trying not to think about what could have been.