Episode 12

DAY THIRTY-ONE.

“Just one more kiss.”

Jake could still feel the words lingering in the IKEA-showroom of a living room, long after he’d watched her walk down the steps and shut the dense front door behind her. He turned and glanced at the white and wood clock as he made his way toward the kitchen.

3:24am.

This was the earliest that Ella had gone home this past week. They’d seen the sunrise together most days, and had even spent one night in the chairs on her front porch, an unsuspecting Caroline waking them when she came out to enjoy her morning coffee and vinyl.

Jake and Ella had regained their rhythm since that fate-filled night in his backyard… his first “first kiss” in almost a decade. Each morning since, he’d find the light of the Portland summer sun, walk past the chiseled names on the post of the porch, down the steps, and toward the sidewalk. And each morning, she was there, sitting with her mother while the Admiral sang.

Then they’d walk, fingers interlocked, from Ladd Avenue to Elliot… Elliot to Hawthorne… then north on 20th, and a right on Burnside. Each day, their feet would reach the black-hexagon shaped tile, and they’d sit with their drinks, an Americano for him, and a soy latte for her.

Their journals sat between them, a brown worn out Moleskin and a tan hardback notebook. They spent their first hours of the day writing, only pausing to sip their coffee or say hello to usuals they’d been accustomed to sharing this shop with. They’d become regulars at Heart Coffee, and the patrons and baristas of this shop only knew them together… as Jake and Ella.  

From there, they’d hit up Powell’s Books or the little unassuming donut shop on Belmont. It was the PSU Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, and Rontoms on Wednesdays. Most nights, they made it back to the Copeland house in time to join Aaron and Caroline for dinner, the whole family affair of innovating and taste testing in the kitchen.

And from there, it varied. There were nights where they never left the front porch, sipping on Aaron’s whiskey and taking turns picking out the next record. They’d seen two concerts, one at Doug Fir, and the other down the street. They’d taken the bus to Tanner Springs Park, where Jake had stared at the sky and promised to Ella that she’d look back and be grateful for the hard times. They’d shared drinks on moonlit rooftop bars, and in the darkest of dives. And they’d spent more than one night under the stars in Jake’s backyard, a fire and a sweatshirt to keep them warm.

On this night, they’d stayed in, spending their time in the IKEA showroom before calling it a night. The clock clicked to 3:25 by the time Jake made it into the kitchen and opened the cabinet. The unopened bottle of Burnside Bourbon was calling his name, as it had most nights in recent history. He poured a few shots without measuring, and fell in to the chair at the head of the table. And as he’d done most nights this past week, he grabbed the iPhone that had been sitting on this table all day. The screen lit, an incoming text from Ella.

I already miss you. Goodnight.

 Until a few days ago, he and Ella didn’t even have each other’s numbers. There’d been no need. But they’d finally given in, and this felt so foreign. Jake swiped the text away and opened the little eighth note icon titled “Music.” He set down his glass and placed the earbuds in his ears. He was alone in this house, but still he kept this to himself. He took a drink, hit PLAY, and closed his eyes.

One… two… three…”

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I bowed my head and I cried

Jake listened to the all-too familiar voice of Johnny Cash singing the hauntingly ironic words of this most unlikely of children’s songs. Three minutes and 23 seconds passed, and he hit play again… and again. The glass in front of him emptied three or four times, but still Jake sat, waiting again to repeat the dialogue that followed the melody.

“That was a nice short version.”

“Well… Whattya wanna… Let’s uh… Well, if I feel like my song is sung, it don’t care… I don’t care if it’s short. And I feel like my song is sung.”

All this time, from extreme loneliness to holding a beautiful woman in his arms, from the days in this house with only an acoustic guitar and a bottle of bourbon to the seemingly normal life he and Ella now shared, Jake Whitley’s song was still not sung.

He’d tried everything. Perhaps ignoring his previous life completely would make it so. So he tried that. He thought that maybe sending a letter to his ex-wife would do the trick. So he wrote a letter to Kira. Granted, he didn’t send it. And he assumed that moving on, living this new life, maybe that would take away the angst. But no such luck.

He even tried having a heart to heart with Ella.

“If we’re gonna make this work,” he said as they sat at their table drinking their drinks at their coffee shop, “then I need to tell you everything.”

She’d reached her hand across the table and placed it in his.

“You’ve told me everything I need to know.”

“No.” He replied matter-of-factly. “I haven’t.”

She looked concerned, but he began anyway.

“Kira and I had an amazing marriage. We met in London at a conference, and I knew in that instant that I would never love another woman the way I love her. I know everybody says this, but when we got married, July 4th, it was sunset… on a roof in downtown Dallas, and I knew for a fact that we were going to be different. Some of our friends had fallen out of love, and most of our friends’ parents and older siblings were already divorced, but that wasn’t gonna be us. And for the first few years, things were easy. I mean, we argued and stuff, like anybody, I guess, but life felt so… so natural. We were a freaking romantic comedy… too good to be true. And then London was born, and I thought, maybe this will be our first bump in the road… but no. My love for Kira only grew as we wrestled through the sleepless nights and frantic days of parenting a newborn. My job was going amazing. I was getting massive raises every year, and more people were showing up every Sunday to hear me sing. I mean, people would drive hours just to be at one of our services. We bought a house, shared a car, and I literally had the best life I could’ve ever imagined.”

Jake paused and took a deep breath before continuing.

“You know the words you say at a wedding… the vows. Well I don’t think people normally understand the gravity of them. At least the movies don’t make it seem that way. But I did. I spoke those words with every ounce of my being. I, Jake, take you, Kira,” he stopped and tried to keep his composure. “… to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

There was no holding back the emotion now.

“But… last year… the worse came… the poorer… the sickness… in a way I’d never imagined. Once, when we were at the hospital, one of god knows how many times we were there, I saw this stupid brochure that said, ‘So what will your marriage look like now?’ But even then, I didn’t picture this. We were Jake and Kira. ‘Till death do us part,’ right?”

Jake stopped and put his face in his hands, only momentarily keeping the tears from escaping and wetting the table between them.

Ella had so many questions. What happened last year? The hospital? There were apparently sides to this story she’d never imagined. She longed to know the details, but she was terrified of what she might find inside them. And so she sat, speechless, watching the man she was falling in love with mourn the loss of his wife… not knowing that she’d spend countless hours staring at the ceiling in the attic, trying to piece together the story of Jake Whitley.  

“Just one more kiss.”

After Ella spoke the words, she crossed the yard and found herself in her bedroom at 3:26am. She hadn’t retired to this room this early all week, and this night was destined to contain a few of those countless hours contemplating Jake’s story. So she rolled over, grabbed one of the journals from the box beneath her bed, hoping to get lost in her own story.

Of all the pages in all the books under Ella’s bed, she happened to open to the beginning of the end. There goes my night, she thought as she threw the book back onto the pile. Ella didn’t need the help of her journal to relive those awful days. In fact, it felt more real now than it did when it happened.  

The bus halted to a stop, jolting Ella from her sleep. It couldn’t be later than 8am. Ella rolled over in her bunk, grasping for her phone or the charging cable attached to it. The light from the screen was almost as jarring as the brakes of the bus. Apparently, her phone had not been asleep alongside her; the notifications were taking up the entire screen.

Oh yeah. Ella remembered the bomb she’d dropped on the entire world last night. She’d exposed the biggest secret of one of America’s golden boys, and she’d not been too nice about it.

There were messages from co-workers, friends, and colleagues. But at the top of the screen sat the name of her boss: Dominic Graham.

Ella… what the hell?

Uh oh. Ella’s stomach sank. Wasn’t this what he wanted… a story that would shock the world? She swiped, hit the little telephone icon, and waited.

“Ella.” He spoke in a tone that let her know that he’d be the one doing the majority of the talking. “You really think you can do whatever you want, don’t you? I wake up, thinking it’s going to be a nice, quiet day, but it’s not even lunchtime, and I have every freaking reporter in the Western hemisphere blowing up my phone, asking me about the biggest story of the damn century. When Stone called me at 7, I didn’t even know what in god’s name he was talking about. I was scrambling to open my laptop, only to see the claim on our site that Riley Martin happens to be a federal level criminal. I looked like an idiot.”

“Oh, I’m sorry… I just…”

“I’m not done,” he cut her off. “So I’m sitting here, getting questioned by Stone while my phone is blowing up in the background, and I’m flying through your article. If it wasn’t the best thing we’ve ever put out, I’d fire you for going behind my back and posting it without approval.”

Ella wasn’t sure whether to continue apologizing, or say “thank you.”

“I can explain,” she spoke, still laying in the bunk. “I saw Riley and Rebecca with Locker from ID yesterday, and I wanted to stay ahead of…”

“I don’t care,” Dominic spoke without emotion. “I mean, don’t ever do it again. But you did exactly what I asked you to do. And the fact that you stuck it to ID, that’s a bonus! Site traffic is up 54 percent from…”

Dominic’s voice was interrupted by a knock on the door of the bus, which caused more than one obscenity from the sleeping crew. 

Somebody else will get it, Ella thought while trying to catch back up to Dominic’s conversation.

“I knew I was catching gold when I hired you, but good lord…”

The knock came again, followed by the scruff voice from across the hall.

“Geez, take it easy, I’m comin’.”

Dominic was still talking on the other end of the phone when the outline of a man appeared at Ella’s bunk.

“Come on, Copeland. Let’s go.”

“Uh, Dominic, let me call you back.”

Ella clicked the phone and rubbed her eyes, realizing that it was Chandler, Riley’s tour manager, who was standing over her.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you serious?” The light coming from the window made it difficult to see him, but his tone made it evident that he was not happy. “You’re out of here.”

“I don’t understand.”

“What’s not to understand?” He was raising his voice now, causing the rest of the crew to stir from their bunks. “We gave you access to Riley… access that we give no one… and you go and write a crap story that…” He stopped and rubbed his temples. “Why am I even talking to you? Get your stuff and get out.”

Ella was speechless. Looking back, of course she’d get kicked off the tour for what she’d written. But as of that moment, the thought hadn’t even crossed her mind.

“Can I at least say goodbye to Riley?”

“What? You have ten minutes to get off this bus.”

And with that, Chandler turned and stormed through the door.

Ella had heard stories like this before, and in a way, living out her own version of it gave her a sense of accomplishment. She’d angered the subject of a story by exposing the truth, and it was somewhat of a badge of honor.

But that feeling of triumph vanished the moment she stepped onto the gravel. Where was she?

The door closed behind her, and the bus resumed its trek down the highway.

Ella looked around, but there was nothing.

Where were they even headed?

Ella racked her brain, trying to remember where the bus was headed after Nashville. Was it Atlanta? Or was that tomorrow night? An interstate and a handful of cars and semis were the only things that accompanied the rolling terrain.

She pulled the phone from the pocket of her sweatshirt and dialed Dominic.

Little did Ella know that this part of her journey would become the eleventh chapter of a twelve-chapter manuscript that she’d write a month later in the lodge of Mt. Hood’s most popular resort.

The hitchhiking… the loss of cell reception while in the cab of the scariest truck driver Ella had ever met… the night of sleep she missed because of an overbooked flight from Chattanooga back to New York… the relief she felt when she finally reclined in that first-class seat back to JFK… the awkward and satisfying conversation with the flight attendant who recognized her while refilling her drink… “You’re the girl who wrote the Riley Martin story, right?”

Ella badly wanted to crawl in bed by the time she made it back to the city, but Dominic had insisted that she come by the office before taking a couple days off. Still, she ran to her 22nd floor all-white apartment, to shower and change clothes before she headed to In Stereo’s Manhattan headquarters.

Exhaustion was in its latter stages by the time she’d dried her body and put on an outfit that had sat untouched in her closet these last few months. It felt so weird to be home. To say that she was looking forward to sleeping in her own bed would be quite the understatement, but still, she was grieving the loss of whatever it was that she and Riley Martin had shared.

Ella poured a French press and stepped out onto the balcony of her apartment. As she watched the city moving beneath her, an unfamiliar sense of gratification came over her. She’d done it. A couple months before, she’d stood in this exact spot and made a promise to herself, a promise to give it everything she had… a promise to kill it. And she’d accomplished just that. She’d written a story that was making waves all over the country… she’d solidified her place as one who’d over delivered.

Ella left her home and took an Uber back to the office, deciding that today was too special to take the normal train route. She scaled the stairs at the building she’d begun working at a mere five years before, anxious to catch up with the co-workers and friends she hadn’t seen since the Riley Martin tour began.

She glanced at her watch before busting through the double doors and into the bullpen. 3:24pm. Everyone would still be here. It was deadline week, so it would be at least six hours before the less committed decided to call it a night.

Ella Copeland was not prepared for what awaited her on the other side of the glass doors of her workplace. In the shower that afternoon, she’d felt a tinge of anxiety, wondering if her friends at In Stereo would be pissed that she’d usurped the normal authority of posting articles. But that anxiety dissipated the moment that the first intern in the bullpen noticed her presence. Before thirty seconds had passed, the entire office was standing, staring at Ella, applauding, and cheering for the writer who had just been kicked off one of music’s biggest tours. Ella looked around at her colleagues and friends, not knowing how to respond to this gesture. Kristina was there, her hands cupped around her mouth, screaming for her friend. Ella’s eyes continued to scan the room. They rested on Dominic, leaning against his door, his hands continuing to clasp together, with an enormous smile on his face.

 

// TAKE A BREAK HERE //

 

There were so many memories that accompanied that smell in the attic, but the smell itself was almost neutral. It was hard to explain, but in her best moments, that scent took Ella to some of the greatest days of her life. But when she was down, it was a reminder of the pain, heartbreak, and frustration that seemed to occupy way too much of her 29 years.

Today, however, was filled with the former. Life was good. Sure, she didn’t have a job, and didn’t even have a prospect. But she was in the most serious relationship of her life, despite the fact that she didn’t even know if she and Jake were officially dating. She’d been in his arms last night, and the night before that, and the night before that. And in spite of all that seemed to be going wrong, life felt right.

On this particular morning, the sun was shining, the summer birds were singing, and from her open attic window, Ella could hear the songs of City and Colour coming from the Admiral on the porch below. She ran down the stairs, skipping the second step from the top as her feet moved quickly toward the main level. There was, as there’d been each morning this past month, a French press awaiting her in the kitchen. So she grabbed a mug, poured a cup, and made her way onto the porch where her mother sat, each morning, with that same welcoming smile.

Caroline met her with the same greeting as she had most mornings, the simple, carefree welcome of one for whose affection Ella did not have to work. Ella fell into her normal chair, sipping her coffee as she unlocked her phone. Out of habit, she clicked the little icon that featured an envelope and swiped down to refresh the email that had remained silent these past four weeks.

In fact, everything had seemed so normal on this morning that Ella was surprised to find a new message in her inbox. The tiny blue dot next to the name of the sender felt foreign, but still Ella knew what to do.

In the midst of everything that had happened in the days since she returned from Mount Hood, Ella had almost forgotten that she’d spent an afternoon crafting query letters concerning her manuscript.

The message that confronted her now was from none other than Simon Monaghan, the former editor-in-chief of ID Magazine, the journalist that high-school Ella had traveled to hear speak, the legend. The subject line was simply a reply to her original message: “How I Almost Destroyed In Stereo Magazine: Ella Copeland’s Side of the Story Manuscript.”

Ella glanced over at Jake’s house, another staple of each morning this past week, before clicking on the message and reading one of her hero’s words.

Dear Ella,

Thank you for writing. It’s great to hear from you. I was very troubled when I heard about what happened between you and In Stereo, and I became even more confused after speaking with Dominic. So when you wrote, I was anxious to read your account of the events surrounding your departure from In Stereo. I consumed your entire manuscript in one evening. Riveting.

As always, your writing is phenomenal, captivating, and written with such a strong voice. My initial thought was to send it to my most trusted contacts in the industry, knowing that you’d be in good hands, and that I’d be doing a favor to whichever publishing house ended up producing your book.

My only hesitation, however, is with your current reputation in the industry. I called around a bit, and your name has very little trust attached to it. After the magnitude of the debacle that you put your previous employer through, it’s only natural that the list of those jumping to publish your next work is minimal.

I know this may be difficult to swallow, but please do not lose heart. I’ve seen this happen countless times during my decades in this industry. And more times than not, minds do change. I would say that this change just takes time, but that would be disingenuous. Usually, this shift in perspective is the result of fresh, new work that is unrelated to the previous disaster.

I suppose what I’m attempting to say is this: keep working. The world is ready for your side of the story, but you have an industry to prove your credibility to first. So keep writing, and keep releasing. Your time will come, my dear. I have no doubt about that.

All the best,

Simon Monaghan

Ella read the entire message twice, hanging on to every word of the man she’d met inside the Crif Dogs on St. Marks in New York City five years earlier. For a moment, Ella wondered if she should be taking the advice of the man who half a decade ago had inadvertently led her down a path that ended up in the loss of her career and moving back in to her parents’ attic. But that moment passed quickly. Her eyes found the screen of her phone again.

Usually, this shift in perspective is the result of fresh, new work that is unrelated to the previous disaster.

Ella stood and began pacing the porch.

“Everything ok, dear?” Caroline was looking up from her book, their normal morning routine broken by the back and forth of her daughter’s feet.

“Yeah.” The word came out harsher than Ella intended, but she didn’t notice. She was searching her brain for industry contacts or story subjects that could quickly get her back in the good graces of those who might publish her work.

Outside of the week on Mount Hood writing her manuscript, Ella hadn’t even considered the idea of working again as a journalist. In fact, the reality of 34E had been so jarring that she had all but closed the door completely.

But now, the wheels were spinning. Maybe she could freelance the coverage of a summer festival, or perhaps she could find quick work doing a feature on a band she already knew. These thoughts were moving full steam ahead as Ella moved back and forth on the creaky porch. But her feet, and her thought process, screeched to a halt when she remembered one name: Riley Martin. No magazine was going to hire her to cover a festival, and no band or artist would let her within 50 feet.

Your name has very little trust attached to it.

Hopeless. How could Ella “write and release” in order to regain credibility if no one would hire her or release her writing based on her lack of credibility? It all felt so incredibly hopeless.

She took a deep breath and took in the beauty that is Ladd Avenue in the morning. During the more difficult days in New York, Ella would daydream about this porch… the distinct sound of the Admiral… the way the wind moved softly through the green of the trees. And somehow, allowing her mind to spend a few minutes remembering this scene always seemed to give the spark that she needed.

But now she was on the porch, actually on the porch, and the spark was yet to be found. Ella sat back down next to her mother, and thoughtlessly began scrolling through her phone. First her contacts, but that was too painful; each number was a reminder of the life she’d screwed up. Then social media, but opening Facebook for the first time since it all went down was far too overwhelming. She closed the app and reloaded her email… nothing. So she reread Simon Monaghan’s words once more… fresh, new work… unrelated to the previous disaster.

The only thing “new” in Ella’s life was the boy who was still asleep next door.

That’s it!

Ella had her spark. Ella jumped from her chair, ran in the house, up the stairs, and into the attic. She grabbed the laptop from her desk and plopped down on her bed. Again she grabbed her phone, this time opening the camera roll.

There it was… the video… Jake in his backyard, singing his heart out. She’d thought it before, that she should introduced the world to the magnificence that was Jake Whitley, yet she’d never known how. But now, as she watched the video transfer from her iPhone to her MacBook, she knew that this was the way.

It had been so long since Ella hadn’t been writing for someone else that she didn’t quite know where to post the song. Before In Stereo, it had been the PSU student paper, and before that, it had been her blog, Do You Hear It?

That was it!

Sure, she hadn’t posted anything on the site in over seven years, but it had quite the following back in the day.

So she found the login page and typed her email and the password she used for everything. The page refreshed, this time sporting a bright red message that said, “Incorrect Password. 3 more attempts until lockout.” So she tried her backup password, the one she used when forced to abandon her go-to, but no luck. Ella thought back to her college days, wondering what she might’ve typed on this site. A third try… still nothing. She’d locked herself out of the account, an 800 number on the page in front of her the only way to retrieve her site.

Then another idea crept its way into Ella’s head. Surely In Stereo had deleted her account, or at least removed her password, right? A few clicks of the keyboard told her they had. Of course. Ella removed her email address from the box titled “Username,” and on a whim let the middle finger of her right hand rest on the letter “K.”

Autocomplete did the rest. And with two clicks, Ella was back inside In Stereo’s website. Kristina, the magazine’s art director, must have logged in to Ella’s computer a hundred times, and the machine had done the rest. Thank you, Steve Jobs.

Ella stopped for a moment and calculated her next move. How pissed was Dominic Graham going to be when he realized that Ella Copeland had come back from the dead and posted on his site? Was it worth it? Ella thought again of Simon Monaghan’s words: your name has very little trust attached to it. Was this going to make it worse? Or could Ella spin this to her favor? Was this move going to give the illusion that Dominic trusted her again?

In the heat of the moment, Ella decided to take the risk, hoping the latter outweighed the former. She uploaded the video, and contemplated her next move.

The title had to grab the reader. A random song by a random guy would not make any waves, even if it was posted by the most controversial journalist in the music industry.

What Heartbreak Sounds Like: Texas Church Songwriter Hiding Out in Portland, A Premiere by Ella Copeland.

The mouse scrolled over the “Publish Now” button, a button that Ella had only used one other time in her career. She glanced at Jake’s house, pressed her finger against the rectangle at the base of her computer, and watched the video go live.

Jake let the guitar ring out, the song from the Moleskin fading into the air. The words he’d just sung were weighing heavy in the room:

I would trade all of my days to take the pain away

Jake replayed the melody in his head. And that’s when it hit him. Had he really left the hospital? Had he seriously penned the words to this song in the waiting room, gotten in his car, and left them there? Jake had certainly meant the words that had come from his mouth, yet his actions were speaking something entirely different. Maybe it was the smell of that ICU waiting room… maybe it was the brochure he’d picked up in that ICU waiting room… maybe it was the words that were burned in his mind from that brochure in the ICU waiting room: “So what will your marriage look like now?”

It was as if he was snapped out of hypnosis or something far more powerful. Jake looked around the empty house, suddenly sickened by the fact that he’d abandoned his family for the sake of a song. He took one last look around the living room. The void that permeated the space was more than he could handle, so he grabbed his keys, shut the door behind him, and headed back to the hospital.

Jake hadn’t remembered driving home. In fact, as he pulled out of his driveway and began the trek out of his neighborhood, he couldn’t remember the name of the hospital he was heading back to, or the route to get there. While the drive from the hospital to their little house on the south side of Dallas had been a blur, the drive back to the hospital was more reminiscent of a crawl.

Every instance of the dotted yellow line in the highway seemed to inch by, as if Jake could make out each individual sliver and missed paint spot in the asphalt. The words of the doctor were repeating, loud and slow, over last month’s mix tape that Kira had left in the CD player.

“Bilateral Wilms Tumor.”

Jake could still see the horror on his wife’s face as the doctor spoke. For Dr. Andrews, this sort of talk was commonplace. He was more than used to using big words that those on the other side of the room had never heard… used to following those words with much smaller, more everyday phrases.

On this day, his eyes didn’t even leave the x-ray film as he spoke. “Essentially, what we’re looking at here… is kidney cancer.”

Dr. Andrews didn’t seem to notice the way that the air was sucked from the room in that moment. He didn’t react to Kira, lying in the hospital bed, sobbing. And he didn’t even lift his eyes when Jake fell into the pleather seat of the room’s only chair.

In the moment, Jake hadn’t comprehended all the words that had come from Dr. Andrews’ mouth. So now, in the car, inching his way back to the hospital, he was trying to make sense of it all.

Stage five… anaplastic… both sides…

As he let the conversation roll in his head, he tried to calm himself. Maybe the doctor seemed so disinterested because it wasn’t that big of a deal. Maybe there would be a couple months of treatment, a few hard nights, and then they’d look back on this whole thing like a distant memory.

But then that brochure… those words that had caused a grown man to abandon his family in a hospital room and all but black out on the drive home.

So What Will Your Marriage Look Like Now?

Jake pressed his foot even harder on the gas. He had to get back to her. He glanced down at his phone. She hadn’t called or sent a text. All he could see was his wife, laying in that hospital bed, her fear running down her cheeks and onto her shirt.

“I, Jake, take you, Kira, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

In sickness and in health…

He knew that these words were going to be put to the test. He had no idea what the following months would hold, but there was a determination in him that he’d never known.

To love and to cherish, till death do us part.

Jake Whitley had no idea that in less than a year, he’d be drinking himself to sleep every night, writing songs about her that weren’t quite sung… no idea that the woman who was now 15 minutes away in an ICU room would be a 30-hour car ride away in 12 months time. 

Jake pulled in to the hospital, much like he’d done four years ago; the day that London was born. Oh how different this felt.

His feet found the tile floor of the ICU, where he stopped, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath before entering Room 414.

“Jake.” Kira was sitting up now, on the edge of the bed, and she appeared stronger than she had when he had left. “This is Melissa. She’s a social worker.”

Jake looked across the room, where a kind-eyed 40-something sat with lips pursed.

“Hi Jake. I’m Melissa. I’m so sorry to hear about what you’re going through.”

Jake looked at the bed, and his eyes welled up with tears. The social worker was the first person, outside of Dr. Andrews, that he’d heard speak of this.

“Cancer is always a scary word,” Melissa continued. “And I want to let you know that I’m here to help in any way that I can. Families dealing with a diagnosis like this will have a lot of questions, so you can call my office day or night.”
“Thank you.” Kira took a business card from Melissa, who spoke again.

“How is she feeling?”

All three of them turned their attention to the bed. Jake’s shoulders shook and Kira buried her face into her hands.

“I’m so sorry,” Melissa said again.

The room sat silent for a few moments while the social worker allowed them to feel their feelings.

“Cancer is always tragic,” she finally broke the hush, “but in an elderly person, there has been much life lived. But a four year old…"

Episode Eleven

Ella’s eyelids slowly separated, allowing the slightest bit of light to invade her fuzzy eyes. She rolled over, the smell of the room and the touch of the sheets on her bare skin causing a feeling of déjà vu. She’d fallen asleep and woken up in this room countless times in her life, but that wasn’t what she was experiencing in this moment. Maybe it was the excitement of waking up after a night like the one she’d just had. Maybe it was the optimism of waking up with a purpose… an optimism she hadn’t known since leaving New York. Or maybe it was the thrill of the unanswered emails she’d sent just before falling asleep.

Ella turned on to her back and rubbed her eyes, the attic’s wood ceiling coming clearly in to view as she longed to replay the events of the previous night in her head. Oh how she wished she could go back.

The crackle of the fire… the subtle light falling from the sky… the clear summer night… the stars… the moon… the Portland summer nighttime air whispering its way through the trees…

She regretted not opening her journal the moment it was over and recording the night’s events. What she’d give to be able to read her recollection of exactly what had happened before her head hit this pillow around three in the morning.

The phone. The video.

She had something better than a journal entry. She had almost seven minutes of their time together on film. Well… on a digital video file on her iPhone.

Ella reached her left arm across her body and found the device, waiting patiently on the nightstand.

As she touched the screen with her index finger, she felt the pace of her heart pick up… another déjà vu moment. But unlike the feeling she had just moments before, while waking, she knew exactly where in her brain to find the other side of this memory.

It was the first time she’d heard this same song. The voyeuristic nature of hearing her unsuspecting neighbor playing a song from the porch next door was not unlike watching this video that she’d recorded without that same neighbor’s knowledge just the night before.

The picture took a moment to stabilize, but once it did, Ella was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the video. The fire lit Jake’s face just enough to make it look like it was on purpose, and the audio quality was phenomenal. All she’d done was hit “Record” and try to keep her hand from shaking too much, yet she was proud of the film she’d created.

Ella couldn’t wipe the smile off her face for the entirety of the video.

Listening to him sing… watching his body move as his passion found its way through his fingers on the fret board … hearing the hurt and longing in his voice. It was doing to her now what it had done to her last night in his back yard.

Did you walk out with it when you walked out on me?
Oh, I can’t sleep

The song went on, the emotion rising and falling alongside the melody.

The video ended abruptly, but the vision of what happened next was just as clear in Ella’s mind.

The last note rang out, giving way to the crackle of the fire… the subtle light falling from the sky… the clear summer night… the stars… the moon… the Portland summer nighttime air whispering its way through the trees…

For a moment, time froze in the back yard of the Adeline’s old house on Ladd Avenue. Jake let the guitar rest on his lap while his eyes came back… back from a memory… a place far sadder than this picture perfect night in the Pacific Northwest.  

“You ok?”

“Yeah,” she answered, his eyes never leaving hers as she stood, walked past the fire, and sat on the bench next to him.

It was the moment she’d hoped for since that awkward conversation with her mom on the night he’d found his notebook in her bedroom. Sliding her hand between his arm and his side… resting her head on his shoulder… as they silently listened to the crackle of the fire… the subtle light falling from the sky… the summer night… the stars… the moon… the Portland summer nighttime air whispering its way through the trees…

“Are you ok?” It was Ella who asked the question this time, but she wasn’t exactly sure whether she was referring to the reopening of the wound from the song, or the fact that she’d just nestled herself underneath his arm.

Jake didn’t answer right away, which caused Ella to shift her stare from the fire to his face. He didn’t seem to notice. He just sat; staring at the stars while the quiet of the sleepy neighborhood surrounded them.

The journalist inside Ella had completely turned off. She wasn’t looking for adjectives to explain the way that his journey was written all over the beautiful lines on his face… the way his eyes told a story that didn’t yet have an ending… the way his beard so perfectly portrayed the messiness of his past. No, she was just there. No mental notes or creative prose for her journal.

She just was.

“Yeah,” he finally replied.

And that was the only confirmation she needed. Without words, she placed her hand on his jawline, ever so slightly, and softly kissed his neck with the same gentleness. She could feel the beat of his heart… pulsing… she kissed him again, while he slowly turned his face toward her.

Ella kissed him again, this time on the cheek, while she made her way toward his lips. Once his finally met hers, it seemed as if a world of tension dissolved between them. No longer was there the anxiety of the previous weeks, or the wondering if there was something there. For Ella, it was the answer to the only question she’d cared to ask this past month.

It was perfect. The crackle of the fire… the subtle light falling from the sky… the clear summer night… the stars… the moon… the Portland summer nighttime air whispering its way through the trees…

Ella clicked “play” on the video again before setting the phone on the nightstand and getting out of bed. Jake’s song filled the room while Ella got dressed… black shorts and his sweatshirt, the same one from the night before. The aroma of last night’s campfire was still there, a memory she hoped would stay with her… and this sweatshirt… for days.

Down the attic stairs, to the left, her feet feeling the slight give in the middle of 2nd step from the top, the house making its signature groan while she shifted her weight from the bottom step to the living room’s wood floor, and then beyond the living room, where a half full French Press greeted Ella in the kitchen.

With mug in hand, she made her way out the front door and found her mother, in her usual spot, on the front porch. “How The Day Sounds” was spinning on the Admiral, the voice of Greg Laswell filling the air.

“I love this song.”

It was Caroline who spoke, not looking up from the Steinbeck novel in her hands.

Ella sat, looked at her mother (still lost in the story of Adam Trask), and then looked past her toward Jake’s house.

Was he awake yet? Had they hit the point in their relationship where she could just walk in the front door unannounced? She longed to be there when he woke… to cuddle up next to him on the couch and not get up all day.

Instead, she slipped her phone out from her back pocket and stared at the screen. There he was, Jake, at the end of the video she’d filmed just a few hundred feet from this very spot. She could feel the smile forming at the sight of this memory.

She clicked the home button on the iPhone, swiped left, and then touched the screen on top of the little envelope that contained her email. She swiped down to refresh, but the scrolling wheel came up empty.

No one had responded yet.

It had been years since she’d done this: been so excited for the response to an email that she compulsively reloaded the page, just in case the person on the other end of the conversation had hit send in the previous 24 seconds.

Nothing.

She swiped left again, and clicked “Sent Mail.” Had her messages gone through? They had. An email to Simon Monaghan, the former head of ID Magazine that she’d fan-girled about over drinks in that modern-day speakeasy; and another to Troy Forrester, one of Dominic Graham’s best friends in the industry.

It had only been eight hours since she’d clicked “Send” on her laptop, but she grew a bit more nervous with each swipe.

The song on the Admiral faded, and the next one began. And with the first chord of “What a Day,” Ella was unexpectedly jolted off the porch and deep inside a memory.

Nashville in May… There was an energy in the streets that took Ella by surprise after another horrible night’s sleep on the tour bus. Perhaps it was the arrival of spring, or maybe it was that same entrepreneurial spirit she’d felt in San Francisco, but it definitely suited well the soundtrack playing in Ella’s earbuds.

The previous few days had been a whirlwind… everything had been going so well. The blogs were still paying In Stereo’s mortgage, the shows still as fun as they’d been a month ago during the first nights of the tour. Ella had been spending more time on Riley’s bus than her own… at least until Rebecca had returned a few nights ago.

And then, while the bus was parked outside of the arena in Indianapolis, the phone rang.

“Ella, we need something bigger.”

“I’m sorry?” Ella was used to hearing her boss make frank statements without qualification.

“Your blogs have been great, but we need a story that’s…” he paused to find the right word. “Sexy.”

“What?” Ella didn’t try to hide her annoyance with Dominic.

“These Riley stories have tested well with every demographic, and we need a…” Another pause.

“Are you familiar with baseball terms?”

“Sure.”

“We’ve been hitting doubles with these stories, and now we need a home run.” He stopped talking to let her respond, but she stayed silent.

“Is there anything you could write about that you haven’t covered? A headline that will cause every fan in America to click the link?”

Ella had exactly the story that would accomplish this purpose, but she couldn’t tell Dominic that.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “It sounds like you’re asking me to get in the gutter and write a click-bait tabloid story.”

“Come on,” he replied, now as annoyed as she was. “You know me better than that. All I’m saying is that we have the momentum, and now we need to capitalize. Figure it out. You’re the best writer I’ve got, and I know you can do it.”

The line clicked, and Ella stared at her phone… speechless.

In that moment, she was taken back to her 22nd story apartment balcony, that night she’d gotten drinks with Dominic Graham and Simon Monaghan, and thought of her promise to herself. “You have to kill it.”

Could she really tell the story that she’d pieced together these last few weeks? It was so extremely obvious, and it seemed that Riley had no intention of hiding it from her. Perhaps it was simply a part of chasing the thrill, but surely he’d have been more careful if he didn’t want her to share it with the world, right?

That night, she’d put all the elements on paper… in her journal of course, and not in her laptop.

-The package
-The chasing of every high
-The conversation at Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco
-Rebecca’s trip to Cuba
-The briefcase (presumably full of cash) on the tour bus in Chicago
-The sketchy business man who said he couldn’t wait to keep the relationship going

And then there was the conversation she’d overheard outside the green room a couple nights ago in Pittsburgh. There she was, just her and Riley in his dressing room, snacking on some horrible vegetable that Ella had never heard of, when his phone rang.

In that moment, she thought of how much had changed since the first time she’d heard a phone ring in Riley’s green room. She seemed an entire life removed from reading that text from the contact named “Z.”

We’re over the border. We’ll pick up the package tomorrow. I’ll be in touch.

 In the weeks since Ella had almost been caught sneaking glances at the phone, she and Riley had spent countless hours together. From backstage to the tour bus to morning coffee, she had more access than she’d ever imagined in those early days.

“Hello?” Ella could tell from his tone that this call was not from his wife. Riley smiled at her, held up one finger, and left the room with his phone to his ear.

Unlike a few other instances, Ella was not intentionally trying to snoop on the subject of her recent stories. She simply sat on the sofa, sipping on a club soda and trying to stomach the kale or chard or leek, or whatever it was, that Riley’s people had made sure had filled this room.

But the door was cracked, and the concrete floors of this venue weren’t doing any favors for Riley’s privacy.

“I don’t want to hear any excuses.” Riley’s tone on the other side of the door was foreign to Ella, piquing her interest.

“Do you have any idea how much money I have on the line?”

By this point, she longed to be able to hear the other end of the phone line. What in the world was going on?

“Let me lay this out for you,” he was almost yelling now. “I paid to make this happen... a lot of money. And if I remember correctly, I paid you even more money to…”

His speech faded to a mumble. He must’ve been walking down the hallway away from the door. Ella sprung from her seat, now fully invested in the conversation, and peeked through the cracked door.

He was at least 15 feet away; his back to the room, and his words were still nothing more than a murmur.

Ella was about to give up and resume her spot on the sofa, when he turned, still pacing, but making his way back toward the room.

She never got used to this feeling… that split second where hearing one more word could result in getting caught… the tension of appearing clueless while in fact being privy to far more than your subject knows.

His footsteps on the concrete floor were getting louder, but she didn’t have enough info yet. Another step… she was catching every third or fourth word… cash, next week, Havana, package… there it was again, the package.

 Ella longed to know more, so with each step from the hallway, she took one toward the couch. More words, these pieced together a bit more than the last: we’re not done, big splash, I thought you… smuggling isn’t supposed to be…”

 Later that night in Indianapolis, she filled her journal with these phrases, trying to piece together exactly what was going on. Obviously, Riley didn’t want her to know about it. And that made her think that it was likely a really big deal. I mean, really big. She thought of all the incriminating stuff he had told her, marital woes to drug experimentation. He’d been so incredibly open and frank. What on earth could be so big that he’d keep it from her?

Ella didn’t sleep at all that night, multiple conversations echoing inside her head.

“And now we need a home run.”

Over the words of Dominic repeating in her mind, she could hear the silence of Dominic’s office, totally removed from the bullpen she’d been terrified of leaving.

More conversations…

“All you gotta do is get a couple of monster stories and deliver. Two or three of those in the next decade, and you’re an executive before you hit 40.”

“But don’t over deliver, or I’ll never let you out of the bullpen.”

“Indeed. One of the biggest mistakes the best writers make is being too good.”

And then the conversation with herself that night on her apartment balcony…

“This seals it. I’ve gotta kill it. I have to over-deliver.”

But then her thoughts would take her to Riley Martin, to his beautiful smile and beautiful vulnerability. This story would ruin him.

But not writing this story might ruin her career.

Ella washed down the back and forth with more than a few shots of the whiskey she’d kept in her bunk.

Her head was swimming from the drink, but her mind was still racing.

“You’re kinda cute when you sleep.”

She smiled, half drunk, remembering the way the words had fallen from his mouth. And it was in that moment that she made her decision. She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t write the story that would no doubt ruin Riley Martin’s career… and ruin his life. 

// TAKE A BREAK HERE //  

Jake Whitley was dead asleep when the sun peeked its head over the horizon. This had only happened a handful of times during his stint in Portland. Usually, his demons kept him awake until the daylight had made its grand entrance from the other side of Mt. Hood and the east side of the city. Most nights, it was the liquor or pure exhaustion that finally did the trick around the breakfast hour. But last night, the clock had not yet hit 1am when his head hit the pillow in the borrowed house.

After Ella had headed home, Jake shut the door behind her, walked through the IKEA showroom of a living room, up the stairs, and got in bed. He didn’t allow himself to give one thought to the night that had just happened. He’d started that day not knowing if he’d ever speak to Ella Copeland again, but they’d made up quickly. They’d apologized and made things right. And then he ended the day with his first ‘first kiss’ in almost a decade. But that night, Jake turned it off. Completely.

He simply slipped his still clothed body under the bed sheets and closed his eyes.

It was 10am before another thought entered Jake Whitley’s brain. And boy, did they come like a flood. His successful attempt at closing his mind the previous night had him unprepared for the onslaught that bombarded him this morning. And the worst part was that he had no idea what to think.

Was he elated or devastated? Was he filled with hope or remorse? Maybe the answer was all of the above. But that morning, Jake had no idea.

He’d felt this way before… completely lost with no feasible direction in sight. But in the past, she’d known how to guide him. An hour face to face with his wife was all he’d needed to course correct, to ease his anxiety and find his way. There’d been the time when he had to choose between the church job in Dallas and another in Tallahassee. Then there was the year that London was born, when their lack of sleep and inexperience made it seem like their whole world was upside down.

But she wasn’t here, and that added another emotion to the morning… anger. Was he angry with her for not being here, or himself for leaving? He hadn’t made it that far in his line of thinking.

Jake slipped out of bed, took off yesterday’s clothes, and let the scalding water of the shower wash away the smell of last night’s backyard fire. He closed his eyes and let the steam soak into his skin. For a moment, the chaos in his head calmed and the memory he’d been trying to suppress made its way to the front of his brain.

“So Jake, play out this exercise with me.”

Dr. Wertz came highly recommended, but his real appeal was that he was all the way in Denton, a good 45 minutes from anyone Jake and Kira might know from their church work. The therapist continued: “The grass is often greener on the other side, or so we think. And so I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine: what would your life would look like if you actually went through with the divorce?”

This exercise would’ve been a lot less awkward if Kira were not sitting next to him, her breath heavy as he imagined a world where he was not married.

“Are you happy? Think about going to sleep every night by yourself… waking up every morning alone. Think about a house that’s completely quiet because you’re the only one in it. I know you’re not the sort of man who drinks alcohol, but how likely would you be to find a vice of some sort? Maybe it’s television, maybe it’s food, maybe it’s something far more destructive. Is that a real possibility?”

“I don’t know.” Jake responded without opening his eyes, and neither he, Kira, or Dr. Wertz knew which question he was answering.

“Now, keep imagining that you do get divorced… that you give up and your marriage ends. I want you to see this from every angle before making such a life-altering decision. A few years pass, and… well, you two are still very young. So say that Kira gets in another romantic relationship.”

Jake’s eyes were still shut, but he winced.

“Now imagine that you just got back to your house, where you live alone, remember, and you open up your computer, click on social media, and see a photo of Kira and her new love interest.”

“Do we have to do this?” Kira butted in, but Dr. Wertz continued as if he hadn’t heard her.

“And in this photograph, let’s say it’s New Year’s Eve. And they’re kissing. Nothing explicit, just a romantic couple ringing in the New Year.”

Jake swallowed hard and felt a tear escape from his tightly closed eyelids. He closed his mouth and slowly inhaled through his nose. And then he felt Kira’s hand slip into his, which caused more tears to run down his clean-shaven cheek. It was the first time their skin had touched in weeks… and it was in that instant, his wife’s fingers intertwined with his and the thought of her kissing another man in his head, that he told himself that he would stay.    

But now it was Jake who had the taste of another woman on his lips. The shower water was cooling now, telling him that no amount of cleaning was going to wipe this away. He dried, dressed, and made his way down the stairs, through the living room, and into the kitchen. He opened the cabinets, but nothing sounded good… the same with the refrigerator.

So Jake Whitley did what Jake Whitley does whenever life feels like this: he grabbed his Martin auditorium and fell into the closest chair.

He began to strum, but no song came out. No problem. When this happened, Jake knew what to do. He’d simply sing a song he’d already written, and eventually the creativity would flow. So he switched to the key of E and began the chord progression of a song he could sing in his sleep. E… C#m… G#m… A. The six beats between chords seemed to dance as his finger found the strings. But when the intro had ended, Jake couldn’t bring himself to open his mouth. The words were right there, on the tip of his tongue, but something inside stopped his vocal chords from finding the opening melody.

Confused, Jake stopped, regrouped, and tried another. He’d written this one the night they’d met, in London, all those years ago, and he’d sung it hundreds of times since. F… C… G. But again, the words wouldn’t come. It was as if Jake’s subconscious wouldn’t let him go to these places from his past. Fine, he thought out loud, I’ll just have to write a new song.

But he couldn’t. He tried multiple progressions and opening lines, but it was all so incredibly cliché. The blank page of the Moleskin in front of him sat mockingly. So he took a deep breath and tried again. Key of A in 4/4. Nothing. Key of C# in 6. Not a chance. He even tried the basic 1-4-6-5, the first progression he’d ever learned, in the key of G. Yet still the notebook remained without ink, and silence filled the room.

Out the dense front door, past the chiseled names in the front porch, down the stairs and across the yard, Ella Copeland sat, writing profusely in her journal as Greg Laswell continued to sing on the Admiral.

It’s hard to imagine that I’m only a month removed from 34E, that awful plane ride from JFK to PDX. Even two months ago, the thought of sitting on this porch, listening to this record, with my mom, no less… I couldn’t have even fathomed this. I wonder if he’s awake yet. I keep looking over there, hoping for a sign of life inside the windows. Settle down, Ella. It was just a kiss. Don’t act like it was… Ah, who am I kidding? It was so much more than just a kiss. It’s been a month, and we’ve gone through more in that month than, well… most of my previous relationships. And we’ve lived… we’re not college kids trying to play out a romantic comedy. We’ve seen hell, been back, and lived to tell about it. God, that sounds dramatic.

 Ella took a deep breath and stared at the full sheet of paper in front of her.

This notebook was filled with full pages… some of the most dramatic moments of Ella’s life. The memory attached to that song from earlier this morning was just a few sheets of paper beneath the page that was in front of her: her recollection of the day in Nashville, with “What A Day” in her earbuds. She’d come to grips with her decision. She really had. She was not going to allow herself to put two and two together and write the shock jock story of the century. She would not out America’s picture perfect rock star for what he really was. Screw the voices in her head telling her to kill it. Screw the silence of the executive office next to the bullpen. She simply couldn’t do that to the man she’d become so close to on this tour.

Things had been a bit different since Rebecca got back. The days of early morning movies on Riley’s bus and consistent walks to coffee had ceased, but they still had their little moments… passing moments of eye contact that were a whispering reminder that she was more than just a reporter on this tour. There were entire pages of Ella’s journal about those looks, what she thought they meant… what she hoped they meant to him.

Things were good on that morning in Nashville. She was at peace with her decision to suppress the story she’d gathered; she was optimistic about both the tour and the future. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and she was in one of her favorite cities. The bus was parked in front of the iconic Ryman Auditorium for tonight’s show, a venue that Ella had always wanted to experience. She walked the handful of blocks to Crema and ordered a soy latte, and then let the sun soak into her skin as she walked through town.

Most tourists spend their time on Broadway. Live music blares from every building, while every bartender, barista, and Uber driver has a demo in their back pocket, one celebrity away from their big break. But Ella wasn’t heading for the honkytonks. No, Music Row was the spot that Ella longed to spend her afternoon. Without the banners in the front yard congratulating songwriters on their recent #1 hits, one might not know that some of their favorite songs were written inside these houses. But the bodies that filled these blocks Monday through Friday were some of the greatest minds in music. And so Ella walked the couple miles through downtown to the somewhat unassuming few blocks called Music Row.

She felt like a rookie again, staring at each front door as she passed, hoping to catch a glimpse of a face she might find on the cover of Rolling Stone or American Songwriter. RCA Studio B… Warner… Compass Records… So much history…

Ella noticed a familiar face when she turned the corner on 19th and Adelicia. But unfortunately, it wasn’t the face of a celebrity or an icon that she saw on the front porch of the Universal Music Publishing building. It was Todd Locker, smoking a cigarette and pacing back and forth while he held his phone up to his ear.

Ella stopped in her tracks, not wanting to ruin this perfectly good day by having a conversation with the arrogant reporter from ID Magazine. She was contemplating her next move when Todd spotted a black car pulling up, hung up the phone, and started walking toward the sidewalk. Ella turned her head, hoping that he hadn’t recognized her. She hit the little button on her earbuds to stop the music, as if what was playing in the headphones could somehow affect whether or not Todd Locker would spot her.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him reach the curb, wait for the car to slow to a stop, and then open the door. Ella shouldn’t have been surprised to see Rebecca Martin appear from the back seat, but she was.

What in the world was Riley Martin’s wife doing with Todd Locker?

 In the weeks since she saw them drive off together in Denver, she’d explored every possibility. Were they having an affair? Were they old friends? Were they simply sharing a ride from the party back to the venue? She’d considered bringing it up to Riley, but still, she had nothing more than the sick feeling that accompanied the thought.

Ella watched as they exchanged pleasantries on the sidewalk. She didn’t even care if they recognized her now; she wanted answers. So she walked their direction, keeping her eyes fixed on their conversation, an attempt to discern the nature of their relationship through facial expressions. She was so focused, in fact, that she didn’t even notice Riley follow Rebecca out of the car… at least at first.

When she did, she lost her breath, and then her balance. She stumbled around, her back now facing the three, and her feet moving quickly away. This doesn’t make sense. Todd Locker is supposed to be no more than a comp ticket writer whose only access on the tour was from the 15th row. So what’s doing with Riley? What’s Riley doing with him? In that moment, Ella’s emotions ranged from betrayal to anger to confusion, all in a matter of five or six steps. She stopped, gathered her composure, and turned her head.

They were gone. Her eyes scanned the street, but they weren’t there. She moved quickly now, back to the spot where the car had been just seconds before. Nothing. She spun around in a complete circle, looking for any sign of the Martins or Todd Locker. Ella noticed the smell of cigarettes in the air, and then the smoke from the still lit butt on the porch of the Universal building. Without thinking, she took two steps toward the porch… and then she saw it.

There he was, through the front window: Riley. The room looked like a living area, and Ella watched sneakily as the man she’d been hired to write about sat on what appeared to be a sofa. Ella’s heart sank when Rebecca came into view, and then took a seat next to her husband.

What was going on?

Maybe it was happenstance that Riley Martin and Todd Locker ended up in the same building on Music Row. Maybe their simultaneous arrival here had nothing to do with each other. Ella was trying to calm herself down with these thoughts when the sight of Todd walking into the room obliterated this hopeful hypothesis.

What was that in his hand?

 Ella stood and stared, so blown away by what she was witnessing. It was a camera, and Todd was placing it on a tripod and pointing it at the Martins.

What on earth was going on?

Ella was furious. Why hadn’t Riley told her about this meeting? Surely they were close enough for that, right? And what were they talking about in there?

“I don’t do press, remember?” He’d said these words to her on more than one occasion. So why was there a camera in his face, and the douche from ID Magazine on the other side of it?

The walk back to the Ryman happened much quicker, and with far more intensity than the walk to Music Row.

What on earth were they doing with Todd Locker?

Every insecurity was moved to the front of Ella’s mind. What was Dominic going to say when he saw a video of Riley on ID’s website? What was Locker getting that she wasn’t?

That feeling came back, the one she’d had a day before this tour started, when she thought she’d lost her exclusive. In fact, it was more than a feeling… it was a fight. And Ella had to win. She racked her brain… what did she have that Todd didn’t? Access. Well, not today, but in general. She had more than a month of one-on-ones with the man who was sitting in front of that camera. And now she knew she had to use it.

She reached the bus, grabbed her computer from her bunk, and began typing. Every gritty detail of their month together… the chasing of every high… the package… the smuggling… the phone calls to Cuba… the briefcase on the bus in Chicago…

“But why,” Ella wrote her last paragraph, tears of anger sitting at the corners of her eyelids. “Why would America’s favorite songwriter risk it all by involving himself in a cross-border drug empire? I found the answer on a foggy morning in San Francisco about a month ago. As we sat over coffee, I saw the eyes of a man who was miles beyond lonely. I saw the hands of a man who had tasted it all, yet came up empty. And I saw the heart of a man who had fallen completely out of love, and was searching for something that fame, fortune, and even his wife couldn’t give him.”

Ella re-read her work. It was by far the most provocative piece she’d ever written. And if she hit that button, Submit for Review, it would likely be the most read piece she would ever write. Even in the moment, she recognized the emotion that filled each sentence. And she knew that’s what made it so powerful.

That night, the sound of Riley’s songs filled the Ryman, and it was magical. Ella abandoned her normal spot backstage, and took in the show from the third row. As she heard him sing and watched him lead his band, there was an ounce of regret for the words she’d put on that page. And when he made eye contact with her for entire back half of “It’s Always Been You,” Ella was so glad that the file was still on her computer, and not in the hands of the team back at In Stereo.

She had every intention of submitting it before tonight’s show, but something had told her not to click the button. So it sat, open on her laptop in back in the bus. The hour and a half of Riley’s set had been enough to convince her to trash the story. Regardless of his extracurricular activities, he really was a good guy, and there was definitely something special between them. She couldn’t ruin his career, even if it meant suppressing the truth.

If she had any doubts about this new decision, they were put to rest by the sight of him backstage after the show. He was gorgeous. And Ella had never looked forward to something as much as she looked forward to their time together.

“Hey, you were in a different spot tonight.” He was using a towel to wipe the post-show sweat from his brow. “Caught me off guard.”  

“Yeah,” she replied, remembering how much she liked him. “It is the Ryman, and you are Riley Martin. I figured I couldn’t miss it, or watch it from backstage.”

“I liked it,” he said, not attempting to hide his smile. “Watching you while I sang.”

That sealed it. As soon as this conversation was over, Ella was going to walk right to the bus, and delete the story she’d spent all afternoon crafting.

“How was your day?” He asked. “I didn’t see you around.”

“It was fine.” She lied, but only because she truly thought it was going to be fine. “You do anything exciting?”

How was he going to respond to this? Maybe he’d tell her about the Todd Locker interview, or whatever it was. Maybe he’d say Rebecca dragged him to it, and he BS-ed his way through Todd’s stupid questions.

“Um… nothing, really. Pretty much just hung out in the bus all day. Need my rest, you know?”
“Yeah,” Ella lied, knowing that she wasn’t going to be able to keep her composure while he stood her and lied to her. “Hey, I gotta run. Talk to you later.”

Riley furrowed his brow. “Everything ok?”

“Yeah, I just gotta…”

Before she finished, she turned around and walked away. The tears of anger from earlier returned, this time with a fair amount of hurt to accompany them.

The bus was empty, the crew busy cleaning up the stage and packing away the gear.

She felt foolish for being swayed by his songs, her mind changed by his charm.

So she opened the laptop, the story still on the screen in front of her. She wouldn’t be deceived again. She scrolled her mouse over the Submit for Review button, then hesitated.

“Screw it,” she said out loud before scrolling down and hovering over the “Publish Now” button.

She clicked the icon, watched the story become live online, and closed the laptop.

Episode Ten

I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept for a few days. You know how I often complain about the hyperbole of that last sentence? Well, right now I’m too tired to care. I’d apologize, but you’re used to getting the worst of me, right?

It’s 4am, and the bus is chugging along, from St. Louis to Chicago… I think. The days have all been running together. A few minutes ago, the last of the crew finally finished whatever they were playing on the X-Box and climbed into their bunks. The headphones I’d been using to drown them out are finally off my ears, and the rhythm of the road is my only companion. Last night, I abandoned the bunk completely, drifting in and out of consciousness on the horribly uncomfortable fabric that functions poorly as sofa, storage, and dining table… depending on how you bend the hinges.

My mind will not shut off. At first, it was just the normal stress of being responsible for the Riley Martin story. And then it was our secret. And then I watched Rebecca and Todd Locker get into that car together. I’ve never envied investigative journalists, and the last week has been confirmation of that. If that wasn’t enough to keep me up all night, Dominic called today.

“That last Riley blog was money.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m not being metaphoric,” he continued. “It was literally money. The ad revenue from the first 72 hours alone is paying our mortgage this month.”

“That’s good.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Just tired, I think.”

“Too much partying on the road? Riley doesn’t seem like the type.”

“No, just trying to get the story ready.”

“Well,” the clicks on Dominic’s end of the phone told me that his mind had moved to his next task, and for this I was grateful. Had he been fully engaged, he’d likely probe for details I couldn’t divulge. “Well, keep me in the loop, Ella. And keep killing it.”

Those words… they take me back to the balcony of my now empty 22nd floor Manhattan apartment. I have to kill it. Otherwise, I’m simply a story away from the disconnected computer clicks that I’d just heard on the other end of the line. Laying here, my body bumping with the wheels of the bus, the logical part of my brain is whispering: settle down, Ella. Keep killing it means that you already are. But the anxiety is screaming far louder. Why can’t I turn it off? I’m going to try and get lost in this Kim Gordon memoir.

Here’s to better sleep,

Ella.

Ella shifted on her bed and turned the page of her journal. The coffee her mom had brought up was still steaming on the small table next to the bed. Girl in a Band, the Kim Gordon autobiography she’d just read about in her journal, was there, next to the coffee, her bookmark sticking out about two-thirds of the way through. Every memory she’d relived in these notebooks simultaneously seemed like an open wound and a seasoned scar. The fact that she hadn’t yet finished the book she was reading when it all went down added to the mess.  

Ella stood and looked in the mirror. She was still wearing yesterday’s navy sweatshirt and gray gym shorts, and her face was still sticky from the night before. She grabbed the coffee from the nightstand and found herself staring out the window at Jake’s house. This year had truly been the worst. It had been one disaster after the next. And it was all her fault… every ounce of it. She badly wanted to go knock on Jake’s door, to apologize, to hold him and give him the same feeling he’d given her that night in Tanner Springs Park. But the clock had not yet hit 10am, and it would be at least a couple of hours until he’d wake.

So Ella sat back down on the bed, turned the page of her journal, and kept reading.

Talk about not being able to sleep… After last night… I mean yesterday morning, not even half an hour after I sat you down and picked up the girl from Sonic Youth’s memoir, my phone lit up, making known the ungodly hour and the text that had come through.

Hey, you up?

I couldn’t help the smile that was pasted on my face. I swiped the screen of my phone to open the conversation, and replied.

Surprisingly, yes.  

I hit SEND and watched those three little dots appear underneath my answer.

I’m bored. Wanna come over? 

I pulled my knees up to my chest, and even I know it was just a feeble attempt at containing my excitement.

I’d love to. I stopped typing to craft my reply. Two problems with that: one, I haven’t mastered jumping out of a moving bus. And two, your wife hates me. How would she feel about me hanging out in your bus at four in the morning?

I hit send, and then instantly wished I hadn’t. All Riley had told me was that his wife didn’t like the media. Sure, I’d assumed that this included me, and I’d become rather certain of the looks she’d given over the few weeks I’d been on this tour, but it’s totally possible that it has all been in my head. 

The relief that came with seeing those three little dots gave way to his words…

First, walking should suffice. We’re five minutes from the venue. And second, Becca went to Miami for a few days. So no worries there. 

I sat there and read his words over and over. I’d never heard him refer to her as Becca, and… I know this makes me sound petty, but I really didn’t like it. (File that one under things I can tell you and only you.)

I didn’t know how to reply. So I didn’t. I stuck my fingers between the blinds and surveyed the still dark city that was beginning to wake. My heart was beating faster than usual, but I wasn’t willing to think about why. Now, writing about it, I’m still unsure if it was because of the unadulterated access I had to the subject of my story, or if it was because the Riley Martin invited me to his bus at 4am when he couldn’t sleep.

His message was still unanswered when the bus found its landing spot. This was a first for me. I’d never been up when we arrived in a city. I stood by the door as the bus jolted back and forth, the driver attempting to maneuver into the spot that the venue had deemed appropriate. Why didn’t this wake me up every day?

My feet felt like they were floating as they led me to the door of Riley’s bus. My phone was still in hand, Riley’s last text still illuminating the screen.

“Hey, I didn’t know if you were coming.”

He was wearing a solid, gray t-shirt and black gym shorts. The lack of layers was out of character, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t like it. Without the sweaters and denim jackets that his team picked out for him, the definition in his arms and abs was begging me to take notice.

I’m not certain how long I was taking notice, but apparently it was enough for him to have to invite me in. I stepped onto the bus and was taken aback by the stark difference in this ride from the one I had just come from. The crew bus was nice… at least I’d thought it was until this moment. It shouldn’t be surprising… that the man who this entire tour revolves around would have it the best of any of us. But everything in this bus was better than ours.

“Can I give you a tour?”

Apparently it wasn’t lost on Riley that his home away from home was significantly different than the one I shared with a handful of seasoned crew members. The living area didn’t have to double as a dining room, because there was an actual kitchen and dining area… yes, on the bus… in place of those god-awful bunks.

Riley walked me through a set of doors that my bus didn’t have, to a master bedroom… with an actual bed.

“Wow. If I had this, I certainly wouldn’t have been awake to answer your text.”

You, trusty journal, know tour life. You know that an actual bed is such a precious commodity… even if it’s on top of wheels and being driven around by a chain smoker named Gus.

“This isn’t even the best part,” Riley replied, walking past the bed and through a door that my bus doesn’t have. “Do you remember Cribs? That show on MTV?”

“Of course I do,” I answered, the name of the show instantly taking me back to high school at Adeline’s house.

“Then this is the room where the pretentious celebrity would say, ‘this is where the magic happens.’”

I’m not sure why I was apprehensive about what I’d find in the room. I slowly stepped beyond the doorframe and was met by an impressive amount of musical equipment and recording gear.

“Nice,” I hope that my smirk came across as playful, and not condescending. “Any chance you’d want to give an exclusive sneak peek to the fine people at In Stereo Magazine?”

Riley looked confused for a moment, but it was his reply to me that was truly confusing. “You do work for a magazine, don’t you? I’d almost forgot that.” He paused before continuing. “I have to remember to be careful around you.”

The perplexity must’ve been apparent on my face, because he met me with the same smirk I’d given him just moments before.

“For real, though,” my gaze went from his smirk to his eyes, where his locked with mine. “Play me something new?”

He blinked long and hard before shifting his gaze to the floor. “I would, but I can’t.”

There was a pain in his response that made me feel guilty for asking. “Label restrictions? I get it.”

He chuckled before speaking. “I wish. I’ve been ignoring label restrictions longer than you’ve been driving. That computer is empty. I haven’t, and don’t put this in your magazine… I haven’t written a song in at least a year.”

The reporter in me wanted to ask so many questions. I could tell by his tone that this wasn’t simply due to a busy touring schedule or a lack of free time. Was this at all related to the secret he’d told me in Sightglass Coffee? Had chasing every high brought with it the unintended consequences of writer’s block? Or had his loss of motivation been the cause of the empty recording computer?

I’m not sure how long we stood there. Apparently I’m horrible at judging time at 5 in the morning. But I know that it was long enough for me to contemplate the words he’d said to me during that first real conversation.

I don’t know what to do; this is probably my last tour. I just want to hit RESET.

I followed Riley out of the makeshift studio and through the bus’s bedroom. He stopped for a moment and looked longingly at the bed before passing through the dining room and plopping down on one of the two couches that faced the larger than life television. I took the other sofa, taking notice of how much more comfortable furniture is when it’s not meant to double as a fold out table.

“So,” Riley turned his body toward mine, “how’s the tour going from your end?”

I was completely blown away. In all of my years covering bands and artists and tours and festivals, I’ve never had a subject even remotely care about how the tour was treating me, let alone invite me into their bus and ask me about it.

“The fact that you asked that question is confirmation that this is by far the best time I’ve ever had on a story.”

The grin on his face was more genuine for a moment, before turning back into that smirk from earlier.

“Well, I don’t do press, so I must not be up on all the current techniques of how to make your life miserable.”

“I don’t think that’s it.”

What in the world did I mean by that?

“You’re probably right,” he replied, that smirk still sitting beautifully on his perfect face.

I was waiting anxiously for his follow-up, but whatever it was we were doing was cut off by the click of the bus door.

“Hey Riley, I…”

Riley jumped off the couch like his hand had been caught in the cookie jar.

The eyes that had just entered the room were locked on me, and it took the brain behind those eyes more than a few seconds to compute.

“Oh, hey Ella.”

I was a bit surprised that Chandler remembered my name. In fact, I’m a bit surprised that I remember his name. I hadn’t spoken to Riley’s tour manager since that first day in Phoenix.

Chandler turned his attention back to his boss.

“I have the guy here. But if you want to do this later, that’s fine.”

“No, no, no,” Riley replied. “Ella’s cool. Send him in.”

What on earth had I gotten myself in to? Who was “the guy” and why was he showing up to Riley’s tour bus before sunrise?

Riley and I stared at the door as a professional-looking forty-something boarded. He was carrying a briefcase that matched his three-piece suit, and if I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought he was heading to a board meeting in one of those Chicago high rises I saw from the bus window as we pulled into town.

“Would you like to preview the product?”

He looked at Riley as he spoke, and I couldn’t help but notice the paradox between the business professional and the gym-shorted celebrity.

“That won’t be necessary,” Riley replied, about as casually as he was dressed. “Chandler will make sure you get the money.”

“Thank you, sir,” the man spoke, his tone reminding me of a military film. “I look forward to doing more business with you.”

And with that, he sat the briefcase down, turned around, and walked out.

What the…

“Sorry to interrupt,” it was Chandler who spoke this time. He picked up the briefcase and walked it to the back of the bus before quietly leaving and latching the door behind him.

I wanted to ask Riley about the awkward exchange, but before I could find the words, he spoke, just as casually as he’d talked to the man who’d arrived with Chandler.

“Wanna watch a movie?” Riley grabbed the remote before fully reclining, acting as if the exchange that just went down was the most natural thing in the world.

“Um… sure.” I didn’t know what to say. Should I bring up what had just happened? But it wasn’t just that. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I’d received Riley’s text a half hour before, was this going to be a “work conversation” where he gave me a few more nuggets for the story that was due in less than a week? Or would this be another off the record account about his personal life? I had no way of knowing, but I didn’t expect that Anchorman would be on the morning’s agenda.

I slipped my shoes off and let my bare feet and legs stretch out on the sofa. While Riley seemed more than comfortable in his gym shorts and tee, I wished I’d brought my hoodie, or at least changed into actual pants before coming over. But the shorts and tank top I’d planned on sleeping in would have to do, so I cuddled up to the excessive amount of pillows and made myself at home.

I tried so hard to stay awake. I really did. I remember that awful feeling, you know the one… drifting away when you know you shouldn’t. As I think about it now, I’m petrified of the noises or faces I might’ve made while sleeping just one piece of furniture away from a man who sold out arenas every night of the week. As if it wasn’t weird enough to casually be watching a movie with the man whose face had been on the posters of my bedroom wall, the fact that I couldn’t stay awake was more than a bit embarrassing.

I’m not sure how long I was out (story of my life, right?), but I awoke when the noises of the film abruptly ceased. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and stared at the pause icon on the television. Where was Riley? I scanned the room, but my ears found him before my eyes did.

“No, you didn’t wake me up. I got up a little while ago.”

I stood, the faux-wood floor of the bus cold under the bottoms of my bare feet as I tiptoed toward the door that Riley had almost closed behind him.

“No, it’s just me.” I could hear him pacing on the other side of the door as he spoke into his phone. “Just watching a movie. How’s Miami?”

It was Rebecca.

I surveyed my surroundings. I could tell that his feet were moving back and forth on the other side of the room, and I planned my silent retreat back to my sofa in the event that he made his way back to this side of the room.

Before he spoke again, the sound of shuffling, followed by two clicks, filled the quiet room.

The briefcase…

“Uh, huh,” I heard him speak into the phone as I inched my face closer to the crack in the door. I could see his feet, the legs and the gym shorts, and the foot of the bed… but I could ‘t see much else. In true investigative journalist fashion, I quietly placed my hand on the door. I watched the hinge as it moved, ever so slightly at my touch. Beyond the door, I could now see Riley, his body hunched over the bed, looking intently into the black leather case.   

“Any suspicion?” He spoke into his phone, not taking his eyes off the briefcase. “I mean, do you think you were followed?”

What did that mean? I watched Riley stand up straight, which caused my heart to thump out of my chest. He rubbed his temples, sighed deeply, and continued. “I mean… the government. You’re a white, wealthy, A-list celebrity, Becca. You can’t just waltz in and out of Cuba and expect not to be noticed. Oh god, what are we getting ourselves in to?”

I gasped. As I’m writing it down, I’m ashamed. Rookie mistake. I covered my mouth with my hand, but not without grazing it on the door. I stepped back and froze, my hand still covering my breathless mouth.

“I know you’re being careful.” I can’t explain to you how relieved I was to hear him continue his conversation. “I just can’t believe we’re actually doing this. Yeah, the first of many… if we don’t get caught.”

My luck was running out. The sound of his feet shifting along the cheap floor got louder, so I stealthily slipped back onto the sofa, trying to decide whether or not to feign sleep.

I reclaimed my spot on the couch, which was still warm, and watched Riley walk back into the room.

“Oh, you’re awake.”

“Yeah,” I stretched my arms above my head. “Sorry about that.”

He leaned back into his original position and grabbed the remote. “Don’t be sorry. It’s cool that the riveting story of Ron Burgundy and Veronica Corningstone puts you to sleep. Besides,” there was that smirk again, “you’re kinda cute when you sleep.”

Ella shut the notebook. That pounding in her chest was back. All these weeks later, and halfway across the country, and she could still feel that pulsing that told her entire body to slow down.

She stood from the bed and paced the room. She couldn’t deal with this alone. Her eyes scanned the attic, and though she was surrounded by the authors who had gotten her through so much, she was alone. And though her parents, who would drop everything to listen to her problems, were in the house, just a floor below, she felt lonelier than she’d ever been.

As she walked back and forth along the small room, she found herself whispering the words that had become second nature when life felt like this.

Everything is going to be OK, Ella. You’ll look back and be thankful for the hard times.

 “Agh,” she said out loud. She couldn’t hear her mantra without hearing Jake’s voice. She really didn’t want to do this alone. She hated this feeling. She wanted to go back to the way things were yesterday, before he found his notebook and flipped out on her.

It was in that moment that she found a lifeline. There it was, right on the floor in front of her: Jake’s journal. Until then, she hadn’t even noticed that he’d thrown it down in disgust… that he’d stormed out of her life without the book.

So she made her way out of the attic, down the old, creaky steps, through the front door, down the patio, across the yard, and up the porch steps.

On the other side of the front door, she could hear his guitar. For a moment, she closed her eyes and listened. The sound of him playing took her to the not so distant memory of being in his back yard in the middle of the night, the fire pit roaring while he provided a soundtrack to their conversation.

She had to make things right. She wanted to make things right.

So she took a deep breath, put her hand in a fist, and knocked on the door.

The sound from the inside side of the house ceased, and Ella’s heart jumped. She waited to hear his footsteps walking toward the door, but they didn’t come. So she knocked again… and again.

“Jake,” she shouted through the closed door. “Jake, it’s me.”

She waited. No answer. She took a step back, turned around, and was about to head home when she noticed the names chiseled in the porch. Adeline and Ella. She couldn’t explain it, but something about those two names together gave her a newfound determination to mend what had been broken.

So she turned back around and knocked again. “Jake, come on.” She was pleading with him now. “Please open the door.”

Still nothing.

“Jake.” She thought she heard his feet heading toward her. “Jake, I’m so sorry.”

She paced the porch, not wanting to give in to the defeat that now seemed inevitable.

“You left without your notebook last night.” Would this pique his interest enough to get him to face her?

Again she waited. And again, nothing. 

“I’m gonna leave it here. Jake, I…”

Ella stopped. It was useless. The determination that had felt so strong a few minutes before had now been completely obliterated.

So she turned, past the words she’d chiseled as a child, down the stairs, across his yard, then hers, and back up her porch. How many times could she lose? It felt unending, every rock bottom giving way to another.

And then she heard it: the sound of his dense front door opening. She froze and stared. He looked tired. He looked about as beat up as she felt. She watched him bend down and pick up the notebook she’d left.

And then their eyes locked.

Her feelings for him were undeniable. She wanted to run across the yard, wrap herself around him, all around him, and never let go.

But instead of running toward him, or even speaking to him, she waved. The courage had evaporated, and a lifted hand was all she could muster. His chest rose and fell, along with his gaze. He turned, walked back into the shadow of his home, and closed the door behind him.

Ella had to get out of here. It was that same claustrophobia she’d felt during those last days in New York. She was a failure, and every ounce of her surroundings reminded her of it. So she left. She filled her backpack with a few changes of clothes and her laptop. She grabbed the phone from her nightstand and typed a message.

Is it cool if I borrow your car for a few days? 

The reply came quickly.

Of course. Anytime.

And so she was off. She hadn’t intended to take Adeline up on the offer she’d made during their coffee at Heart a few weeks before, but she had to get out of here.

I-405 to 84… east to Highway 26. She weaved her way up the windy roads in silence, the surrounding forest more than enough accompaniment. The road trip carried with it a new sense of purpose. As the borrowed Subaru inched its way up Mount Hood, Ella removed Ladd Avenue and everything that came with it from her mind with the project that Jake had planted in her head just hours before.

“One room, please.”

On her way out of town, Ella had tried to reserve the little cabin her family had rented every summer of her childhood. But it was booked, so she decided on the next best thing. The lodge was about halfway up the mountain, and the June sun hadn’t quite melted all the snow at this altitude. It was more commercialized than she preferred, but it would serve its purpose. She rented a room that overlooked the entire south side of the mountain, but decided to abandon the room in favor of a corner table in the lodge’s lounge, complete with wood burning fireplace and full bar.

“Can I get you something to drink?”

She opened her computer and sat it on the table in front of her.  

“Coffee, please.” 

Ella didn’t even wait for her drink to arrive before she began typing. Her fingers moved with a fury that took her back to her days in the bullpen at In Stereo. Ella sat there for hours, filling page after page of digital paper. Employees came and went, adding logs to the fire across the room.

“Last call. Another coffee?”

Ella dragged her tired body up to her room, and crashed. She slept better than she had in weeks. Perhaps it was just the comfort of a bed that wasn’t in her childhood attic. But regardless, she awoke the next morning, took the same table in the lounge, and continued. Day after day after day, Ella stayed, adding another night to her credit card, having no intention of heading back down the mountain until her project was complete.

It had been more than a week when Ella pulled back into the driveway on Ladd Avenue. She pulled her laptop from her backpack and ran into the house. She could hear her mother in the kitchen, but she ran up the stairs without saying anything. Instead of going right and up the stairs to her room, Ella went into her father’s office, opened her laptop, and hit PRINT.

“Hey honey.” Ella turned around to see her mother in the doorway, dishtowel still in hand.

“Hey, mom.”

“Everything ok?”

“Yeah,” Ella replied, watching page after page fall out of the printer. “Just taking care of something.”

Caroline turned and began walking down the stairs.

“Hey mom, did Jake ever stop by?”

“Um… I don’t think… oh yes. Yeah, he did. Last Tuesday, I think.”

Ella had no idea what day it was, but her mother’s tone said that it had been more than a week since Jake was here.

The papers couldn’t print fast enough.

She grabbed the stack, ran down the stairs, out the door, and across the yard.

Her knuckles hit the dense front door harder than she’d meant. She stopped to listen. No guitar. No noise coming from inside. She ran down the steps and into the yard. She looked at his bedroom window, but there was no indication of whether or not he was inside.

What time was it? The sky was a deep, consistent gray, completely concealing the position of the sun. Until she lifted her head, she almost hadn’t noticed the rain that was whispering, just enough to dampen her hair. She looked again at the second-level window, unsure of whether or not her neighbor was on the other side. How had her life gotten to the place where she wasn’t even aware of the time of day? She’d lost track of the days of the week awhile back, but this was a whole new level.

Ella decided to take a chance and make the trek from Elliot to SE 20th to Burnside. The bustle all around brought with it a confidence that the morning had passed and that the city was wide-awake.

In her haste, Ella hadn’t realized that the papers she’d been so worried about were turning soggy in her bare hands. The ink on the first handful of pages was bleeding through with each step.

She reached that little logo that she loved, the one that Kristina would have found far too simple, and took a deep breath. This is where it had all begun… her and Adeline, catching up the day after she’d landed in Portland. She’d left the shop that day with a hint of optimism, full from the unwavering love of a friend who didn’t care what had happened on the other side of the country. She looked down at the spot where she’d kicked Jake’s journal. Sure, she had regrets, but it was that journal that had led her to his front door, to the weeks they’d shared, and ultimately, to the stack of paper she now held in her hand.

The familiar scent of roasting coffee was mysteriously absent, but the aroma of espresso and brewing beans was a more than welcomed substitute. She searched the shop, which was laid out differently than she’d remembered.

There he was.

Ella stopped and studied the man she’d hoped to find here. His beard was a bit longer than the last time they’d been together. Even now, butterflies filled her stomach at the sight of him. She wouldn’t have been able to explain it, but he looked lost. Not as if he didn’t know where he was, but as if he were somewhere else completely.

The Moleskin… the Moleskin, was sitting on the table in front of him, and his eyes hadn’t moved from its page since she walked in the room.

Ella slowly walked toward him, hoping to catch his attention with her movements. No such luck.

“Hey.”

As the word left her mouth, it came with a vulnerability she hadn’t anticipated. What if he ignored her, just as he’d done the day after he’d found the journal in her attic? What if he was still completely pissed at her? The words he’d said that night came flooding back.

He looked up, but didn’t speak.

“Can I sit?” She could hear the apprehension in her own voice.

His eyes searched her up and down, as if he needed a moment to remember who she was.

“Yeah,” he finally said, shifting the notebook to the side of the table. “Of course.”

She sat across from him, and for a moment, neither of them spoke. She set the stack of papers on the table in front of her, and glanced at his journal.

She didn’t mean to, and given her history with this Moleskin, it was a rather bold move to even peak at the words he’d been reading.

So what will your marriage look like now? 

She quickly looked away, and then looked at the man on the other side of the table. It was in that moment that she realized that there was a layer to Jake Whitley that she wasn’t privy to. Yeah, she knew he was divorced, but what had led him there? Why was this early thirties man hiding out alone over 2,000 miles from his wife and daughter? There was a pain behind his eyes that she hadn’t noticed during their dinner dates or on his back porch late at night.

“First off,” it was Ella who broke the silence. “I need to apologize.”

“You don’t…” he cut her off, but she quickly returned the favor.

“Yes, I do. Please…” she stopped to see if it would take more insisting.

“I’m sorry that I had your notebook. I did read it.” She paused to gauge his reaction. “But only once, and only the day that I found it. I was being honest when I said that you left it here. It was the day that we met, and I found the notebook just before I came over to invite you to dinner. I was trying to find anything that might tell me who had lost it when I read your lyrics.”

It was apparent that he wasn’t following.

“Um…” she shut her eyes to try and remember. “I cannot find what I’m looking for.” She opened her eyes to see if it was ringing a bell. “Did you walk out with it when you walked out on me?”

Still, he didn’t respond… at least not verbally. As she said the last line, she noticed moisture gathering at the corner of his eyelids.

Instinctively, she reached across the table and grabbed his hand.

“When I read those words, I remembered hearing you sing that, late one night from my porch.” Ella thought she’d told Jake that she’d overheard him singing before they met, but she couldn’t remember for sure. “So I came by to bring you your notebook. But when I got to your front door, I freaked out. I didn’t know how to bring up the journal, so I didn’t. I ended up inviting you to my parents’ house for dinner… and here we are.”

She waited for him to talk, her hand still sitting perfectly in his.

“I’m glad you did,” he finally responded.

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m glad that you invited me to your parents’ house that day.”

“Me, too.”

Ella took a deep breath, and then continued.

“And since that day, I haven’t opened your notebook. I don’t know anything about your life that you haven’t told me. I’ve always intended to give it back to you, but each day that passed it became more and more awkward. Jake,” she leaned forward and squeezed his hand. “I’m so sorry.”

She watched a tear finally give way to the pressure and fall down his cheek. He was so hard to read. It was almost as if he was disappointed, as if he’d found solace in the fact that another person knew his story, and was now back under the weight of his past.

“I’m sorry, too.”

“For what?” She sounded offended. “All you’ve ever done is be there for me when no one else was.”

“For yelling at you… for ignoring you when you came to my house… for ignoring you these past two weeks.”

“You don’t need to apologize.”

For a while, they just sat, hand in hand, as if the time apart needed to be mended by simply being together.

“Is it cool if I stay awhile?”

Ella ordered a soy latte and Jake got a second Americano.

“So,” she placed both hands on the stack of paper she’d brought with her, “I wanted to show you something.”

She pushed the pages across the table and waited for Jake to turn them his direction. “How I Almost Destroyed In Stereo Magazine,” Jake read the title aloud. “Ella Copeland’s side of the story.”

He lifted his eyes and found hers. “You wrote a book?”

She was smiling from ear to ear. “Well, kind of… it’s a manuscript… an outline, maybe. But it’s a start.”

He flipped through the pages, obviously impressed. “Wow.”

“You said something to me that night in the attic,” she slid her hand across the table and again placed it in his. “That maybe the story worth telling was just beginning, and I thought long and hard about that. And I think I’ve spent my entire life thinking that some day I’d have all this figured out… that some day I’d be polished enough to write a memoir that people would want to read. And I’ve definitely spent the last few months running from the crap that I did in New York. I’ve wanted to hit reset… to pretend like none of it ever happened. But it did happen. And you helped me see that.”

Something was happening in that moment between Jake Whitley and Ella Copeland… something that could neither be explained nor quantified. There was a coming to terms with their own humanity… the mistakes they’d made and the failures of the past. She shared with him elements of the story she’d kept from him, and he opened up about London and Kira and the life he’d left.

They waited until the shop closed, and then they walked down the street to a little Thai place on 28th. They ate together as if nothing had changed between them, but something had definitely changed… in them if not between them. And then they walked back to Ladd Avenue, capping the night with drinks and a fire in Jake’s back yard.

“Will you sing that song for me?”

She was sitting with her knees up to her chest, wearing his sweatshirt in the cool of the Portland summer night.

“What song?”

“The one I heard you singing the night before we met?”

There was no argument… no deliberation or putting on an act. Jake stood and walked in the house to grab his Martin auditorium. An excitement grew in Ella’s chest. Multiple times these past few weeks, she’d laid in bed and tried to remember this song. She’d longed to know the melody, to remember the way the verse eased into the chorus. She didn’t want to forget it again. She wanted to capture this moment.

So as he was making his way back outside, his guitar in hand, she did what any millennial would do in this situation. She pulled the iPhone from her pocket, turned the brightness all the way down, opened the camera, hit “Record,” and sat the phone inconspicuously next to her as he began to strum. 

Episode Nine

DAY TWENTY-TWO

The room was dark, the only light coming from that sliver in the corner of the window that Jake had become so accustomed to over the last month in this borrowed house in Portland. His entire body ached, simultaneously jolting him from sleep and causing him to wish that he’d never have to leave this bed again. Had there been a touch more light, Jake’s squinted sight might have found the reflection of the sun, ever so slightly radiating off the mostly empty bottle on the nightstand.

Almost dreamily, his bare feet stealthily escaped the shelter of the sheets and found the wood floor, the rotating fan shooting cold air on his naked legs as it slowly scoured the room. Jake shifted his weight slowly, not wanting to make any sudden moves. She hated it when he woke her. Creeping toward the bathroom… silently opening, and then closing the door behind him, flipping the switch on the wall, and then scrunching his eyes as if to minimize the light he’d let in.

Peering into the mirror, he didn’t even notice how his face had weathered. The beard definitely wasn’t helping anything. When clean-shaven, Jake would get carded at rated-R movies. But the few inches of hair on his chin had added a good decade to his 32-year-old face. The lines on his brow told a story… a story that he wasn’t reading this morning.

He groaned as he reached into the shower and turned on the faucet, the awkward angle causing the muscles in his tattooed arm to stretch beyond their capacity. Still attempting to keep quiet, he sleepily sat on the closed lid of the cold toilet, waiting until the room had filled with steam to place himself under the scalding water.

The pressure and the heat relaxed his aching head, slowly bringing him from his daze. What would the day hold? Even in this half-sleep, the lack of anxiety told him that today was free of responsibility. Maybe they could grab coffee downtown and then head over to the Bishop Arts District to check out a new spot. The possibilities flooded Jake’s mind until he’d turned off the water, dried, and then snuck downstairs, wearing only a towel wrapped around his waist.

Breakfast in bed… she loved that.

Jake retrieved the last few eggs from the refrigerator and cracked them into a skillet. The aroma that lifted off the stovetop was accompanied by so many memories, but Jake was busying himself with his search for a makeshift tray to carry the food, the fork, and the little bit of orange juice that was left from his last grocery run.

Jake glanced at the clock on the stove. They had slept past noon again.

He wasn’t sure why, but he could sense that today was going to be a good day, and also wasn’t sure why that felt so odd. He had it all planned out. Breakfast, then coffee, then a day of exploring the city that they both had grown to love. He stared into the skillet, watching the eggs as the yolk hardened.

“As over hard as you can get ‘em,” he remembered her saying to a waiter at the neighborhood diner. “Like, fry them, and then keep ‘em cooking for a few more minutes.”

With the baking sheet that doubled as a serving tray in hand, Jake made his way through the Ikea showroom of a living room and upstairs toward the bedroom. The towel that was wrapped around his body matched the white walls that were void of pictures or the personal touch of a “home.” He passed the unused spare bedroom and the office, as well as the bathroom that he’d never even stepped in. By all accounts, this house was sterile, lifeless outside of the man that was now darkening the door of the room he’d slept in these past weeks.  

Holding the tray with both hands, Jake angled his elbow to flip the switch at the entrance of the still dark room. He focused on the orange juice that was ever so slightly spilling over the edge of the glass on the tray. He walked toward the bed, attempting to keep the remaining juice from splashing out. His eyes made their way from the baking sheet to the brown stain of the wood floor, from the floor to the white comforter that was in a pile at the foot of the bed, from the comforter to the matching white bed sheets, and from the sheets up to the three gray pillows that were stacked in the spot where Jake had laid his head not even an hour before.

Jake Whitley stared at the empty bed, still holding the breakfast he’d made for the girl who was over 2,000 miles away… the girl he hadn’t seen in more than six weeks… the girl that he’d promised his forever.

This was the longest that Jake had gone without speaking to Kira since they first met in that photo line in London, and he longed to hear her voice. In fact, before buying the last minute flight to Portland, Jake and Kira Whitley hadn’t gone more than 24 hours without at least a text.

Under other circumstances, she’d likely find it funny that he’d hushed through his morning routine and cooked breakfast for a person that wasn’t there. He could still hear her laugh.

Jake set the baking sheet on the nightstand, next to the empty bottle of bourbon, and plopped down on the bed. He let his body fall, his back bouncing on the mattress before resting atop the bed sheets, while his bare feet stayed, planted on the floor.

Oh, how he longed to see her. It may seem odd, but in that moment, Jake wished to find himself in the delusion of the last half hour. Falsely thinking that she was there was better than desperately feeling the lack of her.

If he closed his eyes tight enough, he could picture her, lying in this exact position, on the bed that they’d shared all those years. What was she doing now, at this moment? Was she lying lazily in bed, pining for him as he was for her? Unlikely. Not only was it well into the afternoon two time zones ahead in Dallas, but Jake had no reason to think that there was any part of Kira Whitley that longed for him.

Kira Whitley.

The thought of her first name attached to his last took him back: July 4th. Seven years ago. If Jake closed his eyes and sat still, he could almost feel the excitement that had permeated his entire being that night. People began arriving just as the sun was falling behind the skyscrapers, the Edison bulbs they’d hung the day before joining the surrounding city in providing the perfect amount of light for the photographer that they’d flown in from Nashville. Jake watched as the guests began arriving, cousins from Houston, aunts and uncles from his youth, friends from college.

“You ready to do this?” Alex put his hand on his best friend’s shoulder. He wasn’t sure if it was the nerves or the suit or the Texas heat, but sweat was making its way down Jake’s clean-shaven face.

“I can’t wait to see her.”

That entire day, Jake had been cursing tradition. Why in the world couldn’t he see his bride before walking down the aisle?

“But the wedding isn’t until 8pm,” he’d argued, knowing she wouldn’t budge. So here he was, eyes glued to the spot where she’d arrive, on the arm of her father, white dress and all. 

“You nervous about the song?” Alex’s concern for Jake was almost as out of character as was his suit.

“What?” Jake replied, not taking his eyes off the back of the venue.

The night before, after the rehearsal and dinner and festivities with the wedding party, Jake had locked himself in his room, leaving Alex and the other friends that had migrated to his apartment to fend for themselves. He’d wanted to write the perfect song to sing at their wedding, and there he was, less than 24 hours from saying, “I do,” still scribbling on the journal in front of him, trying to find the words that fit the occasion.

All of the planning, the worry, the sending of invitations all over the country and the frustration of not seeing her all day, the writing of vows and a song, all of it evaporated the moment that he saw her at the other end of the aisle.

Her blonde hair was pulled up, accentuating the beauty of her bare shoulders that sat perfectly above the dress that she was made to wear. As she walked toward him, the music playing behind them, he simultaneously wanted her to speed up and slow down. He couldn’t wait until her father would say his only line of the night, “her mother and I do,” and then place her hand in Jake’s. But he also wanted this feeling to last forever, the sight of his bride walking toward him.

“I, Jake, take you, Kira, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

The date, the time, and the location were no accident. “I’ve always dreamed of getting married on a rooftop,” she’d told him on their third date. “A white dress and string lights, on top of the world. I want to dance the night away while fireworks ignite the sky behind us.”

She’d said “us,” on their third date, but Jake didn’t mind.

So there they were, on top of the world, or at least a 32-story building, their friends and family witnessing their promise of forever.

“It is with great pleasure,” Jake’s pastor said, “that I introduce for the very first time, Mr. and Mrs. Jake and Kira Whitley.”

Now, sitting naked on the bed in Portland, Jake could still hear that voice. “Mr. and Mrs. Jake and Kira Whitley.” The name ran through Jake’s mind, and a shot of fear flooded him. Had she changed her name? He’d been well acquainted with some awful words these past few months, divorce being the worst of them. There was no denying that their marriage had ended. Jake knew that. But the thought she’d become Kira Coleman again had never crossed his mind.

He had to get out of this house.

The same white t-shirt… the same blue jeans… the same ear buds attached to iPhone… the same brown Moleskin journal… the one that ended he and Ella’s… well, whatever it was that he and Ella had.

Through the IKEA showroom and out the front door, Jake zipped up the hoodie that he hadn’t needed these last couple weeks. The sunshine and perfection of Portland in June had decided to go into hiding, temporarily reminding the city of the months between October and April. He pulled the hood over his messy hair, hit “play” on the iPhone, and made his way down the steps and toward the sidewalk.

As Jake passed the house next door, the sound of Noah Gundersen could be heard coming from the record player on the front porch. He didn’t look. He hadn’t spoken to Ella since the night that he found the journal in her room. Their relationship, if you could call it that, had ended as quickly as it began.

Had it really been twelve days since he’d been immersed in her journal, trying to deny the feelings that were growing with the turn of every page? He replayed the scene in his head… sitting on her bed, reading the beautiful, unfiltered thoughts that were etched onto each page. He could still feel the texture of the books on the shelf, running his fingers from left to right across the almost lined up spines. And he could still feel the jolt of shock that pulsed through his system when his fingers found that Moleskin, tucked neatly between two Flannery O’Connor novels.

Now, almost two weeks later, the anger had dulled to almost non-existence… Almost. He wasn’t being dramatic… he kept telling himself that. He had made an attempt to work things out with her. A few days after racing from the attic and out of the house and past her parents, Jake had gone over to the Copeland house to make amends.

“Hey Jake.” It was Caroline who opened the door.

“Hi, Mrs. Copeland.” Jake, embarrassed about how he’d left this porch last, couldn’t meet her eyes.

“It’s Caroline, remember?”

“Oh, right. Um,” he stumbled over his words. “Is Ella here?”

“She’s not,” Caroline’s words were steady and unemotional.

“Oh.” Jake didn’t have a framework for this answer. Each time he’d knocked on this door, she’d been on the other side of it. “When she gets back, could you let her know I stopped by?”

“Sure, Jake.” Again, her words were measured and calm, but something in her tone caused Jake to wonder if Ella was coming back at all.

Now, walking from Ladd toward Elliott, Jake wondered why he never got Ella’s phone number. It seemed ridiculous that at the end of one of their many nights together, he never put her number in his phone. But everything just happened so naturally with Ella. There was never a plan, never anything official between the two of them. It was almost as if they just met up and followed their feet around the city.

But today, it was just his feet that he followed from Elliott to SE 20th to Burnside. For Jake, this had been the single source of stability these last few weeks. There was simply something therapeutic about the rhythm of this trek toward the little shop on Burnside. Same walk… Same song coming through the white earbuds… Same drink… Same table… Same pen and paper…  

In fact, everything was so “the same” that when he walked in one day last week and the entire shop had been rearranged, he almost turned around and walked out. The roaster was gone, as was the half-circle table that had surrounded it, the only remnant was the sign hanging from the ceiling.

PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB THE ROASTER OPERATOR

The space had been optimized for more seating, and Jake hated it. On that day, he’d stared at the blank page in front of him until his white mug was empty, and then he called it a day. Now, almost a week later, he’d chosen a new spot, and was back into his routine.

He ordered his single-origin Americano and sat down, that brown Moleskin sitting in front of the table that had become his new normal. He stared at the notebook’s cover, reminded again of the feeling of its spine on Ella’s shelf.

That night, in his frustration, Jake had thrown the notebook on the ground in Ella’s room. And in his haste, had stormed out of the attic without the item that had caused his anger.

He’d been sitting in the living room, the next day, playing nothing in particular on his Martin auditorium, when he heard that dense knock on the front door. He stopped playing and froze, as if any movement might alert the person outside to his presence.

The knock came again… and again.

“Jake,” it was Ella who was shouting through the closed door. “Jake, it’s me.”

There was a good twenty-second pause before she spoke again. Still, Jake didn’t move.

“Jake, come on.” Her tone was more apologetic than it was demanding. “Please open the door.”

Was Jake sitting there in silence because he was still too angry to speak with her? Or was it embarrassment that kept him from standing and opening the door? 

“Jake.” She paused again, as if really expecting him to answer this time. “Jake, I’m so sorry.”

He could hear her feet shifting on the old wood of the porch.

“You left without your notebook last night.” Another pause, still trying to convince him to open the door. “I’m gonna leave it here. Jake, I…” He waited for her to continue, but the next sound he heard was the creak of the boards of the stairs, her footsteps walking past her chiseled name in the porch.

In his anger, Jake hadn’t even realized that he had left at her house the very thing he’d been upset that she had in her possession.

Even though Ella was gone, Jake waited… and waited. For what seemed like an eternity, he remained frozen, the guitar still sitting silently on his lap. He wanted so badly to grab the Moleskin… the idea of it out of his sight for another second almost too much to bear. But he also didn’t want to face the girl who had spent the past three minutes knocking and repeating his name.

Certain that he’d waited long enough, Jake sprung from his chair, opened the front door, bent down, and retrieved the notebook. He’d turned to step back inside, but before he’d finished his turn, she caught his eye, standing just outside the front door of her own house. Their eyes met, just for a moment, and he watched as she waved from across the porch, her face showing both her regret, and the pain of his rejection. In that moment, Jake took a deep breath, looked down at the ground, and walked back into his house.

Now, sitting at the recently remodeled Heart Coffee shop, he questioned why he hadn’t attempted to contact her these last many days. He closed his eyes, trying to remember the look on her face from across the porch that day. Had she come over to tell him that she’d be leaving? Had their unfortunate exchange caused her to skip town? Was it even remotely related?

Sitting back and taking a sip of the still-steaming Americano, Jake suddenly felt ridiculous for this level of scrutiny. While this girl had consumed most of his days and nights these past few weeks, it had been just that… weeks… a week and a half of dinners and fires in the backyard, followed by another week and a half without contact. They weren’t a couple. They had no romantic relationship. Outside of his longings and imagination, they were just two neighbors who happened to be sitting on a porch at the same time late one night… who happened to be running away from problems on the other side of the country.

He watched the heat rise from the white mug that sat on the brown table in front of him, wondering what his life had become. So much had changed since he bought that ticket and boarded that plane at DFW. A year ago, he’d never have given this much thought and attention to a relationship that… well… wasn’t.

For the second time in the same day, Jake had to get his mind off of what had taken it captive. He rubbed his eyes, took another sip of his coffee, and opened the Moleskin.

His fingers found the lignin and chemicals and pulp and fell open to a page that was already full. The earmarked page… These past ten days, he’d done his best to forget this sheet, the scribbles and scratch that he’d been mortified of Ella reading. He flipped back, each page another reminder of the wreckage he’d left halfway across the country.

These pages had seen so little light since joining Jake on the trek from Dallas to Portland. Maybe it was the morning’s delusion, or the morning’s memory of his wedding, but for whatever reason, Jake was either confident enough or oblivious enough to open these old wounds.

He passed sheet after sheet of thought and lyric and memory, until he found the page that his fingers had been searching for. Jake Whitley hadn’t intentionally thought about what he was now looking at since he’d written it more than a year ago, yet it had consumed every moment of every day since it went down. It was like a dull background noise in Jake’s life, making sour the sound of each day’s song.

As he focused on it now, the memory was more than simply a recounting of events. Sitting at his new spot in Heart Coffee on Burnside, it was as if Jake’s fingers could feel the cheap vinyl of the waiting room chairs… his eyes could see the 2am night moving on outside the window, the entirety of downtown Dallas unaware of what was going on inside… his ears could hear the machines and alerts coming from down the hall… his tongue could taste the dryness of the hours without food… his nose was taking in that signature smell that moves through the halls of every hospital.

Jake was alone in the waiting room, his hands running along the base of his chair, trying to convince himself that this wasn’t just a horrible dream. He stood, pacing back and forth, eyes still fixed on the lights of the city outside. His world was frozen inside these walls, and the idea that there was an entire world on the other side of this glass, a world that was going about its business as if nothing had happened, didn’t help the surreal reality of the past 72 hours.

Every beep that came from the east wing brought with it another ounce of anxiety. Was that awful alarm coming from her room?

Take a deep breath, Jake…

Every inhale fell all the way into his empty stomach, and each exhale made its way through the chapped, parched mouth of the man who had insisted, despite the urging of the nurse: “I’m not eating until she does.”

In the moment, Jake was far too occupied and exhausted to notice the scent that was making its way through his piriform cortex, traveling to the amygdala, through the thalamus, storing itself there in the form of a memory that had haunted him almost daily since.  

Still pacing, Jake looked for something to take his mind from the face of his sedated love that was lying in that bed just two closed doors away. He studied the logos of every snack and drink that sat behind the glass of the vending machines that hummed inconspicuously in the corner of the room.

Creased issues of magazines were stacked on the Formica table, next to a dust-covered floral arrangement that looked more plastic than plant. He tried to focus on the magazines, old issues of Time, Better Housekeeping, In Stereo, but each one’s stories were at least six months old.

Still alone in the large waiting room, Jake stood and examined the brochures and pamphlets that were sitting silently in their case next to the bulletin board on the wall. Ronald McDonald houses and cancer relief hotlines… religious propaganda and the empty promises of support groups.  

Jake’s fingers found the third slot from the left, a tri-folded pamphlet with the hospital’s logo and eight simple words on its cover. He pulled it from its holder and sighed. His eyes read the words over and over, cocking his head slowly from side to side, examining each inch of the front of the paper in his trembling hand.

After who knows how long, Jake gulped and clasped his eyes shut, causing the emotion of the day to make an appearance. The single tear grew and grew at the corner of his eye, until it succumbed to its own weight and pressure, sliding down his cheek before silently falling onto the sheet in his hand.

He thought of their wedding night, dancing under the stars while the city lit the night sky with a celebration of freedom. He thought of the look in her eyes that night. He shuddered thinking about what her eyes looked like now. He remembered the words he’d said during the ceremony, the words he’d meant with all his might, the words that were now going to be put to the test.

“I, Jake, take you, Kira, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

Jake opened his eyes and looked again at the brochure in his hand. The words on the page still sat, the water from his eyes soaking into the paper. Again he read the question that had originally caught his attention.

So What Will Your Marriage Look Like Now?

Jake had no answer to the question on the sheet, and that was terrifying. After all that happened, all that was happening, all that would happen… he couldn’t even bare to think about it.

He walked back across the room, let his body fall into his vinyl-covered seat, and began rummaging through the backpack he’d grabbed on his way out the door.

“Please be in here,” he muttered as he looked past the laptop, the iPad, the little white ear buds, and the other junk that had accumulated over the past few months.

“Ah.” Relieved, he retrieved the brown-covered Moleskin notebook from his bag, along with a pen.

As was his custom, he didn’t think. He just wrote. Often, his words would come out a jumbled mess, taking hours of reworking and rewriting before it could be considered anything more than a random man’s rambling. But on this night, above the alarms and alerts coming from the hospital, he could hear the song before it came from his pen.

Another night in the waiting room
You’re 50 feet from me, but I still miss you

The page was full less than five minutes after the pen found the first line. Jake reread his words, feeling the full weight of what was happening. Maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t slept in two days… maybe it was seeing his situation in writing in front of him… or maybe it was the delirium of a man who was beginning to feel claustrophobic in this ICU waiting room, but Jake had to get out of this hospital.

Without telling anyone, he walked down the hall, out the automatic glass doors, and into the parking garage. He found his car, turned the ignition, and began driving south.

Later, he’d admit that he hadn’t remembered leaving… hadn’t remembered making the decision to leave… hadn’t remembered the drive home.

Yet he found himself in the driveway of their little house, knowing no one was inside, but still terrified to walk through the front door. The ignition was off, the engine had cooled, yet still he sat, keys in hand, staring at the front door.

“Damn it.” Jake slammed his closed fist into the steering wheel with a force that shook the entire dash. “Why?” The first time, the one word question came out as a scream, but the second and third, it’s volume and intensity decreased with each repetition. “Why? Why?”

He kept repeating it, “Why?” and while his voice decreased to a whisper, the sobs increased to full volume. Jake wasn’t sure who he was questioning. Regardless of the subject of this interrogation, he sat, waiting for an answer that he knew wasn’t coming.

Frustrated and needing a change of scenery, Jake slammed the car door behind him and followed his legs toward the small house that he, Kira, and London shared. He opened the front door soft and slow, a dark contrast to the way he’d closed the car door. The space was messy. He walked past the toys and the blankets and the laundry, and he walked down the hallway.

He knew that until he faced it, the sight of her unused side of the bed would haunt him, at least as long as he was in this house. And so he walked right into the bedroom, past the evidence of the real life that was lived here, and forced his eyes to stare at her pillow, still fluffed and cold on both sides.

Take another deep breath, Jake.

In that moment of courage and insecurity, Jake found himself wondering when her body would fill this bed again. The doctors said it could be weeks… months… years of this.

So What Will Your Marriage Look Like Now?

Up until this point, Jake had lived a rather care free life, most of Jake’s toughest moments had involved high school heartbreaks and low balances in his college checking account. He had no framework for this.

Still he did what he’d done every other time life had not gone his way… he sang about it. Leaving the messy floor of the bedroom behind him, Jake walked into the next room, grabbed his Martin auditorium, and made his way into the living room. He’d done this so many times: moved the yet to be folded laundry from his spot on the sofa, fell onto the cushion, and began to strum.

Almost laying down on the flimsy old couch, Jake stared at the ceiling as the chords rang from the guitar. He didn’t need his Moleskin to sing this song. The feelings and the words that accompanied them were still so raw. So he just lay there, staring at the ceiling, singing the words that he’d penned less than an hour before in that waiting room.

INSERT SONG HERE

 Now, at Heart on Burnside, simply staring at these words brought it all back… the melody, the dryness in his mouth, the fear of staring at her empty bed, the smell of the hospital.

Jake took his pen and found the page’s single unmarked line, between the last line of the pre-chorus and the first line of the chorus. Alongside the faded words he’d penned all that time ago, today’s writing stood out on the page.

So What Will Your Marriage Look Like Now?

Jake sipped his Americano and contemplated the ways that his former life had faded, just in step with the words in his Moleskin.

“Hey.”

Jake’s train of thought was interrupted by the voice he’d last heard from the other side of his dense front door.

“Can I sit?”

Episode Eight

I love waking up the morning after a new blog is posted. Usually, I fall asleep within moments of hitting Submit for Review on the back end of our site, others on the In Stereo team spending my slumbering hours editing and adding images and sending questionable content over to legal. There’s just not another feeling quite like waking up, rolling over, and remembering yesterday’s accomplishment.

I find myself searching my bunk for my cell, allowing the light from the screen to invade my sleepy eyes. I suppose I’m a creature of habit, because I always go to the public site first, amazed at how beautifully Kristina’s team has displayed my words. Then to the comments, where I meticulously read each one, swearing that it’s healthy for my well-being to hear all the criticism the Internet has to offer. From there, I log in to the back end, checking out the stats and demographics of my readership.

Today was a big one. Last night, I finished the first real Riley story. I mean, I’ve posted a few blogs since being on the tour, but this was the first real one, the first from our face-to-face encounter at Sightglass in San Francisco a few days ago. I’m so proud of this story. Not only was it full of previously unknown facts about Riley, but it was also one of those stories that just flowed out of me, as if writing about the man that I just met a week ago was the most natural thing in the world. I mean, the days since San Francisco have definitely made it easier. I’m not sure what it was about that initial conversation on the second level of the Bay area coffee shop, but something clicked, and I’ve had almost endless access to Riley since.

And you can feel it in the story. I love the way that each sentence flows to the next. If you read it aloud, it almost sounds like a poem. I don’t need you to remind me that this sounds more than a little arrogant. I get it all out here, remember? Put it in the journal, leave it in the journal, and then head out into the real world. And in my defense, the stats are backing it up. It hasn’t even been online for 12 hours, and it’s already our most-visited page in the last 30 days. I can’t keep up with the Twitter-verse, and the comments are pouring in faster than I can read them. Possibly the most telling, though, is how happy those on both sides are. It isn’t often that both the publisher and the subject are happy with the piece. Usually, the Editor-in-Chief wants more or management wishes you would’ve cut more of the personal stuff that the artist really shouldn’t have divulged.  

But not today…

There was a text from Dominic, who was already halfway through his workday on the East Coast, awaiting me when I awoke.

Hey kid. You killed it. Pure magic. Whatever you’re doing out there, don’t stop. Peace, D.

And I was reading through the geographical analytics, reminding myself that the West Coast was still asleep, when my phone buzzed again. It was Riley.

Hey. Just read the piece. You’re making me look really good for bringing you on this tour. I’m really glad you’re here. See you later today… 

There it is, that montage playing in my head, all the steps that led here, from the attic to PSU to my first day in Manhattan. But today, it feels just a bit more like those rap videos.

And maybe that’s just because I’m hanging with the cool kids now. It sounds so ridiculous to even say that. But that’s what the rest of the crew on my bus has been calling it, and I’m too tired to come up with another way to say it. Hey Ella, they joke as I leave the bus now, bring us back some of the Cognac from Riley’s green room. Usually, it’s just juvenile banter, but the other night in Salt Lake City when they gave me the name Robin Hood after I snuck a nice, almost full bottle of single malt scotch back, I couldn’t help but find them a bit clever. 

I suppose it’s true, though… the cool kids thing. Ever since that first coffee with Riley, there’s been this unspoken, secret bond. And even better than that, an open door into his life. I know that the last time I wrote, I complained about how this had been like most other tours, but now that couldn’t be further from the truth. Ever since San Francisco, sitting upstairs in Sightglass…

It’s been over 72 hours since that surreal moment, but I keep replaying it in my head, partly because it haunts me, and partly because I love that… and I’d only say this here… I love that Riley Martin and I have our own little secret. If I close my eyes, I can taste the smoke of the coffee roaster… I can feel the constant buzz of conversation around the room. There were two empty cups that sat between us, along with the relief of Riley’s off the record confession off his chest.

When he said it, that fate-filled sentence about his marriage, the breath fell out of my lungs. It was exhilarating in the oddest way. This was awful, and hearing about it caused my insides to feel as if I were plummeting down the blackest of holes, not knowing what I’d find at the bottom. But this was also our secret, and I cherished it… he trusted me with this… and at this thought, my free fall found legs and shot me up, into a spin, like the greatest of roller coasters.

Ella, sitting on the bed in her parent’s attic, looked up from the journal and slowly exhaled. She could hear the rain pattering on the top of the house, and every so often, the rhythm would line up with the drums of the Glen Hansard record coming from the Admiral. Ella looked across the room, into the large mirror that sat beyond the edge of her bed. What on earth had she been thinking when she wrote the words she now held in her hands? Had another human… anyone… read this while she’d been on the tour… Ella couldn’t bear to think like that.

She didn’t know what else to do, so she slowly shifted her eyes from the girl who’d been staring back at her, and back to that girl’s handwriting on the sheet in her lap.

While it’s not too difficult to replay most of the scene at Sightglass, I can’t for the life of me remember what I said following the bomb he dropped about his marriage. Did I say something comforting? Did I say something ridiculous? Did I say anything at all? I’ve racked my brain over and over these last few days, but I’ve got nothing. My next memory is of Riley’s sigh, then smile, then admission of relief that he’d finally spoken it aloud.

We got up, left the coffee shop, and walked back toward the busses in beautiful silence. We’d spoken so many words, such heavy words, during the two hours we’d spent sitting across from each other, that further conversation didn’t seem necessary.

And ever since, I’ve had an open door to Riley Martin and his life. From pre-show catering to after-parties, the journalist has had a seat at the table. There have been awkward moments, for sure. Like the first time I saw Rebecca after the confession at Sightglass, I felt as if she could see Riley’s secret written all over my face. I tried not to make eye contact, but when I did, she was waiting, full of questions about the piece I’d be writing on her husband.

She was also more than a bit surprised to see me the very next night at the ultra-secret house party in downtown Denver after the show.

“I only go out once a week on tour,” Riley had said to me back at the arena. The sweat still dripping from his forehead, and the sound of the crowd chanting: “One more song! One more song!” was getting louder from backstage. “My buddy Drew lives here. You should totally come.”

The stage manager was getting restless, so he began jogging back toward the stage. “I hope you can make it!” If I close my eyes, I can still picture the smile he flashed my way as he ran toward the crowd that erupted at his arrival.

“What’s she doing here?” I could read Rebecca’s lips from across the room, despite the lack of light in the overcrowded loft.

I couldn’t, however, read Riley’s response.

I stood there and sipped my drink, trying to appear as if I were taking stock of the room, and not staring at the couple that might have been arguing about my presence at this party. I can’t be sure. Maybe it was all in my head. Perhaps it was simply the knowledge that Rebecca hates the press. I learned so much from Riley during our hours together over coffee that it’s difficult to not let that information cloud my perceptions.

Always look at a story objectively. Professor Miles’ voice is still burned into my subconscious… but remember, there’s no such thing as objectivity.

I was still contemplating my inability to detach my previous knowledge from my observations when I saw something far more jarring than a celebrity’s wife whispering about me… Todd Freaking Locker.

What in the world was he doing here?

The comp ticket-holding paparazzi… I mean columnist for ID had somehow slithered his way into this closed-door party. His frat boy swag carried him from the entryway to the makeshift bar, where I’m sure he was disappointed at the lack of Jaegger and Fireball.

“Hey.” It was Riley. “Thanks for coming.”

“Of course,” I said, realizing for the first time how loud the music was in the room. “It was either this or Bud Light with the crew on the bus.” I held my glass up to my lips.

“Is that whiskey?” Riley chuckled as he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Is that ok?”

“Of course,” his chuckle gave way to that same smile he’d given me before the encore. “It’s just…  most girls that look like you drink weak martinis or wine coolers.”

“Well,” I answered, deciding to leave alone the question of whether a girl that looks like me was a compliment or a put down, “my daddy taught me well.”

“Oh, really,” Riley took a sip of his beer. “So I guess it wasn’t all bad.”

I cocked my head to the side and made a face I’m certain wasn’t doing me any favors. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Riley paused to gather his thoughts, “the other day, you said that the thought of your parents makes you anxious. I just meant that he at least instilled in you an appreciation for good whiskey.”

Looking back and writing about it, it was a really weird conversation. But in the moment, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. He asked me how the story was coming along, the one that came out this morning, and I asked him to elaborate on a few holes in my narrative.  

“Hey Ella,” Rebecca cut off our conversation with a cold greeting. At least, it felt cold. “Riley, can I speak to you for a moment.”

The two took a few steps back before she spoke again. I wasn’t trying to listen, but if Dominic were to ask, I wasn’t trying not to listen, either.

“I just got the text.”

“What text?”

I missed most of what followed, but I know that I heard her mention “the package” at least twice.

I don’t remember how long I waited there, but it was long enough to get uncomfortable standing and watching, so I slipped out, past that makeshift bar and onto the patio that overlooked the city.

I’m a sucker for city lights.

My bliss was interrupted by the sight of my subpar competition, the glow of his cell phone and half-burnt cigarette revealing his identity on the street below. Again, I wouldn’t say this to anyone else, but looking down on him from two stories up felt appropriate. Now don’t get me wrong, if he were even a remotely pleasant human being, I’d overlook his tabloid-style of journalism. I mean, I’m friends with many competitors whose art I see as petty. But Todd Locker is not a decent human being. He approaches every conversation with an heir of superiority, as if our magazines’ sales numbers are the social capital he needed to justify his arrogance.

“Yep, I’m with her now.” The phone he was staring at was now at his ear, and I was surprised I could hear his words over the music coming from the other side of the glass doors. “Yeah,” he continued, throwing his cigarette on the ground, “Don’t worry about it. I got this. Wait, gotta run.”

The light from Todd’s phone disappeared as he looked back toward the main level of the house. With the help of only the streetlight, I watched as the outline of a tall woman walked toward him. They spoke, but I couldn’t make out the words. She met him at the street, and whispered something in his ear. He leaned his ear toward her, nodded, and whispered something back.

Not ten seconds had passed when they were illuminated by the headlights of a slowing car. The woman turned and looked back at the house before they both slipped into the back seat.

It was Rebecca. I’m sure of it.

What in the world was Riley’s wife doing with that douche from ID Magazine?

“Hey, there you are.” My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Riley’s voice. “I thought you might’ve left.” He took a moment to take in my expression, which I can only assume appeared entirely shocked. “Everything alright?”

I blinked, scrunched my eyes together, and rubbed my face, like I’d be able to wipe what I just saw from my memory.

“Yeah. You?”

“I’m fine.” He took a long swig from a new beer before assessing the other faces on this patio. He stepped closer, speaking more softly. “Rebecca just… I don’t know. She keeps trying to make things exciting again, like some crazy trip or risk or adventure is going to reignite our…”

There was a knock at the door.

Ella wanted to keep reading. She didn’t want to be back here, in the attic with the rain and the Admiral. She wanted to remain on that patio in Colorado. But she responded anyway.

“Come in.”

Her eyes didn’t leave the paper in front of her.

“She keeps trying to make things exciting again, like some crazy trip or risk or adventure is going to reignite our half-quenched marriage.”

The light from the hallway was invading the room, but Ella’s back was to the door, and she hadn’t heard his first greeting.

“Hey,” the voice spoke as if it was the second attempt. Ella’s eyes shot toward the door as he continued. “Sorry,  I…”

“Jake!” Ella shot up off the bed, obviously surprised that it wasn’t one of her parents standing in her doorway. “Oh my god. I’m so sorry. What time is it?”

“Almost 11.”

 “Oh my god. I lost track of time. I’ve been sitting up here reading since lunch. I totally meant to come over like normal.”

Ella noticed a wave of relief come over Jake’s face. Had he been over at his house this whole time, waiting for her to knock? 

“It’s all good. I just… After last night, I just wanted to make sure that you were alright."

Last night? Had Tanner Springs Park really been just 24 hours before? Dinner at Tilt, drinks at Deschutes, and then… the thought of what Jake had done stirred something inside Ella that she didn’t know was there. Looking at him now, thinking about the night before, she knew it…

She’d been surprised when he just lay down in the grass. She knew she’d stared at him wide-eyed. But when his eyes had found the sky, something told her not to speak. Then he spoke.

“Everything is going to be OK, Ella. You’ll look back and be thankful for the hard times.”

Ella wished she could’ve captured the butterflies that flew through her stomach when their hands had touched, just moments after she joined him in the grass, the tears falling silently from her eyes.

Now, watching him stand at the foot of her bed, she wanted so badly to stand up, kiss him, and tell him to never leave.

“Have a seat.” Ella moved a few of the journals from her bed and patted the comforter, signaling Jake to sit. She told him about Kristina, about how the boxes had shown up at the front door today, how she’d been sitting here reading her account of lives past.

“Do you mind if I…” Jake picked up the closest journal and opened it.

Even yesterday, Ella’s answer would’ve been a strong “No.” She wouldn’t have been able to articulate it in the moment, but Jake’s gesture in the park had taken their relationship across a threshold she’d walked with very few.

And so she watched, somewhat nervously, as the boy she was completely falling for read her most intimate thoughts from her first year in New York.

The hour that they sat together was perfect. Jake and Ella, sitting on her bed, consumed with the journals she held so dear. The Admiral was between songs, making audible the patter of rain against the room. The scent of the Pacific Northwest dampness mixed with the sweet aroma of Aaron’s pipe as it wafted from the porch below.

Ella looked up from the journal in her lap as the next song began. She studied the man who had become the subject of most of her thoughts these past two weeks. What would life have looked like had she not heard his song from the porch on that first night back in Portland? The voice of Glen Hansard seemed the perfect soundtrack for her contemplation.

Echoes of another time playing lightly on my mind
There's many rivers still cross to temper the bitterness and loss

Well I wanna do what's right, but maybe not tonight

Ella wasn’t used to feeling this level of emotion. She dropped the notebook on the bed in front of her, stood, and stretched.

“You want some coffee?”  

She watched Jake watch her, and she began to wonder if he felt the same way about her. Descending the stairs down toward the kitchen, she longed for Adeline. Her best friend had always been the one she’d processed with. But she was across town, likely asleep, or putting her baby to sleep, or relaxing in her completely stable life.

The house groaned as usual when she shifted her weight from the bottom stair onto the living room’s wood floor, but instead of turning toward the kitchen, she found herself walking out the front door and onto the porch.

“Hey Mom.”

Caroline and Aaron turned, both of them still getting used to the fact that their days as empty nesters had been interrupted.

“Can I talk with you for a minute?”

The mother and daughter walked silently into the kitchen. Caroline watched as Ella filled the kettle with water and began preparing the French Press.

“What is it, dear?”

In that instant, Ella realized that her thoughts hadn’t made it this far. Why did she pull her mom away from her dad? To tell her what?

“Um…” she began, embarrassed by her stammering. “I… I  think I love him.”

What she felt next was beyond embarrassment. It was humiliation. She stared at the coffee grounds, well aware that her face was reddening with each passing second of silence.

“Jake?” Caroline’s voice was, as usual, calm… even… without judgment. “Have you told him?”

Ella looked at her mother, and when their eyes met, Ella’s filled with tears. She shook her head, causing the moisture to fall onto her cheeks.

Caroline took the three steps that had been between them, and embraced her only child. Ella could tell that her mother wanted to say something, but that she was waiting for the right moment. Caroline’s words came out in a whisper.

“Why not?”     

Ella’s head shook again. “I don’t know. It’s just that…” she pulled away from her mother’s arms. “I know that I don’t deserve him.”

“Oh, honey, don’t say that.”

“It’s true.”

“Why?” Caroline probed. “Because of what happened with that Riley fella?”

Ella’s shake became a nod, and the tears flowed even harder down her face.

“Ella, you can’t keep beating yourself up for that. Besides,” she stopped to measure her words, “what happened on that tour has nothing to do with Jake. Fresh start.”

Ella wiped her eyes and looked at her mother. “Yeah?”

Was it Caroline’s words that had calmed her? Or was it the unconditional love that was written all over her mother’s face?

“Yeah,” Caroline replied, nodding. “I think you should march right up there and tell that boy how you feel about him. Can I tell you something?”

Ella raised her eyebrows.

“He feels the same way about you. Mothers can always tell these things. And I see the way that he looks at you.”

Ella wiped her cheeks again, trying to conceal her smile.

Caroline wrapped her arms around her daughter once more.

The timer on the stove began to buzz, signaling that the coffee was ready. “I better get back up there.”

“Of course, dear.” Caroline turned toward the front porch.

“Hey mom.” Caroline stopped and turned around. “Thank you.”

Caroline smiled and repeated her previous words. “Of course, dear.”

Walking back up the stairs, the creak on the third from the bottom, the give in the second from the top, Ella decided that her mom was right. I’m going to tell him how I feel… tonight. She vowed that before her head hit the pillow, Jake Whitley would know that Ella Copeland loved him.

She swung open the door, took in the sight of him sitting, on her bed, reading her journal.

“Here you go.” She handed him the brown mug she’d bought for Father’s Day at some point in her youth. He glanced at the silhouette of the Burnside Bridge before taking a sip of the steaming liquid.

“Have you ever thought about writing a book? For real, you might be the best writer I’ve ever read.”

The next five minutes were spent telling Jake all the reservations that Ella had about writing a book. Being such a literature snob, Ella knew she couldn’t live with herself if she wrote something that wasn’t real, yet she hadn’t lived a real enough life to capture something worth saying.

“And I, Mr. Whitley, have not yet lived a good enough story to warrant putting it out there, into the ever-increasingly crowded literary world.”

They were standing now, her eyes on his, and his eyes on the spines of the books that lined the walls of her room.

“Well, I think you’re extremely interesting, but if you’re right, who knows… maybe the story worth telling is just beginning.”

Was this the moment that Ella had been waiting for? The story worth telling is just beginning? She longed to wrap her arms around his waist, to let the weight of her body fall onto his back as he stood staring at her bookshelf. She would whisper into his ear, some poetic line about the last two weeks, about his just being him had put back together a life unraveled.

“What the…”

Jake spoke before she could act on any of these impulses. “Ella, why in the hell do you have my notebook?”

Her body stiffened as Jake held up the worn out, brown Moleskin journal. She searched his face to see if his demeanor matched his tone, but there was no expression to be found. He simply stood there, holding up the notebook, a stare as blank as darkness.

“I… I just…” she stumbled over her words and began to panic.

“Are you freaking kidding me?” His stare had turned cold, and Ella took a step back. “Did you read this?”

“Well, if you… I mean…”

“I trusted you.” He put both hands on the top of his head and began pacing back and forth, as much as the small room would allow him. “I…” he stopped himself.

“Jake, let me explain.”

His pacing continued, as she sat, gathering herself on the corner of the bed.

“Dallas… Kira… its all in that book.” He threw the journal onto the ground. “And you think you can just… You think you know me now? Who do you think you are?”

Her cries from the kitchen came back, more out of shock than sorrow.

“Here I was,” he continued, “thinking that I left it at the coffee shop, or…”

“You did,” she cut in. “I just happened to be there after you, and I found it. It was before we met.”

“Oh that’s your story now?” He stopped pacing and stared at her. “That’s convenient. The girl who’s been in my house almost every day for the last two weeks happens to find my journal at a neutral location before we meet. Forget the fact that she happens to know all the right things to say and all the right questions to ask. She…” he stopped and took a deep breath. “You had me convinced that you really cared about me.”

“Jake,” she pleaded, standing up and meeting him face to face. “It’s not like that. It wasn’t intentional at all.” She grabbed his hand. “I do care about you… more than you know.”

For an instant, she thought she saw him soften. Was everything going to be OK? Could she salvage this conversation… this night… this relationship? All she needed to do was explain herself. She’d found the journal at Heart, opened it for clues as to the owner, and recognized his lyrics from the song she’d overheard on the porch. She had told him that she’d heard him singing from next-door, right?

“I bet,” he paused and pulled his hand away, “I bet that’s what you told Riley Martin, too.”

Ella played back her previous words. “It’s not like that… It wasn’t intentional… I do care about you… more than you know…”

Her earlier cries were but a fraction of the sobs that now took hold of her. Just moments before, Caroline had convinced her that the world she was living in was a world away from the one that carried so much shame. Fresh start, she’d said. Yeah, right.

And with that, Jake turned, stormed through the door, down the old, creaky steps, through the front door, down the patio (where Aaron and Caroline seemed taken back by his exit), across the yard, up the porch steps, past the inscription of Ella and Adeline’s youth, through the dense front door and the IKEA showroom of a living room, and found himself in front of the refrigerator, momentarily grabbing a beer before sliding it back into place and going for the bottle of bourbon in the cabinet.

He skipped the glass and downed a mouthful straight from the bottle. He found the previously unused chair that matched the dining room table, slid it out, and let his body fall. His elbows rested just inches from the bottle that sat on the table in front of him. With fingers outstretched, Jake covered his face with his palms, the emotion of it all catching up with him and soaking his beard.

Between gulps of the brown drink that was invading his system, he racked his swimming brain, trying to remember exactly what was in that notebook. He knew that there was no part of that Moleskin that even remotely resembled Ella’s journals. No, his was no narrative from the pen of an accomplished journalist. Jake’s pages were filled with scribbled rhymes and accompanying chord charts, words that only worked when paired with the sound of his acoustic guitar.

Moment after moment, shot after shot, Jake relived memory after memory that had been exposed by the girl he’d been falling for. One after another, melodies flooded his mind, the hardest moments of the past half-decade just a hum away. That Moleskin was less a diary and more a yearbook, a chronicle of the happenings in Jake Whitley’s world, both in thought and circumstance.

Oh my god. The bottle that had been keeping him company had lost an inch or two since he’d sat, but it wasn’t the poison in his belly that caused the nausea to set in.

The earmarked page…

 Jake was mortified to think that the woman he’d shared so much with these past few weeks had also unknowingly shared in the knowledge of the goings on in that little house on the south side of Dallas.

Even with the drink fogging the lenses of his memory, Jake could envision every pen scratch on that page whose crease had become permanent from consistent use. As he pictured the sheet, he was instantly transported back to the day he’d penned those awful words.

Dallas in January. The normally muggy warmth had given way, if only for a week, to an icy drizzle that was sure to test the skill of North Texas drivers. It was Tuesday morning, Jake’s first day back at work since it all went down. He’d been anxious about this day for a month, dreading the awkward conversations with co-workers who wouldn’t know what to say, but certain that they should say something.

He was alone in their little house, the silence much louder than the normal bustle of his wife and toddler roaming. Sitting on the bed that he and Kira shared, Jake’s eyes found the mirror across the room. He still looked the same as he had a year ago, and he hated that. He still wore the same brown boots, the same black Levi 510s, the same zip-up hoodie that he always had. He wanted the wear and tear of the past few months to be evident all over him, but his hair was still in the same style, and he hadn’t aged overwhelmingly. The 5 o’clock shadow that sat on his chin was a contrast from his normally clean-shaven face, but he’d grown that overnight.

He stood, staring at the bed, still half made from lack of use, and headed down the hallway. He stopped in front of his daughter’s room and listened for the sounds of the child inside, though he knew he was the only one in the house. He sighed, grabbed his backpack from the entryway, and made his way out into the unforgiving winter that was spitting its hate from the sky.

He turned the ignition, took another deep breath, and pulled out of the driveway.

The silence of the house had been too much, and the back and forth of the windshield wipers wasn’t quite cutting it, so he tapped the little black power button on the dash. The words “No Disc” lit up the display, which sent Jake’s hand on a search through the glove compartment while he merged onto I-35 North.

The only music to be found was a burned CD that Jake had never seen. The marks of a Sharpie covered the brand name of the disc… Kira’s handwriting… “December Mix.” Even in their current situation, this brought a smile to Jake’s face. Of course his wife would have a playlist for each month, handpicked tracks to match the season.

He slid the disc into the player, the stereo synth of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” surrounding him. Man, Kira knew how to capture a moment. Though this was last month’s mix tape, this song was the perfect soundtrack for driving through the wintry mix that was falling from the gray sky.    

I can do this, Jake thought as he sped down the freeway. Suddenly, with the help of Ben Gibbard’s side project, the conversations with his co-workers seemed manageable. The moving on appeared possible. I can do this.

The song ended as he exited, just blocks away from the church that paid him to perform a rock concert on Sunday mornings. He hadn’t heard the next song, so he changed it after the first verse. The following track was “You Are My Sunshine” by Johnny Cash. Jake had never understood Kira’s obsession with the flat-voiced songwriter, so he hit NEXT as soon as the vocal came in.

The disc skipped once before the electric guitar intro-ed the next song. Jake recognized it instantly, and he was taken back to the time of life when he’d discovered this record. He and Kira had been dating, and this band had become the soundtrack to so many of their memories. They’d even seen the band on the Dallas date of their “farewell tour” at The Door. Jake was pulling into the large church parking lot when the guitar and drums were joined by the voice of Aaron Marsh. Out of habit, Jake found himself singing along to the song he’d heard a hundred times. He found his normal parking spot toward the back of the lot, and slowed the car to a stop. He hadn’t anticipated the lyrics that fell from his mouth.

Open your eyes, look at me
I'll bring to you whatever you need
And I'll tell you I'm sorry
That I can't take this pain away from you
I'd put it on my own body if I knew how to

Aaron Marsh continued singing, but Jake Whitley could not. He simply sat, his body beginning to shake at the words he’d just uttered. Years of singing along with this band, and those words had never contained the weight of this time through. He didn’t know what else to do. He had to hear her voice. The chorus continued:

It’s testing the strong ones
Scarring the beautiful ones

Jake smacked the power button on the dash, silence filling the car while he pulled the phone from his pocket. He unlocked the device, and found the green icon marked PHONE. The number wasn’t in his favorites because they never used it. It had been an unnecessary add-on from their Internet provider. Bundle it with a home phone to save twenty bucks. “But we won’t use it,” Kira had protested, but it made their bill cheaper, so why not?

Jake’s fingers found the keyboard on his contacts. H. O. M. E.

He knew they weren’t there. He’d just left fifteen minutes before, but still he let the phone ring.

After what seemed like an eternity, the ringing gave way to the click of the answering machine, followed by his own voice.

“This is Jake.”

There was a two-second pause and a shuffling before Kira’s voice rang through the receiver.

“This is Kira.”

Jake’s eyes began welling up with tears as the second pause and shuffle.

“This is London.”

Jake took a deep breath, trying to contain himself, as Kira continued in the background. “Say we’re not home right now. Leave a message.”

His four-year old daughter’s voice repeated the words of her mother. “We’re not home right now. Leave a message.”

The beep that followed seemed so intrusive after hearing her voice.

Jake leaned his head back against the headrest, his chin quivering as he dialed the number again… and again… and again…

“This is Jake… This is Kira… This is London…"

Episode Seven

There’s something exhilarating about that split second when the wheels leave the ground… that moment between driving and flying… that instant when you’re just hanging there, as if the pilot could choose in that second whether or not she wants to continue the journey upward.

In that state of hanging, I find myself looking at the faces of those who are joining me on the trek from JFK to Phoenix, and I wonder about the reasons behind the trips. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t try to assess a traveler’s frequent flyer status by their expression during that momentary state of limbo. A few rows back, in coach, I see the college girl who, if I’m reading it right, is not exactly enjoying her first experience on a plane. There’s the 40-something businessman who has been asleep since the moment his platinum-level butt hit the seat that he occupies at least twice a week. The blood-shot eyed grandma shows the wear and tear of a day spent far differently than the assisted living facility she’s accustomed to. The millennial in the next row up is using the hours away from his wife and little kids to catch up on the latest obscure indie flick that all his single friends are talking about. 

I wonder how many of them are headed off to vacation, or home, or work, or to write a story that more than likely will change the course of their career. Ok, so maybe that last one’s just me.

I can’t believe how nervous I am. I haven’t felt butterflies like this in… well, I don’t think my stomach has ever felt like this. I woke up this morning way before my alarm. That never happens. But this is the day I’ve been anticipating ever since that snowy, silent morning in Dominic’s office, ever since that night, ever since the trick door in the phone booth and Simon Monaghan’s words that scared the crap out of me, since that moment on the balcony where I gave in to the fact that this story has to be the best thing I’ve ever written.

And that was before the craziness of yesterday. I can still hear the sound of the cell phone slamming against the glass wall. The whole bullpen stopped; every computer click and ping pong ball and voice just ceased, everyone trying to squint past the crooked, half-open blinds of our boss’s office. We all just stared, wondering what in the world had caused whatever that was to make that awful noise against the glass.

And I can still feel the collective jolt of everyone in the room when the door swung open and Dominic’s large frame appeared dramatically in its place.

“Copeland, get in here!”

I can still feel the pulsing of my heart when I heard my name. I’d never heard him call me that before… Copeland. Honestly, it was one of the scariest moments of my life. What had I done that had caused my boss to throw a $600 phone against a glass wall… less than 24 hours from when I’d be suspended between driving and flying, heading toward the biggest story of my career?

The whole office silently judged me with their eyes as I seemingly walked the plank toward the completely different silence of the Editor-in-Chief’s office.

Dominic had disappeared inside by the time I’d made it across the bullpen floor and to the door that had taken the beating from the phone.

“Shut the door.”

I tried not to stare at the broken glass of the iPhone as I walked past. Dominic was standing in front of his chair now, his face fallen, staring down at the desk that was holding him up by his palms.

He didn’t speak until he heard the latch of the door click behind me.

I know I responded, because I can still taste the dryness that kept the words from coming out smoothly, but I have no idea what I actually said. I do know, however, that I was cut off by the bang of Dominic’s fist against the desk and the most intense f-bomb I’d ever heard in person.

“We have a problem, Ella.”

I was certain that I’d unintentionally done something to cause this outburst. I’d heard stories of the Dominic Graham of the 90s, the punk rocker whose principles were the only thing stronger than his right hook. But I’d never seen it. I only knew him as the man who was passionate about his wing-tip shoes and his designer watches.

In this moment, I was absolutely terrified, thinking that I was the cause of all this rage… until I heard two letters fall from his mouth.

I… D… 

Though he now shared cocktails with the former CEO, the LA-based entertainment magazine had been the bane of Dominic’s existence for most of In Stereo’s lifetime. It seemed that everything that happened in our office on the East Coast was just a step behind the company that sat three time zones behind us in California.

“Those bastards convinced Riley Martin’s people to give them the story.”

“What?”

I can still hear the word come from my lips. In that instant, I’m not sure if I felt panic or relief. Maybe both… I began to make a list of the calls I’d have to make: the flight cancellations and the friends I’d already hit up along the tour route. But in the same breath, I was exhaling and calming myself with the fact I wasn’t the cause of this outburst, and that my days occupying this silent office were likely farther away than they’d been an hour ago.

“Who?”

Dominic returned my question with a blank stare and a shaking head.

“What does it matter?”

Our company was losing thousands of dollars in ad revenue, and here I was, worried about which writer at our rival was taking my story.

I can still taste the awkwardness of the silence that followed. Was Dominic questioning my loyalty to the magazine? Was he trying to figure out how to get me my story back? Was he wondering if Apple Care would cover the damages to the phone that was in pieces on the floor?

“Alright,” I can still hear the resolution in his tone. “I guess that just means you’re going to have to get something he’s not.”

Excuse me? Wasn’t I just taken off this story? Hadn’t some unidentified journalist over at ID stole this exclusive from me?

And that’s how I ended up here, my trusty pen to this trusty paper, moments after that split second of limbo between driving and flying, on my way to the first show of Riley Martin’s nationwide tour.

It turns out that Riley’s people hadn’t taken me off the story; they’d just taken away my exclusive. And so now I get to spend the next ten weeks competing for quotes with the magazine that flies off the shelf just a bit quicker than ours.

Did I mention that I slept horribly last night? I’m going to take advantage of the extra eight inches of space that first class offers and try to catch up a bit. Until next time…

Ella

Ella closed the journal, set it on the bed next to her, and leaned back until her head hit the pillow. She was grateful that Kristina had sent the journals, she really was, but the knot that sat firmly in her stomach was a bold reminder of the life she’d finally begun to leave behind these last ten days in her hometown.

Ella could still hear the jazz record coming from the porch. It had been about half an hour since the sound of the FedEx truck pulling away gave way to the Admiral.

 She couldn’t help but consider the butterfly effect. If any of the details inside these journals had transpired even an ounce differently, would she be laying on the bed in her parent’s attic right now?

Had ID not been brought into the equation, would she have made the same decision? Had she been the lone journalist on this  tour, would her father have ever had the opportunity to Google her name and read the headline that was still burned in his daughter’s mind?

Has Ella Copeland Destroyed In Stereo Magazine…

Ella closed her eyes to try to rid herself of the sight of that computer screen in the dark office on her first night back home. Almost out of habit, she found herself mouthing the words she’d said so many times over the years.

You’ll look back and be thankful for the hard times.

Ella opened her eyes and was a bit surprised to find a smile forming at the corner of her lips. She said it again, this time trying to find Jake’s voice in her memory.

The butterfly effect… had the events in these journals not occurred, she never would’ve even met the boy who was living in the house next to her parent’s. She wouldn’t have woken up every morning in her parent’s attic, this same smile on her face, counting down the hours until their unspoken daily date every even ing. Maybe Ella was grateful for the events that led her here. Maybe, just maybe, she’d look back in 10… 20… 30 years, and not be able to imagine a life where the In Stereo debacle hadn’t occurred.

So Ella rolled over, picked up the notebook, flipped a few pages, and kept reading.

Ok, so I know I’m supposed to be a professional and all, but it’s kind of difficult to not completely fan girl every fifteen seconds on this tour. You know I can’t write like this, or even talk about it, for the magazine… or even the blog, so it looks like you’re going to be taking the brunt of it these next couple months.

For real, my Uber from the airport wasn’t yet out of sight when I could hear the sounds of high school coming from inside the building. I showed my press pass and ran my bag through the gun-finder, and there I was, an empty arena filled with I’ll Make My Way To You, a song that I can still hear Adeline and I singing on the front porch.

I knew that I needed to be taking notes. Dominic and I decided that the only way we could stay ahead of ID was with our blog. For some reason, our site generates so much traffic that most of our competitors put their money into Twitter or some other form of marketing. With the exclusive gone, our only competitive advantage is our online presence.

But I wasn’t taking notes. I was eating up the nostalgia of watching the man who had spent so many hours in my headphones play songs that I still knew by heart.

Around me were all of the comings and goings of a major tour. Full-time employees whose only job was to count and sell t-shirts. Audio engineers and guitar techs and cleaning crews, all preparing for tomorrow night: night one of a 60 city tour. Four-five shows a week that traveled with four busses, two semis, and a staff of more than a few dozen.

I think that’s when it hit me, between the chorus and the bridge of I’ll Make My Way To You, just how incredible these next weeks will be. In the chaos of Manhattan, the loss of exclusivity and the discomfort of the silence I found in Dominic’s office, I had lost sight of just how amazing this job actually is.

And so I just stopped. I must’ve looked ridiculous, but I just stood there, right in the middle of the arena floor, no one within 100 feet of me. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and took it all in.

All of those days crafting stories back at Heart on Burnside…

The thousands of hours of reading in the attic at Mom and Dad’s house…

The years of lectures and papers and exams at PSU…

The hundreds of columns and articles that had consumed my last half-decade in New York…

The nights underneath the stars at Tanner Springs Park, telling myself that everything was going to be ok…

It all led me here.

As I’m reflecting on it now, I wonder if I was basking in the idea of making it. I don’t think my thought process was that coherent in that moment. It didn’t feel like the climax in one of those rap videos from the late ‘90s, you know the ones… where hundred dollar bills rain from above on the artist while he laments about all the problems his fame and fortune have caused.

It wasn’t like that at all. It was as if life had slowed to a snail’s pace, allowing me more than enough time to dig through the chronicles of my days to find the hard work, determination, and fortunate circumstances that brought me here, to something much more satisfying than a stack of money falling from the sky.

I don’t know how long I stood there. It could’ve been just until the end of I’ll Make My Way To You, or Riley and his band might’ve run their entire set. But the next thing I knew, I was being pulled from my trance by the sound of my name.

“You must be Ella.”

It’s a wonder I heard the voice at all. Between the montage playing in my head and the hundred plus decibels playing in the room, the words that were directed my way were spoken far louder than normal conversation.

I turned and instantly looked at the laminate on the man’s belt. Even though I was more than a bit star struck by being in the same room as a man who had provided the soundtrack to my most formative years, this isn’t my first rodeo. In the world of tours and festivals, you trust the words of no one. But the tour laminate doesn’t lie. If you see the words “Day Pass” around someone’s neck or on their belt loop, they’re probably the bass player’s cousin, and no, I can’t walk you to the green room or get you a beer from catering.

The laminate that I’ll be wearing for the next 10 weeks reads “Preferred Media,” giving me access to everywhere in the building, save for the tech and dressing rooms. The laminate attached to the man who was yelling to me over the music was the coveted “All Access” pass.

“I’m Chandler, Riley’s tour manager.” He reached out a weathered hand to greet me. Even without the laminate, I could’ve guessed that he worked for the tour. He had that I spend way too much time away from home for this job that requires 18 hours of every day and doesn’t pay nearly enough, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world look.

“Come with me.”

The thump of the bass shook my insides more with each step we took toward the stage. Awake Til Morning. I still remember the first time I heard this song live. The Crystal Ballroom in Portland. At that point in life, Riley was one of my favorite artists, his show a bucket list item for sure. But my excitement as I walked into that venue on west Burnside was for the opener, a kid named Ryan Owen. His music was fine, nothing spectacular. But he had agreed to let me interview him for the PSU paper, granting me my first “Day Pass” laminate.

I know, I know… I scoff at the “Day Pass” people these days, but then… that little three by five laminated sheet of paper was a major source of validation for my 19 year-old self.

Anyway, back to today… Chandler led me backstage to what I figured would be the media room, that awkward 10x10 closet where a dozen reporters wait for hours next to a moldy mop bucket, hoping to get a quote or two from an artist who really wants nothing to do with them.

But when he opened the door marked “Green Room – Riley Martin,” I assumed that he forgot I was following him.

I took stock of the room, the tables of food that could feed a small village, the leather sofas and ambiance that had likely been created just for this night.

“No media room?”

“Nope,” he quickly replied. “We don’t do media. Remember?”

Oh yeah. This was yet another reminder that this tour was going to differ significantly from the dates and festivals that have thus far marked my career.

“Alright,” he continued, pulling his phone from his pocket. “I gotta run. He’ll be here in a few minutes to go over everything… how all this work with you on the tour.”

“Who?”

“Riley.”

Ok, let me jump out of fan girl mode for a moment and talk as a journalist. This never happens. I mean never. Even backstage in 500 seat venues, there’s always a buffer between the writer and the artist… let alone arena shows that travel with a crew of 40 and do $17 a head in merchandise.

And with that, Chandler left the room, leaving me alone in the dressing room of a man whose posters had adorned my college dorm room.

I knew that the right thing to do was just sit there, on one of the couches that had cost the promoter an ungodly amount of money, and stare at my phone until Riley arrived.

But I simply couldn’t help myself.

And so I poked. I prodded. I mean, I’m a journalist, right? And what’s a journalist if not an investigator. If I knew that it was going to be ten minutes before he opened the door and found me in the room, I would’ve pulled you from my backpack right there and made notes on my findings.

But I didn’t have the knowledge that I now carry, and so I spent my time attempting to log my findings in my brain… for this moment. Here we go…

-Snack table: Riley eats a lot healthier than I do. Is he a vegan? So many vegetables… I don’t think there was one preservative on that table.

-Coffee table: A copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray: bookmark at page 67. I knew I’d like this guy. Even the sight of the cover brings back memories of my room at Mom and Dad’s house, and when I opened the book, I thought I caught a whiff of the attic. I ran my fingers over the pages that I’d spent so much time with over the years.

A few magazines were stacked neatly on the table as well. American Songwriter, Rolling Stone, ID… oh yeah, where was their writer? Wasn’t he supposed to be here, too? There was an ESPN Magazine, and the most recent In Stereo. I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t a bit flattering to see my hard work on the shelf at Barnes & Noble or at the street vendor in Times Square, but this was at a whole new level. I guess I knew that Riley liked my writing. I mean, he did specifically request me to write this story. But seeing the evidence on the coffee table in his green room was, I don’t know… surreal.

I picked it up, foolishly wasting my precious time alone in my subject’s dressing room flipping the pages of the magazine I’d seen a hundred times, all to see the tiny one inch photo of myself.

I was passing a full spread of Kristina’s work when I heard the familiar buzz of cell phone against the plastic-y finish of an IKEA end table. Out of habit, I reached for my back pocket, but my phone was there, silent.

I knew I shouldn’t have, but I did. The bright light of the phone next to the stack of magazines was just too appealing. Now, sitting in my bunk on the tour bus, I feel a bit bad about it, but it’s easy to justify. I’m a freaking journalist, remember? If I were to tell Dominic that I was alone with the buzzing cell phone of the biggest story of the year and I didn’t look, he’d fire me on the spot.

And so I threw the copy of In Stereo on top of the issue of ID and grabbed the slender, case-less iPhone. The screen was blinking, a text message from a contact simply titled “Z.”

We’re over the border. We’ll pick up the package tomorrow. I’ll be in touch.

What in the world does that mean? What border? What package? I had half a mind to reply and ask “Z” to elaborate, but the other half of my mind won.

I’m glad it did, too…

I was still holding the locked phone when I heard the handle of the door jiggling from the other side.

I threw the phone onto the table and fell into the sofa in one awkward motion, certain that I was caught red-handed. This would be it. Riley’s people would call In Stereo and tell them of my snooping, that they’d be sending me back to New York, and then Dominic would send me packing as well, throwing another phone against his window as he yelled about how I shouldn’t have gotten caught.

So there I was, probably breathing so heavily that I appeared to be hyperventilating, wide-eyed, watching Riley Martin himself come through the door.

There he was, even closer than he’d been as I walked by on the stage, deep in conversation with the tall blonde that followed him into the room. For a moment, they didn’t even notice me. I was so worried about being caught with the phone that I have no idea what they were saying, and I’m kicking myself for that now, especially after the words that followed.

“Oh my,” it was the blonde who spoke once she spotted me in the room.

Riley’s eyes followed hers straight to my face, and he cut in. “Ah, Ella.”

I stood, and he walked across the room, past the still lit up cell phone, and shook my hand.

“I’m sorry that you had to hear that.” Wait, what had I heard?

He continued. “I’m really glad you’re here.”

Ok, back in to fangirl mode for a sec. If you would’ve told me a decade ago that I’d be sleeping on a tour bus connected to Riley Martin, I would’ve called you a liar. Let alone the fact that he personally welcomed me by name and was glad that I’m here. Are you freaking serious? 

The next moments were spent introducing me to the tall blonde, Rebecca, who had been married to Riley for the past two decades. In a world of tabloid cheating and superstar divorces, the two had withstood the industry and the celebrity.

I sat back down on the sofa, relieved that they’d been consumed by their own conversation and not by the fact that there was a journalist looking at their phone in their dressing room.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the conversation that followed. I was praised for my previous stories. Riley offered constant encouragement about my work, and Rebecca offered to show me around the cities we’d be visiting these next two months. Maybe it was the charm, and maybe it was the secret to the success, but if one didn’t know any better, they might think that the multi-platinum artist in the room was me, and not the one who was doting out the praises from the other side of the coffee table.

The Martins asked about New York, they asked about In Stereo, they even asked about my family. Even now, as I’m lying in my bunk, surrounded by half-drunk guitar techs and merch guys, I’m still on a high from the seven minutes I spent with Riley and Rebecca Martin. Perhaps that’s why my words are coming out in a daze, almost blurred in the stillness of the night.

As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way Riley looked me square in the face and singlehandedly made me feel like the most valuable twenty-something in the world.

“Ella,” the way he said it told me that what would follow was something worth hearing, “I have a story to tell. And honestly, from the first time I read your work, I knew that you were the one to tell it with me.”

He stopped there. I’m glad he did, too, because I was far too mesmerized to coherently grab my notebook and begin taking notes. I just wanted to bask in the words that I was hearing from my high school hero.

Anyway, tour starts tomorrow. Let’s do this thing.

Ella.

 

// TAKE A BREAK HERE //

 

Ella’s mother had replaced the jazz record with Death Cab’s Transatlanticism. Despite the Pacific Northwest connection and Ella’s music blog, she was late to the game on the Bellingham, Washington band, much preferring the record she’d been first introduced to, Plans, over these 11 songs that were released two years prior. She’d connected her own story to tracks like “Summer Skin” and “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” but contrary to most, found the record that was coming from the porch bland and uninteresting.

But today, sitting in the attic, reading the words she’d written just weeks ago, something about the lyrics of the opening track caught her.    

So this is the New Year, and I don’t feel any different…

 She was again hit with the disparity between her life now and when she penned these words. The calendar hadn’t rolled over to a new year, but the difference she felt was enormous. Sitting here, cross-legged in her gym shorts, it was difficult to even remember the feeling of laying in her bunk as the tour bus chugged along down the road.

The song continued…

So this is the New Year, and I have no resolutions…

 Despite the fact that the calendar hadn’t changed, Ella was frustrated that she had no direction since 34E. Outside of her evenings with Jake, there was nothing to wake up for, no reason to, as the song said, “put your best suit or dress on,” even if it was simply for the purpose of pretending or putting on a face.

Maybe she was longing to remember what her old life felt like, or maybe this was just a way to pass the hours until it was time to walk across the yard and up the stairs at Jake’s house, but she couldn’t put the journal down.

She read the entry that had turned into her first blog of the tour. She admired the angle she had taken on the story, spending most of her time on the behind the scenes aspect of the tour, and very little time explaining the music that everyone had already heard.

It was on the morning after meeting Riley and Rebecca that she had gotten the details about Tim Locker, the writer from ID that had made this exclusive not so exclusive. It wasn’t as bad as Dominic had anticipated. Apparently, someone on Riley’s team had a relationship with someone at ID, so they threw out a bone, giving a comp ticket to Tim for every night of the tour. Ella had been thankful that the ID writer was not on the bus, not backstage, and not nearly as close to Riley as she was.

She turned the page and read her recollection of her first encounter with Tim Locker. Just reading about this conversation brought that knot back to her stomach, that anxiety she felt after every talk with a certain brand of journalist. You know the ones, the type who spend far more of their day digging up gossip than working on their craft… the type whose stories would be far more at home in a grocery store tabloid than in a respectable magazine.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Copeland.” The smirk on his clean-shaven face made Ella’s skin crawl. His hair was slicked back, bleach blonde, and completely in place. His attire was an awkward mix of frat boy and luxury car salesman.

He continued. “I hear that you’re an OK writer.”

He’d heard that? Ella wanted to snap back that In Stereo was on every newsstand in the country, and that he could judge for himself in less time than it would take him to watch an episode of Jersey Shore.

“Thanks,” was all that came from her mouth.

“One question, though,” he paused, completely for effect, another trait that Ella loathed. “How’d a magazine like In Stereo get an exclusive for an artist like Riley Martin? I mean,” another pause, “it doesn’t seem like the best PR move to give that kind of access to… well… I don’t know… you guys. It’s crazy to think that more people will read my measly comp ticket report than your backstage exclusive.” Another pause, this one even longer and more offensive. “So yeah, Copeland, how’d you get the story?”

As she read it now, she was proud of herself for her boldness. “Well,” she paused, mocking him. “Apparently Riley actually reads the articles instead of just glancing at which magazine pays to have its cover screaming in everyone’s face. Oh, and In Stereo got the exclusive because Riley specifically asked for me.” She paused again before repeating the last word.

“Me.”

He laughed as he walked away, and it frustrated her that she didn’t know why.

“We’ll see, Copeland,” he yelled over his shoulder. “We’ll see.”

Ella was surprised at how much she enjoyed reading these words. It was like a part of her was still on that tour. In fact, she realized at this moment, sitting in the attic on Ladd Avenue, that the tour should still be going on without her. This story was so fresh, the ink on the page barely dry from the narrative that had played out just weeks before.

Ella followed her journal from Phoenix to San Diego to LA. She flipped page after page of tour stories and candid moments; little snippets that had been posted on the In Stereo blog and that were being saved for the cover story that never happened.

She turned the page to find her recollection of the day off in San Francisco, when she’d received an unexpected text from an unrecognized number.

Heading out to find some coffee. You want to join?

Ella rolled over in her bunk, assuming that this morning buzz from her phone came from a friend who hadn’t realized she wasn’t in New York, and didn’t consider the time difference from east coast to west. 

Sorry, her fingers typed, the light from the phone causing her to squint. Who is this?

She kept her eyes on the screen, those little three dots telling her that a reply was coming.

Riley.

Whoa. Ella had enjoyed this first week of the tour, but her access to Riley Martin had been frustratingly minimal. Actually, it was very similar to most of the other artists she’d covered. It was just that after that first night, being invited into his green room, meeting he and his wife personally without the buffer of management, she’d hoped for more than just a few quotes and column fillers from the road.

She glanced at the clock toward the top of her screen. 8:20.

Absolutely. She typed the word, deleted it, and began again.

Sure. Can you give me 15 minutes?

15 minutes later, she was stepping off the bus and into the fog and sunlight of the city.

Tour life was so incredibly different than “real life.” In real life, you fall asleep and wake up in the same spot. On tour, you step onto the bus in one city and wake up in another, the rumble of the overnight road the only reminder that you’re moving.

Ella took two steps out of the bus before turning around and running back inside. Past the sofa and television that they called a living room, past the bathroom, and past the sleeping bodies of the crew members who were paid to be here, she ducked in to her bunk to grab her favorite gray sweatshirt.

The air coming off the bay was considerably more crisp than the Southern California smog that they’d abandoned last night after the show.

The stillness inside the bus was a stark contrast to the bustle of the city outside. When she stepped onto the sidewalk for the second time, she found Riley standing, looking down at his phone. A blue Dodgers cap covered his short, black hair, and his hoodie and gym shorts were not at all like the skinny jeans and trendy jackets he wore on stage and on his album covers.

“Hey.” The latch of the bus door caused him to look up from his device. “Thanks for meeting me.”

“Of course,” she said, suddenly wishing she’d asked for 30 minutes to get ready.

They simply stood for a moment, the city buzzing around them while Ella looked to Riley for the next word of conversation.

“Are you up for a walk?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “Absolutely.”

“Nice. My favorite coffee shop in the entire world is only about a mile away.”

Usually, it bugged Ella when people said things like that... my favorite “fill in the blank” in the world. Such hyperbole was a lazy attempt to make a point. But for Riley Martin, he literally had been all over the world, and was more qualified than most to make such a statement.

“Sometimes,” he continued as they walked, “Rebecca and I will make the drive up from LA just for the coffee.”

Ella couldn’t help noticing the vibrancy of this city. It reminded her of New York, but younger, more optimistic. Every warehouse seemed to store another startup, multi-million dollar investments and acquisitions around every corner.

The two weaved in and out, up and down the steep, busy streets of San Francisco, ignoring the turned heads and murmurs of those perceptive enough to notice the man underneath the hat and hoodie.

Though Ella was the journalist, it was Riley who was asking all the questions. Ella was flattered to find out that Riley had read most of her published work, and his questions came across as those from the mouth of a great friend or a big fan.

“In that piece about millennials, you talked about the tension of chasing your dreams while trying to be a productive member of your family.”

It was almost as if he’d invited her on this walk simply to ask questions he’d compiled while reading her work. “I felt that strain growing up, even though I’m not quite a millennial.” He smirked. “In fact, I still feel that tension with parents. Four platinum records later, and I can’t get past the feeling that I’m letting my family down by not…” he paused to find the words. “…being normal.”

Ella couldn’t have articulated it better. “Wow, that’s encouraging.” He chuckled at her sarcasm. “I always figured that if I became really successful, that feeling would go away.”

“Nope,” he said matter-of-factly, looking straight ahead. “There are days that I wish I’d just became a businessman or a teacher, bought a house in the suburbs, had two and a half kids, and lived a normal life. Ah,” he stopped again, shaking his head. “There’s that word again… normal.”

“Yeah,” she watched her feet move along the concrete beneath her as she spoke. “I haven’t talked to my parents since leaving Portland five years ago, mainly because of that tension. Even the thought of them gives me anxiety.”

“Sorry,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t mean to bring up bad memories.”

They walked in silence for a few blocks, the noise of the city the only sound filling the air.

“Do you and Rebecca have any kids?”

“I’m sorry?” His reply told her that his head had been in another place.

“You said that some days you wished that you had two and a half kids.”

“Oh,” he said, recognizing the question.

Riley didn’t answer right away. He stared at the street ahead and pursed his lips together, as if contemplating how to answer this simple question.

Ella wondered if she’d said something wrong, or if his mind was still working its way back to 7th Street, where they were walking.

“We don’t.”

Two more blocks and they arrived. This place reminded Ella of the Pearl District in Portland, the restored warehouse decked out with wood and pipe. A wall of bicycles greeted them at the entrance, a subtle reminder of this city’s reputation.

The shop was far bigger than it looked from the outside, the large lower level more than big enough for the bar, the enormous roaster, and ample seating. The second floor, with even more wood, pipe, and seating, overlooked the lower from the south.  

“Oh my god, are you Riley Martin?”

The uber-hipster barista didn’t even try to play it cool. She was already pulling the phone from her pocket when she spoke.

“I am.”

Ella took note of Riley’s reaction: not annoyed, not angry, but maybe saddened.

“Oh my god,” she said again. “Can I get a picture?”

Riley and Ella, with coffee in hand, found a table upstairs away from the buzz of the crowd. From up here, Ella noticed a third level to the shop, which overlooked the first two from the north. It appeared to be some sort of office, a shared workspace or a co-op for freelancers and designers.

They sat, sipped their coffee, both of them looking at the other, as if hoping someone would steer the conversation.

Ella wasn’t sure if she should step in to work mode, but in her head, she could hear Dominic’s reply, if he knew she was here and didn’t at least try to get a story.

“Is it cool if I ask you some questions?” She made a face, as if to apologize for the inconvenience.

“Yeah, for sure,” he said, pulling the mug away from his mouth. “That’s why we’re here.”

Ella pulled her phone from the pocket of her jeans, opened the voice memo app, hit RECORD, and set the device on the table between them.

For the next hour, she asked and Riley answered. Ella didn’t consider herself overly competitive, but some of his answers brought a wry smile to her face, thinking about Tim Locker reading these words on the In Stereo blog, cursing the fact that she had this kind of access on the road.

She learned about Riley’s childhood, the family business that he had abandoned in order to pursue his dream of singing songs for a living. He got emotional recounting his father’s reaction to his announcement about leaving town.

“Singing songs isn’t a living… get a real job,” he had said.

She was mesmerized as he told stories of his early days on the road; opening for divas and classic rockers that Ella’s parents had listened to growing up.

He made her laugh more than once, tales of a younger Riley Martin, his first steps with stardom and fame. He was giving her so many stories that had never been told to the public. She had more than enough material, and could fill the pages of the magazine with the hour of conversation inside Sightglass Coffee.

It was at the close of that hour that Riley paused, glancing at the phone turned audio recorder that sat between them. He leaned in, as if he were about to whisper.

“Would it be ok if we went off the record for a little while?”

Now it was he who had the apologetic look on his face, but Ella happily obliged, grabbing the phone and placing it back in her pocket.

“I know the stuff I’ve said makes my life sound amazing,” he paused and stared into the bottom of his now empty mug, “and in many ways, it is amazing. But more often than not, I go to bed wondering if I want to wake up the next morning.”

Ella stared wide-eyed at the man across the table. His eyes were still pointed directly inside the mug, as if he couldn’t bear to see her reaction.

“For most of my twenties, life was a consistent high. Being noticed and loved was so freaking exhilarating. Like what happened down there.” He nodded toward the bar, where the barista had almost certainly posted the photo by now. “That type of stuff made my day. I ate it up. The longer the autograph line at the CD table, the better… the more radio interviews on a tour, the better…”

He paused again to collect his thoughts, still not looking at the girl across the table.

“The past few years, I’ve lost that high. It’s a little scary, honestly, because I keep trying to find it, but it’s not there.”

His face turned into a smile. “For awhile, I’d walk down Hollywood Boulevard and just let people stare. I’d take pictures with anyone who would ask, I’d sign autographs and I’d sing along with buskers on the street.”

Ella remembered seeing a YouTube video of that once, Riley Martin singing with a homeless man on the street corner.

“But that didn’t do anything. So I kept looking.”

“If you wanted the attention,” Ella spoke for the first time since turning off the recording, “why have you been so private when it comes to the media? I mean, I get people wanting to keep their private lives private, but if you craved the attention, why nothing besides surface level radio interviews?”

“Rebecca.”

He said it without emotion. “She doesn’t want to end up on the cover of a tabloid.”

Ella wanted to ask what had changed; why Rebecca’s husband was sitting across from her right now, knowing that at least some of Riley’s words would end up on newsstands, but he continued before she could ask.

“So these last few years have been this constant search for the next high. I did the super stereotypical things… bought cars, went on vacations, cliff dove in the French Riviera… how very rock star of me, right? I’ve tried just about every drug I could find; I’ve broken more laws than I can count. It’s insane, and I just want it all to end.”

“Oh my god.”

The way the words fell from Ella’s lips was so incredibly different than how they’d left the barista’s.

Ella knew that all of this was off limits when it came to her story, but she was genuinely curious about the bomb he’d just dropped on her.

“How long ago was this? How long ago did this behavior stop?”

He skill wasn’t looking at her, his lack of eye contact showing his shame. 

“Stop? It hasn’t stopped. None of it stops.”

Whoa.

Here was the poster boy for the good guys. A married, late thirties celebrity who kept himself out of the tabloids and out of trouble. He sang about love and loss from the perspective of a perfect American hero. And here he was, confessing to Ella that he’d was chasing a high wherever he could find it… that he had broken the law more times than he could count. Was this even the same guy who just last night had sung to a sold out arena? The same man who just an hour ago had given her literary gold with his talk of his picture perfect life?

“I don’t know what to do,” he continued, still examining his empty mug, “this is probably my last tour. I just want to hit RESET.”

“Is that why you invited me on this tour? To document the end?”

“I don’t know,” he finally looked up, finding her face with the saddest eyes she’d ever seen. “I just read your writing and I can tell that you get it.”

Ella had no clue what that meant.

“I have no idea what life will look like. I have more money than I know what to do with. I don’t need to tour. I don’t need to record.”

“What do you need?”

“I don’t know,” he said again, still staring deep into her eyes. “There’s so much that I just don’t know.”

There was another silence, but this one was different than the others. The two never took their eyes off each other.

“Can I tell you something that I’ve never told anyone?”

Ella’s heart began to race as he leaned in even closer.

“Of course you can.”

“Every day, when I wake up…” he paused again, this time deciding if he should continue. “…The only consistent thought I have, is that I can’t wait to leave Rebecca."

Episode Six

DAY TEN

Ella pulled her shirt over her head, staring at her face in the mirror as it became visible from behind the black fabric that was falling onto her shoulders. Had 34E really been 10 days ago? She felt as if so much life had happened in the time since she made the flight from New York to Portland, since she sat scrunched in her chair next to the overweight man who had made physical the metaphorical suffocation she was experiencing.  

From the mirror, the woman she found looking back at her was a different person than the one who had just two weeks ago still worked for Dominic Graham at In Stereo magazine, still lived in that all-white 22nd floor apartment, still in the throws of the fast-paced, high intensity life of Manhattan.

What had changed?

For starters, there was simply far less responsibility for an unemployed 29 year-old that lived in her parents’ attic. Gone were the demands of being the star journalist for one of the nation’s biggest magazines. Her phone was no longer blowing up from bosses with demands and colleagues with questions and agents with the next big band. She went from making decisions that would sit in 15 languages on newsstands in 30 countries, to simply deciding which spices to pull from the pantry around 6pm.

The days of going and going, often from 6am-midnight were clearly over, and Ella was becoming accustomed to her new schedule of noon-4am rather nicely. The clock on the attic wall told her that she’d slept in, even for her new schedule. She had the excuse of being out last night… I mean this morning, until sunrise, so the guilt wasn’t too strong.

She stood, realizing that her outfit, the black Nikes, gray shorts, and black t-shirt, made it appear as if she was headed out to exercise. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, only solidifying the look, and descended down the stairs.

“Hey, honey.” It was almost 2pm, but the steam from Caroline’s mug said that there must be a fresh pot in the kitchen. “You were up late.”

“Yep,” Ella replied, this conversation beginning like so many during her high school and college years.

Caroline watched as her only child poured the coffee into her favorite mug, the black ceramic that PSU gave every incoming freshman, a daily reminder to whom they’d be paying loans until they were the age that they couldn’t drink coffee at this time of day.

“Your father was a little worried before he left this morning,” Caroline paused, waiting for a reaction that didn’t come. “But then he called me while he was driving to the office and said he heard you… over at Jake’s.”

“Yep.” This time Ella turned and smiled at her mom, the grin saying that she wasn’t trying to avoid the conversation anymore.

“You guys have been spending a lot of time together lately.”

That was a true statement. Ever since the night seven days ago when they shared a family meal on the Copeland’s porch, since Aaron and Jake played music together and bonded over the songs of Chris Stapleton, since Jake and Ella walked through the neighborhood to one of the few coffee shops in this town that stayed open past dusk.

“Is there,” Caroline didn’t quite know how to put it, “you know… is there something there?”

Her mug now filled, Ella followed Caroline through the living room and onto the front porch.

The rain was back. Ella’s first week and a half in Portland had been the sunny warmth that was normally reserved for late July, but on this late-May afternoon, the Pacific Northwest spring appeared to be making a comeback.

So they sat around the kitchen table, under the cover of the rain-pattered roof, the sound of the jazz record on the Admiral the perfect complement to the sound that Ella could only describe as “home.”

At least a minute had passed since Caroline had asked Ella the question back in the kitchen, but they were both satisfied with the silence between them as they took in the sights and sounds of the Southeast Portland afternoon.

“I don’t know,” Ella finally replied from behind her mug. So much had happened this past week, but to put it in words… well, it seemed like not much at all had happened this past week.

Maybe Ella was attempting to find a way to say this, or she might have been simply basking in the nostalgia of sitting on this porch, a rainy afternoon with her mom, a cup of coffee, and Coltrane on the record player.    

“Edward.”

Ella was snapped out of whatever thought she’d been lost in when her mother spoke, stood, and walked to the edge of the porch.

Was her mom really on a first name basis with the FedEx guy?

“Hello, Mrs. Copeland,” the man at the street replied, rummaging through his truck before carrying four large boxes toward the porch.

“Edward, this is my daughter Ella. Ella, this is Edward.”

“Ah,” he set the package underneath the covered part of the porch, shook the rain off his extremely wet arms, and greeted Ella. “I believe these are for you.”

What?

Who was sending mail here for Ella? She hadn’t changed her address, her driver’s license, or even told anyone where she was headed when she left New York a week and a half ago.

“I was a bit confused,” Edward continued, now speaking to Caroline, “I saw Copeland, but I didn’t recognize the first name. Five years of deliveries, and I had no idea you had a daughter.” His voice almost sounded like he was hurt by the fact he’d just said aloud.

Ella didn’t notice, though. She picked up the first of the four identical boxes and instantly recognized the handwriting… and instantly was terrified about what was inside.

She scoured the porch for an object sharp enough to cut through the tape that was made to keep a large animal out. Finally settling on the corkscrew that had been left from last night’s wine, she sliced her way to the inside.

That same handwriting sat there, on a torn piece of sketch paper, on top of the contents.

Ella, I hope this makes it to you. Things are insane around here, but you…

The next few words were scribbled out, illegible. She kept reading:

Anyway, I know how much these meant to you, so when they were cleaning out your desk, I said they were mine and grabbed them for you. Don’t worry, I didn’t open them. I just figured that regardless of what went down, you deserve to have these back. I hope they point to better times. 

Kristina

Ella moved the note to the side, a stack of journals sitting beneath. She didn’t have to open them. She recognized each, and could tell you the dates and contents of every single one. She pushed the box out of the way and opened the second.

More journals.

And then the third…

The same.

She didn’t even have to open the fourth one.

“What are they, dear?” Caroline cut the deliveryman off mid-sentence while Ella stacked the boxes on her arms and took them through the front door.

“Nothing,” Ella’s voice came through the slamming screen door. “Just some work stuff.”                 

From the porch, Caroline could hear the groan of the floor as Ella shifted her weight onto the old stairs. Ella skipped the third stair from the top, the one with the creak, and scaled the next flight toward her bedroom.

Down the attic stairs, from the second story to the living room, out onto the porch where Caroline and Edward continued their conversation, through the yard, up the stairs next door, past the names that had been chiseled in the post over a decade ago, through the dense sound of the oak front door, and into the Ikea showroom, Jake sat, the all-weather notebook open on the coffee table in front of him.

The six pages of scribble and scratch weren’t the only evidence of the past eight hours in the house on Ladd Avenue. The logs that Jake had put on the fire after Ella’s 6am departure were still glowing in the backyard fire pit, echoing the song that had come from Jake’s guitar.

The night before had been like so many this past week, Jake milling around the house aimlessly after his daily trek to Heart Coffee, waiting and wondering if the now familiar dense knock of the front door would fill the room.

That knock had come consistently between 7 and 8, when the sun had just begun its game of hide and seek behind the evergreens. If you asked him, Jake would deny the excitement that hit him each time he turned the knob and heard the hinges. He longed for that split second when she became visible on the other side of the oak, that instant when the light from the setting sun highlighted her eyes or her hair or her smile. He was fascinated by the fact that the angle of the sun and the amount of cloud cover accentuated something different each night.

“Hey… wanna hang out?”

The first few nights, he’d acted like he had to think about it, as if he had multiple options to weigh. He’d stand there contemplating while she used her right hand to tuck her bangs behind her ears. But now, seven nights since their first dinner together, he dropped the act.

“Yeah, let’s do it.”

And then they’d be off.

For a man who’d spent most of his time on the same 2.4-mile walk to and from East Burnside during his first three weeks in Portland, he was enjoying the guided tour through the city.

Most nights, they’d walk north on Ladd, get on the bus at Madison & Grand, and head toward a landmark or restaurant that Ella hadn’t visited since her days at PSU. Last night, they went toward City Center on the 15, crossing over the river on Hawthorne before heading north to 11th & Alder.

“So, I haven’t been to this place,” Ella said last night, as they walked between the cars that were parked and the cars that whizzed by on 13th.

Jake noticed that she had no reaction to the lack of sidewalk or the vehicles and bicycles that drove by within arm’s length, so he acted as if this ridiculousness didn’t bug him, either.

They arrived at the restored warehouse and began to scale the stairs toward the entrance.

 “My friend Adeline recommended this place… said it’s one of her new favorites. I told you about her, right?”

“Yeah,” he opened the door and followed her inside, waiting to continue until the door shut behind them. “The girl from the porch post.”

“Oh, of course,” she turned and faced him as they stood in line. “You live in her house.”

The lighting in this place was scarce at best. There was a massive machine, right in the middle of the room, which only further solidified the industrial vibe of the place.

“Adeline says that the salads are enormous and awesome, but her husband really likes the fried chicken, bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit.”

“Whoa,” Jake’s eyes widened and his face lit up, causing Ella to giggle. “That sounds alright.”

They ordered, as they’d done most nights this week. In fact, they consistently followed the same pattern when they went out. Find a table (both of them preferred the patio), and then sit and talk and laugh and eat until well after the sun had fallen asleep.

Last night, on the patio of Tilt, the industrial warehouse turned restaurant on 13th Street, they ordered the Caesar salad to start, and then shared the biscuit sandwich that Adeline’s husband had recommended.

“So,” Ella said between bites of the far too big salad, “you were a pastor in Texas?”

“Well,” he replied, not quite finished with his bite, “kind of. I wasn’t the pastor. I was on staff at a church. My title was Music Pastor.”

“So you were in charge of the choir?”

Jake laughed. “No, it wasn’t like that.” He paused for a moment, trying to decide how to explain Bible belt church culture to his neighbor. “We had bands that were, I don’t know, normal? It was pretty much just a rock concert on Sunday morning.”

Ella’s face showed her confusion. “At church?”

“Yeah,” Jake chuckled. “That’s how most churches are these days… at least the ones that aren’t dying, I think.”

“Crazy.” She said it slowly, still trying to visualize a rock concert… on a Sunday morning… in a church. “Is it cool?”

Jake sat for a moment without answering, so Ella rephrased the question.

“I mean, do you like it?”

Ella could see the struggle in Jake as he answered. “I did.”

The neighbors sat in silence and ate their salad, the shop towels that the restaurant used as napkins firmly in their laps as they sat across from each other.

It was Ella who broke the silence.

“How did your church job respond to you and Kira getting a divorce?”

It was odd for Jake to hear Ella use his wife’s name while they sat, over 2,000 miles from the life that he and Kira shared, sharing a sandwich on a perfect Portland evening. It wasn’t that he was ashamed to be sitting across from the girl he’d spent so many hours with these last few days, the girl who he happened to find extremely attractive, more so every time they met. It wasn’t even that he didn’t want this girl to know his mistakes, his shortcomings, his failures. It was simply that he didn’t know what to do with the collision of the two worlds… the world he was living in, and the world that seemed to only exist in his memory.

“Not well,” he finally replied to her question about the church. And with that, she dropped it. If wasn’t that Jake was being standoffish, but something in his voice told her that he was done… that he couldn’t take any more of the conversation.

After dinner, they continued their pattern, walking around whatever neighborhood Ella had led them to, exploring the streets until they found something that looked appealing. Three nights ago, it had been a secondhand shop on Belmont where Ella bought a new to her Panama hat. Last week, it had been a pie shop in the Alberta Arts District. Tonight, the two strolled the part of town that Ella had always envisioned herself living in once her days at Portland State were complete.

“Where to next, Mr. Whitley?”

The comfort between Jake and Ella was out of the ordinary… at least for him. Always an introvert, the tortured artist who would rather spend his days with one or two really good friends, he’d never felt this close to someone this quickly. But then again, life had been far from normal these past few weeks.

“I’ve never been in this part of town before, but a beer sounds nice.”

“Ah, I know just the place.”

Ella took three steps in the direction she wanted him to go, before stopping, turning around, and whipping her head toward him overdramatically, and then cocking it to the side even more dramatically.

“You’ve never been to the Pearl?”

“Wait…” he said. “The Pearl District?”

“Yeah, that’s where we’ve been all night.” She spread her hands to put their surroundings on display.

“My favorite author actually moved from Texas to Portland, and he talks about this place in one of his books.”

As the two walked toward one of Ella’s father’s favorite breweries, Jake’s neck was on a swivel, exploring each and every building as they passed by.

“This place looks different than I imagined. The author, Don, talks about how the Pearl District is a beautiful picture of what life looks like when we’re living it right.” He stopped to see if his audience was still interested. She was. “He talks about all these old buildings and how they’ve been so beautifully restored… abandoned warehouses, reimagined. He says that when we’re at our best, that’s what we’re doing, restoring each other to… I don’t know… something better.”

They were at the brewpub now, and the logo on the corner of the building matched a logo that currently sat in Jake’s refrigerator.

“Do you really believe that stuff?” Ella questioned him as they scoured the menu titled Brewer’s Creations, “the stuff about making things better than they were before?”

She wasn’t asking because she doubted him. On the contrary, her question was born in a fear that he did in fact believe the words of his favorite author. And if he did, if Jake Whitley believed that when we’re living life the way it’s supposed to be lived, that we’ll be a part of restoring it all, then Ella had a problem. Because Ella Jayne Copeland had not left the world better than when she entered it… at least not in New York… not at Dominic Graham’s company… not in the half decade between 9B and 34E.

The pub was loud and crowded. Jake and Ella had taken the last two available seats in the bar, softball teams and hipster bachelor parties filling the room.

“This one has fish in it.”

“What?” That was not the response Ella had expected to her question.

“Fish,” Jake said louder, pointing to a beer on the menu.

Oh, he hadn’t heard her. In a way, she was relieved, so she grabbed the menu from his hands and looked at the fourth drink down on the small yellow page, then laughed.

“Mussels aren’t fish. They’re clams… I think. Well, they’re definitely mollusks.”

Jake laughed.

“Mollusk? What’s a mollusk?”

“Um…” her smile widened. “It’s… a mussel?”

They both laughed.

“I don’t care what they are. They live in water, and this place makes a beer with them. That’s what I’m gonna get.”

He flagged down the bartender.

“Do you want anything?”

“Is it cool if I just share with you?”

Jake’s smile grew again.

“It tastes like the ocean,” she said after her first sip.

“You don’t like it?”

“No, it’s not that,” she replied, licking her lips as if that might give her a better feel for the flavor. “I actually do  like it. It’s almost like I can taste the ocean.”

“Like salt water?”

“No.” She paused to find the words. “Just try it.” She slid the pint down the bar.

“Not bad,” he said after a long gulp.

They passed the glass back and forth a few times until it was empty.

“You ready to head home for the night?”

“Not yet,” Ella said as they stood and walked back out onto 11th Street, which, and Jake was glad for this, actually had a sidewalk. “I wanna show you something.”

Though less consistent than their pattern of dinner on a patio and a walk past dusk, this too had happened multiple times this week. Whether it be a building-sized alleyway mural or a midnight walk out onto the Hawthorne Bridge to see the way the city lit up the Morrison, it was always the best part of Jake’s night.

So he happily followed Ella the half mile north. Past the multi-million dollar condos and Jamison Square and Lovejoy, Ella finally stopped when they’d arrived at an entire empty city block. No building, no parking lot, no food trucks; just a walking path, a pond, and a deck to walk across the water.

“When I was at PSU,” Ella spoke as she and Jake stared together at this little oasis in the middle of the city, “this was my retreat. I’d walk over here when I was feeling overwhelmed by homework or the massive amount of writing I had or finals. I’d simply lie down in the grass, stare at the sky, and tell myself that everything was going to be alright. I’d say that to myself: everything is going to be OK, Ella. You’ll look back and be thankful for the hard times. I’d just repeat that over and over, laying in this grass, until I felt better.”

She paused and looked at Jake, standing to her left.

“Crazy, huh?”

“No.” Jake’s reply was instant and matter-of-fact. He didn’t think it was crazy at all. He knew exactly what it was like to feel like the weight of the world was going to swallow you whole, drowning you and devouring you at the same time. He looked to his right at the girl who was looking back at him, and he wondered how badly she needed to hear that right now. After what she’d told him at the coffee shop on that first night together, about In Stereo, about New York, about Riley Martin…

So right there in the middle of Tanner Springs Park, Jake shifted his weight from his legs to his hands, leaning back until his body was flat against the grass.

Ella looked down at him, obviously startled by his gesture. But she didn’t speak.

Just like that split second at the front door, Jake wished he could somehow capture this moment, the stars and the lights of the city, the grass tickling the back of his neck, and the girl…

Had the park not been empty, passersby might wonder why there was a man laying in the grass, and a woman standing next to him, staring out at the small pond that fit neatly into this block in the middle of Portland.

Staring up into the midnight sky, the few clouds that momentarily hid a few stars before moving on, Jake began to speak, so softly that Ella could barely hear him from five and a half feet above.

“Everything is going to be OK, Ella. You’ll look back and be thankful for the hard times...” 

Ella didn’t move.

“Everything is going to be OK, Ella. You’ll look back and be thankful for the hard times. Everything is going to be OK…” 

As Jake continued, his eyes followed Ella, who now shifted her weight to her hands, leaning back until her body was flat against the grass, next to Jake’s.

“…You’ll look back and be thankful for the hard times.”

Jake kept repeating the words, staring at the girl who was staring up at the sky, as he had just a moment ago…

“Everything is going to be OK…”

He watched a single tear fell from her eye and slide past her ear onto the grass. She swallowed hard and blinked, the clasping of her eyelids causing a few more tears to come as he began the mantra again.    

Jake slid his right hand across the grass and found Ella’s left. He continued staring at her, and she continued staring at the sky. Their fingers intertwined and just rested on the grass between them as he spoke.

“You’ll look back and be thankful for the hard times…”

Now, in the living room on Ladd Avenue, Jake scribbled away, knowing that he needed this song to get out of him before he slept.

Jake and Ella had made their way back to SE around 2am, spending the rest of the night around the fire in Jake’s back yard, telling stories and simply sitting in the perfection of the night.

Ella had left shortly after the sunrise, and Jake had been at it ever since. The all-weather notebook had been used and abused for the past several hours, sitting by the fire or on the living room table while Jake tried to finish the song he’d started eight days ago.

He was tired, but he couldn’t let go the feeling that if he had any chance of moving on, these thoughts had to be crafted into a melody.

And so he wrote.

After Ella had stretched her arms to the sky, yawned, and told him “good night,” at 6:14am, he ran in, grabbed the Martin auditorium, a sweatshirt, and the notebook.

The early morning hours hadn’t been overly productive for him, so he put the ear buds in his ears, tapped “Play” on You Are My Sunshine, and began his daily trek for coffee.

Jake listened continually to the song that had become so familiar, the soundtrack to his month of May, and as he did, he wondered if he might’ve finally found the secret to getting the song sung. As hard as he’d tried, he hadn’t found what he was looking for in a melody, or even in singing this very song. He couldn’t possibly know if it could be attained as he thought it might a week ago on Ella’s porch… by simply being surrounded by the ones you love while you sing. But maybe this was it. Maybe the song could be sung if it could finally be uttered with finality. If it could be sung by someone who was, in fact, moving on.

The lyrics wouldn’t suggest it: please don’t take my sunshine away, but could Jake hear a resolve in Johnny’s voice that he hadn’t heard yet… something in his tone saying that he knew the sunshine was gone, and it wasn’t coming back?

When Jake arrived at Heart, he was surprised to find that none of the regulars were there. The staff was different, the dreadlocked, bicycle-riding man wasn’t at his normal table, and there was no one manning the roaster.

“Single origin Americano, please.”

Jake wasn’t used to the barista not knowing his order. And it wasn’t just Haleigh, either. All the staff knew him now; the man who came in daily, always ordered the same drink, and scratched his pen to the notebook he always carried.    

But here he was, in a familiar place with a bunch of unfamiliar faces.

“You know what,” he grabbed the attention of the barista who was finishing up his drink, “could I get that to go?”

There would be no productive writing here today, so Jake grabbed the white cup, stepped outside, and started the journey back to the house on Ladd. He was at the corner of 20th & Yamhill when he noticed another difference in the day: the sun was beating down on his left side and not his right.

It was still morning. That’s why the staff at Heart was different. He’d never arrived at the black hexagon-shaped tile of the shop’s entryway before noon.

But today, he arrived with the before-work crowd. Jake had only seen 9am once since arriving in the Pacific Northwest, and today it was for good reason. He had a chapter to close, and he knew just the way to do it.

So here he sat, on the barely used sofa in Adeline’s old house, trying to find the right combination of lyric and melody to shut this book.

Jake knew that he couldn’t just say a handful of rote phrases, call it closure, and walk away. So he replayed it all in his head. The little house in Dallas, the Uber driver who seemed more than a bit concerned about the woman sobbing on the porch while Jake, defeated, said, “Airport, please.”

Was he really the one who left? His whole life, watching friends’ parents split, he’d always assumed that they were better than that. He remembered their wedding day, when they’d stood in front of their friends and family and promised forever. He meant the vows he’d said that day. So had she.

But here I am, he thought, sitting in a living room alone, a dozen states away from the house they called home. Am I really that man? Am I really the one who gives up and walks away?

How could Jake possibly put that into words? Could everything he felt fit into four minutes of chords and melody? Probably not, but that’s why he was here, half a day removed from Ella’s departure, still writing away on this one song.

Upstairs in the bedroom, the light was coming in through the sliver in the corner of the curtain, the angle of the light saying that it was the time Jake would normally wake.

He could barely keep his eyes open by the time the final word was on the page. He tossed the pen onto the table, leaned back against the cushion of the couch, let out a deep breath, and decided to give it a run through…
 

//INSERT SONG HERE//
 

There was no light coming through the sliver in the curtain when Jake finally awoke. He rolled over, grabbing another pillow to cool the side of his face, and glanced at the alarm clock, which was flashing 12s. He rubbed his eyes and considered staying in bed ‘til morning. He’d fallen asleep a little after 2, and he felt like he could sleep until noon tomorrow... or was it today?

His feet found the cold wood floor, and he walked slowly into the bathroom.

Jake looked into the mirror, and found himself a bit disappointed in the man that was staring back. He hadn’t consciously expected to have an altered physical appearance once his song was complete, but he was disheartened nonetheless. 

Once in the kitchen, Jake rued the fact that he didn’t keep coffee, or a way to make it, in this house. Was anywhere open at this hour? What time was it, anyway?

He stepped into the living room to check the plain white wall clock, which was certainly purchased at IKEA.

10:14.

The sight of the front door to the left of the clock sparked something in Jake.

Oh no, had Ella come over tonight?

In the delirium of a night without sleep and the pursuit of the closing chapter, Jake hadn’t even considered the pattern that he and Ella had established. There wasn’t a spoken agreement, never a see you tomorrow or a same time, same place conversation between the two, but there was no reason to think that she wouldn’t come.

So Jake grabbed his hoodie, threw on a hat, and slammed the door behind him.

“Hi Mrs. Copeland.”

“Hey Jake, come in out of that rain. And remember, it’s Caroline.”

“Oh right,” he said, searching the living room behind her for any sign of Ella.

“Is Ella here?”

Caroline thought for a moment. “I haven’t seen her much today. I think she’s still here, though. You’re more than welcome to go check.”

“Great. Thanks.”

Jake took a step toward the stairs before realizing that he had no idea where he should check.

“Oh,” Caroline realized it as well. “Up the stairs, to the right, and then up the stairs again.”

Jake shot a thank you over his shoulder as he scaled the stairs.

To the right, and then up again…

 The stairs to the attic were a bit of a challenge for Jake. Only half his foot fit on each step, causing him to walk up almost completely sideways, as if he were doing a drill on a football field.

He stopped outside the short door, which reminded him of the Lord of the Rings, and knocked.

“Come in.”

The voice was muffled through the wood.

“Hey,” he said, taking in the sight of this unique, makeshift bedroom. Ella was there, sitting cross-legged on the bed with her back to him, deep in whatever she was reading.

“Hey,” he said again, finally causing her to turn around. “Sorry I…”

“Jake!” She shot up off the bed, obviously surprised that it wasn’t one of her parents standing in her doorway. “Oh my god. I’m so sorry. What time is it?”

“Almost 11.”

“Oh my god. I lost track of time. I’ve been sitting up here reading since lunch. I totally meant to come over like normal.”

So she hadn’t come over. Jake hadn’t slept through the dense knock on the front door, because the knock hadn’t come.

“It’s all good. I just,” he stopped, deciding not to divulge the information about his current sleep schedule. “After last night, I just wanted to make sure that you were alright.”

“Thanks,” her smile was genuine, if a bit distracted. “Have a seat.”

Jake looked around the room, which was covered in notebooks. The room’s only chair was taken by two brown boxes, each with journals stuffed to the brim.

Ella noticed the mess, and responded by stacking a few from the bed and clearing a space.

“Here you go.”

She patted the bed next to her.

“My old co-worker from In Stereo, Kristina, grabbed all my writings from the office before they threw all my stuff away,” she said. “There are so many memories in these books. College, the early days in New York… Riley Martin.”

Jake looked around the room; open journals everywhere.

“Do you mind if I…” he picked up the closest book and opened it.

“Go for it.” She surprised herself with the level of comfort she felt with this.

She watched Jake as he read the first page. She assumed that he’d skim a few pages, set it down, and head for the next one. But here he was, camping out on page one.

A quick glance at the cover told Ella that this was a book she’d used during her first year in Manhattan.

She watched his face as he read, and suddenly she felt extremely vulnerable, as if she were reading aloud a personal diary in front of an auditorium.

“Everything OK?”

She couldn’t take the silence any longer.

Jake finished the sentence he was reading and then looked at Ella. “You’re an incredible writer.”

Her face softened, and she placed her hand on top of his.

“Thank you.”

It wasn’t that she no longer felt vulnerable with her journal in his hands, but she no longer wondered if she could feel safe with her journal in his hands.

They had broken the pattern. This night wasn’t a bus ride or a restaurant or a walk through an unfamiliar neighborhood. No, this night was far more intimate.

The sound of the old Admiral on the front porch could be heard through the open window, and the sweet scent of Aaron’s pipe came in with the wind.

Jake and Ella sat on her bed, each of them reading the writing that had been so dear to the girl who had poured her heart into these pages.

“Man,” he said, flipping the page. “You’re making me feel like I wanna be best friends with Cecil.”

Ella was so glad that she kept a journal. In the years that had passed since the ink had dried on these pages, she’d almost forgotten the homeless man that she sat with every Sunday during those early years.

“Yeah, he was my favorite. I’d bring my MacBook out to the park to get some work done, and he’d stare at the laptop, swearing up and down that it was going to give me cancer or eat my brain or take over the world. I remember one time…”

“No spoilers,” Jake butted in. “I think I’m just getting to the good part.”

After an hour, she’d made it through five more journals, while Jake was still in the middle of the book from the early days in New York.

Ella dropped the notebook on the bed in front of her, stood, and stretched.

“You want some coffee?”   

“Ah, that sounds good.” Jake went from studying the writing to studying the author. Her hands extended almost reached the low ceiling. Her navy crew neck sweatshirt stretched with her, causing the slightest bit of skin to show above her gray shorts.

“Be right back,” she smiled at him as he watched her walk out the door and down the steep attic steps.

If Jake hadn’t been certain of his attraction to Ella before tonight, he certainly was now. And not because of her looks. Sure, Jake wouldn’t deny her physical beauty, but the way she put words together was nothing short of amazing. She was an artist in every sense of the word, and he couldn’t get enough of her work.

“Here you go.”

After handing him a brown mug that sported the silhouette of Portland’s Burnside Bridge, she reclaimed her spot next to him on the bed.

He sat down the journal he’d been reading, careful to not spill on such an important piece of this writer’s history.

Without the rustling of paper and conversation, the voice of Glen Hansard coming from the Admiral came into focus. 

After a handful of minutes simply sipping their coffee and enjoying the sounds and smells coming from the window, the music of the Admiral and the scent of the falling rain, Jake picked up the journal he’d been reading and examined the cover.

“Have you ever thought about writing a book? For real, you might be the best writer I’ve ever read.”

Comments like these weren’t new to Ella. She’d been praised for her writing skills most of her adult life. The compliments were always welcome, but something seemed significant about sharing this part of herself, a part that seemed all but dead, with Jake.

“Uh, not really.”

Ella shifted her legs out from underneath her, stood, and walked across the room to the bookshelf that was far too full.

“When you’re reading a book,” she continued, “you can always tell if the writer is faking it. I hate not finishing a book, so I end up loathing an author for 200 pages, knowing that they haven’t lived anything nearly interesting enough to keep my attention for ten hours.”

She was running her fingers across the spines of the works on her shelf. Thousands of hours that author had poured their heart and soul into. Jake stood and followed her over to the bookshelf.

“And I, Mr. Whitley, have not yet lived a good enough story to warrant putting it out there, into the ever-increasingly crowded literary world.”

She watched him as his eyes moved from left to right, up and down the over-stuffed shelves.

“Well, I think you’re extremely interesting,” he said without taking his eyes off the books, “but if you’re right, who knows… maybe the story worth telling is just beginning.”

She didn’t take her eyes off him, but he didn’t take his eyes off the spines. He said it with such nonchalance. She was searching for a sign, but he didn’t give one. He simply pulled a notebook from the shelf and began flipping through it.

What did he mean by this: maybe the story worth telling is just beginning? Was he talking about them? Their relationship? Or was he referring to the crap storm that hit the fan across the country two weeks before? 

“What the…”

Ella’s internal dialogue was interrupted by his words.

“Ella,” his entire tone had changed. “Why in the hell do you have my notebook?”

Episode Five

FIVE YEARS AGO

Jake paced the green room, back and forth… back and forth… back and forth...

Even after four years in this business, he was still unable to shake the jitters of walking on stage; the lights, the smoke, the adrenaline.

To an outsider, possibly one of the many who would travel multiple hours to watch Jake work, he might look like a nervous wreck… like a man who wasn’t prepared to handle the pressure of the crowd that was waiting on the other side of the stage.

“Is he always like this?”

Alex had worked for Jake his entire career, and he’d had this conversation with almost every session player, fill in, and roadie who had joined the team.

“Only back here,” Alex replied softly to the longhaired, baby-faced 20-something who had been hired to cover the low end.

Across the room, while Jake’s feet were walking from the table filled with snacks to the wall that held the event’s schedule, his mind raced with thoughts of arrangements and parts and words to say.

Most of the others who shared this green room didn’t understand the compulsion. The set rarely changed. The arrangements never changed. Neither did the words. In fact, the faces in the crowd were about the only thing that differed from set to set.

“It’s so weird,” the new guy said to Alex. “That’s not the same Jake that we all see from the other side of the microphone.”

“Well,” Alex suddenly felt the need to defend his boss and best friend. “It’s not always this bad. He’s just not used to doing this without Kira.”

“Who?”

“His wife.”

“Ah,” his face showed that the light had clicked on. “Gotcha.”

On the other side of the room, Jake continued his pace, trying to focus on the task ahead of him.

IV – vi– I – V – V/VII

Bridge // Interlude // Transition

The heads of everyone in the room spun around when the door swung open.

“Three minutes, guys…”

Alex had never understood the point of this warning. Without fail, the man with the headset came in and told the room what they already knew, what the countdown on the green room’s large television already told them.

But for some reason, the frantic stage manager found comfort in assuming that the six bodies that sat here staring at the clock had an extra babysitter.

Despite the three-minute warning, the room continued their conversations and their pacing and their snacking on pretzels.

It was true. Jake wasn’t used to doing this without his wife. She’d made the inevitable decision to leave the spotlight a few weeks before, and though Jake understood, he couldn’t help but feeling a bit abandoned. She’d been his anchor this past year, as he’d gone from just another voice in a very noisy industry to one of the more successful in his craft.

But she wasn’t here today…

When the countdown hit 90 seconds, Jake took a deep breath, rubbed his face with his palms, and turned it on.

“Alright guys, let’s do this.”

The same people who had ignored the stage manager a minute and a half ago now sprung into action, pulling the little in-ear monitor buds from their shoulders and inserting them into their ears, checking for the green light on the wireless packs that hung from their back pockets.

Outside the door, the same stage manager was waiting to lead them on the path that they’d already walked three times today. He was only as useful as his flashlight, which kept them from stumbling on the cables and unused lights that lived backstage.

As they neared the large auditorium, the energy coming from the room could be felt more with every step. The stage manager stopped, turned around, and held up his hand, which contrasted surprisingly well in the dark against his black shirt and jeans. He scrunched his face, trying to concentrate to the voice that was transmitting into his earpiece.

“Wait…”

Though they couldn’t see the other side of the curtain, their ears told them of the excitement that was brewing in the room.

Alex stretched his right forearm across his left and shook out his hands, as if preparing to work out or throw a baseball.

A few more deep breaths…

One more check of the wireless pack…

The stage manager spread out his fingers before folding his thumb into his palm.

“Here we go… Five… Four… Three…”

And with that, the entire room went black, and the entire crowd went wild.

The bass began busting from the subs, a pre-made synth track that had been created for the sole purpose of getting the crowd moving.

Jake let the other five go out in front of him, waiting until they were out of sight before taking a step through the curtain.

The stage manager flipped his flashlight off. “Go get ‘em, Jake.”

The room was still dark, but the sight of Jake’s silhouette caused another cheer. Another flashlight-sporting stagehand placed an already tuned, already ready Fender telecaster around Jake’s neck.

The automated voice inside his in-ear monitors told him that he had eight beats until the lights would come up and the show would begin.

He took a few steps toward the front of the stage, his Beta 87 waiting there for him.

His in-ears signaled for him to begin.

Intro… two… three… four…

Boom.

A chill went down Jake’s spine every time they hit that opening E. The lights blared onto the six who had just three minutes ago been stuffing the last of the pistachios into their mouths in the green room.

“Hello Dallas,” Jake screamed, the microphone making his voice bellow above the crowd that was still roaring at the overload that was happening to their senses.

“I’m Jake.” The scream got louder.

“You ready to do this?”

And louder.

The new guy, Lawrence, flung his hair back, like so many do in their bedrooms in front of mirrors and while playing Guitar Hero. He looked at Jake, and instantly knew that Alex was right… only in here, he’d said. The 27 year-old man that stood at the front of the spotlight was an entirely different human than the nervous, pacing basket case that he’d watched backstage.

Up here, on this stage, Jake Whitley was in his element. His Fender Telecaster fit him so perfectly, the flow of his body naturally hitting every beat.

Jake turned and looked at the band around him, the pulsing rhythm causing the crowd that was now at his back to move to the sound.

He took it all in… the room, the band, the audience. He locked eyes with Alex, who was pounding on the cymbals and kick drum, and they both laughed. The joy on the stage was evident and infectious. They’d been working toward this for years together; since the first weeks of high school, and here they were, in front of at least 7,000 in their hometown.

The anticipation had been building since the doors of the venue had opened almost an hour earlier. There was a line outside, there always was… and then the room filled, the front filling first, everyone finding their seat. Then the countdown achieved its intended affect… more anticipation. The blackened room, the silhouettes of the band, the synth intro, the perfectly timed light show that went with the perfectly executed musical intro… it all led to this moment.

Jake stepped up to the Beta 87, opened his mouth, and began singing.

The crowd recognized the first lyrics, inciting another cheer, before they began singing along.

There’s something special about hearing an arena-sized crowd sing a song you wrote in your bedroom, and for Jake, it never got old. He joined the thousands in the room in belting out the perfect opener. 

The band was well trained. They mouthed the words, as if the catchy melody couldn’t help but be sung. Their stage presence matched the intensity of the music, pulling back in the verses, and going crazy during the sing-a-long choruses.

Lawrence was in awe. He was in awe of Jake and his charisma, of the way he worked the crowd as if they were sitting with him in his living room, as if this stage and lights and smoke and echo were the most natural thing in the world. Lawrence was also in awe that he had gotten the gig; that he was given the opportunity to play in Jake’s band.

The second chorus was in full swing, and now even those who didn’t know the song two minutes ago were singing along. The final words rang out, and the entire band stepped back, attempting to divert the attention of the crowd to the lead guitar player who was now taking the spotlight.

In this moment, Jake again caught Alex’s attention, the sweat already running down both of their faces as their bodies moved to the beat that Alex and Lawrence were providing. The two had a language of looks, a communication system that could be used despite the 105 decibels in the room. And they both knew it… this was what they’d longed for, and it was finally happening.

The set went exactly as planned. The first three songs were all energy and melody. It was a wonder Jake hadn’t already lost his voice from the intensity of his singing. But here he was, the final note of the third song ringing throughout the venue, and it was stronger than it had been three songs before.

The lights went down, and the stagehand walked to Jake, exchanging his Telecaster for his Martin auditorium. The lights came back, but far less intrusive than they’d been for the previous 17 minutes. The spots focused in on center stage, where Jake was now softly strumming the acoustic guitar.

He looked out at the crowd, watching as they swayed from side to side, taking in the sound of the guitar that Kira had bought for him as a wedding present.

The lights of the stage faded slowly from yellow to blue as Jake began singing, another song that he’d written in his bedroom. He closed his eyes and let the words fall from his lips, listening to the droves of people singing his song.

The rest of the band took this time to rehydrate and wipe the sweat from their faces. Lawrence again watched from the darkness of the side of the stage; he stared at his front man, who was appearing as if this were the first time he’d sung this rollercoaster of emotion. He was amazed at the authenticity of the passion on Jake’s face as he sang. How could he sing this song every night and still have this level of sentiment about it?

 As soon as the first chorus was out of his mouth, Jake opened his eyes for the first time since beginning the song. Lawrence wiped his face with his towel again, trying to decipher whether the moisture under Jake’s eyes were actual tears, or just the residue of 20 minutes of giving it his all. Surely this song that he’s sung hundreds of times over the years isn’t causing him to cry.

This thought was quickly gone, however, as Lawrence found himself belting out the 2nd chorus from next to his bass amp.

God, this was a good song…

Lawrence knew that it wasn’t difficult for six musicians to create a dynamic landscape; to have peaks and valleys in four minutes of sound. Simply bringing down the volume or pulling the drums from a section could usually do the trick. But this, what Jake was doing with just his voice and the six strings of his acoustic guitar, was quite a feat.

The chorus ended, the G flat acting as the only transition to the bridge.

“Let me hear you sing it,” Jake said before taking two steps back from the microphone, allowing the voices of the crowd to take the lead.

This was the instant that Lawrence wished he could capture… the moment he would look back on as an old man, the time where everything just felt right. He wondered how many in the room had the same thought, that when having a bad day, or when life was rough, that they’d recall this moment during the fourth song of Jake Whitley’s set.

Why was that? Was it the fact that Jake was successfully telling the story of the people in the room? Or was it that by stepping off the mic, he made them feel like they were the superstars? Or was it that it made Jake seem like a normal guy?

It didn’t matter. The moment was perfect, the voices of 7,000 passionate fans at the top of their lungs with the words that had first come to life in one of Jake’s notebooks.

He must’ve noticed the magic of the moment, because Jake didn’t return to the microphone when it was time for the last chorus. He simply strummed his guitar, providing the soundtrack for the room to finish its song.

The crowd showed its gratitude at song’s end by giving Jake the loudest cheer of the entire set. The stage lights dimmed, the house lights rose, and a man appeared from the same curtain that the band had entered from 22 minutes before.

He looked to be about 40, though he was dressed like he was attempting to appeal to the generation below him. His short hair was precisely messy, as if he’d used fifty dollars worth of product to make it look out of place. He wore a pearl-snap collared shirt and jeans with a design on the back pocket. The small, flesh colored microphone could barely be seen next to his goatee.

He walked toward the front of the stage as Jake, Alex, Lawrence, and the rest of the band exited.

The stage manager handed Jake a towel as soon as he was past the curtain and out of sight.

“Great job."

Jake pulled the monitors from his ears without responding. He wiped his face with the towel as the man on the stage began speaking, his flesh-colored headset microphone now the only noise filling the room.

“Bow your heads. Let’s pray."

// INSERT BREAK HERE // 

Back in his office, Jake removed his now sweat-drenched shirt and opened the wardrobe to find another for the drive home. He walked past the desk and the bookshelves and the sofa and turned on the closed-circuit television that gave him a look into the auditorium, where the fourth and final service of the day was about to end.

Jake’s boss, Tyson Dallas, the 40-something goateed man with the headset microphone, was in the middle of his weekly passionate plea. Together, the two of them had built this empire. Well, Tyson had built it, but Jake had caused it to explode. What started 16 years ago as a Bible study in Tyson’s living room had turned into a church of 7,000 in the first decade. But when Jake had started, that’s when it really became a powerhouse. The white board in the main office had just been updated with the day’s numbers; over 24,000 people had been in the building today, with another estimated 55,000 watching on TV.

Jake liked to get out of the parking lot before the last service ended. The lines of people in the lobby wanting a picture and just a moment of his time wore him out after spending all of his morning singing for four separate crowds.

He slipped the t-shirt over his head and glanced at his phone for the first time since sound check.

The text messages that he’d missed filled his screen. They were all from Kira.

It’s time.

Jake, it’s for real now.  

Can you get here ASAP?

I don’t know how much longer I can wait.

Ok. My mom’s picking me up. I’m going to the hospital. Get there as soon as you’re done. Ok?

I’m in Room 406. You close? 

Nurse says I’m already at a 7. It’s not gonna be long. Doctor is on her way. Please hurry. 

Jake’s heart rate went through the roof. Had he seen any of these texts, he would’ve been gone hours ago. He instantly rued the decision to sit in the green room and shoot the breeze with the band after the final set. Thirty minutes of worthless conversation while his wife was in labor.

He grabbed his keys from the desk and raced out the back door, where his car had been sitting since 6:30am. He turned the ignition and peeled out past the orange vested volunteers whose pasted-on smiles and waves turned to looks of worry as they watched one of their main leaders frantically speed onto the street. 

Jake ignored every stoplight and road sign as he raced toward the hospital, hoping to make it there before his son or daughter did.

In the excitement of the morning, Jake had almost forgotten that Kira was at home, eight and a half months pregnant with their first child.

“Do you want to know the sex?” the sonogram technician had asked them 19 weeks earlier.

Kira had propped herself up and looked at Jake, her shirt pulled up above the belly that was carrying their child.

“No,” Jake replied softly. “We want it to be a surprise.”

He’d said it with conviction, though just that morning they’d still been discussing the matter.

“For thousands of years,” she’d said in a way that only she could, “moms and dads have had the joy of looking between their newborn’s legs to find out if they were raising a boy or a girl. I want that rush.”

“But think about how much easier it’ll be if we know,” Jake had pleaded with his wife. “The room, the clothes, the baby shower…”

“Of course it would be easier,” she cut him off. “But Jacob, just because something is easier doesn’t mean that it’s better.”

Kira was the only person in the world that called him Jacob. It wasn’t even his name. His birth certificate read Jake Alan Whitley, but she’d begun adding the second syllable before they were engaged. And now, she used it during arguments or to make a point… and sometimes just to be cute.

She’d won, of course. She always did. Unlike so many others his age, Jake consistently valued his spouse more than he valued being right, and he quickly gave in to her wishes.

Now, racing down I-35 with the morning’s sweat still sticky on his face, there was way more uncertainty than he’d known what to do with. He’d tried calling Kira once he was on the highway, but the phone had gone to voicemail after five rings.

He didn’t know if his wife had given birth. He didn’t know if she was in pain. He didn’t know if the doctor had made it yet. He didn’t know how quickly the Sunday lunchtime traffic would allow him to get there. And he didn’t know if his first child was a son or a daughter. It was almost too much to handle.

He circled the hospital’s parking lot twice before pulling in to the space next to his mother-in-law’s sedan. He turned off the ignition before noticing the sign at the front of the stall.

THIS SPACE IS RESERVED FOR EXPECTING MOTHERS.

“Close enough,” he said aloud before slamming the driver’s side door and running through the revolving entrance to the hospital.

Crap, what room did Kira say she was in?

Jake pulled his phone from the pocket in his jeans and scrolled back up through the text messages she’d bombarded him with all morning.

406.

He found the row of elevators and slapped the button that signaled the direction he wanted to go. He waited for a moment and then slapped the button again. The transparent circle was lit from behind, but in his haste, Jake didn’t trust it. He spun his head from left to right and back left again, finally finding the blank door with the sign that held a horizontal line connected to a vertical line, which was connected to another horizontal one, and another vertical.

He slammed his shoulder into the door, its hinges reacting to the intense pressure. He took the stairs two at a time, and with each floor he reached, the reality of what was happening became exponentially more real.

He was going to be a dad. Gone were the carefree days of doing whatever he pleased. And gone were the days where he, the tortured artist, could live in his head all day and night, acting all day and night for the sake of the song.   

This was going to be a sacrifice.

But as he passed the door that told him he was only one story from his destination, the other side of the coin began to shine.

He was going to be a dad.

There was a little human that Jake had helped create. He thought of his own dad, the nights in the backyard throwing a baseball and making s’mores in the fire pit. He daydreamed about road trips and campsites and late nights under the stars.

He was going to be a dad.

He opened the door to the fourth floor with the same intensity as he had at the bottom of the stairs, the sweat from running dripping from his forehead and down the small of his back.

Again, Jake spun his head from left to right and back left again, looking for that little sign that would signal in which direction he should move.

Down the hallway, past the nurses station, and into another hall…

402… 404…

Jake could hear the sound of his wife’s moan from outside the door.

“Kira,” he said it louder than he’d meant to, catching the attention of those who were walking the hall.

He swung the door open and found his wife sitting, hunched over, on the edge of the hospital bed. The moans continued, muffled by her hands, which were covering her face. Kira’s mom was there, standing at the end of the bed with a hand on her daughter’s shoulder.

“Jake,” it was Kira’s mom who spoke, and it caused the sound coming from the bed to cease. Kira moved her hands to the bed sheets, looked up at Jake, and began sobbing.

Fear overtook Jake as he moved toward his wife. He searched her face for an explanation, and then to her mother’s. He felt as if he was walking in slow motion, everything at a snail’s pace around him.

Kira straightened, her enormous stomach making every move a chore.

Jake wrapped his arms around her shoulders as she wept into his chest.

“Everything ok?” It came out as a whisper, his voice breaking up as he stared down at his wife.

“I don’t wanna do this,” she said between sobs. “It’s so hard.”

Jake closed his eyes; slowly let out a breath, and let his instincts kick in.

He gently massaged her neck before pulling her face from his body. He bent down, kissed her on the lips, and stared into her eyes.

“You’re the bravest person I’ve ever met. And we get to meet our baby today. We can do this.”

Her face softened as she searched his. She wiped her left cheek with her palm, and nodded.

“Don’t leave,” she almost whispered. “I need you.”

He kissed her again, this time on her forehead. His lips rested just above her eyebrows as he replied. “I’m never going to leave."

The hours that followed were full of doctors, pain, and utter beauty. Jake saw a side of his wife that he’d never seen. There was a passion and a pursuit deep in her eyes; one that Jake knew wasn’t likely to go away. Behind the matted hair and tears and screams was a magnificence that would stick with Jake for the rest of his life. In those dreadful, incredible moments, Jake felt such a peace about raising a child with Kira Whitley, the woman he’d met in that autograph line in England… the woman he’d stood with in front of his friends and family, promising to love each other the rest of their days.

And then it happened.

“Ok, Kira,” the voice of the doctor was confident and sure, “You’re ready to push. Let’s meet this baby.”

Kira squeezed the hand of her husband and silently let the tears slide down her cheeks and onto the bed.

Standing there, watching his wife go through unmentionable pain, Jake would’ve given anything in the world to trade places with her, to absorb the pain that was soaking the bed beneath her.

“You’re doing great, Kira. Keep pushing.”

More tears.

More pain.

She squeezed his hand harder with each push.

“Oh my god,” Jake’s words were cut off by his emotion.

It was like nothing he had ever seen. The baby was just… there. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but watching the doctor pull his baby from his wife’s body was… well Jake didn’t even have a word for it.

The doctor stood, holding this little creature that Jake and Kira had created, and she placed it on Kira’s chest. The tears that had been silent were now loud and joyous, and they were coming from every Whitley in the room, including the one who had just joined the family.

“Congratulations,” the doctor said, staring at the sobbing family, “you have a beautiful baby girl.”

It was a girl.

“Aw,” Kira said, staring at this little life-changer in her arms. “Hi, baby girl.”

It was at this point that Jake lost complete control of his emotions. In this moment, he was the proudest father in the world. This little girl was going to call him daddy.

“So,” the doctor spoke from across the room, evidently not nearly as blown away by the birth of this child as the new parents were, “what’s her name?”

Jake stared at Kira, both of them wide-eyed.

“I have no idea.” It was Kira who said it.

“Yeah,” Jake chimed in. “Me, neither.”

“No big deal,” the doctor was looking at the paperwork that sat across the room from the bed. “Happens all the time. You can’t name a baby until you meet her. Just let us know when you’ve decided, and we’ll get the birth certificate ordered.”

The doctor left the room, leaving the three alone for the very first time.

Jake shifted his weight from his legs onto the messy bed, sliding his arm around his wife as they lay together.

“I’m so proud of you.”

The smile that she returned was almost as bright as her eyes.

“You were amazing. And you,” Jake leaned forward and kissed his daughter for the first time. “You are incredible.”

The rest of the day was a blur, phone calls and family visits and Facebook notifications. Nurses were in and out of the room, confirming the health of this perfect baby girl.

His parents brought dinner. Her parents brought cousins. Alex even stopped by with the things that Jake had left at the church; his computer, his bag, his guitar.

Grandparents took pictures and hospital staff drew blood. Friends held the baby and nurses weighed her. She was fawned over and examined from head to toe.  

Long after the sun had gone to sleep, the room finally quiet and free of visitors, the exhaustion of the day caught up with Kira.

“You go to sleep,” Jake told her, again noticing her beauty in a way he hadn’t until now. He reached down and picked up the baby off Mom’s chest. “Let me spend some time with my daughter.”

Kira’s smile spanned from ear to ear. “I like the sound of that… my daughter.”

“Me, too.”

And before Jake had taken four steps with the baby, the sweet sound of his wife sleeping filled the room.  

The baby cooed as he sat down on the recliner across the room.

“I guess it’s just you and me for awhile.”

Jake slowly rocked back and forth, studying this little life that he was now responsible for. He tickled her arm and then slipped his index finger in the palm of her hand. All five of her tiny fingers wrapped around his one; her first response to him.

He stared into her stunning blue eyes that looked just like Kira’s. Almost everyone who had visited today had mentioned it, but seeing it for himself for the first time, he fell in love with her a little more. Was that even possible?

 I never knew I could love another person this much.

He’d heard his friends say it. Maybe his parents had even said it. But now, rocking his baby girl for the first time, Jake got it.

He couldn’t wait to experience life with his daughter. He daydreamed about her first steps… her first words… the first day of kindergarten. He thought about her first crush and her first dance. As odd as it sounds, he was even looking forward to her first heartbreak. He longed for the day, many years down the road, when he’d hold his currently unnamed daughter and tell her that it would be alright. He cherished the idea of being there every time she needed a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen.

Jake even allowed himself to think further down the road… Dropping her off, freshman year in the dorms, handing her off to a world unknown. Her wedding day, when he’d hand her off to the man that she’d chosen to love. He found himself wondering what she’d look like, what age she’d be when he’d walk her down the aisle. He thought of the words he’d say on that day… “Her mother and I do.” He imagined the father/daughter dance. He paused at the fact that the song that would play likely hadn’t been written yet… and likely wouldn’t be for years.

He began to wonder about her passions… what would she spend her days caring about? Would she be an astronaut or a singer or a teacher or a doctor or a stay at home mom or a writer? He didn’t care, as long as she knew how much he loved her.

Those beautiful blue eyes now hidden with sleep, Jake couldn’t help himself. He kissed her on the forehead, stood, placed her in the bassinet, and grabbed the Martin auditorium that Alex had brought by.

He softly strummed in the key of E, barely remembering that this same day had started with this same chord on the stage in front of over 5,000.     

While Kira and the baby slept, Jake sang a song that would not be sung by a crowd that was screaming his name, or on a record that thousands would buy. It was a song for the most important audience in his entire life: the newborn baby girl that slept peacefully a few feet away.

He didn’t care that the song was the same four chords over and over. He wasn’t worried about the inconsistent melody or the vocal phrasing. He simply sang. 

INSERT SONG HERE

The guitar was still singing when Jake heard his name in the form of a whisper from across the room.

“Jake.”

“Oh,” he whispered back, suddenly aware of the baby that was fast asleep next to him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s ok,” Kira responded, holding her hand out for Jake to take. “I think I got it.”

“Got what?”

“Her name.” Kira paused before continuing. “You know how we talked about her name meaning something, for it to have significance to who we are and who she is?”

“Yeah.” Jake couldn’t imagine where she was going with this.

“Well,” she rubbed the top of his hand with her thumb. “What about… London?” 

 

Episode Four

THREE MONTHS AGO.

There was so much that should’ve been going through Ella’s mind at this moment, but only one word consumed her thoughts as she sat, legs crossed at the ankles, covered by the leggings that she’d deemed necessary for this February day in New York, and that word was quiet.

It was so freaking quiet in here.

She wasn’t considering the fact that she’d just been given In Stereo’s biggest story of the year. She wasn’t celebrating the fact that he had turned down Rolling Stone, Time, and Newsweek, but rather insisted that Ella was the only journalist… from any magazine, that he’d let on the tour bus.

No. The lack of noise inside the four walls of this office, that’s what was occupying Ella Copeland’s mind in this moment.

It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy the bullpen, or the open office concept of the loft that In Stereo magazine occupied. After awhile, the continual buzz of cell phones and half heard conversations and the clicks of laptop keyboards and Ping-Pong paddles just seems normal. But in here, on the other side of the glass wall, where the title outside the door read EDITOR IN CHIEF, it was silent. The bullpen was still bustling with writers and editors and designers, the Friday afternoon deadline still looming, but no noise could be heard in here. It was as if the executives were completely sheltered from the storm of busyness and stress that wrecked the rest of the building. And for some reason, that was the thing that had Ella staring blankly across the desk at her boss.

“Ella, do you understand what I’m saying?”

Dominic Graham was the founder and Editor-in-Chief of In Stereo magazine, and one of the few from the 1990’s New York City music scene that had successfully transitioned out of punk rock and into writing… well, writing things that weren’t biographies completely sold on the perceived relationship that the artist had to Kurt Cobain.  

No, Dominic had started a zine the moment he realized that Lab City, the band he fronted, had no future. Once the technology allowed, that zine turned into an email newsletter that Dominic sent to his friends. With a large amount of traction and an entrepreneurial spirit, he’d turned In Stereo into one of the largest music magazines in the world, with a staff of 30 who were responsible to create the 88 pages of content every two weeks, all year round.

On this day, he stood with his palms flat on his cocobolo desk, his Patek Phillippe 5004P designer watch hanging at the bottom of his gangly arms. His white dress shirt was cuffed at the elbow, and his khaki-colored suspenders that held up his black Levi 510s perfectly matched the rimmed glasses that sat on his clean-shaven face.

“Ella, did you hear me?”

He leaned forward and widened his eyes, hoping to capture her attention.

“Yeah,” she finally answered. “You want me to spend ten weeks on tour with Riley Martin, writing the story that every music journalist has been trying to get for the last decade.”

“Yes,” Dominic’s tone revealed his bewilderment. Ella Copeland was his star writer, and she’d always jumped at the chance to take on the story that nobody else could get. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t even been in the industry for half a decade. “Is that a problem?”

“Of course not.” Ella’s monotone reply was not what Dominic was expecting, and his expression didn’t hide it. He stood tall, folded his arms across his chest, his right arm hiding the watch that sat on his left, and heaved an obnoxiously deep breath.

“You leave on Friday. You’ll be on the bus with Riley’s crew. We’ll fly you back for deadlines between legs of the tour. Also, let’s keep up the blog on this one. Think about the online ad revenue for a story this size. Gawd,” he looked out the window at the falling snow, “imagine how big this is going to be.”

Ella realized that with this last sentence, Dominic was now talking to no one in particular.

He got this way at times; dreaming about the future of the magazine or the zeros that a certain move could add to his salary. The writers of the magazine often talked about the Dominic of 1997, and how he would beat the crap out of the man who now shared the same name, but not much else.

He sighed again, asked her if she had any questions about the assignment, and dismissed her from the office.

The moment that Ella opened the brushed nickel of the knob of Dominic’s door, the rush of the sound of the bullpen filled her ears. The grinding of coffee beans, the voices of persuasive salesmen, and the typical office BS that filled every floor of this Upper East Side building.

Before she’d even shut the door that cut her boss off from the rest of the world, she closed her eyes and exhaled slowly, relieved to be back in the company of her people.

“What are you doing?”

Ella’s eyes shot open, startled by the voice that she could feel burning through her. It was Kristina, staring at her and clicking a USB drive in and out of its casing with her thumb and forefinger.

“Oh, um, I got the Riley Martin story.” The words came out almost as a question, as if Ella hadn’t yet convinced herself of the nature of this news.

“What the…” Kristina’s voice became louder with each word. “Are you freakin’ serious?”

The clicking stopped and Kristina wrapped her arms around her friend, garnering the attention of at least half the room.

Ella stared blankly over Kristina’s shoulder as she was embraced, the expression on her face letting the rest of the office know that she still was either in shock or unhappy with whatever decision just came from Dominic’s office.

Long after the sun disappeared behind the Hudson, Ella’s fingers found the front door of her 22nd floor apartment, and then the little white button that summoned the light bulbs that hung from the 14 foot ceilings, illuminating the white marble countertops of a seemingly unused kitchen.

The ad she’d found for this place promised 1,100 square feet of furnished, clean, chic modernity, and that was quite the understatement. The white Beachwood floors matched the marble, which matched the whitest walls that Ella had ever seen. If that wasn’t enough, the white sofa and armchair sealed the deal.

But this luxury apartment wasn’t just clean in look, it was also just… clean. Six days a week, Ella was out its door before daybreak, and not back until the Manhattan street lights had been on for hours. These 1,100 square feet were so rarely used that the rooms could’ve been used as a model for prospective tenants. Had this space been reduced to a bed, a shower, and a microwave for leftovers, Ella might not have even notice.

But on this night, she found herself on the apartment’s balcony, where she could hear the buzz of Times Square just a few blocks away. She stood just beyond the outdoor furniture that she’d so frequently occupied in her first year in the city, but rarely used since.

This had been quite an eventful day. Since her meeting in the silent office of her Editor in Chief early that afternoon, she’d turned in her feature story for next month’s issue, she’d had celebratory drinks at the demand of Kristina, and she’d met Greg for a late dinner on the streets of Tribeca.

“You’re quiet tonight,” Greg had said as he dipped a sliver of calamari into the orange sauce that sat between them. “How was work today?”

“It was alright. You?”

Normally, Ella was quick to share the stories she’d been assigned. More often than not, she’d begin by telling him the name of the band or festival she’d be covering, and then spend the next ten minutes explaining to him how big a deal it would be to write an article about a band that famous or a festival that legendary.

Greg hadn’t spent his college weekends in clubs and at concerts like Ella. No, his days and nights at Princeton were consumed with getting here, to Wall Street, an MBA from an Ivy League school attached to his name.

“Oh, you didn’t see?” After Ella would inform him of the accolades of the artists she was interviewing, he would tell her what every CNN viewer already knew of the day’s market movement. “The aircraft industry is in trouble again. The bosses were yelling all afternoon, saying that we should’ve seen it coming on the floor…”

He went on and on, while Ella just sat on the other side of the table without speaking. This was the first story that he’d fully understand… everyone knew Riley Martin, and yet she kept the entirety of her end of the conversation to those four simple words. “It was alright. You?”

It isn’t often that a five-year-old conversation that you’d all but forgotten takes over and occupies the whole of your thoughts. But that’s all Ella Jayne Copeland thought about as she put the finishing touches on next month’s story. And that’s all that was going through her mind at drinks with Kristina. And that’s why she refrained from speaking during her meal with Greg.

Now, on her almost entirely unused 22nd floor apartment balcony, Ella stared south and sighed deeply. Though she hadn’t thought about it in ages, the memory was so vivid that she could almost feel the warmth of that summer night, despite the snow that was falling around her.

“You’re here too late,” Dominic had said to her matter-of-factly, throwing the strap of his Tom Ford double zip briefcase over his shoulder. “Let’s go get a drink.”

“I just need to get this column out of my system,” Ella replied, the clicks of her laptop keyboard the only sound resonating from the bullpen. “I’ll only be a few hours.”

“Come on,” Dominic replied, walking toward the door. “Deadline isn’t ‘til next week. And I have a friend I’d like you to meet.”   

Ella didn’t know it yet, but anytime that Dominic invited you for drinks or dinner or a show, it was your job to say yes. Not only would the founder of In Stereo magazine not take “no” for an answer, but he also was an entertainer at his core; every meal and time together another opportunity to impress.

“Where are we headed?” Ella asked as the two exited the building and stepped underneath the large logo that told passersby that they’d likely read what was written inside this building while they waited in line at the grocery store.

“You’ll see,” Dominic replied with a smirk.

Through Midtown and past the Empire State Building, which she hadn’t taken for granted just yet, Ella’s feet throbbed with every subway station they passed. But Dominic just kept walking, as if this were the most natural way of getting around.

As they reached the intersection of 2nd & St. Marks, he must’ve noticed that she wasn’t accustomed to two and a half mile walks through the city. “Almost there,” he reassured her.

Sure enough, another block and there they were, outside of a brick building that sported a large, cartoonish hot dog that read “eat me” in mustard.

Ella tried to hide her disappointment with the finish line. She was all for a great hole-in-the-wall, but she’d suspected, hoped maybe, that her boss’s tastes would’ve been a tad more upscale than the CRIF DOGS that they were stepping in to.

But when Ella followed Dominic down the stairs and inside, it wasn’t the underwhelming interior of the East Village hot dog joint that caught her eye and instantly excited her. It wasn’t the old arcade games on the right or the graffiti on the left. Had she paid any attention to the place, she might’ve thought that this restaurant belonged in Portland. But she wasn’t paying any attention to the room.

She’d forgotten that Dominic had said he had a friend he wanted her to meet. In the ridiculousness of the almost hour walk and exterior of this building, her mind had assumed that she’d simply be enjoying a dog and cheap beer with her boss. So Ella was completely caught off guard when Simon Monaghan stood from the picnic table style booth and began walking toward them.

“Hey Dominic,” Mr. Monaghan said as he embraced the man that Ella had been working for for the last 40 days.

Simon this is Ella. Ella, this is…”

“Simon Monaghan,” she cut him off and shook his hand, harder than she meant to. “I know who you are. You started Boundary magazine, and then brought ID out of the grave and back on the front of newsstands. You wrote the Clinton piece back in ‘98. You were the mastermind behind the special edition surrounding The Cure’s Disintegration record.”

She paused to breathe, and the man let out a chuckle. “You know almost as much about me as I do.”

“I heard you speak a few years ago at the University of Oregon,” she continued. “It was brilliant. Honestly, that night is one of the main reasons I went into journalism.”

“I thought you went to Portland State,” Dominic butted in. Ella didn’t know him well enough to tell if this was his way of letting her know to back off, but she didn’t care.

“I did. The U of O talk was while I was still in high school. I convinced my dad to drive me down so I could hear Mr. Monaghan talk.”

“Please,” Mr. Monaghan extended his palm to stop her. “Call me Simon.”

“Oh wow,” Ella replied, obviously honored to be on a first name basis with one of her heroes. “Thank you… Simon.”

Ella was far too star struck to decipher whether the silence that followed was awkward.

“Well,” Dominic clasped his hands together, obviously coherent enough to tell that it was getting awkward. “Shall we?”

With that, Simon led the way into the old phone booth that oddly felt right at home in the hot dog eatery.

“What are we…” Ella stopped talking when Simon picked up the orange old timey phone that sat almost ironically on the wall of the booth.

A small sheet of paper was attached to the wall, the Sharpie-written calligraphy another throwback.

Welcome. This phone is our doorbell. Please dial 1 (once!) and we will be right with you. Thanks!

“Where are we?” Ella wondered aloud, but before either man could answer, the wall opposite the entrance of the phone booth moved, the hidden door causing Ella to jump.

The next thing Ella knew, the three of them were inside a modern-day speakeasy, completely hidden to the outside world.

And it was in that room, over drinks with her boss and one of her heroes, that Ella had the conversation she was now replaying on the balcony of her Manhattan apartment.

“All you really have to do in this industry,” Simon said to Ella, sipping his second Paddington, the drink that had been named after the stuffed bear that stood, teeth bared, in the bar. “All you gotta do is get a couple of monster stories and deliver. Two or three of those in the next decade, and you’re an executive before you hit 40.”

“But don’t over deliver,” Dominic cut in, laughing. “Or I’ll never let you out of the bullpen.”

Simon tipped his glass toward Dominic. “Indeed. One of the biggest mistakes the best writers make is being too good.”

At the time, Ella felt honored that Dominic Graham and Simon Monaghan had felt comfortable enough around her to get tipsy and give her some unfiltered advice. Despite her brand new, exciting role at In Stereo, she took the advice to heart, guessing that 40 year-old Ella would be ready for the corner office and prestigious role.

But here she was, not even 30 yet, the monster story coming far quicker than she’d anticipated. She hadn’t known it yesterday, but the silence of Dominic’s office scared the crap out of her. There wasn’t an ounce of Ella Copeland that wanted anything other than the bullpen, the excitement of the story, the pressure of the deadline.

“This seals it.” She spoke to the snowy February night. “I’ve gotta kill it. I have to over-deliver.”

And with that, she exhaled, walked back inside, and began packing for Riley Martin’s tour.   

// TAKE A BREAK HERE //

DAY THREE  

This day had been like so many others these past few weeks…

Drifting in and out of sleep…

Checking the position of the sun through the sliver in the corner of the window…

Staring at a face he barely recognized in the mirror…

The walk from Elliot Avenue to Hawthorne to SE 20th to Burnside…

The Johnny Cash song repeating in his ears…

Another single origin Americano…

Another coffee counter conversation with Haleigh…

Another afternoon staring at a blank piece of paper, hoping to find the song that finally felt sung…

The lignin and chemicals and bleach of this paper, were in fact different than the other days. Jake was passing Stark St. when he realized that his Moleskin journal hadn’t been sitting next to his sunglasses and ear buds back at the house, so he stopped at the little shop next to Heart and grabbed a yellow-covered, all weather notebook.

He scribbled a handful of notes onto the thick paper, as he’d done most other days, and then he walked back to the house on Ladd.

The sun was falling behind the trees across the street, and he opened the half empty bottle of Burnside Bourbon, as he’d done most every other night this month. He retrieved a few cubes of ice from the freezer, and was pouring what would likely be the first of many when he saw a movement outside the kitchen window.

It was Ella, the neighbor, and she was walking through her yard and toward his porch. Leaving the freshly poured drink on the counter, Jake walked through the living room and opened the front door.

Ella was still walking up the stairs of his porch when he came out, and it took her a moment to notice that he was there. It was in that moment that Jake really looked at her for the first time. If he’d been asked before now about his new neighbor, he might’ve been able to recall the color of her hair, but that would be about it.

He definitely couldn’t have told you what he saw now… the smile that was brighter than the sun that was falling behind her, the eyes that simply belonged with that smile, the way everything about her just fit with everything else about her.

“Hey.” The word came out slowly, and Jake couldn’t decipher the emotion behind it. “I realized,” she continued, “that I ran off last night without figuring out dinner.”

Dinner! How had Jake forgotten that just yesterday she’d come over to introduce herself and invite him over to her parents’ house?

“Oh,” he said, acting like he had to think about it. “Well, I’m wide open, so just let me know when to be there.”

There was that smile again…

“Ok,” her body swayed ever so slightly as she spoke, the light behind her coming into focus as she tilted her head toward her shoulder.

“How about now?”

Jake turned back inside to grab a jacket, and as he walked, he found himself at the window, watching Ella as she took a seat on the top step of the porch. She ran her forefinger over the spot on the railing where she’d inscribed her name well over a decade ago, just as she’d done yesterday.

Had Jake been plugged in to social media, he likely would’ve pulled the phone from his pocket and snapped a photo, the light and the porch and the window and the girl all too perfect a combination to not chronicle. But he hadn’t touched social media since long before coming to the Pacific Northwest, and his phone wasn’t in his pocket.

He’d been so reliant on, and even addicted to his phone, for most of his adult life. But now, that same phone sat on the nightstand all day, unless it was sending Johnny Cash through the little white cable and into his ears. Oh, how life had changed.

Jake walked back onto the porch, putting his jacket on as he shut the dense door that Ella had knocked on 24 hours before. She stood, brushed her jeans, and exhaled, as if bringing herself back from a previous memory of life on this porch.

He followed her down the stairs and across the lawn. As they walked, Jake realized that he knew so little about the girl he was about to spend the evening with. He racked his brain for a conversation starter, but she beat him to it.

“Have you been in Portland long?”

“Less than a month,” he replied, glad that she had begun to break the ice. “You?”

“I’ve lived in this house,” Ella opened her palms as if to present the house whose yard they were now standing in, “my entire life. I’ve been on the East Coast for the past six years, and I just got back this week.”

“So are you “back” back, or just visiting?”

She crossed her arms and looked down at the ground, watching her bare feet as they rubbed against the fresh cut grass. After a pause, she looked intently at Jake.

“I don’t know yet.”

Jake wasn’t sure if it was the words, or the way she said the words, or the way she looked at him as she said the words, but her answer was definitely deliberate.

“What about you? Are you “here” here, or just visiting?”

“I think…” His answer was interrupted by the creak of the screen door. Jake and Ella both shot their eyes toward the porch where the woman who Jake assumed was Ella’s mother was holding the door open with her foot.

“Mom,” Ella began, motioning for Jake to follow her up the steps, “this is Jake.”

“Hi,” she said, the warmth of her smile a more seasoned version of her daughter’s. “I’m Caroline.”

Jake thought he could hear a slight southern accent buried in her tone.

“Shall we?”

And with that, Jake followed Ella and Caroline into the house as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The dining room was empty, the indentations in the rug the only clue that a table and chairs ever sat here.

Once in the kitchen, Ella started the hot water while Caroline began rummaging through the pantry.

“Where’s Dad?”

“He’ll be here soon.” Caroline continued speaking without removing her head from the cabinet. “So Jake, what do you do for a living?”

“Well,” he rubbed his beard as he spoke, “I’m actually between jobs right now.”

“I see,” she said without emotion. “Well, I hope you’re able to find something quickly."

Jake wondered if he should clarify that he wasn’t actually looking for work, that he hadn’t even considered updating his resume or trying to find a job here in Portland.

“You want coffee?” Ella held up a white bag that contained that little black and white logo that Jake recognized from the shop on Burnside.

“Sure, thanks.”

As Ella turned back toward the counter to pour the beans on the scale, Jake couldn’t help but notice the similarity in the movements of the mother and daughter in front of him. He thought back to the tiny kitchen on the south side of Dallas, Kira and their toddler, memories of watching them bake cookies together. In the chaos of life with a small child, it became so easy to not see this as simply a stage. He’d never thought of his little girl as an adult, and the mother/daughter time that came along with it.

“Daddy, try one,” he could still see her face as she held a cookie out for him, her hands covered in chocolate and god knows what else. Oh, how he missed those days under the same roof with both of his girls.

The aroma of dinner was filling the house by the time Aaron arrived and introduced himself to Jake.

Ella had been right, Jake and Aaron hit it off right away. Between Aaron’s library and record collection, they had no problem filling the evening with conversation.

“What should we listen to?” Aaron was shelling a pistachio while Jake flipped through the mint condition records.

“Your collection is really impressive.” Jake wanted to say that he was surprised that a man pushing 60 listened to so many current artists, and not just those from his heyday, but he didn’t know how to say it without calling his new neighbor old.

“How about this one?”

He pulled out the record between Sherwood and Cat Stephens, the one that contained the almost silhouette of a man holding his cowboy hat on his head.

“Ah,” Aaron popped a pistachio into his mouth, “one of my new favorites.”

“Yeah,” Jake handed the large rectangle to Aaron, and then followed him toward the front porch. “I saw him in Dallas last year. Great show.”

“Oh man, I’d love to see him live.”

Again, Jake wanted to comment about how refreshing it was to see a man like Aaron so into good music. But again, he refrained. He simply sipped his coffee as Aaron pulled the 2nd LP from the case and set it on the old Admiral.

The sun was completely gone now, and the string lights that hung from the edge of the porch were sufficiently lighting the yard. The acoustic guitar and harmonica sounded so warm coming from the vinyl, the song the perfect soundtrack to the night breeze.

Maybe it was the atmosphere, the mixture of twilight and the porch and the dinner cooking and being with a family, but as Chris Stapleton began singing, the lyrics hit Jake in a way that they hadn’t before.

Daddy doesn’t pray anymore
I guess he’s finished talking to the Lord
He used to fold his hands and bow his head down to the floor
But daddy doesn’t pray anymore

I remember even when the times were bad
He thanked Jesus for everything he had
For a good wife and three children
And the food upon our plates
Yeah, everything was right when he said grace

As the song continued, Jake walked to the edge of the porch and spread his hands out on the rail, trying to will away the thoughts that began racing through his mind.

Daddy doesn’t pray anymore.

“Who’s ready to eat?”

Thinking back, Jake couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten a home cooked meal. He’d seen Aaron and Caroline on this porch multiple times over the past few weeks, but this was far more enjoyable than it looked from a distance. The music, the food, the company; this was easily the most fun that Jake had had in ages.

It turns out that Aaron was quite the beer connoisseur, and it also turns out that Portland is a really good city to live in if you’re a beer connoisseur. Each time Jake would find himself with an empty bottle, Aaron had four or five options waiting for him in the refrigerator.

“Alright, so this one is brewed right over here on Powell,” he pointed to the south as he handed Jake another beer. Jake studied the red can, Mt. Hood and the promise of sustainability and certified organic.

“Wow, that’s really good.”

The four of them sat at the table long after the food had been finished, sharing stories and listening to records and getting to know each other. The drinks and hours together had removed the barriers of awkwardness, and they were  spending time like old friends. 

“Jake,” Ella pointed the bottle in her hand toward her father. “My dad plays a little bit of guitar, too.”

“Ah, you play?” Aaron had a way of deflecting the attention from himself onto those around him.

“I do,” Jake said to slowly, before turning and looking at Ella. “How’d you know that? Oh,” he said before she could answer, “you saw the guitar in my living room when you came by yesterday.”

“Yes,” Ella smirked as she said it, “but confession… I heard you singing outside a few nights ago.”

“Oh wow,” Jake looked embarrassed, but almost in a playful way. “Sorry about that.”

“No,” Ella reached across the table and put her hand on his arm. “Don’t be sorry. Not at all. It was… amazing.”

In the midst of their conversation, Jake and Ella hadn’t even realized that Aaron had gone inside and returned with a guitar case. He pulled out a sunburst Gibson J-45, and began plucking while the others around the table continued talking.

“For real, you have a great voice.”

“Oh,” he rubbed his beard, and Caroline noticed that he did that when he didn’t know what to say. “Thank you.”

“Let me get this cleaned up,” Caroline stood and began grabbing the plates from the table where they were sitting.

Ella scooted her chair back and grabbed all the silverware within reach.

“I”ll help.”

Aaron continued to pluck at the old Gibson while Jake leaned back in his chair and took it all in. This was what peace felt like. He looked at his neighbor, lost in some song that Jake had never heard. His round-framed glasses sat in front of his closed eyelids, below his balding head and above his gray 5 o’clock shadow. Jake studied his face, and he saw it… a song that was sung.

Jake turned and considered the empty chairs, where this man’s wife and daughter sat every night over dinner, and he had a horrifying realization: maybe that’s what makes the song sung. Maybe it’s not the song at all, but the people around you while you sing it.

“Hey,” Jake turned to Aaron, who was now looking at him. “Why don’t you grab that guitar of yours? Let’s play a bit.”

Normally, Jake would’ve declined. He hated jamming with other people. If there wasn’t a specific goal in mind; a song to be written or something to prepare for, he wasn’t interested.

But perhaps Jake had the hope that playing along with a man whose song was sung would somehow magically make his song sung as well, and so he stood, walked across the yard, grabbed his Martin auditorium, and walked back.

Aaron continued his sung song while Jake strummed along, listening to the familiar notes and the words he’d never heard. After awhile, Caroline and Ella resumed their place at the table, listening to the song of their husband and father. So the four of them sat, the sound of crickets and guitars accompanying the perfect May evening. 

“Hey… Jake,” Aaron spoke as his final chord rung out into the night. “Why don’t you play us something?”

“Oh,” Jake looked down, taking his hands off his guitar. “No thanks.”

“You look like a man who’s written a song or two,” Aaron pressed. “Surely you have something…”

“Yeah.” It was Ella who spoke. Jake looked at her, her legs tucked underneath her on the chair, her fingers invisible underneath the sweatshirt she must’ve put on when she went inside. “Play the song you were playing on your porch the other night.”

“Um…” Jake felt as if they wouldn’t give up until he gave in, but there was no way that he was going to play any song that he’d written since moving to the house next door. They were simply too personal and too vulnerable and too fresh and too real to be sharing with people he just met, regardless of how many beers he’d had. “Alright. Um, not that one, but I’ll play you one I wrote a few months ago.”

And with that, he closed his eyes, played a B minor, and began to sing.

INSERT SONG HERE

The four of them sat on the porch for another 20 minutes after the song. Aaron played an old song that he’d sung to Ella as a child, and she sang along joyfully and without shame. They exchanged conversation, simply sitting and enjoying each other’s presence and the weather that had seemingly remained perfect just for them.

“Well,” Aaron said, standing and placing his guitar in its case, “I think I’m going to call it a night.”

“Me, too,” Caroline followed suit.

“Jake, it was a pleasure to meet you.” Jake stood and shook Aaron’s hand. “I look forward to doing this again soon.”

“As do I.”

After Ella’s parents had gone inside, she sat, sipping her beer and watching Jake as he sat his guitar against the rail.

“I’m really glad you said yes,” she said to him. “I’m glad we did this tonight.”

“Yeah. Me, too.”

There was a moment of silence, but it wasn’t awkward or uncomfortable. The crickets and the friendship that had been built provided more than enough support for the lack of speaking.

“Hey,” Jake said, putting his hands on the back of the chair. “You wouldn’t want to go grab some coffee, would you?”

“Right now?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

The moment he said it, he remembered where they were; that Portland was the land of coffee, and the land of coffee that closed at six.

“Oh,” he answered before she could. “I guess everything is closed.”

He watched as Ella leaned back in her chair and stared through the screen door and into the house.

“Actually,” she said, “there’s a spot just down the street that’s open ‘til 11. We have time.”  

And with that, Jake and Ella walked down the steps and onto the sidewalk.

Still, the crickets and camaraderie seemed enough to fill the space between them.

The streetlights were completely dependent on the branches of the trees to be effective, and the two walked from the dark to the light and back to the dark again.

They had just passed Palm Street when Ella finally spoke up.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course,” he replied, as if they’d been friends for years.

“What did you do?”

“I’m sorry?”

“When she left… your song… I think I’d lose my way… I mean, did you?”

There was another silence, but this time neither of them felt that there was enough to comfortably fill it. They reached the loop, and began walking around the roundabout, the streetlights fully functional and bicycles whizzing by them, even though it was after 10pm.

“Yeah,” Jake finally replied. “I think I did.”

He stopped speaking and looked at her, both of them still moving around the loop while yet another bicycle passed them on the road.

“But I think I’m as close to finding it as I ever have been.”

“We’re here.”

The coffee shop was subtle and unassuming, and one might miss it or mistake it for a house if they didn’t know it was there.

Jake followed Ella inside, and they were greeted by the soft sounds of studying and hushed conversation. They found a small table by the bookcases that made the place look like a library.

“I haven’t been here in so long,” Ella said, sipping her coffee and looking around the shop. “I used to come here all the time to do homework. I’ve written so many papers and stories and articles here…”

“Is that what you do for work?” Jake interrupted.

In the ease of the conversation of the evening, Ella had forgotten that she hadn’t told him anything about the life she lived outside of SE Portland.

“Yeah,” she nodded confidently. “I’ve been a writer at In Stereo magazine for the past six years.”

“Whoa,” Jake said slowly, slightly leaning back in his chair. “The In Stereo magazine?”

“Yep.”

“Wow. Is that based here in Portland?”

“Nope. New York.”

“Ok, gotcha. So… earlier, when you said that you weren’t sure if you were gonna be in Portland long term, does that mean that you’re not sure if you’re going to be at the magazine long term?”

“No. I, I’m done at In Stereo.”

With everyone else, even her own parents, she’d wanted to keep the story from them. She’d worried that Aaron and Caroline, and even Adeline, had found out about what she’d done. Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe it was the near perfect evening, but Ella felt so comfortable in this moment with Jake that she had no reservation about the words that were falling out of her mouth.

“I got fired last week.”

“Oh my god,” Jake looked deep into her eyes, meaning the words that were coming from his lips. “I’m so sorry.”

There was a pause while the two of them sipped their coffee and contemplated their next words. The shop was thinning, most of the studiers and couples making their way back onto the loop.

“Is it ok if I ask what happened?”

Ella sat her mug down and returned Jake’s stare.

“Well… have you heard of Riley Martin?"

Episode Three

DAY TWO

Out of the driveway and onto Ladd… down the street to the roundabout… past the little café… a hard right on Harrison… a slight left after the garden. At least the neighborhood felt the same.

Ella had stared at the remote that her mom had left on the kitchen table with the note: feel free to take the car today. Was this the key? She had sat in the driver’s seat for an embarrassing amount of time, trying to figure out where to stick this button in order to make the car move. It had been over 6 years since she’d last driven a car; about 2,200 days since she’d been in a vehicle that wasn’t a subway, a cab, or an Uber.

She placed the “key” in her pocket, amazed that the car could run without inserting anything into the ignition. And that wasn’t all. She hadn’t even noticed that pushing the button to the right of the steering wheel had started the car. The slight hum of the hybrid felt so foreign to the girl who had only kept her driver’s license current for the sake of the ID.

Ella hadn’t slept the night before. People say that… I didn’t sleep last night, but for Ella, it was true in the literal sense. She had stared at the attic ceiling, lying on her childhood bed, periodically shifting her eyes toward the window to check on the movement of the moon.

She heard her parents wake, the bustle of the bathroom and the blow dryer below, but she chose to stay in her room until the commotion ceased. She could feel her own heart beating inside her chest as she lay frozen in her bed, worried that even the creak of a footstep from the attic would cause her to face her father.

In actuality, the only thing that had changed since Aaron and Caroline’s head hit the pillow was the fact that Ella now knew that they knew. She no longer held the hope that they were none the wiser to the reason that she was upstairs in her childhood bedroom.

Once the car doors had slammed in the driveway, Ella slipped down the stairs, finding the note on the kitchen table underneath the remote for the keyless Accord.

In spite of her hiding, Ella’s morning hadn’t been all bad. On a whim, she’d sent a text to Adeline. She’d stared at her phone, wondering how to begin a conversation that had been sporadic at best since college graduation.

I’m back in Portland. Mom said that you sold the house. Thinking of you.

The screen on her phone lit up not even five minutes later.

Whoa. Good to hear from you. Coffee this afternoon? 

So here she was, behind the wheel of her mom’s car, driving through her old neighborhood to meet the best friend that she hadn’t seen in person in half a decade.

The sun from the day before had stuck around, putting a bounce in the step of the Pacific Northwesterners who were walking on the sidewalks as Ella searched for a spot to park.

Nostalgia hit her as she spotted the black and white logo of her destination. Kristina would’ve scoffed at the design, far too simplistic for a New York City art director, but to Ella, it was comforting. It felt like home. She had spent so many hours here, at Heart Coffee on Burnside, studying and writing and spending time with Adeline.

It was probably just the nostalgia, but everyone inside looked familiar. The skinny guy with dreads and his jeans rolled up to mid-calf, the older couple deep in conversation by the window, the barista whose red bangs were falling over her eyes as she pulled shots behind the counter.

Ella found Adeline sitting at the small bar that surrounded the massive coffee roaster, a latte waiting for her in front of an empty chair. Adeline stood, and the two friends embraced in silence. It was during this hug that it hit Ella that it was very possible that Adeline had done the same research her own father had done. Did she know about New York?

The two girls sat, sipped their coffee, and picked up as if they had never left off. Adeline didn’t know about New York, and Ella didn’t know that Adeline had a three year old. They filled each other in on the successes and failures of the past six years. Ella told of the fast-paced life of a high-profile writer, and Adeline told of the joys and struggles of being a stay-at-home wife and mother. She updated Ella on the latest with her family, the retirement house her parents bought in Bend and the spot in SW Portland’s Multnomah Village where she and her husband had landed when Winnie was born.

Being with Adeline felt so good, like walking into the sunlight from a cold room… like momentarily forgetting all of your problems because you know without a doubt that you are unconditionally loved by the person on the other side of the table.

“So how long are you in town?” Adeline said nonchalantly as she took a drink of her coffee.

“I don’t know.”

Adeline noticed the weakness in Ella’s voice as she answered. She tilted her head and scrunched her brow, looking deeply into her friend’s eyes, which were beginning to fill with tears.

Adeline grasped Ella’s hand while she explained the chain of events that led her back to the city of her birth.

There were tears. There was the clenching of teeth. There was regret.

“I didn’t mean to do it,” Ella said after five minutes of back-story and confession. “I wish I could take it back. God, I wish I could take it back.”

“Ella,” Adeline was evidently searching for vocabulary carefully for the right words, but “I’m so sorry” was all that came from her lips.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t awkward. The two friends had known each other their entire lives, walked to and from elementary, middle, and high school together, and had lived together during all four years of college. It was going to take far more than a confession of failure to put a wedge in their relationship.

Still, both of them were silent, searching for words to move the conversation in a different direction, when they were saved by the redheaded barista who had made their drinks two hours earlier.

“We’re getting ready to close up. Can I get you anything else?”

Adeline looked at her watch, and Ella stood.

“God, I’ve missed you,” Ella said as they were gathering their things.

“Me, too,” replied Adeline. “I’m so glad you’re back.”

They hugged again at the shop’s front door, and Ella watched as Adeline walked down Burnside toward downtown, back to her crazy, chaotic, joy-filled home. She sighed, turned, and began walking toward the spot where she’d poorly parallel parked her mom’s car. She was on her fifth step when her foot found an object, and before she could react, her movement slid it underneath the coffee shop’s outdoor seating.

“What was that?” Ella said out loud as she bent down, searching for the brown rectangle that she’d kicked under the table.

She spotted it, just beyond her reach. Instinctively, she got down on her hands and knees and retrieved what turned out to be a notebook. The brown leather cover was creased on the corner, and as Ella grabbed it, she found herself hoping that it had been bent before she stepped on it.

She stood, looking in all directions for the owner of this journal. But surprisingly, there was no one to be seen. 6:05 on a Thursday afternoon, and the intersection of 22nd & Burnside was filled with cars, but void of pedestrians.

Whoever dropped this will probably come back for it, she thought as she tugged on Heart’s front door. It was locked. The staff must have followed her and Adeline toward the exit, locking it as soon as the girls had stepped outside. Ella cupped her hands around her temples and squinted into the glass. She could see the baristas, the red head and another mustachioed twenty-something, but both were paying no attention to the outside world. As she knocked, trying to get their attention, she heard the thump of bass coming from inside the shop. The customers were gone, the door was locked, and the staff had turned the volume up while they finished the day’s tasks.

Ella considered setting the notebook on the table that was attached to the wall and walking away. That’s what she would’ve done a month ago, in the busyness of the life she once had.

But she wasn’t really looking forward to facing her parents, and she had nowhere to be… so she sat. If I wait long enough, she thought, someone will come out and it can be here tomorrow when whoever lost it comes to get it.

What had her life become? She had lost one of the most lucrative jobs in her industry, and now she was sitting on the patio of a closed coffee shop, babysitting a lost Moleskin journal.

She stared at the notebook, wishing that she had just stumbled on one of her own journals. If someone had bent the cover of one of her books, she’d have been devastated. Then again, she was far too careful to leave a journal on the sidewalk of a busy street.

Glancing into the shop, shed looked for a sign that the door might open soon.

No such luck.

Ella ran her fingers along the crease in the leather cover, and she found herself opening the book. Again, she would be furious if anyone read any of the words in any of her journals, but she was the Good Samaritan here, and maybe something inside these pages could give her a clue as to where its owner might be.

The handwriting was messy, and at least half the words on every page were scratched out. She turned page after page, not really sure what she was looking for.

She landed on a sheet less scribbled and began reading:

London, one more night is all I want

One more night is all I need

London, why can’t I find your light

Walking through your streets?

She stopped. This was the second time today that she had felt her heart beating within her chest. She turned the pages again and again, still not sure what she was hoping to find. She passed the last inked page, and flipped to the end of the book, the last 40 or so pages still awaiting an author. How sad, she thought. For a writer, a notebook was useful until every square inch was covered in ink.

She flipped back to the most recent entry. The date at the top told her that the words had been penned just the previous day. Maybe this will tell me something about the owner of these thoughts.

The roman numerals that were directly under the date were foreign to Ella.

I – IV

I – IV – vi – V – I – IV – vi – V – IV – I

But the words beneath seemed unusually familiar.

I know I said I wouldn’t, but I have changed my mind

I would let you break my heart tonight

Where had Ella heard this? She knew for certain that she had. Was it a poem that she’d studied in school? A jingle from a commercial? The more she read, the more familiar it seemed. Perhaps it was an unwarranted déjà vu moment, the kind that you think about when you lay in bed at night, racking your brain to find the memory.

But the farther she went, the more convinced she was that she knew these words:

I can’t help but sing our song again

Her eyes shifted to the next paragraph, and that’s when it hit her…

Did you walk out with it when you walked out on me? 

The neighbor… the porch… last night… This book belonged to the guy who was living in Adeline’s house…

In the midst of the thoughts swimming through Ella’s mind, she had almost forgotten about the private concert she’d unknowingly attended less than 18 hours before.

And without thinking, Ella stood, walked to her mother’s car, fumbled with the key, and drove back toward Ladd Avenue.

 

/// BREAK HERE ///

 

Jake jogged up the wooden stairs and threw open the front door. For the first time since moving in, he grabbed the bunch of strings that hung from the top of the windows in the IKEA showroom turned living room and pulled, letting the day’s remaining sun into the room. He paused and took it in. This space looked so completely different in the light.

Rejuvenated.

That was the word Jake was looking for. He was thinking about the room, but the word could also be used to describe Jake himself. He left the coffee shop at 22nd & Burnside with a new sense of purpose. It was the first time he’d made the trip without the sound of You Are My Sunshine in his ears, but had he been listening, he would’ve known that this was the quickest trip he’d made back to the house on Ladd.

Now, he found the acoustic guitar that was leaning against the sofa. Even the guitar looked… rejuvenated, in the light.

He picked up the Martin, finally feeling like he had a new song to sing. It wasn’t that he hadn’t written songs since he’d been in Portland. In fact, he was writing more now than he had in Dallas, but this was a new song. In a way, he’d written the same song over and over the past three weeks.

What was it about his conversation with Haleigh that had produced this newfound outlook? It definitely wasn’t the content. Nothing about their talk was overly deep or life changing. Nothing happened in their 20 minutes together that could have in itself caused an entirely new perspective.

No, it was something simple; something unknowing that Haleigh had done, or rather not done, in their conversation. She hadn’t treated him as if he weren’t a person. She had treated him like a human. She was the first person in months to get more than five minutes into a conversation with him and not treat him like a mistake.

Maybe, he thought, just maybe, there is hope for a life of normalcy.

For you or I, this might seem absurd… the idea that a person who knows next to nothing about you or I could have a conversation consisting mainly of small talk, and have that shape the entirety of our identity. But it’s really hard to judge someone when you haven’t been through what they’ve been through…

So Jake put his weight on the sofa that had sat empty for the three weeks that he had occupied this house and he began to sing…

SONG

The chorus was interrupted by a noise that Jake had not heard since coming to Oregon.

He stopped playing and stood slowly. He had never wondered how the wood of the door would sound when it was struck by another’s knuckles, but in this moment, he was surprised by the dense tone vibrating from the oak.

Jake began to walk toward the door, the knock coming again before he could reach the handle.

When he opened the large wooden front door, even more light poured into the living room, causing Jake to squint and cover his eyes in order to see the person standing on his front porch.

It was a woman, probably around his age. She was shorter than him, but not by much. Her brown hair almost blended in perfectly with the bag that hung from her shoulder. She was wearing a gray hoodie with a black t-shirt beneath.

“Hi,” she said, using her fingers to move the hair from her face.

Jake waited for her to say more. It was as if she knew him, but couldn’t quite figure out how to explain it to him.

“Hi,” he finally replied. “Can I help you?”

It came out a bit harsher than he’d meant it. But honestly, who was this girl and why was she standing on his porch watching him squint into the sun?

“Oh, sorry,” she looked to the ground in embarrassment before taking a deep breath and extending her hand. “I’m Ella. I live next door.”

She had a firm handshake, like she’d been taught how to shake hands in business school.

“Ella,” he replied, as if trying to remember where he’d heard the name. Then it hit him. “The famous Ella?” he asked.

She looked surprised, as if he’d just uncovered a massive secret. “I’m sorry?”

“I mean,” Jake said, stepping out of the house and next to her onto the porch. “Right here,” he pointed to the wooden posts that held up the porch’s handrail.

“Oh my god,” her face, which had looked horrified a moment ago, was now beaming. She squatted, again pushing the hair out of her eyes, and stared longingly at the carving. “I completely forgot about that.”

She ran her fingers over the rough edges of each of the letters, reading it as her fingers moved: Adeline & Ella.

“I’m pretty sure we were 12 when we did that."

“Crazy,” he replied. “Wait, where did you say you live?”

She pointed to the red and brown house that sat next door. Again, she looked nervous. What was going on?

“Oh, I’ve only seen an old couple over there.”

Her expression again showed relief. “Oh, those are my parents. I just got back home yesterday.”

“I didn’t mean old…” he said embarrassingly. “I just meant older than you.”

She smiled at him, her grin telling him that she understood.

Jake shook his head, his body language letting her know that he was trying to start the conversation over. “Would you like to come in?”

Ella hadn’t actually thought about this conversation since leaving Heart. When she realized that the notebook that sat in her purse belonged to her neighbor (whose name she still didn’t know), she walked right to the car, drove right home, and walked right to where she now stood. How in the world was she going to bring up the journal? Should she just lie and say that she found it in front of the house? I’m not even sure it’s yours, she could say.

“Sure,” she finally replied, and stepped into the house that had belonged to her best friend’s parents for her entire life.

“Whoa, this looks so different,” she said as she scoured the room that she’d once known so well.

“You used to come here a lot?” he asked.

“Yeah, every day. Adeline,” she pointed back to the wooden post on the porch, “was… I mean, is, my best friend.”

The man picked up the guitar that had been lying on the sofa and leaned it against the wall.

“Have a seat.”

“Thanks.”

As she sat on the sofa that until now only he had used, she noticed a white to-go cup on the coffee table. It had a simple black circle on it… the Heart logo.

“I didn’t catch your name.”

“Oh, sorry,” he said as he sat in the chair on the other side of the table. “I’m Jake.”

They sat in silence for a moment, Jake still wondering about the purpose of the visit, and Ella trying to figure out how to get to her point.

“What’s in London?”

“I’m sorry?” He leaned back in his chair as he spoke, his reply guarded and defensive.  

“Your tattoo.” She pointed to his left arm, where the word sat, below the reach of his t-shirt.

“Oh,” he softened, and then looked toward the ceiling, as if trying to decide how to respond.

“That’s where we fell in love,” he said we as if she should know. “And that’s where we were when we found out that we were was pregnant with our daughter.”

Ella thought back to the words she’d read in the journal that was now in her purse.

“Where is she?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your wife, where is she?”

His expression saddened. “She lives in Dallas,” he said, looking at the floor. “We’re… um… divorced."

“I’m really sorry to hear that.” For the first time in the last few weeks, Ella realized that she wasn’t the only person in the world with problems. “And your daughter?”

“What about her?” Again, Jake didn’t intend to sound so harsh.

“How old?” Ella began to wonder if she left her social skills in New York, under the bed along with all her journals.

Again he looked toward the carpet, as if he had to do the math. “Five.”

“I bet you miss her.”

“Yeah,” he said, placing his hands on his knees and exhaling, then standing quickly and walking into the kitchen.

Ella sat alone in the living room for a moment, listening to the faucet running in the next room.

“Would you like some water?” he asked from the other side of the wall.

“Sure.”

Ella couldn’t delay any longer. She stood and followed him into the kitchen.

She watched him as he stood at the sink, his back to her as he filled the cups. She didn’t know why, but there was pain in his movements. As his shoulders rose and fell with each deep breath, she felt the unwarranted urge to wrap her arms around his waist and simply hold him.

She didn’t, of course. Not only would it be extremely odd to walk up behind a man whose door she’d seemingly randomly knocked on five minutes before, but past experience also told her to resist.

It was, however, who she had always been: quick to notice another’s pain, and just as quick to respond in kind. For a moment, she even forgot about New York… about the computer screen from last night… about being paralyzed in her bed this morning.

The sound of the faucet ceased, and he turned to her with two glass jars filled with water.

As she sipped from the cup he handed her, Jake broke the silence.

“So are you on the welcoming committee?”

“What’s that?” she raised her eyebrows.

“For the neighborhood… I assume that’s why you’re here?”

His smirk told her that he was being sarcastic, that this was his way of saying; let me ask you why you’re in my house… without asking you why you’re in my house…

Ella put her hand into her bag and felt around until her fingers found the brown leather cover of his notebook.

“Uh,” she stumbled over her words. “I just, I…”

Ella panicked. The woman who not that long ago had been called the epitome of assertive by a colleague was now unable to speak to her next-door neighbor about a stupid journal.

“Uh, I just wanted to see if you’d like to come over for dinner.”

She blurted the words out, obviously, as she’d been doing all day, without thinking.

“Dinner?” he asked, just as surprised as she was. “At your parent’s house?”

“Yeah, I mean,” what in the world was going on? “Not tonight, of course. Um, tomorrow, maybe?”

Her eyes slowly found his, squinting with raised eyebrows, awaiting the blow of rejection.

“Ok,” he replied slowly, then smiled, this time genuinely. “Yeah, that’d be nice.”

“Yeah?” she asked, surprised not only that she’d asked, but also that he’d agreed. “I think you’ll like my dad,” she continued, still not thinking. “He likes Johnny Cash, too.”

The minute it came from her lips, she knew it was a mistake. In that moment, Ella Copeland knew for certain that she should own it; just pull the notebook from her handbag, explain that she’d been on the porch last night, that she’d found his journal… that she’d read his journal. That she’d really come here to return it.

But the two of them stood in silence. His eyes hadn’t left hers, but he didn’t speak. Her breath was slow and deep, and in this moment of transparency, she felt as if for the first time she was really seeing the man that was standing across the kitchen from her.

His chest rose and fell underneath his white t-shirt, the V of his neck moving with each breath. The collar was just low enough that she could see the beginnings of a tattoo below his beard. In fact, Ella had first only noticed the capital of Great Britain on his skin. But now, as she really looked at him, much more of his visible skin was covered with ink than wasn’t. His arms and his chest, both subtly muscular, were covered in art, and as her eyes examined him, she found herself longing to know the stories behind the skin.

Ella’s eyes slowly made their way back up to Jake’s face, which had not moved or changed shape since she’d mentioned Johnny Cash. There was something about the way he stared at her that… what was it? If Ella had the time to ponder this feeling, she may have been able to articulate the deep grief that sat behind his brown eyes. Had she the ability to pause in this moment and reflect, she’d have likely felt guilty for being so attracted to those eyes, as they were silently screaming of pain and regret.

But Ella did not have time for these thoughts. She knew that she needed to be the one to speak first; the one to explain her unlikely knowledge of her neighbor’s interests.  

“Well, I gotta go,” was what ended up coming from her mouth, and she turned hurriedly and left the kitchen. Oh my god, this is so awkward, she thought as she hustled through the living room and toward the front door. “See you tomorrow!” she yelled back to him as she jogged down the porch and across the lawn.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” she kept repeating as she crossed into her own yard, as walked through her own front door, as she scaled the two flights of stairs up to her room. She plopped onto her bed; face up, legs and arms spread to each edge.

Mortified.

In her haste, she hadn’t even noticed her father sitting on the front porch, the smoke from his pipe lifting above the book he was reading. She didn’t hear her mother rustling around in the kitchen, the clanging of pots and pans and the scent of the oven heating.

“What on earth is happening to me?” she said aloud at the attic ceiling.

For Ella Jayne Copeland, life had always made sense. I mean, sure, there were those awkward middle school years where her brain and her body didn’t always speak the same language, but outside of that, she had never felt… what was it that she was feeling now?

Lost.  

That word… such a vague adjective… so many different meanings with so many different connotations… a word that she’d attempted to stay away from in her journalism.

Which meaning described her current state? Misplaced? Confused? Deprived? Unable to be found? Perished? Wasted? Destroyed?

Ella was editing theses thoughts in her head when the silence was shattered by the sound of knocking. She sat up quickly, staring at the 2-inch gap underneath the door to her room. This was a habit she’d learned back in middle school, the feet that stood on the other side telling her who had ascended the steep, awkward stairs. Then, she’d known her parents’ feet, their shoes, and even their socks. But now, on her second day at home in six years, she could only tell that the brown boots she saw belonged to a male.

Had Jake followed her across the lawn and into the house, up the stairs and into the attic? Was he wearing brown boots? She thought she’d remembered his feet being bare beneath his cuffed jeans.

She panicked, but only for a moment. Don’t be so ridiculous, she told herself. There was no way that her parents would just let a stranger walk into the house and toward Ella’s bedroom.

“Come in,” she finally said, not sure how long she’d been contemplating the feet that were waiting for her to respond.

The knob turned, and the familiar groan of the hinges filled the room. Ella watched as her father came into view on the other side of the doorframe.

“Hey Sweetie,” he said as he ducked beneath the beam and into her room.

For a moment, Aaron Copeland just stood and stared at his only daughter. Maybe Ella took after her father after all, walking into a conversation before deciding how to begin.

The room was quiet, Aaron standing in the entryway and Ella sitting on the bed, her hands holding her up. As they stared at each other in silence, Ella felt the weight of… well, everything. She tried to swallow and blink away the tears that were forming in the corners of her eyes, but that just made it worse.

Without words, Aaron took two steps toward the foot of Ella’s bed, bent his knee, shifted his weight onto the bed, and lay down on his back, next to his daughter. He wrapped his hand around her shoulder, and she fell back into the crease underneath his arm.

Aaron couldn’t count the number of times in the past six years that he’d longed to do exactly this: to hold his daughter… to comfort her… to simply be with her. He remembered the many nights of her youth that they would sit together in front of the record player, on the porch swing, on the sofa. It had always felt so natural… the undying love of a father for his daughter.

He felt that now.  

They both stared at the ceiling, and as the tears were beginning to form in Aaron’s eyes, he could feel his child’s guard coming down. Her gentle cry became more intense. After a moment, she completely stopped trying to hold it back. Right there, on her childhood bed, in her father’s arms, Ella Jayne Copeland sobbed… and sobbed… and sobbed.

Down the two flights of stairs, out the living room, down the porch, across the yard, back up the porch, past the chiseled names in the railing, into the odd sounding front door, through the IKEA showroom, and into the kitchen, Jake Whitley stood, dumbfounded as to what had just happened with the neighbor girl.

He should’ve been concerned that she knew about his obsession with Johnny Cash. Well, more specifically, with the fact that Johnny Cash’s song was sung. He should’ve wondered why she so awkwardly ran from the house, while his eyes were the only part of him that followed her out of the room.

It was only now, many minutes later, that Jake stepped under the frame between the kitchen and the living room, sat in his chair, and stared at the empty sofa that Ella had occupied.

His mind hadn’t left the conversation that they’d shared in this room.

What’s in London?

Jake closed his eyes, yearning for the memory and simultaneously hoping that he’d forgotten all of it.

The night had been a blur. Even so, it was a memory that Jake often looked to during the difficult moments.

Even back then, he was more than used to the lights and the recognition, but that night

Kira had been there, as she always was. There had been no question that she was his biggest supporter. He remembered the look on her face as he finished his presentation, pure joy for the moment her husband had just experienced. It wasn’t the size of the room that made that night special. In fact, his “normal” job was performed to a larger room than this one, and recently there were more people on a weekly basis back home than at this convention.  

But it was the notoriety that came with the convention, the big names that were in the room, all eyes on Jake Whitley for 42 glorious minutes. He had spent years at conventions just like this one, one of the thousands staring at the presenter, dreaming of being on that platform, addressing an entire industry of people who desired to be the one addressing.

In fact, it was at this convention, in London, that he and Kira had met just three years before. Standing in a sweaty receiving line, waiting for a photo with that night’s presenter, he struck up a conversation with the cute girl whose American accent matched his. 

But on this night, the night he’d presented in the ballroom of the Olympia Grand, they were married, a team, and it felt odd that she wasn’t on that platform presenting with him.

Between presentations, the lobby buzzed with the sound of excited young professionals, and the roar of the train whose track was on the other side of the road. The lights from the night glared in from the building’s massive glass dome, and the balconies that surrounded the stage filled with those in the industry who really mattered.

Had Jake caught their attention?

It certainly appeared so. The receiving line that formed by his table was not only the longest of the night, but it also was visited by some rather big hitters, all waiting so shake Jake’s hand and tell him that they’d have their people call his people on Monday.

After the hall had cleared and the equipment had been loaded, Jake and Kira took off down the streets of London without a care in the world.

“I’m so proud of you,” she’d said, her eyes deep in his as they walked, her hand holding the arm that was wrapped around her shoulder.

“Tonight was pretty great, right?” He couldn’t contain his smile. At that point in their relationship, he hadn’t wanted to hide his emotion.

“Incredible,” she’d agreed.

For a while, the pair walked in blissful silence, the sounds of the city the only soundtrack they needed to cap this amazing evening.

As they turned the corner onto Richmond Way, their hotel almost in view, she took two steps ahead of him and began walking backwards, making it impossible for his eyes to be anywhere but locked on hers.

“Jake, this could be the beginning,” she said, taking his hands in hers. “If it is, c… can you imagine…”

She looked toward the night sky, thinking about their life together.

“We could buy a house, close to the airport, obviously,” she said it so absolutely. “I’d travel with you, everywhere… unless you needed me to take care of things at work.”

He’d always loved that she was a dreamer. Usually it wasn’t this big picture. She’d often wake with a new adventure in her mind, unable to find the pillow again until she’d conquered the hike or living room project or song.

But on this night, as they were standing on the street outside the K West Hotel on the west side of London, she was making big plans.

“We could finally get a new car. We could build that outdoor fireplace we’ve always wanted, the one with benches all around it, you know, close enough to keep our toes warm.”

It was as if saying this reminded her of the cold air, and she wrapped herself inside his arms.

As she continued, dreams about their home together, Jake Whitley held his wife, took a deep breath, and took it all in. He knew that he didn’t need the house, the fire pit, or the notoriety. On this, a night that Jake had tasted real success, he realized that everything he needed was right here, in his arms.

Now, on the chair in the living room on Ladd Avenue in Portland, Jake longed to go back, on the street in London, underneath the colored lights and trussing of the hotel.

“And we’ll need a nursery, of course.”

She’d said it so nonchalantly and matter-of-fact that he’d almost missed it.

“I’m thinking green and brown for the colors… Not too masculine, but kind of…”

“Wait, what?” His eyes widened as he searched the face of his wife.

It was that same face that he’d fallen in love with a half-decade earlier, the freckles, the dimple, the way she could light up a room.

She bit her lip, raised her eyebrows, and exhaled, suddenly unable to talk.

“For real?” He could see his cheekbones becoming blurry, the tears welling up toward the bottom of his eyelids. 

She swallowed again and nodded, the movement of her head causing the water to fall from her eyes.

“Yeah,” she barely got the words out, and then wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him down to kiss his lips.

Now, with his eyes closed, he could almost take himself back to that moment. He suddenly wished that he hadn’t opened the window shades, as the sun coming into the room took away from the memory in his head.

So Jake leaned forward in the chair, tightening his eyes and covering his face, trying to forget that he was in this IKEA showroom of a living room, and tried to remember the words she’d whispered in his ear that night outside the hotel.

“You’re gonna be such a great dad.”

 

 

 

Episode Two

DAY ONE.

The room was completely dark, save for a sliver on the corner of the curtain that flew away from the wall every time the oscillating fan spun its direction. Every five seconds, the mirage of nighttime was interrupted by the reality of the day that was moving… and moving on, outside.

Even through the blurriness of contact lenses that had been slept in far too many nights in a row, Jake Whitley could tell that it was after noon. He’d laid in this bed enough over the past few weeks that he was well versed in the position of the sun as it moved from east to west throughout the day.

He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stared at the ceiling. Though he knew it was sometime around 1pm, he had no idea what day it was. Was it still May? Or had it rolled over to June? As his eyes were adjusting to being open again, Jake found himself wishing that it were already time to get back in bed.

A few sleeps ago, he’d been so relieved to find no light at the corner of the curtain when he woke. The realization that he’d skipped an entire day had been the first ounce of peace he’d felt in weeks. The night that followed, however, had been as restless as the days were, the lack of sun bringing no relief from the storm in his soul.

His feet found the ground at the exact same time as the fan, making the cold of the wood floor an even more drastic contrast from the warmth of the bed sheets. He walked into the bathroom and was blinded by the abundance of light that came from the uncovered windows. Had the bedroom not been so black, the light would not have been so polarizing.

As his fingers found the knob marked “Hot, he scrunched his face, closed his eyes, and rinsed the sleep from his forehead and beard. He exhaled and looked in the mirror. He felt like he’d aged 10 years in the last two months. Maybe he had. As he stared at his 32-year-old face, the wrinkles that hadn’t been there a year ago, he remembered her words that seemed like a lifetime ago. I can’t wait to watch you grow old, she’d said one night as they shared a sleeping bag under the stars.

He walked out of the bathroom and shook his head, as if to shake off the memory. He studied the room he’d slept in these past twenty-something days. It looked so starkly different than his real life. Back at home… if he could still call it that, the rooms were filled with life; memories in picture frames and furniture full of blemishes that each had a story. But this, the sterility that looked like an IKEA show room, made his stomach turn. A few months ago, he’d have happily traded his messy house and laundry-laden bedroom floor for all of this new stuff.  But now…

He dressed quickly; jeans, a plain white t-shirt, wayfarer sunglasses, and earbuds attached to an iPhone. He grabbed a worn Moleskin journal from the nightstand, and then walked down the hallway and through a few more IKEA showrooms before he found the front door.

He hit play on the iPhone as he walked out into the summer air, the voice inside his head saying “one… two… three…” before the acoustic guitar came in.

He walked down the wooden stairs of the front porch and into the sunlight that had crept in through the bedroom window and woke him just fifteen minutes before.

Even with his sunglasses on, the green of this city was overwhelming. It made sense that the trees were called “evergreens,” but by that logic, the grass, plants, and overall landscape should’ve also shared the name. This definitely wasn’t Dallas.

A year ago, this would’ve been exciting; an entirely new city to explore, to conquer. He had always considered them adventurers, weekend trips spent diving into the music scene in Austin or the culture in New Orleans… vacations in San Francisco’s Alamo Square Park or the off Broadway theatres of Greenwich Village.

Portland could’ve been one of “their cities.”

But today, his feet found the same path he’d walked every day since he’d arrived. He stepped off the sidewalk and toward the Ladd loop… the center of quite possibly the most confusing set of streets he’d ever encountered. He’d only been in town for 19 days, but he’d heard the locals complain about “the addition” and its frustrating octagon of roads that only made sense from the sky.

With the afternoon sun beating down his neck, he walked up Elliot Avenue to Hawthorne. He then headed north on SE 20th for almost a mile, and then right on Burnside.

He’d done this every day since he’d arrived.

The song rushing through his ear buds hadn’t changed, either.

If he concentrated hard enough, he could almost put himself at the spot of the recording. It was as if he could see the balding man on the other side of the control room glass, his remaining hair and massive beard in disarray, as if he’d just woke. In the live room, the only instruments in use were a handful of acoustic guitars; the only players huddled around a single microphone.

For no particular reason, he’d always pictured Johnny with his famous D-35 when he transported himself into this story. The black Martin acoustic guitar had been made specifically for Johnny, and knowing its origin made Jake feel like he knew those involved.

The guitar had been produced in secret. The craftsmen had to hide the guitar from C.F. Martin III, the company’s owner at the time, as he thought the idea of a black acoustic guitar far too radical for the company’s reputation. Little did he know that it would become a trademark of the Martin name for years to come.

The guitar started off with the well-known melody, leaving nothing to the listener’s imagination as to what was coming. Still, Johnny’s haunting voice and Rubin’s stripped down production were more than enough to keep you listening.

As Jake walked through SE Portland in the midday heat (if you could call the SE Portland summer that), the words that were coming in through his earbuds were even more real than they had been 19 days ago…

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
So I bowed my head and I cried

He’d listened to this song hundreds of times in the past three weeks. In fact, he hadn’t intentionally listened to anything else since he’d arrived in the Pacific Northwest.

He knew every instance of fret noise, every vocal inflection, every blemish in the 3 minute 17 second recording. There was the spot at 1:51 where you could hear an arm hit the body of a guitar, and there’s the way that Johnny’s voice gives a little every time he sings the word “sunshine.” 

But it wasn’t the 2 minutes and 33 seconds of music that kept the song repeating… it was what followed that haunted him. 

I always hated that 3rd verse.

Jake didn’t know whose voice said it, but he pictured an old man holding an old acoustic guitar somewhere off the mic. But it wasn’t even the oddity of that statement that mesmerized the listener. Or even what immediately followed…

The laughter, the words “that was a nice short version” by another unidentified voice, or even the question that came from the control room…

It was the unmistakable voice of Johnny Cash, right on the microphone, that was of utmost interest.

“Well… Whattya wanna… Let’s uh…” Cash’s words slurred together.

“Well, if I feel like my song is sung, it don’t care… I don’t care if it’s short.”

The words hit Jake every time.

“And I feel like my song is sung.”

There it is.

And so as the chatter and chuckling continued off mic, Jake touched the screen on the iPhone, restarting the song.

And I feel like my song is sung…

There was a peace in the weathered voice that spoke those words. And so Jake listened again, searching the chords and melody, trying to figure out what exactly made the song sung…

It wasn’t an exercise in songwriting, or even the actions of an obsessive fan… it was the cry of a man who desperately wanted his song to be sung.

He pictured himself sitting on the porch at midnight, with his own Martin in hand, finally finding the song that feels sung. He didn’t need, or even want, a studio full of musicians surrounding him. He no longer desired to have the signature voice, an entire catalogue of vinyl with his name on it, or a movie made out of his career. None of those aspects of Johnny Cash appealed to Jake Whitley. All he wanted was to finish a ballad, an anthem, or a lullaby, whether it be 2 minutes and 33 seconds or 33 minutes and 2 seconds, and at its conclusion, set the guitar down on the porch and walk away.

He simply wanted his song to be sung.

The phone could repeat the song about eight times during the walk from Ladd to Burnside, sometimes nine. One time last week, in the rain, it had only played six and a half times when Jake removed the hood from his head and stepped into the small coffee shop.

On that rainy day, he’d wiped his feet on the rug at the front door, unzipped his hoodie, and walked to the counter that held a La Marzocco espresso machine, three commercial grinders, and a few white mugs that were waiting to be filled.

“Hello again,” the barista on the other side of the counter smiled at him, her red hair pulled back into a bun.

Jake removed the buds from his ears, wiped his forehead with his sleeve, and set his Moleskin notebook on the counter, studying the worn out brown cover.

“Hello.”

“Single origin Americano, black?”

“Yes, please.”

He’d studied her face as she listened to his reply. Her smirk told him that she’d been proud of her memory. As her eyes realized his, she blushed ever so slightly, and turned to fill his mug with hot water.

“So, Single Origin Americano,” she spoke with her back to him, calling him by the name of his coffee. “Do you have a name?”

“Jake.”

She turned and cocked her head, as if studying his response.

“Hi Jake,” his name sounded far less solemn coming from her lips. “I’m Haleigh.”

On this day, a week later, the sun was shining, and he arrived at the café’s front door during the second verse of the track’s eighth time through.

The smell of coffee roasting hit his senses the moment he opened the door. It’s crazy, the difference in aroma of roasted coffee and roasting coffee. It almost seems magical how a smell so harsh can lead to an aroma so pleasant. A thin cloud of smoke hung near the ceiling, and in front of the line that led to coffee was Haleigh.

He’d been here almost daily in the last seven days, and this was the first time she’d been working since they turned the corner from coffee name to first name basis .

“Hey Jake.” There it was again… the smirk. “Sorry for the wait. What are you drinking today?”

He found it odd that she’d remembered his name, which she’d heard only once, but apparently forgotten his drink, which she’d heard at least half a dozen times.

“Single origin Americano.”

“Ok,” she said. “Anything in it?”

“Just black,” he replied.

A month ago, he wouldn’t have thought twice about the exchange. In fact, in the busyness of life, he likely wouldn’t have even noticed that the barista who knew him by his drink name a week earlier couldn’t remember his order.

As he stood in front of the espresso machine, watching the other barista, a mustache-sporting hipster, hastily try and catch up to the mugs that were awaiting his work, he thought about how different his life had become in just a few weeks. Had Haleigh really been the only person he’d had a conversation with in the last one hundred and sixty eight hours?

He stared at the counter as the mustached man poured in a double shot and called his name. He grabbed the mug, watching as the espresso invaded the steaming water.

He took a seat, the same seat he’d sat in every day, at the thin half circle of a table that surrounded the coffee roasting equipment. He glanced at the longhaired twenty-something that was pouring beans into the roaster. His ears disappeared underneath his oversized headphones, accentuating the words of the wooden sign that hung above his head.

Please do not disturb the roasting operator. 

Jake studied the man’s eyes as he meticulously watched the meters on the machine.

I bet his song is sung, Jake thought, flipping open the brown leather cover of his notebook.

He looked down at the white fiber and little blue lines that stared blankly back at him. Instead of wondering what he should put on the page, he found his brain thinking about the tree that died a hero in order to make this paper. He’d never cared about where his every day supplies came from, but she had cared… and she always told him everything.

“So first,” she’d begun, and Jake distinctly remembered the way that her face lit up when she was sharing information with him. Even now, it made him light up.

“After the tree is cut down, the fibers have to be unstuck from each other, because of the lignin that naturally acts like a glue. It’s gotta be turned into pulp, usually using a crap ton of water and a handful of chemicals to make it happen.”

He could picture the way she scrunched her nose when she said the word chemical. Her parents had mouths like a sailor, but this was a curse word.

“After it’s been pulped, it’s bleached and rolled out on a mat until… did you know that we pretty much make paper the same way the Chinese did it 2,000 years ago?”

She also had the tendency to interrupt herself in the middle of a sentence.

“Then it’s heated up and rolled out until all the water is gone. Did you know that the pulp can be up to 99% water?”

He didn’t, but he’d acted interested. At least he thought he did.

“So the paper is rolled out and heated up in these massive sheets,” she’d continued. “Sometimes they make ‘em over 30 feet wide. Isn’t that crazy?”

As he sat here now, inspecting the lignin and chemicals and bleach, he wondered if he should’ve paid more attention. Would that have made a difference?

He reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out the pen that he’d placed there before he left the coffee shop the day before.

His pushed his left index finger and thumb together, as much as the cylindrical pen would allow, and he leaned in as the tip of the ink found the upper left hand corner of the page.

I know I said I wouldn’t, but I have changed my mind…

About forty minutes passed before the page was filled with his messy handwriting, half of it scribbled out and rewritten. This felt good. Some days, he’d just stared at the empty page until he gave up and headed back home. He wasn’t sure that what he’d written today made any sense, but that didn’t matter.

He took the last sip of the Americano, the grounds from the bottom of the mug hitting his lips, and put the tip of the pen on the last line of the page…

Now if only I could figure out how to make my song become sung…

He stood, placed the mug in the bus tub, shoved the pen back into the pocket of his jeans, shut the Moleskin notebook, stuck the buds back in his ears, and hit play.

One… Two… Three

// TAKE A BREAK HERE //

It had been a couple hours since he’d made the change from coffee to whiskey. He sat on the polyester cushion of the sofa that had likely been in a box 30 days ago, waiting for some unassuming shmuck to come along and try to decipher the Swedish instructions and impossible to use tools to put the thing together. As he sat, his head beginning to swim from the buzz of the drink, he rubbed the fingers of his right hand over his left forearm. The letters that had been inked onto his skin sat underneath the light layer of hair that had grown over the tattoo. He carefully touched each letter with his index finger, moving toward his elbow.

L. O. N. D. O. N.

He had never regretted a tattoo. All of them told stories of specific spots in his life, an autobiographical account, right there on his skin. But now, at 11:43pm, sitting in this Ikea showroom-like living room with a few bourbons in him, he wished he could scrub the word right off his arm and down the drain… never to see it or think about it again.

Wanting it to stop, he shifted his weight to his feet, stood, rubbed his face with his large hands, and exhaled. The only noise in the house came from his bare feet as they walked from the carpet of the living room to the wood of the kitchen. He found the bottle on the kitchen table still open, and poured himself another drink.

He’d always liked buying things locally. There was something oddly satisfying about knowing that the produce that ended up on your plate was grown from the earth around your city. But honestly, he’d grabbed this bottle simply because he liked the old-timey photo of a man with ridiculous sideburns on the logo. He hadn’t even realized that the liquor was named after the street less than half a mile from the house where he was now staying. And he didn’t know that the distillery was even closer. Had he known these things, he might’ve felt proud of himself for investing in local businesses.

But honestly, he just liked the logo.

He put the glass to his lips and emptied it. He’d taken much longer with the first two drinks he’d poured… or had it been three? With the swallow came a new motivation, and the next thing he knew he was walking out the front door with his Moleskin and Martin auditorium.

Let’s get this song sung…

The black night was made even darker by the tree cover that shielded the street from the moon, and if there were streetlights, they weren’t doing their job. Jake waited a moment for his eyes to adjust before taking a seat on the 2nd step of the porch. He sat the guitar on his lap, turning awkwardly so that neither end of the instrument would hit the wood posts that held up the railing.

Unlike the sterility of the Ikea showrooms inside the house, the posts showed signs of real life. Knicks and bruises covered every piece of wood that led up the stairs to the house. Jake had wondered, these last few weeks, the stories behind the names chiseled into the porch: Adeline & Ella.

Uncomfortable, and with nowhere to set the notebook, Jake stood and moved to the armless chair that sat toward the corner of the porch. He placed the open notebook on the railing, took a deep breath, and starting playing.

The words that had just this morning made their way from the ink of his pen to the fibers of the lignin and pulp inside his notebook now jumped off the page and fell out of his mouth.

It’s like some nights darkness takes its toll, and I yearn for the light…

The bourbon in his belly brought down his guard, and as he sat on the porch, he sang at a volume normally reserved for concert halls and recording sessions. He was belting out this song as if he wanted the whole world to hear, when in fact he didn’t think there was a person alive who wanted to hear his song.

As the song went on, his mind couldn’t turn off the voice of Johnny Cash…

“Well… Whattya wanna… Let’s uh… Well… if I feel like my song is sung, it don’t care… I don’t care if it’s short.”

Why can’t I find this peace?  

He found himself at the bottom of his scribbled page far quicker than he would’ve liked. Disheartened and discouraged, he was unable to stop strumming.

I want my song to be sung…

His voice was weaker than it had been moments before, but he couldn’t stop singing. Without even realizing it, his cloudy brain sent the words of the chorus to his dejected voice:

I cannot find what I’m looking for
Where is the peace that I need?
Did you walk out with it when you walked out on me?

Nothing was helping, and still he couldn’t stop strumming. Almost involuntarily, he found himself singing the words that got sung by Johnny Cash all those years before.

If a psychiatrist were watching this go down, he’d likely say that Jake was projecting Johnny Cash’s situation onto his own, thinking that singing the words that Rick Rubin had captured all those years ago would magically give him the same harmonious content that he had heard at the end of that recording.

But in actuality, it was far simpler. Jake knew the feeling of his hands and voice stopping, and the silence that followed. He wasn’t yet ready to feel that, so he kept going.

He sang everything he could remember from Johnny’s recording of the song…

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held in you in my arms…

When that last line hit his ears, he felt the full effect of the last month… the full scope of why he was living in an Ikea showroom of a house that his parents had bought on a whim a few months ago… why he was spending his days listening to the same song on repeat… why he wanted to scrape the tattoo off his forearm…

Did you walk out with it when you walked out on me?

It wasn’t that his song was sung, or that he even wanted to finish, but he couldn’t keep going. The guitar rang out the last chord that he’d played as he hung his head.

As the chord faded out into the middle of the night, right there on the front porch, Jake Whitley cried for the first time in longer than he could remember.   

The next morning, Jake awoke to the same oscillating fan and sliver in the curtain as he had the day before. The ceiling was still there for his staring, and the angle of the light again told him that it was shortly after noon.

But something was different.

He sat up, spinning his legs to the edge of the bed, and put his bare feet on the cold wood floor.

Something was definitely different.

He made his way into the blinding light of the bathroom, and just like the day before, looked at himself in the mirror. He clasped his eyelids together, the dried tears from the night before causing his cheeks to tighten.

The steam from the shower felt therapeutic… almost as if the water was washing away the layers of hurt from his skin.

His routine hadn’t changed, but like I said, something was definitely different.

The sun hit his face as he stepped off the porch that he had been singing on not even 12 hours earlier. His iPhone was playing the same song as the day before, and his feet were headed to the same spot. The same Moleskin notebook was under his arm, his route had not changed, and Johnny sang the same notes. But something was definitely different.

Before he reached the black hexagon-shaped tile of the coffee shop, his nose told him that the roaster was running today. That harshness was back in the air. He stood at the back of the line, three people separating him from his black single origin Americano.

“Hey Jake.”

Had the song playing in his buds not been at the instrumental interlude after the first chorus, he wouldn’t have even noticed her words. It was Haleigh. Jake quickly paused Johnny and pulled the white bud from his right ear.

“Hey.”

This was odd. He’d only spoken to Haleigh on the other side of the counter, but here she was, standing next to him, three people back, a backpack hanging off of her shoulder.

“What are you up to?”

“Well,” she replied, “just getting here. I’m closing today.” She raised her eyebrows as if to indicate her displeasure with the fact that she’d be here ‘til six. He thought about asking the question that had been bugging him since he arrived in Portland: Why do all the coffee spots close at 6pm? Sure, Dallas hadn’t had even come close to the coffee scene of Portland, but at least the places they did have stayed open until midnight.

But instead, he just looked at the floor and replied: “Bummer.”

“Yep. Well, good to see you. Maybe if you’re still here on my break, I’ll come say hi.”

He watched her bypass the three people in front of him and walk past the counter and through the door that read: do not enter: employees only, in all lowercase letters, as if to be less offensive. He couldn’t explain it, but something seemed different about Haleigh today as well. Maybe it was just the fact that she wasn’t ringing him up for a drink and filling a mug with hot water, but something had certainly changed.

Jake paid for his single origin Americano and found a seat along the front window of the shop, overlooking Burnside. He watched the drink that sat on the table in front of him, the steam rising from the top of the white mug that read: “Heart.”

Next to the Americano sat his Moleskin journal. It was the same book that he carried with him to the shop every day, but even it appeared different today. Jake found himself opening the leather cover, like he did every other day, but instead of finding the next blank page, like he’d done every other day, he started at the beginning… the very beginning.

Each day until now, he’d jumped ahead to a blank page… a page that had yet to be written. But for the first time in weeks, he was willing to read something he’d already written.

His heart raced as he skimmed the words that had come from his pen. These words felt like they’d been written so long ago… a different lifetime, almost. He skimmed the page, and then flipped it… and then again. Why was he doing this?

For a moment, he stopped, sipped his Americano, and looked toward the bar. Haleigh was there, smirking at the guy at the front of the line. She wasn’t looking at him, but something about the way her eyes were looking at the man who was ordering a quad-shot almond milk latte struck Jake, and caused him to refocus his own eyes at the Moleskin.

He turned the page again, and for the first time since he sat, he let himself feel the weight of the words that were on the page.

I wanna feel it in my bones…

Instantly, his mind left 22nd and Burnside and entered a place over 2,000 miles away… a living room on a Monday afternoon, his day off. He closed his eyes and could picture the way that the sofa didn’t quite fit in the room… the way that the TV was just enough off-center to notice. He remembered the way that she’d looked at him, wanting answers… wanting relief.

This was still months before it happened, and he almost laughed thinking about this point in time, at the fact that they thought life in this season had actually been difficult. Her eyes had asked for answers, for respite from the day to day. Those eyes had been searching, but they weren’t desperate… at least not yet.

He remembered how he’d watched her walk to bed that night, defeated, and how he’d sat on that ill-fitting sofa with his guitar in hand, late into the night. As he read his words on the page, he could almost feel that hopeful optimism that he’d felt that night as he sang. He remembered playing the song over and over, wanting to get it just right before she woke the next morning. He couldn’t wait to sing it for her; to remind her that everything was going to be OK. He’d even recorded it… wait… was it on this phone?


As he sat at that table, the half circle by the roaster at Heart Coffee on Burnside, Jake Whitley found himself doing something he hadn’t done since coming to Portland: he hit play on a song that wasn’t Johnny Cash’s You Are My Sunshine. He put the buds in his ears, exited the app aptly titled “Music,” and opened “Voice Memos.” He scrolled down until he found the date that matched the date on the open page of his Moleskin, and he reluctantly hit PLAY.

He wasn’t certain, but he thought he could hear the cry of an infant faintly in the background. As soon as the guitar began, he recognized the optimism that had been in the room that night, and it sent chills up his spine. And when he heard his own voice singing, as it had all day, he knew that everything was definitely different.

Maybe there’s hope, Jake thought as the recording abruptly ended. Perhaps it was just the memory, or possibly the optimism in his song from long ago. He didn’t know. But in that moment, Jake felt like he needed to find out for sure.

“Hey.”

Jake looked up. It was Haleigh.

“Mind if I have a seat?”

 

Episode One


DAY ONE.

34E. 

She just stood there and stared at the seat, as if this were her last chance. She knew that the decision had already been made for her, but still she stood, acting like there might be another option. She knew full well that she’d awkwardly slide past the overweight man whose girth was spilling over onto 34E, that she’d clumsily bump the copy of the Business section of the Times that he held, and that she’d mumble an unintelligible apology as she sat. But there she stood, staring at 34E as if putting her weight fully on the blue upholstery would forever change the course of her life.

She remembered 9B, which seemed like so much longer than just six years earlier. She had trekked across the country, and even the world, so many times since 9B, but this time was different. Everything about this was different.

There had been no decision to be made before she let the weight of her body fall in to 9B. She didn’t wake up that morning dreading the ride to the airport or burying her head in her pillow, hoping that if she just kept her eyes closed for five more minutes, all of this would go away. In fact, she didn’t sleep at all the night before she took her seat in 9B. The adrenaline of what was on the other side of 9B far outweighed the need for rest. Everything was exciting about 9B. She had not been accustomed to the comforts of 9B, the hired help who would be at her beck and call until the wheels hit the ground, or the satisfaction of watching the other passengers walk back to their 34E, wondering who she was and what she’d done to deserve to be looking down on them from 9B. 

But like I said, everything about this was different. It wasn't just the first class seat of 9B or the pre-boarding or the stewardesses who would disregard the pilot's seatbelt warning to fetch her another vodka cranberry. 

Back then, she didn't feel like she was just a number on an airplane seat. She definitely wasn't 34E, and she even considered herself more than just 9B. She was Ella Jayne Copeland, and this, the day that she had sat in 9B, was just the beginning. Her whole life was in front of her. Her college newspaper music column turned blog, Do You Hear It?, had blown up during her senior year at Portland State, putting her on the radar of In Stereo Magazine. Just two days after sitting in a metal chair with her cap, gown, and 2,000 classmates, she found herself in 9B, a five and a half hour flight from a Manhattan apartment, a six figure salary, and everything she’d always wanted.

Ever since childhood, Ella had dreamed of being a journalist. On countless evenings, she sat on the front porch of her family’s Southeast Portland home with a pen and paper in hand, writing made up newspaper articles while her mother sipped wine and listened to old jazz records on the wood-cased 1960’s Admiral record player. To this day, Ella can’t hear the sound of rain pattering on the trees without thinking of the scratching that happens when a needle collides with vinyl.

Ella would sit on the steps that led to the porch that was easily larger than the home’s main living room, watching the rain make tiny indentions in the river below while she created stories about presidents visiting her elementary school. She'd listen for the roar of her father's car, always a light blue Honda Accord, although he would upgrade the model every two years. His return from the clinic, usually around 7:30, signaled the preparation of dinner.

For as long as Ella could remember, family dinner had been a nightly tradition in the Copeland house. Each evening, Ella, her father Aaron, and her mother, Caroline, would scour the kitchen with no plan. When they found an ingredient that sounded appetizing, they’d pull it from the pantry or the refrigerator and set it on the counter. Usually, the counter would end up covered with a random smattering of anything from raw chicken to basil to lemon juice to cilantro to apple sauce. Together, they’d start mixing ingredients and adding spices until something tasted right, and while their concoctions cooked, they’d sit around the table, which spent at least 9 months a year on the front porch, and they’d talk about their day. Caroline continued to sip her wine while Aaron nursed an old fashioned glass of whiskey and a tobacco pipe. Ella would watch the orange glow coming from the mouth of the pipe while she listened to her father’s stories of the surgeries he’d performed that day. Mother would pull her knees to her chest and look lovingly at her husband, the beam of her smile visible through the glass that she held to her lips.

Aaron and Caroline would listen intently as Ella would read the articles she’d written that day, and they’d rave about her knowledge of language and grammar. “Great use of the word poignant, dear,” or “the alliteration in that third sentence was brilliant.” She’d grin from ear to ear and eat her apple sauce and lemon chicken. Growing up, these dinners on the front porch were a snapshot of the closeness of the Copeland family.

But that was before 34E. 

As Ella sat there, with the excess of 34D pressed against her thigh, she couldn't help but feel like this was the end. She wasn't yet 29, but everything was gone. All that she'd worked for, all that she'd loved… Gone.

She closed her eyes and tried to sleep, but that word kept haunting her... Gone. 

Her mind went to Cafe Yama, a night she'd been with Kristina, sipping a Ginger Blossom and picking at a spicy tuna roll. Yama had been a deadline week tradition for the two girls since Ella had started at the magazine. They'd walk the three blocks from the offices of In Stereo around 5:30, taking their seats at the bar just in time to order before happy hour ended. They'd spend an hour or two decompressing over sushi and cocktails before heading back to the office to work until the sun rose.

On this night, Kristina stared at the large aquarium behind the bar, wondering how they made the water look so blue and the fish so neon while Ella spoke. "I just don't understand retirement," she began. "I mean, I get that June wants to spend more time with her grandkids, but I can't imagine a world without the stress, the deadlines, the writing."

"I was with ya until that last one," Kristina cut in. She was the magazine's art director, and often reminded the writers that they were crazy for spending their days putting words together. 

"It's just," Ella continued as the orange fish slithered past the lime green seaweed in the tank, "I don't know what in the world I’d possibly do if all of this were gone."

She shuddered as she remembered her words. She’d been worried about it all being gone at retirement, yet here she was, 35 years before she could draw social security, and it was already exactly what she had feared: gone.

She reached up and closed the vent that had been blowing cold air on her, and as she shifted, 34D grunted and glared at her as if she'd inconvenienced him greatly by transferring her weight to her left.

Isn’t it crazy how time flies when you want it to slow down, and it couldn’t go any slower when you’re dreading what’s next? The past six years had been a blur for Ella… and this plane ride felt like it was taking six years. 

The only perk of 34E was watching the North American countryside change from east to west beneath the sky. 

Being that her final destination was the Pacific Northwest, she had fully anticipated the native clouds to be covering the landscape below. But on this day, the sun was bright, and Ella was surprised to see Mount H