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…"