Day One Hundred and Six.
When I woke up, I found Jesse McCartney's pants on the floor of my hotel room. After I'd showered and dressed and Joe finally dragged himself out of bed, I picked up the pants and sighed. This was all Kevin's fault. The night before, we arrived in Pennsylvania and found ourselves with nothing to do. We wanted to go outside and play soccer or hackey-sack or something, but it was raining. We decided to play poker instead. We had no poker chips. Kevin, brilliant as he is, suggested that we play strip poker.
At this point, I feel it's necessary to reinforce the fact that I am heterosexual in every sense of the word, and I do not enjoy the sight of or being within five feet of half-naked male bodies.
(I won, by the way, having only removed my socks. Geoffrey Chaucer, I tell you. I can read people like JK Rowling at a... a book reading).
Anyway, Joe ever-so-generously offered our room to the activity, and there were about twelve of us crammed in there. My brothers, Jesse, our band, Jesse's band, etcetera. All in all, a good time. Joe and I made sure Mom had retreated to her room before we drank beer with the others.
The thing about being a really cool rockstar is that you have to go to bed pretty early if you want to look alive the next day. By eleven, everyone was out of the room. By eleven-thirty, Joe and I were fast asleep in our separate beds. And by seven-thirty the next morning, I was on my way to Jesse's room to return to him his jeans. It was beyond me how he left without them.
On the journey down the hallway, I reached for my cell in my pocket to call Pep. It was June 29th; her birthday. I wanted to let her know what I got her, and remind her that even if she was three months older than me, she was in no way superior. Just as I was about to phone, I remembered the fucking time zone thing. If it was seven-thirty here, it was four-thirty in LA... or something along those lines. I'm a considerate guy, so I put my phone back in my pocket and made a mental note to call later.
The door to Jesse's room was ajar, and I heard the water running in the bathroom. Assuming he was taking a shower, I waltzed into the room, absently yelling, "Hey, Dream Street! I'm putting your pants on your- Jesus."
Apparently, Jesse hadn't spent the previous night alone. Sitting on his bed flipping through television channels, fully-clothed in some sort of grey cotton dress and boots, was Mystery Girl.
And I was holding her boyfriend's pants.
Sceptically, she turned her head in my direction and smiled. "Hey, Nick," she said, her wonderfulness casting a spell over me almost instantly, "Whatcha got there?"
When I say casting a spell over me, I mean it. She was my Romilda Vane. I hardly knew a thing about her, but I was desperately in love and I didn't even know why.
Immediately, I flung Jesse's life-ruining pants onto the desk chair. "I found them," was all I said. She didn't have to know where I found them, or why. She raised a curious eyebrow as I cleared my throat. I shrugged with a smile. "What are you doing here?"
Normally a rude question, but she knew what I meant.
Rainie smiled as she pressed the ‘Mute' button on the remote. "I got in last night. Didn't Jesse tell you?"
I shrugged again, shaking my head. He hadn't mentioned it, not even when we were strip-pokering.
"I'm shadowing you for a few days," she said with a smirk. I tilted my head to the side as I watched her - when she said the letter ‘F', she bit her lip. That letter has never been so fucking hot.
"Me?" I asked in confusion.
She snorted with laughter. "Yeah, you, Pretty Boy."
I'd prefer Pretty Man, but... honestly, it kills me to admit this, but at this point I wouldn't protest if she'd called me ‘Princess Nick'. She thought I was pretty, and that's all that mattered.
"I mean I'm shadowing the tour buses," she replied with a roll of her eyes. She set the remote on the bed and stood up, and I gulped when I realized that her dress didn't even extend to mid-thigh. Dear God, help me to control my manly urges. "I'm off school for a few months and I've got nothin' better to do."
I nodded in awe of her. I was barely listening, because I had just discovered the true meaning of the phrase, ‘Greek Goddess'.
She waited for my response. I couldn't give her anything. I was speechless. Over the edge, and just brea- oh, fuck me, I was quoting my own fucking bullshit!
Eventually, her shoulders relaxed and she smiled, folding her slender arms across her chest. "You won't tell, will you?" she asked. As she slowly walked past me, she whispered, "It's a secret."
The tiny hairs in my ear tingled, and if I wasn't so practiced in the art of self-restraint, I would have shivered right then and there. I could get drunk off this girl. She made me feel woozy and smiley and everything all at once.
"Why does it matter?" I asked, silently thanking my vocal chords for remaining low and not cracking. As I pivoted on my heel to face her again, I noticed that she was folding Jesse's pants for him.
She glanced at me before responding, "It's like, a rule or something, isn't it? You're not actually allowed to bring people on tour with you. There's just no space, and too many liabilities."
True. It took a lot of persuading with my father before he allowed Pep to join us on tour for only a couple of days - of course, Pep didn't know that yet.
"So you're cheating," I pointed out, eyeing her quizzically. "Breaking the rules."
She grinned at me, her eyes smouldering. "I like breaking the rules."
If the truth be told, I set that one up for her. I was sizing her up; figuring her out. Seeing if she would respond to my clever ploy. And she did, and I'm not going to lie, I was aroused. At that moment, I couldn't think of a single rule I wouldn't break just to be with her. Large-scale prison break? Sure. Mass murder? Why not. Unforgivable curses? Hell yes.
"What's life without risk, right?" she continued. "Live in the moment. Carpe diem. Break the rules. I make my own philosophies."
"Funny," I smirked, "I could swear I've heard those ones before."
She winked. "Nope, they're all me."
I watched her set Jesse's pants carefully on the desk and hang up his shirt on a hanger. I caught her eye again, and she sighed.
"Why are you always looking at me like that?"
I brought a hand to my mouth as inconspicuously as possible. When I had assured myself that I had not been drooling, I lowered my hand and shoved it into my pocket. "Like what?"
"Like..." she trailed off. She pursed her lips in contemplation. "I don't know, like... like you're looking for something."
I was caught off-guard for a moment. It's rare that someone calls me out on my intense lurking. Then again, it's rare that I intensely lurk people. Most people don't require intense lurking before I can predict their entire pathetic life story. Rainie was a special case.
Absently, I ran my tongue over my bottom lip as I thought about my answer. "Why do you respond?"
This piqued her curiosity. "What's that supposed to mean?"
I shrugged as coolly as possible. "If you ignored me, I'd be less inclined to look at you. Knowing you'll look back is intriguing."
"So you want me to train my eyes away from you?" she joked.
"No." That was the last thing I wanted.
It was Rainie's turn to be left speechless. She opened her mouth to say something, but thought better of it. She turned her head to the side, analyzing me out of the corners of her eyes. I stared back as innocently as possible, though my thoughts were far from innocent.
All of a sudden, a breathtaking smile crossed her face. "You're funny," she said quietly, her mouth barely opening as she mumbled.
"You're interesting," I replied candidly.
We held each other's eyes for a moment or two longer before the bathroom door swung open and Jesse intruded our private conversation with only a towel wrapped around his waist, his wet hair dripping onto the carpet. He didn't seem surprised or ashamed at all, the schmoe.
"Oh, hey bud," he said nonchalantly, nodding in my direction. He nodded again as he took note of his pants, neatly folded on the desk. "Sweet!" he exclaimed, standing in between Rainie and I to grab the jeans with his free hand. "I've been looking for these!" Rainie and I remained silent as we watched him sift through his suitcase for a pair of boxers. Without another word, he was back in the bathroom.
I'm still not sure why she felt the need to tell me this, but as soon as he was gone, Rainie told me, "Um... we're going out for breakfast."
I took that as my cue to leave. I'd be back, though. That was for sure. "See you around, then," I finished, heading for the door. Before I left, I promised, "I won't tell anyone you're here."
It was like our little secret. Something that only Rainie and I shared. And Jesse, but he's got shit for brains and doesn't count.
The corners of her mouth lifted. "Okay. Thanks. You should come visit, though. I might get lonely."
I might get lonely.
Exclamation point. Somebody up there loves me.
We were busy for the better part of the day. Time flies when you're in high demand. Really, life just passes you by so much faster when you don't have time to stop and smell the roses. Which is a good thing, because more often than not, roses are covered in prickly, painful thorns. I like living in the fast lane, where roses are freshly pruned and like you to smell them. (In retrospect, I think I got a little carried away with that analogy. I take it back).
Jesse was doing a sound-check when we arrived at the venue in the early evening. I watched him for a minute or two with my arms crossed, blowing bubbles with my gum. Blowing bubbles isn't just for girls. It takes a real man to blow perfect bubbles every time.
Joe busted out the hackey-sack and we kicked it around for a while. We don't really get nervous about shows anymore. Just excited. And when we get excited, our normal personalities are exaggerated. For example, Kevin talks a mile-a-minute to anyone - and I mean anyone - who looks his way. Lucifer himself could glance at Kevin in passing, and Kevin would be all over that shit. Joe, on the other hand, gets very fidgety and needs to release his energy with some sort of physical activity (hence the game of hackey-sack we had going on). I... well, I'm pretty normal. Maybe I get quieter. Maybe my mind races a little faster than usual.
One thing's for sure: when I saw Mystery Girl sitting alone at a wooden table backstage, bravely smiling at all the crew members who had no idea who she was, my mind was exploding. I hadn't noticed her before because my back was to the table, and when Joe and I first started kicking the hackey-sack, she hadn't been sitting there. It could only mean one thing: she chose that prime location in order to stare at my ass.
It was the only explanation.
As he passed, I whistled to Garbo, one of our band-mates, indicating that he should take over my position in playing with Joe. I had a girl to seduce.
While I rolled up my sleeves and walked as casually as possible towards her, she was staring in boredom at the screen of her phone. I knew what I was going to say; I'd been thinking of my next words to her all day. I was just excited, and my thoughts were dodging in and out of my head faster than the speed of light. It was exactly how I felt before a performance. You know what songs you're going to play and in what order, but you're never sure if everything will turn out right until you're up there, playing.
Rainie only lifted her head as I slid into the chair beside her. There were four chairs at the wooden table, and I specifically took the one closest to her to get a better look. I liked her face. And the rest of her.
She smiled curiously at me. God, she was radiant when she smiled.
Resting my forearms on the table in front of me, I said calmly, "So I figured we should get to know each other."
With her honey-coloured hair in waves around her shoulders, Rainie looked to me, to the surrounding area, and back to me again. She raised a sceptical eyebrow. "I thought you didn't talk much."
Clever lady. This phrase made my heart jump - she actually remembered one of our (few) previous conversations.
I allowed myself to smile. "I'm willing to make an exception."
In fact, I was willing to make several exceptions. Like, if she was feeling flirty, I was up for flirting. (And just for the record, I don't flirt. The only time it's acceptable for men to flirt is if they're trying to pick up other men, usually in same-sex bars or on office retreats in secluded sections of large forests). If she was touchy-feely, I could be touchy-feely, too. There were a lot of things about her I wanted to touchy-feely, anyway. If she told me she wanted my rock-hard bod, I was willing to violate the guy code and sleep with her while she was still dating Jesse. I'd risk getting caught. I'd risk a slap in the face from Jesse. I'd risk burning in hell for the rest of eternity if I could just be with her now.
Rainie appeared mildly impressed with my boldness. "Well, what do you want to know?"
Are you adventurous in the sack?
No, better ease her into it. "Lived in LA all your life?" I inquired.
She shook her head. "Nope. Born in Sacramento, raised in Bakersfield."
I should probably know the general location of those two places. They didn't sound like states; but you never know. I decided to withhold a comment. "Just for school, then?"
She shrugged. "Just for excitement." Her eyes twinkled.
Interesting. With a smirk, I asked, "What's exciting for you?"
She grinned. "The night life. How easy it is to meet people. How, one day, you can be this random, lonely girl from Bakersfield, and the next, your best friend takes you along as she photographs musicians on-stage."
Lesbian Friend! God, I'd forgotten all about her. I missed that flaming vagina-lover.
I nodded in contemplation. "Is that how you met Jesse?"
(I knew exactly how she met Jesse - that night at the award show - but I figured it would lead to an awkward silence if I mentioned how intensely I'd been stalking her that night).
She shook her head, shifting her ‘obnoxiously large purse', as Pep called it, from her lap to the surface of the table. "No, but it's how I met you."
If I wasn't such a composed young man, I could have easily choked on my own saliva. Instead, I took a moment to plan out my next words as I stared at my hands on the table.
Rainie nudged my arm with hers. "I know you see thousands of girls every night at one of these shows, but don't pretend like you didn't see me that day. You stared at me; I know it."
My throat felt dry all of a sudden. I can't explain how uncomfortable it is when the girl you're stalking points out your stalkerish-ness. Not only does it maker you feel like an incompetent stalker, but it's kind of embarrassing. It's like someone pointing out that they know you're a pedophile. There are just some things you like to keep to yourself, and you'd prefer if others didn't point them out. I know I'm a pedophile, moron, you don't have to tell me.
(Side-note: I am not a pedophile. I'm not even old enough to be a pedophile. That was an inappropriate example).
"I did," I affirmed.
She smiled in satisfaction, angling her head in a quizzical way. "Because...?"
Rainie was urging me to continue. She was comfortable continuing. She definitely had the hots for me. Suck it, Jesse.
I shrugged. "You're like my Matt Muer."
All it took was her confused frown to know that I should probably have used a different example, possibly one that didn't make me sound homosexual.
Sighing, I elaborated, "Ever seen Superbad?"
It took a moment or two for her to understand. All of a sudden, she was giggling. "Have you ever stared into his eyes? It was like the first time I heard The Beatles."
I pointed an index finger at her and chuckled softly. She got it. My Rainie. So perfect. I shifted in my seat, training my eyes to the table. It would only be another moment or two before she caught on.
I was right. Her laughter slowly faded along with her breathtaking smile. "The first time you heard The Beatles, eh?" she asked.
It baffled me how she wasn't awkward about it at all. And by ‘baffled' I mean ‘pleasantly, pleasantly surprised'. Nothing I said seemed to faze her. She was easy to talk to. I was falling more and more in love.
"Mm. It was more like The Flaming Lips. I don't remember exactly; maybe it was Queen. No, Marilyn Manson."
This earned another giggle from her. She leaned forward across the table to meet my eyes. "Do you still hear Marilyn Manson?"
"No," I replied in good humour. "I mean, it's different every time. You have a soundtrack."
For a second, I thought I'd stumped her, but she came back easily with, "Does everyone have a soundtrack?"
I raised my eyebrows as I shrugged again. "Some people."
"What's on mine?"
She dug through her purse for something as I pondered my answer. "I haven't fully decided yet," I told her. "So far you've got a little bit of everything. Beethoven, The Partridge Family, Pavarotti, Iron Maiden, Jonas Brothers... you know, the best of the best."
I analyzed her teeth when she smiled at me. I think she had braces when she was younger; there was no way anyone's teeth could be so straight otherwise.
"Partridge Family. Excellent," she said sarcastically.
"Top notch," I agreed.
From her purse, she finally pulled out a notepad and pen. She drew a large number sign on the pad and handed the pen to me. I took it, puzzled.
"Tic tac toe," she explained.
"Is this your way of getting me to shut up?" I asked, a crease in my brow.
"No, this is my way of assessing your competitiveness," she answered without missing a beat. "And of keeping you here." The addition to her reasoning did not go unnoticed.
I glanced at her hopefully.
With a small smile, she continued, "I'm tired of being bored, that's all."
Reading Rainie was harder than reading most people, but I had a distinct sensation that she was lying. With a subtle shake of my head, I drew an X in the middle and handed the pen back to her.
"Your turn," she said, brushing off the awkwardness.
"I just went," I informed her, pointing to the X.
"No, I mean it's your turn to tell me about yourself." She drew an O in the left-hand corner and passed the pen to me.
Let's see. I'm sixteen-point-seven-five years old, I spend the majority of my life in the spotlight, and I'm hopelessly in love with you and want you to be my wife.
I cleared my throat before asking, "Anything in particular?"
With a devilish glint in her eye, she returned, "Boxers or briefs?"
None of the above. Take me now, Mystery Girl.
I laughed a little, drawing an X beside her O. "That's an intrusive question, don't you think?"
She drew an O. "I'll answer if you will."
I seriously could not understand this girl. She was hot, and I was so turned-on that if she made any more mentions of underwear in the next few seconds I would probably have to take a cold shower before the show, but what kind of game was she trying to play?
While I drew a shaky X, Joe skimmed by us, singing softly to himself, "Slap you like a bitch, and you take it like a whore..."
Rainie drew an O as she waited for my response. I drew a final X and connected my straight line, winning the game.
"Hell yes," I muttered, scribbling ‘Nick owns' onto the paper alongside an arrow to my tic-tac-toe victory.
Rainie frowned. "That's not how I imagined your handwriting."
Taken-aback is the right phrase to describe how I felt once I received this comment. "You imagined my handwriting?" I repeated. She imagined me. At some point in time, my face - rather, my writing - had circulated her brain. Christ, this was a good day.
I must have appeared overenthusiastic, because she snorted, "Don't flatter yourself. I imagine everyone's handwriting."
Impressed, I nodded. "That's a cool thing to admit, Rainie."
I think that was the first time I said her name out loud. It sounded good coming from me. I wanted to say it again.
She giggled. "You said you wanted to get to know me."
"Correct," I confirmed. "So you imagine people's handwriting? Right when you meet them?"
"Mm hmm," she agreed. "Always have. Usually I'm pretty good at it."
"'Til now," I joked.
"Until now," she repeated slowly.
"Nick, do something productive, please," my father said in passing. I tore my eyes from Rainie's only for a moment to glare at his back. If only he knew how productive I was being, he'd leave me alone. I was laying the groundwork for the rest of my natural-born life.
I sighed, unwilling to tear myself away from my brown-eyed girl.
"Go on, popstar," she urged. "Put on a show or something."
I jerked my head back in horror. She called me ‘popstar'. It was like when Jake Whats-His-Name was going out with Pep. I hated that word with a passion.
I'd set her straight. It had to be done if we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. "You know what you should do if you get bored, Rainie?" (Side-note: Second time saying her name. It sounded even better than the first).
She raised her eyebrows in question.
"Google ‘Dream Street'. Let me know what you think."
Ha. I'll be damned if she ever called me ‘popstar' again.
At exactly 11:54 PM, I managed to hole myself up in my bunk on the tour bus for a few minutes of solitude. We'd played a show and Kevin and Joe were keen on discussing its events, as usual. It would only be a minute or two before they discovered I was missing, so I pulled the curtain around my bunk and dialled Pep's number in the dark.
On the third ring, she picked up. "Hi, Nick," she greeted me amiably.
"How's it going?" I asked quietly. I didn't want my brothers to hear me.
"Uh... fine!" she answered. I frowned in confusion.
"What are you doing?" I inquired.
"Oh, Jilly and Lance and I are going Go-Karting!" she exclaimed. For some reason, she was trying oddly hard to sound upbeat. It wasn't normal; Pep is always upbeat.
I heard someone in the background shout, "Hey!"
"Oh, and Carter's here, too," Pep added. "Hold on a second, I can hardly hear you."
Carter is Pep's younger brother by four years. At the age of twelve (or is it thirteen?), he's already taller than her by a few inches. Jilly and Lance... I had a feeling I should be familiar with them, but I couldn't put faces to their names. They were probably just friends from school.
"There," Pep murmured. There was less background noise, and I knew she'd distanced herself from her friends and her brother.
"So you're Go-Karting?" I asked.
"Mm hmm," she replied. Before I could ask another question, she returned, "How was your day? Did the show go well tonight?"
"Yeah, pretty well. I'm tired, though," I admitted, scratching the back of my neck as I laid my head down on the pillow and stared at the ceiling, the phone held to my ear.
There was a long pause as I waited for her reply. I was about to wish her a happy birthday when she blurted out, "You know, you're the worst friend ever, Nick J."
"Hey now!" I exclaimed a little too loudly. I hoped no one heard me. Lowering my voice, I continued in offence, "That's not fair."
"What's not fair is that you forgot about my birthday, you dildo."
"I did not! It's today!" I cried. Shit. I had to keep my voice down.
"Yeah, it is, princess," Pep replied, sounding less than amused.
I was slightly confused. Pep rarely gets snippy with me. It's just not who she is.
"I knew that," I said in a small voice.
"Because I just told you."
"No, I really did," I insisted. "That's why I called. Happy birthday, Pepper. That's from me and my family."
"You can say thank-you to your family," she answered stiffly. "Especially your mom; she sent me a card. But you suck."
I chuckled. She had no idea. "Pep, I didn't forget."
Clearly she was unconvinced. I wondered how I could make this better. "I got you a present," I announced, determined to remain chipper despite my drooping eyelids.
"Y'know, I've never forgotten your birthday," she rambled, completely ignoring my previous statement. "I never forget anything that's important to you, but you never even ask me-"
"I didn't forget, okay?" I interrupted. I was growing bored of these accusations. I chuckled again. "I've been planning this for a long time, you little oompa loompa. Trust me."
I could picture her contemplative frown, the freckles on her nose scrunching up as she pondered my words. "Planning what?" she asked carefully.
I grinned. I basically had her forgiveness. "Got any plans this weekend?"
There was no response.
"Because I was thinking you could fly out to North Carolina to chill with me," I finished.
I wished I had her on webcam or something, because I wanted to witness her jaw dropping in shock. "What?"
"Just for the day. We've got a show on Saturday; I figured you could come watch. It's the fourth of July."
She let out a loud, "Ha!" before saying, "Nick! You weren't supposed to... but I got you a t-shirt for your birthday!"
"And I like that shirt," I assured her. "It's red. It's manly. It's bitchin'. I'm wearing it now, actually." I hadn't even noticed before.
"A t-shirt doesn't compare to a plane ticket!" she whined.
"I'll allow you to get me two t-shirts this year. Just come," I urged.
"Hold on, now," she said sternly, "What's so special about North Carolina? Why can't I meet you somewhere exciting, like Florida or NYC?"
"Because," I returned simply. That's all she was getting from me. "This has a point, I promise. Okay, my mom's already faxed your mom with flight information and all that, so check it out when you get home."
Pep laughed. "You really did remember my birthday."
I scoffed. "Yeah, so hold your tongue, carrot-head."
She giggled. "Thank you. I'm so excited!"
In my few years of knowing Pep, I couldn't remember a time she hadn't been excited, so this wasn't news to me.
"Where's Nick?" I heard Kevin's loud voice from the front of the bus.
"Oh," I said into the phone, "Kevin found me. Gotta go."
"Okay. I'll see you on Saturday! Hey Nick, I'm seeing you on Saturday!" Pep squealed.
"Uh huh," I agreed as Kevin's footsteps approached.
"Nick? Where are you?" he called.
"Here," I replied. I put the phone to my ear one last time and said quickly, "Happy birthday. See you soon."
I didn't wait for a response because Kevin had already flung the curtains aside from my bunk. "Who were you talking to?" he demanded.
"Pep," I told him, hopping out of the bed and down to the ground, placing my phone inside my pocket where it belonged. As he followed me down the narrow hallway and into the common area, I added, "She says thanks, by the way. For the happy birthday."
"I don't remember saying happy birthday," Kevin commented.
Dolt. I reached into the small refrigerator and grabbed a can of Coke before sliding into a booth and cracking open the can, waiting for someone to initiate conversation. It's Kevin we're talking about, so conversation was initiated within three-point-two seconds. He blabbered on with occasional interruptions from Joe for half an hour, and I remained mostly silent, my thoughts drifting off. Wondering where Rainie was. Whether she'd managed to sneak onto Jesse's tour bus. I hoped the answer was no; because I was afraid of what they were doing if she was with him.
Oh, rats. It was then that I realized I'd forgotten to tell Pep about Mystery Girl's sudden appearance and our enlightening conversation. We were making progress, and somehow it had slipped my mind when I was on the phone with Pep. Ugh.
I would just have to call her again the next day. That was all there was to it.