THE music pounded within the constraints of the dimmed room, pulsating through the bodies of every dancing person. It was a large, extravagant room, packed far beyond capacity and marred by the quality of entertainment. The crowd created a thick, stuffy heat in the space, along with a stench that was a culmination of cologne, perfume, and sweat. But to the guests attending, it was a paradise. It was a place of refuge for some, and a place to hide for others. And you had to be someone special to be invited.
Tanner threw her head back and laughed, spilling her cocktail and squealing. She was sitting on her friend Emma’s lap, experiencing the perfect level of euphoria, and she didn’t want the feeling to end. As she looked around the room, she was suddenly aware of the fact that her life would probably never get any better than this. The thought seemed ridiculous, since she was only fourteen. But the idea that she could feel even happier than she felt at that exact moment, seemed even more inconceivable. She let out a content breath and scrambled awkwardly to her feet.
“I want to dance!” She yelled her announcement over the music and turned to Emma. She reached out to her friend, who let out a short scream.
“Watch your smoke!” Tanner had forgotten that she was smoking.
“Oh, my bad,” she said and giggled. She dropped the cigarette butt into an unfinished beer bottle and attempted to pull her reluctant friend off the couch. A hand grabbed her arm and spun her around, and almost off balance. She was suddenly face to face with Jason Allen. His brown eyes sparkled.
“Tanner Rose, I’ve been looking for you.”
“I’ve been here,” she said, laughing and gesturing to her surroundings. He spun her again and the move caused her vision to swirl. She let out a screech and grabbed him for support. “Cut that out!”
“You look amazing,” he said, taking advantage of her backless dress and caressing her bare skin. “I was looking for a dance, but now I’m thinking we should take a little time alone.”
“Are you undressing me with your eyes, Mr. Allen?”
“Kind of,” he said and laughed, “but you haven’t made it too hard, if you know what I mean.”
“Whatever!” She laughed too.
“So, what about it?” he asked with a wink. “Wanna make out?”
“I want to dance!” she said sternly and grabbed his hand. She dragged him through the mob of people.
Tanner pushed her way in among the mass of bodies on the dance floor and closed her eyes. And then she lost herself. She lost herself in the music, the movement of the crowd, and the warm and fuzzy sensation that was consuming her. That was the last thing she remembered.
TANNER felt the pain of her headache before she’d fully woken up. She wanted to open her eyes, but was afraid to see where she was. The music was still overpowering her surroundings, so she was obviously still at Rick Vonn’s house. She felt a weight on her right side and tried shoving it off, but it pushed further onto her. She allowed her eyes to open a little and saw a few shadows pass in front of her. She recognized the foyer. Her right arm felt dead and she turned her neck to see what was weighing it down. But she knew before she heard Jason’s groan. She directed her mind back to the night before, and took it on a replay of the events that led her to where she was now. But the dance floor was as far as she got.
“Get off me,” she said. The fragmented words cut her dry throat. She tried to clear it, but the taste of her mouth made her gag. She pulled herself off the loveseat, dropping Jason to his side. The room spun when she got to her feet and she fell back into the seat, crushing the boy under her. She heard another groan, and this time it came from her. She took a moment for the woozy sensation to subside, and then got up again, slower and as steady as her dizzy head allowed. She searched around her for her purse, hoping that she wouldn’t have to wander the trashed rooms in search of it. She’d spent many a morning climbing over passed-out and disheveled bodies. Besides, she was sick to her stomach already. The last thing she needed was a reminder of what she probably looked like passed out. She sighed her relief when she saw her silver clutch tucked between the cushions of the couch. She grabbed it and stumbled to the nearby washroom, avoiding eye contact with those few individuals who were trying so desperately to keep the party alive.
That familiar feeling of regret began to set in, but she had to hold it off, at least while she took a quick moment to text her driver to pick her up. In doing so, she noticed the bombardment of text messages on her phone. where r u?…ur late!!!!!!…WAITING!…ur costing us a fortune!!!!! Call me now!!!…HELLLOOOOOOOO!????
A myriad of expletives spilled from her chapped lips and she hurried to clean up and remake her face and hair. She had no choice but to go home and change before heading to the studio. She’d gone to work way too many times in clothes worn and partied in the night before. I’m already late, she reasoned. So what difference would it really make? She quickly packed her stuff back into her purse and rushed out. If they want me, they can wait.
SIXTEEN year old Gabriel spun the rake handle in both hands with ease, before freeing it into the spring air. He watched it rotate, with the blue sky as its backdrop. Then he extended both arms, grabbing it in the midst of its descent, and encircled it back on his right side. “Swish,” he whispered. He stepped forward and lowered himself onto one knee, bringing the butt of the stick up into a jab, “Ahhh.” He waited for just a few seconds, his breathing was heavy but controlled, and then he rose and rotated the stick again. He jabbed it forward, turned his body to the left and jabbed it two more times to his right. His legs were set in a horse stance. He paused one last time, before standing up straight. Gabriel looked up at the blue sky, closed his eyes, and sucked the air deep into his nose, down into his lungs, and then pushed it back out through his lips. He felt the sun warm his face and the grass cool his bare feet, and he smiled as a feeling of tranquility swept through him.
The sound of a vehicle slowly moving up the driveway caught his attention. It was his mother, Miss Ruth. Gabriel wiped his face with the front of his shirt, watching his mother park her car and get out. To his surprise, the passenger door also opened and a young girl stepped out. Gabriel didn’t recognize her. She wore tight fitted jeans, silver strappy, high-heel shoes, and a cream halter top with an open back. The girl also sported large dark glasses, and her brown hair was pulled up into a pony tail. She looked about nineteen from where he stood watching. His mother signaled over to him, before ushering the girl into the house. Gabriel pushed the rake handle back into the head of the rake and leaned it against a nearby tree. He trudged toward the side of the house, entering through the kitchen.
AS he helped himself to a glass of water from the faucet and gulped it down slowly, Gabriel listened to his mother talk in the other room. She was obviously showing the girl her piano, because she was explaining how she used to teach music at the middle school.
“That was before they cancelled the music program. What a shame. Now I teach piano from home. And sometimes I play for the choir at our church. I’ve also included it in my son’s homeschooling program. He’s really quite good.” Miss Ruth explained. “Gabriel,” she then called, interrupting herself. There was a pause, and moments later, she appeared in the doorway with a wide smile and eyebrows raised in anticipation. “Gabriel,” she said. “Honey, I want you to meet someone.” She jerked her head in the direction of the living room and walked off. Gabriel finished his water and followed after her. The young girl had removed her sunglasses and was staring absently at their family picture on the bookshelf.
“Honey, this is Tanner, Tanner Rose,” Miss Ruth said. “Tanner, this is my son, Gabriel.” The girl turned to face him and Gabriel realized that she was actually much younger than he had first guessed, and he was surprised. Gabriel recognized the look of indifference, along with the fake smile that followed his mother’s introduction. But he walked toward her anyway, with an extended hand. Tanner looked at it briefly and he now saw the look of amusement sweep her face. Still, she took his hand, and Gabriel was suddenly reminded of an article he’d read about how a limp handshake was the sign of insecurity.
“Tanner will be staying with us for a little while,” his mother was saying. The girl was now staring at the crucifix over the fireplace, as if expecting Jesus to jump off the cross and lunge toward her. “Gabriel, please help with her bags.”
“Be careful,” the girl said, suddenly coming alive. “I have some important things.” Gabriel nodded and headed out quickly. He didn’t want to dislike the girl before he even knew her, but he had a nagging feeling that their currently calm lifestyle was about to get messy.
GABRIEL brought the bags to the guest room, where his mother was showing Tanner their farm from the window and explaining that they grew a lot of their own vegetables. Tanner was impressed this time, but it was the kind of impressed that made her laugh, as if they were so quaint and funny. Miss Ruth and her son then left Tanner so she could unpack and settle in.
ONCE alone, Tanner sat on the bed. She looked around the modest room. It was simply decorated, as was the rest of the house. Besides the bed and bedside table, the only other pieces of furniture were a chest of drawers and a rocking chair. Cream crocheted doilies dressed the dark wood furniture and a cream floral blanket with matching pillows covered the bed. A large chocolate brown and maroon rug was laid on a recently polished wooden floor. Tanner allowed her eyes to travel around the space and her mind to mull over the events of the last few days. She then thought about how Miss Ruth seemed nice enough, but her son, although cute, was just plain rude. But those crystal blue eyes and dark wavy hair, she thought. He could totally be a model.
Tanner looked at her suitcase next to her on the bed. She reached out, unzipped it, and flung it open. She glanced at the three magazines she’d packed on top of her folded clothes, and took them out one by one. The first magazine cover was a picture of her on the set of her most recent movie. The caption read, On and Off Set with Tanner Rose. Another magazine had a picture of her lying in a hammock at their vacation home: Tanner Takes Five. On the third magazine cover, Tanner is pictured with three of her co-stars at a post movie premier party. They’re standing side by side with their arms slung over each other. They’re all laughing, but Tanner doesn’t smile as she looks at herself. She’s not happy that her hair is damp with perspiration, her shirt has a spill on it, and her laugh is so large, the reader can see down her throat: Tanner Gets Toasted.
Tanner stared a little longer, hating the sight of her own face. The picture of her friend, Emma, prompted her to grab her phone from her purse. She dialed Emma’s number but lost the call immediately. She had no bars. She paced around the room, redialing and redialing, but still no bars. She felt hot and opened the window, but the heat of the day was hotter. “Don’t these people have AC?” she wondered out loud. Her room was on the back side of the house, and she peered out into the yard. It extended out to a field surrounded by trees. “Great! I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with a couple of crazy hermit people.” She saw the vegetable garden to the right of the house and shook her head. “Why grow it when you can buy it? That’s what I want to know.” Tanner sat back down on the bed. She could feel her heart beating really fast and she couldn’t take a full breath. She stood back up and paced the room.
Tanner’s reflection appeared to her in a mirror on the wall and she stopped to look at herself. I’m Tanner Rose! Tanner Rose! Girls would kill to be me…but would I? After a moment’s pause, she closed her eyes and clenched her teeth. “What am I doing here?” she whispered. She’d asked herself this same question throughout the trip to Miss Ruth’s house. Her mother’s face kept shoving itself into her mind, but she pushed it back out, just as forcefully. She started searching through her bags, in the pockets that had seemed to be good hiding spots, but her mother had obviously foreseen her deception. Now she really couldn’t breathe. But she didn’t want to go downstairs and ask Miss Ruth if the AC was broken. Instead, she fell back on the bed and allowed the tears of both anger and frustration to flow.
GABRIEL didn’t ask his mother about Tanner, and his mother didn’t volunteer much information. All Miss Ruth said was that she and Tanner’s mother, Alicia, had been roommates in college, and that Tanner needed somewhere to stay for a while, where she could “recuperate.” Miss Ruth smiled while she watched her son whip the mashed potato on the stove top. She and Gabriel had settled in nicely into a life alone. They were so alike in many ways, but it’s our differences that saved us, she thought. She glanced at him again. His dark hair fell over his forehead and he bit his lip in concentration.
“You’re a good boy, Gabriel,” she said unexpectedly. She couldn’t help it. Gabriel didn’t say anything. He just smiled, his father’s blue eyes gleaming back at her, and then he returned his attention back to his task. She felt a lump form in her throat. At that moment, Tanner walked into the kitchen.
“Hi,” she said, raising her hand to them quickly.
“Oh, hi,” Miss Ruth said happily. She grabbed a towel
and wiped her hands. “What perfect timing. Dinner’s ready.” Tanner looked at the meatloaf that Miss Ruth carried to the table and Gabriel saw her lips tighten. He told himself to be polite, while scooping the potato into a bowl and picking up the dish of roasted vegetables. He followed his mother. “Can I get you something to drink?” Miss Ruth asked.
Tanner scoffed softly before saying, “Water is fine.” Gabriel couldn’t look at Tanner once they’d sat down to eat. He was trying not to get angry about the way she surveyed the room with a snooty expression. After Miss Ruth served her two slices of meatloaf, Tanner lowered her head slightly, and when she thought no-one was looking, she sniffed the steam. And while Gabriel said the blessing, she covered her chewing mouth to finish her bite, then joined her hands loosely, and rolled her eyes. Gabriel felt her watching him as he crossed himself.
“Thank you, honey,” his mother said. “So, Tanner, I am sooo excited to have you here. Do you know that your mother and I were roommates in college?”
“Yes, you said that,” Tanner said with a thin smile. She rolled a baby carrot back and forth with her fork.
“Yes, well that was a long time ago, but it was good to hear from Alicia.” Gabriel had never heard the name Alicia before. “Actually, it’s a funny story really,” Miss Ruth continued. It was obvious to Gabriel that she was trying to keep the mood light, but there was too much tension surrounding them to dissolve alone. “You see, we weren’t even supposed to be roommates, did she mention that?”
“Actually, my mother never mentioned you at all until last week,” Tanner said, dropping her hand to her plate and facing Miss Ruth with a tight smile. Gabriel saw the look, and he also saw the blood flood his mother’s cheeks.
“Wow, how much was the course in rudeness?” he asked, and then added, “or are you just naturally impolite?” Gabriel and Tanner locked eyes and the girl felt her heart beating, her own face burned now. She’d meant it to be rude, but once the words fell from her lips, she wished they hadn’t. She broke the stare first and turned to Miss Ruth.
“I’m sorry,” Tanner said softly. She looked down at her plate for a few seconds before she added, “excuse me,” and rushed from the table.
“Gabriel,” Miss Ruth said in a low voice. Gabriel looked at her. He apologized too, but not for defending his mother. He apologized because her dinner had been spoiled. They finished the remainder of their meal in silence.
TANNER didn’t come down again that night. She didn’t finish her unpacking either. She just lay there, looking up at the ceiling and wondering how she got to where she was. She fell asleep on top of the bed with her clothes still on.
THE room was filled with sunshine the next morning when Tanner woke up. And as much as she wished that the day before had all been a dream, she knew before she had even opened her eyes that it had not. She lay for a few minutes, adjusting to her surroundings. She then recalled the incident at dinner and cringed. She dreaded getting up and facing Gabriel again. Still, she stretched her arms above her head, groaned loudly, and stubbornly rolled to a seated position.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered. She pushed herself to her feet and growled out loud. She saw the blue sky from where she sat and reluctantly lifted herself to her feet and walked to the window. Outside she saw Gabriel.
END OF CHAPTER 1