The thunderous applause reverberated in her head long after Ashley had left the stage. She stood and walked around the makeshift dressing room; the white sheets hung to hide the fact that this was a high school classroom. Desks had been removed, a couch and chairs moved in. There was a large mirror and a stool for pre-concert preparations.
That chaos, the hair and makeup, the pre-stage jitters had blanketed any emotions attached to returning home, performing at her old high school, five years after leaving town. But now, the show was over. Ashley’s thoughts, her anticipation about what was coming next, consumed her to the point of causing her breathing to stutter and thin, her skin to break out in small, red bumps. Performing in front of hundreds, thousands of people was less intimidating than facing what she left behind.
Ashley knew there was a possibility that she was wrong. That the end of the night meant the end of the night. Perhaps, the only visitor would be her manager, Jeff. But somehow, she knew. She had always known she would return. And no matter what had conspired between them in the five years she had been gone, she knew he would be there tonight. It was the only reason she had agreed to this.
She glanced at the long table still full with deli trays and energy drinks, doughnuts and chips. Her crew had indulged in the goodies, but of course, Ashley had refrained. A few almonds and water, that had been her meal. And still, the dress she had on was constricting. The media and critics noticed any extra pound, any unattractive roll, any flaw.
There were footsteps moving slowly down the hallway, and she straightened, gasping as she recognized that sound. A bit slower than the fast pace she remembered, but that sound, the heaviness, was him. All him.
And suddenly, he was in front of her. Caleb. As sure as Ashley had been that he would be there, nothing could prepare her for being in front of this man after all this time. She noticed his head full of auburn curls and breathed a sigh of relief. Someone had informed her that he had shaved his hair not long after she had left. She was glad it grew back.
“Caleb,” she breathed, their eyes locking with the intensity she had convinced herself she had imagined. “You came. I knew you would.”
His smile was soft, not reaching his eyes. “Isn’t that what was expected? Why you’re here?” And then the edges of his eyes crinkled, the smile finally catching on. “You were amazing out there.”
Ashley blushed. “Thank you.”
“No. Really. I’ve always been your biggest fan, but this was … this was a whole other level. I was in awe. The entire place was in awe. You’ve come so far.” He paused, those bright blue eyes mesmerizing even with that spark of sadness. Or was it accusation? “If there was ever any doubt, you crushed it tonight. You belong up there.”
Somehow, that made her flinch. “I’m not so sure this is me.”
“What are you talking about?” he insisted softly, moving so that he caught her gaze. “Look at you. All glamour and glitz. That voice. It’s you.”
“No. This? This dress is just a show. A costume. I’m up there on that stage, and I’m pretending. Giving everyone a character. This, you know it isn’t me. You know who I am. I’m that girl in jeans and a t-shirt racing you through the field. I’m that girl that plops down on the grass to stare up at the stars. With you.”
She started to reach out to him, but Caleb turned and walked toward the door. She feared he would walk out, leave just as she did all those years ago, but instead he spun around and stared at her. There was no anger. There was merely a sadness that had haunted her despite the success she had obtained. Despite the millions she had made. Despite her dreams coming true.
“I think you’re romanticizing it a bit, Ash. You always wanted out of this town. And who could blame you? There was nothing here for you. Your parents were gone, your aunt was not the most loving… you had more talent than anyone around. You were always stifled here. Suffocated.”
“There was you!” Ashley cried out, aching to skim those fingers across his broad shoulders. He had always been the funny, sensitive one, always cute, but during high school, that cuteness had transformed as he worked out more and joined sports. He remained that boy with the great personality, but he also became one of the most attractive boys in school.
Caleb remained calm, even as Ashley yelled out, even as she started to cry. When she became quiet and still, he responded, “Me? I wasn’t enough to keep you here, Ash. I shouldn’t have tried to keep you here. You were never meant to stay in Clear Creek. I was lucky enough to have you for four years. That’s more than a lot of people get.”
“What are you talking about? We were still together when I left.”
“But were we? I think that first year was just a gradual dismantling of us. I mean… I heard from you every two weeks, if I was lucky.”
“I was busy!”
“I know,” he reassured softly. “You had to work at this dream. You worked so hard. I remember your voice when you did call. The frustration and fears that you wouldn’t make it. The exhaustion. That’s why I did my best not to interfere. But instead of us getting better, instead of finally finding time for me, you gained popularity. It didn’t take that long for you to shoot to the top.”
Ashley shook her head vehemently, swiping at the tears on her face. “No. I was still – we were still -”
“Ash. Stop. Let’s be honest with each other. You followed your dreams. I was part of the past. I no longer fit. That’s how life goes sometimes.”
“You never didn’t fit. I had to focus.”
“Yes. Yes, you did. You became a part of a life that I had no clue about. I tried calling that second year. I tried reaching you. Then I read about you and Marcus.”
“That was all for publicity. I know I should have warned you, but… they were telling me what to say and how to act. I had to cut contact with you for a while. And then, I just… was scared to call you. I was ashamed, because I’d promised to marry you, but I couldn’t… my fans wouldn’t want to come see some married performer from a small, hick town. That’s what my manager Jeff told me. But I never stopped loving you. I never forgot you.”
The first signs of anger since he had stepped into the room flashed in those eyes. “Stop blaming everyone and everything, Ashley! It is okay to get everything you dreamed of! It’s okay to be happy! Sure, you could have let go of everything here, me, in a better manner, but that’s life. I bet you were overwhelmed. I’m sure it was hard as hell and then to be boosted up as everyone’s favorite new singer.. .that has to be one hell of a head trip. But don’t stand here with those damn tears in your eyes and pretend you had nothing to do with any of this!”
She choked out a sob, hiding her heavily made up face in her hands before breathing deeply and looking up. Caleb deserved eye contact. And he was right. He deserved the truth. “Fine. I was overwhelmed. I was suddenly given everything I could want. Approval. Adoration. America loves me. When your own parents don’t love you enough to stick around. When your relatives barely tolerate you, to have these crowds chanting your name, these men chasing after you, it is so trippy. It is intoxicating. Yes!”
Caleb leaned back against the doorframe and nodded. “And there you go. So you love this. You are meant for this-”
“No! I thought it was what I wanted. But I’m miserable. This isn’t me. Having to dress up, having to watch what I say and do. Most of all, having to get through this life without you.”
“It’s just a matter of adjusting,” Caleb assured her softly. “This is a lot. But I saw you tonight. You were in your element. No one has a talent for performing like that and isn’t meant to do it. This is where you belong.”
“No. No, I made a mistake. I love you, Caleb! Please. I want to go back to being that young girl in love. I want to be that girl that was going to marry you. I’m so lonely.”
“Listen, we had our chance-”
“I’m sorry I hurt you!”
He hung his head. “I’ve forgiven you. Ash, that’s behind you now. This is your future. It’s a good future. One you always dreamed of when you were growing up. You did it. You got it. Honey, be proud.”
But she merely shook her head, tears flying. “No. I don’t want this. I want you.”
“You can’t return to this. No. There is no us anymore.”
“Oh yes, there is an us. I’ll make sure of it. I’m going to be with you.”
His face darkened as he studied her. “Ashley. Listen to me. No. You cannot be with me.”
“I can. I will. I promise you.”
“Don’t throw all this away. Don’t make this all for nothing. You’re not that girl anymore. There is no way to return to that. Please.”
But her mind was already made up.
Jeff walked briskly down the hall, slowing down when he realized the older couple was lagging. He threw a quick smile over his shoulder. “Ashley isn’t answering her phone, but she’s in the dressing room. She definitely won’t mind us stopping in. She is here because of you two. I mean… she’ll want to see you. Give her condolences. She’s been a wreck…”
The older woman nodded; her wet gaze focused ahead. “We appreciate this concert in Caleb’s name, in his memory. We know how close they were. Did you know they almost got married before she got the record deal?”
Jeff lifted his eyebrows in feigned interest. “Really?” It was a story he had heard a hundred times before. The poor lovestruck couple broken apart by fame. It was one he was not particularly fond of. It cheapened the hard work, the struggle of the upcoming star. What the hell was so wrong with following your dream, achieving that dream? Romanticize that past all you want, but Jeff found it hard to believe that two dumb kids from some hillbilly town wouldn’t have made it five years without divorce papers being brought in.
The older man cleared his throat. “It’s just a shame she never reached out to Caleb.”
“Hard to do while on the road,” Jeff answered in a fast, flat tone. This was the last thing Ashley needed. She was already a mess. He could not afford to lose this golden ticket. She was more of a moneymaker than any other client. And this perceived fairy tale was ruining it all.
He rounded the corner, no longer trying to slow down for the couple. With a quick knock as the only warning, Jeff opened the door to the dressing room and then stopped short.
“Quick,” he called out over his shoulder. “Call 911! NOW!”
But he knew just by looking at the still, gray body that Ashley was already gone, the spilled drink and overturned empty bottle of pills punctuating that ending.