2020 is the year of the Novella. If in 2019 I challenged myself to write 10 Short Stories; this new one, just starting, will bring – as a side project to The Whispers of the Graces – a novella, called Take Back Friday, which will be delivered regularly in your email and/or here on the website, for those who are not subscribed (yet) to the news.
A few words about this year’s challenge:
As last year I delved in essay writing and short stories, this year’s writing challenge will be to write a novella. I planned Take Back Friday as a puzzle, delivered in installments, one each month on the 15th.
It will appear here on the site, or in your email, if you subscribe, together with other lovely gifts. You can subscribe below to our mailing list.
Hope you will enjoy it and keep looking for it on the 15th of each month!
Take Back Friday, a Novella
Piece of the puzzle 1: Her
Questioning her sanity was one thing, but completely doubting it was another.
Thea unbuttons her coat and hands it to the young woman, taking a number in return. Stuffs the scarf in her bag and shivers when the café door open to let another batch of customers in.
The café – Mark’s Fourth Cup – is on a corner of an old street surrounded by independent, quaint shops, offering to the tired traveller a true oasis for the mind and soul. His coffee is exquisite, Marie’s baking – legendary, and their assortments of books in the back rooms – worth, alone, a visit.
Thea feels at home there. And she missed it terribly in the past year.
Zigzagging through the hordes of customers or just loiters taking cover from the storm, Thea makes her way back to the so-called “concert hall”. She knows she shouldn’t have come, but it is her only day in New York and she could have not passed the opportunity to say hello to her friends.
A poster is just put on display, announcing that evening’s Open-Mic event, and her heart skips a beat, making her wish she were somewhere else entirely. Especially that day.
“Loooove, you’re here!!”
A loud cheer erupts the moment she opens the doors, letting herself in, in the dim-lit room that passed for a “hall”. Comfy chairs and big couches were spread all around, pillows on the carpets and stained-coloured lamps were hanging from the ceiling. Pots of plants, artistically arranged everywhere, make Thea smile. Marie was good at many things, including baking, but her one true love – not including Mark there – were plants. As if summoned, Marie comes from the back room, wearing a “Plant Lady at work” apron and balancing two fern pots, so big and heavy, her eyebrows wiggle in concentration.
Up, on a ladder, changing a lightbulb, Mark – the owner of the earlier cheer, is eyeing her carefully.
“Need help, M.?”
“Um, nope. I’m all – Thea?? Thea, love, is that you? Oh my sweet Lord, Mark, look at her! Look at our sweet baby!! Mark, get down from there!”
Marie puts the plants on a table, without any ceremony and jumps Thea, entrapping her in her arms, jumping around, making Thea giggle and Mark laugh out loud.
“Baby? This ain’t no baby, my love…” says Mark getting down and hugging them both. “She is a best-selling author, whose works have been published in 40 plus languages, currently negotiating her series to become a TV show, and already writing her second best-selling series. Am I right? Tell me I am right!” he smiles at Thea, who nods, bowing her head.
“Oh, nothing of that humility of yours!” says Marie. “You have accomplished all that you have set up to and in half the time you planned for it. You, my friend, should be proud!”
“We are,” laughs Mark.
Hearing Thea making a non-committal noise, Marie says:
“Yes, we are. And we are so seriously proud, we will name our daughter after you. When that time will come,” she laughs, seeing her friend’s glance.
“You ladies sit down, I’ll go for coffee and croissants; and a towel for you, Missy, and then we’ll catch up. We have some time, so make yourselves comfortable. Oh, and please do not start without me!”
Just the thought of coffee makes Thea smile and blesses his idea. They sit on a couch, in the stage’s vicinity, under a canopy of ferns, ivy and wildflowers dangling from the shelves, holding hands and looking at one another, trying to see the differences an entire year can draw on people’s faces.
“Love what you did with the place,” says Thea, hugging her friend again. “I might use it again as a set for my next works…”
Marie laughs and hugs her back.
“Yes, do that, please! We had an influx of customers just based on your book release and his…”
Marie stops and looks at her.
Thea sees her friend’s face getting red, and she feels sorry for causing this distress to her. Even if they did not know what had happened the year before, they were so supportive, her heart is aching due to this unconditional love.
“I am happy to hear you’re getting business out of all that mess. Anyhow, tell me, what inspired this redecoration? Not that I miss the old furniture, to be honest…”
Marie smiles and looks around, her eyes filled with love.
“Well, you know I took your advice and made something out of my passion for plants and interior design. We’re getting more and more requests to do it, so Mark will have to take another person to help him here at the café, as I am my own woman with my own business.”
“Marie, that is great! I am so happy for you two!”
“How can you be happy,” asks Mark, coming with a tray filled with goodies, “she will leave me all alone and she will have more money than I do, so she will just buy that Hollywood mansion and move out!”
Marie giggles and elbows him, while Thea looks at them, trying to ignore how their love hurts her.
“I will never leave you, even when I become a multi-millionaire, darling!” Marie assures him.
Mark pours coffee in the cups, offers them to the ladies, and then starts to brag about his wife’s success, pride written all over his face.
On the comfy couch, surrounded by her friends’ palpable love, seeing their adoring faces, Thea starts to relax a bit. They wave all her worries away with each moment passing and she chastises herself for not coming back sooner. The coffee is strong and hot, and the splash of homemade oats milk – Mark’s signature – adds creaminess to it, making it almost silky. The croissants smell delicious, and she has two, before she is full, both in heart and body.
“This place is magical,” she whispers.
Mark nods, eyeing Marie talking to one of their helpers.
“And tonight is an Open-mic night?”
Mark nods again.
“Yeah, it was long due, to be honest. I kept receiving angry emails from people, both artists and customers, asking when the next one will be… so, here it is. Today of all days! Hope that is no inconvenience and you will stay.”
It is Thea’s turn to nod.
“I would not miss it.”
“We must move upstairs,” Marie says, returning to them, “they want to set-up the stage, so… there will be noise.”
“Awesome, I will check on my treats for tonight and you can use my office, I know you are itching to check your email…”
Thea laughs, feeling guilty. Her phone had incessantly beeping until she put it on silent.
“You go up, I’ll go also put the last plants and I’ll come to you shortly. Tonight will be great, I know it!”
Thea goes up, giggling when the stairs squeak, remembering the times she would sneak up to write when her inspiration hit and needed a safe space. And Mark’s café had been a safe space for all those years when she was an aspiring author. To her surprise, the upstairs did not change at all. Same old doors, same floors, even the same plants, a bit bigger than the year before. Mark’s office is lit only by a lamp, the same one, with a corner chipped, but turning the small room into an enchanted and magical place. Thea takes the office in, the smell of old leather, books, and coffee is there, engraved in her soul, and she has missed it. She has missed it terribly. During her self-imposed exile, she used to dream of being back in NY, and this was one of her places. Where she dreamed, where she hoped, where she planned and loved. Where she lost it all.
Sipping her coffee, Thea leans on the window. The lights are just lighting up in Central Park, and her heart sinks even more. The phone rings again, and Elaine’s number pops up on the screen. Probably asking for the pages she promised last week. Thea growls and turns the phone off, tossing it in the bag, unable to face the wrath of her Raphaelite-looking editor.
“Not today, Elaine, dear, please. Give me today.”
The door opens and Mark appears in its frame, a sheepish grin on his face.
“What d’you do?”
As her friend stiffs a giggle, Thea sighs. Mark and his ideas would be the death of her, one fine day.
“So, don’t be mad, okay? Remember, you love me. And remember you love Marie more…”
“Fine. I’ll do it.”
“You’ll do it? You don’t even know what I’m asking of you…”
“Yeah, I remember I love you, you twat! So, say it. What did that wicked mind of yours plan this time?”
Mark’s face lights up, and he drags her to the couch, laughing.
“So, remember when you promised you’ll do a reading here when published?”
“Aha,” says Thea, starting to see where he is getting to.
“Well, now, you’re published. You had readings all over the world, but never here. So, today is the day.”
Thea shakes her head. She is not prepared. She does not have the book with her, the one she used for all her reading, the first one printed, her good-luck charm. But most of all, she does not want to remember that promise. Her only broken promise. If she would not count…
“Come on, I’m losing hard right now!”
“What do you mean you’re losing hard, the downstairs looked packed! Oh, no… Mark, you didn’t!”
Her friend bursts into laughter and nods.
“Yep. I had Marie bet her anything on that I won’t convince you to do it.”
“Oh, an anything… well, that changes things.” Thea laughs. The anything in their bets could mean literally anything, and owing one to somebody, meant you never knew when it will come down and what will bring with. She remembers late-night snacks, baked while on a TC with editors; she remembers wearing a suit, a tie, and a hat, to pick Mark up at the airport; she remembers Marie only wearing short skirts for a whole month, and Mark shaving his chest while growing a moustache. Oh, the good old days… The laughs and the mischief… “Okay, I’ll do it!”
“Awesome,” he snickers. “I took the liberty to advertise it on Twitter before coming up. As a safety measure, in case the anything did not work.”
She lightly punches him in the arm and he hugs her. It is good to be able to laugh with her friends. Almost feels like home again.
“How much time do I have to prepare? And I suppose you stock my books, right? I do not have it with me…”
Mark nods and pulls out a copy, the one she sent them with a handwritten dedication. The third out of print.
“You have an hour to prepare, right before it starts. Well, consider this your own Open-mic.”
She smiles and takes the book. Mark leaves her, and she stays there, looking at the hard-covered edition, silky pages and full-colour inserts, her deluxe version, the only one that way, prepared for her friends; where she did not know how big the thing will be in only half a year, and how many reprints will be required or in how many languages. She opens the book to her favourite chapter, one that welcomed the reader into the magical world she created, without giving away any of the plots. She loves that scene in particular, and she had read it everywhere they asked her to, almost as a particularity of her readings, even after the other volumes came out.
“Oh, you….” Marie barges in carrying a ficus in her arms, all flustered and belligerent. “Your betrayal hurts!”
“Of course it does,” Thea laughs. “I remember how bad yours hurt. Do you?”
Marie bits her lips as if not to laugh and puts the plant on Mark’s desk.
“Yeah, I do. Well, they do say revenge is better served cold, so I guess after an entire year, this is freezing.”
Thea smiles as Marie sits down next to her. They both stay quiet for a moment before Marie says:
“You will read that scene, right? Ooh, how I love the atmosphere it conjures. You’re like magic!”
“Look who’s talking,” Thea says. “You, Miss Green Thumbs, are literally magical. It’s like woodland fairy blood runs through your veins. And don’t say I am not right.”
Marie raises her shoulders. Maybe she is a bit magical herself.
“So, when you’re ready, come downstairs. There might be a bit of a crowd, Mark has advertised it like crazy. I guess, he dreamt of this day for a long time now..”
Marie turns on her heels fast.
“For all that – this mess…”
Thea sighs and covers her face with her hands. For a moment it felt good to be back. Now she isn’t so sure.
“You have nothing to be sorry for. Listen to me, Thea… I mean it. Life happens even to the best of us. And that was an impossible choice. Quite a predicament, as Mark would put it. And sometimes we have to choose what is right for us.”
“Yes, but to that extent? All be damned?”
To her surprise, the peaceful and mellow Marie, nods with fury.
“When it comes to dreams, yes. You made the right choice. Look at where you are right now. If you would have stayed… you would be now a bitter old lady – yes, you are older than me with three months, so yeah, old… And the world would miss your magic. I would. Mark would, we all would!”
“Don’t sweat too much about the past, dear. It is meant to stay there. Learn from it all and move further. There is much more to life than to spend your days weighing on the what-ifs.”
“You’re a smart one, you know that, right?”
“Yeah, yeah… and still got played by you and that… buffoon downstairs.”
Marie leaves her laughing out loud, her spirits restored a bit. Her dreams mattered to her friends, and she is beyond grateful she has them in her life. And, in twenty minutes, she will make do on a promise of ancient times, even if only partial. And that is a gift to Mark and Marie, but also a gift for herself. Her dream involved giving a reading in that café.
She gathers her bearings and goes downstairs. Marie was not wrong, the entire café is packed, the “concert hall” unable to accommodate all the people. She smiles and waves at some, as she makes her way to the corner where her friends are.
“No room left for a needle. Hope you don’t have stage-fright.”
“Mark, that is the most insensitive thing to say,” Marie chastises him, while coming to greet her. “Wow, sure to put a foot in your mouth…”
“Well deserved,” Mark laughs. “She almost cost me that anything. Better start preparing, woman! It will be epic!”
Thea cannot help but smile. She missed them, their bickering, their challenges, their support, and the love that exuded through all their pores. If things would have been different, she would love to spend some time there, resting, clearing her head, putting the past where it belonged, before flying back home, to London.
The room starts to vibrate; they are impatient. Thea knows this feeling, she revells in it. She knows if she plays her cards well, they will subdue to her words, bend under them and get transposed into the magical realm of the Ancient Order. Her fantasy novel was meant to be published for young adults, but the older market was who responded better to the book. The market pols did not lie, and she is , to the day, still astonished.
“Hello, everybody, and thank you for coming on such short notice! I would love to welcome you all to tonight’s treat, the cherry on top of our Open-mic night, the reading we’ve all been waiting for…” Mark starts and the room erupts into cheers and applause, making Thea shiver with excitement. “With no further ado, I give you Miss Thea Hazel Marlow, author of – ”
“The Ancient Order!” yells a guy from the second row, clenching a book to his chest, as the whole room erupts in cheers once more.
“Yes, buddy,” laughs Mark. “The Ancient Order. So here it is, the treat of treats, with compliments from Mark’s Fourth Cup at the beginning of the New Year!”
Thea smiles and waves at them, trying to find her breath. It has been a long time since she last did this and every time she had time to prepare. Going in blind is not her idea of fun, and she hopes it does not show. She knows her emotions are written in caps all over her face, which is what got her into the whole mess those years ago. Swatting at the dark cloud looming over her head, she takes a deep, centring breath and opens her book. The room goes quiet. So quiet, Thea can hear her heartbeat in the ears and the pulse rushing under the skin. Her mouth feels dry and her cheeks are red for sure. She feels dizzy and her knuckles are bone white from that grabbing at the book. Maybe that is karma paying her back for all those times.
Marie shifts in the front row, distracting her, and she snaps out of her stupor. Smiling, she closes her eyes, gathering her courage, then, without another look in the room, starts reading. Soon, the magical world of Charlotte takes over her, and the heroine lives once again though her.
The applause last longer than before; the people gather around her, asking for autographs, for pictures, each telling a story, each sharing a feeling until Thea feels at peace and happier than ever. Mark and Marie are smiling, their faces lit up, holding hands nearby, and she waves at them.
As soon as the people settled down, the time for the Open-mic comes and they find themselves on a couch, sipping rum cocktails and laughing loud. The night is a success, and they are celebrating.
The first three bands are so good, the hall is filled, and the other rooms as well, even a long line is going outside, all around the block. Mark’s night is a success indeed.
During a break, Thea comes back to the room after helping Marie stack another pile of her books on display, carrying a bunch of them to the “concert hall”. She carefully avoids the leg of a tall guy who smiles at her, and turning fast to get away from him, she bumps into another, dropping the books on the ground with a thud. Giggling, she apologises and drops to her knees to collect them before they are trampled by the crowds.
The man in the collision gets to his knees as well and starts piling the books. When she lifts her head, she swears hard. Her breath gets raspy and her heart starts beating fast. She has the satisfaction to see his jaw clench and his shoulder become rigid when he realises who she is. Inside, she is exhilarated to see she still has an effect on him. The great Hayden Acker Hastings. The great as in the great bane of her existence.
They both get up at the same time, both with arms filled with books. He drops his load into her arms, his eyes hypnotising her, and she feels the need to say everything that is crossing her mind, seeing that ironic smile flourishing on his face.
Mark comes out of thin air at her side, and Hayden, taking another look at her, disappears in the crowd. Mark takes her by the elbow, manoeuvring her to the couch, not before taking the books from her hands and putting them, unceremoniously, on an empty chair.
“I’m sorry, kid! I had no freaking idea! I swear to you on whatever holy I have in this world. My message must have gotten to him as well. I am sorry.”
Thea smiles, a reassuring smile she has perfected ever since, and sits down next to Marie.
“What happened… ooh, no, he didn’t!”
Both Thea and Mark watch astonished as Hayden gets up on stage, the people exploding the moment they see him.
“Happy New Year, friends!!”
“Happy New Year, Hayden!!” the room shouts back.
Thea feels the surge of electricity sparkling around the room, and her heart stops beating. She needs to get out of there, but the room is compact, both exits blocked, and people keep coming in from all directions. She is trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be. In a room with him.
“Mark, get on that stage and ask him to leave at once!” Marie demands, more out of loyalty to Thea than anything else. She is as certain as them both that would be an impossible task. Hayden is there, the band is setting up the equipment, and they are all in the lowest level of hell imaginable. “How did we not see this?”
Mark raises his shoulders and stays gape-mouthed next to them.
“Come on, friend, we need you!” Hayden says from the stage and Mark, dumbfounded, goes up in the room’s applause. “Good, good, now that we’re all here,” Hayden says, as the room grew even louder, “under the same roof, as many, many moons ago, how about we sing a bit for you? Would you like that?”
If Thea thought the room was loud before, at this point there is a storm brewing. All set in motion by Mister Hurricane himself, the legendary soloist, pianist and guitarist of the Multi-platinum, Grammy-awarded band, called Take Back Friday. Their first album had been an overnight success, turning them all into legends, topping all their individual success by a dozen. Not that they were unsuccessful before the band. Just that after, they have been unstoppable.
“Okay, okay, we wanted to surprise you for a while now, and tonight is the night for all of us to celebrate Take Back Friday’s first album drop, three years ago, and all the wonderful things that came from that night. Many, many things have happened since, and we’d like to celebrate them all with you!”
Thea’s teeth are grinding, her eyes fixed on him. Why is it that everything he said had two meanings, and he meant the bad ones only for her? Marie is crushing her hand. She feels the blood stop flowing. She tries to breathe, only to find the claw in her chest squeezing harder than Marie. Lightheaded, she hears Hayden introducing his band members, thanking Mark for organising such an amazing event, and she wonders if he means her reading or something else, but then he takes his guitar and her mind stops thinking. Hayden closes his eyes, and she feels a surge of emotion going around the room, silencing it to the point where she can hear her heartbeat again.
The first chords bring her back years ago, in the same room, and she hears Marie gasp next to her.
He plays New York is a State of Mind, and Thea swallows hard, biting her lip, trying not to sing along with the crowd. By the time Hayden comes to the chorus, the room is loud enough that she cannot hear him anymore. Mark is glancing at them from his place at the drums, but Thea cannot look away from Hayden.
“So, how did you like that?” Hayden asks a room of claps and stomps that makes the old building shiver. “Good, good! We will play you something more mellow now, from our second album and, please, sing along. Do not be shy, I know you know the lyrics!”
Flight of the Dreamer comes along, and his voice is pure silk. Accompanied only by his guitar, Hayden is on a roll. To her dismay, so is Marie. Mark was already under the spell of the music, and Marie is following him. She loses her last ally the moment Hayden plays Marie’s favourite. This Love is Deep but it’s Hot, the song Mark wrote when he proposed, and the one they danced at their wedding.
After a couple more songs from their oldest album, Hayden asks for a break. To her disbelief, Thea sees him coming to their table, Mark on his heels.
Thea feels worse than ever. She knows she cost them their friendship; she is more heartbroken for that than for her own loss. That was the reason she stayed away all that time, hoping that her exile would make things easier for her friends. But, by the looks of it, it didn’t.
Marie looks at Hayden with such anger; Thea wants to put herself in the middle, even if she knew that would only make things worse.
“So, can I have a drink? What are you drinking? Bring them another round and put it on my account. I think I still have some credit left…”
“Thanks,” says Marie, “but I am good.”
Thea wants the earth to swallow her whole and to dissolve into nothingness. She curses herself, her ideas, her hopes for peace, for forgiveness, for it all.
“I am actually leaving.”
Hayden’s eyebrow shoot up, a smirk lifting the corners of his lips. She believes he is punishing her, and for sure he is.
“Not before the grand finale, I believe. Anyway, I don’t see how you’ll do that…”
He takes his drink and gulps it down. His eyes are shiny and full of promises. Not a good omen. Nothing that she can escape from.
In two steps, he is on the stage again. A bunch of admirers get right close to him, and he is all smiles and charms, making Thea’s stomach turn to knots.
“I’m sorry,” whispers Mark again, before going up.
Mark’s words are lost on her, as Hayden has her whole attention. From up there, all god-like, with those angelic features and jaguar-like movements, Hayden has the whole room trapped.
When he starts playing War, Thea’s heart breaks once more.
“Oh, Thea love…”
Marie’s prayer is in vain, he is playing it. The song he wrote for her, the multi-awarded song, the song of a generation as critics called it, her song.
Hayden looks her right in her eyes when he sings the chorus, making her raw wounds bleed again.
“Whose war is this? I think I know. Its anger came all deep and raw. The heart that screamed we made mistakes And from the dream, the hurt awakes This is a beautiful war Just like we were… And the tormented souls don’t sleep. Revenge is all their hearts can keep.”
Thea cannot stop herself from singing along, his eyes boring into her soul, piercing all her barriers, burning it all down, hot anger building inside her.
Yes, they were at war and, yes; he was winning.
Take Back Friday, a Novella
Piece of the puzzle 2: His fans
Thea does not question her sanity anymore. She was clearly insane to think that coming to his city would ever be a good idea. And how on Earth did she not see that coming when Mark advertised her reading?
The air is heavy around her, making it harder to breathe; and the sea of faces around her gets things out of focus. A thrill spikes in her bones and she shivers. This is not the time. Not the time at all. The outside war she can deal with. Eventually. But this new development, growing inside her chest, crawling inside her soul, darkening her mind is not something she can deal with. Bitter tears fill up her eyes, and she blinks faster, trying to keep them down.
Breathe in for four, hold for seven…
She curses under her already raspy breath, swallowing hard, finding the throat closing in, little wisps of air choking her.
She stands up and, using the movement of the crowd towards the stage, exits through the service door, leading backstage and to the stairs. Here is the old part of the library, the one with the original shelves and musty smell, the one with creaky floors, the one which now is kept private to Mark and Marie. The noises coming from the hall are muffled through the double doors, but still loud, too loud for her to calm down.
His fans are wild tonight, she thinks. His fans are always wild, another heavy thought comes, whisking the first one away.
The air is hot as if someone forgot to open the furnace door, and all the heat is trapped around her. Wiping her forehead, she finds it damp with cold sweat, her body’s reaction to the night’s events.
Breathe in for four…
For how long is she supposed to hold it?
Thea closes her eyes and grabs the rail before using her other hand to clap around her heart, willing it to go slower. To her dismay, her own body is not listening and goes even deeper into despair’s black hole.
In the concert hall, the ovations are loud, almost as loud as the heart-beat drumming in her ears. The new wave of pain kneels her, and she lets go of the bannister to clap her chest with both hands.
Is this what a heart attack feels like? She is too young to have one! Is she though? Recent studies show a decrease of the age for coronary heart diseases, so perhaps she is one good candidate. Maybe she should have been more active, keep up with the yoga classes and with her running group, not hide behind her writing. Maybe she should have been eating healthier and skipped a coffee or two… Recent studies have linked coffee consumption to coronary diseases. But was it a good connection or a bad one? She cannot remember. Although she should. She had researched it for her future novel. Why can’t she remember?
This is not a heart attack. Is something else, something that has been looming over her head ever since she booked her trip to New York. Ever since she opened the webpage of the airline and typed in her destination.
This was a bad idea. A bad idea!
“A terrible idea, Thea…”
Her voice is unrecognizable; rasp and harsh, as the leaves sound in autumn when they fall from the trees.
Whatever it is, it is killing her and, by the time the concert will be over and her friends will look for her, it will be too late. She wants to shout; she wants to grab her phone, but her hands refuse to let go of her heart, and she is clasping her chest tighter and tighter as if to lower the noise of her heart. To no avail. A gasp escapes her dried up lips, and she closes her eyes.
That was not her voice, she may one day not recognize her voice, but that? That is the sound of her dreams, of her nightmares altogether.
She feels a pair of sturdy arms grabbing her, making her wince.
“Look at me.”
Such simple instructions, such little words. She knows she has to open her eyes, but she finds herself incapable of movement.
Ah, the way he whispers her name! There is so much power in a name. Such a deep connection between the lips of the speaker and the ears of the listener that intertwines their souls.
“Hayden, Thea, oh my God!”
That is yet another voice Thea can recognize, not as powerful as the first one, but powerful enough.
“Come one, open your eyes and look at me.”
Hayden’s voice booms again in her ears and she can feel his warm breath on her cheek. His smell is clouding her senses even more, in a comforting way.
“You’re having an anxiety attack. Please look at me.”
His hands are cold and she can feel the indentation of the guitar’s chords on his fingers, and that small detail – so real, so raw, and tied to such strong emotion – makes Thea open her eyes. In front of her, kneeling down to her level, she finds him. His familiar look, that frown on his usually serene face, his lips, his dark blue eyes…
“Good, good. Now, breathe in with me. In for four, one-two-three-four… Come on. Do it with me. One-two-three-four. Good, now keep it for seven, and out with it for eight. Excellent. Again.”
As Thea seems to find her breath again, her mind remembers the other times when he brought her back to reality – to him mostly – with his words and small caresses. Tears well up again, and she shakes her head, closing her eyes.
A growl escapes Hayden’s throat and she can almost see in her mind the way his body tenses. When he grabs her arms, pulling her in, she knows he is not going to let her drown again into the darkness.
“You should know better than to run and hide when you’re having an attack.”
“Shut up, Hayden!”
Marie’s voice makes Thea want to rise and hug her, but he holds her arms still and he will not let go easily. By the look on his face, not this time, no.
The concert hall’s doors open again and a loud cheer fills the room. Hayden’s hold gets possessive and without a sound he stands up, pulling Thea with him as if she is weightless as a feather. The commotion makes her friends round around them and she remembers the KOL concert in the desert, where… Hayden’s perfume is confusing her mind by bringing back memories she had buried for so long, and which are more than eager to resurface once more.
She hears him sigh and knows it is the end of their moment. And, no sooner than she thinks it, he lets go of her arms and turns his back on her. Marie appears at her side, Mark on the other, both worried, as if they are scared she will vanish into thin air. She hated that worried look, copied and pasted on both their faces, she hated that look. Hayden never had it. He had been worried, he had been tense, but not for a moment had he been scared. Thea shakes her head of her unkind thoughts. She cannot expect all people to be Hayden. One in their world is enough. Perhaps not for the group of ladies that just came in with, but for her, one Hayden is more than she wants to have to deal with.
Irwing, the band’s manager, a guy in his fifties comes along, takes one good look at her and turns to Hayden with all the accusations in his stare. To the man’s utter despisement, Hayden does not move from Thea’s proximity, only gets closer.
“Hayden, that was a magnificent show, my boy!” says the newcomer, clasping his shoulder, even if he has to adjust his stance to reach it. “Magnificent! What a treat! And what a PR stunt you pulled! The media is in an uproar! Our sales are up by 5% from an hour ago! Your album will reach the sky, it will be phenomenal!”
“Yes, Hayden,” says one girl, touching his arm, “it was absolutely breathtaking. I have never seen a show of yours so… electric! You always manage to surprise us, to enchant us..”
Hayden releases his shoulder from Irwing’s grasp and his arm from the unrequited attention and steps sideways to check on Thea. To his delight, colour has returned to her cheeks and her breath is regular and deep now. Seeing that, his own breath comes back to normal, and he finds it in himself to smile at the groupies. He nods and shakes hands with them. But when Irwing pushes for photos, he shakes his head. His fans are wild tonight and he is totally unsympathetic.
“I’m not in the mood for selfies,” he growls.
“Ladies, ladies!!” Pete – the band’s bass player – comes in between an enraged Hayden and the girls, a huge smile on his face, and poses for the cameras. “How are you doing this fine night? Happy New Year!!”
“Could we get a group photo?” insists Irwing, pushing Hayden from Thea’s side. “Come on, Hayden, my boy, you made history tonight.”
“Yes, Hayden, please… And is there an afterparty to go to?” begs a doe-eyed beauty, grabbing his arm. On the other hand, the CD with the flames shines bright.
Thea knows that CD. She bought it the day it came out, she listened to it incessantly for the whole week. That damn CD is the main reason she is in this predicament, the reason she flew over the pond to check on them all. His hurt is well written, well sung, well-drawn on that album. From the first song, Burning Hot/Deep Crimson Day, she felt his anger. The next songs were tinged with agony. But on top of it all, sits his rage. No complaints, no sorrow, no melancholy. Pure rage.
She remembers being in her London apartment, on the Thames’ shores, watching the sunset and listening to his album on repeat. It felt painful. It felt raw. It was so good, the entire world shook. And it got Hayden another tour proposal and a few more movie deals.
The giggles of the girls make Thea snap back to the present moment. Her heart feels heavy somehow as if the universe is leaning on it. Hayden is all smiles and flirts, so the ladies are in seventh heaven. Marie grumbles behind her, and Thea struggles to tune her out. She cannot deal with her friend’s mean words. After all, Hayden is free to do whatever. Isn’t he?
When Jake, the last band member, comes in, another wave of fans follow-through, making Mark chastise himself for not considering a bigger security detail for that night. But then again, he never knew the heights of trouble that night would bring. Take Back Friday’s fans are all over the place. Only seeing Jonathan appear, ends his worrying. Hayden did not come alone. His own bodyguards are there and Mark can rest assured they cleared the exits. That way he can go back to the stage to continue the Open-mic night if the other singers will still be up to and for them to retreat to safety.
“Go,” says Marie, knowing his thoughts. “I’ll take Thea up; Hayden can fend for himself.”
Thea hears Hayden snicker and feels the tension building between her friends again; making her wish she were somewhere else.
“Wait,” Hayden says to Thea. “You were here first, perhaps you want a photo to commemorate this day too. Maybe you’ll put it on that website of yours… it will attract readers.”
Thea feels shrinking at his snide, but when the girls question who she is, she feels the need to run. And fast.
“Oh, she is Thea Ha–”, says Hayden, but stops himself short when his manager clears his throat. “Thea Hazel Marlow, a big fan! She’s the author of the Ancient Order, You know, the one based on the Arthurian legends… You read it? It is, after all, a best seller…”
“No,” says one of the girls looking down on Thea, as if she just saw her there. “I only read non-fiction.”
“Well, you should,” says Marie. “You’re missing out. And, as Miss Marlow’s PR, she does not have time for photos and signings anymore. But she invites you to grab a copy of her books from downstairs if there’s any left, and she promises to have it signed for you, Mr Hastings; for you and for your adoring fangirls, of course.”
While Marie pushes her up the stairs, Thea catches a smile from Jonathan, the head of Hayden’s security team, and she feels a pang in her heart. Jonathan always cared for her, always kept her safe and delivered her to Hayden in one piece. Jonathan was in charge of her security, and she knows Hayden gave him hell for what happened that day. She smiles back apologetically, but Jonathan waves her worries away. He does not hold grudges; he is too kind and too lovely to do it, despite his profession.
“Hayden, would you sign my CD?”
“Please sign my t-shirt,” says another, while Thea takes another step, to the attic, with Marie on her tail.
“Jake, could we take a selfie with you and Hayden?”
“Yes, yes!! Can we do it?”
“You’re the best, Hayden!!”
The chorus of fans’ requests and enchanted gasps follow them up to the living room. Marie closes the door and puts her back to it, as if trying to keep it all down, away from her.
“I haven’t seen Hayden in a year! Not since that night. I avoided him like the plague. I should have known he would pull such a shitty trick on all of us… Oh, and those girls… ah, that, that is everything I hate in this business. And yes, I am a big fan of many bands and authors and people, but really? Grabbing and pushing and batting eyelashes? Come on… ”
Thea sits on a chair, hands in her hair. She knew they were not speaking to one another, but she did not know the depth of their grudge. Not until that moment. She also knows Marie’s annoyance with the groupies. They have looked down on her well before she married Mark.
“Are you okay? Can I get you anything?”
“No, please, sit down. Get away from the door, Marie… he will not come upstairs. And even if he will, you cannot shoulder that door all night.”
Marie giggles, hearing her. She knows Thea is right, and she knows her actions are ridiculous, but her anger hurts. She does not understand, although, how Thea is not livid after all that. Calling her a fan… She sits on the sofa, her skirt riding up to her knees. Pulling a pillow to her chest, Marie closes her eyes and whispers:
“I am sorry.”
Thea growls. “You’re not to blame. He is not to blame! Nobody is to blame but me.”
“Now, come on… If he wouldn’t be this… this…. This ridiculously stubborn, all our lives would be waaaay better.”
Thea frowns. She knows he is stubborn. She knows he is proud. She knows all his flaws, and he knows hers. But seeing him on that stage, up there… singing his heart out, for a fleeting moment she forgot it all and got lost in the what-ifs. And that hurt like hell.
“And this new album of his… Oh, yes, it is his. He wrote every single song in there, he composed the music, it could have been Hayden Hasting’s successful, out-of-the-charts solo album, if he would have wanted it. And, mind me, he did not do it out of magnanimity, but out of wanting to control the band. Mr Stubborn Man himself wanted to drag all of us in this deep pit of angst and terror, he is in. To stay in control. To have us all in this war of his…”
The doors open and Hayden, Mark, Pete, Jake, and Jonathan all come in. No groupies, though.
“By all means, lovely Marie, don’t stop on my account. Go on…”
Marie scowls and turns her face to the window, ignoring his presence. Thea tenses and sits up straight in her chair, suddenly aware of her entire composure. When she was in high school, she had a teacher who demanded they all sit up straight and act ladylike, and that same feeling she gets now. She knows she is being watched by all those pairs of eyes, and she feels heat coming to her cheeks.
“You were saying something about the band’s new album, right? An overnight success, if I remember correctly. The third one in a row, but this one has something special in it, doesn’t it? Is autobiographical, right? It contains Hayden Acker Hasting’s own war… Come on, Marie, you were never one to run away from a fight.”
“I have no interest in fighting with you, Hayden.”
Thea’s request is a whisper but has the impact of a hurricane. Hayden stops dead in his tracks and turns to face her.
Well, that was a mistake, thinks Thea, feeling herself shrink.
He corners her. His body is right in her face, obscuring the others. A smile is plastered on his face, one of those grins she has learned to hate, a raw and joyless smile that transforms his face into a mask.
“Please what, Thea? Enlighten me… Please?”
“I know you’re hurt–”
“Really? How so? Have you asked me? Have you answered any of my calls? Letters? Email? How so?”
Thea is on the verge of tears again. She lifts her face to see him, to draw energy from his rage, but his face is depleted. His body is solid as a rock, his face hidden under a mask, there is nothing but darkness. Nothing to feed her anger, but everything to scare her into silence again.
“I’ve listened to it, Hayden.”
Saying his name hurt. She did not know it could hurt like that. Yes, names had powerful magic. He bent under its weight; she got goosebumps.
“And you liked it? Thank you for buying it. Fans like you make it all, all of it, the pain, the solitude, the burn and the misery, all worth it.”
That sarcasm draws Mark out of his stupor, and Thea sees him coming closer.
“Do you want a photo with us? I promise to smile…”
“Hayden, that’s enough!”
“No, actually it is not. I am just starting.” Hayden pivots to see his friends, and somehow he reduces them to silence with the look on his face. He hates that he has this power over them, but today he will use it.”
“I will go,” says Thea while getting up.
“That’s new….” Hayden says facing her. “Things have changed, haven’t they? You don’t ask for your friends’ help this time…”
Jonathan scowls hearing this and Thea looks up right then, to see his face frown and darken. If possible, at that moment, she hates herself even more.
“Come on, Hayden, stop it.”
Jonathan’s plea for peace only gets Hyden riled up again. Thea can feel his anger building inside him, but for her it is too late, she does not wish to face him anymore, deep sadness subdues her whole anger. All she wants right now is to go back to the hotel, pick up her things and leave for the airport.
“I should have fired you that night. I should have fired all of you that night.”
“Hayden, back off, and leave Thea alone.”
“You back off, Jake!” barks Hayden. “She’s more than capable of speaking her own mind. She does not need you to become Prince Charming and save her.”
“No, for that role she has you, right, H.? You’re the only Prince Charming allowed in Thea’s life… Is that right?”
Turning to Jake again, Hayden hears Thea say:
“I’m so sorry, guys, for all this. I’m going. Please forgive me. This was a mistake.”
Blocking her exit, Hayden says:
“You’re not going anywhere until Jonathan clears the groupies from outside. They’re quite wild tonight.
“They’ve always been wild, Hayden! That was one of the problems.”
Marie’s input only brings more tension to both Thea and Hayden, and memories flood both their heads at the same moment.
Hayden is the first one to shake them off.
“We’re all due for a chat, aren’t we? I think we’re long overdue… “
Thea bows her head, feeling his pain, and her heart stops when he says:
“ So, Thea, why?”
Take Back Friday, a Novella
Piece of the puzzle 3: Jacob
It is not a question of sanity now. That is long gone.
They’re all insane at this point.
After Hayden’s question, hell broke loose. Jacob was the first one to get lit. His face was painted with anger and, when he came to sit with Thea, Hayden went mad.
That has always been the problem. Hayden, Jacob, and their mutual need to protect Thea. From the other.
Or from themselves.
Chaos always ensues when they’re all three in a room. A thing which Thea is usually trying to avoid at all costs.
Not that she can do that now.
“Would you stop meddling, Jake?”
“Would you just get down from that mighty horse of yours, Hayden?”
“Well, at least I have a horse-”
Thea bites her lips. The sound that just escaped them is inappropriate. So inappropriate she wishes she could take it back.
She can not look at Hayden, who stopped mid-sentence to stare at her.
“You find that funny, Thea? Please, tell me how is that funny…”
Thea bites her lips again. She tries not to make eye contact with anyone in that room, but she finds Jake’s eyes, and in them, she sees the same twinkly laughter she knows it sparkles in hers as well. When he shakes his head, as to stop her, she just cannot hold it anymore and bursts into laughter.
Tears well up in her eyes, while she doubles down in laughter, so weird, so out of place, she wishes to stop. She wishes it so badly that the wish brings another fit of laughter, and another one, and another one, until Jake joins her. They both laugh like insane people in a room where all the others stare at them with incredulous looks in their eyes.
“Stop it now, you sound like lunatics…” Marie whispers, to no avail. The two of them are out of breath now, and try to find places to sit, so they won’t fall.
“Thea. Stop. It.”
Hayden’s words have the power of a cold shower. With a gasp for air, Thea regains her sobriety and stands up. She feels again like she is in the middle grade and the nuns are chastising her for giggling.
Her and Jacob. Thea Hazel Marlow and Jacob Finn Osmond. The Twins, as everyone called them back in the days. The Tricksters. The Wild Ones.
How things have changed… Not for Jacob, though… Thea thinks. But for her. She has changed. She somehow became this kind of a precious wallflower, looking at the others living their lives, keeping her wishes silent, making herself smaller and more transparent every day.
Oh, how she loathed herself when she realised what she was doing. When she allowed herself to feel again.
And Jacob? She was living his life unapologetically. As free as a bird. Not caring for anything but the wind beneath him, raising him higher and higher, wilder and freer, more a mythological creature than a human.
“Oh, you never had a sense of humour, Hayden,” spits Jacob through his teeth, grabbing Thea’s hand and dragging her down to the couch next to him.
“Not your sense of humour, you mean…” responds Hayden.
“No, not our sense of humour.”
Jacob’s words hit their mark and Hayden’s anger boils again. The moment of respite is long gone and they are at each other’s throats yet again.
“You have something to say, say it, Jacob. What, you think I don’t know you And Thea have a past? Way before we met? Is that what you mean? Say it. Say it out loud. Now that we are putting the cards on the table, how about we be honest with one another?”
Thea tenses next to Jacob as much as he seems to relax.
“I got nothing to say. You seem to do a better job speaking my mind than I do. Everybody’s mind… But hey, you always did, right?”
“Jake, please, no.”
“Oh, come on, kid… he wants to argue. Let’s give it a go. We’ve been walking on eggshells around him for far too long.”
Saying that, Jacob raises to his feet, facing Hayden.
“You want a fight?”
That is not quite a question coming from Hayden’s lips. Is an invitation. An open invite to a long time feud.
“Say I do.”
“You guys…” pleads Marie coming closer to them, while Mark and Pete also gather round.
“Stay out of this, Marie, this is between Jake here and me.”
When the first punch flies, Thea jumps to her feet, grabbing Jacob’s arm, and positions herself with the back to Hayden. She can almost feel his heat coming from his thin shirt, a warmth she is welcoming for a split of a second. The hurt in Jacob’s eyes makes her sigh out loud and say:
“You will both stop now. We’re all friends here, and we will solve this like adults.”
Her words are cutting the tension in half, but the power match is far from over. Hayden’s hand brushes her shoulder while raising a finger towards Jacob, who’s arm is still in Thea’s grip.
“Just name the time and the place.”
“I will, don’t worry.”
Thea shakes her head and pushes Hayden back with her body, welcoming this closeness. Only then she releases Jacob’s arm.
“You were always quick, you little cobra,” Jacob smiles, massaging his forearm. “Not to mention always protecting this jerk.”
“Hey, this jerk is your best-friend,” says Mark, finally being able to breathe again.
“Was.” both Hayden and Jacob say at the same time.
Thea giggles again. Jacob smiles. Hayden only frowns deeper.
For Thea feels good to see Jacob again, and to see that, despite it all, their friendship and their camaraderie is still there. She is content to hear him laugh again. When Hayden appeared in their lives, their dynamic had changed. There were no longer Thea and Jake, the terrible duo, but Thea and Hayden and Jake and Hayden. Never the three, never the original two.
“I am glad you’re back home, kid!”
“Is she though?” says Hayden, bitter poison on his lips. “Doesn’t look like it… And for sure it doesn’t feel like it.”
Five pairs of eyes look at Thea at the same moment. She doesn’t even know what to say to that; she doesn’t even know what she could answer to their silent questions.
Is she back? Does she want to be back? Is that home anymore?