31: Hello Cruel World

Rima had told Hunter all about gifting Philip with her drug stash on the way out the door. Hunter thought the idea was deliciously, wickedly brilliant. But then Phillip Hines had turned over Rima’s drug stash to Ginny Dolman. And Ginny had in turn relinquished the drugs to the police. She’d done that anonymously, bless her goody-two-shoes little heart.

But then she’d taken it upon herself to helpfully inform Rima’s father about Rima’s possible problem.

To say that Rima’s father had been angry would be an understatement.

“This is the sort of behavior your mother warned me about. This is the sort of behavior I warned you I wouldn’t stand for.”

He hadn’t been just blowing smoke out his ass.

Which was how Hunter and Rima ended up roommates.

“This place is one fumigation away from falling in on itself. You can’t seriously want to live here?”

“No. I wanted to live at your rich dad’s place. But you screwed that up for us.”

“You’d be on the streets if not for me. Where is your gratitude?”

“Fuck gratitude. And you know what?”

Hunter paused for a breath before adding:

“Fuck Ginny Dolman. I can’t believe that bitch ratted you out. What are we, in middle school?”

The “new” apartment was unfurnished. It did, however, come pre-decorated.

Hunter helped Rima haul luggage up the stairs—because unlike Hunter, Rima had more belongings than would fit in a backpack/guitar case combo. The building’s elevator wasn’t working, so they hauled everything up the stairs. As Hunter was finishing the final trip and realizing that she hadn’t actually witnessed Rima carrying anything personally, Rima glanced out the window and let out a snarl.

Hunter dropped Rima’s suitcases and followed her roomie down the stairs. She caught up just in time to hear the tail end of the threat-laced tongue-lashing Rima was delivering to a startled Ginny, who was apparently in the city visiting a friend and had haplessly wandered past the building.

After Ginny warned Rima to back off and then departed, Hunter and Rima took a stroll around their new neighborhood. With no cash to speak of and not even a lowly jar of peanut butter in their cupboard, Hunter taught Rima how to steal food from under the noses of distracted tourists.

Rima taught Hunter how to use chopsticks.

They made a new friend. Sort of. They didn’t steal his food, anyhow.

They made an attempt to earn a few bucks busking in the square, but it didn’t go well.

Hunter took the smaller of the two bedrooms in the apartment. As if Rima and her space-hogging suitcases left any other options.

“You know, we should look into finding jobs,” Hunter suggested. Rima scoffed at the idea.

Upon confronting Hunter’s idea of cooking, Rima made a difficult about-face.

“Ugh. Fine. Maybe it is time to get a job.”

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30: Carpe Diem

29: High On The Music

Ginny threw a small reception for the winners and their families. Which turned out to be Lani’s sister and Jeremy’s parents, along with his aunt and uncle. When Ginny asked Patrice who to invite, Patrice only smiled vaguely and replied that there was no one in the area she cared to ask.

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Ginny addresses the studio’s guests.

Then, with the competition behind them and a whole lot of goals stretching in front of them, they set to work. Ginny scraped together her cash, cut some salvage discount deals, and managed to get basic exterior renovations completed before the planning commission’s deadline.

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Once the contractors who dug up the crumbling concrete, reseeded the grass and tore down the chain link fence were out of the way, Ginny worked on some additional cosmetic improvements.

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In the meantime, Phillip and the newly-minted band pretty much locked themselves in the studio all day. With some helpful direction and suggestions from Phillip—and sometimes Ginny—the band concentrated on writing songs and experimenting with their sound, searching for their identity as a musical group.

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Phillip did his best to put on a good front. No one brought up the night Rima had exposed his drinking problem. No one mentioned it at all. If anyone had been a drinker before they moved into Dolman Music, they’d left it behind when they moved in.

Or they’re as good at hiding it as I was.

Ginny didn’t bring up the topic, either. She did, however, leave flyers for recovery meetings on Phillip’s bed. And when he needed to take time away from work to attend, she made sure he took it.

Behind a façade of positivity, Phillip struggled to keep it together. Inside the warehouse, it was easier. He threw himself into the process of making music, aiding with the as-yet-unnamed band’s journey to finding their groove and putting in countless hours on producing the songs they wrote. And he slept. A lot, in sharp contrast to the insomnia that had initially haunted him. But no matter how much he slept, he still felt deeply exhausted.

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He wondered, sometimes—maybe often—what Ginny had done with the drugs Rima had left behind. But he very carefully never asked. And when he went to meetings or out for any kind of errands at all, he carefully planned his route to avoid any places that might tempt him.

Some of the best moments were when he and Ginny sat at the kitchen table and discussed business strategies.

“We have a few tracks that sound good. Really good,” Phillip assured Ginny. “I have high hopes for them.”

Hope. There was a funny word.

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Then Phillip glanced at the papers spread across the table in front of Ginny. With the warehouse’s exterior cleaned up and some official signage in place, the planning commission was off their back, but Ginny always had some project or another going.

The papers were sketches, Phillip realized. Floor plans. He frowned.

“We’re not exactly flush yet.” He nodded toward Ginny’s sketches. “Do we have money for that?”

“I was able to secure some loans.” She said the word like it was no big deal. Maybe for someone who grew up with money, not to mention a business degree, it wasn’t.

It was to Phillip. “Is that a good idea?”

Ginny looked up and smiled. Those shining eyes of hers struck him silent. “I have faith in you, Phillip. And in our little band. Have they decided on a name yet?”

“No.” He let Ginny change the subject, half-listening as she talked about a better separation of business and living spaces. Not to mention better living spaces, period.

But what he kept hearing was, “I have faith in you, Phillip.”

No pressure, Phillip.

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28: Bored To Death

Dustin settled back into his old routine without much trouble. He played a little guitar.

Watched TV and ate a lot of chips. Except when his mother informed him if he wasn’t doing anything else productive, he could at the very least keep an eye on his baby brother, Milo.

When he had the chance, he hung out with his buddies. Well, what was left of them. Which was mostly Dario, since everyone else had long ago moved on. Even Dario talked about getting out of the old neighborhood. “We’re not in high school anymore, you know? Maybe growing up wouldn’t be such a bad deal.”

And of course, he took in as many concerts as he could nab tickets for.

“Wow,” a girl Dustin talked to at one show remarked, as Dustin filled her in on some little-known tidbits about the band currently on stage. “You sure know a lot about music. Too bad you don’t actually play, right?” Dustin tried to explain that actually, he did play. But she was too caught up in watching the guys currently on the stage to listen.

After he got home from the show that night, Dustin ran into his dad in the hallway. Maybe some of the weird, itching discontent Dustin was feeling showed on his face. Maybe his dad had been preparing his little speech for a while and finally found the perfect time to deliver it.

“Son, you have to find something to do with your life. Something that lights you up and makes you eager to jump out of bed in the morning. You have this dreamy-headed idea that if you wait around, your ‘destiny’ will come to you. But you can’t wait. You have to take action. You have to go out and find it for yourself.”

Dad slapped him on the shoulder.

“I know you had your heart set on music, Dustin. But if you can’t cut it as a musician, then pick something else.” Dad hesitated before adding, “Something that pays would be a good start. I love you, son, but you need to start pulling your own weight.”

Dustin decided to sleep on it.

Marcus wasted no time on diving back into his usual lifestyle. During the day, he filled the spare bedroom of his grandparents’ retirement pad with music.

At night he went out… Partying with the boys.

Romancing a cute little redhead.

Chatting up a brunette at the bar when the redhead went to the restroom.

By nine, he’d collected the brunette’s phone number. By eleven, he’d banged the redhead in the coat room at Narwhal’s. By midnight, he’d broken things off with the redhead and was free and clear to pick up the bartender when her shift ended at one.

Yep. I’ve still got it.

27: Between A Laugh And A Tear

Hunter Estrada settled her white-trash self quite comfortably into Rima’s house. Well, technically Rima’s father’s house—like Rima wanted to be caught dead living in a place like this. What she really wanted was to be in one of her mother’s townhouses. Tel Aviv was her favorite.

Or, better yet, in a condo of her own. Although that would rule out the potential for seducing one or more of her mother’s boyfriends and then blackmailing them into providing extra spending cash. Or other in-kind sorts of payments.

Still, a place of her own held a certain appeal, too.

Someday.

In the meantime, Rima was stuck with Hunter, who said exactly what she was thinking at any given moment. Much of which was inane and generally delivered with a sneer.

“Do you have any peanut butter?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Peanut. Butter.”

“I have no idea what kind of garbage my father keeps in his— What are you doing?”

“Eating peanut butter.”

“With a spoon? Aren’t you supposed to make sandwiches or something with it?”

Hunter just rolled her eyes—another annoying habit—and walked away, still making smacking noises with her mouth as she licked peanut butter off the spoon.

Ugh.

Despite her Goodwill wardrobe and disgusting eating habits, however, Hunter proved to possess a knack for digging up dirt on their mutual enemies.

Or, rather, mutual enemy. Several people could be blamed for their respective ousters from Dolman Music’s competition. But one seemed particularly susceptible to their plotting. And his downfall would ripple out to affect other culprits.

Plus, there was all kinds of dirt to be had on Phillip Hines.

The two of them were in Rima’s dining room, discussing possibilities, when her father’s phone rang.

Del had no idea how to be a father. He’d had no role model, and he’d had no opportunity for hands-on learning. Tonya had left him before Louis was even born.

“I have things I want to do with my life.” That’s what Tonya had said the night Del had come home from the competition and found her waiting for him. “You take him for a while. It’s not like you’re doing anything with yours, anyhow.”

Del had wanted to argue with her. Not about Louis, but about her suggestion that his life had no value. But Louis had been right there. And instinctively, Del hadn’t wanted to expose the boy to more angry adult voices than were already present.

So, here they were. Del felt more out of his element than at any other point in his life.

Looking at his son, Del wondered if Louis’s undeniable resemblance to Del had played any part in Tonya’s sudden decision. Maybe looking at Louis reminded her that she’d chosen the wrong man to be her rock star baby daddy. She’d picked a real loser, instead.

Despite being dumped into an unfamiliar, toy-free home in the middle of the night, with a man he barely knew, Louis showed no signs of fear. Taking his cue from his son, Del squared his shoulders and set out figuring out how to adapt.

26: Dept. of False Hope

Marcus figured the only way he wasn’t walking out of the studio a loser that night was if Lani was merely toying with him and abruptly decided to vote against someone else, instead. Against Jeremy, specifically, because Marcus couldn’t imagine that either he or Jeremy were capable of unseating the multi-talented ladies remaining in the competition.

Multi-talented, the horny little voice in the back of his head repeated, and then snickered.

Marcus told his horny self to shut up and focused his attention on Ginny as she finished up her requisite opening speech.

“It has been so amazing to have you all here. Thank you so much for an amazing week.”

Patrice voted for Marcus. Then Lani. Then Jeremy. None of them gloated like they had at Rima, but there were no rushed reassurances as there had been for Del or Dustin, either. After everyone had voted and it was technically Marcus’s turn to vote, they all just stared at him. The silence was of the awkward variety.

Waiting to see if I’m a nut-job prima donna like Rima Boulos.

Marcus laughed and shrugged. “Are you kidding? I can’t believe I lasted as long as I did.”

He held a fist up, knuckles-out, toward Patrice. Ever the cool customer, she bumped hers against his.

“Classy, Greer. Every once in a while, you surprise me.”

Marcus also fist-bumped a slightly more reluctant Jeremy, who just stared when Marcus said, “No hard feelings, man?” and stuttered out a reply of, “Sure?”

Lani was a tougher call. Marcus figured a fist bump wasn’t the most appropriate goodbye. She faced him down with crossed arms, though, so a hug seemed out of the question.

What he wanted was to ask for her number. To ask if he could call her sometime.

Instinct insisted that he do no such thing. That was not how the game was played.

She did walk as far as the door with him. Or maybe she just happened to be going that same way, because he had to say her name before she stopped and turned to face him.

And then he just stood there with a moron look on his face.

Lani smiled. “Thanks for the good time. Good luck out there!”

She didn’t offer her number. She didn’t ask for his. She turned around and walked away, just like he’d never meant a thing to her.

Right, then. Time to go back to his own little corner of the world.

The winner’s circle.

25: No Surrender

Lani spent the next couple of days cheerfully snubbing Marcus. Not that Marcus had been bad in bed, exactly. Although Lani thought her one and only boyfriend prior to being with Marcus had been better. Of course, they’d had more than the one time to work out the fine details.

But Lani had no delusions about—or any particular interest in—making Marcus her boyfriend. Or in ever letting him touch her again, for that matter. He’d scratched an itch, and she’d gotten in a little jab at the blatantly-obvious womanizer. She’d figured she could count on him to go away, after that.

Oddly, the less encouragement she offered him, the more frequently she caught him staring at her butt. Or her boobs. Even after she’d voted against him.

Lani joked and laughed with him. Then, as soon as he tried to turn it into something else, she shut him down.

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She did that several times. Intentionally.

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And she enjoyed it.

I am a bad person.

“Yeah, no,” was what Patrice said, after Lani gave her the entire scoop. “You don’t seriously think Marcus doesn’t play that same game with every girl ever? Taste of his own medicine.”

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“Maybe.” Lani hesitated. “But did I mention how much I like making him suffer?”

Patrice rolled her eyes. “He got exactly what he went begging for. He’ll get over it.”

In her peripheral vision, Lani glimpsed Jeremy wandering past.

Maybe it was her imagination, but it looked an awful lot like Patrice was checking him out.

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“So which guy do you think we’ll end up with?”

Patrice’s attention snapped back to Lani. She blinked. “What?”

“The competition. I think it’ll be you and me. But which of them do you think will wind up with us, Marcus or Jeremy?”

“I don’t… I don’t know.” Unflappable Patrice looked mildly flapped for a moment. Then she shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

“Voluptuous,” Marcus was saying, although Jeremy was trying very hard not to listen. “And you wouldn’t believe what she—”

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“I don’t need to know.” Jeremy half-lifted his hands toward his ears, just in case Marcus chose to keep over-sharing anyhow. “I just… I really don’t need to know.”

Thankfully, Marcus broke off what he’d been saying. He grinned and slapped Jeremy on the shoulder. “Ah, right. Sorry, man. I suppose you haven’t had any in a while.”

Patrice chose that precise moment to stroll past. Jeremy’s face heated, but he managed to not look toward her. Not so much as a glance.

“Yeah,” he said to Marcus. “I mean, no. Right.”

Wrong.

Marcus’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

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Jeremy pointed toward the studio. “You know what? I’m just going to go play guitar for a while.”

Rehearsal sessions on Sunday were… different. Everyone showed up for every session, even Marcus. Everyone played—and not just played but played well. Together. They sounded good. The music felt good. The studio seemed filled with a sense of calm and centeredness, as if the walls themselves were aware that the people inside weren’t there for any competition or to show each other up.

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They were there for the music. The music was real, and so were they.

Jeremy got up early Monday morning–the day of the final elimination round. His intention was to get in a little more practice time before everyone gave their final appraisal performance just before the voting.

But Phillip had gotten up even earlier and was working on technical stuff in the sound room. Or maybe, given his barely-kempt appearance, Phillip had been up all night. Jeremy recalled hearing something about recovering addicts and insomnia.

At any rate, Phillip was in the sound room. So Jeremy went back to the kitchen.

And Patrice was there.

“Hey,” she said, with a nonchalant cheerfulness. Just as if she hadn’t practically thrown Jeremy against the wall and had her way with him a few nights ago.

“No strings,” she’d said at the time. Jeremy hadn’t argued with her, so he couldn’t complain. He wasn’t complaining, really. He barely knew Patrice, after all. But he felt vaguely guilty, anyhow. He didn’t typically subscribe to the Marcus Greer Use ‘Em and Leave ‘Em School of Dating. So he wasn’t exactly sure what to say to Patrice, when the only time he’d really talked to Patrice, they hadn’t exactly been… talking.

“Hey,” Jeremy replied, attempting to follow her lead. He poured a bowl of cereal and dumped some milk on it.

“Do you want to win?” Patrice asked as Jeremy sat down.

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He slopped some milk over the side of his bowl. “What?”

“This competition. OK, let me change the question. What would you do if you don’t win?”

Jeremy wasn’t sure what she was really asking. He shrugged. “Finish school. Collect my college degree and get a job. I guess.”

The thought draped a despondency over his shoulders. Patrice was watching him with narrowed eyes, and Jeremy recalled her original question.

“Yeah,” he said. “I want to win.”

She smiled. “I want you to win, too. But Jeremy.” Patrice leaned forward. “If you don’t win? I don’t want you to give up. I mean, yeah, finish college or whatever. But if you want to make music…”

Patrice leaned even closer, a more serious expression on her highly-freckled face than Jeremy had ever seen.

“Then, kid…  Fucking well make music.”

Jeremy had spent the past week trying his best not to think beyond the current day. Honestly, he hadn’t expected to still be here at all. He wasn’t convinced that he should be. What he’d expected was exactly what his aunt had suggested when she pushed him at this competition.

One last blast.

A gray veil had continued to hang over the light at the end of the tunnel, woven from Jeremy’s assumption that he wouldn’t win, that he’d do exactly what he’d just told Patrice he’d do. He’d lose and then go back to his real life. All this? Nothing but a pipe dream.

Abruptly, Jeremy thought about the persistent sadness that had wreathed Del Sykes’s face the whole time he’d been with them. The man had never believed he had a chance. He’d give up before he’d even gotten there.

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Jeremy leaned across the table toward Patrice and grinned. “I’m fucking well going to make music.”

Whatever happens tonight.