We jogged the rest of the way back to our own ally, then slid in the side, emerging into the theatre in front of the stage. Everyone was already there. Our subtle entrance was foiled when a spotlight trained on us. Right away, people started calling out “ten, not eleven!” and laughing. I heard whistles and catcalls. I realized we faced at least some suspicion that we’d been off making out.
Trix met the reaction with equanimity. “Now, now, it was important business. I’ll take my lashes.” She dropped down and executed twenty-five efficient pushups, counting them out loud and springing to her feet with the last.
“And now, I will do Mouse’s for her, since it’s my fault she’s late.”
She dropped. There was no way I was going to stand there while she did my penance. I knelt beside her and assumed the position. I couldn’t do twenty-five push-ups, but I did twelve before dropping to my knees. Trix had finished and jumped up before I was halfway done. When I collapsed, she held out her hand to haul me up, gesturing and clapping along with the others. She leaned in close.
“Good sport, Mouse. Thanks.” Her warm handprint lingered on my shoulder like a light weight. I felt a little proud to earn her praise.
Trix leaped onto the stage, while I heaved myself up behind. And just like that, playtime was over, and every person in the place was at the ready. I’d barely picked up the guitar when Trix counted us into the first song. These quick-switches left me feeling like I was always catching up, fumbling and rushing. I was no longer in her sphere of attention, except insofar as I had a job to do. And I felt increasingly insecure about my ability to do it.
The mess of play-through had, at least, felt fairly common to everyone. The whole stage had struggled, to some extent, and my badness had seemed to blend into the general noise. But all of a sudden the rest of them somehow snapped their acts together, leaving me the sour note. I couldn’t seem to catch their groove, and the more that I noticed, the worse it got. I couldn’t look up at anyone. I was sweating, my fingers slipped, my breath coming in uneven bursts. It didn’t help that every time I caught Trix watching me, she looked worried.
What had I been thinking? This was a real band, with a following and a playlist that I didn’t know. I was just some kid from hicksville who stupidly thought she could even keep up, let alone be good. I wanted to throw the guitar down and leave that place forever. Was it pride that held me rooted, or its opposite? I kept playing, kept sucking, kept wishing the ordeal would end. But only three hours later did Trix call it a day. Even at that, I had only achieved marginal improvement. And again I had to pee like crazy, on top of it all.
I came back from the bathroom to find the band and crew huddled around the theatre in small clumps of two and three, nursing bowls of stew. Everyone looked irritable and exhausted, which I found mildly comforting. Trix paced the theatre like a caged lion, deep in thought. I felt like we’d reached a lull after a battle, and we were all just recuperating. As I watched, Trix stopped at the centre of the dance floor, her body suddenly statue still. I watched a ripple of self-possession wave over her body from head to toe, toe to head, like a shimmer that enveloped her, glowing translucent rose, emanating from her in waves that dissolved into silver sparkles, shining like fairy dust in the lighting above us, gently showering the crowd with her light. In that moment, every conversation stopped and every person turned to Trix as though she’d spoken. She smiled.
“Well, we’ve been through torture together now, so we can only come out stronger. But really, take heart. We needed that today, like the first step in a calibration. Things will sound less…stark…when Ms. Myrtle weaves her computerized wonder come Wednesday. Lots of new faces, we can’t expect to gel first time out.”
“Some of us gel better than others,” mumbled Duggan. Trix was not putting up with attitude.
“Try that again, Duggan.”
“I’m just sayin’-”
“No, you’re actually not. Just spit it out.”
“So, you plunk a new lead guitar in here and she’s supposed to be some super-star or something, but she can’t even keep up.”
“If you have something to say to Mouse, say it to her.”
What? She put me in this position and now she wouldn’t even stick up for me? It was clear I would have to fight my own battles here. Duggan turned to me. He looked me in the eye, and I saw him see me as a person, which made him soften, back down a little. He looked away, then down, refusing to meet my eyes again as he spoke.
“Look, Mouse, I’m sure you were great in your…high school band, or whatever. But you’re slowing us down.”
I felt defensive and ashamed at the same time.
“Hey, I never said I was anything. You guys asked me to play. I don’t have to be here.”
A guy I recognized from the bunkers reached over and patted my arm consolingly.
“Baby, it wasn’t your best day, you gotta’dmit.”
“Don’t call me baby.”
“Then don’ be one!” called a girl from across the room. I hadn’t realized she was a girl until she spoke – though she was beautiful, with her close-cropped hair, flattish chest and chiseled cheekbones, she could have passed either way. Lovely as she was, I scowled at her, seeing only the hostility on her curled lip. Trix intervened.
“Whoa, whoa, let’s stop right here. Mouse needs love to feel like she’s with us. What does love say? Does love say, I blame you, this is your fault, you are wrong? Or does it say, why is this happening, how can I help, what do you need?”
Trix looked around the room at each disgruntled face, taking a second to rest on each of us, finally resting on the boy who’d called me baby, then Duggan. She let silence sit. Duggan squirmed, then finally broke. He turned to me, but looked at his hands.
“Okay, yeah. Okay. Sorry, Mouse. I bet…it’s…hard to be new, and stuff.”
The other boy was not to be outdone.
“Yeah, sorry, Mouse. But you really -”
Trix cut him off. “But negates an apology, Stan. Down and ten.”
Stan made a face, but immediately dropped and did ten fast, strong pushups. Trix stood watching him, waiting until he was finished. She was making a point.
“Mouse isn’t the only one having trouble up there, friends. Every one of us has a long way to go before Friday. We’re too spent to dissect everything tonight. Finish your food. Go to bed. Come fresh tomorrow and we’ll have some fun, I promise.”
As the meeting broke up, I caught Trix watching me with that worried expression again. When she saw me see her, her face shifted to confidence. She nodded and turned away but that wasn’t enough for me. I followed her into the lobby.
“Sorry I wasn’t…better.”
“You were fine. We have four days left, don’t worry your pretty little head.”
“Sure, I guess.”
Trix caught my dejection and stopped. She looked me in the eye.
“Duggan got a little rough. You okay.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Hey, no doubt here.” She held out her hands in supplication, and I laughed.
“Listen, um…I know you can’t give me a ride, but…can you lend me bus fare? I didn’t manage to snag any cash this morning.”
“Sorry, kiddo, no can do.”
Startled, I had to hold back my incredulity.
“It’s just a couple of bucks. I’ll get it to you tomorrow, I promise.”
She shook her head resolutely and smiled sadly.
“I’d like to, but I can’t. Money doesn’t change hands at Timeless. It’s a rule.”
“You’re kidding me, right? You can’t lend me bus fare? Because it’s a rule?”
“We have rules for reasons. Sorry.”
I stood there, dumbfounded. My mind started skittering around to figure out how I was going to get home, when a voice behind me solved everything.
“Don’t worry, Christine,” assured Rekha, appearing from nowhere to glide up behind me. “I’ll give you a ride back. Or lend you bus fare, if you prefer. once we’re outside, of course, so we don’t violate any rules.” Her voice dripped frivolity, treating something serious as light on purpose to get under Trix’s skin. Surprisingly, it worked – Trix looked like it was taking all her will to keep still and quiet. Rekha wrapped her arm around mine and tucked in close beside me, like we were close friends, or lovers. I pulled away as gently as I could.
“You’re here.” Trix stated it coldly, her eyes never moving from Rekha’s.
“Just a quick visit. Christine was kind enough to bring something I forgot at her apartment.” My hand went to the cell phone case quickly, but now wasn’t the time so I didn’t pull out the rings.
“Didn’t know you two were besties.” Trix shot me a glance that accused me of betrayal before turning the conversation sharply around a corner. “The boys miss you, Rekha.”
“I miss them too,” she replied, and I believed her heartfelt tone.
“Echo could use a friend,” Trix went on. “Or, are you avoiding the whole neighbourhood?”
“No, just you.” Rekha laughed at her own joke. I found myself smiling to keep her company, but Trix’s stern face told me this was no joke, and I wiped the smile from my face. Rekha didn’t seem to notice me. “I actually checked in with Echo before I came here. You’ve got her all wound up in knots. Why can’t you just leave that poor girl alone? She’s outside your mandate.”
Trix shook her head, forehead wrinkled in disbelief.
“She is my mandate. I just take the long way around. That’s what you never understood.”
“Well, there is much I don’t understand, that’s true,” offered Rekha genially, in pure Rekha style – agreement masking passive disagreement. She turned to me, finished with Trix. “Christine, do you need a ride?”
“Um, thanks, yes.”
Trix walked away without another glance at either of us. I reached for my cellphone case to give Rekha her rings.
“Good luck this week, Trix,” called Rekha. Trix didn’t even look back as she threw her answer back over her shoulder.
“Luck? What’s that?”
It was at that moment that I realized there was nothing in the cellphone case but my phone and a simple, gold band. The giant rock of a ring was gone.
“It’s gone. I mean, the band is here, but the…diamond…it’s not…I don’t know what happened!”
“You lost my ring?” Rekha looked at me hard, like she needed to determine the veracity of what I was saying. “My ring is lost?”
I felt panicked, my stomach a gnawing hole that threatened to eat my insides out.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, what will I do? What can I do? I can look all over, up and down, everywhere I’ve been, I’ll scour the place, I’ll find it…”
Rekha shook her head, shockingly calm and serious.
“And if it fell out on the bus? Or while you walked along the streets? Christine, face it, it’s gone.”
“I don’t even know what to say. I’ll pay for it. I know it was expensive, but just tell me how much and I will pay for it as fast as I can, no matter how long it takes, I promise. I’m so sorry.”
Rekha sighed and took my hand.
“No, no, it’s my fault. I should never have asked you to bring it. Anything can happen on a bus ride and I assumed that risk when I demanded a favour from you so rudely.”
I wasn’t accepting this interpretation, and I couldn’t believe she was putting it forth. If it were my ring, I would have punched myself in the face by now.
“That’s crazy! Of course it’s my fault. Of course it is.” She still held my hand and I didn’t feel right pulling it away. She led me to the doors.
“We won’t speak of it. You will do me that courtesy?”
What could I say?
Her BMW was parked on the road in front of a no-parking sign, but she hadn’t gotten a ticket, so at least I didn’t have to feel guilty about that. We drove in silence and it filled the car like a thick gas, pressurizing the air so I could hardly breathe. I opened the window a little, and Rekha promptly closed it from her side without saying anything. Finally, she pulled up in front of Chris’ building. I turned to her seriously.
“I’m sorry, I can’t just say nothing. I feel like dirt.”
“You must find a way to move through that feeling and let it go, rather than inflict your feelings on me.”
“If you could just give me a ballpark figure, I will pay you back. I really will.”
“Christine, what I have been trying not to say is that the ring cannot be bought or replaced. There is no ballpark. It was an heirloom, passed to the new Mrs. Beaudomage, generation after generation. My grandmother-in-law wore it before me, and her’s before her, and so on. I can tell you for a fact, they did not always wear it in wedded bliss. The insurance will pay for a new ring, one I choose. So, in the end, perhaps you have done me a favour, you see.” She smiled a watery smile I didn’t buy. I felt even more sorry for myself than for her at this point.
“An heirloom. Of course, if I’m gonna loose something, it has to be an heirloom. Lance’ll want to kill me, won’t he?”
“He will be upset, but I will tell him the truth – I lost it. I left it somewhere and was unable to retrieve it. That is the essence of it, anyway.”
“I don’t want to lie.” I said, meaning it.
” ‘There is no lie where the truth is served.’ That’s a quote from your friend, Trix.”
“Yeah, sounds like her.”
“Speaking of Trix, I want to share with you…I am worried about Timeless, and the young people there.” Why did I suddenly feel like she’d arrived at the whole point of this car ride? She went on. “This week is highly stressful, quite volatile. May I check in with you periodically, to get a feel for Trix’s state of mind?”
I didn’t like the sound of this.
“You want me to spy on her?”
“That’s a harsh way to put it.” She sounded hurt. “I hope you see that I have only good intentions. I want to help.”
“Well, I’m no psych major,” I deflected. “I’m not the best at judging someone’s state of mind.”
“I only hope that you will answer me honestly and completely if I should ask you questions. Can you do that for me?”
I felt the screws tightening. She wanted something from me, and after losing her ring, how could I deny her anything? But this felt like a betrayal, being shoved into the middle of something I didn’t understand, when I didn’t trust either side.
“Um, sure…I guess. You’ve been really good about this whole ring thing, I can’t believe…anyway, I’m sorry. Thanks again for the ride – I couldn’t have gotten home without you. Literally. I didn’t even have a dime. ”
Rekha frowned, unimpressed.
“That’s a dangerous position to put yourself in,” she said, as if I didn’t know.
“That’s me, living life on the edge,” I returned, slamming the car door just a little harder than I’d meant to. I waved, and she waved back, like the world was a happy 50’s sitcom. Politeness is so weird that way.