“JUNA ON THE ROCKS?!
Jude Blair, of Infernal Echo, was seen leaving LAX today as a tearful Lana Thatcher saw him off. A source close to Thatcher says the actress has been increasingly distressed over Blair’s work schedule in recent months. Blair will be in Atlanta for the next two months as he joins THE FAMILY mini-series in an unannounced role.”—The Life and Times
The drive home from school was only tolerable because the one new thing in my crappy car was its excellent speakers. It was finally Friday afternoon, and all I wanted to do was go home, slip into my pajamas, and listen to music. I wound through the rainy back road leading me home as my phone lit up in the passenger seat with a picture of my best friend. The loud Infernal Echo song blasting through my car speakers washed out the ringtone, and I begrudgingly turned it down to answer. The only thing worse than having my afternoon music therapy interrupted was upsetting Tabby.
I propped the phone between my neck and my shoulder as I drove. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Did you seriously forget?” The annoyance in Tabby’s voice was palpable.
“Forget what?” A thousand possibilities flashed through my mind. I wasn’t always the best at remembering Tabby’s schemes, although I tried to stay on top of them.
“Railfest? Tigersblood is playing. Don’t back out on me now, Addie.”
“Yeah, yeah. I remember. But I thought they were playing tomorrow,” I half-murmured as I glared at the pouring rain falling on the windshield. The weather was not ideal for a music festival by any means.
“They were supposed to, but the schedule changed, remember? Please don’t make me go by myself. That’s encroaching on creepy, loner territory.” And there was the Tabby I loved. Self-assured, brave Tabby who still needed me to hold her hand through everything. A contradiction and an enigma all in one.
“Fine. Give me fifteen, and I’ll be over.”
“Love you forever.” The relief dripped through Tabby’s every word like cold molasses.
Despite my reluctance to go out, my heart warmed as I cracked a smile. “Love you too.” Without checking to make sure she hung up, because I knew she would, I threw the phone back onto the passenger seat and rested my head back against the car seat. A deep breath puffed my cheeks out as I let go of my plans of doing nothing for the night and tried to ready myself for sweaty crowds and loud music.
I wanted to say no. The forced social interaction of school filled my meter for the week. But when I made plans with Tabby, I tried to stick to them. Plus, this was the perfect storm of coincidences for her. Tigersblood was finally in the U.S. doing a festival circuit, and Railfest finally had a stop in Birmingham for the first time. It was entirely possible that this was her only chance to see them without traveling. And traveling wasn’t something she was very good at.
Pulling into my driveway, I glanced up at the two-story, white house and prayed no one was home. As much as I loved my parents, I needed a few minutes to myself. Thankfully, the house was dead silent as I walked in, the clap of my boots against the hardwood floors the only sound bouncing off of the eggshell colored walls full of hung picture frames and bookcases. Deep South suburban Pinterest projects peppered every square inch of the house except my room, which was decidedly less ‘lace and mason jar’ and more ‘leather and vinyl.’ I got dressed quickly and tried to make my dishwater-blonde hair do something worthwhile. But it wasn’t long before I gave up and left it flat and straight. No one would ever be looking at me anyway; Tabby was bound to be the prettiest girl there, and most of Tigersblood’s fans were girls looking to make out with the lead singer, Cameron Johns.
I rushed out to the car and headed to Tabby’s parents. Being late was not an option when it came to her. She could be extremely particular about schedules, and any changes or setbacks made her lose her shit. It was one of the many little things that added up to make Tabby’s OCD an ever present factor in our lives. She’d grown quite adept at masking it. People would never know the bright, cheerful girl with the megawatt smile was suffering on the inside. I didn’t mind the way it complicated things. It was all part of Tabby for me, and I loved all of her.
The half-hour drive into town with Tabby passed more quickly than I would have liked. Moments alone with her were my serenity. I didn’t have to worry about fitting in like I did around my classmates or push myself to my standards of who I should be as I did with my parents. She loved me the way I was with all my shortcomings and flaws, the same way I loved her.
* * * *
By the time we found a parking space several blocks away from the music festival, the rain slowed to a stop, but the humidity was still killer. The moisture made my hair stick to the back of my neck, and the ground sunk under our feet as we made our way through the park to the main stage.
We were early enough that they were still setting up the stage, but a crowd was already forming in front of it. If we wanted to be right at the front we were going to have to skip the food trucks and vendors. This wasn’t our first rodeo. From our very first boy-band concert together, we knew they were our thing. Even as our music tastes grew more varied, we still held tight to the tradition. From circle pits to stadiums, we knew how to handle our live music. So we claimed our rightful places against the metal fences by sliding down onto the wet grass and waiting for the show to start.
The view right before the band started their set was exhilarating. Kinetic energy bounced off of the stage. The roadies rushed around behind the small opening in the large black curtains. All with this feeling of anticipation, a kind of liveliness that draws you in. People filled in on each side of us, scrambling to get close to the stage but not each other. The euphoria of the moment infected everyone around us.
Two preteen girls took their places a few feet down from Tabby and me, and we looked at each other in reminiscence. Their mom was undoubtedly somewhere on the sidelines, and this was clearly one of their first shows. They blew out all of their energy in the first ten minutes before the show began, laughing, and playing around with each other. Tabby and I long ago learned to save that energy for the show. It was like eating all of your popcorn before the trailers were even over.
After what felt like hours, the pre-show music boomed from the speakers, and movement behind the curtain to my left caught my eye. The band members stood at the back, getting mic’ed for their set.
Tabby’s attention was buried in her phone, a coping technique to focus her attention so she didn’t experience sensory overload from so much going on around us. There was no use trying to yell over music to her, so I poked her arm, drawing her attention toward me and pointed my head toward the area where the band stood.
She gasped and grew motionless beside me. She was trying so hard to play it cool, but she’d spent the past few months drooling over this guy, counting down the days to this exact performance. She watched him, drinking in every second her eyes could see him, the insistence in her eyes making it clear she knew these moments would be few.
We gossiped about the minor changes in his appearance, the differences between our screens and real life. The whole time she never took her eyes off Cameron. The bright lights shining out from the top edges of the stage dimmed slightly, and the surrounding crowd started to scream and move.
I didn’t move with them.
When Tigersblood came forward to the stage, the silhouette of a man positioned himself just within the curtain. He was clearly trying not to be seen, but I was at the perfect angle to catch a glimpse of blond hair and cheekbones I knew from memory.
My heart stopped.
My breath caught in my throat.
Blood pounded in my ears.
The crowd, the stage, Tabby, all fell away.
Somehow he was there.
Jude Blair, the lead singer of Infernal Echo.
The man of my daydreams and deepest desires.
Tabby must have caught it too because she was screaming in my ear. “Do you see him? Am I losing it?”
“Yeah, I see him,” I managed to say around the cotton that filled my mouth.
And then, as quickly as she looked away, she went on screaming toward the stage, savoring her moment with the band in all of its glory.
I dreamt of this moment.
Fantasized about it.
Played it over and over again in my head.
But now it was real.
He was here, for some reason, stage-left watching the band play. It made no sense. There was no possible logic in which this British rock god would be at a small music festival in Alabama. But as little sense as it made, he was here, and I could not deny the reality of that.
When I imagined this moment in my head, I was brave enough to do something about it. I was calm, charming, and witty. Now, I was frozen. Part of me wanted to run the other way. Part of me knew this would be the only look I would ever get at him in the flesh, and part of me desperately wanted it not to end. I’d followed his career from rock star to actor and everything in between. His music was my ultimate go-to for any situation. Infernal Echo merchandise covered my room.
I knew Jude’s favorite foods and types of music. From his social media posts, I knew what his face looked like when he woke up and how much he loved his younger brother. From his songs, I knew what gave him joy and what broke his heart. I watched paparazzi chase him down to get pictures of him with his fiancée, Lana Thatcher and how the fans reacted with either hate-filled vitriol or loving, well-wishes.
I was scared to look away from him even as the show started and people sung at full volume at either side of me. I was terrified that this was a mirage, and the moment I tore my eyes away, he would fade forever.
But I couldn’t deny the disaster unraveling in my peripheral vision. Tigersblood was playing one of their harder, faster singles, and the crowd was jumping, pushing in, and starting a mosh pit. And it was forming right on top of the two now-terrified preteens I noticed earlier.
I tugged on Tabby’s shoulder, but she didn’t look over. I couldn’t blame her. If this were any other show, at any other time, there would be no questions. We would step in and show the girls how to get out of the way, if not how to navigate a pit so they would know next time. But at this show, right now, with Jude Blair feet away and Cameron Johns in all his dark magnificence on stage, my better self was warring against my selfish desires to stand in one place and stare.
The girls were now pushed so hard against the fence that their breaths were coming in short bursts. I couldn’t stand there and watch the train wreck happen for one more moment. There’d been one too many shows where Tabby and I were one kind soul away from cracked necks or black eyes. It was my turn to return the favor to the universe. When I got to them, I planted my feet, so as not to get knocked against them.
“You’ve got about thirty seconds to decide if you want to be part of the pit,” I screamed over the music.
Eyes wide, they shook their alarmed heads in unison. I pointed to my eyes and then myself, telling them wordlessly to watch me and held my arms up in front of my chest, to make sure I didn’t take any jabs that might knock the wind out of me. They copied me, and I started shoving back through the ocean of sweaty, jumping bodies. The girls hugged as close to my back as they could manage, and I slowly managed to get them back to where Tabby was, an area that was far enough away from the center that the pit didn’t bleed into it.
My eyes immediately searched for Jude again as soon as we were stationary, making sure he was still real. Upon finding him, I could have sworn he was looking over this way, but I passed it off as the adrenaline rush, a touch of wishful thinking.
From where we were, so close to the stage, you could feel the heat from the guys performing, Cameron was standing front and center and loomed like a giant. In reality, he was about six foot, the average height for a twenty-something-year-old guy. But with the five-foot stage under him and the lights shining right on him, he was a dominant sight. The raven hair falling into his face was in perfect contrast with his emerald eyes. At this exact moment, though, all of that power and glory was looking down. At Tabby.
This happened a couple of times at the concerts we went to in the past. We were experts at getting to the front row of general admission concerts and, well, singers have to look somewhere, right? Where better than the stunning brunette in the first row?
Cameron took his microphone from the stand and jumped down off of the stage to the area where shocked security guards scrambled to protect him from the crowd pushing against the fragile metal gate. Still singing, he held her gaze with a smirk lighting up his face. The chemistry between them sparked and crackled, even from where I was. His eyes on hers were intense as he sang “Fill my soul with your fire of desire.” He reached over the fence and took her hand for the last word of the song. He quickly kissed it before pulling himself back on to the stage. Tabby stood completely still. I was sure that she wasn’t breathing. Her eyes didn’t even blink as she stared at the scene in complete and utter shock.
When Cameron got back to front and center, his arm flew out toward the side of the stage where Jude was standing. I was so caught up in the bizarre, electrifying moment happening to Tabby, so filled with happiness for her, so proud of how she managed to not spontaneously combust upon his touch that I momentarily forgot the man of my dreams was behind the curtain.
“So, one of my mates from back home was working in Atlanta this weekend and decided to stop by. You lovely people wouldn’t mind if Jude Blair helped me out on this next one, would you?” Cameron’s arm hung in the air, an unanswered invitation.
I knew other people had probably spotted him backstage, but it was still like a secret being exposed. Tigersblood was an ‘up and coming’ band from the UK. This was only their first American tour. You could ask everyone in my high school if they’d ever heard of them and unless they knew Tabby or me, they wouldn’t have. But a crowd of people who knew who they were, undoubtedly would understand who Infernal Echo was. They definitely knew who Jude Blair was.
As he walked out to the stage, I tried to visually absorb all of him like a sponge laps up water. Ripped black skinny jeans hugged his long, lean frame. Two studded, black belts wrapped around his waist visible beneath a black V-neck t-shirt. Tattoos ran the length of his arm and poked out of the collar of his shirt.
As my eyes made their way to his face, I noticed he was caught completely caught off guard. I always thought things like this were planned. That behind the scenes people made schemes to entice the fans. But Jude looked like the wind was been knocked out of him. His normally perfectly tanned skin looked pale, almost greenish, in the harsh spotlight searching him out.
For someone who spent his entire life performing, either in acting or singing, he looked as if he was developing a sudden case of stage fright. As soon as I saw the fear on his face, it was gone. Replaced by that smile that made my knees knock together. It was a full mouthed, perfect teeth-showing smile which reached up into his gleaming eyes.
At that moment I knew something no tweet, or interview, or song could have ever taught me about Jude Blair.
He was a better actor than anyone gave him credit for because he was always in character. The character of Jude Blair. The larger than life Rock Star everyone expected of him.
“Should we do one of yours or one of mine?” Cameron said away from the mic.
Thankful we were close enough to hear them without the microphone. I leaned as far over the gate as the security guards would allow. My fingertips were mere inches from the stage as I reached forward like a zombie after its prey. The people behind us tried to push in, but there was no moving us. We were front and center and not going anywhere.
“How about something different?” Jude said, turning toward the rest of the band and away from the crowd where I couldn’t hear him.
I leaned over to Tabby and groaned. “I swear, if they start playing Sweet Home Alabama, I am going to be so pissed.” If a band that is not from Alabama plays here, they always play at least a few chords of Sweet Home Alabama. Which I am sure was always a big hit with some of the residents, but after about the sixth concert, it becomes stale.
The drummer started playing the beginning notes of Cheap Trick’s classic anthem “I Want You to Want Me,” and I jerked my head back toward the stage.
Both of the handsome men on stage shouted “I want YOU to want ME” into their mics, and the crowd went wild.
Putting my hands into the air and dancing, I watched as they poured everything they had into the old song. I sang every word, and my eyes never left Jude’s face.
Watching him was like watching a shooting star.
It was mesmerizing, but it would last only a short moment.
I attempted to memorize his every movement to store for later as he sang.
In being so captivated by Jude, I hardly noticed that Cameron’s attention never left Tabby. His eyes would graze over the crowd, but they eventually landed right back on hers by the time the chorus came around.
We both knew what a critical moment it was for the other and kept glancing over to enjoy the look of pure joy on the other’s face. Still, I couldn’t help but be jealous of Tabby. If I were as enchanting as she was, if I stood out even half as much, maybe Jude would have looked at me the way Cameron looked at her. But here I was, a plain piece of fucking white bread standing next to an extravagantly made Dulce de Leche. Everything about Tabby was made to draw the eye. From her soft, chocolate hair to the round hips which turned her body into a figure-eight shape.
When I turned my attention back to the stage, Jude stepped back from the mic and was intently focusing on the guitar. His long fingers played expertly, his entire body moving with the music.
I was at complete peace and a vessel of chaos all at once.
As the final guitar chords began to fade, he came back to the mic for the last lines. His eyes landed on mine as he sang the final “I want you to want me.”
Internally, obviously. Externally, I was cool and collected and gave him a smile while I sang the words along with him even though my cheeks grew hot, and my head screamed.
He gave a grin. Not his usual full, eye-squinting smile, but a smaller, timid smile. One that sent a chill down my spine. It spoke of playfulness and, if I wasn’t mistaken, a tiny bit of embarrassment.
Nothing about this man or his appearance here made any sense tonight.
I, belatedly, realized that the song with Jude was the last song of their set. That all of this was about to be over.
The girls I pulled from the pit threw their arms around me in thanks, and Tabby looked at me with confusion evident in her dark, perfectly-tamed eyebrows. I shrugged back at her.
“I saved them from the scary pit while you were making love to Cameron with your eyes,” I said, nonchalantly shrugging my shoulders.
Tabby shook her head and laughed as the crowd around us dispersed.
I grabbed her arm with both of my hands. “Let’s not go yet.”
“And you didn’t even wanna come tonight!” she playfully yelled back at me as she shoved my arm.
I rubbed the place on my arm she pushed and feigned hurt. “I never said I didn’t want to come. I said I thought it was tomorrow.”
“Sure ya did,” she drawled, making it perfectly clear that she knew better.
I looked around at the empty stage and the lights of the festival. “I’m not ready for tonight to be over. Food?” I was so hungry. In my haste to get ready and pick Tabby up, supper was my last concern.
“Okay, I can get behind that.” Without any more convincing needed, Tabby turned and headed for the vendor trucks.