“This is it, kid,” Loretta said. The manager sat back in her chair and sipped on a Lariatini. “This is the start of something big.”
After Valentine’s album deal had been signed at Defiance Studios earlier that afternoon, Loretta had insisted on treating Valentine at their favorite bar, a gaudy pink refuge called the Hoity Toity. The rundown honky tonk was festooned with velveteen damask patterned wallpaper and bordello lamp shades draped in heavy fringe that rested upon worn wooden tables, and served Western-themed cocktails: Lariatini. Barrel Race. Saddlesore. Valentine knew that Loretta couldn’t get enough of the fancy concoctions, and if they sat in the minors’ section, with the tourists and their loud children, the barkeep didn’t bat an eye in their direction. Valentine always got the YeeHaw Tots – tater tots smothered in cheesy bacon heaven.
It had been a good day.
One of the best days of her life, actually.
Valentine looked up from the YeeHaw Tots after Loretta finished speaking. She swallowed hard, searching for the right words. Talking about the real things, the stuff that mattered, had always been hard for her. “Thank you, Loretta. For everything. I really… I mean it.”
Loretta waved away her gratitude, chuckling. “Save the thanks until after the first tour. You may curse me instead. Tours are brutal.”
“What were your tours like?” Valentine asked.
“Awful.” Loretta took a healthy swallow of her cocktail. “Of course, I traveled with my alcoholic ex-husband on a derelict bus across the country, so that may have been why.”
“Did you enjoy any of it?” Valentine ate another tot.
A child at a nearby table squealed as he dropped his toy on the floor. The parents sniped at each other, arguing over something Valentine couldn’t quite hear.
Loretta thought for a moment, her gaze unfocused as memories crowded in. “Yes. When the fans shared how much a particular song meant to them, or that they’d used one of my songs for a wedding or a funeral – I loved those moments. I felt like I had contributed something…decent to the world instead of just fighting with my husband at the time.” Loretta shook her head. “You’ll see. This road, it changes you.”
Valentine nodded, more to herself than in response to Loretta. She understood that compulsion, the want to give something to the world, something decent and brave and honest. She thought of all the work that had led up to this evening.
Loretta looked up from her salad. “So, what are you going to do with the money?”
Valentine paused, a tater tot in mid-air. Cheese dripped onto the plate. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”
“Do me a favor?” The older woman sipped from a new cocktail, the Rhinestone Cowboy, with a pearlescent rim around the top.
“Don’t spend it on women and drugs.”
Valentine gave a crack of laughter, then shook her head. She avoided looking at Cara, a pretty brunette waitress with a gap in her teeth and the widest, most welcoming smile, working across the dark room. Cara was the best thing about the Hoity Toity, as far as Valentine was concerned. Even better than the YeeHaw Tots.
“No, I’m not gonna do that.” Valentine winced. She wasn’t exactly at ease with the ladies. She’d never even made eye contact with Cara, let alone flirted with her. “I need someone to spend my money on first.”
Loretta snorted; her lips twisted. “Don’t worry. Once they know you’ve got money, they’ll come crawling out of the woodwork. Not everyone is a user but…” Loretta finished her drink in one long swallow. “But it’s better to be wary.”
Valentine ate another tot. “It’s kind of silly but…I want to buy one of those little shotgun houses. You know, one or two bedrooms. Simple. It doesn’t have to be big.” She shrugged, trying not to reveal the depth of her feelings. “I want my own home.”
A brief silence. Then, “I get that, kid.”
Valentine sneaked a glance over at Loretta. The older woman watched her with a tender look, equal parts of pity and understanding. Her throat closed, and Valentine looked away. She went back to working on the mess of tots in front of her.
Valentine said her farewells to Loretta inside the bar.
“Congratulations again, Valentine.” Loretta’s voice was somber, hushed. “You’ve worked hard for this. I know you’ll make the most of it.”
Valentine shuffled on her feet as a flush of warmth stole through her. “Thanks,” she said, her voice gruff. She wasn’t used to hearing praise from others. At least, the ones that meant something to her. “Goodnight, Loretta.”
Out in the parking lot, Valentine approached the worn-down lime green economy car she had purchased from a co-worker. The vehicle was on its last legs, or wheels maybe, and she had kept the little car alive through thoughts and prayers but mostly curses. Now I can afford to replace it. She smiled, pleased by that thought, as she unlocked the driver’s side and jimmied open the half-broken door. Valentine could name a dozen songs about these feelings but hadn’t felt them often in the last few years: Pride. Happiness.
The roads were thick with cars, and rain had started up just as Valentine drove out of the parking lot adjacent to the Hoity Toity. Leaning forward, she peered through the sheet of water barely held back by the creaking windshield wipers.
Her phone buzzed in her shoulder pack on the passenger seat.
Valentine ignored it. This rain is something else.
The phone buzzed again.
And continued to buzz.
Without taking her eyes off the road, Valentine reached over to grab the phone. She glanced at the screen and almost dropped it. Shock, then trepidation coated her stomach.
Her parents were calling.
She hadn’t heard from them in two years. Why now?
Bright lights sliced through the edge of her vision. Valentine whipped her head to peer through the obscured windshield.
Somehow, she had wandered across the double yellow lines, into oncoming traffic. A dark blue sedan approached her, its horn blaring a siren of danger.
The sound jarred her out of her shock, and Valentine wrenched the steering wheel to the right, hoping to get into the correct lane.
But it was too late.
Valentine heard the impact before she felt it.
Metal grated on metal, an accordion screech that hurt her ears. The headlights popped, and the lights went out. The windows shattered –
Valentine threw up her hands to protect her face. Then, the impact came.
Valentine felt the stinging cuts of the glass, the slam of her body first against the seatbelt, then to the driver’s side door. Her left arm broke on the second slam. She heard the snap and looked down. Bone and blood rose from the serrated flesh.
She heard the screams from the other vehicle.
I’m sorry. Oh shit, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.
Black crept across her vision. The cold and the pain that draped across her body grew dimmer and fainter, then ceased altogether.