He hates the daytime. Sunshine in Las Vegas is always cruel, but it is particularly harsh and sharp in the mornings, stabbing him in the face. He fights his way out of sleep as though launching a violent attack, thrashing into consciousness only to rediscover the pounding head, the ever-present nausea, and the long list of regrets waiting for him. Sometimes there’s a warm body sleeping next to him. Sometimes it’s a girl; sometimes it’s a guy. He never knows their names.
On this particular morning he wakes to find himself all alone in a pool of shame and despair.
Once upon a time he was a shooting star. Now he is nothing more than a cautionary tale. This is his legacy. He has become a tragic footnote in a city overflowing with mistakes. He’s a dark smudge on a city of lights. This is what a haunting does. It slowly shreds and unravels the soul. Yet again, he asks himself how he let this happen.
A familiar, acerbic voice echoes in his memory. Your lifestyle is becoming a problem.
He coughs out a laugh, surprising himself. That was the understatement of the century. His agent always was a master of the obvious.
It started with the skiing accident. So stupid! A kid who spent his first eighteen years of life in an east Texas trailer park has absolutely no business on a ski slope in Vail, Colorado. Then along came Doctor Feelgood with those damned pain pills. Before that - the parties, the cocktails, the drugs - they were just fashion accessories decorating his glittering, decadent ascent to fame. Until the pills became his whole world. Until he was trapped in a gilded cage. Until he hit rock bottom.
What a stupid, miserable cliché. Rock bottom. Who coined that idiotic phrase?
His mother used to curl around a bottle on the couch and watch old Behind The Music episodes, singing along to the eighties ballads. Now those VH1 stories replay over and over across the sculpted ceiling of his hotel suite. Wild-haired rockers gobbling up the booze, pills, and women like there was no tomorrow. Like they were immortal. Every single one of them hit their rock bottoms and got back up. Sometimes there were multiple catastrophes that should have ended everything, shredded them, and turned them into shadows.
And yet, no. They’re like cockroaches. They all come here on their comeback tours. Old geezers in leather pants belting out the same songs that still set old ladies on fire.
His career is not like that at all. He isn’t a moronic pop star. One music blog called him “an innovative creative force with a fresh voice bringing a transformative twist to indie folk music.” Another reviewer wrote that his music “creates a warm, earthy vibe that shimmers with layered textures of sound while giving a deceptive impression of simplicity.”
He found his audience online. His best friend Wade dared him to put up some YouTube videos of his songs. His songs. Only and ever his songs. He never covered anyone else’s songs. He wrote and wrote and wrote, words and melodies pouring out of him like steam that needed to escape a boiling pot. Quirky, offbeat stuff that didn’t sound anything like the cotton candy crap on the radio.
The videos were a joke really. Supposed to be ironic. Yeah, I’m not even trying. Here’s my song. Like it or not. It was fun. Not like singing at the open mic nights where half the audience was chatting about their miserable lives and half the audience were other eager amateur performers waiting for their turn onstage. And maybe three or four people would lean forward, listening intently, and clapping briskly when the songs ended. Alone with Wade and his dad’s stupidly expensive digital camera, cheap eggshell foam nailed to the walls, singing his songs in a bubble outside of time or space. No need to pitch his voice above the babble. No need to hand over the microphone to the next poor wannabe who signed up for their ten minutes of glory.
And then the videos went viral. Everything changed. It all happened so quickly. Too quickly. He was barely finished with the recording sessions before he had his first number one single. The television performances. The live performances. He really, honestly never thought he’d be there. Until he was. And then he became everything he never wanted to be.
Stop saying you’re not a pop star. Once again his agent’s voice interrupts his bittersweet revelry. Pop is short for popular and popular means money. You want to be a starving artist, go back to the trailer park and get a job at the dollar store.
He sits up abruptly. Forces himself to shake off the haze of memories. This isn’t doing him any good. Rolling around in all the history. It isn’t even a long history. He celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday a few weeks ago. Has it been a month yet? He tries to count the days and finds the math impossible. It feels like he should be able to recount every day, every minute, and every second since that night. The night everything went to hell.
“Let’s do this in style,” Wade said.
“You’ve made it, now shake it,” Wade said.
“Vegas, baby!” Wade said.
No, that isn’t fair. None of this is Wade’s fault. He was already on a one-way track to oblivion before Wade proposed the Vegas trip. He has to stop lying to himself. Stop feeling sorry for himself. He has to find a way out of this mess.
He forces himself to stand, to wander aimlessly around the hotel suite. From bedroom, to kitchenette, to the bank of windows that wrap around the outer two walls. His fingers itch to pull the blinds closed, to shut out the glaring desert sun, but he won’t allow himself the relief. Instead he walks into the darkened bathroom that is twice the size of the bedroom he grew up in and glares at his shadowy reflection in the wall of mirrors.
Time is ticking away. He can feel it. Something’s coming. It’s moving closer. Something Wicked This Way Comes. A battered copy of the Ray Bradbury novel is still tucked in his luggage. He is drifting endlessly through a sick and twisted version of that story. The circus didn’t come to this town; this town is a circus. All the souls drifting in and out. Are they unable to accept the everyday reality of life and death? Or unwilling? They search for glittering magic to feel younger, to feel stronger, to feel like masters of the universe. All of them are riding horses on a carousel to death.
Why should he care? Why can’t he just walk away and never look back?
That damned girl.
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