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Authors: Hunter J. Keane
A Rocker and a Hard Place
By: Hunter J. Keane
2014 by Hunter J. Keane
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To my family.
’re not chasing your dreams, you’re running from reality.
Those were the last words my father ever spoke to me.
A day later, he was dead. Three months later, I packed all of my possessions into my POS truck and drove to Nashville. A year later, I had a record deal, a top selling single, and a second home in Malibu.
Last week, exactly thirteen years after I moved away from Salvation, Indiana,
my perfect world came crashing down.
I never intended to return to my hometown. There was nothing in Salvation for me to return to, no one that I wanted to see. With my father gone, I had no family left. During my rise to fame, I’d blown off all of my friends. And six months after moving away, I’d so thoroughly destroyed the heart of my childhood-sweetheart that I was certain if we ever met again, one look from her would strike me dead.
Salvation was so far in my past that I rarely even thought about it. That’s why it was strange when I had a dream about that place last Friday. I had gone to sleep early; our tour had just come to an end and it would be at least a week before I recovered from the exhaustion. Miranda was snoring softly next to me. She was one of my backup singers, and we had been seeing each other for a few weeks. Actually, it would be more accurate to say we had been shacking up occasionally since about the last month of the tour.
Miranda was pretty, no denying that. But she was also
a total bitch. I had no idea why I had gotten myself involved with such a horrible person, but that was pretty much my M.O. these days. If I wasn’t being arrested for punching photographers or getting wasted at clubs, I was sleeping with terrible women.
was the first night in a long time that I went to bed sober.
Maybe that was why I dreamed about Salvation, and the girl whose heart I had broken so many years ago. Or maybe it was because just before Miranda had drifted off to sleep, she’d asked about the scar under my chin.
Suddenly, I was twelve again, and so was she. We’d grown up together, in all the same classes since we were five. Her name was Emma, and her hair was so blond it was nearly white. She had big green eyes, the same shade as the outfield grass on a baseball field. In seven years, we had never had a single conversation.
Sure, Emma said hi to me when we passed in the halls. She always left a valentine on my desk every year. She even volunteered to be my partner when the teacher assigned us group projects, something none of the other students dared to do. But I was painfully shy back then and c
ould barely force out stuttered words. Having an actual conversation was out of the question.
But Emma never seemed to mind. She was kind, and mature beyond her young years. At some point that year, I’d developed an intense crush on Emma. A crush I was certain would never be reciprocated, but that didn’t make me like her any less.
That was why I jumped in when I saw two boys cornering her on the playground after school. They were the class bullies, and their preferred victim type was anyone that was alone. One of them was pulling at her ponytail, and the other was trying to lift her skirt with a long stick.
As I watched them, I felt a rage burning in
my chest. Without any regard for my own safety, I rushed forward. Using my book bag, I hit the first one squarely in the chest. He groaned loudly while I swung at the second boy and missed.
Still a scrawny, prepubescent boy, I was badly disadvantaged. They took turns pummeling me, each blow sending sharp pain through my ribs. Emma launched herself at one of the boys, her attempt to help as futile as my own. They stopped only when I was shoved to the ground, my chin connecting solidly with concrete and knocking me out cold.
When I came to, Emma’s beautiful face hovered over mine, blurry but perfect.
She helped me sit up and thanked me for coming to her rescue. She fished a crumpled napkin from her bag and pressed it to my bloody chin. When my vision cleared, she walked me home. After thanking me again, she kissed me on the cheek and said that I was her hero. I watched her skip off down the street, hypnotized by her energy and beauty.
Years later, I would still be just as mesmerized by Emma as that little boy had been on that front porch, the scene of that very first kiss.
Twelve hours after that dream, I was watching news footage of that very porch, leveled to
the ground in a massive storm.
It destroyed 100 homes in Salvation, and damaged many others. Thankfully, no one was killed, but it was going to take a lot of time and effort to rebuild. And money.
Salvation was a poor town. People didn’t have savings accounts, 401ks, or stock investments. Most people lived paycheck to paycheck, and they worked hard for their money. Blue collar to the core, the people of Salvation started rebuilding just hours after the storm passed.
“I don’t understand why you have to go,” Miranda whined as she watched me pack a few days later. “Why can’t you just send them money?”
I hated the nasally pitch off her voice. I also hated that she was asking the same question that had been playing in my head on repeat. I had no idea why I felt compelled to return home.
“I need to check on the house,” I explained.
After my father passed, I hadn’t had the heart to sell the house. He’d had life insurance, and it was enough to pay off the mortgage. I paid someone to check in on it every couple of months and keep the dust from piling up, but it was still filled with everything we had owned while I was growing up.
“If the storm damaged the roof, I need to get it fixed before it rains again.”
It had taken some work, but I’d managed to clear my schedule for the next few days. Besides checking on the house, I felt like I owed it to Salvation to help out. As much as I had hated growing up there, it was because of that hard place that I’d been so dedicated to finding an easier life. In many ways, you could say Salvation made me the man that I became.
I had to keep telling myself that as I drove into town.
I’d flown from L.A. to Nashville first. In Nashville, I picked up my car and drove up to Indiana. When I’d left Salvation, I was in a twenty-year-old car that had a loud muffler and no air conditioning. I rode back into town in a brand new BMW. More than a few locals stopped to stare.
I drove past the old house first, pleased to see that it was intact minus the front porch. Not ready to face the ghosts inside, I drove toward the town center. Volunteers were helping dig through rubble and if I was going to join them, I needed some supplies. The town only had one hardware store, and I knew the owner quite well
Wellington Hardware was a staple in the community. Bob Wellington had opened the business fifty years ago and his son, James, took it over when I was a boy. I’d even stocked shelves in the store during high school.
I parked my car by the curb and headed toward the familiar storefront.
A young boy,
oddly familiar looking, stepped in front of my path. I estimated him to be nine or ten. He was wearing a dirty ball cap and held a carton of candy bars.
“What’s up, kid
“Would you like to buy a candy bar? The proceeds will be used to b
uy my baseball team new uniforms.” The boy couldn’t make eye contact and his hands were shaking. I remembered what I had been like at that age- shy and awkward- and I immediately sympathized.
“Here.” I handed him three twenty dollar bills. “Keep the candy.”
His face lit up, wide green eyes and a brilliant smile. “Thank you, sir. This is awesome.”
The boy ran off to guilt a group of old ladies into supporting his cause and I entered the store. I was surprised by how much it had changed.
The walls were freshly painted and the shelves were neatly stocked. I should say, some of the shelves were, but many of them were bare. Helpful signs at the front of the aisles gave customers directions, and the store no longer only sold hardware items. The product offering had been extended to auto parts, farm supplies, and a myriad of other options.
I approached the young woman at the lone register and asked, “Could you tell me, do you still have any supplies for the storm clean-up?”
Tired eyes looked up slowly, widening when they focused on my face. “Holy. Crap.”
It used to please me when I was recognized by a stranger in public. Somehow, it had felt like validation that I was someone that mattered. In the last few years, I dreaded this type of situation. Anonymity was not an option for me anymore.
“Gloves. Do you have gloves?” If I kept the conversation short, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
“You’re Tyler Cole,” the girl said. Her name tag told me that her name was Maggie.
“I am. Do you have any gloves in stock, Maggie?”
She blinked several times and stammered, “The shelves are empty.”
I nodded. “I saw. Do you have any in the back maybe?”
“Um.” More blinking. “Let me ask.”
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to happen next, but I flinched when she yelled, “Emma! A customer needs help.”
This was her father’s store. I had s
uspected that I might see him, but not even once had it crossed my mind that Emma might be here. She’d moved away at eighteen for college. She had plans to be a lawyer. We had spent hours talking about our life together away from Salvation. She shouldn’t be here.
But then I saw her rounding a stack of
light bulbs and everything else faded away.
Emma. My Emma.
I ran from the store.
The day started with a feeling of dread. I couldn’t really explain it, but I’d had a knot in my stomach all morning. Even settling into a normal work day hadn’t calmed my nerves. It was finance day at the shop, which meant balancing the books and writing out paychecks.
Maggie was at the front register, chatting on the phone during lulls in customers. If I was a stricter boss, I’d ask her to save her personal calls for after work, but I didn’t really mind. She was a good girl- just a year out of high school and working to help support her younger siblings. Her casual chatter with friends was a welcome distraction from my uneasy feeling.
Just as I was closing the ledger for the month, Maggie called out to me. A customer needed help.
It wasn’t a big store, but my office was at the very back and it took a while for me to round the aisle at the front of the store. Maggie stood at the register, alone, the door swinging shut.
“Where’s the customer?” I looked around
, but no one was there.
“He left.” She looked at the door in confusion. “He was looking for gloves.”
“Gloves?” It wasn’t that surprising. We had sold a lot of work gloves since the storm came through. “Who was it?”
Maggie shrugged, her expression bewildered. “Not a local.”
“Really?” We rarely had anyone come through the store that didn’t live within a fifty mile radius.
“It was Tyler Cole,” she said, her voice breathy and soft.
My heart skipped.
“Tyler Cole?” That name hadn’t left my mouth in ten years.
“You probably don’t know who he is,” Maggie said, “but he’s a famous musician. And he’s totally hot. Like, even better looking in person than he is on television.”
“I know who he is, Maggie.” Boy did I know who Tyler Cole was. “You’re wrong about him though.”
Her head tilted questioningly.
“Tyler is definitely a local. He’s just been gone for a while.”
Thirteen years to be exact.
“I need to go out. Can you handle the store by yourself until Charles gets in?”
She nodded, already dialing her cell phone to tell her friends about her close encounter with Tyler. I was hoping to do everything possible to avoid my own close encounter with him.
T.J.!” I yelled across the street to where he was chatting with our mailman. “Time to go.”
He waved to Harry and quickly looked both ways before crossing the street. “I thought you needed to work,” he said.
I smoothed down the messy waves of his hair. “I finished early. Want to get some ice cream?”
“Duh, Mom.” He rolled his eyes like I was the dumbest person he had ever met.
“How’d you do with the fundraising?” I eyed his money jar which looked surprisingly full. “That isn’t all from the quilting club ladies, is it?”
“Some guy gave me a bunch of twenties!”
T.J. said, proudly displaying his haul for the day.
The knot in my stomach tightened and grew. My legs felt numb, but I
forced them to walk toward Hanson’s Dairy. “What kind of ice cream are you thinking today?”
T.J. got a waffle cone, piled high with chocolate ice cream and topped with sprinkles. I went with a root beer float. We settled into one of the diner-style booths and he filled me in on the latest book he was reading.
My son was a nerd, in the best sense of the word. He loved books. But he also loved to play baseball and dig in the mud, like other boys his age. I was proud that he hadn’t given up his love of reading in recent years despite the occasional teasing from his friends.
“I’m almost done with it though, so can we go to the library tomorrow?” He took a big lick of ice cream.
“I don’t think they have reopened yet,” I said, distracted by
a text vibrating my phone. Connor. I chose to ignore it. “Maybe we can drive over to Morgan.”
“That would be sweet.”
I glanced nervously out the window. I didn’t have an exit strategy if Tyler should appear, but at least I would be able to see him coming.
“You know what would be really sweet?” I kicked
T.J.’s leg under the table.
“If you cleaned your room when we got home.” I loved my son. He was smart, kind, funny, and I loved him more than anything in the world. But he was also a messy, ten-year-old boy.
I was rewarded with another eye roll.
“You are definitely my favorite child.”
T.J. giggled. “I’m your only child, Mom.”
“That’s only because I gave away the bad ones that refused to keep their rooms clean.”
“Funny.” T.J. jumped to his feet. “Can we go see if they need help with the cleanup?”
He was obsessed with the storm damage. When the storm had come through town, we’d been home, huddled in the basement. By all accounts, we had been lucky. Aside from a few missing shingles and a broken gutter, we hadn’t suffered any damage. Others had not been so lucky.
“We’ve helped every day this week,” I reminded him. “Wouldn’t you rather go home and read?”
“People need our help, Mom.”
Nothing like having your child make you feel like a bad person.
“Okay, fine. But we can’t stay long. I have a lot to do at home.”
“You need to get a life,” T.J. quipped.
I sighed dramatically. “
are my life.”
“You love me.” He grinned, looking eerily identical to his father.
“I do. You’re too charming not to love.” I stood and ruffled his hair. “Let’s go.”
Two hours later, I was sweaty, dirty, and tired. I had filled ten bags with trash and debris littering streets and yards.
T.J. had been enlisted to chase down tools and lumber for the men repairing the court house.
Lookin’ good, Emma.” Freddy Parks sent me a sly wink. Just a couple of years older than me, he had been flirting with me for years. It didn’t seem to matter to him that I was in a relationship with his cousin, Connor.
“Sweat and grime is the latest trend,” I said, wiping my brow with the back of my hand.
“Mom!” T.J. came flying across the parking lot. “Billy said I can ride in the forklift with him to pick up the supplies down the street. Can I go?”
“I don’t know.” I frowned, picturing all of the disasters that could possibly happen.
“Come on. You never let me do anything fun.” T.J. could whine with the best of them.
I waivered. “You have to stay seated the entire time.”
“Yes!” He pumped his fist. “Oh hey, there’s that guy.”
“What guy?” I whirled, searching the crowd.
“The one that gave me the twenties earlier.” Billy yelled to T.J. that he was ready to go. “Gotta go, Mom. I promise I’ll be safe.”
He was off in a flash and I was still trying to find the mystery man. When I at last found him, perched precariously on a ladder leaning against the police station, my heart started to race.
I watched as he dismounted the ladder and tossed a hammer into a toolbox. My neighbor, Glenn, said something to him and he grinned. Suddenly, I wasn’t looking at a mystery man anymore. I was seeing my best friend Tyler, thirteen and undamaged.
I didn’t talk to him at all for a year after that fight. The day after he saved me from the bullies, my mother was killed in a car accident. My entire world was changed in an instant.
For months, I didn’t talk to anyone. Summer came and I locked myself inside my bedroom, reading books and writing in my journal. I avoided calls from friends, picked at meals, and didn’t smile or laugh a single time.
But something else happened over that summer. Puberty came and unlike most kids, my body responded well to it. No acne and frizzy hair for me. My blond hair grew long and shiny, my skin dewy and unblemished. I grew several inches and my lack of appetite burned off the baby fa
t. I even miraculously grew breasts.
When I headed back to school in the fall, my newfound beauty was enough to get me an invitatio
n to the cool lunch table. I was suddenly hanging out with cheerleaders and jocks. No one seemed to remember nor care that my mother was dead. It worked out well for me, because I couldn’t bear to talk about it.
You can see why I didn’t have time to make friends with the awkward boy that had defended my honor so selflessly.
I still smiled at Tyler in the hall. He would return it with a shy one of his own. But we never talked.
Tyler’s mother had run out on the family when he was just a toddler. His father was a good man and did the best he could. Tyler always had a decent packed lunch and clean clothes, but they were shabby and out of style. His hair was washed, but poorly styled. No
ne of that had ever bothered me while we were growing up.
What did bother me in those first few months of eight grade was that Tyler had also gotten lucky during the hormonal shift. He sprouted about eight inches seemingly overnight. Since he spent the summer helping on his uncle’s farm, he’d also developed muscles and a deep tan. Simply put, he was a
The girls that I sat with at lunch often gossiped about Tyler, prodding each other to ask him out. Never mind that a year earlier they wouldn’t have been caught dead talking to him.
But I didn’t call them out on their hypocrisy. I sat quietly and nodded, all the while thinking about that day when I had walked Tyler home. What would the girls say if they knew that I had kissed Tyler on his front porch?
A month after school started
, Tyler came into the store to pick up a part for his father’s truck. I wasn’t officially old enough to work there, but I helped out stocking the shelves after school. Dad was busy helping another customer and he asked me to ring up Tyler’s purchase.
I entered the numbers into the register without saying a word. When he handed over the money, I noticed that his fingers were raw.
“What happened?” I asked, surprising myself.
“Oh. I’m teaching myself how to play the guitar.” He smiled shyly. “I’m not very good yet.”
“I could teach you.” The offer came out quite naturally. My mother had loved music and she had put me in piano and guitar lessons when I was just a small child. “I’d be happy to show you a few things.”
“That would be nice.” Tyler and I made eye contact for the first time, his icy blue eyes inescapable. “Tomorrow after school?”
“Meet me here.”
We met every day after that. The store had a stockroom in the back where we could play without disturbing anyone. At first, I showed Tyler how to play basic chords. Then we learned a few easy songs. Before long, we were writing our own lyrics.
I no longer sat at the cool table at school. Instead, Tyler and I would huddle together at a table in the corner, writing music and laughing at inside jokes. Besides music, we both also loved to read and swim in the pond when the weather got nice. We were also both motherless, being raised by good men that were in over their heads. In many ways, it felt like we were destined to become friends.
Six months after our friendship began, we finished our very first song. We had written every note, every word. Like proud parents, we smiled at the resulting music sheets. Tyler and I both sang the words, but he was a much better performer. He had a natural gift, something that couldn’t be taught. My own voice complimented his nicely, but could never stand on its own.
As we strummed the last chord, I felt happier than I had since before losing my mother. Tyler saw the joy on my face and grinned. “You have a beautiful smile,” he said.
I think that was the moment I fell in love with him. I just didn’t know it yet.
Now he was grinning again, but this time I wasn’t on the receiving end of it. It was strange to see him back in Salvation, mingling with the locals and looking perfectly comfortable in his former life. I had never expected him to return.
I thought about running away, just as he had earlier at the store. It would be a lot easier on both of us if I avoided him. But I still didn’t know why he had returned and
how long he might stay. Avoiding him for the day would be easy, but it was a small town and I was bound to run into him if he was planning to stick around for a while.
T.J. returned in the forklift, laughing and yelling as they hurried by. I watched them carefully, making sure that T.J. was safe. When I turned back, Tyler was staring directly at me. Now that we had made eye contact, there was no going back.
I waited for him to come to me, watching his familiar gait with nostalgia. His smile had faded, but his eyes still held an enticing warmth.
“Emma Wellington,” he said, with a voice that was deeper than the one I remembered.
He looked at me earnestly and asked, “What are you doing here, Emma? You don’t belong here.”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
So long ago, both of us had sworn to leave Salvation for good. I had gotten out for a few years, even finished college. But after T.J. was born, it was more important to make him a good home than worry about chasing my childhood dreams.