Stopping Your Own Heart
Rayne downshifted and slowly pulled her car up in front of Jimmy's house. Tire tracks still marked the worn path behind Jimmy's vintage truck. Large drifts of sand rose behind the tires proof that the vehicle hadn't moved in a long while. On a good day the old truck barely started. No doubt the battery was dead. Dead. Rayne drew a shaky breath.
Rayne made her way past the truck, stopping briefly to look inside the cab before continuing on. The air hung thick and still. Deathly quiet. Even the surf was nothing more than an eerie whisper as it whooshed in and out along the shore. You can do this, one step at a time.
The house looked like it was collapsing, like Jimmy had been the only thing holding it up and now that he was gone, it sagged in on itself. It had no bones, it could no longer breathe. Rayne gulped air, thought maybe she shouldn't be here, and kept on walking. She could close her eyes and hear the faint strains of Jimmy’s guitar, hear his voice whispering in the gentle breeze. Ren. Rennie.
Rayne reached the back of the property and glanced up. An image of Jimmy and her sitting on the roof flashed in her mind. Some nights the house was so hot they’d escape up there. Toad would play his guitar and make up stupid songs for her. They’d drink, they’d laugh, and they’d make out. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the smartest thing they’d ever done but they’d both been high and it had been thrilling.
She turned away, hesitated, and then started down the beach toward the palms. She'd seen enough images in the media to know they'd found Jimmy propped next to those trees. Rayne kneeled and sifted through the sand. Jimmy always buried things, dug them up, and buried them again. Nothing was there except broken glass. Shards of it littered the area, proof that he'd held her photo like they'd reported. Her heart shattered just like the glass between her fingers. One of the smaller pieces pierced her finger but she barely felt the sting.
Rayne sat back, dug the heels of her sneakers into the sand, and wrapped her arms around her knees. One of Jimmy's biggest fears had been abandonment. His parents both left him, his father by choice and his mother by death. He lost his older brother to a senseless war, lost touch with his baby sister. When his gran finally passed, all Jimmy had was this place and Rayne. But she left him too.
Struggling not to break down Rayne stood, walked toward the water, and sat in the wet sand and surf. The last time she'd been alone and scared she'd been a child wandering around an isolated beach a lot like this. Gabe found and rescued her but who would come for her now? She wanted to cry for that little girl who searched in vain for a prince who never existed, for the young woman that kissed a toad not expecting a prince and finding love she couldn't return. The little girl needed a slap though, not tears, something to wake her the hell up.
She brushed off the back of her jeans and made her way up the rear steps. The door was open. Jimmy never locked the door. He always believed there was nothing worth stealing. He was wrong of course - all that gear upstairs, his guitar, all worth more than the house itself, but he seemed to want to ignore that.
Rayne closed the door behind her and made her way to Jimmy's bathroom. She riffled through the shelves and found his stash hidden behind a dried up plant. He never remembered to water the damn things and they always died. A flare of anger surged up and then dissipated. She dumped the drugs in the toilet and flushed them away.
Going back to the shelves, she found a small bandage in an old, rusty first aid kit Jimmy kept and wrapped it around her finger even though it wasn't bleeding anymore. Jimmy bought kids bandages because he thought it was funny. This one had dinosaurs on it.
After a last look around, she headed to the bedroom. She sat down gingerly on the unmade bed, listening to it creak. An empty bottle of beer, a wadded up sock, and a vial of pills cluttered the floor. She fought the urge to drape the throw blanket around her. It would smell like Jimmy. Memories of their last night together came flooding back. They'd had an argument so stupid that Rayne couldn't remember what they'd fought over. They'd had makeup sex and wrapped themselves in that blanket afterwards. And then she'd left to meet Duff. Rayne squeezed her eyes in an effort to shut down the memories. What she wouldn't give to have Toad walk through the door, laugh and tease her, and call her Ren one more time.
The sound of a car, footsteps on the front porch, and the rasp of the front door before it slammed shut startled Rayne from her thoughts. The floorboards in the kitchen creaked. Someone was in the house. Rayne's heart thudded in her chest. She stood, picked up the flashlight Toad kept near the bed, and carefully crept toward the sound.
"What are you doing here?" Gemma Wilson stood just inside the kitchen arms folded and glaring at Rayne.
She could almost believe she was imagining things. Rayne gripped the flashlight hard, briefly considered bashing in Gemma's head, and reluctantly set it down on the table. Gemma looked surprised, off balance, and her question was predictable. Her heart hammered but she steadied herself and looked back at the other woman with what she at least intended to be complete calm. "It’s not your house, Gemma. I lived here. You didn’t. What do you want?”
Gemma cautiously walked past Rayne into the living room. "I'm Jimmy's agent. I have every right to be here. His sister is arriving today, and I'm meeting her here." Gemma looked over her shoulder at Rayne and smiled although it never reached her ice-cold blue eyes. "I have an obligation to look after his interests unlike some people."
Really. That was how Gemma wanted to play this? "No you don’t. That contract, the one Slim voided, you do remember that contract, that contract never gave you any right or obligation to walk into Jimmy’s house.”
She took one casual step toward Gemma, running her hand along the back of the couch. Gemma did not retreat. “You’re not going to find anything in here you want. It’s all gone. The only thing that was ever here that was ever worth one single little thing was Jimmy.”
“That’s a particularly stupid thing to say for someone brought up in the business. As his agent I have an absolute obligation to ensure my client’s well-being,”
Rayne clenched both of her hands and felt Jimmy’s little dinosaur band aid tighten around her finger. Anger struck through her. “His well-being? You were never interested in Jimmy’s well-being. You used him, you used him to get a contract with my father’s label, you didn’t give a damn about him.” She forced herself to pause and to take another step closer to the other woman.
“And about that contract…how did you manage that? You’re not a very good agent - you made a fool of yourself chasing my father - but suddenly there it is. Like magic!” Almost in her face by now, Rayne raised her voice and this time deliberately. “Why are they protecting you? Is it really because you slept with him?”
"You think I slept with Cooper? Slept? You're a child," Gemma snapped back.
Taken aback, Rayne stared at her for a moment before cautiously responding. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Grow up Rayne. I have other things to do today than stand around chatting with you about Cooper. Whether or not we had a relationship is none of your business. It's an adult relationship, and you are definitely not an adult."
As stupid and meaningless as that was, if that got out, Jimmy would become just the guy with the Girlfriend Contract. Jimmy's talent, his creativity, his charisma, his unique style, none of it would ever matter. All anybody would remember was that. Gemma leveraged whatever happened into getting what she wanted, and now it all came slamming down on Toad.
“You are using Jimmy. You show up here, walk into his house, and all the while you know what you’re planning will take what little he has left. Even dead, you’re still using him.”
"Between Cooper and Slim, they are ruining me."
"Between Cooper and Slim, they are ruining me."
And with that, Rayne lost her control. "How in hell are you ruined?! Because Slim was a fucking asshole? Go someplace else! Go across the street to Red! That’s Blade’s label! You’re going to scald Jimmy's memory because Slim tore up your precious contract? You horrible cow, nobody gives a damn about you or that stupid fake contract! This is about Jimmy's memory!"
Gemma whipped around. "I don't care!"
"But I do…" A voice, smoky and low just like Jimmy's only softer, floated into the room. A girl, the spitting image of Toad and no older than Rayne, watched them both from the doorway.
Silent and graceful, the girl walked in, offered a brief, forlorn smile at Rayne, and glanced down at the table where Jimmy's tarot cards still lay. "Abandonment, betrayal, and death. Jimmy must've threw those down at least a dozen times."
"You must be Jimmy's sister. I'm so sorry for your loss." Gemma reached out for the girl but she shrugged her off and went instead to Rayne.
Jimmy's sister looked like a mirror image of Toad, the same blonde hair, same turbulent and unusual eyes, and the same gentle soul. The girl wrapped Rayne in a warm embrace anchoring her in a shared bond with someone they'd both loved.
"You're just like he described. Jimmy told me we'd meet one day. I'm Remy."
Remy linked her arm with Rayne's, walked her toward the door, and whispered conspiratorially, "Go on now, you go on home and don't you worry. I'm gonna have a sit-down with the Dragon Lady here."
Rayne knew her hands were shaking and she clenched them, checked them and willed them to stop it. She was fine, she was almost positive she could get in her car and drive. She looked at her hands again to make sure they weren’t shaking and saw the little dinosaur band aid on her finger. It was a red one with blue eyes.
She looked down the road at her car and thought miserably that she probably could not drive after all which would make her look like an emotional baby. Of all the humiliating ways to end this, sitting on the curb bawling was just about the worst.
Sunlight reflected off something bright, the sound of a car pulling up behind her on the worn road, parking behind Jimmy’s truck with a crunch of tires on gravel and seashells, and there was her brother walking across the weedy grass. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He was supposed to be miles and miles away, but here he was with her.
She should be surprised but she felt flat. Oh. I'm surprised. I’m past feeling it. I don't know what to do. In his quiet voice Eric asked her, “Rainie are you okay? What’s going on?”
The screen door swung open and banged on the wall as Gemma left the house, Remy following her. Remy hung back to one side, catching and holding Rayne’s eyes, but Gemma stared directly at Eric. They looked at one another as if neither recognized the other and they probably didn't.
Eric took a step away from Rayne toward the porch. He nodded at both Gemma and Remy in acknowledgement before he said anything. “I’m Eric Stanfield. Who might the two of you be?”
Remy slid around Gemma and made her way quietly down the steps. “Gemma Wilson,” Gemma responded in a tight, angry voice. “You’re Cooper’s son? You don’t look like your father.”
It was an odd personal remark maybe intended to imply he wasn’t Cooper's son at all. At first glance Eric really didn’t look much like Cooper. Eric pulled his heavy dark hair off his face as the wind whipped off the channel. He would recognize the name; even though he'd never met her, he knew who Gemma was.
“No,” he agreed. "I don't, but you’ll know who I am the next time we meet.”
Remy was pressing her phone number into Rayne’s hand, and she touched the band aid with one gentle finger. “Jimmy’s band aids?”
“You should take the rest of them.”
Eric was waiting, Gemma was still on the porch, and it felt like Jimmy himself was in there watching her. Rayne didn’t want to go back into the house. Remy patted her arm. “I’ll get them for you. We can talk another time, don’t worry.”
Eric turned back to her and for the first time looked directly at Remy. She looked back, and a red blush rose in her cheeks before she broke the contact and studied the toes of her boots. Her brother still didn’t move, a stunned expression across his face, then he said, “Hi, nice to meet you. Remy is it?”
“Okay.” Looking like someone had hit him across the back of his head with a heavy board, but recovering enough to find his smile, Eric repeated himself. “Yeah, okay, it’s nice to meet you Remy.”
Rayne watched the exchange in disbelief. Remy was pretty, and Eric was nice, and the whole situation was horrible, so maybe he was trying to reassure her. It didn’t look like reassurance. It looked like what it probably was, and right now that was as strange as finding a diamond in the dust behind her.
Eric tore himself away from Remy with obvious regret and took her arm, steering her away from the view of the porch although Gemma had gone back inside. “Can you drive Rayne? You don’t look like you can drive.”
Maybe. She still wasn’t sure she could drive the length of the whole long road through the islands to South Beach but she was sure she wasn’t going to fall down in front of Gemma. “I’m driving out of here. If I can make it back to the lighthouse, I can make it all the way back to South Beach, but if I can’t I’m still driving away from this house.”
He nodded. “Okay, let’s hit it. And Rainie?”
She ran her hand across her face and then dropped it and marched on. The long rough calls of the crows rose above the sound of the waves, all of it familiar and shockingly unchanged. “What.”
“Jimmy's not there, Rayne. Jimmy's gone. Don’t look back."