It seems the things worth keeping are often the hardest to hold…
I had two things in life that mattered. My mother and my music.
Mama was taken from me too soon, and now music is all I have left. It’s the thing that’s pushed me right out of backwoods Georgia into Los Angeles, where the line between fantasy and reality shimmers and blurs. I’m finally making my way, making my mark. I can’t afford to fall for one of music’s brightest stars. Not now. Music is all I have left, and I’m holding on tight with both hands. I won’t let go, not even for Rhyson Gray.
I had one thing in my life that mattered – music. The only constant, it’s taken me to heights most people only dream about; a gift dropped in my lap at birth. I thought it was enough. I thought it was everything until I met Kai. Now she’s all I think about, like a song I can’t get out of my head. If I have to chase her, if I have to give up everything – I will. And once she’s mine, I won’t let go
My Soul to Keep
First Three Chapters
Copyright (c) Kennedy Ryan, 2015
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Chapter One – Kai
Mama has been dying all day.
ALS is a stealthy thief. It stole Mama’s wide, crooked-tooth smile and left her face a plane of twitches and jerks. That funny snap, snap she’d do with her fingers before she started making a fresh batch of biscuits? That saucy little pop and sway of her hips when she raced around the house on Sunday mornings, late for church? ALS snatched those long ago. Now, Mama’s fingers lie limp at her sides on the bed sheets, the complete stillness startling and sad.
ALS is a slow assassin and it’s been killing my mama for five years.
But I only realize now that the sound of her breath—barely a wheeze breezing past her lips—is the sound of her dying today.
I bundle up a question and a plea into that one word and pray for an answer to either. I’m asking if she’s still here. I’m begging her to stay. Oh, I hear that thin, labored breath. I feel that thready pulse, faintly thrumming through the vellumed skin of her wrist. I know she’s alive, but is she still here? I’ve sensed her soul wrestling with her body all week, trying to break free for the promise of Heaven that keeps Mama going on her hardest days.
The Hospice workers trickle in and out of Mama’s small, orderly bedroom, keeping her as comfortable as a woman slowly choking on her own breath can be. They don’t know if she can hear me. They only know that she can no longer respond. I am left waiting for the battle to end and for her soul to escape its bodily misery. Mama has endured this last stretch of a race I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I confess there were times I longed for this day. Longed for it to all be over, not just for Mama but for me too. I know it’s selfish, but things have been so hard. So different from before. Most of my life, I have been at the center of Mama’s world. Dance classes, cheerleading, gymnastics, and vocal lessons—I did them all. Our life was a flurry of activity, shuffling between the small diner downstairs Mama owns with Aunt Ruthie and any number of things I was involved in. Mama dedicated a good part of her life and energy to making sure when my big break came, I’d be ready. But the big break is in my heart. And even though months ago, with the last few words Mama could actually speak, she assured me she was ready, I know I am not.
The tears burn like kerosene, but I refuse to close my eyes. What would I miss? Her eyes flickering open for a last glance? Her mouth pulling into that tender just-for-me smile one final time? I won’t look away.
“You need to get some rest, darlin’.”
Aunt Ruthie’s voice sneaks up on me from behind. I drag my eyes from Mama’s face, pale against the faded floral pillowcase long enough to glance over my shoulder. Aunt Ruthie leans into the doorjamb, which I think is the only thing holding her up. Fatigue and weariness have made themselves at home in the deeper crevices around her mouth and eyes. Running Glory Bee, the best little restaurant in our small town, Glory Falls, by herself hasn’t been easy. She may not be blood, but she is family, and she’s been there for Mama and me through all of this.
Mama was the cook of the operation, and Aunt Ruthie, her best friend since third grade, was the business mind. It’s so ironic that as far as I can tell, my Korean mother makes the best Southern food this side of the Mississippi. She’s known nothing but Georgia though, so her Korean heritage is not so much lost as never found. My grandparents, a Southern Baptist pastor and his wife, adopted her days after she was born. They brought her home from their mission trip, much to their congregation’s confusion and then delight. That little, odd-looking girl, so exotic among the farmers and simple, hard-working folks became the sweetheart of Glory Falls Baptist Church. And when Grandpa finally retired, his young assistant pastor was the natural candidate for his replacement and Mama’s husband.
A hurt so old it’s cracked and fragile, threatening to fall apart if I think on it too long, lies heavy on my heart. Daddy should be here. He should be the one holding Mama’s hand and crying and loving her until the end. No telling where he is, but it sure as hell ain’t here. He hasn’t been for many years.
Son of a bitch.
Mama would tap my wrist for swearing. Aunt Ruthie never really cared about the bad words. Her hand on my shoulder reminds me she wants me to rest, but I’m not sure I can leave Mama’s side.
“Go on out to the front porch for a bit, Kai Anne. Grab some air.” Aunt Ruthie’s Southern drawl is even slower than usual, exhaustion dragging at the words.
“No, I don’t want…I can’t…”
The words fade like my hope.
“A few minutes won’t hurt, honey.”
I look up and over my shoulder, snagging her eyes with mine, trying to see if she actually believes it. And if so, how much time do I have left with Mama? A day? Two?
“You really believe that?”
“I’ll call you in here if…” Aunt Ruthie’s words follow the same trail mine do, and I wonder if her hope is as faint. “I’ll call if you need to come.”
Mama’s still as a tomb. Her dark hair fans out behind her. Her eyes are closed, and it’s been days since I’ve seen them open, but I remember those eyes. They tilt more than mine. They’re darker than mine. My skin is a fainter gold. My faith is not as strong. She always said I was the brightest thing in this town, but I am a shadow of her in every way that counts. And when she’s gone, what will I be then?
I settle onto the front step with its loose board that Mama never got around to fixing. Daddy promised at least once a week to replace this board that wiggles beneath my bottom as I wait here for the sunrise. I was eight when he left, and always wondered if Mama never fixed that board because she’d be admitting Daddy was never coming home.
Arms around my knees, shivering against the cold, bare feet on the next step down, I wait. I wait for Mama’s favorite time of day. Mama loved…Mama loves the sunrise. A new day means new mercies, she’d always say. God’s mercies are new every morning. I search the sky now for mercy. For respite. For light. For a stay of the death hovering over our little house tucked down a dirt road. I wait for the sun to stretch up over the horizon, but right now, I only see dawn; that limbo that hangs between night and day. If I can only see the sunrise.
God, give me one more day. One more day of Mama’s fresh mercies.
And just as I’m sure the light is coming to brighten the smudgy hue of dawn, the screen door behind me creaks open. Aunt Ruthie is standing there, face lit by the porch light.
“You better come.” She thumbs at the tears sliding down her hollowed cheeks. “Come on say good-bye.”
This is the break I could never be ready for. Mama breaking free of this world. Free of the pain. This disease has pressed her like a flower between pages. I look back to the sky, but there is still no sun. Still no mercy.
When I go to Mama, it feels like the room holds its breath, as if it’s waiting for something. Everything is so still. I don’t know how much of my mama is left in this body, frail and stiff and paralyzed, but whatever part of her remains would hate this. She’s fastidious. She’d hate the fact that she cannot control her own drool. That someone else tends to her most intimate needs. When Daddy left, there was a span when Mama was so broken, truly on her own for the first time and unsure if she would manage. For the most part, she recovered. The fiercely independent woman she became would hate all the ways she can no longer take care of herself.
She twists and jerks under the sheets. Even with her eyes closed, a frown puckers her otherwise slackened face. She’s not at ease, and yet I see why Aunt Ruthie called me. At any moment, she may be gone. I wonder why she lingers. Mama believes so deeply in the peace beyond this life. As much as I’ll miss her, as much as I already feel the black hole spreading over my heart like an ink blot, I want that peace for her. I want her to go.
And then it occurs to me. Maybe I know what Mama’s waiting for. I pull back the covers, pressing my fit body to her frail one, laying my warmth against her, and I say the words she used to comfort me countless times. The prayer that many a night she’d say to send me on my way.
“Now I lay me down to sleep.” As soon as the words leave my mouth, tears leak down my cheeks. “I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
I lean closer, absorbing as much of her essence as I can before she leaves this world because there will never be another like her. I wrap my arms tight around her tiny, fitful body fighting for peace and whisper in her ear.
“If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
And like my words turned a key to the door she needed to walk through, her body stills. I swear the room around us sighs. Mama draws one last labored breath and then no more.
Chapter Two – Kai
“You’d be late for your own funeral, Kai.”
The words in my head, as clear as if Mama is rushing off the L.A. Metro bus behind me, pounding alongside me on the sidewalk, jar my thoughts. Even as my heart pinches in my chest, my mouth pulls into my mama’s smile. The one her little bits of wit and wisdom always squeezed out of me growing up. The ones that still do.
“I know, Mama.” I adjust my backpack and quicken my steps. “I’m working on it.”
My phone squawks from my pocket. I know it’s Santos, my roommate and best friend, texting me. Bugging me. Worried about me, as usual. Not breaking stride, I pull the phone out, and sure enough.
Santos: What the hell? This is not the day to be late. U OK?
With my head lowered, I rapid-fire my thumbs across the keypad and barely miss walking into a tow zone sign. I stand still to finish the message. I don’t care if it’s Cher waiting at our voice coach’s house. Even she’s not worth a concussion. And as much as I love Cher, that’s saying something.
Me: Up the street and on my way. Missed my bus. Audition was a joke. Can’t wait to tell. Who’s Grady’s mystery guest?
Santos: Hurry your narrow ass up and see for yourself.
I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be less impressed than Santos, which doesn’t take much. An unabashed celebrity whore, he even gets the autographs of obscure reality stars. Really? Excuse me for not being impressed that you are just like me, only you get paid to shop, eat, and act the fool on camera. That isn’t talent, and I don’t need you to sign anything for me. But thanks.
I stomp the last few blocks to Grady’s bungalow. Every time my foot slams into the sidewalk, I envision that vile man’s face from the audition I just left under it. Any audition that ends with an invitation to suck a man’s dick is suspect, wouldn’t you say? I’m tired of being propositioned and objectified and pressured to sleep with these predators who assume I’ll set up a drive-thru between my legs to get a record deal. I know girls who do that. Some days, I wish I could throw off my principles and take the easy way. On my back and on my knees, but Mama’s voice, even six months after she passed, is still strong in my ears. Strongest in my heart.
Grady’s bungalow is deceptively simple. I haven’t been in L.A. long, but even I know anything in Arcadia costs a pretty penny. At least more pretty pennies than I have to rub together. Grady houses a small studio in the back of the bungalow where he teaches voice and music. He and Santos have been my saving grace in this town. One my longtime friend and lifeline, the other a mentor of sorts who has grown into the closest thing I’ve felt to family since I moved here from Georgia.
The heavy wooden door stands open, with just the screen door between me and the muted sounds beyond the entrance and down the hall. Judging by all the cars in the driveway and along the street, every one of Grady’s students has shown up to meet this mystery guest he’s been dangling in front of us like a carrot for the last couple of weeks. Guess I’m here to bite like everyone else.
I step inside and close and lock the door after me. Even in this neighborhood, you can never be too safe. And I doubt anyone will be coming after me considering how late I am. The living room, with its eclectic mixture of modern and antique, stands empty. The music, now that I’m inside, reaches me from the rear studio.
And what music. I stop, needing to stand still for a moment. Needing these notes to wash over and past me. I’ve never heard Grady’s old baby grand sound like this. Like some magician is coaxing tricks from it, nimbly charming the keys to make miracles. I don’t know classical music very well. Get much beyond “Chopsticks” and I can’t name tunes, but even I know that whoever is playing is brilliant. Just moments before, I needed to stand still, but now my feet urge me forward. I have to see who’s playing. I want to see them in the throes of this.
I stand in the doorway of the studio, ignoring all the other students standing along the walls and sitting on the hardwood floor. My eyes stick to the man I can see just head and shoulders of in the space between the lifted lid and the piano desk. His eyes are closed, and thank God for that, because it would be so awkward for him to catch me gaping at him. I instantly know him, of course. It’s Rhyson Gray, one of the most gifted and well-known musicians in the world, but right now, I don’t see the shiny layers of fame, wealth, and privilege I would typically associate with him. The piece he’s playing holds him captive, sloughing away all those layers until only this raw yearning on his face remains. His eyes are closed tightly, his brows knitted with the passion of the music he seduces out of the piano.
His features are almost too much. His nose is strong, straight, and prominent. His brows are thick, dark, and slashing. His mouth is wide, sensual, and full. The hard angle of his jaw clenches, like this piece he’s playing submerges him in the same emotion drowning me, but he disciplines his face against it. His shoulders are broader than I imagined they’d be, the muscles flexing beneath the white T-shirt covering them as he plays. I’m not even sure if he’s handsome, but I know he’s dangerously magnetic, like the center of a whirlpool. Something that would suck you in and down before you had time to pull away.
I don’t know this piece, but it knows me. Each note slides in, occupying some corner of my soul that’s been barren and empty. And the melody breezes in, scattering dust and cobwebs. Breathing in life. This music, with its rushing crescendos and heaving turns, refreshes me, and I have no idea why. Is it the music? Is it him? Are they separate or somehow inextricably entwined? I love music and know like I know my own name that it is what I’m meant to do, but I’ve never been moved this way by it. Not this deeply, this quickly, this thoroughly. Like those fingers touching those keys are actually touching me. And though I’m completely covered, I feel naked and exposed. I can only hope that no one sees. That he won’t see.
And then the music ends. With a crash of keys, it’s over, and thunderous applause presses into the awed silence that immediately follows. Those who were sitting, stand and clap and cheer. We all know we’ve brushed up against greatness. I’m grateful for the clamor, giving me time to compose myself. To reassemble all the pieces that music broke me into. And the culprit—the man who undid me so effortlessly—opens his eyes like he’s coming to himself. Like he’d forgotten we were even there, voyeurs to this fantastic musical display. And then I see those layers wrapping back around him. It starts with the tightening of those full lips, pulled into a practiced smile. It moves to his shoulders, pressed back with pride. And it settles over his eyes, the naked passion of that music hidden in seconds behind the dark, guarded eyes that all of a sudden stare back at me.
Chapter Three – Rhyson
When I was eleven years old taking the stage at Royal Albert Hall in London for the first time, I told myself it was a sea of faces out there in the audience. I never allowed myself to focus on one particular person. In every venue since, whether before thousands or a group as small as Grady’s vocal class, I always block out the faces. I smile. I may even bow, but I blur the faces to remain blissfully oblivious to their expressions of approval, pleasure, or disdain. It insulates me from the crowd and cocoons me inside the music, which is the safest place I have found so far.
Except today, I open my eyes at the end of the Chopin piece, prepared to blindly glance over the crowd in Grady’s studio, when I see a face. A particular face in a sea of faces. Everyone around her claps, but she doesn’t. Her hands hang at her sides, and her expression hovers somewhere between devastation and delight. When music truly affects me, I don’t clap either. I don’t stand to my feet. I absorb. I let the music change me, touch me, and possess me. That’s what she’s doing. I recognize it. Everyone around her appreciated my music, but I can see that she, this girl, communed with it.
She is looking at me. I am looking at her. Her face…I wish I had the right words. I write songs and create music for a living. I practically bleed my thoughts and feelings into everything I compose, into every lyric. But I can’t find the words to adequately describe this girl. Maybe I’ve seen girls prettier than she is, but it’s hard to tell, because even with the width of Grady’s small music room separating us, it’s like I’ve been hurled into an electrical storm. My brain is charged and my thoughts are icy water suspended and trapped inside my head. It’s a face I can only inadequately describe as…extravagant. Like God spared no expense when He made this girl.
If I take her in parts, maybe I will do a better job of this. She has this wide mouth the color of fire-blasted rose petals. Her chin is slightly pointed, narrow, but her face widens and flares at her high cheekbones. Her eyes, the darkest, richest sable—glintless, fleckless, bottomless brown—carry a dramatic tilt, and I am sure a glance from her could seduce me. This, combined with her honeyed skin, make me wonder if she has Asian ancestry somewhere down the line. Her eyebrows are thick and smooth over an abundance of eyelashes. So thick and so long they look fake, but I know they are not. There is nothing fake about this girl. No artifice. Not even makeup. Her beauty is raw and unfiltered. Long, dark hair runs down her back. Of all things, she wears a Madonna T-shirt from the The Virgin Tour. Her skinny jeans mold her slim legs. Small feet in Toms. Simple silver musical notes in her pierced ears. She is this heady mixture of exotic and mundane, and just being in the same room is giving me a buzz. Imagine if I touched her. Imagine if I kissed her. Imagine if I fucked her. I’d be done for.
But I suspect she’d be worth it.
Grady’s hand on my shoulder, his words of praise, and the students crowding around me pry my attention from the petite girl by the door. And when my eyes again seek out that particular face in the sea of faces, she’s gone.