Lost and found (1-8)

1 .

Standing in front of the judge, he felt shame and anger burn heavy on his shoulders. The court room was jampacked, but the silence grew thick and deadly. He could hear the thoughts, his, theirs, angry and deceived, sad and demanding. He felt ashamed, he felt indignant, he felt used, and terribly lonely amidst all those people.

The verdict was pronounced, and then, a loud rumble of human voices swept across the room. He heard the shock of the people gathered to witness the final day of his trial, the astonishment of the fans who had no right to be there but who also had no right to be kept away from him. He had been in the limelight for so long. They had followed his life faithfully; he was their son, their brother, their… leader.

He stood for a while in the center of commotion, keeping his lips tight, trying to grasp the meaning of it. He had been found guilty. He was legally a criminal.

Not guilty of illegal drug distribution, but guilty of drug possession and abuse. Fined with ten thousand dollars and three months of public work in a school.

-Sweetheart, come here -his mother whispered, taking him in her arms, pressing her tear-stained face to his cheeks. He hardly had enough power in his own arms to hug her back.

The father rubbed his son’s back, keeping silent, averting his gaze. Josh knew Jack was hurting very much, but as always, he would let Lindy do the talking and consoling in public. He would receive all Jack’s repressed love and pain as soon as they got home.

Chris was standing next to them, watching mother and son embrace. He looked puzzled and helpless, not knowing what to do, how to react.

David was scratching his chin, looking very out of synch with the whole situation.

Brian’s face was impassable.

And behind them, the fans. He did not want to look them in the eye. Yet, he saw, clearly, how a woman was sobbing so hard she was shaking, and two others were trying to calm her. He also noticed smaller groups of people, standing apart and silent, watching him. Their faces were a blur, but their eyes burned into his skin, into his heart. Some of them were understanding, others sympathetic, others pitying, but most of them confused and sad, and some of them even disappointed.

Life as he knew it was over. The golden age of feeling special and cherished by millions, gone down the drain. He had been an example to so many people. Now he would take his place next to those who were considered a threat. It was almost expected of Marilyn Manson or Eminem to shock and cause a storm, but Josh Groban, the pure and gifted, the kind and generous, the singing sensation and sweetheart of countless people to commit a crime- it was unheard of. He felt the burden of his remorse and anger manifold. His cheeks burned against his mother’s, and all he wanted was to disappear from the courthouse and be left alone.

-Let’s go home -Jack said slowly, patting Josh on the back.

-Can we leave through a side-door or something? -Chris suggested. -They’re gonna eat us alive out there.

-You go without me -Josh said, clearing his throat. -I’ll leave through the front door.

-You are not going alone -Lindy squeezed her son’s slender waist, shedding a few tears. -We’re one family and we’ll deal with this together.

Josh kissed his mom’s forehead and smiled sadly.

-I don’t deserve your kindness now -he said, his voice all emotional. -I let you all down. I let so many people down. But I… it was just a… it wasn’t my intention. I was not…

-Stop, honey -Lindy said, carressing the burning cheeks. She looked into the dark eyes that were moist and on the brink of spilling. -I need no explanation from you, not now. We talked about this, we know it was a misunderstanding.

-No, it wasn’t -Brian interjected angirly. He had not yet spoken that night. -I told you to stay away from drugs, didn’t I?

-But I was only going to… try the stuff -Josh raised his voice, exasperated at his manager’s accusations. -Or maybe I wasn’t. I’m not even sure any more, okay? A few grams of bloody coke. Did I kill anyone? Did I empty a bank? Did I hurt somebody? Jesus Christ.

-Well, you hurt more people than you will ever know -Brian hissed, his anger rising in his eyes. -Why do you think you had been so popular until now? Because of your image, Josh. It’s not your voice only. You had been an angel to your fans.

-No one told them to believe that -Josh retorted, his eyes flashing. -I never said I was perfect. Fuck.

-Josh, please -Lindy begged him, squeezing his hand. -I am sure your fans will be very understanding.

-“Noel” sales are already lagging behind -Brian retorted, then opened his arms when he saw Jack’s angry glance. -What? Do we push our heads in the sand now? You all have to face it. It was not a big crime, and it would go unnoticed from any other celebrity, but not Josh. I’m not saying they will be disappointed with him forever, but expect some storms and nasty articles. All those people who had been waiting for him to trip will jump at this opportunity and paint the picture of a stuck-up starlet with a criminal mind.

-Brian, enough -Jack said, taking a step closer with his hands in a fist. -We have had enough for a day, thank you.

Brian tilted his head and signalled that he was done.

Josh felt the certitude of Brian’s words, the silent compassion of his old friend and mentor by his side, heard his mother’s quiet weeping, Chris’s uncomfortable sniffling, and above it all, the silence, that of his anger and confusion. He was angry with himself, with Brian, with the judge, with the policemen who had to catch him speeding that night, with his fans who had expected so much of him, and were now disappointed.

-Come on -Lindy said, gently pulling him by the arm. -We go home.

2.

-Mr Groban, do you wish to comment on the verdict?

-Hey Josh, can you tell us what it felt like using for the first time?

-Did you buy cocaine to enhance your music writing experience?

-Mrs Groban, how does it feel to find out your son is a drug addict?

The family struggled through the endless crowd of reporters as inhuman voices cut the air to reach and stab them in the heart. Josh hung his head as he walked with his father on his left and his manager on his right. Lindy and Chris were following them with David and Darren helping to get rid of unwanted hands and camera flashes.

-We do not wish to make any statement -Brian said, lifting his hand, repeating his words for everyone to hear despite the roaring of the crowd.

Josh saw several of his fans standing further away, all around, in groups of four or five. He recognized some of the faces he had been seeing for years and years at his shows, since the very beginnings of his career. He wanted to smile at them and say something reassuring, but his shame muted him completely, so he merely glanced at them with eyes that were quickly filling up with tears after which he finally reached the car and got inside, banging the door, feeling his mother’s hand already on his as his father quickly drove away.

The silence was palpable as they sped towards their freedom and the home that had always been a safe place to flee to. The car engine was doing its best to overcome the pain of lacking words but Josh could hear things very clearly in his head. Guilty. Public work. Crime. Guilty. Drug addict. Guilty. It was all he could focus on, the novelty of being pointed at, of being accused of something he was not. He was not a drug addict. He had been stopped by a policeman and they found a tiny amount of cocaine in his pocket: that hardly amounted to drug addiction. How he used to chuckle at articles written on him about being gay, being shy, being dirty-mouthed, being whatever. But this… this was something serious and the law went hand in hand with anything that would be written from the next day on. He was officially a criminal.

Lindy fought hard to find words for her son, words to calm his soul and make him feel loved, but she had lost her persuasive skills. She was out of arguments, she was out of reassuring sentences. She had said them all and he seemed to ignore her every word anyway, turning away from her and hiding into his dark cave. She held his hand, stroking it gently, wishing she could do anything to help, praying that God would lift his spirits soon.

Josh knew his mother was struggling, but he was unable to tell her everything would be alright. The way he felt did not allow any positivity to grow inside himself despite the shiny autumn day. Everything he had worked for, everything he had been given would be taken away, gradually, without him even noticing. His public work would ensure that there would be no shows for at least three months, and there was no way he could appear in talk shows or anything like that. Hey Josh, was it a tiring day at school? How much more time do you have to do? Oh heck, you’re lucky you didn’t get imprisoned. Though to be sure, your Grobanites would have broken in to help you escape at the risk of their own incarceration. He swallowed at the imagined remarks, hearing the laughter, the perhaps well-meaning fun, and pictured himself smiling, doing his best to save his face and not break down or punch the interviewer.

It was not right. So many people committed crimes. There were no public hearings and there were no people pointing at this or that because they robbed a bank or killed somebody, but here he was, an otherwise insignificant guy who happened to possess bloody ten grams of cocaine, and the media exploded. His eyes scanned the outside world as it was speeding by, perceiving lights and shadows and traces of things he used to know, all in a blur of uncertainty.

-Hey Sweeney -he petted the dog on its head, trying to get past him and go inside, but the animal sensed he was not there mentally and followed him impatiently, pushing him with his nose in the calves, jumping up to place his front paws on Josh’s thighs. -Yes, I notice you -Josh said, scratching Sweeney behind his ear, gently pushing him away. -Not now, Sweens, please.

The dog sat down, staring at Josh, then at Chris who followed his brother, then at the parents.

-Come ‘ere boy, come ‘ere -Chris mumbled, picking Sweeney up, carrying him inside the living-room, sitting down with him on the sofa.

-Lunch is already in the oven -Lindy’s voice was high with the effort to sound enthusiastic and merry. -Go get some rest honey, we’ll eat in an hour.

Josh nodded, wanting to say he was not tired, he was not ill, he was not someone who needed looking after, but in fact, his legs felt leaden and his fingers refused to grab the handrail as he walked up to his room in slow motion. He knew his family was following his every move, worried, scared, but his mental exhaustion ruined his ability to think of others for the time being.

On his bed, he lay with legs apart and one arm under his head, the other resting on his chest. The sun shone brightly outside, and for a moment he thought of the beach, endless and bright and hot, full of happy people spending happy times with each other. A walk with Sweeney in the sunset, the warm sand covering his bare toes. That would be great. A crazy session of Final Fantasy or The Simpsons Game or some mindless shooter game until he drops off his feet. He wanted either complete silence or explosive clamour, but he knew with a sinking heart that he would get a mellow, unnaturally happy day with his parents, a relatively normal Chris, and a dog who always found him out, no matter how hard he tried to hide his moods.

Turning on his side, he blew into the sheet, forcefully pushing the past events off his mind, trying to think of what lay ahead of him. It was in vain to think of his cancelled tour dates as they only made his heart beat fast in anger, but if he wanted to be completely honest, it was also a relief. Sort of. In the last minute, Brian had squeezed in ten shows betwen Manila and Christmas, which had been a pain in the eye since he first found out about them, despite them being promotional events, with only one or two songs to be sung from Noel. Apart from the strangely exhilerating feeling of relative freedom from his usual rotuine, he found himself curious about the work he would have to do. In a school. Some adult teaching programme or what it was. He had been too dizzy with anger and shock to pay attention to the details coming from Judge Chalfant.

Oh, it was no use. He could be trying to look at the bright side, but the certainty of becoming someone bad in the eyes of so many was constantly on his mind like an aching tooth. One could distract oneself, one could take pills to alleviate the pain, but sooner or later the pain would return. Shame make him curl up in the bed, angrily grabbing his pillow, venting his anger into mentally cursing everyone who had depicted him as a saint. They had no right, he was not perfect, and lo and behold, he finally proved them wrong. He should have been happy. He should have been relieved. No one would ever think of him as an angel.

He’ s a wonderful artist and a very good man.

Well, he can’t be that good if he was punished by law for using drugs.

Logically speaking, he was supposed to be grateful that fate settled his long-time worry for him- but the feelings eddying in his mind were as far from bliss as the two arctic poles from each other. He would have wanted to settle it his own way, or not at all. What was the harm of being considered a good example to so many people? He had been praised, looked up to, admired for his inner beauty. Brian was right: his popularity had been kindled and transformed from the tiny cinders of being a glorious new talent into a fire of superhuman magnitude, that of a shining star, hyper-talented, open to new ideas in his profession, and inherently good. This goodness was ruined now; whatever he would do, the scar on his public image would always be there. Between feeling ashamed in front of his fans and despising himself for allowing temptation to grab hold of his better mind there was, of course, the feeling of anger for being found out on probably the only occasion he would ever succumb to drugs, and a worse kind of anger, for having to feel ashamed. Why? He was not accountable for anything in front of anyone. It was not his duty to preserve the peace of mind of millions of fans, especially not by abstaining from everything that could have been fun in a wicked way. Yes, drugs. Goddammit. So what if he wanted to use some? He could have been an addict for all they cared really. They cared about who they imagined him to be… about who they saw on the stage, in interviews, shows, read about in articles, message boards, online chats. He had been perfect in the public eye. He had given them everything. He had sacrificed most of his time to make them happy, and at the first tiny little mishap (or, wait, the second, after the Blender article) they collapsed into themselves. He had only seen a few threads on his message board that surfaced even before his trial had been appointed for him to know that his so-called fans were relentless.

I love Josh but with this stunt he had really pulled the plug. This is unaceptable for an artist of his stature.

I forgave probably more than any Grobanite present here (including standing in the rain for nothing and being shoved away to the back rows to allow younger fans into the limelight for marketing purposes) but this, this is too much.

What have you done to us, Josh?

What have you done to yourself? Are you not happy?

If he is so unhappy, I want to kill myself.

Don’t kill yourself sweetheart, he is not worthy of it. No one is worthy of it.

Which was certainly true. He would never want to be the reason for anyone’s death, especially not self-inflicted. But… the pain of being considered unworthy was in a very selfish way stronger than the remorse he would have felt knowing he had made someone commit suicide.

Argh. Turning on the crumpled covers he faced the window, the sunshine. He stared into the light that blinded him, refusing to blink, focusing on the harsh yellow light of a day in LA. It was so unlike his mood that he was hoping to get soaked in positivity and later perhaps he could walk down to his parents’ living-room with a smile and a heart at ease.

3.

No matter how hard he tried to push those evenings out of his mind, the image of his mom who showed a brave face despite the fact that she was probably crumbling inside lingered, and lingered. Ironically, the one person who tried so hard to alleviate his pain, made it harder for him. She was all endeavour and eagerness, ready to laugh at unexpected moments and organize little family get togethers, even if they only meant having coffee in the living-room. She talked about the future, their future, as a family. His future, as a singer and as a man. She asked him about his plans. She made tentative plans for him. She asked what if, what about, where, how. She was there for him, 150%, and yet, he felt it as a burden: that gentle soul of a mother reminded him of all that which he would have given ten years of his life to forget, if only for a day.

His flat that he recently purchased on Sunset Avenue was less pompous than the more sought-after residences in the area, but it was closely situated to parks and green areas, as well as the International Airport, both very good reasons for him to consider buying it. On the first day after he moved in he took Sweeney for an exhausing walk to the Marine Park, and the dog appreciated every moment of it, save for the last hour, when he mostly crawled after his owner, panting and puffing like an old man. In fact, they were both puffing like old men, but Josh blessed his luck now, after tiring himself out on a Sunday evening. The last one before his work would start. At least he had parks to fle to. And the ocean nearby.

After feeding Sweeney, he took a shower that was planned as a quick one, but ended up in a marathon water-wasting and steam-producing endeavour. He really felt like nothing else. Standing under the water, he received a purpose, that of standing in the water, soaking in the hot droplets, letting his hair soak, trying to breathe through the heavy, hot steam. It was useful activity: it would make him clean, refreshed. Energised. Ready to fight whatever demons he would have to fight from the next day on.

Consuming his stale Thai take-away, he watched Sweeney with a contemplating look. The dog had his head on his front paws, his eyes looking up and into his master’s. He tried to coax a distracted Josh into playing with his favourite ball, but the latter was too preoccupied with his unsettling thoughts. Being forced to work against his will, doing something he was not exactly intent on doing was disconcerting to say the least. But it was the way the world went. Crime and punishment, experienced in person. How he always hated that novel… how horrid and gloomy it was. A miserable bastard committing a crime and basically destroying himself with his remorse. Swallowing his food, Josh felt his appetite gone.

After he rummaged through the stack of CDs that he had piled onto his new desk, he found no title inviting really. Not for his current mood. What his mood was he had no idea, but it was definitely there, weighing over him, something in between a kind of impertinent, daring curiosity and a feeling of “I’m-the-greatest-loser-in-the-universe”. Since he had left for his walk with Sweeney, there were already six messages on his machine: two from his mom, one from Brian about the appearance on “Ellen” that he thought wiser to postpone for the time being, one from an unknown female voice about some party and phone number, one from Chris who reminded him of their tennis match on Tuesday, and one from a certain Cynthia Tollette, the principal of Venice Community Adult School, who told him she was expecting him in her office the next day at 9 in the morning, sharp. He rewound the last message and listened to it once more, paying attention to details, trying to figure out what she was like, what was expected of him.

The same old question. What was expected of him? Nothing short of perfection. Patience. A stamina of ten horses. Kindness and understanding. Always making the right choices. Saying the right words. To be sure, he expected all of those from himself, too. The countless fans only reassured him that that was what he wanted to be like. But…

Watching a brainless horror-movie, his mind only seeing random blood-spurtings and hearing loud screams and moans of pain and blood-freezing music, he sat on his used but favourite sofa and pondered about where he was, mentally, emotionally. It was a place he would have gladly exchanged with that of a financially insignificant person. Someone average, with no talent. To return home and prepare a boring meal, after a boring day at work, where nothing more than boredom and predictability was to be produced. Smile at a wife, walk the dog (yay, he had the dog already! Perhaps he wasn’t that hopeless, after all), watch the news, smile at the kid, go to sleep. Happy simplicity… And if that man ever committed anything, he would simply be put to prison or fined with a few hundred dollars, and the only disappointment he would have to face would be his wife’s, and not that of millions.

~~~

Eight in the morning found him with tussled hair and baggy eyes over a large latte in his kitchen, with a yawning Sweeney at his feet. He would only have time to take the dog out for a brief walk… He glanced over at the hanger on his wardrobe door, with the dark suit he had prepared to put on that day. Nothing too fancy, only a suit jacket and a shirt, and jeans. A little formal, a little friendly. Glasses. A suitcase he had never used, some gift from fans… he had torn off the funny stickers of “Sex-idol no. 1” and “Studaliciousness personified” and “Your voice vibrates inside us… literally”. Otherwise, it was perfect.

Starting his car at half past eight, he thanked his foresight in purchasing the flat. It was basically ten minutes from the school. Certainly no one cared where he was appointed to, but it all seemed to have been premeditated, and Josh felt a tiny flicker of positivity playing inside him.

It was actually five minutes by car, he realized with a shock when he pulled up into the parking lot next to the school building. He would be able to walk in the mornings. How convenient, he thought, walking up the stairs and pushing in the revolving door.

-Good morning -he told the door-keeper who looked at him askance from behind a small window. -I’m here to see Miss Cynthia Tollette, she is expecting me.

After he was signalled to go on, he nodded and proceeded through the security gate and along the corridor of the building from where several doors opened. Assistant Principal, Administrative Assistant, Disability Support Services. Principal. He knocked lightly, remembering to look at his watch after he did so. It was ten minutes to nine. Damn.

-Come in -he heard a voice, and he opened the door.

The office was spacious and very bright, with yellow curtains on gigantic windows and vibrant red and pink picture frames on a mahogany desk, behind which a matronly lady was seated. She lifted her bespectacled eyes to him and sent a brief smile towards him, signalling with her hand for him to sit down. The chair had been placed before her desk and he sat, slightly nervous.

-Mr Joshua… Groban -she read from a paper on her desk, leafing through what was probably his file. His biography, his records. -I’m Cynthia Tollette. Just Cynthia, if you please. Nice to meet you.

-Likewise -he swallowed, his hands together in his lap.

-I am sure we could have met under circumstances more pleasing for both of us -she smiled at him wrily, then took her glasses off. -Look here, I will not beat around the bush. You have committed a crime against society and you are here as punishment by law. This does not mean I will pass judgement on you… however, I highly respect this school and the community we have forged together, and I expect nothing less of you. The next three months you spend here will have to be spent in the light of what I just said. Do you understand, young man?

-I understand -Josh replied, and cleared his throat. -I will do my work properly.

He bit his lip, and she saw he was fighting back words and emotions. He did not look like a criminal, and she felt sorry for him.

-You will assist Mr Jamison with the music class and the drama class. I read in your file that you have no teaching experience whatsoever… but you do have a musical career behind you. And hopefully, before you -she added with a reassuring smile.

He smiled back at her, warmed by her kindness.

-There is a class at one today. I am sure Larry will have much to tell you until then… he arrives around 10 on Mondays, so you have a good hour to spend with the other members of our staff. Larry will report about your work at the end of each week.

She leaned back in her chair and he looked at her many-layered expression. She was firm but kind, resolute and friendly, just about what was expected from a principal.

-We teach adults here, Mr Groban. There is no responsibilty involved, none that teachers who deal with children have to shoulder. But you will be responsible on a professional level for our students you will come in contact with. And naturally, you will be asked to read our regulations on the relationship of teachers and students carefully before signing our contract.

Josh nodded and suddenly felt very important. He was going to teach people… teach them something. Perhaps he could teach someone something. Wasn’t that the greatest thing in the world? He instantly warmed up to the elderly lady who seemed to like him despite the circumstances.

-That’s just about it -Cynthia sighed, standing up behind her desk. -I do not encourage superfluous chattering, Mr Groban. Everyone knows me as quiet and reticent. I demand obedience and respect for the good of our community, but I think you understood me clearly on that. I will show the way to the teacher’s coffee room.

Walking to the door, she smiled up at Josh who opened it for her.

-I am sure everyone will benefit from your presence here, Mr Groban -she said, kindness lighting in her grey eyes.

-I hope so, Cynthia -he replied, touched and grateful.

4.

-Good morning Ms Tollette.

-Gabe. Ready with those reports? On my desk, please. And make sure to attend the meeting at noon. We will need to discuss the issue of finances behind your monthly free classes.

Josh followed his employer meekly, looking at the unfamiliar faces and trying to memorize the names exchanged, knowing how hopeless he was with names in general. Cynthia was walking briskly and with energy surprisingly high in a woman of her age. Watching how the building unfolded before his eyes, peeping in through doors left ajar and following the bustle and commotion on the halls and inside classes, he judged that the school must be a good one.

-Larry. Early, as always -she stopped abruptly in front of a man of around forty, slightly bald and with a goatee and moustache. -Today you might need to postpone your coffee, as the introduction of Mr Groban, your new assistant to your class befalls on you.

-Oh. Hi -Larry reached out to grab Josh’s hand and gave it a manly shake. -Josh. I know you. Don’t look so surprised, you big superstar. My wife adores every sound you make.

-She should hear me in the bathroom in the mornings -Josh replied with an embarrassed laugh.

-I’m sure she’d love your farts, too -Larry grinned, and nodded to Cynthia who saw it better to disappear with a look of unhidden shock on her cheeks, taut after several plastic surgeries. -Yeah. See you at noon, Cynth. And you, my man, come with me.

Passing several rooms with name tags on them, he stormed into a middle-sized office that contained two desks and a dozen cardboard boxes.

-Do you also hate the process of moving from one office to another? It takes me two months to settle in, and I don’t find anything for weeks -he complained, throwing his leather jacket onto one of the boxes that was full of music sheets and books.

-My flat will probably look like that one year from now -Josh said, ruffling his hair. -I hope you don’t expect me to tidy all of this…

-Naaah. No need. I like chaos -Larry grinned. -As in music. I like dissonance, I like clashing sounds, I like mess. I’m a freak, but don’t tell Cynthia. She still thinks that Chopin is my favourite composer.

-Cool. I like freaks -Josh said, and the smile on his face grew wider.

-It doesn’t show, but that makes it all the more exciting. So… -Larry stopped for a second in the middle of boxes and desks, scratching his goatee. -I have a class in half an hour. If I find my notes of last night, I’ll be able to tell you what we went through last week… if I don’t, you’ll just have to watch.

-No problem. I’ll need time to adjust myself to teaching… or, assisting someone to teach. I’ve never done anything like this -Josh admitted, biting his lip. -I guess they put me here because of my musical background, and also because my manager must have pulled some strings to get me a clean job -he added with a slight blush.

-Lucky you -Larry winked. -This is not a bad place to be, okay? We deal with mature people of all ages who still consider themselves mentally fit to be educated. How cool is that? There’s a guy in my music class, John, he’s ninety. Ninety! -he repeated, squinting his eyes in emphasis. -And he decided he wants to play the piano!

-Wow -Josh said. -That’s something.

-I’m telling you, this world is full of amazing people -Larry nodded, picking up some books and throwing them back into the box nearest him. -I used to teach music for high-schoolers and college graduates in Boston, but the job here is ten times more inspiring. Dammit man, where the fuzz did I misplace that fuzzing notebook?

-Where the fuzz? -Josh chuckled. -Cute.

-Ada says I curse too much, and she only accepts bad language in bed. So unless I want to give my students a reason to laugh at me because of my large pants, I have to avoid the nasties until I get cosy with her at home -Larry said simply.

Josh grinned and knew for certain that he was going to like Larry.

-Know what? Screw uuuuhm I mean scrap the time. We’ve got twenty minutes and the notes will not appear anyway, but I need my morning coffee. Are you a coffee person?

-If latte is considered coffee, then yes.

-Jeanie makes the hottest beverages in the area, and we’re lucky to have her in the school café -Larry sighed, lifting a hand to his heart, pronouncing “hottest” with an openly lusty undertone. -I know you’re single but don’t you get any ideas. I want to keep her available in case… in case whatever happens at home -he added with a face.

-How do you know I’m single? -Josh laughed, walking next to Larry towards some place that oozed the scent of reviving coffee and spicy rolls.

-You’re kidding me? Ada knows what size underpants you wear, you think she’s not in the know regarding your marital status? -Larry grimaced, patting his stunned assistant in the back. -Stop freaking out as if you weren’t aware.

-I am, but it’s a shocker each and every time -Josh said, genuinely embarrassed.

-Relax. She’ll be a good sport when I take you home for dinner on Saturday -Larry grinned.

-No, I… I don’t mean her -Josh said, taking a turn with Larry to find himself in a spatious room with walls decorated in the coolest provencal fashion: yellow and ochre paint on the walls, terracotta and maroon paintings with vibrant red and green spots, probably fruits or vegetables. There was no time to observe them closely as they sat down, and Josh was slightly at a loss anyway. -I mean all of my fans.

-Quite a relentless bunch, eh? -Larry asked, nodding sympathetically. -Superstardom sucks, man -he said, folding his hands on the checkered table cloth.

-I’m not complaining -Josh started to explain himself. Whenever there appeared to be something unpleasant discussed about the fact that he was a celebrity, he felt ridiculously defensive about it, and also, about his fans, despite all the crap he was sometimes forced to put up with from them. -I’m the spoiltest man in the world, so I like to keep my mouth shut about my so-called problems.

-But you took drugs, which was either because you’re a spoilt brat like you say, or because you felt you needed a breather, a moment to go out into the night and scream at the top of your lungs -Larry leaned forward, looking into Josh’s eyes.

Josh held his gaze, shocked that the subject came up so fast. He felt under scrutiny, like a bug under a glass.

-Despite the fact that you’re young and rich and have the wackiest humour I have ever seen in a singer, I don’t think that you’re just as spoilt as you want to appear -Larry said with a relaxed smile on his lips. -So that leaves the other alternative, which is usually at the root of becoming a drug addict.

-I’m not an addict -Josh protested, feeling shame and anger rise in him despite Larry’s obvious benevolence.

-Yet. You are one here, or at least you want to be -Larry poked his forehead with his index, but Josh had no chance to either grasp his meaning or make any comment, because Larry leaned back in his chair, looking to his left and right. -Where is Jeanie?

-Here, Larry -a slight, round and wide-smiled waitress appeared just then, dressed in black pants and blouse with a red apron tied to her waist. -The usual? You have ten minutes left.

-That gives you exactly three to prepare it -Larry grinned happily. -And bring a latte for my new friend here -he nodded towards Josh, who flashed his pleasant and disarming smile at the waitress who smiled back and held onto her writing pad.

-Oh. My. Uhm. I… huh. Josh? Groban? -she managed to spill her sentences massacred into syllables.

Josh nodded and smiled, trying to see from the corner of his eye if Larry was going to throw a fit of jealousy at the striking flush of his chosen lover.

-Yeah yeah, just bring the stuff -Larry said with mock nervousness. -You have two minutes, darling.

-Just bring Larry’s, I had a coffee in the morning -Josh told her after she turned to go, and she smiled back at him before she resumed her quick walk towards the counter.

-There goes my prey -Larry sighed, looking into Josh’s eyes. -Relax. She does that with every celebrity I bring over -he winked, and Josh was grateful that the issue was settled. -I think I’ll take my coffee to class with me. I may be a lot of things, but punctuality is my forte. I was late two minutes last month and they left, thinking I was not gonna show up -he chuckled.

~~~

-So… I am going to do… what exactly? -Josh asked timidly, taking long strides next to Larry who seemed to gain energy with every sip he took from his coffee.

-For now, you’ll just follow their progress and get to know them a little. We teach instruments and some basic choirwork. Some daft idiot who gives Cynthia the shitt… shifties advice came up with the idea of a charity concert in mid-December, some fake Christmas thing or what. I love my students to death but to say that they are not the most talented people in the world musically speaking is a very harsh understatement. We are gonna burn the house down. With the skin off our faces -he added, stopping at a door that was left ajar, human voices mingling behind it. -Here we are. I guess you will have no stage fright, and if you do, just get over it -Larry said, pushing the door in.

Josh followed him shyly, lifting his eyes to look around the faces that for now were a colourful blur. Old faces, younger faces, all of them eager and surprised to see a stranger. In the eyes of a few of them he detected the hatefully familiar recognition. He was not unknown to some of them, hence, they would be following his every move with twice the energy they would have invested in scrutinizing a stranger. Whatever he did was going to make headlines and message boards and private stories that gained in detail and flourish as they circulated. He swallowed and looked at Larry, awaiting orders, feeling suddenly wretched and lonely before all the expectant faces.

-Yeah. Good morning, guys and dolls -Larry said, placing his coffee on his desk. -This is my new assistant and he is going to help my work for three months. Josh?

-I’m Josh Groban, very nice to meet you all -Josh said with his hands behind his back, allowing a smile to light up his face in spite of the heavy, sinking feeling in his stomach.

-He was assigned to help me, and you, prepare for the charity show, yay -Larry said, pumping a fist into the air, which extracted a few enthusiastic sounds from the class. -Some of you may know that he’s a singer, which will obviously be of great help to us all -he added with a genuine smile, turning to look at Josh for a brief moment. -For the time being, he will observe and watch. You can ask him questions but he may not be able to reply. You can ask me questions, and I may not be able to reply, either. Nothing new under the sun, eh?

He set out to distribute some sheets from his desk, while Josh stood clumsily in front of the class, unable to stop blushing at the fact that a man who had only known him for half an hour lied to some thirty people to save his face.

-Josh. You can sit at the back -Larry signalled to him and he walked to the empty bench gratefully, sitting down, hoping to be invisible for a few moments before he regained his calm. -Class, resume from the second verse. Sopranoes first, John, I know your throat hurts so you can skip this one, Tina, be careful where you enter, okay? Right. Everyone ready?

Josh sat and listened to the humble voices that sounded off-key and clumsy, but very eager to get somewhere, break the silence and fill the air with a strangely sweet cacophony of sound. He lifted his face to watch the profiles and backs of the people he was going to see every week, people he was going to get familiar with to a certain extent. They were his work, and whatever the reason of his being there was, he was going to make the best of the situation.

5.

-That wasn’t so bad -Larry stated when the makeshift choir finished, one by one, a little off-key and off-rhythm. Josh smiled under his nose at their enthusiasm which was obvious. Larry gave him an eye of ‘I told you they were nuts but lovable’, and went around checking their notebooks, nodding, correcting something on the pages that was probably some homework. -So yeah, first half of the song was tolerable but you guys lost it a little after ‘When this worlds big enough for all different views, when we all can worship from our own kind of pews’. It should be building up, not lose the height, okay? Other than that, I’m quite happy with you guys on this lovely Monday morning.

Josh sat with his hands on his desk, watching the reactions, enjoying their childish satisfaction at making their tutor content. How lovely it was to be praised for something, for anything in the world. It gave one a sense of purpose and meaning. He knew that feeling well: it was that feeling that made him lift his chin, yet behave with humbleness when he received the first appraisals in the drama school. He started understanding then that he had a purpose, a task: to sing. He had been told numerous times, but he needed no telling really, because his instincts told him that he would have to give up everything else to develop his voice and singing skills and send it out into the world. He thought he would probably touch people, but when his success hit, he was flabbergasted. And yet, he would never lose the humbleness with which he stepped in front of his class to sing at his teacher’s signal. Head slightly tilted, eyes blinking modestly, his hands at his back, he waited to be sent back to his seat. It took his teacher minutes to recover from the shock at hearing his voice, and walking to the back of the class, he couldn’t help but notice the looks of his friends. He knew then that he was different, that he forever would be different. They made him different, putting him high above themselves. It was decided then, and he already felt a little lonely, sitting in the silence broken only by the low whisperings of some of his classmates. The looks they gave him… stealthy, surprised, envious, furtive looks, maybe with a tocuch of kindness. So many, so different. Yes, he had been destined to stand out already then.

Sitting in a class full of adults who were doing their best to learn something that was not expected of them, Josh felt relaxed and at ease. Sitting in the back, for now, he had some time to find his thoughts and pull out some memories buried deep, tasting them and reminiscing, wondering how long ago it had been, despite the fact that only a decade had passed.

There was some noise and he looked up with everyone else in the room. Someone scampered through the door, literally fell in and panting discreetly, shrugged her shoulders.

-Izvinite, Larry -she said, flushed and out of breath. She had a violin case on her back next to an orange summer bag decorated with flower motifs.

-Dobroe utro, Lyudmila -Larry grinned, motioning to her to take her seat, one on the left of the class. -Late, as usual. Where did you play this morning?

-Underground -she replied in a strong accent. She did her best to stop her shock of bright red curls that covered most of her back from falling in her face, and sat there, her hands on both sides of her head, breathing fast.

Josh leaned back and cast a glance at her profile. She had a dainty nose above lips that were full and shapely, parted to let the air in, making him think of someone who was just going to eat a juicy strawberry. Her eyebrows, similar in colour to her hair, arched above endless eyelashes. The curls that she tried in vain to keep in place circled around her slender fingers like thin flames: he was expecting her tiny hands to catch fire any time. She was wearing a long dress of a pale, purply brown, with a wide green stretch at the bottom, cut low at the neck, leaving her stunningly white shoulders and neck exposed.

-Will you recover soon to give us our morning fix, dear? -Larry asked, looking at her, then winking at Josh.

She turned to see where the wink was directed, and noticing Josh, she gave him a look of neutral curiosity.

-I think yes -she replied, taking a deep breath. -I’m sorry I was late. I tried to stop playing but people not let me go.

-No surprises, Milochka -Larry smiled at her, then when she stood up and took her violin out of the case, he walked back to where Josh was sitting and quickly offered him a whispered explaination. -She’s Russian and plays her violin in the streets for money.

-Why is she in this class? -Josh whispered back, intrigued, but Larry motioned him to stay quiet, so he did.

She was standing before everyone, catching her breath and sending a smile to someone in the front seat. A moment of silence was suspended on the withheld breaths of those present, including that of Josh, who had no idea what to expect, but whose eyes were glued to her large, surreally blue ones, bordered by lashes that could only have been artificial.

When she started playing, the room was instantly filled with a splendour of sounds and colours and scents. The notes that came one after another were clear and sharp, hovering and tentative, then fierce and powerful, shrieking in the silence. The melody was plaintive and striking, like a wail of someone trapped between two worlds, that of certainty and that of indecision, trying to break out, break free, get away. Josh had not heard the tune before but sat entranced by the power it exerted on his senses. She played her violin with such love and careful authority he had the impression that it was not her directing the violin, but the other way round. Her body moved in synch with the soaring notes, her wrist arched gracefully on her bow, and her hair seemed to float and hold her, the weightless one, above the floor.

She had finished, but the melody still lingered in their ears, echoing in the small room, filling their souls with something unperceivable. It was a good minute or two before someone finally started clapping instinctively, and the others followed suit. Josh knew how she felt, standing there before everyone: she felt distant, chosen, happy to give happiness, but a little lonely nonetheless.

Larry walked up to her and squeezed her in a hug that seemed natural and very much expected. She was smiling, and he was smiling too, like everyone else in the room.

-Milochka, Milochka. Can we keep you here forever, sweet flower of sunshine? -he said in a tone that was unreasonably tender, but Josh suspected that it was Larry’s gut feeling to her. She seemed to generate the most powerful emotions in those around her.

-I will stay until I get the money -she smiled, and he nodded. She walked back to her seat, placing her violin carefully on the desk beside her.

Larry stood, seemingly without purpose, lost in thought, still under the spell of the bewitching melody that was floating in the room.

-I’m not sure I can do anything right now -Larry mumbled -, but let’s try that third verse again. John, how about you joining us? Slowly, carefully. Don’t strain yourself.

-Will do my best, Laurence -an old voice replied from where Lyudmila had sent her smile to.

And the slow, cautious singing resumed. Josh had a hard time recovering from his shock, and the voices sounded strident and infantile, hurting his ears that had just been to heaven and back through the glorious melody of that red-haired sorceress.

Class ended at some point, and people swarmed out, but he still sat there until Larry poked his forearm with a finger.

-Jamison to Groban, Jamison to Groban, copy me?

-Copying you, Larry -Josh bit his lip, looking up. -I’m sorry, you should have given a warning of some sorts.

-That there’s a fairy princess among us? -Larry chuckled.

-That obvious, huh? -Josh stood up. -Why? I mean, what is she doing here? She’s a pro.

-Nah. She just plays from the heart. She would never be able to play in an orchestra, or with anyone else. Too damn free-spirited for that, you know?

-You said she was from Russia. Earning money for…?

-That I don’t know -Larry shrugged. Then he eyed Josh. -Smitten, as I am standing here. Man, you’re already breaking the rules. Shall I report you?

Josh laughed.

-Not smitten, just… shellshocked.

-She does that to us. I’ve known her for half a year but each time she looks at me, or touches me with those hands, I lose it for a moment.

-Well, this is useful information. Will have to avoid looking at her or get touched by her hands. Maybe you can get me some blindfolds -Josh grinned. -What now?

-Now…? What? Well, time for my second coffee, and then we’ll fill out some forms and you sign your contract and you accept that I’ll be following your skinny ass 24/7.

-I’m not skinny -Josh chuckled.

-Compared to me, you are -Larry retorted. -C’mon, let’s see my lovely Jeanie once again. She, at least, does not shock me dumb. Only my lower half -he grinned. -Over coffee, I can tell you more about her.

-Jeanie?

-Lyudmila.

-You encourage me to break the rules? -Josh asked, feigning shock.

-If I see you drag her to the closet, I’ll press the fire alarm, and you will have 3 minutes to evacuate. Is that helpful enough?

Josh laughed. Larry was a goofball and he liked him a great deal, but why was he trying to make his protegé so focused on Lyudmila?

Not that he needed anyone to persuade him…

Well, he was to find out soon.

6.

Mila threw her bag on the floor the moment she stepped into her apartment, carefully placing her violin in the corner of her only room. Then she tied the avalanche of her hair together and splashed cold water on her face. Noticing that her wrists hurt again, she took a pill and put water to boil for the herbal tea her great-grandfather had given her as a farewell gift. This is better than any medicine, Milotschka, he said, his ninety-nine year old blue eyes looking at her with striking lucidity. She felt his love flow through her body each time she drank that tea, and in a monstrously large city full of rushing people she needed all the love she could get.

Putting a CD on, she threw her clothes off and took a hurried shower, leaving the bathroom door open. Her heated body was gratefully soaking under the cool rush of water, and she let the drops cleanse her and revive her for another exhausting afternoon.

It was a Friday, and the weekend peak was approaching. More people were out in the street than during the week, and she always took advantage of it, collecting record amounts of money from tourists and also locals who were happy about any diversion. She played catchy tunes from her own folklore, spicing them up a little to her own liking, sometimes mixing them with very well-known American melodies: those were the most popular. Often, her audience even yelled titles that she knew they must have heard her previously play somewhere else. She smiled. She was popular in her own way, the redhair violin-player of the streets. It was fine, as she needed all the money she could make within the short period of a few months.

A mix of her favourite Russian pop songs played for her as she unpacked the pirogs that she had no time to eat earlier. Filled with mushrooms, meat and potatoes, they were a little heavy for a stifling summer day, but she drank a lot of water and after the third little pastry she felt totally full. Checking her watch, she closed her eyes with a deep sigh. One hour to recover from her classes and the fact that she had played her violin perhaps a little too much in the past two weeks. Her wrists were protesting, but there was no time to stop, not yet. Drinking her warm tea, she soaked a towel in it and placed it over her aching wrist. She lay with her eyes closed for a while, drifting off and jerking back to reality at the sound of seagulls and cars passing outside her window.

John was looking worse every day… he was holding up bravely, but his age and his illness were both relentless, and Mila thought of the old man with a sinking heart. He refused to go to a doctor and he said he was fine, but she knew he was not. In the mornings, when she felt fresh and energetic, she always made sure to hold his hand a little longer, transferring some of her energy to him without him knowing it. He kept joking how sprightly he felt each time she touched him, and she smiled and shook his head. You silly John, you, she said, giving him a peck on the cheek. Seeing his blue eyes reminded her of the man who had always had the greatest faith in her, her great-grandfather, Alexei Smiryonovitsch. You are destined to do good, my dear, he always said. Your gift comes from our Lord, and you should never accept money for anything you do with it, do you understand?

She understood. She was far from using her powers for her own gain: she hardly grasped the meaning of it all. The first time she healed a little boy’s headache she thought she was cursed, and ran away to hide in their wooden shed for two days. How could a twelve year-old girl understand how her hand can contain such magical powers? She was so scared she couldn’t speak, and when they finally made her talk, it was discovered that Lyudmila was a healer. After testing her powers on several ill members of her family, the suspicion was confirmed, and she was to become a local celebrity.

The pain from her wrist was disappearing, and she hummed a melody to herself, thinking of Christmas in her home town. It was to be after the Christmas in Los Angeles, so she could see both. She smiled happily, looking forward to the American type Christmas she had always dreamed of witnessing. Well, no snow, but she will get that in St Petersburgh.

-Tam dlya minya gorit ochag, kak vechniy znak zabitih istin, mne da nevo posledniy shag, i etot shag, dlineye zhizni… [A/N: It sounds endlessly better in Russian, trust me]-she sang to herself, evoking a Russian atmosphere into her stifling apartment in a moment, despite the heat and the blinding sunshine. The song was sweet and gentle, not at all sophisticated or upbeat like most of what she heard of the local radio stations. They would have probably laughed at her favourite songs, but she didn’t care. Few people understood the Russian soul; in fact, she had hardly met anyone who was interested in her background since she moved to LA. Except maybe Larry, and John. Larry, the joker, the kind, the funny Larry, and John, the gentle old soul she could not save even if she was ready to give her life in exchange. She put her white dress on and tied her hair tight. The sun was burning, so she took her suntan cream too, and with her violin and bag on her shoulder, she exited her flat.

~~~

-Yo, Sweens, what’s got into you, pal? We just came from the sea. I am not letting you drag me back there again today -Josh complained, trying to keep Sweeney tight on his leash.

He ambled at a leisurely pace behind Sweeney, happy in his shorts and sunglases, checking out girls from time to time, grinning to himself when some of them looked back at him with a smile. They did not recognize him or else he would be buried under a mountain of hands and faces, so they must think he’s cute anyway. He needed to be reassured, like everyone else, and it was nice to know that he was not a lost case.

Larry had given his first report on him that day, after telling him about it too. Of course, it was forbidden, but Larry seemed to be someone who considered rules the first thing to be broken. He gave Josh the best marks for every aspect of his work, leaving Josh dumbfounded, as he hardly touched any musical sheets or spoke a few words to the class that week. Larry said that well, it is for reassurance, man. You need to catch up on me. I intend to fully use your services shortly, and I want you to stop hiding behind that desk of yours. We need your experience and we need your voice. That damn concert is approaching, and I have the creeps thinking about it okay? So get your act together and from Monday, you will be leading the choir.

Thinking of the weekend to be spent with his parents, he felt a smile stretch over his lips and his whole body. They would be so happy to see he was in the best place possible. He would have to thank Brian for finding the…

-Oh my god -he heard right in front of him. Three women obstructed his way and that of Sweeney who stopped and wagged his tail happily at the new friends. They were eager to pet the dog, and then they showed signs of wanting to pet Josh, too. The latter pulled an inward face, but outwardly, he smiled and spoke a few words with them, signing an autograph and one T-shirt that hid a voluptuous body, pulled away from it by the woman’s pathetically trembling hands to make it easy for him to sign. He tried to smile while he did so, careful not to press the material too close to her breasts. Oh god, did he have to do it? Who forced him to do it? Why couldn’t he just say no and walk on? He smiled through his teeth, remembering that his stunt with the drugs did not exactly make him popular, and if he was to retain some of his fame, he would have to be even nicer to his fans than before. Smiling at them angrily as they finally left, he continued walking Sweeney with most of his enthusiasm gone for the day.

-Promise me you’ll never be a superstar -he told the dog, rubbing him behind the ear, and Sweeney barked appreciatively. -Right, you already are one. Forgot that, sorry.

Approaching Vernon avenue, he heard a distant melody floating to his ears. A violin solo that came to him on the wind, broken at times, stifled by the shrieking seagulls and the traffic, but getting stronger as he walked on. Intrigued, he took the corner off 5th avenue; he was five minutes from his home, he could waste a couple more to find out where that music was coming from.

He saw her hair from afar, since it was blazing in the sunlight like an eternal fire. Her white dress accentuated the dark red shade of her hair and her pale skin almost looked tanned in contrast with the snow-white dress. She had her violin case open before her, and people were standing around her, listening intently. From time to time, someone passing the group placed some coins of notes in the case, to which she nodded gratefully, resuming her playing.

He stopped at a distance from her, wondering how come Sweeney was so peacefully sitting on his hind legs. Returning his attention to Lyudmila, he watched her graceful and slender body follow every note faithfully, as if possessed by a power stronger than herself. The tune was slow and sorrowful, slowly picking up, becoming energetic and prompting many of the bystanders to clap and move their feet in unison. Josh himself felt the strange urge to start moving, and that was a wonder in itself, considering that he and Sweeney had been walking for hours that day.

When the song ended, the clapping grew loud and incoherent, and she bowed humbly and simply, smiling while she picked up the money she had been given. Some of her audience spoke to her and she replied with smiles that made the sun look pale. Josh definitely felt attracted to her in more than one way, and decided to speak to her.

-Hello, Lyudmila -he said, stepping to her just when she was turning to leave.

-Oh. Josh. Good evening -she said with a smile. It made him sweat even more, and he wiped his brow, embarrassed. -You live here?

-As a matter of fact, I do. A block away. Do you?

-On Flower avenue -she giggled.

-Wow -he said with a gulp. That was a scary coincidence. Basically a few minutes away from him -Do you uhm… do you play here often?

-I play on different streets every day -she replied. -Do you mind if I say goodbye? I need a shower and I’m tired.

-Oh. Sure. No problem -he said, taken aback by her abrupt honesty. -See you on Monday, I guess.

-Yes -she said, smiling at him. Her smile was elusive, and yet, he saw the sun and the moon and the ocean reflect in her eyes, her golden-green irises flashing their light at his own.

She walked simply, carrying her feminine gracefulness in a natural way as if to say that beyond her femininity, she was also cherishing something more important. She seemed to know where she was going, and Josh watched her wistfully until she disappeared behind the corner.

7.

-We want to hear everything about your first week -Jack said, stepping next to his son who was standing by the window.

Josh smiled at his dad.

-It was surprisingly good… considering that I’m there against my wishes -he added. -It’s a great school and my class seems very interesting. So many types of people.

-What do you do? -Linda asked, placing glasses for wine on the table, and then serving the soup.

-So far, not much… I mostly listen to Larry who is my supervisor and who, you won’t believe this, but reminds me of David Romano -Josh smirked [A/N: Sorry guys I couldn’t help it! LOL!].

-Cool -Chris butted in, throwing himself down on a chair. -David’s a great guy, and so must be Larry.

-He’s really nice. He’s taken a liking to me even though the only thing he knows about me is that I’m a celebrity who used drugs -Josh said, scratching his left arm with his right one.

-Most people are tolerant and kind, sweetheart -Linda said, taking her seat after everyone else sat down. -You have to remember that, and stay as open and generous as we have taught you to be.

-I know, mom -Josh replied, gazing into the soup that Linda ladled into his plate. -It’s just a tad difficult when you’re depicted as the archenemy of mankind.

-Don’t exaggerate, son -Jack told him, taking a first spoonful. -Yes, your fans are shocked. To be honest, we were shocked too, and personally, I’m still shocked. You can’t expect everyone to just go past this after you have been a role model for so many people for such a long time.

-I’m still a good person, dad -Josh said defiantly, his appetite all gone. -If they can’t see that, then I don’t want them for my fans.

-Sadly, you don’t get to choose them -Chris snorted and swallowed food. -I really thought they were gonna be more understanding.

Josh only stared at his food and mixed it a little with his spoon. What started out as a nice, relaxing dinner in a family circle turned into an unpleasant conversation about the only thing that he wanted to get his mind off.

-So, tell us more about your work -Linda broke the silence, casting a furtive glance at Jack. -Do you get to sing?

-Not yet… as I said, I’m just a member of an audience at this point -Josh laughed, forcedly. He appreciated his mother’s tactfulness but his mood was all ruined. -Though Larry told me I was gonna take over the choirwork on Monday.

-That sounds just like something meant for you -Linda smiled her gentle smile.

-I hope so -he replied, forcing himself to eat finally. If he didn’t eat, they would all get suspicious and would start commiserating and…

-Any chicks on the horizon? -Chris asked and grinned at his dad who lifted his eyebrows at his younger son.

-There are female students in the class, and in the school, for that matter -Josh replied patiently, deciding not to make Chris’s job easy.

-You know what I mean -Chris pushed forward, slurping some soup.

-I haven’t the faintest idea -Josh said, definitely annoyed by now. For some reason, the kindness of his parents and the usual joking nature of Chris made him resentful, which fact in itself made him even more resentful.

Chris continued eating in silence and Linda placed her spoon down, standing to take the tureen away and bring the lamb and vegetables.

-This didn’t just happen to you, you know -Chris mumbled, so quietly that Josh was hardly able to hear it. But he did, and he snapped.

-What exactly do you mean? Do you have millions of fans who roll their eyes and reprimand you for something that never happened and is none of their @$+!%!# business? My voice didn’t change because of a few grams of cocaine. I’ll still be touring, I’ll still give them music and concerts and talk shows, so what’s the big deal?!

-If you want to know the truth, my friend, I’m constantly bugged on myspace and my blog and in my class and in my work about my famous brother’s drug habits. I have to tell them each time that no, he is not using, it was a misunderstanding. Someone put it in your pocket. Or something. I have to lie because of you, so don’t give me this martyr %$!% -Chris retorted, throwing his spoon down.

-Who told you to lie? Just tell them I bought it and never used it. Big @$+!%!# deal -Josh mumbled under his nose, slightly tamed at his brother’s anger.

-It is a big deal, you idiot. And that because you got so bored in your happy little palace that you had to go and ruin it all.

-Okay, first, I wasn’t bored. Second, I… I don’t know why I did it -Josh said, trying to placate Chris. He knew that his parents were watching and he wanted to make them proud, and also, he loved peace most of all. -Third… I made a mistake and I would really appreciate a little more understanding from you, of all people.

Chris gritted his teeth but said nothing, only put his spoon down and pushing his chair back, stood up and left.

Josh stared at his clasped hands.

-I’m sorry, mom… dad. I behaved like a jerk, I… I don’t know… this whole thing just…

His voice trailed off and he sat silently and with a heavy heart.

-Talk to Chris at some point -Linda said, passing a hand over her face that for the first time since the trial seemed tired and haggard to Josh. -He loves you and worries about you a great deal.

-I know mom, and I’m sorry. I’ll talk to him -Josh replied, remorse growing over his subsiding anger.

-Whatever happens, we’re your family, dear -Linda squeezed his shoulder as she passed him on the way to the kitchen. -If the world crumbles, we’ll be the ones to catch you, never forget that.

Josh caught her hand with his and smiled gratefully at her.

-I ruined your wonderful dinner -he said apologetically. -Can I have some lamb for later on? To take home with me.

-Absolutely -Linda smiled and carved a generous piece of lambchop, then, seeing Jack’s wide eyes, she slapped his hand. -Don’t give me that face, Jack. I can make you a whole lamb tomorrow if you want, but our boy is alone and far from us.

-I’m fine, mom, don’t worry so much about me -Josh laughed, happy to laugh again. -There are such things as restaurants, you know…

-They can’t beat my lamchop -Linda said triumphantly.

With that and a few more smiles, dinner was over. They sat for a while on the sofa, talking and drinking; Chris returned when he found it suitable to bury the hatchet and the brothers gave each other a few playful punches. Josh almost took a sip of his wine when he remembered he was driving afterwards, and he gave his glass to Chris. He then told them about a few members of his class that caught his attention, including Lyudmila. He made sure to only mention her fleetingly but a minute later he found Chris grinning into his drink, and punched him again, more forcefully.

Time flew quickly and it was late when he managed to tear himself away from his folks, packed with food and a bottle of wine and a very sleepy Sweeney who had spent most of the time under the family table.

Driving home in the night, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. He was so easily irritable, which was not like him. Why snap at a joke, a very usual one from Chris? He played their conversation over and over in his head, trying to see where and why he had started his crusade against the world. Against his own family?! He was not proud of himself.

Pulling a very reluctant Sweeney inside the flat, he shut the door with his foot: his arms were busy carrying boxes full of food.

-Lamb, Sweens. I should tell you paws off, all mine, but you deserve a piece, too, you were so good in there -he stooped and patted the dog on his head. Sweeney yawned and blinked from lying flat on the floor. -Why do I have the feeling that I’ll be watching McLeod’s Daughters all by myself?

He threw the things inside his fridge and started his DVD recorder. Ever since having so much time on his hands, he started watching TV shows, all kinds: the funny ones, the gruesome ones, the action-packed ones, the romantic ones. Whatever he felt like watching. Tonight he felt like staring at pretty girls riding horses and wearing cowboy hats on the wide plains of Australia.

Staring at the TV screen, munching on some snacks, his brain quickly relaxed into numbness, and he forgot the unpleasant conversation earlier on. It was good to be doing nothing and to know he always had people to rely on. He hankered to put his laptop on and find out what people talked about on his message board, but he felt he couldn’t take any more negativity in one day. Maybe he would peek in tomorrow.

With that thought, and the blurring sight of cowboy girls riding into the sunset, he fell asleep on his couch.

8.

He woke up in the same spot in the middle of the night, with a cramp in his neck and a slight hurt in his wrist where his hand was tugged under his bum in a weird position. He disentangled himself from the pose and allowed his limbs to receive the bloodflow into them, before the tingling sensation, half hurting, half tickling hit his legs. He sat with a painful grin on his face until it went away and only then did he look up to see the TV broadcast the war of the ants.

Sweeney was asleep at his feet and lifted his head to look into Josh’s eyes in the twilight of the room.

-Sorry for waking you up –Josh mumbled and stroked the furry head. –Warn me next time not to start watching anything so late and with so much food in my stomach.

He squinted at the square clock on the wall.

-Three? Only three?

Sweeney groaned in agreement and flopped his head on his front paws, looking ruefully at his master who stood there a little disconcerted.

Josh did feel a little out of place. The memories of his fight with Chris and just how easy it was for him to lose his temper… Thinking about it, he saw no reason to snap like that. Taking it out on those who loved him most has never been his style before.

His stomach signalled two things: that is was stuffed, and that it wanted more. Josh rubbed his tummy with a painful expression, stepping over Sweeney to get to the fridge and pour himself some milk. With the glass in his hand, he contemplated his room, scanning the wooden floor and beige curtains, ready bought and fancy, the TV, the stereos. He didn’t need much to feel at home; after all, he was hardly at home. Most of the time, his home was mobile and travelling the world, or consisting of four walls and recording machinery. For the first time in… in years, he did not have to run from one place to another, deal with interviews and performances. In a way, it was liberating… but the freedom that came from it destroyed his sense of purpose. He felt… lost.

Gulping his milk down, he blinked at the sight of lights and shadows passing outside his window. He sat down and Sweeney ambled to his feet, sitting on his hind legs and staring at Josh, wide alert now.

-Don’t tell you want to take a walk, I’m begging you –Josh moaned, putting the glass down with a slight bang. Sweeney blinked but only once and kept staring. –At three a.m.? Do you really have to break my night in two, Sweens?

He did feel wide awake himself. The thoughts in his head or the excessive food consumption forced him to stand up and walk to the couch to finally put the TV off. Then, undecided, he wondered whether he could write anything in such a state… but there was no point. There was too much on his mind to focus on music. And Sweeney was so eagerly holding his leash in his mouth. And his stomach could do with a bit of exercise, too.

-Alright. Alright. You win –he said. –But if we get attacked I expect your full assistance, you… vicious beast.

Sweeney barked loyally and Josh laughed, kneeling down to give his dog a hearty hug. Sweeney barked and jumped like a furry rubber-ball and Josh instantly felt better. Just how therapeutical the unconditional love of an animal can be he only discovered when Sweeney stepped into his life: when he was lonely, Sweeney was there to place his sympathetic head on his knees, when he was happy, Sweeney was there to share it with him, and when he was hurt, Sweeney was in mourning also.

-How about driving to the beach and just walking there, huh? Yeah? You want to walk all the way? Well, you may have four legs and the most ferociously adorable eyes ever in a canine, but it’s still me who makes decisions in this household –Josh ruffled Sweeney’s head and grabbed his car keys. –No walking for two hours for me, thank you very much. Take it or leave it.

Sweeney did take the offer and trotted obediently alongside his human friend until they reached the car.

~~~

It was a completely different matter on the beach. Josh stared at his dog run around like crazy, barking at the waves and taking sudden breaks in the pebbly sand, tripping over his feet and running on. Josh wondered what was in that lambchop, and followed Sweeney with his glance, not that interested in joining an animal who looked like one released from the chains of hell.

He was more interested in himself. The fact that he woke up in the middle of the night was in itself new and puzzling, especially since there was nothing imperative to do. If he ignored the bad vibes he kept receiving each time he logged onto his message board, even through the benevolent posts, he could have considered himself happy and relaxed.

The only fly in the soup, and a big fat one for that matter, was the fact that his so-called happiness was hanging on a very thin thread. His current life was the trimmings when his career and his relationship with his fans was the meat. One was easier to swallow and digest than the other, and unluckily for him, he knew he would have to struggle through the chewy parts to get back to where he started from.

He rubbed his ailing stomach and breathed in the crisp winter air. His cap sheltered his skull and he kept his hands in his pockets, walking a little, but mostly standing in one place. Sweeney was doing the walking and happy bouncing for both of them, and some more; it was a joy to watch and he gazed at his dog enjoy himself in the freedom of a night walk.
-Josh?

He swung round in surprise to see a bare-headed Lyudmila in a short jacket and a light skirt.

-Oh gosh, aren’t you cold? –was the first thing that came to his mind. Then, remembering his manners, smiled and said hi.

-Hi –she said, pulling her jacket tighter on her torso. –No. I live in Russia, where this is only not very warm summer.

-Brrr –Josh said and smiled. –What are you doing here in the middle of the night?

-I couldn’t sleep –she shrugged, looking over at the ocean. –You?

-Sweeney couldn’t sleep –he shrugged and pointed at the furry Road Runner who just passed them and emitted a few happy barks at the stranger.

-He’s very sweet –she smiled and looked after the dog. –I miss my dog, Alyosha. He’s a bit like him, but black and more… how you say… his hair. Round… Like you –she added with a laugh.

-Oh, curly. The Josh-breed. So there is one. This is very useful information –Josh said and chuckled.

She smiled and turned to face the waters, throwing her hair back in the wind. He suspected that she didn’t catch his every word and phrase, and her English was clumsy, too.

-Do you come here often? –he asked, also facing the ocean.

-Almost every night. I’m very bad sleep… sleeper –she replied. –But I think you don’t.

-I don’t what?

-Come here often.

-No, you’re right –he said. –First of all, my usual routine wouldn’t allow these nightly outings. I generally stay up late and sleep until noon the next day…

-But you work at school in morning –she interjected.

-Temporarily, yes –he admitted, wondering if he said too much, and whether she would press on for more information.

-Temporarily…? –she asked and he realized she didn’t understand the word.

-Oh. It’s when… something lasts only for a very short time.

-I see… well… everything is temporarily in this world –was her surprising reply, and she closed her eyes, standing motionless and inhaling the wind.

-Hm –he said, frowning at her logical statement and turning his face to the mercy of the winds coming from the ocean. The air was salty and cold and he started to feel much better. –So… can I ask you about your staying here? And the school… why not work full-time somewhere?

-I live for music and I like to work when I want to do it –she said simply.

-Does it pay? –he asked, intrigued.

-It pays… I don’t need something… too much for me.

-Wow. I could actually do that, too. Stand on corners and sing –he toyed with the idea smiling to himself, then chuckling at the mental image of endless hoards of Grobanites swarming around him. –I would probably be able to make an easy living, as well. No one would tell me what to do… what not to do…

Oh my. The glories of being a free person. With his voice, he would probably be a rich man faster than by selling albums and getting only a small amount of the actual sales. He smiled at his imaginary double standing on a corner and singing whatever, and people throwing him coins and notes.

-Well, why not? –she asked.

-Why not? –he repeated the question. –I don’t know. I guess the industry sucked me in… I got comfortable with the luxury… it’s good to be backed up by so many people. I don’t think I could manage on my own –he admitted.

-You could –she said without hesitation. –You are strong. We are strong. Look at me, far away from my country, alone and my English is bad, too…

-It’s not bad –he smiled and cast her a glance. Her eyes received it gratefully and he had the impression she stored it away for a future time. –Besides, you’re a woman and you women are much stronger than we are. Or, than I am –he added with a grin. –They nicknamed me Muscle Josh in primary school… oh, it was quite cruel. Haha.

-Strong is not here –she said, grabbing his upper arm. –It is here –she placed her palm on his heart, then lifted it to his cap, -and here.

She caught him off guard with her hand on his arm, and with blocked thoughts, he kept silent.

They stood watching the waves and Sweeney running up and down to the point of dropping off his feet. It was an encounter he wasn’t prepared for, but she didn’t seem to be either too curious or too judgemental, let alone stupid. Probably because of her roots or the fact that her English was not the best, she sounded like someone whose way of thinking was very different from his.

-Why did you say you worked in Los Angeles? –he asked again, feeling chatty.

-I’m sorry? –she asked, apparently at a loss.

-Why are you here in America? –he repeated, looking at her.

-Oh. I need money to take home with me. In Russia things are very difficult –she said.

-So why don’t you move here? With your talent and how you play the violin you could have a career in no time –Josh offered, but recalled right away that she was probably against record labels and being managed by some pompous arse.

-No, I have to go home –she replied seriously, giving away no more of what he was dying to find out.

From the corner of his eye he watched her proud posture and the way her long curls floated on the wind. She was a sight no man could easily forget and he found himself a little infatuated.

-I’m going now –she said, lifting her eyes to meet his in a smile that puzzled him. It was nothing specific and yet, there was so much hidden behind her long lashes that he felt like asking her questions the whole night and making her reply them.

-Sure… I think we’ll be going too. Sweeney looks exhausted… thank god. We can drive you home, you said you lived very close to my place. By the way, did you walk here?

-Yes. It is very nice, no? The stars and the sea, not rain.

-Okay –he laughed. –Maybe I’ll give you Sweeney to run him down a little every day before going to bed. I wouldn’t like to be dragged out here every single night.

She smiled politely and he guessed it was because he lost her with his rapid way of talking. Gotta slow down, Groban, slow down.

-So, can I take you home? –he asked with a smile.

-Yes, thank you.

-Great. Sweeney! Come here, you mad-cow-diseased creature. Here, meet Lyudmila. Yes, there’s a good boy, shake her hand, shake her hand Sweeney. That’s right –he laughed and ruffled the dog’s furry ears when Sweeney lifted his right paw to meet her hand.

She said something in Russian and Josh listened to the sound of it. She sounded a whole lot different in her native language: more assertive, yet very gentle.

-My father is half Russian –he thought to say and she smiled at him in surprise.

-Oh. Very nice! Do you know anything… in Russian?

-Not really… and I’ve never been to Russia, either. But I plan to, one day –he smiled.

-It is very different… You will not like it –she said in a contemplating voice.

-I’m sure I will –he replied. –I love to travel and embrace other cultures.

She only smiled and held Sweeney’s leash until the dog jumped onto the front seat of the car next to the driver seat.

-Hey, where are your manners, mister? –Josh laughed and tried to scoop Sweeney out of there.

-No no, I’ll sit back –she said and giggled. –He is your friend, he sits in the front.

Josh smiled at her in the rear view mirror and started the car, thinking of what she just said. She was a strange mixture of wisdom and simplicity that he had never come across in anyone else, and he racked his brain to find good conversation topics while he drove, but the trip was too short for him to come up with anything and when she stepped out and waved at him, he said goodbye with a smile that veiled his slight disappointment.

He drove back to his place (it was extremely close, less than five minutes) in silence and when he stopped the car, he sat there with a still panting Sweeney next to him.

-I will need some advice with this one, old boy. Do you know much about women, huh? –he asked the dog, absent-mindedly rubbing the thick, furry neck. He got no reply and he patted Sweeney. –I thought so… Well, I’m not sure just why I’m keeping you… your hair is in my food, you keep me up at three a.m. to go to the beach with you and you are no help with women of my breed. I might consider giving you away…

Sweeney looked at him with eyes that almost understood his words and Josh hugged the animal with love.

-You silly creature. I wouldn’t give you away for a hundred women –he said. –But… I don’t need a hundred of them. Just one. Preferably… her.

Sweeney snorted and pushed his paw into Josh’s lap and didn’t rest until he was taken up in two loving human arms.

-I get it, you’re tired… serves you right. Serves me right for spoiling you like this –Josh moaned, carrying the dog inside and dropping him on the couch from where Sweeney instantly jumped on the floor, onto his usual place. –I guess we can sleep now, huh? Good night Sweens.

With that, Josh walked into the bedroom and fell on the bed with his clothes on, thinking about not himself like he would have wanted to, but about a strange Russian girl with flaming hair and soothing eyes.

(To be continued)

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