The band was starting to get nervous and for good reason. Josie looked down at her watch. It was five to one and their replacement guitarist had yet to show up. She was about to call his phone yet again when she finally saw him coming through Stage B’s backstage security station.
“Hurry up! They’re about ready to start!”
Rennie nodded his head in reply but he was not alone. Helen was with him, along with their girls and her sister Heidi. The interaction between them all, however, was odd. Rennie was in the lead, with Katie clinging to his right hand and Lena, with a stranglehold on a huge stuffed rabbit, clutching to his left. What made it all odd was Helen. She was just behind Ren clearly trying to touch him and get his attention. Meanwhile, he was just as clearly using the girls to subtly keep her at bay. Heidi, on the other hand, was bringing up the rear, rolling her eyes.
Momentarily ignoring how sad that all was, Josie held out his guitar to him as Rennie reached the bottom of the stairs leading up to the stage. He let go of the girls’ hands and took it from her. “It’s all tuned and you’re on in four,” she told him, glancing at her watch again.
“Sorry about that,” he murmured, placing the strap over his head.
“You remember the playlist?” she stated more than asked, as she handed him his custom ear pieces.
He nodded as he placed them in his ears.
“The roadies switched out the defective video monitor at your feet, so you’ll be able to track it now,” she informed him while she attached the wireless unit to his belt in the back and helped him plug it in to his Stratocaster.
Rennie strummed the guitar, made a few adjustments to it as well as his ear pieces, and nodded to Josie to let her know he heard her.
Waving to the band that he was all set, Josie then stepped in close to Rennie, touching his right arm – all the while very conscious of a malevolent stare from Helen. “I love you and you’re on in two,” she told him quietly.
Rennie gave her a quick smile and then turned back to Helen, Heidi, and the girls. “All right! Why don’t y’all head back out front and I’ll see you when I’m done.”
Helen nodded in agreement and attempted to corral her daughters. “Let’s go girls!”
“But we want to stay with Dad!” Lena cried out, looking back and forth between her parents.
“Honey, your dad has to go on stage,” Helen tried to explain to her. “It’s not the same as what you were doing yesterday.”
“Can’t we stay, Dad?” Katie entreated her father. “We could just stand backstage and watch. We won’t be any trouble!”
“That’s up to Josie,” Rennie replied hurriedly, as he heard Rowdy greet the crowd. “I’ve got to go.” And with that, he shot up the stairs and out onto the stage.
Both girls looked up at Josie expectantly, while their mother glared at her with venom.
Josie, for her part, had no problem with the request. They were Rennie’s girls. Bending down, she met Katie and Lena’s eyes. “If you promise to behave, you can stay backstage with me. And if you get tired of being back there,” she added, “I can always bring you back out to your mom and Aunt Heidi. Does that sound okay?” That last part she more asked the two adults, rather than the kids.
“That sounds fine,” Helen let out rather reluctantly but smiled when her girls turned to look at her, more than a little excited and making happy sounds.
“Do you want me to hold on to your bunny for you?” Heidi asked Lena, as she and Helen were about to leave.
The six-year-old clutched at her prize even tighter and shook her head no.
“That’s fine,” Helen’s sister replied, chuckling. “If you need to bring them out, just send me a text,” she told Josie, wiggling her cell phone in her hand.
“Will do,” Josie replied, taking the girls by the hand. “Enjoy the show!”
Rowdy and the Jays were well into their first song, Caught Up in You by .38 Special, as Josie guided the two girls to an out-of-the-way spot backstage. While the sound was loud, it wasn’t so much so that you couldn’t speak and be heard – which was mainly due to the fact that they were outdoors rather than indoors. Josie knelt down beside the girls and tried to explain what was going on. They were understandably curious about everything, from the various people hustling around backstage to all the equipment and instruments they could see.
“What are they doing?” Katie asked during one of the song breaks.
Josie glanced to where she was pointing. “Those people are helping the band by taking new guitars out to them and bringing back the old ones.”
“After you play a guitar for a while, especially on stage, it can go out of tune. Do you know what that means?”
Katie nodded her head. “That’s when the strings don’t sound quite right and Daddy has to turn the knobs on the end to tighten them and make them sound right again, like on our violins.”
“You got it! But rather than your dad doing it this time, Jeremy over there is going to do it for him while your dad plays on one of his other guitars for a while. Then, at the next break, they’ll switch guitars again.”
The girls stayed watched intently for quite some time but after a while, Josie could tell their interest was fading. Seeing that their fidgeting was increasing rapidly, Josie knelt down by them yet again. “Do you want to go out and sit by your mom and Aunt Heidi? You’ll probably be a lot more comfortable out there.”
The girls looked briefly at one another and then back at Josie. They nodded their heads.
Quickly texting Heidi that she would be bringing them out, Josie stood up and took them by the hands. Leading them past all the backstage activity, she soon had them down the steps and past security. Josie had been able to see from backstage where Helen and Heidi had ended up, so she was able easily to navigate the girls over to them. Just as she was about to hand them off and head back, however, little Lena tugged at her hand.
“Can you stay with us?” she asked with all the innocent earnestness a six-year-old girl can muster.
Josie was torn. She wanted to return backstage and didn’t even remotely need to look over at Helen to know she hated the idea of her staying. But the face of this little angel was pleading with her and she couldn’t bring herself to say no.
A smile and a nod brought a happy smile to the child’s face, and Josie took a seat on the grass next to Heidi. Helen, thankfully, was on the other side of her sister with Katie, now, in between the two of them. In mere moments, meanwhile, Lena and her prize bunny were firmly entrenched in Josie’s lap. She could hear Heidi chuckle as the little girl began to chatter on about a whole host of different things as talkative little girls are wont to do.
Josie would respond periodically to her with either a nod of her head or a soft vocal affirmation, but she found her attention repeatedly drawn away to the lead guitarist up on stage. A glance to her left every so often, let her know she wasn’t the only one with that issue. While Josie’s emotions ran the gamut from love to pride to joy as she watched Rennie, she could tell from Helen’s expressions that the other woman was experiencing an opposite reaction of deep sadness and longing. Almost against her will, Josie found herself in that moment suddenly feeling no small measure of sympathy for Rennie’s estranged wife. Not remotely enough to give him up, mind you, but a genuine sorrow for the woman, nonetheless.
Grant was greeted by quite a few people as he and Anisha walked past the row of camera set-ups from the various St. Louis TV stations. They had obviously wrapped up the feeds for their networks’ local news-at-noon segments. Now they were sitting around digging into meals they’d purchased down in the food court and listening to the latest group performing at Stage A. Grant had to admit, this bunch sounded pretty good. Glancing down the hill, he could see their name on the stage marquee, High Heel & the Sneekers, along with a decent-sized crowd gathered to hear them. Not planning to stop and join them, however, Grant and his wife continued on toward their destination.
When they reached the large media pavilion tent, they could immediately see that the GAC folks had expanded their presence in the far right corner. Off to the left, meanwhile, was a familiar couple sitting by themselves amongst a fair number of empty round tables and chairs. While not previously considered a couple, the way Ty and Sarah were seated together and intimately conversing over lunch suggested to Grant that something had finally changed. Unfortunately, he needed to interrupt them.
“I’m going to catch up with Lori over here,” Anisha told him, pointing over to the GAC area, “while you go talk with Sarah.”
“Sounds good,” he murmured in reply, before heading over to bring Sarah up to speed on the latest settlement offer from Stone Mountain.
Ty stood up and greeted him with a handshake as he approached the table. “Good afternoon, Grant! Pull up a chair.”
The tall lawyer shook his head. “I don’t want to intrude. I just wanted to catch Sarah up on the newest settlement offer.”
“What settlement offer?” Sarah asked, clearly curious.
“Anisha and I spent the better part of an hour talking with Mr. Lanci. He’s tendered you an offer to compensate you for everything you’ve had to put up with at Stone Mountain, up to and including yesterday.”
Sarah was somewhat taken aback. “Really?”
“Man, that was quick!” Ty remarked, staring quizzically back at Grant.
“He seems genuinely appalled by it all and told us he wanted to do right by you. I sent a copy of the offer to your email.”
Sarah retrieved her iPad from her purse, and quickly set about logging in to her email account. Her swift inhalation of air let him know she had come across the settlement offer. “That’s a lot of zeros!” she exclaimed, looking up at him with wide eyes.
“I’ll say!” Ty concurred, when she showed him the screen.
“If you’ll notice,” Grant responded, pointing down at her tablet, “there’s two separate and distinct parts to the offer. The first is the monetary settlement. The second is a job offer and promotion.”
“Holy crap!” Sarah blurted out, as she examined the second page. “Nina was right!”
Not sure what she meant by that, Grant continued on. “Now, you can accept the first and reject the second, if you want. You can even decline the settlement offer and ask for a larger payment.”
“What do you suggest?” she asked, looking up at him again with those wide blue eyes of hers.
“The settlement is a very generous offer,” he conceded to her. “As your lawyer, I recommend that you accept it. As for the job offer,” he paused and shrugged, “that’s entirely up to you. Based on some of my conversations with some of the big studio reps walking around here, though, I’d say finding other work in the music industry will not be a problem for you.”
“Oh, man, ain’t that the truth!” Ty let out with a bit of a chuckle.
“Anyway, don’t feel like you have to make a decision right now,” he said with a smile and a gentle pat on her shoulder. “Take a few days to think about it.”
“Okay,” she responded with a nod. “That’s a good idea.” Suddenly, an expression of confusion swept across her face and she stared at him with furrowed brows. “Wait a minute! You were talking with studio reps? Why?”
“I asked him to,” Ty explained, drawing Sarah’s attention back to him. “Ren’s a proven commodity as a songwriter, but his stock is going to shoot through the roof when they hear Hatchery Road tonight,” he told her, gesturing toward Stage A down the hill. “Just the whiff of a potential bidding war could really strengthen his hand in contract negotiations.”
Sarah nodded her head in understanding before turning back to Grant. “So, what, you’re going into entertainment law now? What about taking on the director of redevelopment job here?”
“I’m acting as Hatchery Road’s agent for now,” Grant replied, then followed it up with a shrug. “Taking that on full time could be interesting, but who knows? As for the short term state job here, Anisha asked me to turn it down, so I will.”
Sarah momentarily glanced past Grant before returning back to him. “So things with your wife are ... good now?” she asked hesitatingly.
The big man nodded, a satisfied smile on his face. “Yes, they are and I guess I have you to thank for that. I must say, I really appreciate you giving her a call and convincing her to come up here.”
Sarah’s face clouded over with confusion yet again and she shook her head. “I’m glad things are better between you two but I didn’t call her.”
“You didn’t?” Now Grant was confused. “When I asked Anisha why she came up, she said a little bird told her she needed to come. I just assumed it was you.”
“As much as I would love to take credit for that,” Sarah responded with another shake of her head, “it wasn’t me.”
“If I had to guess,” Ty chimed in, “I’d say the answer to who the ‘little bird’ was, is over your shoulder.”
Seeing both Ty and Sarah looking past him, Grant turned look, as well. There was his wife, Anisha, embracing the lieutenant governor of Illinois, one Wendy Capriati, as if she were a long time friend. He couldn’t help but laugh when the lieutenant governor noticed the three of them looking their way and waved.
“I might be going out on a limb here,” Ty wryly observed, “but I don’t think she’s expecting you to take the job here.”
“I think you’re right, Ty,” Grant responded. “I think you’re right.
“Now, it’s my turn!” the supermodel declared with a huge smile and few wiggles of her eyebrows, before following several of the stage hands out onto the stage. Rennie had to admit, even at eight months pregnant, Rachel Vargas-Steiger was stunning. More than that, though, she was both incredibly pleasant and really funny – two qualities that the evening audience there at Stage A was discovering.
While she entertained the crowd between the sets and the stage hands prepped everything for Hatchery Road, Rennie chose to greet the guy who had warmed up the crowd for them. “Excellent job as always, Josh,” he praised the singer and his band as they came off.
“Oh my goodness, you guys were great!” Josie gushed from just behind him, giving the band high fives as they went past.
“Thanks, it was our pleasure,” the singer replied with a chuckle, obviously responding to Josie’s exuberant enthusiasm while wiping some perspiration from his forehead. “It’s a little warm out there, though. You guys all ready?” he asked, glancing between Josie and Rennie, and then looking past them to the rest of Hatchery Road.
Josie was quick to respond. “Oh, yeah!” she exclaimed.
Rennie, however, was a bit more reserved. This was by far the largest crowd he had ever performed before, and it had him more than a little nervous. “I think so,” he replied, looking back at the rest of the group.
“He’s just a bit nervous,” Josie chimed in, giving voice to his thoughts. Stepping up next to him, she slipped her hand into his and entwined their fingers.
Josh smiled at the move and nodded his head toward Rennie. “You and I both know a little nervousness right now can be a good thing. They’re a good crowd tonight. So, go out, have fun, and show ‘em a good time!”
“Will do!” Rennie replied, giving the man a pat on the shoulder as he headed off to find his family.
“What’s she doing out there?”
Rennie had been mentally reviewing the playlist, when his girlfriend’s question, followed by loud applause, broke into his reverie.
“They were all laughing at what she said just a bit ago, but now she’s gotten all serious and is talking about the tornadoes.”
Still standing together, he glanced down at her and then out to the stage to see what she was asking about. Rachel was there standing at the microphone with a couple of other people. Recognizing them, he immediately had an answer for Josie. Taking her by the hand, Rennie led her to a different spot backstage where they could look out and see the large screen on the opposite side of the stage.
“She’s telling one of the rescue stories,” he whispered, pointing up to the screen as both images and video flashed across it.
“That is so cool!” The exclamation, however, came not from Josie but from Megan, who had evidently followed them and was looking over their shoulders. “Whose idea was that?”
“Lori and Sarah’s, actually,” Rennie replied, glancing back at Megan. “They both saw the pictures and video Aaron and his crew were coming back with from the tornado zones, and realized what else could be done with them.”
“It was more Lori’s than mine,” Sarah admitted, her voice surprising them from behind. As the three of them turned to look at her, she shrugged a bit. “Aaron’s footage was incredible but I wasn’t sure we could use it. Then Lori thought of this,” she said, gesturing out to the stage and screens. “And I thought, ‘How cool is that? To remind everyone tonight that this tragedy didn’t just have victims but heroes!’”
“That is cool!” Josie agreed, giving her best friend a huge smile and a nod of her head.
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”
Rennie heard the excited call and watched as his youngest daughter made a beeline for him and jumped in his arms.
“Where’s your bunny?”
“Aunt Heidi said it would be better if she held onto it for now,” Lena replied, sticking out her lower lip just a bit.
Seeing Heidi still off a ways holding the aforementioned giant stuffed rabbit that had more than a few mud and grass stains on it, he kept as straight a face as he could. “That’s probably for the best,” he commiserated with her.
“You’re on in five, Rennie.”
“Thanks, Manny,” he called back to the stage manager.
“Do you still want the girls to come out with you?”
Helen had been following behind her sister and was now standing not far from him, with their oldest daughter at her side. Katie was staring up at him in eager anticipation, holding tightly in her hands the tambourines she and her sister had used the day before. For her part, Lena was bouncing up and down in his arms repeatedly begging, “Please!”
“If that’s all right?” he asked, gazing back at his estranged wife. “I figured they could stay out for the first set of songs and then come back to you when we shift to our new stuff.”
She nodded agreeably, a pleasant smile on her face, and stepped forward so she could touch his arm. “That sounds fine.”
Estranged – what a perfectly acceptable word for that day. The woman he’d been dealing with most of the morning was so not the woman he’d married eleven years earlier. Thankfully, he was able to escape for practice with Keith, Alison, Nora, and Yo-Yo, after he filled in for Rowdy; otherwise he likely would have had to deal with her all afternoon, as well.
For a girl who avoided intimate contact like the plague unless she wanted something, Helen was strangely touchy-feeling with him today. Whenever she was around, she was never more than a foot or two from him, her fingers and hands making contact with his skin with unsettling frequency. Then there was the doe-like expression perpetually on her face and the unnerving way she would agree with everything he suggested in almost reverential tones.
It all rang so false with him that Rennie could only assume it was another attempt to manipulate him – a thought that deeply angered him. Knowing that kind of emotion would be less than helpful out on stage, though, he silently used once again a technique he’d learned in a counseling class at the seminary. Envisioning all these irritants from Helen as rain droplets, he inwardly watched as they fell upon and then rolled off the oiled feathers of a mallard’s back. He knew it was just a temporary fix, but for the moment it was working.
“How about a kiss for good luck?” Helen asked sweetly, her blue eyes pleading with him to say yes.
“Me too, Daddy!” Lena chimed in from his arms. “Me, too!”