I stood outside his door, stomach clenched, staring at the gold room number above the peephole. Two bodyguards towered on my left and on my right, and another guarded the elevator down the hall. I squeezed my purse strap.
"Are you all right, Miss?" asked one guard.
"Give her some time," said the other.
"I just...I just need to make one more call." I fumbled for my cell phone. I had to call my mom, I had to call my brother, I had to call someone--until the guard snapped it shut. "Hey!"
"He doesn't have much time, Miss. You should go see him now."
"I was getting around to it."
I was getting there slowly.
The bodyguard pounded his fist against the door. "Hey! Hey, Carter, open up!"
"You can't do that!" I shrieked. I wasn't ready!
A muffled reply came from behind the door. "What's wrong?"
"You did not just do that." I buried my face in my hands, listening to every faint sound from inside. Someone padded to the door. Locks and knobs clicked. The handle turned.
It's been forever since I've seen him. He's changed. I haven't. I can't keep up with him anymore. I'm not good enough for him anymore. I'll bore him. He'll hate me. This will be awful.
I resisted the urge to look down as the door opened. Suddenly, Carter Allen emerged--and he wasn't the gangly, pimply ninth grader of last year. His skin was golden, his eyes were the color of ocean water, and the smile he gave me was the exact same one plastered on New and Fabulous! magazine.
"Carter," I said.
"Caroline!" He wrapped me in a huge hug, squashing me to his chest. He smelled like Old Spice; that was new. "Dude, it's been forever."
"And a day."
"Come on in." He beckoned me inside his hotel room, then locked the door back. This presidential suite was bigger than half my house, and had nicer furniture too. While he rummaged through the fridge, I stood in the center of the room, almost afraid to sit down.
"I made sure I got Diet Dr. Pepper, just for you. I know it's your fave."
I turned the can around and around in my hands. "Wow. You remembered?"
"Of course! Sit down." He flopped onto the couch. I hesitated. "Anywhere. Don't worry, I won't bite."
I perched myself in an armchair and set the unopened Dr. Pepper on a coaster. He ran a hand through his dark curls. "I didn't think you'd come," he said.
"Of course I'd come. Why wouldn't I?"
"Whenever I Tweet you on Twitter, you never reply. Girls kill for my Tweets, but you make me feel like an unanswered twit, you know?"
"Can I get a Twix with that?"
"Your favorite candy. There's a five-pound bag in the minibar." He grinned. "I didn't forget anything."
Yeah, right. He probably had his personal assistant take care of all this stuff for him. It was still a nice gesture, I supposed. "Besides, I'm not on Twitter a lot."
"You're on there every day, talking to Brandon McCooley."
"And you were photographed with Selena Gomez at the Video Music Awards, but I'm not getting mad over that, am I? You've moved on. I've moved on."
"Whoa, hold on. I was just making an observation."
My face burned. I cradled the can in my hand before popping it open. "Sorry."
"You never answer my texts or calls, either. Have you changed your number?"
"Yeah, I did. A little while after you left. I guess I never told you." But I told Brandon--oh, how I told Brandon. The day after you abandoned me, your stepbrother became my best friend.
Carter pulled out his iPhone. "Can I have your new number?"
How many girls' numbers did he have now? I used to be the only one.
I gave it to him.
He slid the phone away and leaned back, melting into a relieved smile. "Awesome. So, how have you been?"
It's not the same.
"What about you?" I asked.
Carter nodded. "Good."
"I heard your single just broke two million sales."
I folded my arms. He surrendered, laughing. "Okay, okay, I know. I celebrated with my manager until like, two a.m. the second we hit two million and one."
"Was Selena Gomez at your little celebration?"
"Nope." He put his feet on the table. "Just me, him, and Xbox Live for nine hours straight. I've never played so much Bioshock in my life."'
"You're such a nerd."
"Don't tell that to the magazines."
I made an X over my heart. "Cross my heart. Your secret is safe with me. Oh, and I heard something about you and Lady Gaga on your next album. Wanna talk about it?"
"Are you the press?"
"Not that I know of."
"Good. Don't want my best friend selling me out to Seventeen magazine." He pulled something up on his iPhone and showed it to me. It was a picture of him in a recording studio, but the girl beside him wasn't Lady Gaga. "It's Haley Williams, from Paramore. She's really good."
I sat quietly.
Carter scooted toward me. "What's wrong? Don't worry about me eloping with her: red heads aren't my type."
I'd died my hair orange as soon as he left.
I played it off with a hollow laugh. "Sorry, you had me going for a second. You said--you said I was your best friend."
"Yeah, you are. You still are."
"We haven't talked in fourteen months."
"But I've wanted to talk to you for fourteen months. I never stopped trying to catch you. But your Mom said you were 'busy' every time I called. What was that about?"
"I forgot, you're used to getting your way all the time now, can't handle a little rejection. You're a celebrity."
"That word doesn't mean anything!"
"It means you're famous. It means girls that don't even know you propose on the street. It means you're rich, you've got everything you ever wanted, and you've achieved your dream. You've finally escaped our Podunk little town."
He looked stunned for a minute.
Inexplicably, I started crying. My eyes got hot. "I was there when your dad got you that guitar for your twelfth birthday, and I was there the day you decided to post your first video on Youtube."
"I remember." His throat sounded dry.
"And when your Youtube career took off, suddenly you were signing record deals right and left! And then one day you tell me you have to leave, and it's for your job, because you're famous now! How am I supposed to react? Wait around for you to Tweet me once in a while? Pray for an email every couple of months? We used to do everything together. We used to be best friends. Don't forget: you left me."
He did a slow exhale. "I honestly didn't know you felt that way."
"How else was I supposed to feel?"
"I thought you were cool with the whole thing."
I ran a finger around and around the edge of the can. Wiped my face. "I am cool with it. I mean, I'm totally happy for you, because I know you've always wanted to be a singer, and you've finally made it. Big time."
He looked down at his lap. "I didn't want to lose you in the process."
"Don't worry about me. I'm just some trailer trash girl from some trailer trash town--"
"Don't say that!"
"Why? Because you're from the same town? Because it makes you look bad to say that you're from Hannaseegee, West Virginia?"
"Because you're the most important thing in my life, and I hate to see you put yourself down."
He had those big eyes, as wide as deep as the ocean, and the most sincere look on his face. I almost believed him. I almost wanted to believe him. "If I were the most important thing, you would have come back to Hannaseegee sooner."
"I wanted to!"
He hesitated. He broke my gaze.
"That's what I thought."
"Life just got in the way, I guess. Life. I mean, I was meeting Beyonce and Usher and Miley Cyrus, people I'd dreamed about! And whenever I called you, you never picked up." He scratched the back of his neck, looking troubled. "If you were me, would you want to go back to that tiny town after sipping champagne in Los Angeles?"
"I'll never be able to leave Hannaseegee, even if I want to."
"Don't say that!"
I pulled my knees to my chest and sighed, chewing on the can tab. A bad habit. "The reason I never called is because I'm not good enough for you anymore."
"You've met Selena Gomez and traveled to France. I've never even traveled the next state over."
"You're still my best friend."
I broke away from his irritatingly sincere gaze and picked at a hole in my jeans. "Give it a few more months, and you'll have replaced me. With Dakota Fanning, probably. Have you heard the rumors about you two?"
"I'll never replace you." He crossed an ankle over one knee. "But you've got to talk to me! You don't believe me, but I've missed you, and I want to talk to you. The first few months of being famous were the hardest months of my life."
"Harder than when your dad died?"
He didn't answer.
"Harder than when your mom got remarried?"
He seemed to think. Then, quietly, he said, "Yes, it was harder. Because this time, I had to go through it without my best friend."
"Usher wasn't a proper replacement?"
Carter shook his head. "I was the anchovy out of water. I had no idea what I was doing on stage. And people gave me tips, told me when to smile, told me what to tell the magazines--but I had no idea what was happening inside of me. And I didn't have anyone to really talk it over with."
I kept picking at my jeans. Maybe he did miss me.
"God has blessed me and gotten me through, and He's given me more than I could ever dream. But it would have been a thousand times better if you were with me, Caroline."
I smiled, and hoped he wasn't lying.
"When I told your mom I was going to be in town for a few days and asked her to tell you, I didn't think you'd come see me," he said. "I hoped you'd come. I prayed you'd come. But I thought you hated me."
I leaned back thoughtfully in the armchair. "You're all anyone's been talking about around here."
"It's so crazy, isn't it?"
"Yeah. You are."
He chuckled. "Does this mean we can talk again? Like old times?"
His face fell. "What do you mean?"
"I mean...you're still you, and I'm still me, but you're famous now. You're flying to places. You're doing interviews and photo shoots. You've got fans. Nothing will be 'old times' anymore."
"You've been my best friend for four years; you can't just stop now. I'll come home more often, I'll fly you out to see me, I'll be there for you this time, just--"
"Of course we'll still talk."
He blinked. "What?"
"It won't be like old times anymore. It can't be. But, I mean, maybe I can pick up the phone once in a while, at least until you get bored of me and move on."
"I'll never get bored."
I glanced away. Sure.
"Is that what you're afraid of? Me leaving you behind for another girl? Or fame, or fortune, or any of this?"
He grabbed my shoulders. "Because I won't, okay? I swear, as long as God lets me, I'll never replace you, and I'll never leave you, and you'll always be by my side. Always. And we'll talk every night, even when one of us is dead tired, because we've got to stay friends--do you hear me? We've got to."
"I hear what you're saying."
"Then do you believe me?"
I bit my lip. "I'm starting to."
Carter pulled me close into another spine-crunching hug. But this time, it wasn't me ogling a celebrity or even resigning to see a friend that had left me high and dry. It was me making a pact to always be there for him, and us promising to never split up again, no matter what. So that even if he sold five million records tomorrow, or his album completely tanked, we'd still have each other. Big time.
Every fiber of jealousy and scorn I'd felt in the last fourteen months told me to run away again, and hate him from afar, to dismiss his every word as a lie. To resent him forever.
Instead, I squeezed him tighter and pressed my wet face against his neck. "Carter Allen, I'll choose to believe you."
"That's all I'm asking," he said. "I'll never let you down."
And then they ate Twix bars. Follow me on Twitter at genuinelyjamie. :)