Thumping. A great thumping resonated throughout her body. Her heart beat in time to the pulses throbbing in her rib cage, shoulders, and every other bone in her body. But she didn't stop bobbing her head and with complete surrender, she screamed with her fist held high above her head.
"Thank you and goodnight!" The lead singer nodded for one last forty-bar guitar solo before the group members disappeared off stage. Melanie Stone gave one last scream and jumped up and down until a hand tapped her shoulder.
"They're just the opener." Chelle was a killjoy.
Stone tucked her brown hair with a flaming red color strip back into a proper ponytail. "Drink?" She didn't want to get into another music battle with her friend. An hour long fight over the car's radio on the trip up to Charlotte had been enough.
Chelle wrinkled her nose. "The line'll be too long. We'll lose our spots."
"Really?" Stone stared at her in disbelief before turning to look over her shoulder. Groups of scene kids sat in impromptu pow-wow circles on the concrete arena floor, dotted with lights from cell phones and glow sticks. "They're not old enough to drink. Besides, elbows out! No sixteen-year-old wannabe keeps us from the front!"
Stone didn't wait for a reply. She left knowing Chelle would follow. She talked a good talk, but Chelle's too tight and too short black mini-skirt screamed her insecurities. After all of the dancing and singing her lungs out, Stone wanted nothing more than a bottle of water, even if it was going to cost a small fortune.
Sitting underneath a banner of the home sports' team, Stone guzzled her first bottle while Chelle held up the wall, eyes darting as kids passed them by.
"How did we get so old?"
Stone laughed. Twenty-eight was not old, but next to group after group of high schoolers dropped off by their parents, it felt ancient. She shrugged. "I don't know."
The lights flickered and a collective scream could be heard coming from the arena. The main band was about to take the stage. Stone killed her first water bottle and tucked the backup into a side pocket on her cargo pants.
"Last chance." She tried again to talk her friend into getting a drink. During the main band, the arena would be hot, humid, and nasty.
"If you hadn't been such a crazy person, you wouldn't need a drink. Now we really won't get a good spot." Chelle gripped her clutch bag tighter in her hands.
Stone shook her head and grinned. "Watch us."
Stomping her size 7 Doc Marten boots and keeping her sharp elbows out, Stone pushed a hole through twenty disorganized lines of kids. A few blonde cheerleader types pretending to be hard tried to stop her, but Stone wasn't having it. One Mom glare made the every-other-day-pop-princesses get over themselves.
She reached behind her to grab Chelle's hand as the next few groups stood closer together, but all she could grasp was Chelle's wrist. Cold metal allowed her to keep a firm grip as the crowd tried to swallow the small space after each of Stone's charges. Oddly, she didn't remember Chelle wearing a watch.
About six people from the stage, Stone stopped and turned around. Only there was no Chelle. A man with bold blue eyes and a sexy cleft chin stood right behind her.
"What did you do with my friend?" Stone yelled as she moved her mouth closer to his ear.
"You grabbed me!"
Before Stone could answer, the first dissonant chord wailed out and the crush began. The throng of kids raced to take up every bit of remaining space to the stage, shoving Stone and the strange man together and forward. They catapulted to less than three people from the stage's edge.
As the headliner's front woman strutted her skin tight pants and high heels to the very front to egg on the crowd, Stone was close enough to see her Christian Louboutins were knock-offs. Not that she really cared, this was an over-produced, melodramatic mush of punk and pop, but current champs of the Top 40.
No, it was the relief of getting away for a night with Chelle and celebrating mutual single-hood on Valentine's Day weekend. Even if it meant she had to let her mother babysit.
The opening song was the current big hit on the radio, part of a big block-buster soundtrack that made all of the teen girls scream. Despite her best intentions, Stone always dug the song's hypnotic beats in the bass and haunting string synth in the background. Her body reacted instinctively, writhing and grooving to the music, hopping up and down with the drum kicks during the bridge. Eyes closed, she registered a presence behind her a few inches too close—even for the limited personal space in the mash of people.
The intruder was Blue Eyes. She was certain without even turning around. When strong hands grasped a small piece of her flesh exposed between her sagging pants and the black tank she wore, her intuition told her it was okay. Instead of fighting it, she moved back an inch further and pressed her body up against his. It was hot, sweaty, and so loud, every invisible hair on her arms and neck popped tall with excitement. Tonight, she didn't care.
The song ended and the spell shattered. Her pocket buzzed with a text from Chelle.
I CAN SEE YOU.
Thumbs flying, Stone turned around right into the chest of the man behind her. She looked up at him with a grin and mouthed the word "friend." She couldn't help her slight sway still in time with the music. It was worse than a drug.
WHERE R U
Waiting on the text, she pretended to look for her friend with a perfectly coiffed burgundy weave in the dimly-lit sea of heads. Woodsy aroma wafted from his T-shirt with a hint of dark spices, sending tingles down her spinal cord. She had almost forgotten the way men smelled. Masculine. Hard-working. Verile. And it was a nice relief from the kid in front of her who wasn't wearing deodorant.
LIKE 4 PEOPLE BACK. BABYSITTING. U HAVE FUN.
Stone grinned and waved a hand over his shoulder, whoever he was. Without a second thought, she spent the next song grinding even closer to the stranger, feeling his arousal through the bulk of a hoodie tied around her waist. It felt good to know she still had it!
By the fifth song, Stone was over "new album" material and even the prospect of dance-making out with a stranger couldn't entice her to stay. Shrugging apologies, she moved to the far side of the crowd towards the exit. She didn't expect and therefore didn't notice the man following her through the sea of people.
Past the bouncers in yellow vests, she slammed open a double-barred fire door. Central air in the atrium filled her nostrils, a stark contrast to the stifling crowd stench inside. She flipped her phone once more, this time to call and check on Chandler. It was ten minutes until his bedtime. She pierced the other ear with her middle finger in an attempt to shush ringing she could hear that wasn't coming from the phone.
"Mommy? Are you all done?"
Stone laughed at her son. "No, Mommy is having a sleepover with Auntie. You being a good boy?"
"Yes, ma'am. Mimi is letting me watch Transformers."
"Oh, is it almost over?" Stone wandered towards the thirty-foot tall windows on the far side of the atrium, away from people waiting for concessions.
"Optimus Prime just drove down the highway, killing all of the cars."
"Let me talk to Mimi."
"Ok. Love you."
"I love you, too, baby. Put Mimi on the phone." A slight shuffle happened as Chandler explained that his mother wanted to talk to her. Darla Collings took the phone from her grandson, but didn't allow her daughter to speak.
"We're having our own sleepover, Mimi's rules. You have fun and don't call again until tomorrow." Her mother hung up on her.
Stone stared at her phone in disbelief, almost hearing the giggles she was sure her son shared at that very moment with his grandmother. Waves of Mommy-guilt were interrupted by a deep, baritone voice from behind her.
"Are you okay?" He spoke slightly louder than a normal inquiry since neither one of them could hear very well.
The darkness outside transformed the massive glass windows into a blurry mirror, but she recognized the size and stature of the man standing behind her. It was the same man she pulled through the crowds by accident. She spun around and confronted her stalker but instead flashed him a goofy grin. He was much more handsome in the light.
"Fine, had to check up on my son." There, that should scare him off.
"You going back in?"
"Nah. I came for the openers."
His eyes sparked at her admission. He began laughing.
"Good, glad that amuses you," she snipped and began to leave him, again.
"No, no. Wait." He reached out to touch her arm so she paused. "Ron Astor. I only came for the opening band, too." Stone finally took a full assessment of Ron. The black turtleneck and gray slacks were of quality fabric, she'd put money down that he had a sports coat in the car. "And to chaperone my sixteen-year-old and her friend," he added when she still didn't continue the conversation.
Stone nodded. Why was this man still talking to her? He had to be in his mid-to-late thirties, though that wasn't a problem for her. Clearly he took care of himself. Words failing her, she was saved by the buzz.
911 BATHROOM CONCOURSE E
"What concourse are we on?" Stone scanned the banners and signs for a clue.
"Just tell me!" Stone grew more frantic to find her location.
Ron joined in the search. "F." He pointed to a small royal blue plaque on the far wall by a set of double-doors leading back into the arena.
"Which way is E?" Stone walked to her right and tried to figure out her orientation to concourse E.
"Wait. What's going on?" Ron hurried after her.
Stone didn't answer him, she just kept walking quickly towards groups of kids spilling out of the double doors. Dodging her way through them, she saw signs for Concourse A that made her spin around on her heel, almost directly into the front of Ron.
"Stop! Why do you need to get to Concourse E?" He sounded worried, but there was a firmness to his voice that compelled Stone to answer.
"My friend. She needs me." She held up her phone briefly before shoving him aside and backtracking through the atrium. Picking up her speed once she reached Concourse E, she heard distressed voices coming from the women's restroom.
"Chelle!" Stone called out as she dashed inside, leaving Ron behind.
"Ohmygod, ohmygod, what are we going to do?!" A young girl with pale blonde hair stood in the corner by the sinks in a total meltdown. Her face was streaked with tears and her nose and eyes were swollen.
Stone's eyes rested on Chelle crouched on the floor under the hand dryers, with another girl, a brunette, slumped in her arms. There was blood all over Chelle's hands.
"Are you hurt?" Stone quickly untied her hoodie from around her waist and offered it to help staunch the bleeding.
"I'm fine." Chelle did not look fine. She looked upset, and annoyed at the teen queen drama going on beside her. "Can you get some help? I can't leave her."
Stone took a few paces backwards and shouted to Ron outside, "Get the paramedics. NOW!" She didn't wait for confirmation. With a firm voice, she addressed the girl freaking out in the corner. "You. Go wait outside and wave to the paramedics when they come."
The girl didn't move, instead she sniffed. "Is this your friend?" Stone asked and the blonde girl nodded. "Then do as I say. We'll take care of her until they get here."
The girl mutely obeyed. Shaking her head, Stone crouched down to see if the young woman slumped in Chelle's arms was conscious.
"Hun, can you hear me?" Stone brushed the girl's blood soaked bangs out of her eyes. She looked up at Chelle. "What happened?"
"They were trying to crowd surf. Next thing I know, this one was using my shoulder to boost up and then she was on the floor. She hit head first."
Stone sighed. Sure, the concert inside was thrilling, but there wasn't nearly enough people where Chelle and those kids were to crowd surf.
The injured girl moaned, making Stone jump back just in time. Vomit of what looked liked half digested french fries poured out of the girls mouth, all over her shirt and onto the small, white tiles of the bathroom floor. Then her head slumped to the side.
"Oh no, no! Come on, honey. Stay awake. Look at me!" Stone shouted at the girl and touched her cheek. The girl's eyes opened but she couldn't focus.
Stone searched around for a container or anything to put some cool water in. She had to keep this girl awake until help arrived. Thankfully, that's when the paramedics showed up.
After the paramedics secured the girl to an orange board and asked Chelle and Stone a few questions, they removed her to the waiting ambulance. Before Stone could argue, Chelle dragged her by the hand right after the stretcher.
"Where are we going?"
"We have to go to the hospital. We can't let that girl go by herself!" Chelle called out over her shoulder as she struggled to follow the paramedics through the crush of gawkers. Word about the girl's injury had spread and now the other kids wanted to see the carnage.
Stone gave up trying to reason with Chelle and followed her to the parking lot. In Chelle's beat up Toyota Camry, they paced the ambulance to the Emergency Room five stoplights away.
"Why don't we just go back to the hotel?"
"She could DIE. I'm not having a little white girl's blood on my hands. We're going. You start praying."
"She's fine. She has a concussion, which is what happens when you smack your pretty little head on a concrete floor."
"Her parents don't even know she's here. The other one told me. They were here with the stupid girl's dad."
Stone's stomach dropped. She never did see what happened to the girl freaking out or Ron. It couldn't be him, that would just be crazy. There were probably tons of fathers with their daughters at that concert.
Chelle let the hospital's front desk clerk know they were here for the girl just brought in from the concert. As she clearly wasn't family, Chelle and Stone took seats in the waiting room.
"This is retarded. They aren't even going to let us see her, you know." Stone tapped her fingers on the blue Naugahyde cushion beside her. Chelle didn't say anything, keeping her eyes closed and lips whispering.
The walls around Stone grew larger and intimidating. She couldn't sit here. Not after the years of spiral fractures and creatively explained bruising. She let Chelle know she was going outside.
Trapped and naked. Stone couldn't leave Chelle here all alone, and without her hoodie, it was a little too chilly outside. It had to be about 40 degrees, a little colder than usual for mid-February. Stone crossed her arms and hopped up and down as her tank top offered no warmth to the unseasonable weather. She was just about to go back inside and ask for the car keys to wait in the car when she spied Ron and the blonde girl walking across the parking lot. She was right, he did have a sports jacket in the car that he now wore. The girl inside the ER must have come with them to the concert.
To be polite, Stone waited for them to reach her before turning to start walking inside.
"How's Maddie?" The young girl blurted out upon recognizing Stone.
"I don't know, honey. She's inside and they're working on her."
Worry made the previously faint lines of age on Ron's face look far more pronounced. "Christie, go inside. I'll be there in a moment." The girl was already heading inside before her father's direction.
He touched Stone's arm between her shoulder and elbow. His hand felt warm and sparked a reaction in her nervous system below. "Thank you. Christie told me how you helped Maddie after some guy slugged her."
"No one hit her. My friend was there the whole time. Your daughter and her friend were trying to crowd surf!" Stone's opinion of his daughter fell by the minute. But she was young once, herself. Lying yourself out of trouble came with the age.
"They were what?"
Stone gave an involuntary shiver and Ron immediately shed his coat to put around Stone's bare arms.
"Thanks." Stone gave a nod of appreciation and tugged the jacket closed. "Chelle said your daughter gave Maddie a boost and the girl fell because no one around was expecting her to try." A small part of Stone regretted pushing towards the front. If she had just stayed with Chelle, she could have stopped the girls before any of this happened. While not a doctor, Stone was sure Maddie could have significant brain damage.
"I've called her parents. They'll be here in a few minutes." Ron walked past Stone presumably to find his daughter.
For a few awkward seconds, neither said anything. Ron broke the ice. "You never did tell me your name."
"Stone. I'm Melanie Stone." Stone held her hand out to shake his. Ron grabbed it in greeting and a wide grin broke across his face. Stone didn't care for it or him. Despite her original plan to wait in the car, Stone took a deep breath and followed him inside. Hopefully once the parents showed up, she could talk Chelle into leaving.
Missing church on Sunday morning was going to bring all kinds of trouble for Chelle and Stone. Sure enough, at 1:00 PM on the dot, Mama Rose texted both her wayward daughter and the mother of her grandson. Might be a sin, but sleeping in at the hotel and bellies full of Zaxby's were luxuries rarely received and the Good Lord would just have to understand they were appreciating their blessings.
Chelle drove around to the middle of the half-circle dirt driveway in front of Stone's two bedroom modular house.
"Well, we didn't get any."
"Speak for yourself." Stone gave a wide grin and popped open the Camry's door. "You going to the six o'clock?"
"My mama ain't gonna let me miss church twice in one day. And you better be at supper, too. She's going to be just as mad at you." Chelle laughed and tapped the number one preset on the radio, back to her Top 40 station.
"Alright." Stone trudged up the aging steps of her front porch, making sure to wipe off the mud leftover from this morning's drizzle.
A quick walk through her modest home revealed Chandler and her own mother weren't back from the Methodist church in York. Exhausted from sitting at the Emergency Room until two in the morning, she took Ron Astor's business card out of her pocket and flicked it into the trash.
Torn between a shower and a nap, she opted for the former. While getting dressed into a clean pair of bolero slacks and a knit sweater, sounds of her mother and Chandler returning made her hurry up.
Bustling back to the front of the house, she snatched her son up in a hug as he greeted her.
"Mommy! Look! Mimi bought me goldfish. They're in my room." Chandler grabbed his mother's hand and dragged her back down the narrow hallway towards the bedrooms.
Goldfish were not the only new addition to Chandler's room. There was a brand new bedspread, lamp, and rug. A new desk replaced the rickety second-hand piece Stone had picked up at a consignment shop.
"I was only gone for fifteen hours!" Anger rose up her chest and threatened to spew hateful words that Chandler shouldn't hear.
"We just picked up a few things." Darla Collings' wide girth stood an imposing few inches behind her daughter, blocking any escape.
"Look Mommy, I have painted sheets." Chandler proudly pulled his new gray and black comforter down to reveal purple jersey sheets with a pattern of stroke marks.
"You bought him sheets?"
"There were holes in the old ones," her mother said, off hand.
"In the corner!"
Chandler's proud face crumpled. Stone entered his room properly and sat down on his bed. She sighed and gave him another hug, adding a vigorous rubbing to the sides of his arms. "Do you like your new room?"
He nodded into her chest. Stone looked over his head to her mother and glared.
"I didn't show you the best part," he whispered.
Stone let him go and he turned the black knob on the front of his desk. He jumped up to put his weight on the front edge, lifting the back edge of the desk, and quickly squirmed to hold the desk's weight while tightening the knob. "See? Mimi says all artists have to have desks like this." He looked proudly at his grandmother for nonverbal praise.
A smile crept over Stone's face. But she quickly suppressed it. "Alright, get your play clothes on and go outside for a bit. We're going to Mama Rose's in an hour and a half."
"Can I take my sketch book?"
"I want pictures of the green sprouts in the flower bed." She gave her son another smile.
Stone followed her mother to the kitchen so Chandler could get changed. She opened her fridge and pulled out a water pitcher.
"I fed him already."
"I'm sure you did." Stone poured herself a glass of water.
"So I can't buy anything for my grandson?" Darla opened the small dishwasher full of clean dishes. She began to put them away.
Stone didn't answer. She waited to hear Chandler head out the front door to the porch.
"You're buying your way back into his life," she whispered with venom.
"He needed a few things for his room and I have the money for it." Darla snapped back at her ungrateful daughter. Flustered, the plastic cup she set into the cabinet was too close to the edge and her hand bumped it on the way to get another dish. With a click-clack clatter, the cup somersaulted out of the cabinet, off the counter and rolled across the kitchen floor.
Stone got up to reach for it, but her mother got there first. She snatched up the cup and tossed it into the sink.
"Well, I know when I'm not wanted. You're welcome." Darla gave Stone a few seconds to say something, but she kept drinking her water. Silently. Darla yanked her red leather pocketbook from the counter and sashayed around the armchair in the living room and out the front door. Stone could hear muffled voices from the front porch and assumed her mother said goodbye to her son.
As the sound of a car leaving faded, Chandler bounded back inside.
"Momma, why is Mimi crying?"
"You yell at her for buying me things? I won't let her buy me stuff anymore." The little boy hung his head and lowered his voice. "I wanted them."
Although her son was trying to repair the rift between his mother and grandmother, Stone felt a piercing pain in her heart. "It wasn't your fault, kiddo. Mimi and I sometimes disagree."
Chandler joined his mother at the laminated kitchen table, laying his sketchbook on the table top next to him. He rested his head onto his folded arms in front of him.
"Momma, you can use my desk any time you want to because you're an artist, too." Chandler smiled at his mother, but she only thanked him flatly. "I didn't take the tags off the clothes. We can take them back."
Stone's anger twisted around again in her gut. She wasn't sure if she was angrier that her mother spent money without talking to her first or that she didn't have the money herself to spend on Chandler. She gulped and struggled to keep an even tone.
"That's okay. Why don't you go get washed up. Are any of the new clothes church clothes?"
Chandler sat back up and grinned while he nodded.
"You want to wear your new clothes tonight?"
This time, he gave a shy smile.
"Well, alright then. Go on." Stone laughed as her son jumped at the chance to take a bath. Then he flew back into the kitchen and kissed his mom.
Stone gave him a hug and playful swat as he ran back towards his bedroom. Stone pulled her own sketchbook out of her work bag sitting on a kitchen chair in the corner. Flipping through three pages of dress forms, she reviewed her design sketches for Mrs. Margaret Bishop. The queen bee of the Methodist church would be in her shop next week to start work on her Easter dress. Mrs. Bishop insisted Melanie make her dress first every year so that no one else had the same design. The commission offered was nearly twice what she normally charged.
Stone took a last gulp from her water glass. It sure would be nice to not have to worry about money one day.