by Lea Bailey
Sixteen-year-old bi YouTuber Aria Fitzhugh wants nothing more than reach 50,000 subscribers. But when she becomes the target of an internet hate campaign following the death of Calyx Reed, a reclusive rock star she interviewed, she vows to set the record straight—until she learns that it might have been murder, and her interview is the reason.
Aria teams with Calyx’s teenage son and daughter to investigate, but her attraction to both siblings complicates their investigation, especially as she increasingly suspects that answers are closer to home than anyone wants to admit.
With the internet baying for blood and even her mother seeming to believe the lies, Aria must decide if the truth is worth destroying his family—and her own.
BUY THE BOOK
If my mother could see me now, she’d kill me. A mere glimpse and presto, instant death to one Aria Fitzhugh.
She’d totally ignore the fact that loads of people would pay money to be in my shoes—minus the impending Death by Mom, I mean. To be honest, if I wasn’t literally in my shoes, I’d pay too. Because my shoes (and the rest of me) are currently on an oceanfront roof terrace in the blazing California sunshine, face to face with Calyx Reed.
Yes, that Calyx Reed, still a rock legend ten years after Remember Wednesday broke up. Even now, their song “Questions without Answers” remains the prom song to end all prom songs. To end all proms, more like.
He doesn’t look like a rock star hitting his mid-thirties—or a recluse. He’s tidy and put-together in faded blue jeans and a black t-shirt as he tilts over the terrace’s glass barrier. His feet are bare, and the wind streams back reddish waves of hair that reach his ears instead of down his back like in his heyday.
That makes him the opposite of me, all airplane-rumpled clothes and sweating in the LA heat, curls in a riot. The last person you’d expect him to do a YouTube Throwback Thursday interview with. Or any interview, for that matter. After all, when Remember Wednesday imploded at their height, he went poof. Vanished. Gone. Not a peep for the last ten years.
So yeah, my being invited here is definitely a coup, to say nothing of letting me maybe, finally crack 50K subscribers. Giddiness fizzes in my stomach, and I pat my pocket to double-check for my extra memory card. Then I look up and freeze.
I might be itching to get started, but Calyx Reed looks anything but. He faces the ocean with his eyes closed, his back to me and the whole country. Like none of us exist.
Despite the heat, I shiver, like someone’s walked over my grave—or his.
He leans further over the barrier, and pinprick chills race down my arms. I rub my hands together and try to distract myself by glancing around.
The oceanfront house sits high on a cliff, which gives the terrace a feel of flying, like nothing exists but you and the ocean simmering under a roof of sky.
His living room was all empty walls and leather furniture marooned in vast expanses of bare wood floors, but up here feels inhabited. A telescope stands sentry next to a sleeping bag, and an empty mug rests on a dog-eared notebook with a nubbin of pencil stuck through the spiral wire. A solar light wobbles on a guitar case serving as a side table.
The sleeping bag’s dark blue would make it an invisible cocoon against the night, and its thick downiness adds weight to the idea that he sleeps up here. I try to picture him wrapped up alone under the stars.
He turns so his elbows hang over the barrier, and his sleeve rides up, revealing a bicep tattoo. The Chinese characters are meant to say “love,” but instead spell out “ache,” a mistake he famously shrugged off by saying they aren’t much different.
His mouth crinkles into a grin. “Starin’ awful long at that sleeping bag, little girl.”
There’s no heat to it, no flirt, but I shudder anyway, exaggerated, like when I calm my brothers during a thunderstorm. “No offence, but aren’t you old enough to be my dad?”
He flinches, and trust me, I’ve learned from experience that nothing works like a few mild—or not so mild—insults to get the most reluctant has-beens to start blabbing. Added bonus: Insults make good cover for my own nerves.
But this time, I feel like I’ve kicked a puppy. And not just a puppy, but its kitten best friend and strangely anthropomorphic cyborg sidekick too. Or maybe I play too many video games. That’s the main focus of my channel, after all.
Guilt crashes over me like a wave from the sea far below, so I leap to my feet, careful to keep back from the terrace edge as I open my phone’s video app. “The wind could cause hell with the sound up here, but we can work around it.”
Like I could ask him to go back inside, penned back in by walls and ceilings, glass and stone and wood. Dead things. No way.
He squints at me with tired, red-rimmed eyes through floppy side-swept bangs. “Your mother know you’re here?”
I wince at the mention of Mom. Note to (alive and wanting to stay that way) self: make sure she never finds out I’ve come cross-country on my own. Or about my YouTube channel, while we’re at it.
Right now, though, that’s Tomorrow Me’s problem, so I shove the worries as deep as they’ll go to focus on Current Me’s dilemma: making my lies to her worthwhile by getting an actual interview.
As if reading my mind, he says, “Why exactly did you ask for this? Y’all such a superfan of a has-been?” The Southern accent is out in full force, laced with bitterness. “Gettin’ a good story?”
Ever get the feeling life likes to dump major tests on you out of the blue, no time to study, let alone read the chapter? No option but to wing it and hope for a soft landing—and by that, I mean only a few broken bones.
I swallow hard against that everything’s about to go wrong feeling slithering in the pit of my stomach. “Nah, you should be proud of how terrible a story you’re being. Absolutely the worst.” I say it peppy, trying to big it up even as my hands shake with nerves.
He returns to regarding the edge of the world. “A fitting end.”
“End? The reunion rumors are just that?” As I say it, I lift my phone, but don’t hit record. I’m not here to sleaze out a scoop.
He raises an eyebrow at my phone. “Finally, a real question. Guess we’d better get started.”
Then, like flipping a switch, he changes. No longer Calyx Reed, hunched and wan decade-long recluse, but Calyx Reed, lead singer of Remember Wednesday, indie band turned mainstream smash success, with five platinum albums and over a dozen number-one hits. He’s taller, his eyes bigger, and his legendary charisma is a full-fledged current thrumming down my spine into my legs and arms.
Not attraction; rock star or not, he’s way too old. So what if he was twice voted Hottest Man Alive? Of my mom’s generation, maybe. I mean, I found a pic of Mom at one of his concerts in an old college textbook, which gave me the idea to track him down in the first place.
He steps back, and I can sense the radius of his power, the precise instant I’m outside it. My whole body relaxes, draining that electric current.
His cheeky grin too, is classic Calyx Reed. “Showtime.”
But then hesitation reappears, and he waits for me to sit before settling himself back in the center of his sleeping bag.
He drums his fingers on the terrace tiled floor, long guitarist nails making dull clicks. “Okay, questions. You came all the way out here, so you must really want to ask them.”
His whole body tenses as he says questions. His shoulders ride side-saddle to his chin, and his light, his intensity, only moments ago a wash of energy that literally made me squint—stars, that’s why they’re called stars, I get it now. This is what a nebula must feel like. A supernova—now gutters like Mom’s dinner candles when the twins race by.
Its absence raises more gooseflesh on my arms and propels me to blurt, “I don’t actually have any.” True enough, considering the ones I’d worked so hard on would not so much open old wounds as carve new ones.
“All this way for an interview and no questions. Tsk. Tsk.” His mocking tone is a small price to pay for that flame flickering back to life.
Familiar ground, finally: a test. Prove you’re not intimidated. And I’m not. Okay, I am, but now it’s different, more of an urge to protect that flame, make sure it never falters again.
I set up my phone to record and conjure my snarkiest tone, the one honed to instantly drive Mom up a wall. “The questions you’ve spent a decade avoiding, you mean?”
His voice holds a razor edge I have no hope of matching. “Maybe I thought you had something more original up your sleeve.”
“I do.” I sit on the sun-warmed tiles and nod at the guitar case. “But it’s a question after all.”
Tension coils around him, a snake poised to strike.
I stretch my hands, knuckles cracking. “I’ve practiced and practiced but can’t for the life of me get that chord progression in ‘The Only One that Matters.’ Show me?”
“A guitar lesson?”
“No. I’m a hundred percent here to interview you.” I wave towards the guitar case. “But I don’t think words are the right language.”
His shoulders are relaxing again, and his mouth settles into something vaguely smilish. “That progression’s a bitch, but there’s a trick to it.” He reaches for the guitar. “Leave it to the master.”
So I do.
Then what can I say? I get the lesson of a lifetime. Calyx Reed being an amazing guitar teacher is one of those things that could either be 100% true or 100% wrong, and no one would be surprised either way. Most people would probably guess the latter, though, and it figures. Who knew someone who’d spent the majority of his career smashing guitars on stage and throwing them into the audience (or out hotel windows) would be so patient, handle his wooden acoustic with such gentle reverence?
His fingers barely rifle the strings, but the air fills with sound. His light intensifies as he draws vibrations from the guitar strings that sculpt the air itself, make it yield sounds that once existed only in his imagination.
The Calyx Reed I’ve seen in old music videos sits across from me now, bending an invisible element of nature to his will, producing magic.
Then he stops. The air settles back to its usual inert state as he holds out the guitar. “Your turn.”
Okay then. I glance at my phone propped up at the edge of the sleeping bag, still recording. Time to make a fool of myself.
But he makes it easy to forget the camera, sitting there with his eyes closed in pure listening mode but snapping to attention to correct my finger positioning or point out when I’m using too little or too much tension in the strings.
We sit up there as it grows dark, pinks and greens and golds ribboning the sky before melting into the ocean. He joins me in a duet as I play their debut single “Same Time Tomorrow” from memory, barely able to see the strings.
When we’re done (signaled by my voice cracking and going hoarse rather than any desire to stop—what a way to end the night), he holds up a hand for a high five, expression open and, strange as it sounds, giddy.
He waggles his fingers. “See? Father knows best.”
I set down the guitar, the hand-crafted Saint Muir original he used on the Shock Therapy tour. Apparently, the ones for smashing and audience (and hotel) tossing weren’t real: Replicas, all of them. Ruin this artistry by smashing it to splinters?
I pluck one last note. “Vintage TV too? Or is that not vintage to you, old man?”
I turn to catch him blinking, shutters slamming down on that relaxed freedom from a moment ago. I’d kick myself, if that wouldn’t make the moment even more awkward.
“TV? Oh, uh...” He grabs his guitar, strikes a pose with it, sticking out one elbow. “A fossil like me, darling? Total vintage, practically an antique!” Then he hands it back to me. “You write your own stuff?”
Heat whooshes across my cheeks. “I’ve never—”
He claps his hands. “Let’s hear.”
The strings burn my sweat-slick fingers. “Now?”
“Waiting for a personal invitation? Here it is. Lyrics too?”
“Sometimes.” The guitar’s weight pulls down my arm. I don’t want to lay it on the floor, so I draw it into my chest. “Seriously?”
He settles cross-legged in the middle of his sleeping bag, eyes closed, head tilted to one side. “Serious and waiting.”
A wild giggle threatens to escape. I started doing these interviews when I did a cover of Torn Denim’s “Wrong Size Skin” and wanted to know what happened to the band. I tracked them down and ended up with an email chain back and forth that became a video interview. Many people assume I do interviews to use them for a music career. Utterly untrue, but I’m also super-careful to never mention my own stuff.
Luckily, no one has ever asked. Until now.
I shift and the guitar bangs my shins, bringing forth a clatter.
He doesn’t open his eyes. “Interesting open. Techno influences?”
“Ha, ha,” I say.
But despite his tone, his energy fills the air, a dappled dust of…courage, I guess, because I don’t think, just hoist the guitar into position and start to strum my most polished song, “Tomorrow Me’s Problem.”
I don’t embarrass myself too much (I think). I mess up a chord progression and flub a line in the second verse, singing haven’t I done enough to condemn again from the first verse instead of 20/20 hindsight life stratagem, but I power through like I meant it, straight into the chorus:
Life’s not the only thing that can end us
but that’s Tomorrow Me’s problem.
He doesn’t move for a long moment, eyes remaining closed. “What was that second verse? You missed a line, didn’t you?”
So much for covering it. I clear my throat. “Doesn’t take a genius to see, it’s a 20/20 hindsight life stratagem. If that’s the case, I’ll be smarter tomorrow, so I’m making it Tomorrow Me’s problem. Life’s not the only thing that can end us, but that’s Tomorrow Me’s problem.”
The words sound strange without the music. Bald. Banal. Heat creeps up my neck. I brace for laughter, and maybe even him insisting I delete the interview so he’s not associated with such a bad singer.
He opens his eyes and holds out a hand for the guitar. When I hand it over, he bounces it on his knee, humming the opening bar from the chorus. Then he launches into it, of course playing it a bazillion times better than me. Not show-offy, though. Instead, he holds his hands carefully so I can see how much force he uses, how his fingers slide across the strings to call forth a deeper sound than my strum-and-pick.
His voice adds more depth to the lyrics too, like he’s taken them apart only to weave them back together, a tapestry spun with pure soul. For a moment, I forget I wrote them.
The last note fades, a final gift to the stars, and he sets the guitar down. “Nice. The rhymes sound a little forced in places, but it’s real, and that shines through.”
The burning engulfs the tops of my ears. Forced rhymes? So much for thinking of writing another lyric for the rest of my life. And the afterlife, for good measure.
He senses he said something wrong, because waves his hands. “No, not like that. Thing is, if you think about it, only a third of the song is in the lyrics.”
“Where’s the rest of it?”
“Here.” He strums the guitar laying across his lap. “Another third is in the music.”
When he doesn’t continue, I prod, “That’s only two-thirds.”
“The audience. You can’t be too explicit. Leave room for them to fill in the blanks.”
“So my song’s overstuffed with bad rhymes. Got it.” My voice cracks on the last word.
His hands tighten on the guitar neck. “It’s good. I mean it. That line from the chorus, about death not being the only thing that ends us. Wish I’d come up with that. In fact—”
He’s interrupted by a head appearing at the stairs. Jacqui, his live-in PA, squints at us through the gloom, her dark skin tinged green from the downstairs patio lights. “Time to get her to the airport.”
Calyx glances around, like he’s surprised it’s fully dark. “Now?”
Jacqui comes up another step. She’s holding car keys and tucks a strand of her short dark waves behind one ear. “She has to get back for tomorrow, remember? Don’t worry, I’ll get your takeout on the way home.”
I stand. “Uh, bye. And thanks. For the not-interview.”
He stands too, and the next thing I know, he pulls me into a hug. “Thank you, Aria, for sharing this piece of your heart with me. You don’t know how much it means.”
“I should have it up by Tuesday, so I’ll send you something by tomorrow at the latest.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
I leave him as a shadow at the edge of a pool of light.