~Story by Olivia Cunning~
Christmas Eve two years before the book Backstage Pass
Though Sinners had been on the road for most of the past six months, Jace would prefer they never took a break from touring. The tour bus was more his home than any brick and mortar structure.
“Do you have big plans for the holidays, little man?” Eric asked and poked Jace in the rib with the drumstick he’d been twirling.
No, but he wasn’t about to admit that to Eric. “Yeah. Lots.”
Jace massaged the small hoop in his earlobe and pretended to find the floor interesting.
When Jace didn’t elaborate on his lots of plans, Eric’s ADHD-self turned his attention elsewhere. “Sed? What time does the party start on New Year’s Eve?” he called to the lead singer, who was standing at the front of the bus, waiting for lead guitarist Brian to collect all his stuff and get out of the way.
Sed glanced over his shoulder and grinned crookedly so that one of his dimples showed. “I don’t recall inviting you, Sticks.”
“Will your sisters be there?” Eric asked, hopefully. He leaned in closer to Jace and whispered, “Hot, young thangs. Both of them. Certified Grade A--”
“If you touch my sisters, you die,” Sed warned in a baritone growl.
Jace smiled at the floor. He loved being caught in the dynamic of these guys, but as he’d been a part of this band for less than six months, he always felt like he was intruding on some sacred bond between them. Sinners had been together for almost ten years. It only made sense that they were a close-knit group. Jace didn’t mind looking in from the outside. It was enough.
“No worries,” Trey, their rhythm guitarist, said. He brushed his long bangs from his forehead, green eyes twinkling with their usually orneriness. “I’ll just consult my little black book and invite enough babes for everyone.”
“More like an encyclopedic black book,” Eric whispered to Jace.
Jace chuckled. Trey got around. A lot.
“You’re coming, right?” Eric asked Jace.
Jace shrugged. Sed hadn’t invited him. Actually, Sed hadn’t invited anyone. It was a tradition to party at Sed’s place on New Year’s Eve, but as this was Jace’s first year with the band, he wasn’t a part of any of those traditions. The guys in the band spent Christmas with their families and New Year’s Eve together. Jace was already dreading Christmas. He really struggled with holidays.
The band members shuffled off the bus, carrying luggage and gear. As Jace’s feet touched the asphalt, he crinkled his nose at the warmth and palm trees outside. Even though he’d lived in southern California for over a decade, he’d never get used to Christmas in a warm climate. Jace’s family had moved to Los Angeles from Montana right before his mother had died. The holidays just weren’t the same without snow on the ground. He still remembered playing Christmas jingles on the piano with his mother. Yeah, Christmas was supposed to mean family. Jace didn’t have one of those anymore, which all things considered, was for the best.
Laughing and joking all the way to their car, Trey and Brian left the parking lot together. The two guitarists were roommates and had been best friends since elementary school. Late for dinner at his parents’ house, Sed sped off in his Mercedes. Eric tried to coax his vintage, piece-of-crap Corvette into starting. Jace headed out of the parking lot on foot. It was only a couple of miles to his apartment and he liked to walk. Plus, he didn’t own a vehicle. He could afford one now. He just hadn’t gotten around to buying one.
After proceeding less than a block, a loud, knocking sound drew his attention to the road beside him.
Eric, his wild hair stirring in the breeze, grinned at him from behind the wheel of his emerald green convertible. “Need a lift?” he asked.
“No thanks, I prefer to walk.”
Eric shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He gunned the engine, probably trying to speed off with spectacular flare, and the car died. “Crap!” The engine whined as he tried to start it again.
“Maybe you should walk, too,” Jace suggested.
“Shut up, little man. She’s just temperamental.”
If that’s what he wanted to call it. “Later.”
He left Eric swearing at his temperamental piece-of-crap and continued towards home. While standing on a street corner waiting for a green crossing light, something brushed up against Jace’s calf. He looked down and a pair of inquisitive amber eyes gazed up at him.
“Brrroowww owww owwwn?” the black tuxedo cat meow-purred up at him.
The scraggly thing looked like it had just crawled out of the sewer. Jace nudged it aside with is foot--he didn’t like cats--and strode across the street. He chanced a glance behind him to find the creature on his heels. The cat trotted with purpose, its white paws rhythmically striking the pavement, its tail high in the air, its eyes never leaving its target. Jace walked a bit faster, hoping to deter the little pest. As he passed an alley, a set of tires screeched. Jace’s heart skipped a beat.
He turned to find the black scruff-ball cowering under the front axle of a huge SUV in the alley’s entrance. Jace set his bass case down and held up a hand to alert the driver to stay put. When he was sure he wasn’t about to be run over, he bent under the vehicle and reached for the cat. As he scooped the trembling mass of dingy fur into his arms, he couldn’t believe how light the animal was. The cat must have only weighed a couple pounds, tops. It crawled up his chest and planted the top of its head under his jaw, purring in earnest.
“Easy there,” he murmured and ran a hand down the cat’s narrow back. His palm bumped over its bony spine and he cringed. He lifted the cat around the middle and held it in front of him so he could look it in the eye. “You’re just looking for a meal, aren’t you?”
“Brrooowww owwwn,” it meowed within its motorboat purr.
“Alright, I’ll get you something to eat, but then I’m dropping you off at the pound. I don’t like cats.”
The cat grabbed Jace’s hoop earring with one claw, tugged him closer, and stared directly into Jace’s lacerated soul. He had to look away. The cat rubbed its face over the beard stubble along Jace’s jaw and rattled an even louder purr.
Jace cuddled the cat against his shoulder, holding it securely with one hand, and lifted his guitar case in his free hand.
“Do you have a name?” he asked the cat, feeling rather ridiculous talking to an animal.
“So you’ve said. Are you a girl or a boy cat?”
He looked down at the cat when the purring stopped. The well-duh look she gave him made that perfectly clear. Definitely female.
“Alright, Brownie, what do cats eat? Mice, right?” He knew he didn’t have anything to feed Brownie at home. His apartment was small and sparse, but not mouse-infested. He’d have to stop at the store. There was a quirky shop near the end of his block that sold everything from snacks to sunglasses to action figures. He hoped they sold cat food, too. He tucked Brownie inside his jacket and she curled around his waist, purring so loudly they’d think he had a Harley hidden in his coat.
She went quiet, as if she actually understood him. Strange creature. And a bit tickly as she stirred against his belly.
Jace hefted his duffle bag and bass guitar into a cart, thinking he probably should have dropped his baggage off at home first, and then perused the aisles. He found the cat-needs aisle and tossed every type of canned cat food available and a few small bags of dried food into his cart. He didn’t know what Brownie liked. He’d just take the extra food to the pound when he dropped her off later. He also decided to spring for the litter pan and some cat litter, just in case she had to go during her short visit. And she’d need a bowl to put her food in. And another one for fresh water. Maybe a toy or two. Some treats. He was eyeing the belled collars when he decided she didn’t need a collar. It wasn’t as if he planned to keep her or anything. As he headed up the next aisle to the checkout counter, a set of claws dug into his side. Jace stopped. One paw protruded from above his jacket zipper as if pointing at something.
“What?” he whispered, moving in the direction the paw indicated.
The paw extended farther out his neck hole and batted a small red Christmas bulb on a decorated tree.
“Do you like that?” he asked. Why was he talking to a cat?
She let out a meow and reached for the bulb with both paws, squirming about in his jacket as she tried to reach the ornament.
“You’re making a scene,” he said, shoving her back into his coat and tugging the zipper higher.
Into his cart the little, gaudy decorated tree went. Brownie purred her approval.
By the time he’d lugged his duffle bag, guitar case, several bags of cat supplies, and a hideous Christmas tree upstairs, he was exhausted. Dropping everything in the corridor, he opened his apartment door, plagued by the emptiness that always filled him whenever he came home to nothing.
“Honey, I’m home.” His voice echoed in the barren living room.
Inside his jacket, Brownie meowed. He unzipped his coat and she sprang out, trotting into his apartment as if she owned the place. He let her roam while he dragged everything inside. While he was unpacking the impressive collection of canned cat food, Brownie jumped onto the kitchen counter and watched him. She placed a definitive paw on one can of food and meowed.
“Is that the one you want?”
The well-duh look she gave him made him chuckle. He rinsed her new bowl and emptied the can of fishy-smelling grossness into the bowl. She gobbled it up, purring between gulps. Jace extended a hand in her direction, knowing he shouldn’t pet her, knowing he couldn’t get attached. He was dropping her off at the animal shelter as soon as she finished eating. Her face still in the bowl, she twisted her body sideways until it collided with his hand. Her tail curled around his forearm. He didn’t have a choice but to pet her then. Stroking her soft fur was somehow soothing. Her purr settled the turbulence with him even further. He hadn’t expected that.
“Why were you out on your own?” he asked. “Someone abandon you?”
Licking her lips, Brownie lifted her head and looked up at him, those soulful amber eyes meeting his. He turned away and found the gaudy Christmas tree on the floor. He picked it up, set it in the living room in front of the window, and plugged it in. It was only knee high and the most pathetic excuse for a Christmas tree Jace had ever encountered, but it brought a smile to his face. Ten minutes later, the tree was bare except for its flashing colored lights. Red bulbs and garland lay in disarray across the floor. A very pleased cat lay amid the destruction.
Jace shook his head at her. “You don’t really think I’m going to keep you, do you?”
Jace hated to admit it, but this Christmas he had a family again.