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Across the Universe

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When Juliette was sixteen years old Glen Goodman told her he could make her a star.

Her mother was thrilled.  It was a dream come true – her baby girl a country music star, just like the great Rayna Jaymes.  Jolene had practically signed the contract on the spot, ready to hand her daughter off to some stranger.  The promise of fame and stardom more than enough to sway the more whimsical of her parents.

Her father was always the more practical type and not so easily convinced.

“If she’s as good as you say, then it can wait until she’s graduated from college,” Brett Barnes responded, somehow managing to loom over the other man despite being two inches shorter.  He took a step forward, carolling his teenage daughter behind him and aiming a powerfully fierce glare at the wanna-be manager.

Mr. Goodman pressed on despite the formidable look of his opponent and everything in his gut that told him to just back down and let this one go.  “Mr. Barnes,” he began, only to have his next words stalled in his throat by a chilling look.

Her father’s voice was firm but impassive, the words sounding almost flippant in spite of the fact that he was clearly pulling rank on a civilian.  “Staff Sargent Barnes, he corrected, his eyes narrowed.

He was just such as dad that she forgot sometimes that her dad was also a former Blackhawk pilot and a highly ranked officer in the Marines.  When he wanted to intimidate someone, however, he made damn sure they didn’t forget it.

“Staff Sargent,” Mr. Goodman repeated, dipping his head in acknowledgement of her father’s rank.  He continued in the same vein he’d begun, voice pleading and gestures frantic.  “We have to strike now while the iron’s hot.  With her look and voice, Juliette is perfectly poised to be the next big thing in country music.”

As Mr. Goodman continued making emphatic promises about sell-out arena tours and mulit-platinum records her dad just continued to stare him down.  Juliette watched him from the corner of her eye, wondering how he could be so completely unmoved by the impassioned speech and the grandiose plans he had for her.  It all sounded like some fairy tale, something she’d never have thought possible for someone who grew up in a trailer park.

Her father had his own plans, however, quite different from those that Mr. Goodman was laying out before them.  Ones that involved her going to college and building a career that didn’t depend on her looks or voice – things that could be taken away from her in an instant.  He supported her dreams and ambition, but he wasn’t about to let her risk everything on the roll of a dice.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Goodman,” Brett cut in, stopping the man before his wife and daughter got too enamoured by the idea.  “Thank you for the offer, but we’re not interested at this time.”

Mr. Goodman left with a degree of reluctance, leaving his card on the table just in case they changed their mind.

Juliette waited exactly 3 minutes and 17 seconds before she couldn’t keep it in any more.  “Are you trying to ruin my life?” she asked, reeling on her father.  Her eyes were wide and her mouth pursed in a sour expression.

She couldn’t imagine anything worse than this.  It was like he didn’t even care about what she wanted – just sending Mr. Goodman away and shattering her dreams.

She yelled and screamed for about an hour, calling him out for every injustice she could think of before turning on him with a withering stare and uttering one last parting shot.

“My life would be so much better if you weren’t here.”

Jolene grounded her for three months.  Brett eventually let her off early for good behaviour.

 There was a student bar at Ole’ Miss who had a “Singer/Songwriters Evening” once a week on Wednesday.  It was the sort of place that thought calling it an “Open Mic” night was too mainstream and thought calling it a “Singer/Songwriter Evening” gave the event some kind of prestige. 

Avery had been there, almost without fail, every Wednesday since Freshman orientation.  Sometimes he just came to listen, for inspiration, but more often than not he was on the stage performing whatever song he’d been working on at the time.  Over the course of the last three years he’d even managed to amass something of a following, just a few regulars who came out of their way to see him perform each week.

“Your groupies are here.”

He followed Scarlett’s gesture to a table of five girls drinking alco-pops near the stage.  They saw him looking and collectively turned to smile and him and wave flirtatiously.  Scarlett tensed beside him – she’d never say it in so many words, but he knew she didn’t like his fan base – so he deliberately turned his attention to the stage, hoping that would get Scarlett off his back for the time being.

And that’s when he saw her.

She was a tiny thing.  Probably a Freshman.  Probably her first time on this stage – had to be her first time, he’d have remembered seeing her before.  She looked comfortable though, dressed in worn jeans and a baggy sweater and a pair of those huge hipster frames that did nothing to disguise the blueness of her eyes.  He had the perfect vantage point at the bottom of the steps just beside the stage to see how pretty she really was.

There was a guitar balanced in her lap and she smiled like she had all the confidence in the world.  Introducing herself to the crowd like they ought to know who she was – like the name ought to mean something to them already.

She dipped her head, strumming a single chord, then pausing.  “This ones for my daddy.”

He was struck the second she started singing.  Her voice was melodious and raspy and unlike anything he’d ever heard before.  He had no words to describe it and the way that it moved him.  Her song was heart breaking, every word chosen precisely for maximum effect.

Everything else around them seemed to fade to a low hum, like the whole world paused for a moment to stop and listen to her sing.  Her presence was unlike anything he’d ever seen in real life.  Just by watching her in those few moments you knew that she was going to be huge one day.

Time expanded and contracted.  Moving infinitely slow, and then suddenly it was all over – the last twangs of the guitar fading out as she carried the last note without the accompaniment.

The crowd was silent for half a second – an awed silence – and then the applause was booming, filling the small space like he’d never heard it before.

He suddenly wished he was someone else.  Someone important.  Someone who could go over there and tell her how amazing she was and have it actually mean something.

She gave a small bow, her smile more tentative than it was when she begun – more unsure.  As she relinquished the stage to the next performer, he pitied the sorry son of a bitch that would have to follow on after her.

“And now we have Avery Barkley.”

His groupies cheered, but even they sounded less than enthusiastic compared to the whooping cheer that had followed the last act.

He took the stage, smiling charmingly at the audience as he re-adjusted the mic stand.  “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to follow that,” he told them, his eyes locking for a moment with the pretty blonde Freshman (maybe Sophmore) now standing to the left of the stage.  He hadn’t meant to say as much aloud, but it earned him a laugh from the audience and a tiny smile from the previous act, so he went with it.

“Let’s hear it again for Miss Juliette Barnes,” he said, spreading one arm in her direction and leading them in a rousing whoop of applause.

He sent a smile over in her direction, catching her eye for about a second.  And the smile she sent him return – so carefree and unrestrained – felt like physical blow.  Like all the air had left the room and nearly knocked him off his feet.

It took him a moment to find his place.  To remember where he was.  To get back to his own performance and concentrate on what he was supposed to be doing.

By the time he felt steady enough to risk a glance in her direction, she was already gone.