“Layla, open your eyes, baby. Don’t leave me, please.” I imagine his soft voice pleading with me as he easily lifts me into his arms and takes me away from my own personal hell.
“Stay with me. Please! Stay with me!”
I smile as I imagine the things that he might say to me if he was really here, but my imagination isn’t exactly accurate. His voice sounds sad and completely wrecked. That’s not how he really sounds, so I know it’s all just a wonderful dream. Brady doesn’t cry. He’s strong and he’s amazing and he turned me into a fighter. I want to tell him that I tried. I tried to make him proud, and I tried to fight today, but it was too much. It was all too much.
“It’s okay, Layla. You did good. You did so good, baby, and I’m so proud of you.”
I sigh contentedly, knowing that’s all I ever wanted—to make him proud and show him that I'm worth it. I will always remember his voice and his smile and his laugh. No matter what, I will remember. I love him. I love him. I love you.
“I love you too, baby. Do you hear me? I love you. Stay with me.” I imagine him begging again, his voice ripped apart with sobs as I float away grabbing on to my love for him and taking it with me.
Three months later.
Flipping on the light switch as I walk into the office, sorting through a pile of mail, I smile to myself when the room is bathed in florescent lighting. I've managed to take on steady work in the last few months which means Gwen has been able to pay the electric bill on time. It’s a little thing, but right now the little things are all that’s keeping me together. I could have cashed the final check that the board of directors for Hummingbird Records sent to me and I wouldn't have needed to take on every single job thrown at me the last three months, but I refused. I couldn’t take the money. Even though I said the words, cashing that check would mean that Layla really had been just a job. Her life was worth more than some stupid check the company sent me as their way of saying “thank you” and persuading me not to sue them.
“It’s about time you got here. The phone has been ringing off the hook, as usual,” Gwen complains as she sets the receiver back in its cradle. “That’s the fifth call I’ve gotten from Dateline. You really need to do one of these interviews they keep begging for so people stop calling.”
I throw the pile of mail on Gwen’s desk and walk over to my own, flopping down in my chair.
“I’m not doing any interviews, Gwen. We talked about this,” I argue with her.
Everyone already knows what happened down in that basement, and my name has been linked to the news story. Because the tragedy involved a national music sensation, the story hit worldwide. Luckily, since I’ve avoided the interviews so far, no one knows about Gwen. I’ve still been able to keep her whereabouts a secret for now, and I need to keep it that way. The most anyone knows is that I have a woman with short, dark hair with blue and purple streaks working for me. They don’t know she used to be a blonde and is the wife of one of the most renowned plastic surgeons in Manhattan or that he used her for a punching bag. They don’t know that every time someone knocks at the door, we hope to God it isn’t him. It’s the reason I lied to Layla, the reason I ruined everything that could have been between us. To go back on that now would make everything I did pointless. It would mean that I hurt Layla for nothing. She'd suffered enough. That day in the basement of Hummingbird Records, her pain finally ended. She was at peace, and I wasn’t going to talk to some stupid television show and fuck all of that up.
“Brady, I can’t hide from him forever. Sooner or later, he’s going to find out where I am. Mother isn’t stupid. She knows I’m here with you,” Gwen says softly.
“What the hell do you mean she knows you’re here? How does she know? Did she say something?” I fire at her angrily.
“No, of course not, calm down. You know how she is. I only talk to her from your secure phone line, but she always says little things like, ‘The next time you talk to your brother, tell him I said hello.’”
Resting my head in my hands on top of my desk, the worry that has consumed me since the day Gwen and Emma knocked on my door overwhelms me. I need to keep them safe. He can’t find out where they are. I won’t let him take them away from me or hurt them ever again.
I feel Gwen’s hand on my back, and I lift my head up to see her standing next to me looking stronger than I’ve ever seen her look.
“It’s time for me to do this the right way, Brady. I need to file for divorce. I can’t really start living my life until I’m free from him, and you can’t start living yours until you can stop worrying about me all the time,” she says softly.
I open my mouth to argue with her but she quickly stops me.
“I know why you said what you did to Layla the last day you saw her. I’m not stupid either. You’ve paid your dues, big Brother. You’ve more than made up for any wrong you think you might have done to me. I know you love Emma and me, and I know you would do whatever it takes to keep us safe, but you can’t hide from your own life to do that. Do you plan on spending the rest of your life turning down love out of some twisted sense of duty?” she asks.
Yes. Because the only person I will ever love is gone. None of that matters any more.
My chest physically hurts when I think about her. I have to rub away the pain that feels like heartburn only ten times worse when I think about our last moments together and the smile on her face when she told me she loved me, when she told me she tried to be strong like I taught her.
Even though I pushed her away, even though I was the one who put that first crack in her heart that day and the rest of the events that followed shattered it, she still loved me. She still lay dying in that basement hoping that I would come for her, believing in me.
Gwen leaves me alone to my thoughts as she grabs her purse from her desk drawer and leaves to go get some coffee.
I know everything she's said is right. I can’t keep her and Emma hidden away here forever. Even though that asshole hurt Gwen, he never laid a hand on Emma. He doted on that child, and he has to be going crazy not knowing where she is. It’s not like I give a fuck if he’s hurting, but Emma deserves to see her father. She still asks about him almost every day. It’s not right. None of this is right. Working my ass off day and night so I don’t have to think about how much I miss the touch of her lips, the smell of her skin, and the sound of her voice isn’t right. Forcing myself to go days without sleep because when I close my eyes all I see is Layla’s broken body in my arms and all I hear are the sounds of her gasping for breath is not right.
I miss her so fucking much I feel like if I didn’t have Gwen and Emma here with me, I would curl up in a ball and let myself wither away. Just let myself fade into nothing so I don’t have to feel this pain anymore.
Reaching into one of my desk drawers, I pull out the file with her name on it. I trace the name Layla Carlysle with the tips of my fingers and wish it was her face I was touching instead of a cold piece of cardboard. I flip open the file and stare at the document right on top.
When I was released from the hospital that day, my lungs clear from all the smoke inhalation after running through the burning building, I found her room and sat by her bedside even though there was no reason for me to be there. Her broken body still under the covers, hospital equipment and discarded wrappers from gauze, syringes, and oxygen tubes scattered all over the room, everything was in the same spot from when they were working on her. No one had cleaned up the mess after they finished.
They assured me she was no longer in pain. They promised me that they did everything they could. I sat there staring at her for twelve hours, willing her to open her eyes and look at me, to make it all stop being real, but she never did. She never moved and she never woke up, and I was finally asked to leave so they could move her. It took the strength of both Gwen and Austin to drag me from that room, to tear me away from her so I could go home, get some rest, and shower the soot and Layla’s blood off of me. This never should have happened to her. She should have never walked out my door with Finn, and I should never have made her feel like she wasn’t worth it. She was everything to me. She was my heart and my soul and my reason for living and now she was gone.
I read through the document in the file three times as I remember the day I left the hospital and Layla behind. I went back to my house and tore the place apart because of the unfairness of it all. It wasn’t right that she was there in my arms one minute and gone the next. It wasn't right that I couldn’t have her when I needed her so much. I ripped curtains from windows, broke picture frames that hung on walls, and shattered half of the dishes in the kitchen, and no matter what they did, Austin and Gwen couldn’t stop me. The only thing that did was the object resting against the nightstand in my room. All of the rage and sadness drained out of me when I saw Layla’s guitar next to my bed. I thought about the soft, raspy timbre of her voice when she sat in the middle of my bed and sang me that song—one of her originals that she’d never sung for anyone before me.
I picked up the guitar and held it in my arms like she did. I awkwardly strummed my fingers over the strings before the memories of her overwhelmed me, and I angrily tossed the guitar across the room, watching it bang against the wall and fall to its side.
I was ashamed of myself and immediately regretted my actions. This was Layla’s most prized possession, and I just took out my grief on something she cherished. I crawled over to the guitar and gingerly picked it up, noticing something white hanging down behind the strings in the sound hole. The knock against the wall must have jarred something loose. Gently setting the guitar on its back on the floor in front of me, I carefully pried apart the strings and reached in with two of my fingers to pull a folded up piece of paper out from the inside of the instrument.
When I saw what it was, I closed my eyes and cried like a fucking baby in the middle of my room until Gwen finally came in to check on me. When she asked me what was wrong, besides the obvious, I soundlessly handed the letter over to her and listened to her gasp as she read it. The look on Eve’s face that day when she saw the guitar case by my front door suddenly made sense. She knew what was in that guitar. She’d known it all these years but in her foolishness, she assumed the guitar was lost in Jack’s accident. She never knew Layla had kept it hidden from her all this time.
My sweet hummingbird,
Soon, you and I will have a much better life than the one we have now. You won’t have to walk around in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, and you’ll finally be able to live your dreams. I’m taking you away from here, my beautiful girl. We’ll build a log cabin in the woods, just like you’ve always wanted. You can play this guitar out under the stars, and you can finally be happy. If for whatever reason, something happens to me before I can make this a reality for you, this letter serves as legal and binding proof that sole ownership of Hummingbird Records transfers over to you immediately. Your mother’s stake in the company was never legally binding; it only existed on paper, and only for the length of our marriage, so she would let me keep you. You are the sole owner of your life and the decisions you make about your future. No one can tell you what to sing, what to play, or who to be. It’s all up to you, hummingbird. If I’m not around and you ever forget for one moment how much I love you, just take out this letter and you’ll always be reminded. Sing what you want to sing, write what you want to write, and play what you want to play. Be amazing and be free. Let the music take you where you want to go.
My fingers trace Jack's handwriting as I read through the letter one last time. It was signed and notarized by Jack Carlysle’s private attorney who coincidentally passed away from a heart attack the week before Jack died. By making a few copies, I was finally able to set Layla free. Sitting here in my office, I look around at the emptiness and realize that I’m not ready to be free of her. I don’t know how to be free of her. I don’t know how to move on without her in my life, and I don’t think I’ll ever learn. Shutting the file and shoving it back in my drawer, I jump up from my desk and run towards the door, opening it quickly and running right into Gwen.
“Jesus, it’s about time. I was wondering how long it would take you sitting there feeling sorry for yourself before you finally got your head out of your ass,” she says with a roll of her eyes.
“I thought you went for coffee?” I ask her, staring down at her empty hands.
“Nope. I knew what you would do as soon as I walked out the door. You read that letter every time I’m not in the room. I was standing out here with my fingers crossed hoping this time it would finally sink in,” she explains.
“Hoping what would sink in?” I ask her dumbly.
“Duh. That you can’t live without her. And that Emma and I will be okay. You’ve done more than enough, Brady,” she replies softly, reaching into her purse and pulling out her cell phone.
I stand there staring at my sister with a look of shock on my face as she dials the phone.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it all under control,” she tells me as she puts the phone to her ear. “Good thing I’m the smart sibling in this relationship and kept in touch with June.”
I continue to stare at her in wonder, but she keeps right on talking without waiting for a reply.
“I’ve been talking to her every couple of days to see how things are going and I swear to God, it took everything in me not to punch you in the face for staying away, making both of you completely miserable. June’s going to be so happy that we won’t have to talk about what an idiot you are anymore. Hi, June, it’s Gwen,” she says into the phone, no longer talking to me.