Best I Ever Had

BestIeverHad-ebookMack will stop at nothing to become the next big thing in the rap game. But ever since he signed his name on the dotted line giving him the record contract of his dreams, more than just his career is changing. As he skyrockets from a no-name mixtape maker hailing from Atlanta to an international sensation, the wedge between him and his high school sweetheart, Alisha, is the only thing growing faster than his fan base.

Mack tries to remain true to the only two things he has ever loved – music and her – but the temptation filled waters of the music industry prove to be too much.  After a nasty split, Mack’s music and heart are haunted by her. It doesn’t matter what he does. He can’t drink her away. He can’t erase her memory by filling his bed with as many pop stars, models, or strippers as he can. No matter what he does, he can’t free himself from her. And when a chance encounter at a club throws them back into each other’s life, they have to decide if the moments of ecstasy are worth the risk of having it all come crashing down once more.

Best I Ever Had tells the story of a performer whose life is mirrored in the works of today’s popular music with each chapter being inspired by lyrics of a single song, for which the chapter is named. Best I Ever Had is a work of fiction and although it is rooted in the very real experiences of young love – pain, betrayal, lust, and growth – it is in no way a true story.

Track 1: Best I Ever Had

He fidgeted nervously in the front seat of the car just outside Alisha’s apartment building, tapping the plastic case against the steering wheel to the beat in his head. He hadn’t put in the CD yet. He didn’t want it to start until just the right moment when she was sitting next to him. That and he couldn’t bring himself to listen to it on the way over. The anxiety pulsed through Mack. He contemplated driving off. He’d just explain something came up. She could hear the track at another time.
      “This is a terrible idea,” he muttered to himself.
      What if she hated it? Everything he had been working so hard for rested heavily on this one track. Months of preparation boiled down to four minutes and thirty-two seconds.
      Alisha had to be the first to hear it. She would tell him honestly what she thought. He wasn’t sure he was ready to hear it.
      The rusty white metal door on the front of the building swung open. Alisha made her way down the stoop and through the twisted walkway in the darkness to Mack’s car waiting out front. He watched as she half jogged half walked. His heart skipped a beat. There was no turning back now.
      “Hey baby, you don’t want to come up?” she asked sweetly as she got in the car and leaned over for a kiss. Her roommates weren’t home for once. They could have the apartment to themselves.
      Mack sat silently trying to work up the courage to say something. He should explain the track before playing it. He should prepare her in some way. Suddenly the words couldn’t find him.
      “Is everything ok? You look awful.”
      The stress was written all over his face. He stopped tapping the CD and looked over at his girlfriend of a year.
      “Is that is?” she asked hopefully.
      He nodded.
      “Do I get to hear it?”
      He nodded but didn’t move, suddenly frozen with uncertainty.
      Without a word she took the plastic case from his sweaty hands, slipped out the CD, and placed it in the car stereo.
      Mack turned his focus out the front window and stared down the street. He couldn’t bring himself to watch her reaction.
      The music started. First the drums came in. They rattled the car as they pulsed repetitively. The beat flowed through the speakers, surrounding them with the music Mack had spent so much time putting together. He could feel it in his chest. Not just the bass, but the words, the feeling, and the vibe. It was a part of him, a huge part. It was all about her. It was always going to be about her.
      Alisha sat silently as she listened to Mack sing the hook and then spit the verses. He had never talked this openly about his feelings before and yet there it was for the world to hear. It was the single he was going to release, the one the record label was finally going to push, on it he told everyone that she was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. That she was better than the rest, she had his heart and no one else could compete. He was going to take her with him straight to the top. They were in this together.
      The seconds ticked down, the music faded out, filling the car with silence. She had been expecting another rap about him being the greatest of all time, like rappers often preach. This was not something she had prepared a reply for. The CD player attempted to restart, but Mack smacked the power buttoned before it had the chance.
      “I thought you liked when I wore makeup,” she commented on the line in the song.
      He smiled to himself. She had picked up on it. She was always a good listener. “Girl, you know you don’t need it.”
      She smirked at him. Mack often told her she looked better when she was bumming around the house with just him than when she got dolled up for a night out.
      “So?” he asked tentatively.
      “Eh,” she shrugged and cringed.
      “Eh? That’s all you got?” He was stunned, angry, and offended.
      “I mean, it’s alright.”
      “Alright? Are you serious? This shit is amazing.”
      “And this is the one Big Man wants to push? I guess he’s the expert. I just…eh. I don’t know, babe.” Alisha tried to hide her smile. She knew exactly how to get him worked up.
      Mack shook his head and threw his hands in the air, completely baffled by his girlfriend’s response. “You are tripping. I don’t even know right now. I can’t believe. Are you serious? Maybe you need to get out the car.”
      “Hey, don’t hate. You asked what I thought.”
      Mack crossed his arms in a huff.
      Finally, Alisha cracked a smile and let out a playful laugh; the one Mack always loved to hear. “I’m just playin’ with you. Damn, you’re sensitive. It’s amazing, boo. You’re amazing.”
      “You think so?” Mack asked cautiously.
      “I do. I’m your number one fan.”
      “You’re my number one girl,” he said lovingly and leaned in for a kiss.
      She smacked him away. “I’m your only girl.”
      “Best I ever had.”

Track 2: Shut it Down

“Maybe you should just go alone. It’s your event. You don’t even need me there.” Alisha adjusted the hem of her skirt as she shifted her weight anxiously. She wiped her palms on the worn-out car upholstery trying to both dry the sweat and calm her nerves.
      “Babe, we talked about this. I need you there. You’re my ride or die chick. Geez, the song is even about you. How am I going to roll up in there without my girl, looking like a fool?” He gave her knee a small squeeze, hoping she would stop shaking. Her mood was starting to rub off on him and this was not an event he could afford to blow. Tonight, of all nights, he needed to be on top of his game.
      “I’m not going to fit in. I’m a student. What am I going to talk about with music producers, radio DJs, and magazine editors?”
      He glanced at her in the passenger seat. The neon colored lights of the downtown Atlanta strip were reflecting off her soft almond skin. She looked like a movie star tonight, dressed in a low cut purple dress she had borrowed from her roommate. He couldn’t wait until he could buy her something nice of her own. She deserved everything she wanted. The streetlights made her deep grape colored gloss sparkle as she bit her lip. The gold flecks of eye shadow glistened. She looked amazing.
      “Mack?” Alisha gave him a looked that asked if he was even listening to her.
      He shook himself out of his trance.
      “You’re the star. You don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to. Just—” he paused and took a deep breath, “—just stand by my side. I got you.”
      He took her hand and instantly she felt more relaxed.
      “It’s my first industry party, too, you know,” he consoled her.
      “Yea, but at least you know everyone here.”
      “So do you. You know Big Man.”
      “No, I know of him. I know him from the radio like everyone else.”
      “It doesn’t even matter. You’ll do great. You ready?” He looked at her with an arched eyebrow.
      Before she could respond, her door was opened from the outside by a mountain-sized man in a black on black suit. His head looked like a bowling ball resting on a gorilla. Hesitantly, she took his hand and stepped out of the car on to the sidewalk in front of the club. Her ankle buckled awkwardly, her high heel slipped, and she tumbled into the doorman. Flash bulbs went off from somewhere adding to her disorientation.
      “You okay, ma’am?” he asked as he righted her with ease.
      She shook it off and adjusted her dress. Before she knew it, Mack was at her side, hooking their arms together for support. Alisha plastered a smile on her face to hide the pain, both from her twisted ankle and the embarrassment.
      “Let’s get it,” he said excitedly as they entered the club.

      Club Trap was in full swing as the couple entered. The bass could be felt even from the street as the DJ blasted tracks from Atlanta’s finest underground artists and mixed them with his own blend of southern house beats. The dance floor, bar, and VIP section were teeming with young hot clientele. The women looked like they were making a rap video. Their exaggerated coke-bottle bodies were covered by strategically placed, barely-there clothing. Their hair was perfect, nails well-manicured, and they moved effortlessly in their staggering six-inch heels. Opposite them, the men donned simple, oversized white t-shirts, baggy jeans, fresh white sneakers, and piles of gold chains around their necks. They bounced slightly to the rhythm of the music as the women worked hard grinding it out on the dance floor.
      “Hey, yo, kid!” a slim guy called from behind the velvet ropes as Alisha and Mack passed by.
      “Ey!” Mack answered back.
      The bouncer guarding the VIP selection lifted the rope letting them in. Mack and the strange looking man exchanged a series of complicated handshakes ending with a one armed hug.
      “Big Man, I want you to meet my girl. This is Alisha.” He stepped aside so the two could exchange greetings.
      “Ah, so you’re the one I’ve heard so much about. The girl who launched a career,” Big Man said as he smiled widely, revealing a mouthful of silver and diamonds. His grill gave him a robotic feeling that added to his already unusual appearance. Manuel Samson, known to his friends as Manny and to the rap world as Big Man, was short and slender with a head full of long, thin dreads that nearly reached the small of his back. For shows he would have his stylist work them into elaborate headpieces, weaving them like a crown. Tonight he had it tied back in a simple ponytail.
      “Big Man. It’s an honor to meet you.”
      “It’s Manny, girl. You’re in the Wild ‘n’ Rich family now.”
      Alisha smiled and nodded, overwhelmed to be surrounded by such big names in music. Manny never traveled alone. He brought most of the crew out for the night from his small record label. There was Amika Ross, the only female rapper on the scene these days. Her ass seemed to be as big a star as she was. No one could deny her raw talent and unbelievable skills. Next to Amika was Lavonte Smith, a rapper Manny signed more than two years ago. He was working hard, putting in his time, guesting on a ton of other artists’ tracks, but had yet to have a big hit himself.
      Also with them was the artist known as Lion. Lion was the biggest earner at Wild ‘n’ Rich Records, the label that Manny ran. His super fans called themselves the Cubs and when he guested on an album it was known as him leaving his paw-print. Lion was as big as they came in the industry. The fact he had showed up in Atlanta for a listening session at a club meant major publicity for Mack’s album release.
      Before they could ask for anything, champagne glasses were placed in Mack and Alisha’s hands.
      “To the future,” Manny offered as they toasted.
      The music suddenly died to a low rumble. The crowd groaned in response.
      “Hey, everybody! You having a good time tonight?” the DJ called from his booth high above the dance floor at the front of the stage. The people below cheered. “I have a very special treat for y’all. Wild ‘n’ Rich is in da building! And I am told that we have the very first copy—Is that right?—of a track by the newest, hottest, dopest artist to be signed to their label, Mack.”
      The legions of young music lovers erupted in screams as they noticed Big Man, Amika, Lavonte, and Lion, in the VIP section waving and causing a scene. Mack stood amongst them, wide-eyed and frozen. Strangely, he felt both out of place and completely at home as the center of attention.
      “Now, ya know I have the CD right here. I could just press play. But…I’m pretty sure if you holla loud enough, we could get the kid out on the stage to throw it down for you.” The DJ egged on the crowd. He gestured towards the VIP section. “Mack…Mack…Mack…” he continued.
      “Kill it,” Big Man yelled in Mack’s ear over the chanting.
      Mack could feel his lunch churning in his stomach. This hadn’t been the plan. They were supposed to play the record, hopefully people would like it, talk about it, and it would start to get some traction. He didn’t have a performance planned.
      He felt a firm squeeze on his hand. Alisha.
      “You can do this. You’ve done it a million times before,” she encouraged him.
      She was right, mostly. He had performed many times before. The album he wrapped up, the one with this single on it, was his third mix-tape to date. But when he had performed the others, it had been in small, half filled, underground clubs where no one knew him and no one cared. The club tonight was filled with record execs, members of the media, and the rest of his record label. So much more was on the line now than ever before. He couldn’t do it.
      “Just sing to me. Only me.”
      For a moment, the club melted away and Mack and Alisha were the only two people who existed. She winked at him knowingly, flashing the smile that always made him weak. It was everything he needed and more. He nodded and planted a crowd-pleasing kiss on his girl before heading for the stage.
      As he grabbed the mic, the familiar bass line kicked in. Without hesitation, Mack led off with the chorus. It didn’t take long for the dance floor to come alive. The beat was hot, and Mack’s vocals were on point. As he launched into his first rap verse, there was a moment of uncertainty. No one had been expecting him to both sing and rap. Yet, he did it effortlessly. The pause was brief, and the crowd once again was behind him. They loved it. They loved him.
      He watched as everyone in the club bounced to his music and reached out for him as if he were some big name performer. Girls pushed towards the front of the stage, trying to get his attention. All he could see was Alisha in the back of the club, dancing away like she was the only one in the room. To him, she was. She didn’t fit in with the normal crowd here. Against the backdrop of fake hair and trashy outfits, she stood out like a star.
      After his song, he pulled her to the center of the dance floor as the DJ regained control of the music selection.
      “They are all looking at you,” she said in his ear over the loud house beats.
      “Naw, they’re looking at you,” he said as he planted a kiss on her lips.

~~~

“What time is it?” Alisha’s voice was rough from the night out, screaming over the music.
      “Huh? Oh, it’s 8:30,” Mack answered distractedly. He was seated in the bed, focusing intently on his computer screen.
      “8:30? You got to be kidding me. Why didn’t you wake me up?” She leapt from the bed and started frantically pawing through the pile of clothes on the floor. “I’m late for class. Jesus. How long have you been up?”
      “Look at this,” as he turned the screen towards her. The photo of him on stage was splattered across the screen, freezing her in her tracks.
      “What’s that?”
      “Beat-Freak’s blog. She was there last night and wrote all about it. Get this,” he began reading from the website: “Hip hop mastermind Big Man may have a money maker on his hands. New artist Mack brings something to the table rarely seen before. With his unique mix of singing and rapping, he is a fresh and hopeful sound in an otherwise pitiful period in rap history. Mack threw down last night at a listening party turned showcase at Club Trap to promote his new single and mix tape expected to hit the shelves early this month. Wild ‘n’ Rich Records is said to be launching an all-out media-assault campaign to support its newest member. Label front man, rapper and producer Big Man, is seemingly putting his full support behind his young protégé. At only 18, Mack sings of deep love, tough times, and crazy success. His lyrics are beyond their years, with a sound that’s new for the ages. We here at Beat-Freaks can’t wait to hear what’s next.”
      “Wow,” Alisha said in awe. “That’s huge. Beat-Freaks posted that? Holy crap, that’s incredible!” She gushed as she jumped back into bed by his side.
      Before they could celebrate, Mack’s cell phone began vibrating on the nightstand. “Yo,” he answered. He covered the receiver and mouthed “Big Man” to Alisha, who nodded. “Yeah, I just saw it this morning. It’s awesome… Sure, I can make it there this afternoon. Yup, I’ll be there.”
      Mack hung up the phone and stared at Alisha excitedly.
      “What?” she urged him.
      “Manny wants me to come to the office this afternoon to talk about going on tour with Lion.”
      “That’s amazing, honey!”
      Mack looked deep into her eyes with boyish eagerness. “Skip class. Let’s celebrate.”
      “You know I can’t. I’m already late,” she shook her head and rolled her eyes a little.
      “Exactly. You are already late, so why bother going? Let’s get pancakes. Come on. It’s not every day your man crushes it at a nightclub and then gets offered a spot on a tour. Come on, come on, come on.” He begged as he wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her in closely. He whispered in her ear, and she began to laugh and squirm.
      “Fine, one class. But I have to make it to my 11 a.m. Got it?”
      Mack kissed her and jumped out of bed. “Well then, we better get moving.”

Track 3: Interlude

Alisha waited eagerly curbside at the airport. She arched her neck to see over the throngs of people making their way to their loved ones after long flights, business trips, or vacations. A glint of his gold chain reflected from the midday sun as he came through the sliding glass doors. It caught her eye and her heart leapt into her throat. Suddenly, she felt her pulse quicken and her temperature rise. Her cheeks flushed rosy pink even before he noticed her standing there.
      From across the way they made eye contact. Her stomach fluttered. She couldn’t control the smile that was forming. It felt like it was spreading through her entire body. It had been a hard few months apart, but she still felt the same the moment she laid eyes on him.
      Flashing lights and a couple of frenzied screams broke their connection.
      “Hey, it’s Mack!” a young girl squealed. A small group of fans quickly surrounded him asking for autographs and shoving camera phones in his face. He pulled down his large framed glasses, signed a couple, and then pushed his way through the crowd to her.
      “Let’s get in the car,” he said curtly without even stopping to kiss or hug his girlfriend.
      Too stunned to protest, she complied. The fluttering, excited high she had felt seeing him came crashing down. Her heart sank heavily in her chest, and a worried knot began to form in her stomach. He didn’t feel the same as she did. She knew that now. For some reason they had been drifting apart since he left home. She had hoped this trip would bring them back together. She had filled the last few days with wishful thoughts of how their future could be, how they could get things back to the way they once were. She could hardly contain her excitement.
      And yet, he barely even gave her a second glance. The fear crept into her head that maybe he planned this trip to break up with her. Maybe he hadn’t come home to save them but rather end them.
      She got on the freeway without a word. Mack looked anxiously out the window.
      “Can you pull over?” he asked. There was a mix of frustration and desperation in his voice she hadn’t heard before.
      “What?”
      “Pull over. Anywhere. I just need some air.”
      Alisha stopped at the closest fast food joint, parking the car at the far end of the lot. Before she could protest or ask questions, Mack reached over, grabbed her face and kissed her like everything depended on it. It was frantic and hungry. He breathed heavily as he fell back into his seat and grabbed his forehead.
      “You okay?” Alisha said shocked.
      As he looked her over, it was as though he had never left. He had never gone on tour with Lion and his single had never made it on the iTunes top 100 list. People everywhere didn’t know his name. He was still just a kid who liked to rap and sing in his friend’s basement with his high school sweetheart at his side.
      He thought about the ring. The one he had used his whole album advance to buy. It was a small diamond, laughable buy rapper standards, but it was all he could afford. The damn thing was practically burning a hole in his back pocket, begging for him to pull it out.
      The phone conversation with his Uncle Frank repeated in his head. He had called for advice on what exactly cut and color meant but got more than he had bargained for. Frank wasn’t shy about his opinion and told him it was a bad decision; that they were too young to marry. Mack understood where he was coming from but still couldn’t shake the fact that he needed her by his side. He was better with her. On some level, he knew that their relationship might not survive a prolonged distance. A couple months apart and he could already feel her slipping away. He just needed one big gesture to show that he was in this as much as she was. There had to be something to bring them back to good.
      “Baby, what’s wrong? What has gotten into you?” Her face was awash with concern.
      He might not have agreed with Frank, but he couldn’t shake the warning entirely. He chose not to reach for the box. Perhaps a different sort of proposal would suffice, he thought. “Come on tour with me.”
      “What?” This hadn’t been what she had expected to hear. Then again, everything had taken a strange turn from the moment she picked him up. He wasn’t acting like himself.
      “I’m gunna to be opening some shows while we get the word out there about the album. Come with me.”
      “What about school?” It was her freshman year, and she couldn’t afford to drop everything to follow him on tour.
      “It’s a week away from winter break.”
      She thought about his proposal, and it made sense. She had a month off between the fall and spring semesters. Things had been changing quickly since Mack’s fame started to grow. Overnight his picture was everywhere, pictures of them together and even pictures of him with other women. She couldn’t stand the thought of losing him. Maybe following was the best use of her break. She had planned on picking up extra shifts at the coffee shop, but saving their relationship felt more urgent.
      “Okay,” she whispered finally.
      “Okay? Sweet. I’ll call Mary and have her add you to the flight.” Mack’s tone was hesitant but hopeful. He’d marry her someday. He was sure of that, but now he just needed a little more time to get things going with his album. When he had a more stable career, when he knew he could give her the future she deserved, he’d ask her. He made a promise to himself as she got back on the highway, and they headed for her apartment.

Track 4: Karaoke
How much longer could they maintain their relationship in such a fragile state? Mack could feel his head pound, and his chest tighten like his world was collapsing in on him. Thunder rolled outside. He let his frustration out in his work as he continued to pen a new song.

~~~

Anxiously, she paced around her living room. She tidied the stack of magazines, fixed the couch cushions, and checked the fridge for the twelfth time; anything to keep herself moving and her nerves calm. Part of her dreaded the fact that he was coming home and that made her feel guilty. At least when he was away, she could hang up the phone. Face-to-face there would be no more running away. They would have to deal with their issues. Deep down, she knew it was a good thing. She wasn’t ready to give up on them. She could only hope he was feeling the same.
      The door opened slowly. At least she knew he got the key she sent.
      “Hey, honey,” she called in a sweet and hopeful tone.
      “Hey, boo,” he returned her tone. Suddenly, months of tense arguments and missed connections melted away. The storm that had been brewing between them lifted and the skies were blue again. He smiled warmly as he dropped his bags in the entrance. “Can we not fight anymore?” he asked without preamble.
      “No more fighting,” she agreed and quickly found her way into his arms. When she kissed him electricity coursed through her body. It felt like she was seventeen again and they were sneaking into his childhood bedroom. She couldn’t help herself. She kissed him again. Everything felt right and good. It felt like home.

~~~

Mack’s phone chimed, waking them from their midafternoon nap. He reached across her to grab it from the nightstand but stopped midway to brush against her exposed shoulder. The alert could wait. He kissed her rosy cheek softly and brushed the hair out of her face. This was the perfect moment. If he could suspend time here forever, they would be okay.
      “I wish you’d give it another chance,” he whispered, knowing she was awake.
      She knew what he was suggesting without saying it. “We’ve talked about this. I have school.”
      “But I can take care of you. I can provide for you. Don’t you wanna to wake up like this every day?” He propped himself up on his arm and looked her over.
      “Pump your breaks there, champ. I don’t need anyone to take care of me.” Her words were full of distain as if they tasted bad as she spoke them. “I provide for myself. I pay for my own school. I pay my own rent.”
      “I didn’t mean it like that,” Mack quickly tried to calm her.
      “You haven’t even recorded your album yet. You don’t have the money to support me even if you wanted to. You spent your whole damn advance on a cheap gold chain.”
      It felt like a slap in the face. She didn’t know he had originally bought an engagement ring with that money. He had never been happier with his decision to pawn it and buy something for himself. His uncle was right; nineteen was too young to get married. He could see that now.
      Alisha sighed heavily, calming her temper, and rolled on her back so she could stare at the ceiling instead of into his caramel colored eyes. “Besides, even if you could afford to support us both, what is there for me out on tour with you? You have your shows, interviews, and your club promotions. Then there are business meetings, the rehearsals, and the appearances. And while you’re out there doin’ it big, doin’ you, I’m in the hotel room by myself. On the rare occasion that you did take me out, it was all over the blogs. I don’t want my picture plastered everywhere. Maybe you like that sort of thing, but I didn’t sign up for this. It is just too much. We would constantly be moving, city after city. Your life is so crazy right now. I feel like things can’t stop long enough for us to have a moment like this.”
      Tears welled up in her eyes and slid down her cheeks. She wiped them away before they could reach the pillow.
      “What are you tryin’ to say?” Mack could hear it in her tone. This wasn’t just about coming back out on the road with him. There was a much deeper pain in her voice.
      “I’m not gunna ask you to stay…” she started but her words caught in her throat.
      It was obvious what she was going to say next, but he couldn’t bear to hear her say it. He wasn’t going to let her see him hurt. He snapped, “Is it because of Brian?”
      The sudden change in topic caught her off guard. “What?” she asked confused.
      Mack started putting his clothes on in a hurry. “Don’t play dumb with me. Don’t act like I don’t know about it.”
      “What are you talkin’ about?” She wrapped herself in the sheets as she sat up to face him. Her mind was racing, trying to regain her mental footing.
      “My boy, Damien, saw you two at the bar. He saw you leave together,” Mack yelled to keep the pain out of his voice.
      “Brian is just a friend from class. We just grabbed a drink after a test. Nothing happened,” Alisha pleaded.
      “Then why did I have to hear about it from someone else? You can’t go sneaking around with other guys. You know how that looks on me? You know what people will say about us?”
      Alisha felt as though a boxer had sucker punched her in the chest. The hurt was both instant and shocking. His words stung with what they were insinuating. She couldn’t believe he was willing to take it there. This hadn’t been the conversation she wanted to have after not seeing him for months. Anger started to build inside of her and the pent up frustration began to pour out.
      “If you are so damn worried about what people will say, why do I see pictures of you with different girls out in the club every night?” She no longer yelled, but rather talked in a hushed controlled tone. “Don’t play dumb with me. I’ve seen it online. Baby, you famous now. People take pictures and post them all over the gossip columns. But I’ve ignored it because I love you. How many of them did you take back to your room? How many of them did you say you’d write a song about?”
      “All of them!” he screamed and clenched his fists together. His chest heaved as he breathed heavy with rage. He watched the hurt register on her face as he pulled his shirt on. His words bit as he repeated them, “All of them.”
      Mack snatched his bags from the apartment entrance where he left them. The door let out a startling bang as it slammed behind him. Alisha flinched. She pulled the blankets close to her chest for comfort.

Track 5: Paris Morton Music

The rain soaked his light jacket as he walked along the path outside Alisha’s apartment. He hardly noticed. The fight replayed in his head, consuming every thought. The words burned into his memory. He wished he could take them back, every last one.
      Impulsively, he turned around and started to retrace his steps. He should go back. Tell her he was wrong. Tell her that he lied and that he hadn’t cheated on her. He would never do such a thing no matter how many issues they were having. Maybe she would forgive him and they could work it out. Maybe he could save this.
      He paused on the sidewalk. Save what? If I run back to Alisha’s what is it exactly that I am trying to fix? Is there anything between us that is even worth salvaging anymore? All we have done since she left the tour was bicker and argue. There was hardly a phone call recently that didn’t end in shouting.
      Another thought crossed his mind. Why did I lashed out like that? Sure, we have fought before, but never like that. A panicked fear washed over him. Some part of him wanted to hurt her. He knew how the venomous words would sting yet he said them anyway. He wanted to crush her before she had a chance to do the same to him. What kind of man am I becoming?
      Space, Mack thought. That is what they needed. That is what he needed. Space.
      He walked at a brisk pace, putting as much distance between himself and Alisha. Mack pulled out his cell and scrolled for the right contact.
      “Hello?” Trina answered after two rings.
      “Hey, T, it’s me. Can you arrange a flight out of here?”
      There was a moment of silence. Mack could practically hear the wheels in his assistant’s head cranking as she tried to figure out what had happened.
      “Yeah, I got you. Just head to the airport now. I’ll have a ticket waiting for you. You okay?”
      “Fine. Fine. Thanks, Trina. I’ll see you back in New York.” Mack ended the call before she could pry into his reasons for leaving.

~~~

Mack stood outside the room with his hand on the doorknob while he composed himself. He could faintly make out a familiar song playing from within.
“Can we turn that shit off?” he mumbled as he entered the room.
      Big Man and Dime, the producer, were sitting at the soundboard fiddling with the various levels. They both stopped to look at the young artist.
      “What are you doin’ back? Trina said you were in A-Town until Monday or Tuesday. Didn’t you just go down there today?” Big Man questioned.
      Mack let out a deep breath and shook his head. “Manny look, I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Can we just work on somethin’ else?”
      Dime turned off the music. “Sorry, man. We were just polishin’ it up.”
      Mack understood. It was his biggest single, the hit that made him famous, but it was also the last thing he wanted to hear. He had just left Atlanta, just left Alisha. He had no desire to hear himself sing about how much he loved her. It only made the ache in his chest more pronounced.
      He pulled the notepad from his messenger bag and flipped through it. It didn’t take long to find the page he had been thinking about.
      “Hey, Dee. You know that beat you were putting together the other day? Can you play it out? I think I got something to go with it.” Mack headed into the booth and put his headphones on. Momentary relief washed over him. In here, everything was right and good.

Track 6: How About Now

He flipped the scoreboard tiles in his brain, adding a number. Day 59. That meant it had been almost two months since the split. He absently wondered how many more days or even months it would take until it was at least bearable. He wasn’t even aiming to be happy or feel like himself. He just wanted one day where it wasn’t the first thing he thought about when he opened his eyes.
      Unfortunately, it was days like day 59, the empty calendar days, which made him acutely aware of his own emptiness. He knew Trina did her best to keep his schedule as packed as possible with appearances, interviews, and recording session with other artists, but even she couldn’t work miracles. There were bound to be some dead days where Mack was left with nothing to do but stare at the walls of the bland, cheap hotel room and think about her.
      Big Man had encouraged him to use his free time to work on tracks for his first studio album. The mix tape wouldn’t hold the public’s interest for long. For his freshman debut, he would have to put together something spectacular. He knew the importance of coming out of the gate strong and not just laying down great guest spots on other people’s songs. Putting out something of his own that could secure his place in the industry was what he needed to prove he was a true player in the rap game. He understood it. But that didn’t make writing any easier.
      Everything he had written for the past few years had been about her. Everything he wanted to say now was about her. And the last thing he wanted to think about was, of course, her.
      It seemed though, in every corner of his mind there Alisha was lurking. Great party anthem? There is Alisha in a metallic dress dancing like a fool to make me smile. Could I write some nonsense about being the best rapper out there? The public would eat it up but it only reminds me of the years she encouraged me to follow my dream instead of going to college like my aunt wanted. Song about finding the right girl? It was hard to envision anything more perfect than her cooking pancakes on a Saturday morning in her rolled up sweatpants and a ratty t-shirt. Perhaps a song about love lost? Well, those wounds were still far too fresh for me to want to poke around in, no matter what gold may come from it.
      Mack took a deep breath and cringed. The unpleasant tinge of stale beer and an equally stale room curdled in his nose. It had been too many days since he let housekeeping freshen up. Perhaps it was time. It was probably best to get out anyway. A change in scenery could do him good. He fumbled for his cell on the nightstand.
      “Hello?” She picked up on the third ring.
      “Hey, Meeks. You in town?” Mack asked.
      “Yeah. Why? Do we have a recording session or something? I don’t have it on the books. Let me call my assistant and figure out why it didn’t show up on my calendar.” Amika launched into a frantic train of thought.
      “Naw, naw. We don’t got nothin’ on the books. I was just callin’…well, I guess I was callin’ to see whatcha were doing today. Maybe we could chill.”
      Mack figured she was the only person here whose job wasn’t to keep him happy. Amika was, after all, the only person he knew who lived in New York City who didn’t work at the label. They had only known each other for a few months since they met back at Club Trap in Atlanta. Already they were becoming close friends. Since he left Atlanta, friends seemed to be the one thing on an extremely short supply. He hadn’t talked to anyone back home since he left so all he really had now was Trina, his assistant, Big Man, the label owner, and Amika. With a list that short, he was thankful she had answered her phone.
      Finally, after a long pause she answered. “Mack, you know it’s Sunday morning, right?”
      He didn’t know that. Frankly, the only reason he remembered what month it was, was that he knew it had been 59 days since he had split with Alisha. Beyond that, time had lost much of its meaning.
      “Yeah, sorry. Did I wake you?” He realized he hadn’t bothered to look at the clock.
“No, you didn’t. I just got out of the shower. We are heading out to service in a few.” She paused. Mack could hear the half sigh in her voice as she asked, “Do you want to come?”
      “To church?” he asked stupidly.
      He quickly tried to count how many years it had been since he last stepped foot in a place of worship. His family is what he would call “Holiday Christians.” When he was growing up, he went to church on Christmas and Easter and that was it. They didn’t say grace at the table. He never said prayers before bed. He had never been baptized or confirmed and didn’t know what either meant, truly.
      Mack took another deep breath in and questioned if it was the room that smelled or him. Without another moment’s hesitation he agreed to join Amika and her family. As quickly as he could, he showered and hopped in a cab.
      He walked along the sidewalk outside the large stone building searching for the familiar face. He would have walked right passed her had Amika not reached out and grabbed his arm. She looked nothing like she did in the studio or club, the only places he had really spent time with her before. She was dressed in a simple black shift with long sleeves. Her jewelry was understated and not the usual gaudy chains all rappers preferred. Her hair was tied in a low bun and her face was absent the fake eyelashes and bright pink lips she usually sported. She even wore flats. It was like she was a completely different person here.
      Amika brushed off his questioning looks and politely introduced him to her parents, grandmother, and two brothers. Along with the rest of the congregation, they filed slowly into the church, shaking hands with the greeters and taking programs for the day’s service. Once they sat down, Amika crinkled her nose.
      “You reek of booze,” she whispered over the murmurs as people settled into their pews.
      “I showered,” he responded defensively.
      She patted his arm, rolled her eyes, and gave him a halfhearted smile. “Just behave yourself. Grandma Mimi is cooking up supper after this. She usually goes all out, chicken, greens, cornbread. You name it. She’s making it. You should come.”
      Mack lowered his head and stared at his hands folded in his lap. He suddenly felt undeserving of her kindness and ashamed that he desperately needed it.
      “Thanks, Meeks. I…” he started to explain, but didn’t know how to finish.
      She shook her head dismissively. “I know.”
      Before they could say another word, the choir began belting out the first hymn of the day. Mack sat back and listened to every word of the service. He wasn’t a believer, but he was willing to try or even to pretend if it would keep his mind busy and away from thoughts of her.

Track 7: Say Somethin’

“This is Crazy Tony and you are on with the Tiger Morning show. We have a very special guest this morning. The one, the only, Mack is in the studio with us today.”
      “Hey, yo, thanks for having me,” Mack spoke into the microphone.
      “How does it feel to be back home now that you are a big celebrity?” the DJ asked.
      “It feels good, ya know. It’s been over a year. Sometimes it’s just good to come home.” Mack adjusted his headphones and took another sip of his energy drink. Being up before dawn was the one thing he hated about the job, but morning radio shows were a necessary evil when it came to promotion.
      “I bet, I bet. So, let’s talk about the mix tape. How the hell do you get a mix tape to be number one on the charts? I mean, you don’t have an album yet and you are blowin’ up. It seems like no one puts a track out these days without a verse from you,” Crazy Tony went on.
      “Well, no one hot, that’s for sure,” Mack joked cockily. “I mean, I’m just out there doin’ me. I’m blessed people are responding to it like we had hoped they would.”
      “Is it true you always write about your life? Do you think that’s why people are gravitating towards your music?”
      “Most definitely. All I can do is write about what I know. I put it out there because that’s real to me. That’s as real as it gets. No one cares who has the bigger chain or buys more bottles. That shit ain’t real.”
      “And you are real?” Tony asked.
      “The realest,” Mack answered confidently.
      “Speaking of real, when can we expect a real studio album from you?”
      “You know we’ve been in the lab working hard. Don’t worry. You’ll get it. I ain’t going to make you guys wait forever.”
      “Alright, alright. We have to check traffic, but when we return, we’ll be back in the studio with more from R&B sensation, Mack.”

“Did I get any messages?” Mack asked his assistant as they left the studio in his town car.
      Trina didn’t answer. She held his phone to her chest along with the day planner that was bursting with loose papers.
      Mack shot her an expression as if to ask “What?”
      “You aren’t going to like it,” she said hesitantly, but still didn’t surrender the rapper’s cell. “It’s from her.”
      It was a possibility, he knew, that he could run into Alisha while he was here. After a year without contact, the last thing he had expected was for her actually to reach out to him. It wasn’t a move he was prepared for.
      “Erase it,” he told Trina dismissively.
      “You don’t want to see it?”
      He shook his head.
      “Call the club and tell them I want two tables. Put it out on Twitter. Get some girls there. I want it on blast where I’m going to be tonight. Put her name on the guest list.”
      Trina was confused by the last instruction but wasn’t going to protest. She made the arrangements in the car while he closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the plush leather headrest. He knew that if she wanted to talk or to see him, she’d know how to find him.

~~~

The bouncer found her name and lifted the rope to let her in. The line for the club wrapped around the block. She had taken a chance and asked if she was on the guest list before waiting like everyone else. Something in her gut told her he might have added her even though he hadn’t replied to her texts.
      The club was packed. It didn’t take long to spot the young star surrounded by models in the VIP section. The girls looked like sharks circling their prey. Mack was no more than an endless pocketbook to them. They all wanted to stand out and be the one who took him home. He was a prize to be won.
      Alisha felt her stomach turn at the sight. It was sickening to see how women threw themselves at him; worse to know that it probably worked most of the time. If she left now, he would never know she came. He would never know she wanted to see him. A strange sense of failure washed over her. She was ashamed she had come. He was doing so well, living the life as she was struggling to pay for school. She had to work as a wedding planner and part time at a coffee shop to make ends meet. Here he was, buying bottle service for women he didn’t even know. The heat of jealousy started to rise from her gut, but she wasn’t entirely sure of the source. Is it his success, or the women he shared it with?
      Just before she turned to leave, Mack caught her eye across the club. He didn’t wave her over or even smile. He just waited for her to make a move. Time froze but only for the two of them. Neither of them budged; everything else continued around them. Alisha couldn’t force herself to head towards him. It didn’t feel right. It had been more than a year since they had seen each other or even spoken. This was not the place to reunite and she knew it.
      Mack watched as she pulled her cell phone out of the small clutch she was carrying and punch in something. She tucked it back in, gave him one last look, and turned to leave. Before he could make sense of the action, he felt his pocket vibrate.
      “Meet me at our spot,” the text read.
      He looked back and forth between her leaving and the message. A strange mix of paralyzing fear, intense curiosity, and a deep desire swirled in his gut. He wanted to run to her but also never wanted to see her again. He wanted to kiss her lips once more and erase her memory at the same time.
      “Come dance with me,” a sultry voice whispered in his ear, trying to pull him away from his thoughts. The sexy blonde leaned over and placed her hand on his thigh for support. She took the cell phone from his hand and tucked it into her cleavage.
      Mack ignored her and quickly stood to leave. He had to do something.
      “Where are you goin’, Papi?” the girl asked.
      He was too deep in a trace to respond. As he made his way to the exit, his assistant stopped him. “Are you leaving?”
      “Just put it on my card,” he answered a question that wasn’t even asked. He couldn’t give her his full attention. All that mattered was making it out of there. “And get my phone back.”

~~~

She didn’t see him approach. He came up from the backside of the park, not the front entrance that the swings faced. Mack watched her for a moment. It was almost surreal seeing her again after so long. For a moment, he wondered if she was there or if his heart and mind had teamed up to play a cruel trick on him, and he was simply hallucinating. Alisha kicked the pine mulch below her feet as she halfheartedly swung. The light from her phone cast a blue glow into the night. Surely she was checking the time again.
      “How long were you planning on giving me?” he called. Alisha turned her head to see him walk up the old path.
      She smiled despite herself, “Only two more minutes.”
      He held his hand to his chest and mocked being hurt, “That’s all I get? Two minutes? Ouch. I would have thought I was worth at least five.” As he joined her on the swing set he asked, “Does Brian know you are out here with me?”
      “We broke up.”
      He nodded.
      They sat for a long time without saying a word. The cool night air felt fresh on the skin. The city sounds all around them mixed with the crickets and critters of the night, yet somehow it still seemed silent. Both their minds raced, heavy with conversation, but nothing left their mouth. There was too much to say and not a good place to start. Instead, they swung side-by-side and tortured themselves with potential conversation.
      Eventually, Mack gave in. “I’m gunna go.”
      He stood before her, waiting for her to say something; for her to stop him. She didn’t. As she watched him walk away, she wondered how much she would grow to regret that moment. She kicked herself but still she didn’t call out for him. Why had she even asked me to meet her? What had she been planning on saying? The ball of guilt and sadness grew heavy in her stomach. Even after a year apart, it all still hurt too much.

Track 8: Don’t You Have a Man

“Girl, you sure you want to do this? We don’t have to. I promise I won’t be mad or nothin’. We can just go to the show or another club or something. I appreciate that you got the passes. We don’t have to use them,” Cameron stammered.
      “For the hundredth time, it’s fine. We’re cool now. I told you. We broke up almost a year and a half ago. We are friends now. I told you. It’s nothing. You said you wanted to go to a Mack show for your bachelorette, so that’s what you’re going to get, boo. Only the best for my best friend.” Alisha gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
      “And what did Tre have to say about you going to the show?” she asked cautiously.
      “He said it was fine,” she told a half-truth. Tre, her boyfriend of four months, was fine with her going to the Mack show because he didn’t know about their history. She was certain if he did, he would have objected to it. She conveniently failed to mention that fact. It was her best friend’s bachelorette weekend in Miami, and she wasn’t going to let anything ruin their party.
      “Just through here,” the security guard pointed them into an unmarked room.
      Inside was a surprisingly relaxed environment for backstage at a concert. A few people milled about, most on phones or computers. Wardrobe racks lined the perimeters around the small cluster of couches. There were a few stations in the back with mirrors and light for the makeup artists to work. Mack sat in the chair with his back to the door. He noticed her immediately through the mirror when she entered the room. A smile crept across his face.
      “Hey you,” he said as he turned to greet her. The makeup artist put her brushes down to let him up.
      “Hey!” Alisha exclaimed excitedly. He gave her a brief hug. She felt the slights pang of hurt in her chest. It had been a difficult adjustment stepping down from lovers to friends but what was harder was not having him in her life at all. After that night six months ago, they started talking again; first by text, then by phone. It was easier to rebuild a friendship from a distance. There was less risk of getting hurt when all one had to do was hang up to get away.
      In person, even being back in each other’s good graces was not enough to completely mask the old wounds. Every now and again, she’d catch a whiff of his cologne or see him smile a certain way and she would feel the absence of their relationship in her heart. Including the time at the park, this was only the fourth time she had seen him since their break up.
      Alisha smiled back at him. “Mack, you remember Cameron, Stacy, Vicky, and Becks.”
      “Ladies, glad you could make it. I hear a congratulation is in order,” he offered to Cameron who blushed brightly. “Well, I got to finish getting ready. You guys are going to be at the after party right?”
      The girls exchanged confused and excited glances.
      “What? You didn’t tell them about the after party?” He poked Alisha in her side. She shook her head and gave a knowing smirk. “Trina will get you the details. It’s mandatory you come.” He winked.
      As the rest of the girls enjoyed the open bottles of champagne, Alisha took a seat in the makeup chair next to Mack. “You didn’t have to do that, you know. Invite us out. You’ve already done so much.”
      He shrugged. “It’s what friends do.”
      The both smiled and nodded, satisfied with the explanation. The makeup artist dabbed colored powder on his nose and chin. It was strange, but he looked natural. Not his makeup, although Alisha could hardly figure out what exactly the effect was supposed to be, but his demeanor. Like this was where he was meant to be—back stage at a show getting ready to perform. For the seemingly hundredth time since they broke up, she found herself missing being the one he shared this with.

~~~

He stared down at her lips and tried to steady his pulse. He could feel his heart beat in every inch of his body. Excitement coursed through him so intensely he could hardly contain himself. The night was a blur. How had I ended up alone after we had taken so many precautions to keep things platonic? And yet here I am, by myself in the lobby bar.
      Her friends had called it a night, but Alisha couldn’t sleep. Mack, also restless after the energy fueled show and an equally invigorating after party, needed to unwind and slow down a little before he could head to bed. It had been pure luck that they both ventured down for a nightcap.
      Or had it?
      He had used his connections to provide Alisha and her friends with a suite at the same hotel he was staying. If he hadn’t wanted to run into her after hours, why would he have done that? Watching her slowly nurse her drink, Mack questioned his own intentions. Something stirred deep within him he thought had long since been snuffed out. They were friends now, weren’t they? He wasn’t so sure.
      The way her lips glistened with each sip of liquid, the grape lipstick left on the glass, it was almost too much for him. He swallowed hard and wiped the sweat from his brow. Resisting her was like trying to hold his breath. He could only do it for so long until succumbing to the need.
      She interlocked her fingers with his and opened her mouth to speak. Nothing came out. Instead she smiled and let out a small sigh. She could feel the heat radiating from his skin and smell his cologne. It was the one she had bought him many years ago. He still wore it. Alisha wondered what that meant. She wondered what she hoped it meant.
      She laughed in the breathy way that made Mack melt. It was a cruel torture to be so close to her, touching her even, and not being able to have her. She had a man, the two of them were finally friends again, and his career was taking off. Everything could come crashing down with that sexy, disarming, debilitating laugh.
      “We should get some sleep,” she whispered.
      Mack’s chest tightened. He bit his lip and shook his head. This was a good night.
      Alisha lingered longer than she should have. She didn’t let go of his hand of stand to leave. The voice in the back of her head reminding her of Tre had been drowned two drinks ago. The flashing danger signs warning her she was about to do something stupid were dim and out of focus. All she could see was Mack in the soft light of the bar. The way his smile was higher on one side, a devilish twinkle in his eye, the way he looked at her. Alisha couldn’t pull her gaze away.
      They both knew they should have stopped it then. They should have pulled their hands away and retreated back to the safety of their own rooms. Maybe they needed a few more months apart to let the chemistry between them smolder out.
      But he didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. Instead, he leaned in and kissed her gently. The world didn’t come to a screeching halt, although he felt as though it could have. All that existed was the sweet taste of sweet cherry vodka on her lips. He kissed her harder, with more desperation than lust in his movements. The need for her was stronger than anything he had ever known.
      Screw what this would mean tomorrow, he thought to himself. All that matters is now. All that matters is the heat between us.
      He grabbed her by her hand and they raced down the hall. He fumbled in his pocket for the room key, his hands shaking as adrenaline raced through his system. Alisha rested her back against the wall and eyed him greedily.
      She should have stopped him, he thought, as they tumbled into the room.
      She should have stopped him as he grabbed her by her waist and pulled her in close.
      She should have stopped him as he tore off her shirt pulled her onto the bed.
      But she didn’t, so he didn’t.

Track 9: Let’s Call It Off

Mack zipped up the last of his luggage and looked over the hotel room. It told the secrets of last night. The alarm clock had been knocked on the floor and was now under the window. He picked up the stack of magazines that had fallen from the coffee table when they collided with it as they made out across the small space. The bed was a mess and sheets were untucked and askew. It was empty when he woke. Somehow Alisha had snuck out in the early morning hours while he dozed peacefully. It had been the first good night sleep he had gotten in months.
      The last thing he had to pack was his notepad. He reread the words he wrote in the moments just before he closed his eyes as she laid on his shoulder. For a moment, he thought about texting them to her. Eventually, he concluded she didn’t need a reminder of last night. She didn’t need to be told she cheated, or that she fell back into the same pattern. He didn’t need to be reminded of it either. He waded through his murky emotions, unsure of where he stood. Perhaps it was for the best for them that he left town without trying to reach her.
      A knock on the door pulled him up short.
      “I want to try again,” Alisha said unprompted after he opened the door.
      Mack didn’t know how to react. He didn’t know what he had been expecting, or what he wanted for that matter. Last night was amazing, sure, but did I do it to get her back. Do I want her back?
      “Hear me out. Spring semester ends in two weeks. I can take the summer off, come with you, and we can really give this a go. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to at least try?”
      “You’ll come out on the road with me?” he said surprised. Last time they tried this it was disastrous, but suddenly it was the furthest thing on his mind. His gut pulled at him. Something didn’t feel right, but he pushed the feeling aside. How could he not want more nights like last night?
      She nodded eagerly.
      “Okay.”
      “Let’s make it official,” she winked and nodded her head towards the messed up bed.
      They had broken up over a year and a half ago, but their bodies moved as if they were never estranged. His fingers remembered every inch of her as they grazed over her curves. His lips traveled knowingly to her favorite spots. Between the twisted sheets and roving hands, Alisha felt her heart slip from her chest right into Mack’s hands as if she had never taken it back.

~~~

Mack held his head in his hands as he stared over the soundboard. The switches and dials lit up with various colors as he listened to the play back of his latest song. His leg twitched anxiously. It was the fourth track he laid down in the last week, and he hated it even more than all the others.
      “This shit is terrible,” he grumbled.
      “Naw, man. It ain’t that bad,” Dime, the producer, tried to console him.
      “It ain’t good either,” Amika snipped under her breath. Everyone else in the room besides Mack shot daggers her way. She shrugged dismissively. “Look, my name is on the track, too.”
      Mack’s phone chimed for seemingly the hundredth time that day. Everyone groaned. No doubt it was Alisha once again wondering where he was and who he was with. He ignored the text. It chimed again. Frustration boiled up inside him. He was reaching his breaking point and didn’t know how much more of her possessive ways he could put up with.
      “It’s shit. I just need to clear my head. It keeps being the same lame crap again and again.” What the hell is wrong with me?
      A familiar ringtone filled the small studio. Alisha had upgraded from texting to calling. Mack gripped his phone tightly. He could feel something in him snap. Without warning he launched the small object across the room into the brick wall, shattering it. Tiny shards of plastic and electronic bits scattered on the floor and the room fell silent.
      “That ain’t good for you man. No wonder you’re writing such crap. You need to get your head right,” Dime finally said.
      Mack knew he was right. Ever since he and Alisha started fighting again, his music had suffered. It wasn’t working. It felt like they were back to two years ago; the last time it all fell apart. Relationship whiplash was the best way he could put it. They were either extremely happy, hard to pry apart, or were at each other’s throats. How did they always seem to jump over that coveted middle ground where everything worked and life was easy together? He sighed deeply. It was clear now what had to happen.
      “Trina, can I borrow your phone?” he asked calmly.
      “Not if you are going to do that to it.”
      “I just…I won’t. Please. Can I borrow your phone?” He held out his hand expectantly. Hesitantly, his assistant complied.
      Outside in the parking lot he dialed a number he knew by heart.
      “Hello?” Alisha answered.
      “It’s me. Look, we need to talk,” he started.
      “Whose phone are you calling me from?” she cut him off before he could continue. The edge in her voice gave away her frustration.
      “Trina’s. Hey…”
      “Why aren’t you using your own phone?”
      “I broke it. It’s…it’s not important.”
      “Why did you break your phone? Is that why you haven’t been texting me back?”
      “No, I haven’t been texting you back because you are annoying the hell out of me. What has gotten into you lately? Seriously, Alisha, you were never like this before. I feel like I can’t move without you breathing down my neck or trying to get a hold of me every five seconds.”
      “I’m sorry if I just want to know where you are.”
      “You know where I am, for Christ’s sake. I’m at the studio where I’ve been for the last week. That’s all I do. Studio, then spend time with you.”
      “Is Amika there?”
      Mack went silent. He bottled in a scream and forced himself not to throw Trina’s phone across the parking lot. He clenched his jaw tight and spoke through his teeth, “Is that what this is about? You don’t trust me?”
      The first time they broke up, Mack had lied and said he had cheated on her. Even though he had since come clean, Alisha never truly believed him. That trust had been broken and had never fully mended.
      “Don’t act like I haven’t seen the pictures, Mack. I know you two are getting cozy.”
      “Now I know you are tripping. We are on the same label. She’s my best friend out here.”
      “Well is she there?” Alisha snapped as if his answer would prove anything.
      “Of course, she is here. We are in the studio. You know, where I work. She’s laying down her verse for a new song. You know that. We are just working.”
      “Like I’m supposed to believe that.”
      “You’re supposed to believe it because it’s true!” he growled. “Are you going to freak out every time I work with another artist? For Christ’s sake, Alisha, this is my job. You know what? That’s it. This isn’t working. I’m done. We’re calling this off. I’m out. You win. It’s over.”
      Alisha suddenly went silent on the other end of the line.
      “Fine,” she said coldly after a long silence.
      “Fine,” he repeated. Before she had a chance to speak again, he hung up the phone and walked back into the studio.
      “Everything okay, boo boo?” Amika asked.
      Mack shook his head. Amika had been there by his side since day one. They were record mates and close friends. He should tell her what was going on. She would completely understand, but he had no desire to talk about any of it.

Track 10: Doing it Wrong

Slowly, his anger subsided. Somewhere between the studio and the small apartment they shared it was replaced by an overwhelming feeling of dread and sorrow. There was no telling what he’d come home to. Will she even be here? Will all my stuff be destroyed? He was determined to face it head on, no matter what he had to face. It had to end here. They couldn’t keep going on this way. Neither of them was happy. He knew it. She knew it.
      Her bags greeted him, lined up neatly in the living room, ready to be whisked away. They looked full, like she had already packed, not like she was threatening to. Silently, he made his way through their place like he was walking through a cemetery, afraid to disturb the relics of their past. All around him in the small space were memories of their time together—her favorite blanket draped over the couch, framed photos of them on the end table, the gossip magazines they would read together piled on the floor.
      When he finally found her she was sitting on the edge of the bed. Her hair was pulled back revealing her puffy eyes and red cheeks from hours of crying. He tightened his expression, determined not to let his emotions seep through. He sat on the bed next to her, being sure to leave enough space between them so they wouldn’t be touching. There had to be a way to start this conversation, but the words escaped him. For a long time, they sat quietly next to each other, each in their own sadness as they realized this was it—for good this time. They had failed again at being together. This time had been less than six months. Each time they did, it felt worse than they last. They broke harder, hurt deeper. Mack didn’t know how much more pain either of them could endure.
      Her quiet sobs pierced his ears and stabbed him in his chest, but he didn’t attempt to comfort her. He clenched his knee tightly to keep from reaching out to hold her. It was all he wanted to do, but it wasn’t the right thing. If he had, he would have undoubtedly tried to patch things up yet again. He couldn’t allow that to happen. As she cried, he knew all she had to say was “I love you,” and he would stay.
      “You can stay as long as you want. I have a hotel,” he stood to leave. He knocked on the door frame lightly before walking out completely. “Goodbye, Alisha.”

~~~

One night had turned to two and then a whole week. Mack had even considered never coming back to the apartment. He could have Trina arrange for all his things to be moved, scrubbing traces of Alisha out of his life in the process. That would have been a far easier route.
      Mack quietly set his keys on the entryway table and listened to the stillness in the vacant home. He felt the emptiness echo in his heart.
      She was gone.
      He went from room to room, checking to be certain. All the clothes were gone from the closet. The shoes she left scattered through the place had all been removed. Even the bathroom counters, once cluttered with her makeup bags, were barren.
      Breaking up might have been the right thing, but that didn’t make it any less difficult. As Mack stared at the half empty closet, he realized that maybe it was time for something new. He grabbed his keys and left, calling Trina on the way out.
      “Does Wild ‘n’ Rich still have that studio space in New York?” he asked before she could even greet him. He hadn’t been to the studios since he first signed onto the label. Back then, he was only working on a mix tape and living in the cheapest apartment he could find.
      “Hello to you too,” Trina replied, her words dripping with sass.
      Mack wasn’t in the mood to cater to someone who worked for him, even if he did consider Trina one of his closest friends. He waited for her to snap out of it.
      Trina sighed on the other end of the phone. Mack could practically hear her rolling her eyes. “Yeah. They got it. Why?”
      “Book it. Get me a place out there. I’m going to need the next flight out. I hate this damn city. Screw L.A. I need to get outta here.”
      “Okay…so you want me to tell the whole team to what? Pick up everything and move to New York to finish the album? Are you outta your damn mind?”
      “If they don’t want to move, I’ll get someone new. It ain’t like there aren’t a thousand people dying to work with me. Didn’t Sharra just strong arm Manny into producing her next album?”
      “Well, yeah. But what does that have to do with anything?” Trina was taken aback by the sudden change of topic.
      “I want her on one of my tracks. Have Manny set it up. I’ll do a verse or something for her. I think the collabo is just what the album needs.”
      “Mack, are you alright?” she asked after a long pause.
      “Fine. Just get someone over to the condo to pack up my stuff. I don’t have time to deal with this bullshit. Just…just tell me you’ll handle it.” Mack sank into the driver seat of his car and slammed the door. The tension in his shoulders started to release. It felt good to take control. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. A new city, a new start, and maybe even a new sound. It would be good for him, and his music. His album had stalled ever since he and Alisha had started having troubles again. A reboot was exactly what he needed.

Track 11: A Night Off

The air couldn’t be considered “fresh” by any stretch of the imagination, but that was the feeling it gave him. Fresh. A fresh perspective. A fresh start. A fresh outlook. It was exactly what he had needed. As Mack walked the streets of the Lower East Side, he took in the hot city stench, and breathed out relief. Moving to New York, getting lost in the city, and working with almost whole new team in the studio had thrown him so far out of his comfort zone that he had landed in the perfect head space to finally work on his album.
      He had to give Trina credit. By the time he had landed, she had already set up transportation and found him a fully furnished apartment to live in. His clothes arrived in boxes less than two hours after he did. Within a day, studio time was booked and the best musicians and sound engineers in the state were ready to work with him. Even his producer, Dime, was on the way across country. It felt like things where finally coming together.
      Mack checked the address one more time before pushing open the glass door with newspaper taped up over it. There was no sign, but the street number was right, so it had to be it. He made his way up the narrow stairwell to the landing one story up. Of the two doors, he went through the one on the right which had a sign that read “Garnet Photography.” The door to the left had no sign, as the glass had been completely smashed out.
      The lobby was small, echoing the cramped feeling of the stairwell. There was a single desk where a young woman, no older than 21, sat with a laptop and a cell phone. There weren’t even chairs to sit in. There was no space for them.
      The woman continued to busily type on her computer. She didn’t even look up as she addressed him. “Mack?”
      “Yeah…” he hesitantly confirmed.
      “They are around the corner in the first studio on the left. Please let me know if I can get you anything. My name is Heidi.”
      Mack left the strange receptionist and made his way to the correct studio. It was a scene he was used to, having had numerous photo shoots himself for album covers and promos. It seemed like there were never enough photos. It was the one thing he was always being hounded to do. It was also his least favorite thing. Thankfully, this was not a shoot for him.
      He stood off to the side, not wanting to interrupt the process. The instant he saw her, his blood began to pump faster. As he watched the subject move, his temperature began rising and the room was starting to feel hotter than the city streets he had just stepped off of.
      There must have been twenty people in the room including makeup artist, hairstylist, regular stylist, the photographer and his three assistants, and then her manager and support team. But Mack didn’t even notice them. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
      She was mesmerizing.
      She moved with a purpose and without permission or forgiveness. She oozed confidence and it was intensely sexy. Sharra knew exactly what she wanted the camera to capture, that much was clear. She knew just how to tilt her head, how to contort her body, how to stare down the lens to give off the image she desired. There was no doubt about it: Sharra was in absolute control of everything and everyone in the room.
      Mack was still hanging back in the shadows when they locked eyes. Sharra didn’t stop moving for the camera as she held his gaze. It felt like she had reached across the room straight in to his chest, and squeezed something inside him so tightly he was paralyzed. Mack knew right then, he was in trouble. In an instant, he was like everyone else surrounding them: at Sharra’s mercy.
      “Shit,” he muttered to himself. It was his big mouth that landed him here, square in her sights. He had been the one demanding to work with the young, fiery Pop Star. What did I get myself into?
      “I’m Sharra,” she purred with a thick island accent. Mack had been too lost in thought to realize she had made it all the way across the room to him.
      “Mack,” he managed to stammer out.
      “Thanks for coming down here. I know it’s short notice, but to be fair, you didn’t give me much notice either.” Sharra used a small towel to wipe the beads of sweat from her neck and face. The bright lights mixed with the multi-hour shoot was harder work than it looked. It was like running a marathon in six-inch heels.
      “Yeah. My bad about that. Just thought we should meet first if we are going to be working together.”
      Sharra paused and looked Mack up and down. She was sizing him up, but for what, Mack wasn’t sure. He instantly felt self-aware and subsequently self-conscious. He questioned his clothing choice, the way he was standing, and if his breath was fresh enough. For some strange reason, it felt like more than a simple collaboration rode on this meeting. Whatever job Sharra was vetting him for, Mack wanted. Even if he had no clue what it was.
      When she seemed satisfied, she continued. “Okay, great. I’m slammed this week, but next week is looking like I’ll be in the studio every day. Maybe you can stop by? See what you think you can do?”
      It felt like a playful challenge; like she was calling out his abilities. It made Mack wonder if she had really been looking to work with him or if that is a rumor Big Man had created. Once again, Mack found himself uneasy.
      “I think I can make that happen. I’ll have my assistant get in touch with yours,” he said with some bravado, trying to regain ground. He instantly felt stupid. Having an assistant meant nothing. Everyone had an assistant. How was that supposed to make me sound cool?
      Sharra laughed and raised her eyebrows. “You do that, hot shot. See ya then.”
      And with that, she left Mack alone in the corner kicking himself.

~~~

“I don’t know what you want me to tell you, but it’s just not there.” Sharra twisted her face in disgust. She waved her hands at the soundboard. “This shit? It’s ain’t shit.”
      Mack took his headphones off in the booth and draped them around his neck. It was the best verse he had written in weeks. He had heard the Pop Star was a pill to work with, but never expected her to come down on his lyrical abilities.
      “You got something better you’d rather me say?” Mack bit back his tongue. This wasn’t the typical way these things went. Collaborations usually involved the main artist recording the track and the feature artist doing their spot. End of story.
      Sharra took a deep breath, squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and shook her head. “Everyone out. I need a minute.”
      Mack cursed under his breath. If he had any say, this would be the last time he worked with the diva. He set the headphones down on the stool and started to exit the recording space.
      “Not you, stupid ass,” Sharra hollered at him. She joined him in the booth. Her arms were folded as she stared him down. She waited for the last of her staff to leave and they were all alone. “You the best rapper alive, huh?”
      “What?” Mack didn’t know what to make of the attack.
      “That’s what your track says. That’s what I’m to believe, right? You da best. No one’s better.”
      Mack took a step back, trying to find his bearings. He looked around as if he was seeking support, only to realize they were alone. Suddenly, he felt cornered and defenseless. He started to wonder if Sharra was as crazy as all the tabloids would have him believe. Is she going to try to jump me or something?
      Instead of responding, he shrugged.
      “Well, I don’t care. No one does,” she told him condescendingly. “And even if they did, that’s not what this track is about. Here, listen to it again.”
      Sharra exited the booth and went back to the soundboard. She played the track back again from the top, but with just the instrumental. When she came back into the booth, she sang her part directly to Mack. Their eyes locked as she did and Mack felt completely anchored. He couldn’t have looked away or even moved if he wanted. She had her hooks in him. Her voice pulled at his being and at once, he understood what she had been trying to say. The song wasn’t about him. It wasn’t about her. It wasn’t even about them. It was about that intangible vibe, that unexplainable pull between two people: chemistry. It was a topic he was becoming intimately familiar with just from being around Sharra.
      Mack started to nod. “I got you.”
      Sharra smiled and called her team back in. “If you got me, then get me.”

~~~

Mack sank deeper into the worn leather couch in the dimly lit studio. Everything was quiet and still around him. The only noise that filled the space was the scratching of his pen on paper. He had been so lost in his writing he didn’t notice the door open and a familiar face slip in.
      “Are you still here?” Sharra asked, her face twisted in confusion. She lifted her oversized designer sunglasses and placed them on top of her head.
      Mack looked up to see the young songstress in high heels, skintight leather leggings and a crop top with Madonna’s face on it. Her trademark deep red lips and smoky eye shadow were still holding even after a night of clubbing.
      “What time is it?” he asked halfheartedly.
      “Six a.m.”
      Mack hadn’t left all night. The studio was the only place he could get work done. It was the only place quiet enough he could hear his own thoughts. New York was an amazing city, but it was much louder than he could have ever imagined. The quietness of the studio allowed him to focus on his words without distraction. It also helped that no one was around to distract him.
      “What are you doing here?”
      “Forgot my phone.” She pursed her lips as she answered. He nodded.
      She gave him a knowing look. They had been working together for the past few weeks and already it felt like they had known each other for years. Although the chemistry between them was both tangible and intense, there was something more. It was like an unexplainable force surrounded the two, heightening both their creative intuitions, and drawing out the best work from both of them. They fed off each other’s energy and wrote together for hours. They were each acting as the other’s muse in a way and the results were pure gold. The only other person he worked this well with was Amika, but that was because they were friends.
      Sharra, on the other hand, was no friend. She was a danger; a disaster waiting to happen. She was the type of woman who would eat him up and spit him out, broken into tiny pieces. She was excitement and sex wrapped up in a tight package. He wanted nothing to do with her, and wanted everything from her in the same breath.
      “Can’t go home can you?”
      “Naw, it’s not like that. I just lost track of time.” He waved her off. He knew what she was getting at. Sharra had pushed him to write about Alisha. It made for great music but unfortunately for him, dredging up the recent past and pouring it out on paper was like reliving the heartbreak again and again. It was another reason why he hated being in his apartment. It was lonely there and she haunted the halls even though she had never stepped foot in the place.
      “Lost track of time? Till six a.m.? Doubtful.” Sharra questioned.
      “About as doubtful as you leaving your phone. It’s practically another appendage to you.”
      She waltzed over to the soundboard, grabbed a small gold object and waved it at him as proof. There was a lusty playfulness in her eyes that made him question if she had come for the phone at all. His gut told him that he knew what she had come for. The tension between the two of them had been building for weeks. It was undeniable although neither of them had so much as mentioned it. Mack didn’t want to ruin the damn near magical creative connection between them. Plus, he had been nursing his broken heart and hadn’t wanted to risk the sting of rejection if she had turned him down.
      His mind began to race through all the possible courses of action, all the possible outcomes. They worked together and things could get messy. He forced his brain to shut up. This was the perfect chance to distract him and, get lost in something else outside of his own head for a while. For once he didn’t look into the future. He didn’t picture them together forever, or even tomorrow. All that mattered was that moment.
      He took a chance. Without a word, he walked to the door of the studio and clicked the lock over. Sharra watched him carefully but didn’t protest. He took her over-sized purse and set in on a chair, never breaking eye contact. For a moment, they stood inches apart, breathing in each other’s scent, waiting for the other to make a move. She was accustomed to men throwing themselves at her, begging to get a chance with her. She was always desired, always in control. Mack wanted her to doubt his intentions for a moment. He wanted her to question whether he would act and whether she would get what she came for.
      In one quick motion, he grabbed her thighs and lifted her around his waist. He let the moment linger. The energy flowing between them was electrifying. For a second, he let her yearn for him. When he finally went in for a kiss, it was everything he had hoped for, nothing short of fireworks. Suddenly, the fatigue from sleepless hours drifted away, and he felt alive again.
      He kissed her hard with urgency behind his lips. Now that he had her, it was as though something in his body was suddenly made aware of the one thing it always wanted. Passion and hunger ignited deep in him. He couldn’t get enough of her taste. Sharra ran her sharp nails through his hair, scraping his scalp. It sent tingles down his spine.
      Mack carried her across the room. He didn’t loosen his grip on her backside as she dropped her feet to the ground. Her heels clicked against the tile. She exhaled as she looked into his eyes. Sharra placed her hands against his chest, feeling it rise and fall with raspy, heavy breaths. A wicked smirk crossed her face. She pushed him hard into the couch and climbed on top of him.

Track 12: Take Care

She got dressed faster than most men do when they are trying to skip out on a one night stand. Mack didn’t say anything as he watched. He was too worn out and over taken with ecstasy to complain. He had fantasized about being with her but never in the furthest stretches of him mind could he have imagined how intense their encounter would be.
      “You want to grab a bite to eat or somethin’?” He finally pulled himself together enough to ask.
      Sharra paused for a minute. The look was so fast, so subtle, that Mack couldn’t be sure he saw it at all. But for a fraction of a second he could have sworn both panic and sadness crossed her face. As soon as he saw it, her normal confident expression returned.
      “Gotta run,” she said gathering the last of her things and heading for the door. She waved slightly and then she was gone.
      Mack fell back on to the couch once more and let the last bits of afterglow settle over him. It was almost 7:30 a.m. and he had been up all night working on tracks for the album. Finally, his mind was at ease enough to allow him to drift off to sleep.

~~~

Amika entered the studio with all the pomp and fan-fair that one of expect from the international superstar. Forget that she had known Mack since the beginning. And forget the fact that this was a low key, no frills studio. She came in with her manager, assistant, publicist, two security guards, and three best friends. There was hardly enough space in the cramped room to fit her entire entourage and the people required for recording: the producer, sound engineer, and Mack.
      “What, no mom?” Mack taunted.
      “Boy shut your face and give me a hug.” Amika was bouncing with excitement greeting her old friend. After their hug she stepped back and smacked him with her handbag on his shoulder.
      “Ow! What did you do that for?” Mack hollered.
      Amika did it again. And then a third time. “First you didn’t even have the decency to tell me you were leaving. Then I have to find out from my management that I need to fly all the way to New York to finish our tracks. What the hell?” She hit him a fourth time for good measure.
      “Alright! Alright! I’m sorry. I had to get out of town. Switch it up for a bit. Ya know?” Mack said defensively.
      Amika’s expression quickly changed from fake mad to genuinely understanding. “I know, boo.”
      “Plus, don’t act like it’s a big deal for you to come all the way to New York. You are from here! You come home all the time.”
      “Boy, don’t even start.” She smacked him again playfully. “Ok. What are we working on?”
      They started by playing the tracks that Amika was set to do a guest verse on. She had been sent them in advance, so it wasn’t the first time, but things always sound different in the studio. It was never a bad idea to listen to everything once more before heading into the booth. Before they went on, she asked to hear the rest of the album. Mack agreed, letting her listen to the four completed tracks.
      As one played over the sound system, she pointed to the speaker. “Is that Sharra?”
      Mack nodded to the beat in response.
      “I didn’t know she was doing the hook for you on that one? Last I heard it you were going to use one of the new chicks from Wild ‘n’ Rich.”
      “I was. But Sharra fit the piece better.” He shrugged. There was a lot of politics that went into making music. Sometimes, labels would want to use their big name stars to help catapult the newer talent into relevance. Sometimes, having two huge names on a track was better for everyone even if the artists were from different labels. It was all a balancing act that Mack tried to stay out of as much as possible.
      “I can tell,” Amika conceded. She paused for a minute and took a quick breath as if she wanted to say something but was stopping herself. “I’ll catch up with you all later, okay?” she said to her crew. It wasn’t a question but more of a pleasantly worded command. They were being told to take a hike. Amika waited for the last member to file out then she turned her stare to the sound crew. Apparently, she expected the producer and engineer to follow suit. They did without hesitation, fearing her notorious temper.
      After the last person left the room, she turned her attention to Mack. “You’re screwing her, aren’t you?”
      “Whoa! What? Where did that…? I’m not even…” he stumbled over his words.
      “So you are screwing her. You are dumber than I thought. Jesus, Mack. You know she’s still with that DJ, right? What the hell are you thinkin’ messin’ with that chick? She is crazy.”
      “Hey, don’t even front like you know what’s goin’ on in her life. You don’t even know her,” Mack countered.
      “I know of her and that’s enough. That is one bad bitch. You need to get your head outta your ass and stop seeing her.” Amika snapped her head to the side and waved her finger in his face as if she was telling him off. When Amika got mad, her ghetto roots showed through. Her wardrobe might have been Rodeo Drive, but her temper was definitely all Queens.
      A voice at the back of the room grabbed both their attention. “You his mother now or somethin’?”
      “Sharra, it’s…” Mack tried to find the words to explain but before he could Amika was on her feet in the Sharra’s face.
      “I ain’t his mother but I care about his ass.” Her words bit. Even with heels Amika had to stare up at the songstress. But she didn’t let the height difference intimidate her. She was never one to back down from a fight.
      “Easy girl,” Sharra mocked.
      “Alright. Alright. Ladies. Hold on now.” Mack was on his feet in an instant, putting himself in between the two women. He was half expecting the pair to each remove their earrings and throw down in the studio. He turned so he was just facing Amika, leaving Sharra to stare daggers at the back of his skull. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he demanded through clenched teeth.
      Amika pursed her lips and rolled her eyes. “She started it.”
      Sharra started to protest, but Mack raised his hand to silence her. “Meeks, stop. Thank you for your concern, but I’m a big boy. I can handle myself. Okay?” When there was no reply he said it again. This time it was less like asking and more like telling. “Okay?”
      “Yeah. A’ight. You do you,” Amika finally said. She returned to her seat and dramatically collapsed.
      Mack rolled his eyes. He returned his attention to Sharra. “Can I talk to you outside?”
      She folded her arms and followed him out of the room but didn’t respond.
      “Look, I don’t know how much you heard but just forget about it. Meeks is a good friend of mine. She’s just trying to look out for me. She’s been there with me all through the Alisha days. Ya know what I mean?”
      “I feel ya,” Sharra admitted. They walked a ways further before she spoke again. “She really did a number on you didn’t she? I’ve read the songs you wrote about her. That’s some real shit right there.”
      Mack let her statement hang in the air. She wasn’t wrong. The lyrics he wrote about Alisha were the most honest words he had ever penned. He left his heart on those tracks. “That’s the problem with rapping: people feel like they know you, like they know your life.”
      “But it’s true with you. You put it all out there. That’s why people connect with you,” she continued. When they reached the end of the hallway, they stood in front of the rear exit to the studio. “Here’s the thing. I’m not looking to be your next Alisha and I’m sure you don’t want to be my next Silas. I’m not going to dick you around, or lie to you. I’m not going to hurt you. Let’s not screw this up by bringing our pasts into it, yeah?”
      He knew all about her ex-boyfriend Silas the DJ. Their relationship had played out on the front page of every tabloid around the world. Her pasts didn’t bother him. Like Sharra pointed out, they each had one.
      “Yeah. That sounds good to me.”
      Just before Sharra exited, a thought hit Mack. “Hey, what’s up with you and Amika anyway?”
      Sharra laughed and shrugged. “I may or may not have slept with her man.”
      “You did not?! Damn! Now I’m going to have to go back and deal with that? You set me up. Jesus, you are a bad bitch,” he mocked with a smile. Sharra winked as she disappeared into her town car.

Track 13: My Side

The vibration from the phone in his front pocket sent excitement coursing through him. He knew it was from her. He had been anticipating it all day. It seemed like she only liked to text him when she knew he was doing something important. Right now, meeting with his manager and a rep from the label was the perfect time. He fiddled with the metal object before giving into temptation and sneaking a look under the table. The rep droned on about numbers and release dates, the new album, and publicity photos, but it was white noise to Mack.
      The text was brief. “My place.”
      Instantly, he felt flush. His pulse quickened. There was so much implied with such simple words. It meant she was thinking of him. She wanted him. Maybe even needed him. Mack was eager to oblige.
      “Doing something,” he wrote back after a long pause, not wanting to seem too available. It was still new. They were still in the game phase, trying to feel each other out, trying constantly to gain the upper hand. If she waited five minutes to respond, he would wait ten.
      He was used to getting everything he wanted. But Sharra was the same. The last two weeks had been a constant power struggle, but it almost made it more exciting. She made him work for it and he liked it.
      “Fine. Then all this goes to waste,” the reply read. The photo attached was Sharra in her bathroom mirror, completely naked. She covered one breast with her arm that was holding the camera, and the other she covered with her hand that was flipping the bird. The photo sent him into overdrive. He gave up playing it cool.
      “You got this, right?” Mack patted his manager on his shoulder as he got up to leave, never taking his eyes off his phone.
      “What? We aren’t done yet. Sit down,” he scolded but Mack was already out the door.
      He looked forward to seeing her as a kid looked forward to Christmas morning. Every time was new and different. She was exotic, powerful, and exhilarating to be around. No matter how much he got, Mack wanted more.
      It wasn’t a far walk between the record label’s building and Sharra’s. He took his usual route, the one she had told him to take. At first he thought it was strange that she had it scoped out and could rattle off the intricate path with ease. But he figured she was a big enough star, she probably used it herself to avoid the paparazzi. As he made his way through the trash filled alley ways, he found it hard to picture Sharra letting her thousand dollar heels come within even an inch of the retched sludge that flowed through the alley. On second thought, there was no way Sharra had ever stepped foot back here.
      After passing the second homeless man passed out amongst heaps of garbage Mack stopped.
      “What the hell am I doing?” he said out loud. It finally hit him. He realized the truth in the situation. She was in control. She doled out her time as she saw fit. It was always in private, always kept hush hush, and almost always on her terms. The power struggle between them was all for show. In reality, they both knew who held the upper hand. There was no question.
      Mack kicked a pile of trash.
      This ends now, he told himself. Sharra was good in bed. Really good. But no chick was good enough to warrant being played like a whipping boy. He started to rehearse his speech as he made his way to the back entrance of the high-rise condo building. He’d put her in her place.
      Doesn’t she know who I am? She can’t walk all over me like that. Telling me to “come here” “do this” “go there,” and expect me to obey. I’m not her puppy or some love sick little kid. I’m one of the biggest names in the game. I can get any chick I want and it is about damn time she recognizes that and shows some respect.
      By the time he got to her door, he had worked himself up into a huff. He puffed out his chest and steeled his nerves. The moment Sharra opened the door he opened his mouth to talk but the words seemed to get lost in throat. Nothing came out. He didn’t tell her she had to start coming to him. He couldn’t articulate that he was not her boy toy. He couldn’t even put her in her place about making him take the back entrance.
      Seeing her in nothing but one of his tour t-shirts and heels made his mind go completely blank. She pulled him into her penthouse apartment and he happily followed.

~~~

The smell of bacon woke him. Mack groggily rubbed his eyes to pull himself from his slumber. He rolled over to find the other half of the bed was vacant. A quick check of his cell phone showed six missed calls. He didn’t even bother to check who they were from. He could guess they were all from his management for skipping out on that meeting. He groaned to himself thinking about having to deal with them.
      For a moment, he thought of getting it over with and calling them back then. If he was going to get yelled at, it might as well be when he’s in a good mood. But again, the smell of breakfast cooking pulled at his attention. He checked the clock. It was four in the afternoon.
      He threw his phone on the bed and put on his jeans. A quick search of the floor proved fruitless for finding his shirt. He assumed it was in the living room, or hallway. It was hard to say. Everything was a blur once the front door had closed. It was a frantic mix of skin and passion. His heart raced replaying the bits in his mind he could focus on.
      Sharra was in the kitchen when he found her, humming as she cooked. She had on over-sized sweat pants, a loose fitting t-shirt, and her hair was up in a messy bun. It was a new look for her. Mack couldn’t think of a single time he had seen the singer when she wasn’t completely dolled up or aggressively dressed. As he watched her for a moment from the hallway he couldn’t help but think she was beautiful. Not sexy, not sultry, not hot; beautiful. There was something about her when she was toned down and real that made her more stunning.
      “Strange time for breakfast, no?” he asked.
      Sharra shrugged but didn’t look up from the pan. She never felt the need to explain herself. It was one of the things Mack liked best about her. She was confident to no end. Sharra was who she was; take it or leave it.
      “Any for me?” Mack saddled up at the bar stool across from the range.
      “You eat pork right?” she asked very seriously.
He gave a hardy laugh from deep within his gut. It wasn’t what he had expected her to say. He nodded.
      “Because this ain’t no turkey bacon, good for you shit. This is the real deal,” Sharra warned.
      “I eat bacon,” he answered with a chuckle.
      “Good. It’ll be ready in five.” She waved the spatula at him as she spoke.
      Mack was mesmerized watching her move through her grand kitchen with ease, humming as she did. It was a side of her he had never seen and something about it took him off guard.
      It felt real.
      Not that what they had been doing hadn’t been real, but it had been completely different. Everything up to this point was more like a torrid love affair: hot, heavy, and secretive. They had been sneaking around, hiding from the press, and even lying to their own people about where they had been. Their encounters were brief with a sense of urgency that was exhilarating.
      But this was different. They slept in the same bed together. They ate together. It was what people did when they were in a relationship.
      He let the idea rattle around in his head: a relationship. He thought of their life together; what their future would look like. Eventually they would both finish their albums and it would be time to leave the city. Then they would both be on tour, likely on the other side of the globe from one another at any given time. They would have to make special trips to spend time together. They could video chat when apart, but that would only give them a small sense of comfort. The press would eat their relationship alive. Stories would be run that they both would know were false, but it would put enough doubt in their minds to start eating away at whatever trust they had built up between them. Eventually, they would implode. Hopefully it would happen before they did something crazy like get married or have a kid. And when they did eventually fall apart, they would have to release a joint statement saying something along the lines of “We are still the best of friends, but realize that we couldn’t give each other the time and attention the other deserved for a relationship.”
      A Relationship, he mused again. A foul taste formed in his mouth. If this became a relationship, it would be completely ruined.
      He knocked his knuckles a few times on the counter.
      “Hey, I gotta bounce,” he said.
      Sharra looked up with a questioning glace but didn’t say anything.
      Mack offered no explanation.
      “I’ll see ya,” he said as he gathered the rest of his clothing and headed for the door.

Track 14: Brand New

It was hard not to look at the sites. He hated the fact that they existed. It was smut. Celebrity gossip sites did nothing more than make up rumors about people and turn their lives into a real life soap opera drama for the masses. It was the lowest form of entertainment in Mack’s mind. But he couldn’t help himself clicking through the links about Sharra.
      They had both agreed to see other people, even though they had never spoken of it. He had taken it upon himself to call every hookup he had in the city; trying to screw Sharra out of his system. Sharra seemed to be of the same mind. A few days after he skipped out on pancakes, Sharra was spotted by the press in the VIP section of a night club with a random guy. Or at least it was supposed to be her. It was hard to tell because the woman in the picture was straddling the fellow and had her tongue half way down his throat. They never could prove it was her, but it wasn’t important. The tabloids would run whatever story they wanted.
      And it didn’t make a difference to Mack. No matter whom he slept with, or whom she was photographed with, somehow they kept ending up alone together. They would find some secret hide away – the back of a club, the studio, her place – and end up tangled in each other in no time. Despite their best efforts, a force seemed to be thrusting them together.
      But then Mack clicked one too many links. He could deal with making out with random men at clubs, dinner with football players, and even romantic getaways with actors. But this was too much. It was the one thing he didn’t know that he could forgive. Sharra had promised him it was over and yet the proof was in the photo that she had lied.
      He forced himself back from his laptop and yelled. Before he could give it a second thought, he was out the door and heading towards her place. He would take the back alley, one last time, only because the security guard was instructed to always allow him to her penthouse apartment. If he went into the front, the concierge might call her to ask if he was allowed up. He didn’t want to give her the warning. He didn’t want to give her time to prepare.

By the time he reached her door, his anger had only grown. Part of him had counted on cooling off a bit before confronting her, but the more he thought about it, the more enraged he had become.
      He didn’t even knock. He knew the door would be unlocked. Sharra had way too much trust in building’s security team. Mack threw open the door and stormed in.
      He froze, still standing in the doorway, squeezing his eyes shut. He tried to tell himself he was imagining things. When he opened his eyes he had to face the truth.
      Sharra was curled up on the couch in Silas’ arms. They were watching TV, laughing and drinking wine like it was their normal Thursday night routine. Like they were a couple.
      He wanted to run. He should have run but his feet wouldn’t listen to his head. Before he could move, Sharra looked over and locked eyes with Mack.
      “Shit,” she said in a hushed tone. At once, her shoulders dropped and her face sank into a sorrowful look. She shook her head. “Mack…”
      Finally, he found his footing and turned to leave, not bothering to shut the door behind him. He raced for the elevator in a zombie-like trance. He was sure it had been a dream. He must be sleepwalking. It hurt too much to accept it was anything else.
      “Mack!” Sharra grabbed his arm and stopped him just as he reached the steel doors. “What are you doing here?”
      He stood with his mouth hanging open. No words would come out.
      “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were coming in tonight.”
      Her apology sounded sincere. Still it ticked off Mack.
      “So, if you had known I was coming in you would have just done it another night?” he demanded.
      Sharra looked at him with a confused expression. She wasn’t following where he was going with the line of questioning. “Well, yeah. I never meant for you to see that. I said I was sorry.”
      “You’re saying sorry because I walked in on you, not because of what you did. God, I can’t believe you.” Mack yanked his arm from her grasp.
      “What I did? It’s not like I cheated on you. Mack, what did you think we were? We weren’t dating or anything. We weren’t together. I thought we agreed we were just having a good time, no strings attached.”
      “We did. With one exception.” Mack pointed back towards her place. His blood was boiling and he felt like he wanted to shake the stupidity out of her. Instead, he balled up his fists and shoved them by his side. “He is the exception. We both agreed Silas and Alisha were off the table. Christ, Shar. How many nights did we spend talking about how much they screw us up? How bad they hurt us? We promised, no matter what happened, that we wouldn’t let the other go back. We couldn’t let that happen again. And then here you are…You know if I had walked in and you were screwing his brains out, it might have been easier. Maybe you could lie and say you were drunk and slept with him in a moment of weakness. But this? This shit…Shar, you are legit back with that cat. What the hell are you doing?”
      Sharra stood in the hallway, too stunned to reply.
      Mack shook his head and bit his lip. He took deep breaths to calm himself down.
      “I treated you good, ya know? But if that’s what you want…if that’s the guy you want in your life, then you and Silas belong together. I’m done with this shit. Unbelievable.” Mack gave her a look of disgust and left her penthouse apartment for the last time.

Track 15: Fireworks

The gossip blogs and respected news outlets alike ran the story: Pop star and DJ boyfriend jailed after violent dispute in the nightclub. It went on to detail the couple’s long time on-again, off-again volatile relationship. The article even threw Mack’s name into the mix as one of Sharra’s alleged gentleman callers, citing a photo of him leaving her place as proof.
      Mack squeezed the bridge of his nose between his fingers. That damn photograph. Even after months of work by his publicist and Sharra’s as well, the media wouldn’t let it go. No matter how many times their respective camps claimed that Mack had visited her place for strictly business reasons, no one was buying it. Pair that with the fact that there is a photo taken minutes later of Silas leaving the building, and it was the love triangle tabloids salivate over.
      It took an interview with VTV magazine to finally clear the air. He denied, in black and white, that they had ever been anything more than colleagues. It had been a hard sell. Finally, the press was coming around to the idea that they had simply been friends all along. All the chemistry and sex-fueled music videos were for show.
      He thought they had put to rest the romantic conspiracy theories. Judging by the latest round of media coverage, it looked like it was all going to be dredged back up.
      Without thinking, he grabbed his phone and dialed. On the fourth ring she picked up.
      “Hello?” Sharra answered, her voice weak and timid.
      “Hey.” Mack realized he didn’t know what he was going to say if she answered. He truly hadn’t expected her to pick up or even have the same number. It had been almost six months since they last spoke. It would have been safe to assume that after he walked in on her and Silas that Silas would have wanted her to change her number to break all ties with Mack. He was grateful now that it hadn’t happened like that.
      “Mack? What are you…” she began to ask, but he cut her off.
      “Shar, are you okay?”
      There was a long pause. Mack waited. He didn’t want to rush her. He desperately wanted her to answer. He wasn’t going to ask what happened and he never would. That was the media’s job. He just wanted to know that she was safe.
      “I’m fine.” To say Sharra didn’t sound like herself would have been an understatement. There was no fire or passion in her voice, no spunk or spice. She sounded distant and broken.
      “Hey, I’m here for you. Tell me what you need,” Mack urged.
      “Can I…can I come over? Are you in town?”
      “Sure. Yeah.” He was taken aback by the request. “Come over whenever.”
      After he hung up, he couldn’t help but laugh. It wasn’t a funny situation, not even in the slightest. He couldn’t help but see the humor in the fact that Sharra was coming to his place. In the time that they had been messing around with each other, she had never once stepped foot in his condo. He wondered how she even knew where to find him.
      Remembering her, remembering their time together brought the pain of regret bubbling back to the surface. The loss of her affection lingered in the back of his mind whenever he saw pictures of them together. If he was honest with himself, there had been a time when he truly thought they would have ended up together. He thought they would have stopped seeing other people, quite playing games. She would have let down her guard, let him in, agree to go public, and they could have been the crowning couple of hip hop. But in the end, it was as much of a fantasy as Sharra was.

Track 16: Missin’ You / Successful

For the first time Mack could remember he was alone. He hadn’t tried to maintain a relationship since the fiasco that was Sharra. It was too difficult out on tour. The schedule was too demanding to devote time to anything other than his career. The road was taking its toll on him. He could feel his brain start to fog over slowly. As he watched out the window of his overpriced, luxury tour bus, he couldn’t help but feel the miles wear on him.
      “Where are we?” he asked half-heartedly of his assistant.
      “Somewhere in West Virginia.” Trina didn’t even look up from her beloved cell phone.
      The answer didn’t matter. It was all the same. Constant change had become its unique form of stagnate. Every night was identical even though they were in a different city each time; the same music, same venue, same girls, same after-party. Some nights he went back to the bus alone, some nights with a random chick from the party who wanted to sleep with a celebrity. The trail of women he left behind in each city might have been impressive. To Mack, being with them felt the same as being alone—hollow and empty. They did little more than distract him for a few moments at a time.
      “You are on with Rap-Weekly in five. Should I reschedule?” Trina asked with a concerned look.
      He shook his head.
      The interview began with normal questions and Mack regurgitated the answers he always had.
      “When can we expect a new album?” the reporter asked.
      “Well, I’m on tour right now. I’m busy in the lab at the same time. Look at next year. You’ll just have to keep your ears open.”
      “What’s it like being constantly on the road?”
      “It’s tiring but it’s totally worth it to get to see my fans.”
      “How many chains do you own?”
      “As many as I can.”
      “I heard you bought a new Ferrari. How many does that make for you?”
      “Not enough.”
      And so on. Just when he thought the interview would be exactly the same as all those before, the journalist hit him with a question he wasn’t expecting. “We all know you are open and honest in your songs. You always talk about the girls you are in love with, especially your high school love. Do you ever wonder if you would still be together if you never left her to pursue the rap game?”
      It hit him like a wrecking ball to the chest. Thoughts of Alisha rushed back to him and suddenly the life he would have had flashed before his eyes. They would still be together, both college grads, with menial jobs that paid the bills. They would have probably been married by now. He had already bought her a ring once after all. They might have even started a family.
      “Yeah,” he replied quietly. Grief washed over him like he was mourning a relationship that never happened.
      The reporter continued to ask questions. He simply passed the phone over to Trina to finish the interview. He returned his attention to the scene passing by them outside. The thought plagued him. Does she ever think about me anymore? He guessed not. He was now just a relic of her past, some guy she dated once. Would she tell her new boyfriends that she dated someone famous or that he was as much of an asshole as they assumed he was? Or would she look back on their time together as fondly as he did? Mack compared every relationship, every woman for that matter, to her. No one ever measured up. Did Alisha do the same with him? Of course she didn’t.
      It was more likely that he was just a bump on her path to finding the right guy. A detour from “the one.” With that thought, something in him hardened. I don’t want to be the one who cares more, the one who is still hung up on their past. I will be the one who moved on to biggest and better things. Mack had deep pockets and lines of girls waiting to get in his bed. He could have any chick he wanted, two at the same time even. It would be the easiest thing in the world to replace Alisha.

Track 17: The Resistance / Connect

It was starting to seem like every time Mack came back to Atlanta, it felt a little less like home. It wasn’t that things were changing. Things always changed. Also, it wasn’t about the people. He expected his friends and family to grow up, move away, and settle into their life as adults in the real world. What he never anticipated was how much he changed between visits. It was a slow progression that suddenly made itself obvious the moment he was surrounded with people from his past. They all fawned over him. He was no longer the kid they used to play with on the playground. He was a rap star they all wanted to get next to.
      Even the same clubs treated him like a newly different version of himself. He got in free, never waited in line, never arrived by himself or went unnoticed. Surrounding him at all times was his assistant, three of his best boys, and two models-turned-groupies that he brought with him. It was hard to remember the last time he traveled alone.
      As they pulled up to the club, he contemplated for a moment having the driver pull around back so he could sneak in. There were a couple photographers waiting out front. Even if they hadn’t been there, the long line of people waiting to get in the club, all with cell phone cameras were basically just as bad. Everyone wanted a piece of him. On second thought, he’d go through the front.
      “Showtime,” he thought as he adjusted his shades.
      Screams erupted the moment he stepped from the car. There had been rumors circulating all day about where he’d pop up. He wouldn’t confirm or deny any. Nevertheless, his fans figured it out anyway. They always did.
      Mack and his crew made a b-line to the VIP section in the back of the club where they were promptly greeted with bottles of champagne. Within moments the area just outside the velvet ropes were teeming with the beautiful women trying to be noticed. Mack pointed at girls. The bouncer let them through to the private section.
      “Hey, Mack!” he heard over the crowd. A guy was waving to get his attention. Mack recognized him as a friend from high school that he had fallen out of touch with.
      The bouncer looked at him for confirmation of action. Mack shook his head slightly; an almost unnoticeable movement, but the bouncer picked up on it.
      “At capacity,” he boomed.
      “Oh, come on. There is plenty of room. He knows me. We grew up together,” the man pleaded. “Just ask him.”
      “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to back up,” the bouncer said in a warning tone.
      “Ask him. He’ll say okay.” He looked to Mack for some confirmation. Mack just shrugged and mouthed “sorry.”
      “Asshole,” the guy yelled before storming off.
      “Oh, that’s my jeweler. He’s cool,” Mack pointed out another man in the crowd to the bouncer. “Hey, you think Alisha’s in town?” he asked off-handedly to Trina.
      She arched her eyebrow and paused. “Oh, you’re serious? You really want to head down that path again? You are one messed up brotha.”
      Mack ignored her and returned his focus to the plethora of girls vying for his attention. They hadn’t been at the club more than 15 minutes, and they were already down two bottles.

~~~

He draped his arm over the shoulder of the girl in the red dress as they spilled out of the club. He couldn’t remember her name. It hardly mattered. She was pretty enough and her body was astonishing. All he needed was a temporary fix for the night.
      “Mack?” a voice from his past pulled him up short.
      Alisha was waiting by the bouncer. She had dark circles under her eyes, her hair and dress were slightly disheveled, and her makeup smudged. Instantly, Mack knew she had been out drinking all night. It was the only time she didn’t look put together. Had her friends known she was going to try to come and see him, they would have stopped her. That was why she was by herself now.
      “See, I told you I knew him,” she said playfully and smacked her clutch against the doorman’s massive chest. As she stumbled her way over, Mack could feel himself instantly sober up. He unlatched himself from his new female friend and met her half way. Alisha’s heel caught in the crack of the sidewalk. She tumbled over. Quickly, Mack swooped in and caught her in his arms before she hit the ground. She burst into drunken laughter and muttered a quick thank you.
      “You guys go ahead. We’ll get another car,” Trina said as she helped Mack pour Alisha into the back of the limo. He saw the look of shock and disgust on the red-dress girl. It was no longer important to him.
      Alisha moved restlessly in her seat pulling on the hem of her short skirt. Mack looked her over. It had been almost a year and a half since they had last broke up. Even in her drunken state, she was every bit as beautiful as the last time he saw her. Excitement and disappointment rushed through him like a strange cocktail.
      “What are you doing?” he finally asked quietly.
      “What do you mean ‘what am I doing?’ I came to see you, silly.” Her words slurred.
      “No, I mean like this,” he pointed her up and down, “You’re a mess. I’m taking you home.”
      “Let’s go back to your place,” Alisha tried to muster her best sultry voice.
      “You’re drunk.”
      “I had a few drinks. A girl can have a cocktail if she wants, Mack.”
      “Trust me. You’ve had more than one.”
      He rolled his eyes and looked out the window. It pained him to see her like this or to see her at all. For a long moment they sat in silence. Earlier in the night he had been hoping she would turn up. She would have seen him in the club, living the life, surrounded by beautiful women, popping bottles, and spending money like it was nothing. Now that she was here, he wished he had made it through the whole trip without running into her. “Why did you come out?”
      Alisha tried to compose herself, suddenly aware of her state and embarrassed by it. “It could be different this time,” she said softly, almost as if it were a wish.
      “What could?”
      “Us.”
      It was quite possibly the last thing he needed to hear. The past was repeating itself like a broken record. Maybe she was right, and they would work if they tried it. Mack didn’t know if he could sustain the heartache if it failed yet again. He pulled her close and tucked her under his arm. Gently, she rested her head on his shoulder and drifted off in a drunken sleep. It was amazing to him how a petite girl, armed with a single phrase, could shake him so deeply.
      As he tucked her into her bed, he couldn’t help but wonder if he should stay. He could easily slip in between the covers and curl up next to her like he used to. He loved the way she looked in the morning; how she would smile when he was the first thing she saw. The truth tugged at him. She likely wouldn’t remember any of this in the morning. She clearly wasn’t in a good place in her life. That wasn’t the way he wanted to start things if they were going to dive into this again. He pulled the covers up over her, kissed her forehead gently, and headed for the door.

Track 18: Furthest Thing

“It was great seeing you last night,” he texted her as he took his seat on the plane. He had to get to New York tonight to meet with Demarco Brass, the rock and roll super star from Brooklyn, who had finally agreed to do a rock-hip hop collaboration. Mack wanted to stay an extra night in Atlanta, see if he could spend some time with Alisha, but Demarco’s schedule was tight. He had no choice but to go.
He checked his phone incessantly until the stewardess told him all electronics had to be turned off. Knowing Alisha, she was probably still asleep anyway. She would text him when she woke. He knew she would.
      The moment he stepped off the plane his inbox was flooded with emails. Life never stopped. Work never stopped. Even though he was set to record with Demarco all week that didn’t stop Trina from booking other events for him. There were photo shoots and interviews to be done. Radio spots, business meetings, and fan Meet and Greets. His schedule was planned almost to the minute. The only consolation was the cash that came from all of it. If he had to be pulled in ten different directions, at least he was stacking up the paper in the process. Money made everything easier to handle.

~~~

Three days had passed and still there was no reply. He texted her once more. Still he heard nothing. For a while he wondered if she had the same phone number or if he was sending random messages to a stranger who was rightfully ignoring him. After a quick check by his security team that theory was proved false as the number was still registered to her.
      Mack sat idly in the studio listening to the beats Demarco had laid down. They were masterful, fresh and original. It would be a major hit and everyone in the room knew it. It had been almost a week since his encounter with Alisha. It was all he could think about. He should be focused on the music, but it felt like an impossible task. It was like he left his mind back in Atlanta.
      “Can we just take five?” Mack asked halfheartedly to the room, leaving before he got a response. His manager, assistant, producer and his boys all stared at him with confused expressions. He wasn’t acting like himself lately.
      Mack paced in the parking lot, weighing his phone in his hand as he weighed the decision in his head. In a moment of weakness, he unlocked the screen and hit “send.”
      “Hello?” she answered.
      The sound of her voice sent electricity through his body. “Hey.”
      “Mack…” she started in. The frustration in her voice instantly deflated his mood. “You need to stop. No more calls, no more texts. I’m not your girl. You ain’t my man. We can’t keep doin’ this.”
      He searched his brain for something to say but came up short. Eventually, he muttered, “You’ll always be my girl.”
      She didn’t respond.
      “And I’ll always be yours,” he added hopefully.
      “Stop it. You belong to your music and your groupies. You aren’t mine and probably never were. I borrowed you at best. I don’t even know you anymore. I can’t do this again. Please stop calling. Bye, Mack.”
      Before he could say another word, the line went dead. Mack let his arm fall to his side, almost releasing his grip on the phone. Her words ripped through him. He felt as though she had reached into his chest and yanked out his heart. It couldn’t be true. It simply couldn’t.
      He dialed her again and even before she had a chance to respond he began speaking. “You don’t mean it. You came to see me. I know you still think about me because I still dream about you. We are destined to be together. It’s the way it was always supposed to be.”
      “It was a mistake. Okay? I should never have come to see you. It was a mistake.”
      “No, it wasn’t. I know you don’t want to admit it. Hell, I didn’t even realize it until I saw you. You and I are connected. Don’t you get it, Alisha?”
      Alisha laughed on the other end of the phone. “Look, I know it has been a hard year for you, all the stuff with us and then with Sharra…” her words trailed off. “I never should have stirred the pot by coming to see you. Let’s be honest; you don’t actually want me back, Mack. And I don’t want you either. We don’t work together. It’s just as simple as that.”
      “But we could work together. You even said it yourself. It could be different this time.”
      “Mack, no. It wouldn’t be any different. We both know it. I’m just the only one willing to admit it.”
      Mack didn’t know how to respond or how he even felt about what she was saying.
      “We can’t keep doing this. You have to stop calling. Okay?” Alisha pleaded softly.
      “Okay,” he finally agreed even though he wasn’t sure he truly meant it.

Track 19: Marvin’s Room

When the metal corner of his phone hit the marble countertop it made the slightest clink. It was nearly inaudible over the loud music blasting from the expensive whole-home stereo system. Mack honed in on it. Somehow the simple noise and repetitive motion helped to drown out the emptiness surrounding him. His lavish condo was filled with empty people, with empty lives, speaking empty words. I’m becoming one of them.
      The tapping of the phone seemed to echo inside him, reminding him of how hollow he had become. His friendships were shallow and just for show. The women he was with were after him for his money. He paid their bills and supported them. He took pleasure in their company. It was like a business arrangement that was absent of all feeling. If they left his life tomorrow, it wouldn’t affect him in the slightest. Even his raps had become nothing more than superficial fluff about how rich and famous he was. The depth and sincerity in his lyrics were gone. His art and his life became a perfect mirror of each other.
      “Hey, baby, come dance with me,” Candy whispered in a sultry voice as she wrapped her arms around him. She caressed his chest softly nibbling on his ear.
      Mack brushed her off, “Not now, Cindy.”
      “It’s Candy,” she said with an attitude as she stood.
      He didn’t bother to respond. She’d get the picture and leave him alone. With a deep sigh, he took another sip of his expensive cognac. His house was filled with beautiful women, many of who would love to go back to his room. Then again, so was his phone. He could dial any number and have any woman of his choice here in minutes. Well, almost any woman.
      One contact entry plagued him. She had been invited tonight. Her friends had even showed up. She never came. It hadn’t taken long or required any difficult P.I. work to figure out that Alisha had a new man. Her friends dished all her secrets freely. He was a college friend and a manager at some restaurant, which is apparently how they had reconnected. Mack scoffed. He didn’t know the guy but could tell he wasn’t good enough for his Alisha.
      He should just call her and tell her that. Someone had to tell her she deserved better. Why shouldn’t it be me? Before his better judgment could stop him, the phone was ringing.
      “Hello?” her voice came through on the fourth ring.
      How long had it been since we spoke? Mack wondered for a moment. How many months? It must have been more than four, but he couldn’t quite figure it out through the alcohol-induced haze in his head. Maybe it had been closer to six months. She was drunk outside a club the last time he saw her in person. The last time they spoke she told him to stay away. He had until now.
      “Hey, you still up?” He wanted to launch into a rant about her man but couldn’t bring himself to. If things were perfect, she wouldn’t have picked up. She would have sent his call straight to voicemail, but here she was talking to him at 2:30 in the morning.
      “Yeah, I’m at home,” Alisha answered.
      “Did you go out?” The conversation felt strangely natural. It was as though they were old friends who had never stopped speaking to each other. Mack liked it.
      “Tonight? Yeah, we hit some clubs. Nothing major.”
      “You should have stopped by.”
      She hesitated, “Are you drunk right now?”
      “We had people over. Your friends were here.” He tried to sound as casual as possible.
      “Yeah, I know. Mack, is everything okay? Why are you calling?”
      “I just thought you were going to come over. We’re cool and all now. You too busy to come see an old friend.”
      “God, you are drunk. Mack. It’s almost three in the morning. You need to go to bed.”
      “So you aren’t coming over?”
      “No, I’m not coming over. I’m at Sean’s house.”
      “Screw Sean,” he spat out.
      Alisha didn’t respond. He could feel her annoyance radiate through the phone.
      “I’m sorry,” he quickly added. Then after a long pause he added, “I’m sorry for everything. I miss being able to call you. It’s all just been so crazy lately.”
      “I have to go,” she sighed. Mack always had a way of tugging at her heartstrings. No matter how far she removed herself, he could always pull her back.

Track 20: From Time

“You must have gotten it wrong.” Mack’s brain was spinning as he listened to his friend on the other end. “You must be thinking about the wrong girl. That can’t be right. I know it’s not right.”
      “Dude, believe me. I saw the ring myself. She came in the bar with Sean. It’s legit. They are engaged,” Freddie confirmed.
      “Naw, man. Naw,” Mack kept denying the news.
      “I mean, it’s not like it was a huge rock, but it definitely was there.”
      “I’ll get at you later,” Mack said and hung up the phone. He hit #2 on his speed dial.
      She picked up on the second ring. “Hello?”
      “What the hell is this I hear about you being engaged?” He launched right in on her.
      “Mack, calm down,” Alisha kept her voice level.
      “I thought we worked it out. I mean, didn’t we?”
      “It’s not even like that.”
      “Oh really? Then what’s it like? Because you are the one who showed up in my driveway. You were the one who wanted to grab lunch somewhere private so we could talk. You told me you missed me too, missed what we had. I may be a lot of things, but I’m not crazy. I didn’t hallucinate that crap.”
      “I know, I just…” Alisha tried to interject. There was no stopping Mack.
      “You just what? Lied? We had a plan. We were going to wait till I was off tour and then be together. Or don’t you remember that promise?”
      “I also remember you promising to stay out of strip clubs and stop paying other bitch’s rents. Judging by your Twitter feed, that didn’t happen.” Her tone was sharp.
      “Baby, it’s not a big deal. We weren’t actually together at the time. It was nothing.”
      Alisha laughed a little. “You know what. You’re right. We weren’t actually together. I told myself when you got back from tour, if you had changed, if you were honest, I’d give it another shot. Thank God I never actually left Sean.”
      “You didn’t leave him? I thought you said you would.” Mack could feel a stab in his heart or his ego, he wasn’t sure which.
      “Mack, when I talked to you that night on the phone you sounded so devastated and lonely. I knew I had to come see you. Then when you told me you were ready to settle down, that you didn’t want to be alone anymore and that you wanted to start a life together…it was everything I’ve ever wanted you to say. But something in the back of my mind told me I couldn’t believe it. Those were just words. Maybe you believed them at the time, maybe you didn’t. Either way, I had to protect myself in case nothing changed.”
      Mack listened to her words. She was right. He knew it. Nothing had changed. If anything, he was spiraling further out of control. He wouldn’t let himself admit it to her, however. “Why Sean? What can he give you that I can’t? He can’t provide for you like me. He doesn’t have money like I do.”
      “All you have is money. That’s it. That’s all you got. Stacks on stacks of money. You know what that’s good for? Strippers. But that doesn’t make a relationship. That doesn’t build trust or share dreams. All it does is buy shit. You know if you keep going like you are going all you’ll have left is money. You’ll either be 80 and rich or bankrupt. Either way you’ll be alone.”
      “You know what, forget you. I don’t need this shit,” he snapped.
      “Take care of yourself,” she responded. It was too late. Mack had already hung up.
      Usually, Mack would have chucked his cell phone or a bottle across the room in anger after that phone call. Instead he sat silently in his living room. A strange numbness crept over him until he felt nothing at all. All his rage, hurt and pain seemed to die inside him leaving nothing behind. All he felt was nothing.

Track 21: Hate Sleeping Alone

The tapping of stilettos on the tile caught his attention and pulled him away from his phone. “Sorry, what?” he asked, realizing he hadn’t been paying a lick of attention.
      Monica sighed impatiently. “Which one do you like better? The black or gold?” She pointed at her dress in a showy fashion as the store clerk held up the other one for comparison.
      “Just get them both.” He waved her off and returned to answering emails.
      “Baby, but which one looks better?”
      Mack put his phone on the plush leather “boyfriend-bench” the boutique had conveniently installed near the fitting rooms. He hated shopping. He hated being dragged along just to watch an endless cycle of outfits that looked exactly the same. He looked Monica dead in the eye to relay his annoyance with the process.
      “Seriously? You are a model. It’s literally your job to look good in clothes. They all look great on you. Now pick one and let’s go.”
      “You said I could get both,” she whined playfully.
      He didn’t respond. Instead, he stood, took out his wallet and handed his black American Express card over to the clerk. “She can get whatever she wants. I’ll be in the car.”
      Mack pulled his hands through his short black hair as he made his way out of a small boutique to his car waiting out front. The paparazzi were all over him like swarms of mosquitos buzzing about. The flash bulbs were disorienting, and he held his hands up to shield his eyes.
      “Get out of my way,” he grunted. The pack was thick. He had to push and fight his way through.
      “Who are your shopping with, Mack?”
      “When can we expect your next album?”
      “Where are you going? Did you and your girlfriend have a fight?”
      The shutterbugs were relentlessly hounding him for a sound bite. Mack could feel his temperature rising and pulse quicken like he was being trapped or hunted. The heat from the flashbulbs felt like it was searing his skin. It felt like the world was closing in on him. He had to get out of there and as quickly as possible. A large camera poked its way within an inch of his face. The lens felt like it was trying to bite him. Mack snapped and threw his hands up, smacking the camera out of the pap’s hands. An expensive piece of equipment fell to the ground, shattering into hundreds of tiny pieces. Now the hoard of people was shouting furiously at him. Quickly, they morphed into an angry mob, pulling at him, trying to make him stay and pay for what he did. Mack yanked his arm away, pushed another photographer in the chest, and slipped into his sports car.
      The engine roared to life. Mack didn’t bother warning them to move. If you’re willing to stand in front of my car to get a picture of my meltdown, it is at your risk. The crowd shifted to the sides as they banged on his roof and windows, yelling at him. Mack threw the car in drive and sped off. It wouldn’t take long before they all jumped in their cars to chase him. For a moment, all he wanted to do was enjoy the silence.
      It didn’t last for long. No more than two minutes on the road and his phone was ringing. Monica’s picture danced on the screen.
      “Shit,” he cursed at the air. “Hey.”
      “Where did you go? Please tell me you did not just leave me here like this. I know you don’t think I’m taking a cab home. What kind of girl do you think that I am?” she was talking so fast Mack could hardly catch a single word.
      “I’ll have Trina send a car.” He tried to calm her. In truth, Monica was the last thing on his mind. It’s not like they were a couple or even knew each other that well. She was this week’s warm body in an otherwise cold bed; a little piece of solace in his hectic life.
      Like all the others before her, Monica was wearing out her welcome and becoming too attached. He wasn’t looking for another girlfriend. It was just that when he was in bed alone, sleep never came. His mind was filled with thoughts of the past, haunting him. Ghosts of Alisha latched to his psyche and consumed his thoughts. Having a woman in his arms seemed to be the only thing that kept her at bay. Most of the time, he didn’t want anything from them, not even sex. All that mattered was the company.
      “Trina, I left Monica at some boutique on Hollywood. I don’t know. Check Twitter. I’m sure someone already put it on blast.”
      “Mack, did you really push a photographer and break a camera?”
      “News travels fast.”
      “You’re damn right it does. Should I call your lawyer?”
      “Yeah, and probably the PR team. Damn, I did not want to deal with this today.”
      Trina could hear the defeat in her boss’ voice. She had been with him since the beginning. She knew without asking exactly what he was going through. “I’ll send Monica back to her house. I’ll tell the boutique to cut up your card after she buys whatever it is you told her she could get. I’ll have a new one issued to you, should be here by the morning.”
      “Thanks, Tri.”
      “Hey, Mack, you okay?” She knew what he would say. She had to ask anyway.
      “I’m fine. I just need some sleep I guess. I’ll get at you later.”

Track 22: Messages From You

Her smile was the most beautiful he had seen in a long time. It radiated feelings of joy and Mack could feel it melt even his cold exterior. Her green eyes sparkled even in the dim bar light as she batted her eyelashes at him. The golden light from the overhead pendants glistened softly on her golden tan skin. She was practically glowing.
      “So you lied,” Mack said playfully.
      “Maybe a little lie,” she held up her fingers close together to indicate a small distance.
      “You do know who I am then?”
      “Of course, I know who you are. But what does that matter?”
      “Well, it’s incredibly unfair for starters.”
      “Unfair? How so?”
      “You know me, but I don’t know you, Lacy.” Mack could feel his cheeks start to hurt from smiling too much. It felt good to flirt, to make a connection with someone. Mack couldn’t remember the last time he had met a woman who was worth holding a conversation with. Lacy was different. Of course, she was beautiful, gorgeous even. She was more than that. She was smart, confident, and charismatic. She had sent him a drink from across the bar, which was a first for Mack. Usually, girls wanted drinks from him, not the other way around. It was a refreshing start.
      She had a real job, a lawyer, not a want-to-be model or actress. Even though she wore a simple black shirt and skinny jeans, Mack thought it was incredibly sexy. He was used to the women in his life dressing like they were in one of his music videos. Lacy had a level of class that he didn’t come across normally.
      “Well, I’m from L.A.” she started.
      “Boo,” he mocked.
      “Oh stop. I can’t help where I was born. You’re from New York or something, right?”
      “Atlanta, mostly.”
      “Close enough,” she said, jokingly dismissive.
      “Close enough? They are nowhere near each other! They couldn’t be more different.”
      “Eh, but are they really that different? All the East Coast is the same.”
      “That’s like saying everyone from California is the same.”
      “We are. I mean, you are born here with a juice cleanse punch card in hand, a yoga membership, and the incessant need to discuss what route you took everywhere. It’s a thing.”
      Mack couldn’t help but laugh.
      “I have to use the ladies’ room. I’ll be back,” she told him as she slipped off her bar stool.
      Mack happily watched her body move as she left. It was quite the sight. He pulled his cell from his pocket to check for messages. Instantly, his buoyant mood sank and his heart dropped to his stomach. The girl had a knack for finding the perfectly wrong time to text him.
      “Hey. I’m sure you don’t want to hear from me. I was thinking about you and wanted to say hi. I miss you and I hope you are doing well,” Alisha wrote.
      Tonight had been the first time in months, or longer, that he hadn’t thought of her. Tonight he wasn’t drinking to drown her memory. He was drinking with a beautiful woman he wanted to know. He cursed at her to himself, hating that after all this time she still had her claws in his heart. He hated that she could waltz back into his life with little more than a text message and throw everything upside down. She had a man. They were engaged, and still she couldn’t leave Mack be.
      “I miss you, too,” he wrote back just before Lacy took her seat at the bar.
      Mack smiled, but it wasn’t the same as a moment ago. There was a sadness now, dejectedness. He wondered if she would notice. He tried to go back and continue their conversation with the same enthusiasm and joy, but it was lost. The moment was gone and broken. Soon he made some excuse for having to leave. He paid the tab and took her number knowing he wouldn’t call. Lacy was great, incredible even, and maybe they could have been something. Still she wasn’t Alisha. No one was.

Track 23: Fall For Your Type

The loud crashing of glass bottles tumbling to the floor echoed through the kitchen. Mack grabbed the corner of the marble counter to catch his balance as he stumbled.
“Hey, man. You a’ight?” Big Man hollered from the next room.
      “I just lost…stupid bottles in the way…” He grumbled, and then yelled back, “Yeah.”
      He went to kick a liquor bottle, missed it and kicked the cabinets. Pain shot through his toe and made him instantly jump back, throwing him further off balance. He gripped the edge of the counter tighter to prevent a fall and stop the room from spinning. For a moment, he thought maybe he had pushed it too far tonight; drank too much, smoked too much. The worry was fleeting, and he reached for a glass from the shelf.
      The kitchen was a mess. The counters were covered with every variety of alcohol, mixers and cups. The bottles were blurring together in a kaleidoscope of colored glass. He could hardly see straight. It was pointless to attempt to read the labels. Mack knew he was too far gone for that. Instead, he grabbed whatever was closest and sloppily poured it into his glass. He didn’t bother with measuring or mixing. He’d drink whatever it was straight. All that mattered was that it was alcohol.
      The more he drank the duller his mind got. The blur, the lack of focus and feeling was his blissful goal. Lately, any moment of peace he could obtain was the result of reaching the bottom of the bottle. Down there, in the lows of drunkenness, nothing hurt anymore. He could erase memories of her one sip at a time like a science fiction movie. The effects were short-lived. Sober, everything flooded back. His empty bed and lonely house were constant reminders that he was alone, again. Alisha was still engaged. All he had was money and fame, which suddenly felt like nothing at all.
      It had been a while since he could recall being sober.
      A firm grip grasped his shoulder.
      “You okay?” Big Man kept his voice quiet so the guests in the other room couldn’t hear.
      Mack nodded his head and reached for the glass he had just poured, but Big Man grabbed it faster.
      “I don’t think you need that. You got a room full of pretty girls out there and are you are a mess of a drunk in here. Pull your shit together, boy. I don’t know what has gotten into you lately. It has to stop. It’s embarrassing.”
      “I’m good…I’m good,” Mack slurred. His eyes were hazy as they tried to focus on one of the three images of Big Man’s face in front of him. Nausea started to well inside him, and he could hardly stand up straight.
      Big Man took his friend’s arm and threw it over his shoulder. He steadied him by holding his chest as he started to lead Mack up the back staircase to his room. Big Man tossed him on the bed.
      “Ow! Hey! What was that for?” Mack exclaimed and then began rolling around laughing drunkenly.
      He shook his head. “Get some sleep.”

~~~

Big Man entered the house and immediately felt the need to shower. It smelled like a frat house the night after a kegger. Stale booze lingered in the air, the marble floors were sticky and caked in mysterious black sludge, and there were empty bottles and red plastic cups scattered throughout the mega mansion. A big difference between this scene and that of a college campus was that it wasn’t sorority sisters passed out, but rather video vixens and models curled up and snoozing on nearly every soft surface. It was almost two in the afternoon and everyone in the house was sound asleep.
      He checked all the likely spots in search of Mack, but every bedroom turned up empty. He wasn’t in any of the three sitting rooms, not in the home theater, and there was no sign of him in the guest house. Big Man wondered if the kid was even home. He was moments from calling Trina, Mack’s assistant, when he spotted the rapper by himself soaking in the Jacuzzi adjoined to the pool. He held a cigarette in one hand and a crystal encrusted goblet in the other.
      “You look like hell,” Big Man said as he made is way over.
      Mack looked up at his mentor through his darkened shades. He spread his arms wide as if to showcase himself. He seemed to want to have a witty comeback but settled for a shrug and a nod of the head.
      Big Man slipped off his shoes and hung his feet in the water as he took a seat next to Mack.
      “Manny, if you’ve come to lecture me again, you can just stop now. I am way too hung over to hear it,” Mack launched in.
      “I got a call from your security team this morning,” Manny began. “If you are going to keep throwing parties like this, you gotta be more careful.”
      “I said I don’t want to hear it,” Mack said after taking another long drag of his cigarette.
      “A bitch tried to steal your ‘rari.”
      “But she didn’t. Isn’t that what I pay those guys for? To make sure my shit stays my shit?” Mack said plainly. “Now, if she had gotten away with it…that would be somethin’ else. Then we could talk.”
      Manny sighed and shook his head. “When’s the last time you left the house?
      “Why would I need to? I got everything here. And what I don’t got, gets delivered.”
      “Seriously, how long has it been? You’ve been back from tour for almost four months now. You broke up with that chick, Monique…”
      “Monica,” Mack corrected.
      “Whatever. Monica. You split and then became a damn hermit.”
      “You told me to stay away from the paparazzi.”
      “I didn’t tell you to lock yourself away at home like a freaking crazy person. What is up with you?” When there was no response, Manny continued. “You need to get out, bro. Tonight. Let’s do it. You get yourself cleaned up. We’ll go to my club and do it right.”

“I told you this is exactly what you needed. We own this shit. This club is ours,” Big Man slapped Mack happily on the back.
      A smile snuck across Mack’s face. The night had gone better than expected. After much protest, Big Man had finally dragged him out of his home down to the club. The DJ was on point. The crowd had a great vibe, and the women looked like a walking underwear catalog, especially the one next to him perched on a white leather sofa. Her legs seemed to go on for days, stretching out from the barely there black mini dress down to her sky-high pink pumps. Her black hair was long and straight, flowing down to her lower back. She traced her long red nails over his thigh as they talked.
      “What is it you said you do?” Mack asked pleasantly as he casually leaned back.
      She batted her impossibly long eyelashes, “I didn’t.”
      Mack laughed. “Okay, then what do you do, Amber?”
      Amber swirled the olive in her martini glass with her pinky nail then licked off the boozy liquid seductively. “I’m a dancer,” she conceded.
      “Nice, nice. What company are you with?” Mack’s brain instantly went to modern dance or ballet. When Amber didn’t answer, he kept asking, “Like a backup dancer or something?”
      Amber shook her head.
      Then it dawned on him. Suddenly it clicked. He didn’t need to keep asking. He knew she was a stripper. Over the years he had spent more time in strip clubs than most. He loved dancers, and they loved him, or at least they loved his money. Amber felt different. Even though she had made her way into the VIP and targeted Mack, he didn’t get the vibe she was after his cash. She was special.
      “I don’t plan on doing it for long. I’m saving up to move,” she added.
      “I feel ya. You should come back to the house with us. Keep the party going.”
      “I’m sorry. I can’t. I have to work.”
      “Tonight? Naw, no way. You can’t go into work. We are just getting started.”
      “Why don’t you come by? I promise I’ll make it worth your while,” Amber whispered in his ear.

Track 24: 305 To My City

Mack realized as he made his way into the dimly lit entrance that it might very well have been the first time that he had ever been to a strip club alone. He checked his cell phone with the bored looking girl behind the counter and paid his $20. It was also the first time since he put out a record that he had to pay a cover charge anywhere. Famous people get in free. That was the rule everywhere. He assumed they either didn’t recognize him or didn’t believe an artist of his level of popularity would show up anywhere alone. Mack let the bouncer pat him down quickly to make sure he wasn’t hiding a recording device or a weapon. The giant man opened the heavy wooden door, letting the young rapper through.
      Mack could feel the beat hit him in the chest as he made his way in. The Diamond Palace wasn’t what he had been expecting. It wasn’t the typical black floors, brass poles, black dance stages, and old tattered chairs surrounding them. This place looked like a blast from the past, like old Hollywood or vintage Vegas. There were five stages, two on each side and one main stage in the middle. The side stages were each decorated the same. They were softly lit with round light bulbs that reminded Mack of a vanity table from old Hollywood movies. Lush ox blood red curtains, edged in gold trim, draped over the backdrops, allowed the dancers to make a grand entrance. The main stage was a more extravagant version of the four other ones. The most noticeable difference was the floor that seemed to be made completely made of diamonds coated in resin. The light was reflecting off the stones glittered around the room like a spectacular disco ball. The chairs closely packed by the stages were made of silky black leather, well-kept by any standards.
      “What can I getcha?” a girl quickly appeared by Mack’s side as soon as he walked in. She was shorter than him, with black and blonde curly hair that grazed her lower back. Her horn-rimmed glasses offset her tattoo-covered body, making her look like a naughty librarian somehow. The fishnets, hot shorts, bra, and necktie added to the fantasy.
      “I’m good,” he said absently, barely giving her any of his attention. He searched the room for signs of Amber. He didn’t see her on any of the stages. Maybe she was circulating around the room or in the back giving a private dance
      “There is a two drink minimum,” she stripper waitress said with her hand on her hip.
      Mack’s sights fell on a group of guys at the far stage. They were all dressed in slacks and ties. Clearly they had dressed up for a special night of sorts.
      “Is that a bachelor party?”
      The girl nodded.
      “Buy them a bottle of Goose. That should be more than enough to cover the drink minimum. Put it on this,” he handed over the card and walked casually to a seat in the middle of the room, not next to any particular stage.
      He watched the crazy life of a strip joint unfold before him. The bachelor party yelled and jeered as they were awarded their free bottle, the girls circulating to pull guys into private dances, and the constant flow of dancers taking turns on each stage. It was well-timed clockwork. Everyone knew their place and time. The DJ kept the rhythm, changing the song at constant intervals to not favor any one girl. Mack realized he had never simply sat back and watched it all. He had always been too involved with whatever woman was on stage taking his dollars.
      “And now, coming to the main stage, the queen of The Diamond Palace. Pull out your cash boys. It’s Madison!” the DJ’s voice came through the speakers and ignited a movement. The crowds were surrounding the other stages turned and made their way towards the center of the space. Mack’s curiosity peaked. Whoever this “Madison” was seemed to be the reason these men all chose this particular club. It was obvious she was the main attraction.
      The dark red curtains pulled back. A familiar beat started to play. Mack instantly recognized it as one of his own. He could feel his pulse quicken. It was going to be her. It just had to be. He could see her heels and legs peek out from the blackness onto the stage before he saw the rest of her. Although he was much too far away, he felt as though he could hear her heels as they clicked across the diamond encrusted stage in rhythm to the music. As the spotlight brushed against her skin, it was as if the rest of the world fell way. Suddenly, they were the only two people in the club. She made eye contact, and his chest constricted hard.
      It didn’t matter that every man in the club was surrounding the stage and ignoring all the other beautiful women floating about. It didn’t matter that the glittery floor was covered in dirty dollar bills almost instantly. It didn’t matter that piece-by-piece she took her clothes off, climbed the pole, and danced. She was doing it for him. It was his private show.

~~~

“I’m sorry. You’re not allowed back here.” The massive bouncer stopped Mack as he made his way through the back of the club towards the dressing rooms.
      “It’s cool. Amber told me to come back,” he replied.
      “I don’t care who told you. I’m not allowed to let guys back here. Now get out before I throw you out.”
      Mack sized him up. The guy was nearly twice his size with arms bigger than both of his legs combined. He was not the type of person Mack wanted to press his luck with. Instead, he put his hands up in mock defeat and made his way out the building. He rounded the block to the parking lot, found the back entrance, and knocked on the door. Amber opened it and smiled.
      “I thought you would have left after Fred turned you away.”
      “That giant’s name is Fred?” he asked jokingly. The name was not nearly as intimidating as the man. “Of course I wouldn’t leave.”
      Amber waved him in and led him to the locker room where she was packing up for the night. Her duffle bag was exploding with outfits and shoes of all different crazy colors and styles. Mack was pretty sure he even spotted a bag of weave or a wig buried in there. There were crumbled piles of bills and a few neat stacks lying on the dressing room table. There was far more cash on her stand than all the other girls combined. The DJ had been right. She was the queen of the club.
      Mack took a seat in her makeup chair and started unfolding the bills, running them over the edge of the table to flatten them. She folded her tiny clothing and packed her bag as he worked. It felt like this was something they had always done. They fell so quickly into a routine.
      “Okay, what now?” he asked as he stacked the last dollar bill neatly on top of her impressive earnings for the night.
      “Lobster,” she said playfully.
      “It’s four o’clock in the morning. Where in the world do you plan on getting lobster?”
      She winked at him. “You’ve lived in Miami how long? In this city, you can get anything you want, any time of the day. You just have to know the right people.”
      “Oh, and you do?”
      “Baby, you ain’t the only star in the room. I know everyone.”

Track 25: The Real Her

“I’m telling you dude, this one’s different,” Mack pleaded.
      “They always are. Everyone is different. How have you not learned that yet, man?” Manny waved him off.
      He leaned back in the plush couch and shook his head. He had known Mack for years now. At first, he only saw the young star as an investment, but now he could truly call him a friend.
      “I’m serious. She’s it,” Mack continued to insist.
      “Oh, the one? The stripper you met at the club is the one that you want to bring home to meet your family and wife-up? And I bet you think she doesn’t like you for your money.”
      “She doesn’t. You should have seen the stacks of paper she made last night. She doesn’t need me. She made that perfectly clear. She’s got her own car, her own crib, and pays all her bills. It ain’t about the money.”
      “She is a stripper. It is always about the money. That is her job,” Manny spoke slowly as if he was talking to a stupid person, which is exactly how he thought his friend was acting.
      He himself had developed a soft spot for dancers over the years that went beyond simply enjoying their entertainment. Manny had flashbacks to Charity, the stripper from two years ago that had accidentally become mother of his first born daughter. Charity destroyed his relationship with his woman and then left him, taking their baby girl with her. She was currently cleaning him out for a painful child support every month. After Charity it was Jasmine, then Sofie. They were always the same. Even if Mack couldn’t see it himself, Manny knew this one was just like all the rest.
      “But she’s different. This isn’t even something she wants to do forever. She told me she’s just saving up,” Mack protested.
      “To go through college?” he mocked.
      It was something nearly every dancer said. It had become such a cliché that it was more of a punch-line than anything else.
      “She wants a better life for herself. Is that so bad?”
      “And what? You are going to give her that ‘better life?’”
      Mack paused. He knew what his friend was hinting at but he said it anyway, “I could.”
      “You can’t save every stripper you meet. You are so dumb sometimes.”
      “I’m not trying to save her. I’m just…you know what? Forget it. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Let’s just record the damn thing.”
      Mack made his way into the booth and put on the headphones. In truth, saving her was exactly what he wanted to do.

~~~

Mack leaned back in his chair, pleasantly full from the evening’s offerings. It was the best meal he had had in months. He’d have to thank Manny for forcing him out of the house. He had almost forgotten about how good real food tastes verse the take out he had been living off of. It didn’t hurt either that the chef prepared feast was accompanied by equally as pleasing conversation. He watched as Amber took another swig of the full bodied red wine the sommelier had recommended. She licked the lingering drops off her lips as she stared at him.
      “What is a Virginia girl like yourself doing in Miami anyway?” Mack asked.
      “You want to know the truth?” she asked with raised eyebrows. “You are going to make fun of me.”
      “No, I won’t. Promise.”
      “Pinky promise?”
      “Did you really just say ‘pinky promise’? You are a grown ass woman,” Mack taunted.
      Amber sat back and crossed her arms. She squeezed her lips tightly together indicating she wasn’t going to talk until he gave in to her childish demands.
      “Fine. Fine. Pinky promise.” He finally gave in, reached across the table, and offered her his little finger.
      “A singer,” she admitted.
      Mack chuckled.
      “You said you wouldn’t laugh!” Amber threw her napkin across the table, hitting him in the face. He put up his hands in mock defense. “I know it’s cliché, but ever since I was a little girl, I’ve just wanted to be on the stage. I want to hear crowds of people cheering my name, to walk the red carpet, wear all those fancy gowns…” she trailed off wistfully.
      “Then how did you end up at the Diamond Palace?” Mack was curious to know.
      She shrugged. “It’s not a cheap dream. There are the basics like vocal lessons and studio time. Then you have to drive to auditions and gas is ridiculous. On top of it all, I have to maintain all of this. And honey, this shit really ain’t cheap. It’s hair, nails, makeup, clothing. You can’t show up looking like a bum and expect anyone to take you seriously. Needless to say the $500 I left home with didn’t get me too far. And well, dancing at least pays the bills. Or at least most of them. After rent and my car, you know, I don’t walk away with as much as you think.”
      “But you’re hustling. You are making it on your own. That’s pretty damn cool.” Mack was impressed by her drive.
      “Why thank you,” she said genuinely pleased with herself. “Hey weren’t you telling me that you have a video shoot coming up soon?”
      Mack pinched his eyebrows together. “Yeah…the studio wants something for the new single. It’s just going to be dumb like in a mansion or somethin’.”
      “Why haven’t you asked me to be in it?” She put him on the spot.
      “Ah…I didn’t…I mean, if you want to of course you can be in it. But…” Mack trailed off. The conversation felt like it had taken a hard left and he wasn’t sure he liked where it was going. It felt familiar but he hoped he was wrong.
      “That would be so dope! AH! I’d love to.” Amber clapped and squealed. “I’m going to need to get a new outfit. My nails done. Oh and of course some new weave because this ain’t video worthy.”
      Amber let her words hang in the air and at once, Mack knew what was happening. He sighed in a way that sounded like a half laugh and closed his eyes slightly. Amber hardly noticed his irritated expression. She was too busy planning her debut. Mack managed to smile tightly as he reached for the wad of cash in his front pocket.
      “Of course. Here ya go,” he said as he peeled off a few bills from the outside of the roll. Amber paused for a half a second, prompting Mack to dole out three more. When she was satisfied with the total, she took the cash, thanked him profusely, and went on to explain in great detail where she was going to go shopping and how awesome the video shoot was going to be.
      Mack tuned it all out. Manny had been right. It was always about the money.

Track 26: Houstalantavegas

“But we agreed on this,” he countered again. Mack was sick of having the same argument again and again. It was like fighting with a five year old.
      “No, you agreed on it. I agreed on nothing. Mack, this is my living. This is my job.” Amber screamed as she threw outfits into her duffle bag.
      “You are supposed to be working on your demo. You said you were committed to this.” Mack kept on.
      “I am!”
      “No one is going to take you seriously as an artist if you are still grinding on the pole.”
      “You’re just saying that because you’re jealous of the attention other guys give me.” She planted her hands on her hips and snapped her head.
      Mack paused from the shock. On second thought, it was like arguing with a teenager rather than a toddler. “Excuse me?”
      “You don’t want me stripping because you want me all to yourself. You want to cut off my income so you can control me.”
      “Bull shit! I have done nothing but help you for months now. I’ve paid for your studio time, vocal lessons. Jesus Christ, Amber, you live in my house. You have one of my credit cards that has no goddamn limit. If anything, I’ve been your biggest supporter. I’m trying to give you everything you need so you can have the life you convinced me you wanted.”
      “Ah, captain ‘save-a-ho’ to the rescue.”
      “Don’t even,” Mack scolded through clenched teeth. “I don’t give a shit if you are a stripper. You can shake that tight ass for ones to your hearts content. Frankly, I liked you better when that’s all you were. At least then I knew what I was paying for.”
      “What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded.
      “What do you want from me, Amber?” he finally asked. When she didn’t answer he went on. “Do you want to be my girl? Do you want to be some chick I sponsor? Do you want to be my protégé? Just tell me. Tell me what you want so I know what this is because right now…right now I have no idea what we are doing here.”
      Amber took a step back. She looked stunned as though he had just smacked her across her face. “I’ve told you how I feel about you.”
      He shrugged.
      “You know you’re my man,” she said sweetly. “I’m falling for you, boo.”
      Mack took her in his arms and kissed her, but there was no passion or love behind it. It was too late for that. It didn’t matter what Amber said, or how much she professed her feelings, he knew exactly what this was. He knew from the very beginning. He hadn’t really needed to ask.
      It was an arrangement. He would keep paying her bills and she would keep him bed warm. No matter how much they denied it, that’s all this was to either of them.

~~~

Mack slammed the car door. He tried to quell the rage building inside him, but he was finding it difficult to calm down, even slightly in this situation. The call had woken him up. It was her number. It was a man on the line which sent waves of both anger and fear through him.
      “Hey, you need to come pick up your girl or I’m going to have to call the cops,” the man said bluntly.
      “What? Who is this? What are you talking about?” Mack stumbled out of bed and started getting dressed.
      “She’s drunk, puking in the bathroom. Your number is the last one she called. Is she your girl?”
      Mack slipped into his shoes and sighed. “Yeah, she’s mine. Where is she? I’ll be right there.”
      If this were the first time this had happened, Mack might have been panicked or shocked. He’d have rushed to her aid and babied her. Sadly, it was a more common occurrence than he would like to admit. Amber didn’t seem to know her limits, or if she did, she didn’t pay attention to them. One of these days he’d let the police come pick her up, put her in the drunk tank so she could sleep it off for the night. Maybe then, she’d learn her lesson and stop being so damn reckless. He shook his head as he approached the club. One day he’d do it, but not today.
      “Where is she?” he asked with a sigh to the man at the door.
      “Oh shit. You’re Mack. What are you doing here, man? We’re closed.”
      “Someone called about my girl. Said to come pick her up.”
      “No way. That’s your girl? You’re the Mack in her phone? That is crazy. What are you doing with a wacked out girl like that? I bet you get all the best women.”
      Mack wasn’t in the mood to hear it. “Where is she?”
      The doorman led him through the club that looked strange with all the lights on. Clubs were dark for many reasons. It was odd to see them any other way. When they arrived at the women’s restroom in the back, the bouncer propped open the door. “Last stall.”
      Even though her face was in the toilet, he knew for certain it was her. Her long black hair had been rumpled and pushed to the side. Pieces were sticking to her neck and shoulders where streaks of sweat had gathered. She was missing one shoe, with her clutch still firmly grasped in her hand. Amber always put money first. Mack stood at the entrance of the stall and looked her over for a moment. The future played out in his head. He’d take her home, clean her up, get her some water and put her in bed. The next day she’d wake up and not remember it. She wouldn’t thank him or apologize. They’d fight about how reckless and childish she was. They’d make up, the only way they knew how, in bed. They would be happy for a few days. Then in a week or two she’d do it again, and the cycle would start over. Mack realized he was taking care of her more than just financially.
      “Come on,” he said disgruntledly. He reached down and threw her arm around his neck. With one arm around her back and the other under her knees, he lifted her up off the bathroom floor.
      Amber took in a deep breath and looked up at him. “I love you,” she said sweetly.
      “I love you, too,” Mack replied although the words weren’t true.

Track 27: Sooner than Later

He recognized her from across the store. It had been a couple years, and she had changed her hair. Yet there was no doubt in his mind it was her. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. Even under the florescent lights of the electronics store, she was radiant. He watched from afar as she walked through the aisles, picking up items and putting them back. She hadn’t noticed him yet. He could probably still leave before anyone caught on and made a scene. But he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He couldn’t let this opportunity pass.
      He snuck through the aisle, careful not to let her see him. As he approached, the realization dawned on him: she was in the hip-hop row, in the “M” section. She was buying his new album, which was oddly enough what he had come to do himself. It was the first day of the release and it had become a tradition of his to come back home to Atlanta, to the same store, to buy it. It hadn’t occurred to him he might run into her. Quickly, he made his way to her side and picked up a copy of the album.
      “I hear this guy is a real asshole,” he said out of the corner of his mouth.
      Alisha looked up with a mixture of confusion and shock. Soon a smile crept over her face. She punched him playfully in the arm. “Yeah, but he writes good music.”
      “I’m sorry about your birthday,” he sputtered out, suddenly nervous.
      She arched an eyebrow in question.
      “I didn’t call you. I thought about it. But I…I’m sorry.”
      “Oh, hey, no worries. That’s not a big deal. So, how are you?” her voice was pleasant and kind.
      Mack could feel his chest getting warm just seeing her smile.
      “Good, real good. You? I hear you are a wedding planner full time now or something like that.”
      “Yes, yes I am. It pays the bills.”
      “You plannin’ your wedding with Sean?”
      He didn’t know why he asked. Her love life was none of his business anymore.
      “Just other people’s for now. Sean and I haven’t set a date. You still seeing that stripper?” she asked with a smirk.
      “She’s not a stripper.”
      “She’s a stripper,” she quickly retorted.
      “Okay, you’re right. She is.” He smiled widely. He didn’t want to let the feeling go. “Hey, you want to grab a coffee or something?”
      “Like now? Yea, sure. I just have to buy this stupid album.” She mockingly rolled her eyes.
      “Me too. Hey, I thought you said you didn’t listen to my stuff.”
      She shrugged. “Things change.”

~~~

“You know, it’s not everything I thought it would be,” he confessed as he stared down into his cup of coffee.
      “How so? Isn’t this what you always wanted?” Alisha asked, truly interested. They had been talking for over an hour already, and she didn’t want to leave.
      Mack smiled to himself. He couldn’t believe what she could make him admit. There were few people in the world he would spill his heart out to and one of them was sitting across the table from him.
      “After a while, it doesn’t feel like something you are striving for. It doesn’t feel like this wild, unobtainable goal you are pushing for. I’m in the spotlight; I made it. From this side, it’s a lot lonelier than I could have imagined. Not like there aren’t people around, there are constantly people. It’s not the same. Everyone has an agenda. You suddenly realize that there isn’t a lot of room on the top. Everyone is clawing and pushing to make their way up there. So either you are standing there by yourself or you are getting knocked off.”
      “Yea, but you have Manny and Amber.”
      Amber’s name coming out of Alisha’s mouth made Mack cringe. It wasn’t that she said it in a mean way, she said it normally but it felt like blasphemy. Alisha had always been the one he would end up with, and now she was talking about his live-in stripper girlfriend. His choices suddenly made him embarrassed.
      “Why didn’t we work?” Mack quickly changed the topic and threw Alisha for a loop.
      “What? Geez, Mack, let’s not get into it. We were having such a nice chat.”
      “No, no. I’m not trying to start something. I just want to know.”
      His voice was so sincere she couldn’t help but believe him. She took a long sip of her chai tea latte while she thought about what to say. She could brush him off, and say she didn’t want to talk about it. Or she could tell him the truth. They could move on from it. It wouldn’t be hanging over their heads any longer, and maybe they could even be friends again. With that thought, she opted for the latter.
      “You were never really with me. Sure, you dated me. But I only ever had a part of you. I shared you with your music, with your public image, with the groupies and the spotlight. After everyone took their piece, what was left for me? You remember when I got engaged to Sean, and you asked me what he could give me that you couldn’t?”
      Mack thought back to the phone call and a chill rushed through him. He remembered how dead he felt inside after hearing of her engagement. They had planned to get back together before that, but he had yet again blown it.
      “He can give me all of him. That’s all I ever wanted from you, Mack. I just wanted everything.”

Track 28: The Motion

“It’s just not working out. It’s as simple as that.” Mack tried to keep calm and talk like this was a reasonable conversation. Amber had a way to riling him up, forcing him to lose his temper. She knew how to push his buttons and even seemed to like it.
      “Simple as that? Yesterday at home we were cool. This morning we were fine. Then you come back to the room after being God knows where all day, and suddenly it’s not working out.”
      Amber was gearing up for a fight. Mack could see it was coming from a mile away but still couldn’t steer clear of it. At once he regretted asking her to come on the trip with him. It was a silly tradition, having to buy his album from the same store every time. He should have done it alone and maybe this wouldn’t be happening.
      “It’s not like that. This has been a long time coming and you know that.”
      “You got something to say, boo boo, so why don’t you just spit it out. What is really going on here? You waltz in here, all high and mighty with a dumb ass grin on your face, like all of a sudden you hot shit. What little trick batted her eyelashes at you to make you think you still got it? Who tried to get in your pants to make you think you could do better than this?” Amber yelled and got in his face.
      Mack didn’t respond. Silence often spoke more than words.
      “Oh. Oh, I see. So it was a little hoe that made you think that you could just walk away.”
      Mack still didn’t say anything. His mind was racing trying to figure out his plan on the fly. It hadn’t been his intention to break up with her, but the words just started spewing out the moment he came home. Coffee with Alisha replayed over and over in his head the entire drive back to the hotel. When he came home to find Amber, packing her bag to do a guest spot at a local club, something in him snapped. He couldn’t do it anymore. He was sick of her dancing, sick of picking her drunken ass up at clubs in every city, sick of her insane temper.
      “She’s not a hoe,” Mack finally said quietly.
      “It’s her isn’t it? It’s the girl in all your songs. Oh, don’t play dumb with me. You write about her all the time. Trust me, I know those songs aren’t about me. You never talk to me or about me like that.”
      “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
      “Yes, you do.”
      Amber paced back and forth in the living room of the hotel suite. Her six-inch heels clomped against the tile. Mack waited silently for her to make her next move. He didn’t want to make the situation worse by saying the wrong thing.
      Amber took out her phone and punched in a few lines. Mack’s phone alerted him of a new message. “Send all my stuff here. I don’t want to see your face again.”
      Mack looked at the address with a bit of confusion, “This isn’t your old apartment.”
      “No, it’s not. It’s Tito’s.”
      “Tito?”
      “Yea, you didn’t think you were the only one did you? Oh, honey. You are so cute when you are stupid. You were never the only one. The richest, yeah sure, but not the only.” Amber smacked him lightly on the cheek, winked, and headed for the door.
      As she walked away, Mack was surprised that he didn’t feel the slightest bit of hurt or regret. He didn’t care that they were over or that she most probably had men in every city. All that he could think of was what she had said about his music. He had never thought about it, or let himself think about it, but she was right. There was a piece of Alisha in everything he did. He couldn’t shake her. If a song wasn’t about her, it was to her. How he hadn’t realized it before alluded him. For years now, he thought he had shaken her ghost. Between the meeting earlier in the day and the revelation about his music, he realized how much of him belonged to her.
      He took out his phone and dialed her number. His finger hovered over the “Send” button. He could call Alisha and tell her he broke up with Amber; tell her he wanted nothing more than to be with her. But he pressed “End” and slipped the phone back in his pocket. It wouldn’t be fair to her. He couldn’t go crashing through her life like that. Plus, he probably wasn’t even on her radar. Their meeting had been nice, but Mack assumed she dismissed it as a run in with an old friend and nothing more. He had no doubt it was only him being plagued by the memory of what they had.
      Just then, his cell buzzed in his pocket. It was a 305 number that he didn’t recognize.
      “Hello?” he answered
      “Hey, it’s me.” Alisha came through.
      Mack felt his heart jump into his chest. Suddenly everything in him felt light and warm.
      “Hey,” he managed to say through the lump in his throat.
      “Sorry, I got your number from Trina. I’m amazed she still remembers me.”
      “Of course, she does.”
      “And that you still have the same assistant,” Alisha added.
      “She’s a trooper. Been with me from the start,” Mack said almost wistfully.
      There was a long, awkward pause.
      “How long are you in town for?” she started in.
      “Two more nights.”
      “Are you free tomorrow? Maybe for drinks?” Mack could hear the hopeful uncertainty in her voice. He felt it too.
      “Yea. That would be cool. I’ll see you then.”

Track 29: Shot for Me

“Sir?” the valet prompted again, pulling Mack out of his trance.
      He took a deep breath and stepped out of the car, the door having already been opened by a young man.
      “Thanks,” he muttered as the valet climbed in and drove his expensive coupe away. Mack straightened his sweater and brushed off his jeans before heading for the restaurant entrance. His heart was beating in his chest so loudly he could hardly focus on anything else. He wiped his palms off for the hundredth time, clammy with nervous sweat. It was a strange sensation. He felt like this was a first date rather than platonic drinks with an old flame.
      She was waiting for him at the bar when he walked in, even more beautiful than when he saw her yesterday. Her hair was pinned in a casual, yet sophisticated way, like she had thrown it up after a long day at the office. She used to wear it like that when they would study side by side. He used to tell her it was his favorite; the perfect mix of messy and pulled together. She wore a simple gray dress that looked anything but. No other woman could make business casual look like it belonged on a runway; at least not to Mack. As he floated through the bar to her, light reflected off the diamond ring she sported on her left hand, bringing his mood down a notch. He had to remind himself it wasn’t a date at all. She was engaged and it wasn’t to him.
      “Is this seat taken?” he asked coyly.
      “Hey you,” Alisha smiled brightly. Mack’s chest hitched. She was wearing the same grape colored lipstick she used to wear when they were together. It was his favorite. “I didn’t know if you would come.”
      Mack frantically checked his watch. “Am I late? I’m so sorry…”
      “No, no. It’s not that. You are on time. I just…I don’t know. I didn’t know if you would come or if you were being nice. I mean, a big star like you? I just thought…”
      “I’d always make time for you. You know that. Don’t be crazy.”
      He tried to smile casually but wasn’t certain he pulled it off. There was a strange easiness to their interactions. It was like a reflex to be kind to each other. They could pick up where they left off as if they never spent a day apart, as if they had never broken each other’s heart. It was almost odd how easily one smile could sweep years of ups and downs, pain and hurt away, like it hadn’t happened at all.
      Alisha smiled back, not sure how to respond or why she was so nervous. “I ordered you a drink. I hope that’s okay.”
      “Yeah, that’s great. Thanks.”

~~~

Mack laughed so hard he almost choked on his steak. “I cannot believe she said that. You’re playin’.”
      “I am not. Hand to God,” Alisha raised her hands.
      “I can’t believe you remember that.”
      “Of course, I do. That basement of your aunt’s is permanently burned in my memory. I think I spent more time there as a kid than I did at my house.”
      “As a kid,” he couldn’t help but smile as he repeated. Sometimes it shocked him when he thought about how long they had known each other and how much they had influenced each other over the years.
      “Well, we were kids. Sixteen-years old talking about getting married. That’s what kids do.” She shrugged.
      Mack tried to stop the words but they fell out of his mouth before he had a chance, “I wish you weren’t getting married to Sean.”
      Alisha stared at her plate and didn’t answer. The tension between them was suddenly as thick as molasses.
      “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. You’re happy. I support you. You deserve it.” He tried to backpedal. When she still didn’t say anything he had to ask the question that had been plaguing him. They had been engaged for two years now and still hadn’t set a date. Something didn’t feel right. “You are happy, right?”
      Alisha clumsily put her fork down, clanking it against the plate, and held her lip. Mack could see it in her eyes that she was trying desperately to keep herself together and not cry.
      “Hey, it’s ok. We’ll drop it. Tell me about your sister. She just had a baby, right?” Mack didn’t want to shatter their perfect evening. It was all going so well until he had opened his mouth.
      Finally, Alisha made eye contact. He could see the tears forming, but she refused to let them fall. “I miss you. I hate that I do. I hate it with every ounce inside me. I miss you so much. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
      “I didn’t mean to ruin dinner.”
      “Not dinner. This. My life, your life, the way it all turned out. This isn’t the way I thought it would be.”
      Mack was at a loss for what to say. He thought he had run through every possible scenario on the drive over. Never had he imagined this one. It never crossed his mind that she would feel the same.
      “Did you love me?” she blurted out.
      “Of course,” he answered, almost offended she would have to ask.
      “Did you ever cheat on me?”
      “Never. I never cheated on you when we were together. Why, is Sean cheating on you? I knew I didn’t like the scumbag. You just tell me where he lives, and I’ll send some of my boys over there to teach him a lesson. No one messes with you and gets away with it. And on you? Why they hell would anyone step out on you?” Mack could feel his temperature flaring.
      “No, he isn’t cheating on me. He never has. It’s not like that. Sean’s a great guy. He’s sweet and kind…” Alisha tried to calm him down. “He’s just… he’s not you, Mack. I don’t know how else to say it.”
      Mack knew the situation. He knew how it could play out. This would be his chance to say a couple right things. By the end of the night, Alisha would be back in his arms. He could easily do it, but his gut stopped him. If it happened this way, it wouldn’t last. Maybe she was ready to move on from Sean. Maybe she did want Mack back. Starting on a lie would not get them very far. Deep down, Mack knew if they were going to try again, it would require a clean slate. He wouldn’t tell her to leave Sean. It would be a decision she’d have to come to on her own.
      “He’s not me. You’re right. He’s better. You said it yourself; he gives you all of him. That’s what you wanted, right?” He held her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
      At that moment, he realized that they had been living more parallel lives than he had ever thought. Since their split, he had spent all his time trying to replace her with someone else, but no one ever fit. Alisha had been doing the same. It was an impossible task. As they sat at the dinner table at one of Atlanta’s finest restaurants, it was becoming apparent that they were both failing.

Track 30: Good Ones Go

“I don’t understand,” Big Man said blankly.
      “What’s there not to understand? I said I’m good,” Mack put up his hands defensively as he spun around in the chair at the studio mixing board.
      “You got robbed! She took your chain. She took your watch. She took a goddamn car and all you are going to do is sit here and say ‘I’m good’?”
      “If that is all it costs to get rid of that crazy girl, I feel like that’s the price I’m willing to pay.”
      “I’m not saying you have to press charges. Amber doesn’t deserve those things. At least get them back from her,” Big Man urged.
      “Manny. Look. It doesn’t bother me, so it shouldn’t bother you. I’m over it. Let’s move on.” Mack smiled at his mentor and friend. Manny just shook his head.
      “I don’t know what has gotten into you lately. You’re letting girls rob you. You’re all happy and shit, and you are passing up on models. I don’t get it.”
      “Hey, what can I say? I had a good trip back home. It was just what I needed to reset my mind and clear my head a little.”
      Big Man leaned back and smiled like he had figured something out.
      “Oh, I get it. I get what this whole thing is now. You ran into Alisha, didn’t you?”
      Mack knew what he was implying, “It wasn’t even like that.”
      “So you did see her. I knew there had to be a reason for the sunshine coming out of your ass. Go home, get a little old school booty, come back ready to work. I see your game.”
      “I told you it wasn’t like that. We just had dinner. That’s all. She has a man.”
      “That has never stopped you before.”
      “Well, this is different,” he said partly defensive, partly playful.
      “Alright, alright. Whatever you say. Seriously though, be careful. She really messed you up last time,” Big Man said out of honest concern for his friend.
      He had known Mack since his first single. He had been there for all the ups and downs with Alisha, and he didn’t know if Mack could survive another epic fall out. The boy’s biggest flaw was the one that made him such a successful R&B artist; he had a massive heart. He fell in love hard and fell out harder. All of the joys and pains flowed out in his music and his fans responded. His vulnerability and honesty were on constant display. Yet Big Man knew every time he got hurt he would sink a little lower. Each time it was harder to pull him up out of it. He feared the day Mack would spiral too far out of control to be saved. At some level, he knew there was only one trigger that could get him there, only one person who could push Mack that far over the edge: Alisha.
      “It wasn’t her fault. I made her wait. I pushed her away. She just…it’s complicated. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Let’s drop it.” Mack’s good mood instantly plummeted.
      He knew what he wouldn’t see but he checked his phone anyway; still nothing from Alisha. Not a phone call, text, or even an email. There had been no contact since dinner nearly two weeks ago. He wondered how long it would take for her to leave Sean and come to him. Then, for the first time, he let himself wonder if she would come for him at all. Maybe I had done too well of a job deflecting her and in reality, pushed her further into Sean’s arms. Would they finally set a date for their wedding now that I confirmed she should be with Sean? The thought sickened him. He wouldn’t let himself believe it. He couldn’t lose her. Not now that he had finally come to terms with reality it was her he had wanted all along.
      Pushing aside the idea, he made his way back into the booth and put the headphones on. “From the top,” he told Big Man through the microphone. If there was one place he knew he could find comfort and direction it was here, in front of the mic. It was the only place things always made sense. It was the only place where nothing ever changed.

Track 31: Come Thru

The suburbs of Atlanta were just waking up and showing signs of life as the powerful engine of the Bentley coupe quietly purred. Early in the morning, just after leaving the studio, before heading to his large house full of family and friends he was living with, was the only time he had to himself anymore. Mack drove down the roads he knew by heart, the ones permanently etched in his memory. When he lived at his aunt’s house he knew he could make the journey from there to this spot in less than 15 minutes. He’d cut through neighbor’s lawns, down the street, across the elementary school playground all to wind up at this apartment complex.
      Alisha would come down and let him in the rusty white metal door down to her basement apartment that she shared with three other girls. Her room was only half of one, separated from her neighbor by only a series of miss-matched shower curtains. There wasn’t much space, only enough for a mattress on the floor and a small dresser, yet it somehow felt like their own private hideaway.
      As he sat parked on the side of the street, he thought back to the first time he played his song for her. It was the moment that changed everything, and it happened in this very spot, albeit in a much less impressive car. That song launched his career sending him from a virtually unknown artist into the superstar stratosphere of musicians. He could remember the nerves that pulsed through his body, how she jokingly told him it was “just okay,” the joy in her face when she told him she loved it. That moment meant everything to him.
      Alisha didn’t live there anymore. It was just a large building full of people he didn’t know. He couldn’t help but daydream about her running out the door and hopping into the car beside him. It was a foolish thought seeing how she hadn’t contacted him since they went to dinner together. It had been months. In that time he had moved back to the city permanently. He bought a house large enough to move his sister and aunt into and was trying to slow his lifestyle down. He hadn’t even been to a strip club since his split with Amber. If Alisha was ever going to come back to him, Mack wanted to be sure she knew he was ready for her this time. He was ready to have it all.
      Another memory crossed his mind. He couldn’t help but smile. He remembered buying her a ring with the album advance from the song. There were so many times he had it tucked away in his pocket, but the right moment never presented it. For a moment, he found hope in that she had never found the right time to marry Sean either. They had called off their engagement more than a month ago.
      Mack caught himself wondering what would have happened if all those years ago if he had just done it and committed him to her. No groupies, no affairs with pop stars, no strippers, just her. What would have turned out different? Would I have still been as successful? Would we still be together? There was no use in such thinking, Mack knew, but he couldn’t help it.
      Before he drove off, he took one last look at the apartment where he used to spend so much time. Some things he knew he would never forget.

Track 32: Own It

“It’s so funny running into you here. I didn’t think this was your kind of place.” She eyed him sideways as she took a sip of her dark purple martini.
      “What do you mean by that?” he questioned in response.
      “I don’t know. It’s pretty low-key for someone like you, isn’t it?”
      Mack looked around the small wine bar. It was a far cry from the nightclubs he was known to frequent. This quaint spot had been recommended by a friend as a quiet place he could go, where he had the least likelihood of being recognized. Jazz filled the room, but not too loudly as to drown out the conversations being had. Groups of people, all lost in discussion, gathered around the long shared tables or in a cozy, dimly lit nooks. There was no dance floor or VIP section, only good friends enjoying each other’s company. Mack was enjoying a glass of Bordeaux when an old friend took the stool next to him.
      “I guess it is a bit of a change for me. Then again, change can be a good thing.”
      “Always the poet. I hear you are back for good, bought some big house in a gated community,” Alisha said.
      Mack nodded.
      “Well, it’s good to have you back.”
      A smile washed over his face, and he tapped his glass to hers. “Thanks. It’s great to hear you say that.”
      “What? You didn’t think I’d be happy you’d come back?” she asked, mildly surprised.
      Mack shrugged and gave her a look that said more than he could tell her.
      “I know I never called. I wanted to. I did. But what was I going to say? ‘Wait around until I figure myself out?’ I couldn’t do that to you. So, I just focused on me.”
      “Hey, trust me. I get it. You know what? Let’s just forgot about it,” he said trying to lift the mood. “I think we should try something new. We have an amazing bottle of wine and plenty more where it came from. So why don’t we just enjoy it? Forget about all the other stuff.”
      “I’d like that very much.” Relief washed over her. Neither one of them was in the mood to rehash their emotional past. It felt refreshing to approach the night in a completely new way. They wouldn’t have to relive their wrongs or explain their reasons. They could just be in each other’s company.

~~~

As the waiter poured the last drops of the rich crimson liquid from the bottle, filling Alisha’s glass, Mack gave in to the impulse he had been fighting all evening.
      “I can’t do this,” he blurted out.
      “Do what? I’m sorry. Did you want the last glass?” Alisha felt blindsided. The night had gone so well, she didn’t know where this proclamation was coming from.
      “No, it’s not that. I see where this is going. We said we wouldn’t talk about our past, or us, but that isn’t stopping it from repeating.”
      Mack could feel his chest tighten. He couldn’t believe he was ruining this moment, this night. He couldn’t bear the thought of the cycle restarting.
      “Alisha, I’ve known you for so long. I know what that look in your eyes means. The way you lick the wine of the rim of your glass and the way you grab my arm when you laugh, I’ve seen it before. I’m not letting it happen again. Not this way.”
      “Mack, I have no idea what you are talking about,” she combatted.
      “It can’t happen like this. I don’t want some drunken hook up at a bar. I don’t want a haphazard one-night stand that goes nowhere or ends in a fight. I can’t do that again. I can’t have you only to lose you again.”
      Alisha sat in silent shock and stared at her glass. He knew her better than she wished to admit. She had planned on going home with him if he asked although now she felt shame in admitting it. It just felt so good being back by his side, laughing and talking, like they had never been apart. She thought of all the things she should say. She should tell him how she had felt over the years, how he left a void in her life no one could ever fill and that she knew they would always end up together.
      All she could think to do was leave. It wasn’t the right move. It wasn’t even an easy move, but until she knew exactly what she wanted to say she couldn’t be around him.

Track 33: Find Your Love

“Alisha, delivery for you,” Michelle called over the intercom.
      When she rounded the corner from her office to the lobby, she spotted a deliveryman carrying a large bouquet of flowers. They were brilliantly colored with saturated pinks, speckled reds, and flashes of deep orange.
      “Wow, so gorgeous. You can put them over there on that front table that would be great.” She directed the man.
      The arrangement was too large and cumbersome for her to want to move it herself.
      “Do I need to sign?” she asked.
      “No ma’am. Not until I bring in the full order,” he answered.
      “Full order? This isn’t it?”
      “Nope, have a whole truck full. Been instructed to take them wherever you want them.”
      Alisha sat puzzled for a moment. Flower deliveries were the norm around here. Their boutique was one of the premier wedding planners in the city and companies often sent samples of their products here in hopes to get on their coveted referral list. No one ever sent more than one thing at a time. It was simply too costly. She grabbed the small envelope and pulled out a card.
      “For the pink butterfly necklace you used to wear,” was all it read.
      Alisha absentmindedly touched her throat. She remembered the exact piece of jewelry although she had long since lost it. Her grandmother had given it to her for her twelfth birthday. It was a simple gold chain with a butterfly pendant. It had a yellow stone for the body and four pink stones that made up the wings. She wore it every day until that summer she lost it at the pool.
      A second bouquet came through the door. They were deep purple with heavier, darker greenery. She quickly grabbed the card and tore it open.
      “For the grape lipstick you always had on.” The flowers kept pouring in through the door, each with a card.
      “For the floral couch you first kissed me on.”
      “For the color of your cheeks the first time I sang to you.”
      “For the wine coolers we had before we first said ‘I love you.’”
      “For the sunset in Vegas when you came out to see me.”
      “For every morning I missed waking up with you.”
      “For all of my love.”
      “For all of my heart.”
      By the time she read the last card, Alisha was so overwhelmed that the tears had started falling. She didn’t bother brushing them from her chin as they fell to the floor. She just ignored them and reread the cards again and again. None of them were signed with a name, but they didn’t have to be. They were signed with their past.
      For a moment, she froze in place. Everyone had come out of their offices to see what the commotion was about. Questions were flying around. Alisha couldn’t hear a word of them. She searched her brain for what to do next. A song caught her attention, just outside the shop. Some car must have been playing it. She could hardly make it out, but she knew without a doubt what it was. It was his first single. Instantly, she knew what to do.
      She rushed out of the boutique, dropping the small pieces of paper on the ground behind her. Mack was waiting out front, sitting on the hood of his Bentley coupe, the song blasting through his speakers. He held one last bouquet, daisies, her all-time favorite flower. He handed them to her without a word. She read the last card and clutched it to her chest.
      “For all of me,” it read.
      “Alisha, I have something to tell you. I didn’t come back here to be closer to the record label. I didn’t buy that house so everyone could live in it. I came back for you. I bought it to be near you. I’ve spent too many years making the wrong decisions, hoping for things to change and the right moment to come along. But I’m done waiting, I’m willing to take this chance and give it everything I have. This is it. I’m in it if you are.”
      Mack looked her in the eye and spoke with conviction. This is what he wanted, what he always wanted.
      “I really hate it when you make me cry,” she finally said with a laugh before making her way into his arms.
      As he held her close to his chest, he risked asking, “Does that mean…?”
      “I’m in,” she added before he could finish.

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