“You’re…” The bouncer trailed off, checking his watch. “Twenty minutes early. You’re goin’ to ‘ave to wait here.”
Erica nodded her head a fraction of a centimetre. She had been worried that being late twice in the same day would be something like tempting fate; that karma would notice her lateness, deem it unacceptable; knock on her doorstep and demand that she pay her dues.
Death. It was difficult to wrap her head around. The day had left her feeling as if the constraints and strains of knowledge and adulthood had tied her to the table just as all the comforting boundaries of childishness slipped away.
It was an odd feeling, and she couldn’t put it exactly into words. It confused her.
“You cold?” said the bouncer.
“A little,” replied Erica, but she was in fact very cold indeed. Her dress was low-cut, in an icy shade of white-blue, and it had been carefully selected in order to emphasise her figure rather than for practicality.
There was just the two of them there: the awkward bouncer and the preoccupied party planner. She was the first and only member of the queue – Alexander Rhys’s concert had not even finished yet. Waves of static electro-pop drifted over to them from the stadium fifteen minutes away, accompanied by fans screeching declarations of undying love for a singer that hadn’t even looked at them once.
Fairly obviously, Erica hadn’t gone – not only did she not have a pass, but she loathed the music. It wasn’t that she was some sort of music snob, or a fan of ‘real music’ rather than ‘whatever shit the kids are down with these days’. She just didn’t like music, in general. It gnawed at her skull with treble-clef teeth, which really wasn’t very considerate. Not to mention that most singers – pop stars, rock stars, opera stars, whatever – weren’t so much fantastic singers as fantastic at auto-tuning their records and warbling their way through live concerts. Even the good singers weren’t really that good.
The music hurt her head, but half the time the singers were so beautiful it made up for it.
“D’ya like the music, then?” said the bouncer, struggling for something to say.
Erica sniffed. “It’s a bit loud. We can hear it all the way over here.”
“Yeah, but it’s Alexander Rhys, man - the man’s a bloody genius! I wish I was over there, if I’m honest. Listenin’ to the concert, ‘stead of over here like… No offence, like, it’s not that I mind bein’ over here with you…” The bouncer looked appraisingly down at her breasts, and Erica wished she could hide herself in the longest fur coat her wardrobe had to offer. His eyes moved up to her lips, resting there for a moment too long. “You don’t mind me, do you, sweetheart?”
“What’s your name?” Erica blurted, her words garbled and rushed, like she’d choked on them before spitting them out. Anything she could think of to say to get the bouncer’s attention away from her. He was creepy. Weird. She was so out of his league it was ridiculous.
“I’m Mike," said the bouncer. "And who’re you, gorgeous?”
“Delia. My name’s Delia,” Erica said slowly, testing out the name. She didn’t know why she lied, and she wished she could snatch her words back immediately after. Maybe she’d just needed to escape from her own life, her own awful day but… She was Erica Woods. She had never had any reason to lie about who she was, to want to escape from her own life.
Now she wanted to escape, she’d lied her way out, like freedom from fear was just that easy.
The bouncer didn’t say anything guys are meant to say to pretty girls with pretty names like Delia – he didn’t tell her that her eyes shone like diamonds, and he didn’t compare her voice to the nightingale’s melancholy tune. Still, Erica let him kiss her, standing silhouetted in the moonlight outside the most fashionable of London’s most fashionable clubs.
It was an escape. A doorway to another world where whole rooms full of party planners didn’t get murdered.
When she pulled away, she could still taste his tongue on her lips and she loathed herself for giving him kisses like kisses were currency and she wanted to spend all she had. She didn’t know the bouncer. She didn’t like him. She realised, with a jolt of angry annoyance, that she’d forgotten the poor man’s name.
He’d never even known hers. He thought she was Delia.
People had begun to form a queue behind her now, and a few of them clapped mockingly as she stepped backwards, away from Mike. They looked eerie, under the moonlight and the streetlamps –more pale, white ghosts than people. She felt hollow, split open, and she wondered if there was anyone out there in the world who felt the same.
Ten minutes later the doors opened, and Erica was inside the club. It had been booked especially for the concert after-party – specifically VIP pass holders only, so no usual drunkards could wheedle their way in, hoping to catch a glimpse of a couple of celebrities drinking too much champagne.
A crowd flooded in, surrounding her and drowning her in the bright lights and paradisiacal noise pollution they brought with them. She stood motionless in the middle of the dance floor and she tried to forget what she’d seen in the hotel.
After what seemed like five minutes and probably was (Erica could guess amounts of time pretty accurately), Lillian Jones bounced across to her, her boyfriend (Cain? Humphrey?) in tow. Erica plastered on a smile, hiding behind the mask of happiness like a child hides under his blanket at night.
Except that Erica wasn’t a child anymore.
“Oh my God!” yelled Lillian, over the stridency. “Oh my God - at the concert, right, Alexander totally winked at me! And he blew me a kiss! I mean, me! He blew me an actual kiss with his actual hands and –“ She imitated herself swooning, falling back into her boyfriend’s arms with her hand raised comically to her forehead. “Can you believe it? Have you met him yet?”
Erica shook her head. “I haven’t met him yet- but he sounds…great…though.” Yeah, he blew you and all the other 60,000 fangirls behind you a kiss. Big deal. Some people have more important problems than a celebrity who can’t even sing in tune. Normally she'd be screaming alongside Lillian - Alexander really was an unusually good looking celebrity - but today she couldn't think about anything but the dead. Ugh. She was starting to get really morbid. She wished the deceased would get out of the back of her mind and into their graves.
“Oh my God, he’s more than just great, he’s the most beautiful human specimen alive, like, ever!” She broke off, taking a clumsy sip of her beer. Erica watched it froth, spilling down the side of the glass, with a gawking fascination. She felt kind of sorry for Lillian’s boyfriend, standing by his girlfriend’s side like a bulky accessory that wouldn’t ever be particularly needed. She gave him a sympathetic glance and he smiled, his teeth pearly white against the garish lighting of the club.
Erica laughed restlessly. “I’m going to go and get a drink, okay? My day’s been total hell.” Not exaggerating.
Lillian nodded in earnest. “Yeah, you didn’t exactly sound too good on the phone, earlier. I was sort of worried about –“ She broke off, tugging on her boyfriend’s arm excitedly. “Holy crap, is that Alexander Rhys? Oh my God, I have to go and talk to him!” She began to manoeuvre herself through the crowd of dancing twenty-something year olds, pulling her boyfriend after her. Twisting around, just before she disappeared from sight completely, Lillian yelled, “Go drink the pain away!” and Erica smiled.
Maybe that was all it took to make pain disappear. A couple of drinks too many and much too much bad music. It was plausible.
Erica made her way to the bar, pulling up a stool. It more than likely made a horrible, screeching sound that many stools make when they are scraped across the floor, but the music was so loud that she didn’t hear it if it did.
The barman was serving someone else, and so she waited in silence until a hand tapped her on the shoulder. Erica whirled around, her eyes wide.
The boy behind her laughed. It was a nice laugh – it seemed younger than the rest of him, somehow. His eyes were serious and grey and looked about forty; his face seemed only about twenty-five. His laugh, though, was like a school boy’s and it made his entire face open up and spill out happiness like happiness was a chemical his heart produced like a factory.
“Sorry, did I scare you?” said the boy, and it was obvious he wasn’t sorry in the slightest.
The boy was Alexander Rhys.
Meeting a celebrity (even if you don’t particularly like the celebrity in question) is almost always, for the majority of the population, an occasion that leaves them slightly dazed and very star-struck. Erica Woods was no exception.
“You-you’re Alexander Rhys,” she said, stating the obvious. Then she cursed herself for stating the obvious, and wondered how many people stated the obvious to him every single day.
“I’m Alexander Rhys,” said Alexander Rhys, making Erica feel slightly less awkward by stating the obvious himself. “You looked lonely. Sitting all on your own at a party. I thought I’d come join you .”
Erica licked her lips, her throat dry. “I-uh- I thought you were over there.” She pointed vaguely in the direction that Lillian had gone off to, smiling weakly.
Alexander raised an eyebrow. “What, were you avoiding me or something?” He laughed, pointedly, so she’d know that he didn’t mean it. No one ever avoided him, not really. People didn’t tend to avoid celebrities, especially not the good looking kind.
Erica smiled, ignoring the question because yes, she’d been avoiding everybody. She’d been trying to well in her own despair at accidentally walking in on a room full of dead people, but Alexander had interrupted and you couldn’t exactly tell a famous person to piss off. “I completely…erm…loved your new album. By the way,” she said bashfully, even though she’d hated it. She couldn't help herself. That was what you said to celebrities - you praised them, you worshipped them. They made you turn to mush - to something not quite liquid, not quite solid - just by presenting themselves and their aura of fame and recognition to your judgement.
To her surprise, Alexander laughed again. Erica toyed with the idea that he was possibly a tiny bit drunk.
“My album? That piece of crap?” said Alexander, sounding far too gleeful for someone who had just insulted his own hard work. “No, be serious, please. What did you actually think of it?”
Erica grinned, slightly shocked. Though she hadn’t really expected him to be full of himself – from the few interviews she’d seen, he’d seemed pretty down to earth – she also hadn’t anticipated that Alexander would start ridiculing his own music, dreadful as it was.
“Don’t be offended, but I actually kind of hate it,” she said, praying he hadn’t been fishing for compliments and actually wanted to know what she really thought. Hopefully he was too drunk to care, anyway. “Erm…Do you really not like your own album?”
“Not like it? It’s a piece of filth, between you and me. But don’t tell the press I said that.” He looked at her in mock suspicion. “You’re not a journalist or something, are you?”
“Come off it. You’re a glorified party planner?” said Alexander, raking a hand through his dark-blonde hair.
“Suit yourself.” He grinned. “Aren’t you wondering what I do for a living?”
Erica looked him up and down, indicating just how ridiculous she thought his question was. “Everyone here knows what you do for a living. It’s not like you’re some anonymous stranger at the back of the room - you’re Alexander Rhys. You’re world famous!”
“And you’re a party planner,” he said through his smile. “But, you know…” He began to whisper, gesturing at her to lean in closer so she could hear him. If Erica moved forward just a tiny bit more, their lips would be touching and then they’d be kissing and –
“I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to share it,” said Alexander, his voice mocking and brilliant and vivid against the bland tones of drunk yelping and whooping. His voice dropped even lower, and Erica felt her heart swoop high. “Being a pop star’s just my day job. Really, I’m a criminal mastermind, plotting to become an evil overlord.” He smiled widely, letting her know that he was joking, but Erica couldn’t stop her mind from jumping back to the Elegancia Hotel. The seven wooden chairs complete with seven dead bodies. A collectible set – buy one get one free.
Erica giggled forcing herself to forget it. To joke with Alexander. To have a good time. Hell, if she'd ever been in need of a good time it was now. “What if you’re already an evil overlord?” she said, faking horror.
Alexander chuckled, teasing, the sound mixing and resonating against his breath. It smelled like fizzy Haribos, but sweeter, better. “Do I look like an evil overlord to you?”
“No,” whispered Erica, and then he leant forward just that little bit more, and his lips brushed hers, and they kissed.
The moment lasted all of fourteen seconds, and then Alexander pulled away. “It was nice meeting you. I have to get back to the party.”
Erica looked down, trying to compress all her emotions into a single sentence. That was so much better than kissing the bouncer. When she tilted her head up - to stare into his eyes and promise him that they would meet again no matter what, whatever the odds, all that TV romance story stuff - Alexander Rhys was gone, swallowed up by the ever-hungry crowd of party-goers.
“’Scuse me,” said a voice, and Erica turned around to find the bartender staring at her, her mouth a respectful ‘o’ of amazed bewilderment. “Did- did Alexander Rhys just kiss you? On the mouth?”
“I think so,” said Erica, still revelling in the glorious shock of it. “Yeah. Yeah, he did.” She beamed, resting her hand on her hands in a tired sort of happiness. “Can I have a Soco and lime? Um, please,” she ordered, and somehow, her day didn’t seem quite so terrible anymore.
As she sat in the taxi on her way home from the party, Erica’s phone screen flared like she’d set the thing on fire. Lillian had sent her a text (probably a drunk one, if the amount of spelling mistakes were proof of anything).
‘hEy gurrl! did you meet alexander RhYSs in the end?!!!! <£ <3’
Erica stared at the text, analysing each error like she was in English class – Lillian texted like she was twelve years old. Then she began to type out a reply, her nails clicking against the touchscreen keyboard. Hopefully, she wouldn’t end up scratching her screen: her phone had already been dropped out of a window twice, and she didn’t want to have to pay to repair any more damage done to it.
‘No, I didn’t meet him...Party was awesome though!!’ she replied, hitting send with a deliberate nonchalance.
Some secrets were best unshared.