FIVE YEARS AGO
I’ve never loved flying. It’s not only the lurching-in-a-claustrophobic-metal-tube-thousands-of-feet-above-the-earth part that bothers me, though that’s … not great. I genuinely prefer watching the landscape zip past on land. I was meant for high-speed trains. Or low-speed trains. Any train, honestly. In fact, I’d take a wagon train rattling along the Oregon Trail, ditching dressers and flatware across the grassy miles, over flying.
Most especially, I’d choose train travel over this shitstorm of a bushwhacker held together with honest-to-God duct tape and flown by “Hal No Last Name” who reminds me of that crop-duster pilot from Independence Day.
And listen. I’ve traveled the world, and getting around is always iffy when you’re working in remote areas, which is ninety-five percent of the job when you film documentaries for National Geographic. This feels infinitely worse. In part, because the three other passengers, members of a family from Anchorage, backed out at the last minute, leaving me the sole human cargo. Something Hal No-last-name barely seemed to register.
It’s fine. It’s for Shelby. No one dies in a plane crash on a flight taken as a grand gesture of a decade-long friendship.
I check my phone, which I refuse to turn off. It feels unwise to shut down the GPS just in case … well, you know. Surely, there’s GPS on the plane. And a black box.
“There’s a black box on this thing, right?” If I die out here, I’d like my mom to know why. No doubt, my dad would just grumble at the news and assume it was my fault for daring to leave ground in an “overblown, dramatic, Hollywood style—”
I shake off the morose thought.
Shelby. This is for Shelby.
Hal tugs one side of his headset away from his ear. “What was that?”
I decide to let it drop. Just as well I don’t know about the black box.
I have two messages. The first is from my dad, asking if I’m coming home for Christmas.
It’s from two days ago and I haven’t answered yet. I probably could go home. I have a year under my belt at National Geographic and have never taken time off. I’ve earned the break. And every year I say I’ll come home. But something inevitably comes up, and anyway, my older brother, Derek, is there. He and his college sweetheart, Michelle, were married two summers ago and have already started giving my parents grandkids. I doubt I’m missed. Me and my no girlfriend, no kids, not even a dog.
Add that to how the last time I was in Michigan, I was subjected to a thousand and one litanies of “the golden-boy prodigal returns,” as if I’d spent my growing-up years in a cult rather than on a kid’s show (not that my dad could discern a difference).
The second message is from Shelby Springfield, and it’s why I’m making offerings to the goddess of fucking airborne disasters to save me.
SHELBY: CAM, THIS IS SHELB. I NEED U. PLEASE COEM. LYLE LIED TO MEE. PLS COME NOW.
I’m only guessing, but I think she might have been intoxicated when she sent it.
It’s been years, but of course I still have her number in my phone. And apparently, she has mine in hers. When I called her, some stranger picked up. After confirming that I was, in fact, Cameron Riggs—“Yes, that Cameron Riggs. Yes, thank you for saying so. I’m glad you liked the show.”—the answerer put Shelby on and all I could make out was that Lyle had dumped her and she was a mess. I got her address and hopped on the first flight out of Alaska.
* * *
Six hours and a mercifully uneventful flight from Anchorage later, I touch land in California. It’s been five years since I left the West Coast behind for college, but it feels like five minutes. I don’t bother checking into a hotel yet, catching an Uber to the address Shelby gave me instead. The sun is already setting, and I grimace at the grittiness travel and Alaska have left on my skin. My fingers twitch, nervously scrubbing over my pathetic three-day beard before uselessly smoothing at the scruff like I can make it somehow look less pitiful.
I didn’t have facial hair when I was eighteen. I barely have it now.
Maybe I should have showered and cleaned up.
Too late. The door swings open before I can even reach for the bell and arms fling around my neck, smothering me in bleach blond hair and tequila fumes.
Shelby chokes the breath out of me, but I relish the burn and immediately tuck her into my embrace. Her small shoulders tremble and I realize she’s silently sobbing.
It feels unreal. Like the most familiar thing in the world, despite how long it’s been. I kiss the top of her head before resting my cheek there, holding on. We’re interrupted by three women in various stages of dress and readiness, sneaking out behind Shelby. Shelby releases me with a hiccup and waves them off. “Thank you so much, guys. See you later.”
A too-long beat and one of them slurs, “Love you, babe!” I decide to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’ve been waiting for me to show up, rather than ditching Shelby all at once.
I nudge my friend gently backward through her doorway. She takes the hint and pulls me the rest of the way before leaning against the door to shut it. I’m surprised to see her building doesn’t have a doorman or a gate or anything, but it’s clear this residence is new. Like, brand new.
“He dumped me, and the fucker kept our condo,” she explains. She leads me to the kitchen area. Her feet are bare, and I realize with a start she’s not wearing any pants, only an oversized tee. My old Detroit Tigers tee, in fact. Like seven years old, old. Where did she even get that? Never mind. I know where she got it.
Why wear pants when you look like Shelby? Tanned, toned legs for days. Pants would be a shame.
“This place belongs to my assistant. She moved in with her boyfriend.”
“It’s nice,” I say, not able to look anywhere but at her. She looks awesome.
Well, no. She looks like shit. Her navy-blue eyes are ringed in mascara and sleeplessness. Under her spray tan, her skin looks jaundiced. At twenty-two, she’s got more sharp edges and hollow angles than I remember her having at seventeen. Five years have passed since I left, ending my contract with the hit children’s show The World According to Jackson. Once upon a time, Shelby and I were costars, along with Shelby’s douche-canoe ex, Lyle Jessup.
I shake myself. Regardless of history, she looks like a goddamn daydream, edges and all. My daydream, to be exact.
But that’s not why I’m here. Obviously. She’s a friend and she needs me. Friends always jump on deathtraps and fly thousands of miles when other friends drunkenly text them after five years of radio silence.
“It’s not great digs. You don’t have to lie. I just needed a place to hide, and paparazzi are camped out at every hotel from here to Tahoe.”
I crack a small smile. “It’s better than living in a tent with no plumbing and five grown men only washing with melted snow every other day.”
She hands me a tumbler filled with straight Jose Cuervo. I take a sip to be polite, cough, and place it on the counter behind me. She drinks and I watch her throat work. She seems to notice me watching and smirks, hugging the glass to her chest. She also appears to have left her bra with her pants in the Place Where Pretty Girls Leave Optional Clothing.
“That’s with National Geographic?” she asks.
I nod, impressed. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
She gestures around and then seems to remember where she is. “Fuck. Well, at my old place, I’ve got a collection of your articles. I know you do docs mostly, but I like the pictures best. I’ve gotten them framed and everything. I have a whole hall dedicated to your work.” Her smile wanes. “Back at home.” She shakes her head. “I mean … back at Ly—his place.”
She motions at a small beige couch in the center of a stark white living room. I follow her to sit, perching awkwardly on the edge of a cushion while she folds her legs underneath her, taking an entire corner. I wipe my hands down my thighs, feeling fifteen and out of my league after only minutes in her presence. “You know, I could get you real copies of those, if you want. I’ll replace the others.”
“I would love that,” she says. Her eyes seem to lose focus and I notice her glass is half empty. Yikes. I’d bet my new Nikon Shelby is seventy percent tequila right now.
“Tell me. What happened, Shelb? I came as soon as you texted.”
She tries to straighten, but it comes out lopsided and her shirt, my shirt, slips farther up her thighs, exposing the edges of her …
Focus, Riggs. Why am I here?
“Why am I here?” I try again. “Not that I mind. But it’s been five years, Shelb. I was in Alaska.” I’m pleased to report, I manage to sound irritated rather than flustered, and she might be drunk enough to buy it.
Instantly, her big blue eyes pool with tears and she gives a wet sniff. The sound strikes me right in the solar plexus—where I collect all my inconvenient feelings: Shelby, my dad, my brother, that one kid’s dog I accidentally struck with my SUV in Sri Lanka …
“I’m a mess, Cam.”
I grimace. “I’m sure things with Lyle—”
She shakes her head. The Cuervo makes it look almost like a wave. “No. Nope. That’s done. He’s sleeping with Marcella. I introduced them and now he’s in love with her.”
“And he wrote a song about it. A duet. They wrote a fucking duet about fucking behind my back. Except it’s all sappy and makes them out to be these, like, star-crossed lovers, and I’m this horrible self-centered brat keeping them apart.”
I sink back in the couch. “Wow.”
“I don’t want him back,” she says.
“Okay?” It comes out like a question because I’m honestly not convinced. Shelby and Lyle have been together about as long as we’ve been apart. Five years now. For a while, they were the literal king and queen of the pop charts. Child stars who found love. They were everywhere. Everywhere. And it sure as shit looked real to me.
She narrows her eyes, looking mostly sober. “I don’t. He’s not a good guy. Everyone thinks he is. But he’s not.” I know this, of course. Out of everyone, I know exactly what kind of person Lyle Jessup is. She looks at me, closing one eye, probably to keep from seeing double. “But you are, Cam. Cameron Riggs. You’re the bessst guy.”
My cheeks feel warm and I clear my throat, uncomfortable with where this is headed. I stand up to retrieve the drink I left on the counter. I’m gonna need the tequila if this turns into another rousing round of Cameron Riggs versus Lyle Jessup. Even after half a decade, I don’t feel like doing the calculations. “You barely know me anymore.”
She shrugs, one shoulder slipping to escape the tee. Fuck. “You haven’t changed,” she insists. “No one could create such beautiful things and be a bad person. The guy that took the pictures of those children playing soccer in the desert is the same guy who taught me how to kiss in the rain.”
I swear, Shelby Springfield is the only person I’ve ever known who can turn drunken ramblings into something poetic. I swallow a large gulp and feel it burn all the way down. Then I take another and try to pivot the conversation somewhere safe, in the opposite direction of rain-slick tongues, as I return to my seat.
“I’m sorry about Lyle and Marcella. You deserve better. What about your work? What are you doing now?” There. That was tactful.
She ignores my questions, instead lurching toward me and tucking herself against my chest, straight-up nuzzling me. “You smell like pine trees.”
I chuckle nervously. “Better than sweat, I guess. I haven’t showered yet.”
“Maybe a little of that, too. You smell like a man. I don’t mind.” She curls even closer, her nose tracing my neck. I swallow. It’s been a while since I spent time with any woman, let alone Shelby, but I am starting to suspect she didn’t call me to help her pack.
“Shelb, maybe we should get some food. Are you hungry? I can order you something. Or you can shower and get dressed and I can take you out.”
“I’ve missed you.” Her voice is barely above a purr.
A purr. Jesus.
I sigh, the words pulled from somewhere in the vicinity of my heart. “Me, too.”
“Why’d you leave?”
I squirm. “College. You know that.”
She narrows her eyes and they accidentally cross and it looks stupid-cute. “Yeah. I’m jealous. Ada Mae insisted my career wouldn’t wait for me to get an education.”
Let the record show, I’ve never liked Shelby’s mom. She was a nightmare on set. Total stage mom living vicariously through her kid. I’m pretty sure I read something about Shelby firing her a few years ago, but apparently it wasn’t soon enough.
“How’s that working out for you?” There’s an acidic tone to my voice, but it’s not toward the woman in front of me. She doesn’t seem to notice, anyway.
“I’m burned-out. I feel a hundred years old and I’m tired of doing this.”
“I can’t.” She spreads her arms wide and flashes a self-deprecating half grin. “This is all I’m good at, Cam. I can’t waste everything I’ve worked for.”
Oh, man. She needs out, but I’m not one to talk. I’ve been running from real life since graduation. Going home means being an adult, and child stars have this weird quirk where they’re never really kids to begin with, but they never grow up either. Or, at least, that’s what my therapist told me. The one time I went to see a therapist.
But I’m concerned that Shelby won’t get the chance to grow up if she continues like this. This situation has “tabloid tragedy” written all over it, and it’s ripping my fucking heart out. Various bottles litter her counters, of both the liquor and prescription variety. Who knows what else she’s been mixing in? And those women—her supposed friends—left her in the hands of a total stranger.
I’m going to murder Lyle. How could he do this? He’s always been a selfish asshole, but he’s known Shelby since she was ten years old.
Though, so have I. I draw her head to my chest with a sigh and hold her, thinking. I have two days before I need to be back in Alaska for shooting. Two days to figure this out.
Copyright © 2022 by Erin Hahn