Jill smiled at Kevin, looking bright, cheerful, and happy, as he came through the side door of the old Monotoning Hotel and plopped his tired body down hard on the vacant stool next to her's. He ordered a glass of Coke from the burly, young man behind the counter.
"Soda!" Jill blanched and made a face. "I thought you were into harder stuff than that."
He turned on his stool and glared at her with his hard, dark eyes. "Hey, the only reason I bought that bottle of wine, the other night, was because you said you liked it. Personally, I thought it sucked swamp water."
"Why are you so mad?" she genuinely wanted to know.
"Oh, gee. I don't know," he snapped at her. "Maybe it's because I thought we were going to go for our blood tests this morning. But when I knocked on your door, you weren't home. Your mom had no idea where you were."
She laughed her signature laugh, that one high, lilting note, which quickly faded away to nothing. "Oh, Kevin," she said in a soft, soothing, consoling voice. "It's like you said last night. We haven't been together long enough yet to know for sure if we really love each other or not. Hey, I'm only nineteen. Right now, all I want to do is enjoy myself, have a little fun."
"I wish you would've told me that a whole lot sooner," he growled at her in the same sour voice as before. He cast a quick glance around the noisy, smoke-filled room; he shook his head. "What I'd really like to know is what you're doing in a sleazy dump like this."
"I believe I can answer that question for you," a voice spoke up behind him. "My name's Bart Ingram."
Startled, he looked over his shoulder and saw a tall, older, dapper-looking gentleman, with wavy, silver-grey hair, dressed in a light beige suit and tie.
"Good evening," he continued in his smooth, suave voice. He offered Kevin a pale, well-manicured hand. Kevin's right nostril flared slightly, as he stared at the hand, then reluctantly returned his gaze to Bart's steely, grey eyes. After another tenuous second, the man unobtrusively let his hand come to rest on the top of Jill's high-backed, leather-padded stool. The bony ridge of his knuckles and long, tapering fingers rested less than an inch away from her narrow back.
"I'm the owner of this 'sleazy dump,' as you so eloquently put it," he told Kevin. "Along with my good friend and business associate, Goody Carlysle."
Seeing the cool, impassive expression on Kevin's face, unperturbed, he continued. "Earlier this evening, I was sitting right where you're sitting now, having a pleasant chat with your, ah, girlfriend, when she rather modestly informed me that she was something of a singer.
"I challenged her to get up on our stage---" with an almost imperceptible tilt of his leonine head, he indicated the tiny, raised plaform, with a microphone on it, tucked in a corner at the other end of the room "---and sing a song for the crowd. It took a little bit of gentle prodding on my part, but she finally agreed. She started out slow at first; she was a little awkward and unsure of herself. But by the time she finished the first verse of her song and started the second, she really started getting into it. I tell you, this crowd, these people right here, were completely mesmerized by this young woman."
Out of the corner of his eye, Kevin saw Jill smile and blush and duck her eyes.
"At the end of her first song, everyone jumped to their feet," Bart said. "Myself included. They clapped their hands and stomped their feet, cheered, and whistled through their teeth, and demanded that she sing another song. And another song after that. And still another song after that. It was over an hour before she finally managed to get off the stage.
"Your girlfriend is a very beautiful and very talented young lady," Bart said to Kevin, boldly placing his paley luminous hand on Jill's sloping shoulder. "I hope you're mature enough to realize it."
To Jill, he said, "I hope you'll seriously consider my proposal."
"I will," she earnestly assured him a low voice, almost as if she didn't want Kevin to hear her.
Quick and silent as a cat, Bart slipped behind the bar. With one stiff finger, he tapped a key on the cash register. The cash drawer slid outward, brushing the front of his jacket. He pulled an old cigar box from beneath the bar and scooped the coins and bills from their slots and dumped them inside the box. He shut the register drawer with the palm of his right hand. Tucking the cigar box under his arm, he stalked down the long, dark hallway at the far end of the room.
Kevin shook his head. This really is a class operation, he thought.
"So what's this deal Bart was talking about?" he asked Jill.
"Oh, that," she replied, with a little shrug of her shoulder. "He wants me to sing at his other place, the Blue Peacock Bar & Grill. It's up on the mountain---"
"I know where it is. I've been there a couple of times. I really don't think you want to work for Bart Ingram and his buddy Goody Carlisle. Those two have their grimy claws in just about every piece of the pie you can think of. Drugs, gambling, prostitution, porn. Besides, I thought you were so hot to get to Hollywood."
"I am. But like I told you last night, I still need at least another thousand dollars to get there. If I take this job, I can make that much in no time. Then I can hop on the first bus out of Ellentown for Hollywood."
"So I guess that means you're going to take this job."
"I start on Thursday night. You want to come and hear me sing? I'll make sure you get a front row seat."
"No thanks. I think I'll pass."
"Hadn't you better go home to bed? You have to get up for school in a few hours."
"Yeah, I guesss you're right," he said, glancing with regret at his untouched glass of Coke on the bar. "Remember that story you told me, the other night, about what your grandpa told you when you were a little girl? Well, he was right. You are someone special. You're going to be somebody someday. You've got stars in your eyes. There's only one thing wrong with that. Those stars in your eyes are always going to blind you to the people who really love you and care about you...Well, so long, babe. And thanks. It's been fun."
Kevin walked out the side door. He stood on the hard cement stoop and stared up at the dark sky. The stars were faint and far away, and they made him feel small and insignificant and worthless. He thought to himself that, in the last fourty-eight hours, he'd given himself to someone he'd thought loved and wanted and needed him as much as he'd loved and wanted and needed her. And all he had to show for it was a big, black hole where his heart should be.
A lone tear slid slowly down his left cheek. Without love, he thought, there is nothing. Only darkness, only death.