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Wicked White (Wicked White Series Book 1) by Michelle A. Valentine (2)

ACE

I stare at Mom lying in the hospital bed before me. Her hair has grayed even more than the last time I saw her, and the wrinkles around her eyes have deepened. I pull the chair up next to her and take a seat before holding her hand, careful not to disturb any of the tubes hooked to the IV in her vein. Her hand is cold, much colder than what it should feel like. There’s a white plastic tube coming from her mouth, and it’s hooked to a machine that forces air into her lungs.

Fuck. She doesn’t look good. The fact that she’s not woken up since they found her unresponsive yesterday scares the shit out of me. I don’t really remember my real mother. The state of Ohio took me away from her when I was six, and I bounced from home to home until I was twelve. No one wanted to adopt a little kid riddled with the damage a neglectful mother inflicted. It wasn’t until the state placed me with Sarah that I found a permanent home. She was the only person who took the time to get to know me. The only one who helped me overcome the coldness of the world by showing me that love did exist, because she loved me. She was the only one.

I wish I could help her—that I could take her pain away somehow like she did mine.

I thread my fingers into my hair and shove it out of my face. I’ve never liked my hair long, but Jane Ann insists that the long, golden-brown locks, along with my beard, are my signature look. She told me to never change it.

A graying-haired nurse with a few fine lines around her eyes walks into the room and checks all the machines, and then she turns her gaze on me. She frowns, and the sadness touches her eyes, making her pity for me evident.

“Are you her son?” she asks.

I nod, wearing that label proudly. “Yeah, I am.”

“They told me that you were notified. Did you contact the rest of her family?”

I shake my head. “She doesn’t have any. She was an orphan, so it’s just me.”

She grabs the other chair in the room and pulls it up next to mine. “I’m Joelle. This is the second twelve-hour shift I’ve spent taking care of your mother. She’s a fighter, but I’m afraid things don’t look so good. From the report I received, she was able to phone nine-one-one but wasn’t able to talk to the operator who answered. They’re figuring from that time until the paramedics arrived it was close to twelve minutes. We think she lost consciousness right after she made that call, which is a long time for the brain to be without oxygen, so the odds are really stacked against her.”

I take a deep breath and blow it out slowly through pursed lips. “What happened to her, exactly?”

“Her dialysis port ruptured open and she bled out. She attempted to stop the bleeding, but it was so much so fast there was no way she could stop it on her own. We gave her a transfusion after she was revived in the emergency room.”

Tears burn my eyes before they leak out and spill down my cheeks. Joelle rubs my back in that caring way a mother sometimes does to comfort a child.

I wish I could’ve been there. I’ll never be able to tell her how much I loved her and how much she meant to me, and that I would’ve never amounted to anything if she hadn’t encouraged my love of music.

“It’s hard, I know,” Joelle says. “Tell her how you feel. Tell her that you love her. They say that the hearing is the last thing to go. I think she’s been holding on to see you before she goes. Say your good-byes and let her know that it’s okay if she wants to go because you know how much pain she’s in.”

Joelle pats my shoulder and stands, leaving me alone with Sarah again in the room. The constant beeps and rhythmic sounds of the ventilator are the only sounds in the room. I stare at Mom, lying there so frail, and begin crying even harder.

How am I supposed to say good-bye to someone who means so much to me? I took it for granted that I could come back here and see her whenever I wanted, and now it’s too late. This is it, and it’s not fair.

I adjust in my seat and grip her hand in both of mine. “Mom . . .” My voice cracks as I attempt to speak. “I’m sorry it took me so long to get here. I should’ve been here to tell you . . . to make sure you knew how much I love you. You’re the only person in my life who’s ever cared for me, and that means more to me than you’ll ever know.”

I take a deep breath as tears continue to stream down my face. “I wish you would wake up. I need you to wake up, and that’s terribly selfish because the nurse told me how damaged your body is and that you’re probably in a lot of pain, but I love you, Mom. I just need you to know that, and as much as it kills me, it’s okay for you to go.”

A sob tears through my chest. “It’s okay to let go.”

Almost as if on cue, there’s a small twitch in her hand, like she’s trying to tell me that she’s heard me before the machines attached to her start going crazy with all kinds of alarms.

I jump up, fear coursing through every part of me. “Mom? Mom?! Someone help me!”

Nurse Joelle rushes into the room, shouting orders at the team of people behind her. “Someone get a doctor in here stat! She’s coding!”

“Code blue: ICU room two oh three four,” the overhead announces to the entire hospital.

A short woman wearing scrubs pushes herself between the bed and me. “Sir, we’re going to need you to step out of the room. Sir. Sir!”

I hear the woman, but it’s like I’m in a foggy haze, watching the people swarm around Mom. One tall man begins doing chest compressions as another injects a needle into the IV tubing.

When the small woman shoves me out into the hallway, she closes the door in my face. My hands instantly grip handfuls of my hair as I begin to pace and freak the fuck out.

This isn’t right! It’s not her time.

I stare up at the white-tiled ceiling, wishing I could see through it to heaven so I could reason with God to allow Mom to stay. She’s the best person I know and she belongs here. He has enough fucking angels already. He doesn’t need to take mine.

I’m not ready for this!

I know I told her it was okay for her to go, but I didn’t mean it. I want to rush back in there and beg her selfishly to stay. For me.

After twenty minutes of waiting outside the door for some answers, not one person coming or going from Mom’s room willing to talk to me, the commotion inside the room dies down.

A man in a white lab coat emerges from the room, followed by Joelle, both appearing very tired with frowns on their faces when they find me standing there. I know from the expression on Joelle’s face the news she has to tell me is information that I don’t want to hear—that will bring my world crashing down.

“Son . . .” the man starts to say, but I close my eyes, wishing he won’t allow the words to leave his lips.

I shake my head as I back slowly away from them. “No. No!

“I’m sorry,” Joelle says. “We did everything we could.”

I claw at my chest as it begins caving in, breaking my heart in the process. There’s no air. I can’t breathe. It’s all too much.

Joelle puts her hand on my shoulder as I slump against the cold brick wall, needing it to hold me up. “This isn’t easy, I know, but if you want to see her . . .”

Tears roll down my face as I attempt to breathe and not pass out right here on the spot. Everything around me fucking closes in and I continue to gasp for air.

“Do you want to go in there? It’s okay if you don’t.”

I nod. “I want to see her.”

Joelle leads me into the room. It’s hard staring at Mom’s lifeless body, knowing that it’s merely a shell, and that her spirit is long gone.

“Give him a minute,” Joelle instructs everyone in the room, and they clear out. When we’re alone, she turns to me. “Take your time.”

The silence is deafening the moment the door closes behind the nurse. I take a deep breath and use the back of my hand to wipe my tears away. It’s no use. The tears keep falling and I’m powerless to stop them.

I bend down and wrap my arms around Mom’s frail shoulders, burying my head into the crook of her neck just as I did when I was a boy. She’s so light. She practically weighs nothing as I pull her into me and kiss her cheek. I inhale deeply, trying to burn the memory of her smell—the essence of her—into my brain, because I know this is the very last time that I’ll ever be able to hug my mother.

That very thought causes a sob to rip out of my chest, and I cry harder than I’ve ever cried in my entire life.

Sunlight bounces off the chrome fixtures of the gray casket as it’s lowered into the damp earth. It’s almost more than I can take—the thought of knowing that she’s in there heading to her final resting place—but I force a stoic expression onto my face.

I will not break down.

Most of the people here, I don’t know, so I stand silently as the preacher that the funeral home recommended reads what are supposed to be words of comfort. He talks about my mother finally being able to rest in peace and we should no longer worry about her because she’s in the arms of the Almighty. I would rather her be here, where I could wrap my arms around her. God or whoever is up there has enough. He could’ve spared me one of his angels.

“This is the time we should all reflect in our lives. We’re never promised tomorrow. So don’t put things off. Get yourself right with the Lord before your day comes,” the preacher says.

While I know he means that in a religious sense, my mind works his words into something that directly relates to me. I’m tired of living a life I no longer want.

A flash of light pulls me out of my thoughts, and I scan the ridiculous number of people here for this moment. Most are reporters who are just here for a story. They could give a damn about allowing me to grieve in peace.

I mean, I just lost my fucking mother, don’t I deserve that?

The constant flash of the paparazzi surrounds me. Graveyards aren’t exactly private areas, and there’s no law stopping the vultures from swarming in and turning this tragedy in my life into a form of entertainment.

This is why I’m sick of the celebrity that comes with my job.

I’ve lost myself, and my life is no longer my own. People who’ve never experienced this level of privacy invasion will never understand how big of a pain in the ass this lifestyle is. Money and fame are overrated and not worth losing your soul to.

The moment the cemetery workers fire up the heavy equipment to push the dirt over Mom’s casket, I know my time to stand here and grieve is done. As strong as the urge is to drop to my knees and break down yet again over my loss, I refuse to put on a show for all these people.

I shove the sunglasses up my nose with my index finger and turn toward the awaiting car the funeral home provided for me. As I near the car, a tall, blond reporter rushes me with a microphone in her hand, firing questions.

“Ace, I’m Linda Bronson with Celebrity Pop Buzz Nightly. Will you be returning to the tour with your band, Wicked White?”

Her camera crew follows close on our heels, and I remain silent as she shoves the microphone in my face. I don’t see why people give a damn about my personal life. I’m a musician. That’s the only thing about me they should be worried about, but I know that making music for a living thrusts me into this crazy spotlight.

“Why did you give your band the middle finger?”

I still refuse to answer as I make it to the car and the driver opens the door so I can slide in. Once I’m inside the car, the flashes continue while they try to snag photos of me through the tinted glass.

I need to get away from all this madness. I can’t take one more goddamn minute of the reporters, the dicks in the band, or Jane Ann. I’m through with it all. I never want to go back.

When the car pulls away, I shove my hair away from my face and a thought occurs to me. If I’m going to go into hiding from the world, I’m going to have to change everything about me that the world knows.

My hair.

My beard.

Hell, even my name. My stage name will have to go. No one knows the name Ace Johnson, and that’s the way I intend to keep it.

The car pulls up to the hotel, and the reporters nearly break their necks as they rush me yet again as I make my way outside.

These people are fucking relentless.

After I get to my room, I pick up the phone and request the concierge to bring me a pair of scissors. I’ve always cut my own hair. It’s a curse/blessing of growing up poor. I never had a lot of money, so cutting my own hair was something I learned to do out of necessity.

Finally, after what feels like ten minutes, the bellhop arrives with what I’ve requested. I go straight to work combing out my shoulder-length hair and then chopping it off with the scissors. The locks float down into the sink in front of me. Each piece flutters almost as if it’s waving good-bye. Soon my hair is cropped into a short mess on the top of my head. I take care, styling it into a trendy disarray—a look that I know will throw people off my scent, making me unrecognizable. Next is my beard. It has to go too, so I take the scissors and cut away its nearly two-inch length, making it easier for the razor to shave my face smooth.

When I’m done, I stare at myself in the mirror. My nose is prominent, but not so big that it’s disproportionate, and it’s slightly crooked where I broke it when I fell out of a tree. It’s been so long since I saw this clean-shaven guy in the mirror. For once, I finally look twenty-six years old, not ten years older because no one can see my face beneath the beard and cloak of long hair. The light brown of my eyes matches the odd color of my bronze hair. Even I have a hard time recognizing myself, so I have faith that I’ll be able to slip out of here without being noticed as long as I keep my head down.

I pull on a black T-shirt and my favorite faded jeans before slipping on my boots. I don’t have much in the green duffel bag I brought with me, but it has enough clothes to last me awhile. The credit cards in my wallet access all the money I have in my bank, but I know if I want to disappear without being traced, I won’t be able to continuously use them. I need to pull some cash out and make do until I can find a job and get some money coming in.

When I get everything together, I take a deep breath and leave the room, setting out on a new adventure.

First things first: I need to find some transportation and an obscure place to stay. I’m ready to walk away from it all. I’ll admit I feel a little lost on what I’ll do with myself, but I haven’t felt this free in a long time. I’m going to make Mom proud of me and be a man who stands on his own two feet and lives by his own rules.

I don’t want to go back to that life. The fame—reporters always in my face—I’m done with it all. I want a life of simplicity, and that’s what I’m going to set out to find.

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