40 Steps

“When does the new tour start again?” Nicola Allen asked randomly.

“In a month. After this last bit of appearances, we’re coming home for a bit. Why?” her best friend Christopher Donaghy asked.

“‘Member how you’re always asking me to come visit?”

“Well, yeah.” He and Nicola had been best friends since high school. As the eldest member of Love Split Mystery, high school was a long time ago. He and Nicola had bonded over a mutual love of video games. Nicola was a professional game tester now, while Chris – AKA “C-Dawg” – was a member of the band, focusing his career on his second-most important obsession, music.

“I’ve got two weeks saved up and I could use a vacation,” she finished her train of thought over the phone. They never went a week without calling, emailing or texting each other.

“Seriously?” asked Chris.

“Yeah!”

“You’re not gonna flake on me like last time, are you?” he said accusingly.

“Oh, like it was MY FAULT my sister started bitching about money again!”

Up until two years ago – when Love Split Mystery was still promoting their sophomore release, “Year of the Tiger” – Nicola lived at home with her parents and her older sister, who was a single mother to her two nephews. She was in school and working at a paid internship at her current employer, Calamity Jane Games. Money was always tight. Nicola socked away as much as she could for her trip to see him. She called him a week before she was supposed to fly out to Florida to meet them halfway through the tour to tell him it was off. Her sister got suspicious because Nicola owed her a lot of money, and wondered where she had come up with all the money for the five-day trip. “To shut her up” (Nicola’s words), she gave whatever she had saved up for the trip to her sister to help out with the family’s bills that month.

Chris offered numerous times to help her out, knowing she would have a decent job when she finished school to pay him back. But, being the prideful animal she was, she refused.

“You’re gonna call me out on that?” teased Nicola.

“Yeah!”

“This coming from the guy who couldn’t tell his high school girlfriend he was breaking up with her in person!”

Chris cringed on the other end of the phone. “Ow. I deserved that.”

What she didn’t know was that the girl was jealous of his friendhip with Nicola. The girl – he forgot her name now – gave him an ultimatum: her or Nicola. He chose Nicola, and broke up with the girl in a text message.

“Damn right!”

* * *

One month later, Chris and his bandmate Randy went to O’Hare Airport in Chicago to meet Nicola. Lugging a duffel bag and wearing a backpack, a bleary-eyed Nicola threw a big smile at her best friend and hurled herself into his arms. They kissed each on the cheek.

“Hii!” Nicola said, yawning as she pulled away to look at him. Tucking a stray piece of her straight brown hair from her face, she took a good look at her best friend that she hadn’t seen in months. In between work and family commitments, she hardly had time to see him when he came to town.

“Long flight?” asked Chris.

“Two stopovers. You know how I feel about flying. I had ‘Why Do I Keep Counting?’ by the Killers on permanent repeat!” Nicola said, shaking at the thought. She was a jittery flier. They went to New York City as a senior graduation present from their families, and she forgot to take sleeping medicine to knock her out for most of the flight. She spent a good hour, politely harassing the other passengers for any form of legal medication to calm her down.

“Randy!” Nicola said, throwing herself at him.

“Hi Nic,” Randy said warmly. From day one, Nicola had been the most vocal supporter of Love Split Mystery. She manned their merchandise table in the early days. As such, the band thought of her and Chris as a package deal. She was there for Derek when he and his longtime girlfriend, Ingrid, broke up six months ago. When Randy’s own father died, it was only natural to go to Nicola for support. She was a great listener and always said the right things, which were sometimes nothing at all.

“We’ve got this acoustic performance with a local radio station in an hour. So we better get going,” Chris said. “Any checked luggage?”

“Nope,” she said as Chris followed the exit signs so they could get out in one piece. “You should’ve heard my mom. She and my dad dropped me off so I wouldn’t have to worry about my car or anything. She saw how much I was bringing – which isn’t much, as you can tell – and she goes, ‘are you moving out?'”

“You are though, aren’t you?” Randy queried.

“Yeah, I’m expecting a raise at my yearly review in a few months. I mean, I don’t expect a lot, but at least a cost of living increase. I can’t live in that house anymore. Plus my sister is threatening to move out too, so I figure I’ll make a quick exit too.”

Randy hailed a cab for them and they were off to WTAI, as Chicago blurred past them.

“Be honest: what’s the next single? My friends back home have a pool going, and I told them I’d ask,” said Nicola.

“I think Austin said it was going to be ‘Stage Right’,” Randy offered.

“Really? I thought ‘Casino Mobster’ or ‘Fist Full of Love’ would’ve made stronger singles,” said Nicola.

“I told you about ‘Fist Full of Love’ right? The label said ‘Fist Full of Love’ didn’t really fit the sound we had going for ‘Autumn Years’. We had to fight so hard for it to be on the record, huh, Randy?” Chris explained. Randy nodded, and the three of them lapsed into silence to ponder this.

“Fist Full of Love” was one of the darkest songs on the album, and for Love Split Mystery. Co-written by Derek and Randy, it was written for Randy’s father who passed away while they were on the “Radio Interference” tour. It was a song about a guy on his deathbed, looking back on his life, and how empty it was because his alcoholism had turned his family against him. He talked about all the things that he had missed, all the grandchildren he hadn’t met, all the lovers who abandoned him because he preferred the bottle to their companionship.

Randy had been one of the more secretive band members about his personal life, so when the fans heard this song, a lot of them were apt to cry when they talked about it, or heard live versions. They decided to unveil it at a random stop on “Radio Interference” and the fans loved it. Everyone had hoped it would end up “Autumn Years”, and they were amped when it did.

They arrived at the studio on time, and the three of them trooped inside so Love Split Mystery could perform an acoustic set of their biggest songs, “Presidential Silence,” “Security,” “The Red Dress Blues,” and their new single, “Stage Right,” which they confirmed on air with the DJs.

* * *

Three sharp raps sounded, knocking the sleep from Nicola’s confused mind.

“Huh?” she yawned. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand nearby: 7am. She peered at the other bed in the room. Chris and Randy were dead to the world. The label wouldn’t spring for a separate room for her, so she and Chris shared a double-bed room. There were girls on the tour, but they either had boyfriends (Stella from the Newsies was with Summers from Love Split Mystery), married (Katie and Liam from the Newsies) or she didn’t know them well enough to stay in their rooms (Maya from Abstract Theory and the Newsies’ tour manager, Cathy). She could either sleep on the bus, or with the band, so Chris or Randy – the two to whom she was most closest – usually shared a room with her.

“Get up!” their tour manager Austin’s muffled voice announced behind the closed hotel door.

The rest of the day was a blur. The “University Alumni” tour coincided with radio spirit shows and regional summer festivals, which Austin always worked with the label to book them on.

That night’s show in Virginia Beach was a radio spirit show. Armed with her backstage pass, Nicola saw the whole show, stepping back only to breathe and rest her ears from the loud music. During one of her breaks, she overheard Guy Montag – an indie rock band – complain about how their rider was half-assed, and they were smushed after the Japanese Angels – a power pop trio, and before Registered Voter – a local heavy metal band, on the bill. Bamboo Boomerang whined about how crappy catering way and the lack of proper facilities for all the acts.

“What a bunch of bitches,” Nicola announced, as she came upon Love Split Mystery crammed into a nearby tent for their sound check.

“Who?” asked Derek mildly, tuning his guitar.

“Guy Montag and Bamboo Boomerang,” said Nicola as Derek put his guitar away to begin his vocal warm-ups.

“What were they complaining about?” Randy asked, teching his own guitar.

“Their riders, the food, the other artists on the bill, stuff like that.”

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t bitch about that kind of stuff at shows like this,” Austin offered, before answering his chirping cell phone.

“You guys don’t,” Nicola countered.

“We do,” Summers replied. “But we get over it. It’s part of the job. It’s either do spirit shows and get the word out on the album, or fail at this and sell turtles at Pets mart.”

“Yeah. There’s good and bad with any job. Take it or leave it,” Randy finished up.

“Love Split Mystery, you’re up next,” a guy with a headset and clipboard said. He rushed away as soon as Austin answered for them. Nicola had become an unofficial roadie, so she helped Chris with setting up his drum kit just the way he wanted it.

“Hey Nicola,” Mike Range said.

“Hey Mikey!” Nicola said warmly, stopping to talk. Mike was the bassist for Abstract Theory, one of Love Split’s opening acts on the “University Alumni” tour.

“Hey,” Maya, their synth player, said.

Xavier was on his cell phone, but smiled at added, “Hey Nicola.”

Her heart skipped a beat when he did. “Sorry I missed your show earlier,” said Nicola.

“It’s cool,” their guitarist Mitchell said. There were three stages set up for everyone, and Abstract Theory was one of the smaller stages, whilst Kitty Sliver – a band Nicola was looking forward to seeing – was playing the main stage at the same time.

“See you later!” Nicola said, taking her leave. “Gotta help C-Dawg and all.”

“Hey Nic,” Xavier said, stopping her as he snapped his cell phone shut. “There’s a house party nearby. Bunch of us are going? You in?”

“Sure!”

“Great. Tell the guys okay? We’ll call you.”

* * *

Nearly everyone on the University Alumni tour – bands and their crew – descended on the party. It was on a local college campus and the beers flowed freely. There were a few fans scattered throughout the property, so camera phones were snapping low-quality photos left and right.

Nicola walked outside with Chris to survey the pool scene. She kicked her sandals off in the nearby grass to soak her bare legs in the pool.

“You know what this reminds me of?” baited Nicola.

“Lacey Meadows’ party junior year,” Chris replied immediately.

“Yes!” Nicola hooted.

They laughed as she and Chris began to recall the party that went down in history in their class.

“George from my math class drank so much he puked in Lacey’s mom’s rhododendron bushes in the back.”

“Stephen from JV soccer got caught with Helen Johnson in the downstairs bathroom, even though she was going out with Paul from the varsity team.”

“Lacey got nicknamed ‘Racey Lacey’ that night too, ’cause she scored with like, four guys on her parents’ bed. Or so they say. She didn’t confirm nor deny even after graduation.”

“Oh my god! I talked to her the other day,” Nicola said.

“Oh yeah? What’s she been up to since high school?”

“She got married, and had a baby. And she works in a bank. Oh, and she said to say hi. She’s a big fan of the band.”

“Wow, that’s so fascinating!” Xavier said semi-sarcastically, plunking down beside Nicola. “Hey C-Dawg,” he said pushing his best friend behind Nicola playfully. “What were you guys talking about?” he continued, resting his arm around Nicola’s shoulders.

“We were talking about a party like this that we went to in high school,” offered Nicola, leaning into him ever so slightly.

“Did nerds go to parties?” Xavier teased. It was no secret that Chris and Nicola were considered geeks among their friends.

“Only the cool ones,” Chris said defensively but jokingly.

“Well, when you find a cool nerd, let me know. They deserve a swirly,” Xavier said, leaning over to kiss Nicola on the neck. He pushed Chris affectionately again before moving on.

Chris looked at her for a moment after Xavier left before taking another swallow of beer.

“What?” she asked innocently, as she took a gulp.

“What was THAT about?” Chris said, taking another swallow for good measure.

“Nothing. Xavier and I are friends,” Nicola said.

Chris paused. “Well, when you put it like that… is there something going on between you two?” he asked carefully.

“No. What makes you say that?” Nicola said just as carefully.

Truth of the matter was she had been sleeping with Xavier for a while now. There had always been a sexual undertone to her flirting with Xavier, even before this vacation. This time she decided to act on it. She hadn’t slept with anyone since her ex-boyfriend Paul almost three months ago. She was a desert, as far as she was concerned. Besides, what did she have to lose really? She told him that she didn’t want anything more than this vacation. Once she went home, they would go back to being friends, so there wouldn’t be anything weird between them. She also knew that Xavier and Chris had become good friends, since Abstract Theory was a frequent opener for Love Split on their national tours. And Xavier agreed. So what did she have to lose? She felt weird lying to Chris like that, but knowing him, he would obsess over it and it would get weird between him and Xavier, and that was something she didn’t want.

* * *

Nicola stared blankly at the setup for Rockstar Games at Comic-Con. She couldn’t concentrate. She had returned from visit with Chris scatterbrained more than usual. As she predicted, she was given a cost of living increase, and began to search for a condo since she didn’t think she was quite ready for a house on her own, and she didn’t like the idea of an apartment. Her flamboyant co-worker, Roger, was a professional gamer. In fact, Calamity Jane sponsored him in tournaments for video games, as long as he wore the company logo on everything that people would see him in. His nickname was “Hollywood” since he had grown up in West Hollywood with his father and his partner.

“What’s wrong?” he said melodramatically, looking deeply into her eyes.

“I feel like seeing my breakfast again,” she said, placing a hand over her mouth.

The playful smile faded from Roger’s face in an instant. He wrapped his arm around Nicola to support her, and yelled at the other Calamity Jane co-workers who were at the event, “Be right back boys!”

Nicola didn’t know what was going on, but Roger had led her to the women’s bathroom.

“Hey!” a girl squawked as Roger entered with the ashen-faced Nicola.

“This is an emergency,” Roger replied.

Nicola practically fell into the first available stall and emptied the contents of her stomach into the porcelain bowl. The girl – who quickly introduced herself as Heather – and Roger cringed as another nauseous wave took Nicola over.

“Damn,” Roger said, shaking his head and looking away.

“Let me go see if I can find a club soda,” Heather offered. “Hold her hair back,” she instructed Roger.

Roger did as he was told until there was nothing left for Nicola to expend. Heather came back a few minutes later, holding a club soda with a straw sticking up out of the can.

“I can’t,” Nicola said, another wave of nausea racking her body at the very sight of sustenance.

“Trust me, it’ll help settle your stomach,” Heather said. “It should be flat by now. I opened it as soon as I could.”

Nicola looked Roger weakly, and he nodded. Nicola took the proffered can, and sipped slowly through the straw. Roger leaned over, and activated the automatic flush system.

“You’re not pregnant, are you?” asked Heather innocently.

Nicola looked up at her, much too weak to look shocked. Come to think of it, she hadn’t had her period for almost a month, only spotting. It had been a super stressful few months in her life, what with the raise, and the testing for a rival company she was doing on the side, and her sister was already moving out. Her periods always stopped when she was stressed. She didn’t even think about a pregnancy.

* * *

“Congratulations Miss Allen. You’re pregnant,” Dr. Williford announced happily.

Though she was on company time, Nicola went to the nearest drugstore to pick up a home pregnancy test, which came up positive. There were two in the box, so she took that one too. Also positive. She booked an appointment with Dr. Williford for the day she got home. And as she feared, Heather’s keen observation was correct.

Williford sent her home with literature and an appointment to begin prenatal care.

Her mom – who knew everything going on in her life – took one look at her and knew immediately. She was standing at the kitchen sink when Nicola got home. Without a word, her mom wiped her hands dry on a towel and embraced her youngest daughter.

“Mom, I don’t know what to do,” Nicola said. She was still in shock, and couldn’t bring herself to cry.

“It’ll be okay,” her mom counseled. “Who’s the father? Chris?”

Nicola pulled away to look at her mom oddly.

“I just thought, since you and Chris has been friends forever and your last trip out to see him…” her mom’s voice trailed off.

“Mom, that’s stupid. Chris is my best friend, my brother, even. That’d just be weird. The only guy I’ve slept with in the last few months was Xavier, and the doctor said I’m about two and a half months along, just by his prediction. He said he would run more tests.”

“Does this Xavier boy know? Who is he?”

“He’s in a band, Abstract Theory. No, I was just about to call him. They’re still on tour.”

* * *

Chris got the phone call that night after the show. Nicola had called Xavier first because he had to know. She was afraid of his reaction, but he was cool with it. He offered to pay child support, but because Nicola had laid down the law that first night, they had said their goodbyes as friends. A baby didn’t change that, and that was something they mutually agreed on. She didn’t love Xavier, and she didn’t want to force anything like that.

When Nicola called Chris to break the news, she got his voicemail. She told him to call her as soon as possible.

Derek dragged him to an after party a local club was going to hold for them. He called her en route.

“Nic?” he began. “I got your message. What’s up?”

It was then that Nicola allowed herself to cry. She began to sob quietly over the phone, and before Chris could ask why (the last time he spoke to her, she was happy about her trip to Comic-Con on the company’s dime); she explained tearfully, “Chris, I’m pregnant.”

The world stopped spinning for a moment as he digested her announcement.

“It’s Xavier’s, right.” A statement, not a question.

“Yes.”

He wasn’t sure what he was feeling, but it felt like a piano had dropped on his head. Years ago, when he and Nicola were still in high school, they had gotten a little tipsy on some Grey Goose his parents had left out after a party. On the trampoline in his backyard, they both promised each other that if the other one wasn

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