"Glory," He whispered.
"Glory," I repeated. That'll be my name from now on, he told me. His stare was piercing and his hand pressed above mine. I could tell his determination from the weight of his hand across the table. The candlelights flickered between us. There was a great silence that enveloped a room full of couples in their fancy dresses and elegant suits. The strings of a cello echoed through the spaces we didn't occupy. It was a tinge of flat note escaping through the transition of one swing to another. No one noticed. But I did.
All honor. Praise. Of great value. Splendor. That's what my new name meant, he said. Fitting to the direction he promised he would give me. Gone is the little Maria playing at Open Mic Nights on a fleeting Thursday. Gone is that naïve girl in her Sunday dress begging for a spot at the setlist. He told me she doesn't exist anymore. And I believed him. I believed him.
His words. They felt like the hands of a thief, snatching my consciousness from my own control. He was mesmerizing. Magnificent. Extraordinaire. His eyes were as green as the highest grade of emeralds and his voice soothing. It was maddening. Enticing. Addictive. I long for us to stay like this everlasting. But he has made a path for me. This was my dream. And he's making them come true.
I've always dreamed of a life outside of that box. That shelter my mother gave me. It was too secure. Too safe. I hated it with my 19 years of existence. I don't ever want to come back. Music became my escape. I didn't know it will lure me out of that hole. So glad I met music in that basement. It started with the faint whistle the small window gave me. It was beautiful. In my depression, I found that little sound speaking to me. It was then that I knew music. I trusted its voice and it has brought me to this day. A few moments from now, I'll be signing a contract. An agreement I have to sign with a piece of my being.
In a few days, I'll be in LA, next in Malibu, and then Paris. He said he will take me to places I never imagined I would set my feet on. In him, I put my entire trust. I could feel the slight brush his thumb did on my hand. It was as comforting as blanket on the coldest of nights. Don't know why I feel such security enveloping me every single time his skin touches mine. What he is to me is more than the manager to my fledgling career. He rescued me. From that void of failure and disappointment in myself. He believed in me, he said.
Why me? There were many other girls out there trying to get their voice heard. With calloused palms, they would try to get anyone's attention. But the guests only want to be entertained. They paid to see us bathe in our misery, crying of hunger for attention. We are artists, we claim. Most of us do. Just like me, they believed they can change the world with one song. Deep inside, all they had was a longing to be free. I was handpicked. Was I the lucky one? No, he contested. "I was the one who was lucky, to have found you," he told me. I could still remember his smile that night.
Maybe he saw something in me, all others didn't have. All I had was the voice. He said it was talent. I had the makings of a legend. The people that surrounded me didn't think the same. One look at me and they knew I was a waste of time. But not him. Surely, not him.
He let go of my hand and prepared the piece of white cloth on his lap. A man in a fine suit came with a bottle of wine. Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill. It was the most expensive on the menu. I, for one, never liked the taste of wine. But I could like it for him. A little sip from time to time will do me just fine. The way he stared at me while taking his own sip from his cup left me feeling uneasy.
I should get used to this he said. The bright lights. Small chitchats and a whole lot of fake laughter. People will try to find fault in you as if you owe them an explanation. There will be thousands of knives pointed at your back but I got you covered, he quipped. They will want what you have but you'll only give it when I tell you. Hand it freely as I say. Do only what I say.
You are the American dream. Bringing unity in a song. I will be the voice that will represent humanity. The chattering of the couples around tables surrounding us overpowered our presence. They were happy I could see. Laughter, it is one of the sweetest things to my ears. It makes me happy to see such display of joy in a rather cozy restaurant.
"You listen to me carefully," his voice in command. "I want you to remember this day, Glory. This will be the last time you'll be at peace while having dinner in a restaurant. Three days from now, everything will be different. Three days from this moment, everyone will know you. You won't be able to sit down in a crowd without people recognizing you. You won't be able to go out without flashes of light blinding your way. You won't be able to sleep like you used to. And I want you to remember this day as you would remember your own funeral."
Heart pounding. It was as if the earth held me fast to the ground. I could not speak. One swallow and it will mean me choking to my death.
"I have something for you" he stood with a smile on his face. Smoothly he encircled his arms around me, raised them to my shoulders. I felt coldness tracing my chest. It was a necklace. A small vial containing two clipped wings of a butterfly hung at the end. I could hear the lock fastening from the back of my neck. My hand clasped the vial not wanting to let go.
Tell me you're mine. He whispered behind my ear. Only mine.
My voice broke, "But… Lucian."
It was just like yesterday when Lucian told me that night that everything would change. But it didn't. It's been three years since I first released my debut album. News outlets were quick to name me as one of the fastest rising stars in Music. Everywhere I went I could see my name on newsstands. "All Hail, Glory," they claimed in bold, red letters. A few clicks here and there then I'd see my name in the fine print. Sometimes a headline, other times just a tiny description or a tag. I was the new obsession for some and it felt right. A few days in and my single was climbing up the charts. It was crazy hearing your song for the first time on the radio. For a moment, I felt like my dream was coming true. What I've always told my mom what I was going to be, it was happening. How I wished I could see all the faces of the people I knew back then who told me I wouldn't make it. The people who doubted me and my dreams. But maybe they were right. You see, the Industry is not as grand as it seems. One minute you're the next big thing and then you wake up the next day, there's a new one they are crowning the same title. It was like consolation prizes for participating.
It was merely a scratch in the Industry. Bigger names were in focus and more established stars took the spot I longed for. Three years of simply being tossed to the side in favor of other personalities, that hogged the limelight. This was not what Lucian promised.
I looked at myself in the mirror. It was dark all around me and my image was the only one I could see. My skin looked better than it used to. It was spotless to the point that I don't even know if it is real. Just as everything else I see in front of me. The clothes. The jewelry. My hair. It was as if I hardly recognize myself from the girl who used to sing at Open Mic Nights. The girl who had to beg for a spot. The girl with little to no connections to people who can give me the spotlight even for just fifteen minutes. I was no longer that girl.
Two hands brushed on my bare shoulders and held them firmly. "Are you ready?" he asked. I could only reach out to his warm hands as I felt his lips to my ear. "Tomorrow's the big day. And everything will be much different."
"You already told me that before."
I didn't know why I said that. It was some burst of emotions. Somehow, it felt great having to release such words in a moment. But the creeping guilt was just as immediate.
"Do you have something in mind, Glory?" His tone was firmer this time. And I lost all the attitude at once. "No," I cowered.
He held my face in his hands and looked me straight in the eyes, "Trust me." And I smiled knowing he's right. Lucian has been doing everything he can to keep me on track to success. He is no ordinary manager. If he was, I would already be on the sidelines and he'd be working with someone prettier and more talented than me. And he's still by my side even if I failed to launch to greater heights. I have to keep reminding myself that. He gave me a chance when no one else would dare listen. For him to be willing to still work with me, he must really believe I can make it. And that's what I should think as well. It's just that I've been waiting for so long.
"Our time will come. You just have to trust me on this." I nodded but tears trickled down my cheeks. He wiped them clean gently.
"Am I not interesting enough?"
"No, no, don't think that way. You are Glory. All honor. All praise. Believe me when I tell you that."
"I just don't know what you see in me. I look in the mirror and I see disappointment and failure."
"That's why you do not look with your own eyes. You have to surrender yourself to me and see the world in my eyes. Just listen to every word I say and follow me. Only me."
I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. And I swore I saw his reflection differently. Pitch black. I couldn't move. "Do you understand?" he shook my body and I had no reason to say no. "Good. Now sit tight and let me handle all the work. I'm gonna have to leave you for a moment and make sure everything is in order for the release tomorrow. I want you to stay here and wait for me."
He could be strict and caring in a snap. Each time he does I fall for it and stay in my lane. I don't know why he has that power over me. Fear, admiration or guilt, my mind does not know the difference. Sometimes, I wonder who he really is. I've known him for three years yet I have yet to know what is it like to be Lucian. From what I've seen, people usually end up the same way as I do. Quiet and submissive to his demands. Maybe he was just really one of those people who have that atmosphere of authority. A confidence in his own self that I wish I had. The type of person everyone looks up to and wish they had a tiny fraction of what he possesses. Somehow, I felt like it was not the first time I've had questions about him. It's like I already know the answer but for the life of me, I can't seem to piece it all together. Trying would only hurt my brain like a bolt of electricity. Sharp and piercing through my ears. Just like that reflection I saw in the mirror. It was as if a piece of my memory scrapped like torn pages of a book. Missing pieces were at every corner of my mind. I looked around me to find my eyes adjusting from being away from all the lights. Alone. The room was cold yet the colors was a touch of yellow and red. Behind me was a slightly open door. Blue light seeped through the opening and a faint sound reeled me nearer. He was on the phone.
"What's the problem? A leak? Well shut those sites down immediately! You know what you have to do. What do you mean there's too many? Shut some of them. Redirect the others. Use the malware if you have to. We can't have people getting the album for free and interfering with the numbers. This is supposed to be her big break. Do what you have to. I don't care what. Just finish it. I'm going to be down there in an hour. I expect you to have this fixed by then."
He sounded furious but his body remained so calm and precise. Before he took another call, he glanced back to where I was. I've never been so quick to hide. Another peek and he put his phone to his ear.
"I need people here right now and guard her. Make sure she does not come out until tomorrow. I'm going to be on my way to the Grid." Just as he ended a call, he received another. "Yes, we are pushing through. Yes." His voice grew fainter until it was only a whisper. He's gone.
I've always stayed where he wanted me. Can't remember any significant place I've been in the last three years. It was just the studio. Rehearsals. And some closed door performances. He said it was part of the plan. That he did not want me to be hounded by the media. It kept my image a mystery. I did not speak before and after performances. The only times people heard my voice was when I had to sing. There are only a few videos of my performances online. Pretty sure it was his work as well to have every amateur recording removed. It is beyond me why we have to go this route but I have no choice but to follow. Can't say I do miss connecting with my audience. Speaking to them and telling them it was nice of them to come. And that my career is alive because of them. Hell, I miss being around other people. Feeling the warmth of laughter. Taking the time to breathe. I looked steadily at the dust in the light of the open door. Then, it hit me.
This was my chance.
No. I can't. I can't just leave whenever I want. My heart pounded out of my chest as I twiddled my thumbs. A voice inside my head was telling me to take this chance. That if I want something, I have to go and take it. Why wait for the approval of others? I remember him telling me that. That him and I, we are doers. That's what he saw in me. Then it wouldn't hurt to just get out and see the world again. Right. Tomorrow, he said it's going to be a big day.
I struggled to find the biggest sunglasses to hide my face from the collection sprawled across a desk. The closet was an organized jungle of fabric. When faced with this many options, I found myself taking more time to come up with a decision. So I let go of any thought and picked the one where my hand stops trailing. it's a collection of clothes tailored for me, anyway. Lucian is that particular about maintaining my image to which I still have little understanding of. He kept telling me I was fine and that I am doing well. But it only made me more self-conscious, especially when he has everything in control down to the minute details. Am I really acting the way I'm supposed to be? Is this the real me shining? Is my concern over showing the real me… my default setting? A sharp bolt pierced through my ear once again and I just closed my eyes and hurried out with whatever I put on.
Any minute now, Lucian's hired bodyguards should show up. Hell, they could already be watching me. Yet I stepped out without slowing down and walked down the corner in a pace. It was as if every hall I turn to was something I've never been before. How much time have I been spending in the dressing room that our way in has become unknown to me? Using only what little sense of intuition I have left, I pressed forward. Just keep going and you'd find an exit.
And there it was, a lobby. It was the first time another human being was before me that was not my manager. Surely it's an exaggeration. But everything seems so new to me for some reason. I heard the man over the desk greet me a good morning. His tone hinted nothing special which may mean he did not recognize who I was or that was part of their training. It was 9:03am said the huge antique grandfather clock on the wall. There were yellow cabs passing by as I stepped out of the patterned carpet and into the concrete pavement. I struggled to wave at one and quickly, a cab stopped right in front of me. Without any hesitation, I got inside eager to not let any of the guards that might be on their way to see me.
"Where to?" The taxi man was an old driver with graying hair down to his neck.
"The park." I felt a sense of relief from saying that word. Excitement flew over me next as the thought of seeing the pond and all the pigeons on the open washed over me.
It did not take long before my imagination became true as I stepped down the vehicle and all I could see was the open concrete space. People walked past me as they go on about their own lives. Some would run from behind me as I watched their skin glisten with sweat under the morning sun. Others had dogs with them. Parents had their children by their hand yet the little ones still manage to run after seeing the ice cream truck stopped by the corner. It was bright but the sun gave no harm on my skin as I breathed in the fresh air from this side of the city. A few minutes into the walk and I found myself struggling to breathe properly that I had to sit down to the nearest bench I could lean on. My skin was cold and my hands started to shake while I calm them down with my breath. Overwhelming. Don't know if it was all the new things I'm taking in or the guilt of leaving without notice. Or maybe fear of punishment. No, Lucian has never punished me. He would not lay a finger on me. But seeing his eyes at every disappointment I make is punishment enough. He need no words to hurt me. And when he does, it is not his fault. For I am the one who thinks I fail him every time.
What am I even doing? I'm finally free. Yet I still feel like I have nowhere else to go. No. This has got to stop. I'm going to have a great time before it becomes harder for me to step out. This is the only time or maybe even the last time I'm going to enjoy sitting at a park without anyone taking pictures or asking for an autograph.
"Ah you'll get used to it."
I did not notice I was sitting beside someone on this bench the whole time. And for a moment, my heart beat stopped, "Excuse me?"
"I mean, the outside world. You'll get the hang of it." He sipped his coffee from a paper cup.
"Wh..Why do you say that?"
"Oh, I uh think you're very pale. I mean, there's nothing wrong with being pale, you know. Wear your skin color proud and all. Oh, god that's probably rude, yeah?"
"This is how you talk to people?"
"Wow, I deserved that," He smiled. It was nice seeing another person smile. For some reason, it felt contagious that I had to give him one too. A few more seconds and it would have been awkward but his timing was just right, "I can see you're a very beautiful lady."
"And I can see you are a hungry man," referring to a small bag of tacos and another of a sausage between us.
"Oh, the other one's for you. Depends on what you like." He winked at me as he crossed his legs and took another sip from his coffee.
"You think I'd take food from a stranger. I don't think that's how the outside world works."
"Well, how about a name?"
"Jagger." And he reached out his hand. As I offered mine, he firmly held my hand, "And I'm no longer a stranger."
"I'm not hungry, Jagger." I insisted.
"Oh, you're gonna be later cause I'm gonna invite you for a walk." He crushed his paper cup, took the bags and stood in front of me holding his hand out. Just like that, I found myself pacing a step behind him as we walked with my hand in his hand. He had a way with his hands. His grip told me not to worry but at the same time to keep up with him. He wore a thick midnight blue sweater that fit his frame well. We stopped in front of the lake where no other people stood. It was at a curve where the ledges crisscrossed one another as they separated us from the view below. He pointed at the family of ducks moving on the still water.
"Did you know that ducks are born precocial?" He asked while I watched the mother duck lead the way for her five ducklings and another one left behind seemingly looking around freely. "It means they were born in an advanced state. They knew the world before they even hatched and that they have the necessary skills to survive in it like feed themselves or walk at once without being taught how to do so."
I didn't know where he was going but his enthusiasm and seriousness about the topic was mesmerizing. There was a hint of sadness in his smile and a certainty in his pauses. It was then that I realized all his distinct features. And that he had a pretty face, an alarming gaze and a calming presence. He had that intensity in him that reminded me of Lucian but it was the opposite. He felt free.
"Well Glory, some people are just born into this outside world knowing how it works while others need to be awakened. But we're all trapped in this bubble no matter what knowledge we have of it. We may break free or distance ourselves, but we're part of the system. So we do what we can to survive with the skills we were born with."
Stunned, I had no words. What did he mean? Somehow it struck me that he knew who I was. He held my hand once again and I followed him into the increasing number of people walking by.
"Jagger, what do you do?"
"You'll know soon enough." And he grabbed my other hand to give me the two paper bags. He let go and just like that, he was gone in the crowd before I could protest. In that moment, my fears suddenly crept back under my skin. My breathing became heavy and my vision blurry.
Two firm grips on my arm dragged me forcefully to my surprise. In my struggle, I felt weaker as two big men in suits pushed me inside a black van. "We found her. She's safe." One of the men spoke into the microphone strapped to his collar.
I don't know if I could agree.