CHAPTER TWENTY

There were so many options. I could aggravate them little by little each practice. I could continuously give them horrible music advice. Or I could lie low and wait until the first audition and then make sure it was a spectacular bomb.

In the middle of my heavy scheming that night, John met me in the living room of Mendips, his guitar strapped around his shoulder.

“Em, can I talk to ya?”

“Yeah, of course,” I said.

He tucked his thumb into his guitar strap. “Em, I was wonderin’, um… what do you think of that beetles name?”

My eyes bulged. “What?”

“For the band?” he asked. “’The Quarrymen’ doesn’t particularly fit us anymore since you’re a part of the group and all…”

“It’s not that great of a name,” I said with a nervous laugh. “I’m sure we can think of something better later.”

“Oh.” His face flushed. “Yeah, it’s a bit of a weird name, right?”

“So weird!” I said, my voice all high and tense. “It probably wouldn’t ever catch on.”

John inched a step closer to me and I felt like my knees were going to give out.

“I was also wondering, um…”  He brought his hands in closer to his chest. “If you wouldn’t mind teachin’ me your song. Strawberry Field?”

Oh, crapola. Well, that’s about the last thing that I wanted to have happen. John learning one of his best songs before his career even takes off.

He misinterpreted my hesitation. “It’s just that I usually sing lead.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” I said, spewing my words. “It’s not a very good song. I wrote it in like a day and I don’t think anyone would like it. It’s pretty bad.”

“I don’t care if anyone else in the whole world likes it or not,” he said. “I loved it, Em. Please, I really loved your song. I want to learn it.”

I struggled for the right response. Something discouraging but also attractive. Nothing. There was nothing. Finally, I sighed and closed my eyes.

“John, I want to be honest with you,” I said. “I didn’t write that song. I just used it because I wanted to win the argument.”

He jerked his head back. “Who wrote it?”

“Um, just some genius I know,” I said.

His eyebrows squished together. “How could some genius you know have written a song about the secluded orphanage down the road from my house?”

“Well, I might have changed the words a little. I think the real words were something like, Cadbury Feels. You know, like, ‘Cadbury Feels Forever’,” I sang.

“Does your friend have any other songs or records?” he asked.

I tucked my hands behind my elbows. “Sadly, no. Uh, he actually gave up his music career to propose to a girl he really liked.”

“That was a mistake.”

“Not for her!”

Another step closer to me. “Tell your friend if he writes like that, he ought to be making records and songs.”

“Mmm, mhm.”

I cupped my hand over my cheek. He was so close to me I could smell the Brylcreem in his hair and the Woodbine cigarettes on his shirt. John relaxed his posture, tilting his head to look at me with those dozy eyes.

“Do you want to step out with me?” he asked, his voice low.

I bit my lip. “Sure.”

I followed him out into the garden, far away from the house, so John could play his guitar and not bother the sharp-eared Mimi. He sat crossed legged in the grass and played.

Little dots covered the dark sky from top to bottom. I loved the ’58 stars. I had already been here for a couple of months, but I still couldn’t get over how many stars you could see from Earth at this point in time. I half wished Lennon weren’t around, so I could take some personal pictures for myself on my IND. But the other half of me ardently disagreed. The music that he was playing fit so perfectly with the night sky and I couldn’t ask for a better soundtrack.

John noticed me staring at the sky and stopped playing. “What is it?”

“The stars… I’ve never seen—” I stopped myself. “I’m still not used to them. They’re beautiful.”

He snorted. “They don’t have stars in America?”

“Not like this.”

Suddenly, John began to play and sing Little Star by The Elegants. I recognized the doowop and joined in which made him smile as he continued through the song. I knelt in the grass, close to John, but making sure we did not touch knees this time. Then after he had struck the last chord, we laughed politely at each other.

“Alright. You play something then.” He handed me his guitar.

I took it from him. What would I even play? If I picked another Beatle’s song, I might accidentally give him more great material. But I had one hundred- and fifty-years’ worth of songs to choose from and I couldn’t give him anything good.

I sighed to myself and sang for him the dumbest song that I knew how to play.

“There once was a piggy named Pete,

Who had no more use for his feet.

He said, ‘These slops ain’t for me! I long for the sea!’

And he sauntered downtown for a fleet.

He sold one of his legs to the butcher.

And one to the widow next door.

He traded the third for an old pirate ship

And the last one he gave to the poor.

OH! He had four pegs! Four pegs! Four pegs for legs!

He clomped around on the deck and he made such a mess,

For he was just a pig after all.”

John was grinning wildly from ear to ear. I stopped mid-strum. “You’re laughing at me.”

“Not at all,” he said. “I loved it!”

My expression soured. “Shut up! Don’t you ever get tired of being sarcastic all the time?”

“I’m completely serious,” he said, nudging me with his elbow. “I really loved it. I loved it even more than Strawberry Field.” 

“No, you didn’t!” I said.

“No, I didn’t.” He laughed. “But it was still very good. I liked it. I really did.”

I rested my chin on the guitar and pouted. “Everyone I’ve ever played that song for has told me that it’s the stupidest song they’ve ever heard.”

“Did they now? Well, probably because everyone you’ve ever played it for has had no concept of wit or irony or anything like that. Pearls before legless swine, Em.” John pushed the tip of his nose up and oinked a couple of times.

I hugged his guitar close to my body. If there were one person on Earth to tell me they liked the song, and it turned out to be one of the best song writers in the entire world, I guess that was pretty good.

 “I had a boyfriend at the time,” I said, no idea why I was saying it though. “He said it was the absolute worst thing he’s ever heard. That he couldn’t be with someone who would write a song like that.”

“Ah. Don’t be too hard on him, Em,” he said. “He can’t help being a big ugly scab who’s too thick to have a sense of humor.”

I laughed and slipped out from under the guitar. “He was too. Ugh! I was so embarrassed, I never played anything ever again!”

He shook his head and tsk tsk tsk’ed me. “You can’t please everyone. If you did, you’d end up in the middle with nobody liking you.”

I cocked my head. “Who said that?”

“John Lennon,” he said. “In the garden, just now. Didn’t ya hear me say it?”

I put my finger to my lip and furled my brow. “You’re right. I think you did say it,” I muttered under my breath. 

“If you love something. Really love something. You don’t ever, ever let that thing go. Not for a single solitary soul in the world. Because when you love something. That’s it. That’s everything. It’s all you need.”

“Love is all you need, huh?” I smirked. “I’m pretty confident John Lennon said that one too.”

“Ah, did he?” He shrugged a shoulder. “Smart man. You should listen to him once and a while, you know.”

I smiled and handed him back his instrument. “Alright, your turn again.”

“Hmm, let’s see here,” he said. John pretended to blow on each of his fingers and wiggled them wildly in the air before placing them on the strings of the guitar. Then he hit the first three chords of Ain’t She Sweet.

My heart completely stopped beating and dropped into my shoes. This was the sign. The song I had read about. The song he played for his first wife. And he was playing it for me with no one else around. Looking directly at me, staring right into my soul. His voice was all raspy and strained and rock and roll.

He had fallen for me.

Everything in my chest felt warm. I expanded my breath, but it only made everything inside burn brighter than before. He had captivated me, overwhelmed me. I couldn’t take my eye off John.

He softly ended the song. I crawled through the grass toward him. I picked up the bottom of his guitar and slipped underneath. Squeezing myself in between him and the guitar as I sat in his lap.

He looked at my lips.

“It’s getting harder to pretend like I don’t like you,” he whispered.

 “So don’t.”

He moved his hands from his instrument to either side of my waist and kissed me. The absolute best kiss I had ever had. John was right about Traegar, he was a hideous scab who was too thick to understand me or know how to kiss at all.

There are three types of kisses. One that is too disinterested. A quick peck you would give your grandma or something you would do out of obligation like on a stage or under a mistletoe. One that is too interested. As in they are more interested on the action that’s to follow than they are on the kiss. (And by that definition therefore are also disinterested.) But my kiss with John was the third type. A Goldilocks kiss. A sincerely interested and invested kiss, with all the passion in the world behind it.

When we had finally parted, I giggled awkwardly. I don’t know, I couldn’t help it, the pheromones were choking me.

“I like you,” John said in his simple blunt way.

“I like you too,” I said still giggling.

“I want you,” he whispered.

“I want you too,” I whispered back.

We kissed again. And yeah, alright, so that second kiss might have been a little too interested. At least on my part. But John didn’t let it go on long.

“I’m scared,” he said, with kind of a laugh in his voice. “I’m dead scared that it might not work out. With you not being from here and all.”

Ice rushed through my veins. “What?”

“From Britain, I mean.”

“Oh. Right.” Duh.

My eyes widened. This was it. I had him. He was right there in the palm of my hand and I could shove him deep inside my pocket and zip him inside.

“I could stay if I had a good reason,” I said. “For example, if I met someone and… if I had a big commitment to that someone… like they asked me to stay forever…”

His fingers curled tighter around my waist. “Em. I—”

Just then, the garden filled with light as the kitchen door opened. “John! Where are you?”

Aunt Mimi’s voice startled us both to kingdom come. I tried to jump backwards out of John’s arms but forgot the guitar had secured me to him. He must have forgot too, because somehow in the whole mess, the neck of the guitar smacked me in the head with a resounding thonk.

“Oh, sorry!” He tried to take the guitar off his shoulder, but the little tuning doodads snagged the back of my hair.

“Ow, ow, ow, wait stop!” I tripped and fell onto my hands and knees. He threw his head back and laughed.

“John, what is going on?” Mimi stepped out, wrapping a bath robe around her nightie. Her hair limp and loose around her face.

She got close enough to see me, on my knees, my snaggled hair wrapped around John’s guitar as he held it over me.

“What is all this about?” she asked with a stern and biting tone.

“I don’t know.” John lifted the belly of his guitar to examine the mess. “I just found my guitar like this all tangled up in a girl.”

I squinted my eye at him, my lips pursed and pinched. He had the biggest and happiest grin on his face.

“Do you suppose that’s how Elvis gets all his girls?” he asked. “Reels him in with his guitar when they cross through his garden?”

“I don’t want you out here reeling in girls until God knows what hour,” she snapped. “Get inside at once. And don’t give me any wit. I’m in no mood.”

We sheepishly retreated into the house, past a growling Mimi, who stopped at the bottom of the stairs to watch us and make sure there wouldn’t be any funny business.

We got to each of our bedroom doors respectively, John turned to me with a small smirk that made me want to jump him all over again.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” he asked. My loopy grin matched his as he leaned against his door frame. “And the next day? And the day after that?”

“Whatever you’re doing.”

“Lights out,” Mimi warned from the bottom of the stairs, like scolding an un-trained puppy by rubbing its nose in its mess.

John and I exchanged grimaces before we shut the door on each other. I turned around to face the little old stuffy room and brought my hands to my face. What had just happened? Well, it had happened. I had him. And he had me to be honest.

I dropped to the floor and squealed as quietly as I could. This flood of energy had knocked me over and I didn’t know what to do with it. Every detail was burning in my mind. The grass of the garden on my ankles. The sparkling stars. And that voice! The music! I could still feel his arms around me and smell the cream in his hair. He was mine.

A peppy and rhythmic knock came from John’s side of the wall. I skipped over and imitated the same knock back, letting him know that I was still thinking of him. I wasn’t just thinking, I was drowning in thoughts of him. I knew it was late, but I felt as though I would never sleep again. I was John Lennon’s girl. Now if only he would give up his music.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

The rest of the week I recovered from my common cold. Friday morning, I made my breakfast and surmised how next to interact with John, when the time travel gods smiled upon me. Because finally there he was by himself. Out in the garden. Hunched over and painting a canvas laid out on the grass. I quickly set down my glass of thick milk and left to meet him.

“Hi!” I said cheerfully.

He kept furiously painting. One brush in hand, another in his mouth, and a smaller brush tucked between his ear and his thick-framed glasses. I awkwardly tucked my hands into each other and peered over his shoulder at the painting. I almost gasped. A gorgeous city street with tall looming buildings and a cobblestone road. I was in shock. I had never once seen this piece in any book or any John Lennon collection. And it was unlike any of his other work.  

Mimi must have seen him working as well, because in minutes she was flying out her back door.

“John! How extraordinary!” She squatted to get closer to his painting. “And in color. My! I’ve never seen you use a single splotch of color before.”

He ‘hmm’ed with his brush in his mouth as he signed his name at the bottom, then stood next to us to admire it. This was it! He was turning! He was giving up music for a painting career. My knees shook, I was so ecstatic.

“What do you think, Hollywood?” he asked, putting his hands on his hips. “Do you think that Barrell will have to admit that I can do the assignment? He can’t say that I couldn’t, right?”

I nodded vigorously. “Of course! This is incredible! You’re a natural! I knew you should become a professional painter.”

“Thanks,” he said with half a smirk. “So, you think this proves that I can do it?”

“Of course, you can do it, you senseless boy!” Mimi proudly chirped in. “Now see what a little effort in your studies can get you?”

John nodded and pouted his bottom lip. Suddenly, he kicked out his foot and scraped his shoe down the middle of the painting, leaving a dirty streak of smeared paint. Then he chunked his foot right through the middle of the canvas. I jumped back in shock. Mimi screeched.

“What did you do!?” she cried.

He picked up the sad demolished painting, tucked it under his arm and power-walked toward the drive. The tear where his foot had gone through fluttered sadly in the wind.

“No you don’t!” Mimi marched after him. “Don’t you dare hand that assignment in!”

She tried to wretch the ruined painting from his arm, but he tugged it back and kept storming off.

“You, you!” she stammered. “You’ll be thrown out of the college!”

“Fine!” John yelled back at her as he left.

I stood there helplessly in the garden. The birds sang unaware and cheerful. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Not holding out much hope for a long and successful painting career for Lennon. 

***

That evening, Aunt Mimi knocked heavily on my door. “I have dinner dear if you’re hungry.”

I tore off my covers and hopped out of bed. The rich smell of meat had been lingering in my room and I was craving it for hours.

I skipped eagerly down the wooden steps and into the dining room. Roast beef with cranberry sauce, potatoes and gravy all laid across a crisp tablecloth. I gladly took my seat at the end of the table. Mimi sat on the other side facing me but not making any eye contact. We sat in moderate, uncomfortable silence until the kitchen door squeaked open.

John entered the room and the already cold atmosphere worsened as Mimi eyed him down. He kept his gaze at the floor and calmly sat at the table.

“I suppose you think you’ve gotten away with the painting,” she said as he tucked his chair in.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, spreading a napkin over his lap. “Barrell would have given me a zero no matter what I did with it. The man has it in for me, he told me himself.”

“And why on Earth would he be so against you?” she asked.

 “Because I seem to be in possession of something he thinks is his…” John made it a point to flash his eyes toward me. I froze. Horrified. What had I done?

“Don’t be senseless,” Mimi snapped. “If you get a zero it will be because you’re missing lectures and disrupting class. Just the same as the zeros you got in grammar school.”

He didn’t counterargue. He rested his cheek on his fist and bounced his heel wildly.

“You are a gifted boy, John. You’re one of the brightest students in your year. But if you keep getting into trouble, they can’t keep you on talent alone. Most of the teachers refuse to have you in their classes now. What are you going to do once every single one of them has had their fill of you?”

John gave a small shrug and a smirk that was more guilty than anything else. “Then I’ll have more time for my guitar. She’s been gettin’ a bit dusty lately. Lonely. Suspicious of all the paintbrushes. You know how jealous she can be.”

Mimi closed her eyes and gave him a long sigh through her nose, a disapproving one. “No more. No more messing about with that guitar when you could be spending valuable time with your University training.”

John seemed to curl into his seat as he stuck his fork into his roast beef. “I could be successful with it, you know,” he said quietly.

I ping-ponged back to Aunt Mimi who still looked as stern as ever. “Yes, you could be successful,” she all but admitted. “But honestly John, that doesn’t matter. Because the way things are with music… they don’t last. These things don’t last. You could be a great musician and just as well, it will come and go. People will be clamoring for you one week and then the next week you’ll disappear, and no one will have ever heard of you.”

 I kept my eyes to my roast beef, thinking of how to interject my own feelings. What she was saying was true if it had been anyone other than John of course. He would never fade away. That even in the year 2109 historians like me knew of The Beatles lasting effect on music and humankind.

Mimi continued to scold from her side of the table. “You must focus on the training, because you need the security.”

“Security in money, sure,” he said spooning another mouthful in. “But no security in love or anythin’ else like that. Now what kind of a life is it if it’s just about the money, then? If I’m good at the guitar and I like it and I get on with it. Then what does it matter?”

“It matters a great deal,” Mimi said. “What am I to do John? If you pursue music and it ends when it does? And then I have a boy of twenty-one or twenty-two thrust on my hands who is qualified for nothing.”

The air was thick with disapproval and grief.

“I really think you can be a successful painter,” I said, working my way in. “You just have to push yourself a little harder and go to class.”

John gave me a pained smile. I knew what that meant. Helpless. And I knew that the Barrell part was in some ways my fault.

“Or you know, it doesn’t have to be painting,” I tried. “You’re very good at writing. Maybe you could work for a newspaper or something like that.”

“I don’t want to give my life away for some odd job,” he said pushing into his seat. “What’s wrong with doing the thing that makes me the happiest? Why do I have to sweep my passions under a rug for a check here and there?”

I couldn’t believe it. My jaw dropped. This conversation was all too familiar. Like a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past forcing me to hear myself arguing with my mom over Plate Tec.

Mimi sat with her usual pinched expression. “Because a check here and there keeps you from starving in the streets. Now, eat your sprouts.” 

John kept his eyes on his potatoes, but I could see the muscle in his jaw clenched and his knuckles white on his fork.

“I’m going to have to have a real discussion with Julia about this,” Mimi said to herself as she plucked away at the food on her plate. “No doubt she’s the one whose been putting your head in the clouds.”

“Well at least someone’s lifting me up rather than knocking me down all the time!” John’s voice raised.

“Because she doesn’t know what’s best for you, I do!” Mimi shouted back. “You’re going to salvage your education. You’re going to finish your training. And you won’t entertain your mother’s wildly misplaced ambitions for you.”

“They’re not hers—”

“You won’t.”

John scooted his chair so roughly that the wood on the floor croaked. Then he stormed out of the room, his footsteps stomped down the hall and thumped up the stairs. The chandelier above us rattled. Whump! Whump! Whump! Whump! Creak! His floorboard screamed. Wham! Went the bedroom door.

Mimi braced both her wrists on the table and sighed deeply through her nose. “Emmeline. Take the dishes into the kitchen and wash up.”

“Wha— m-me?”

It was clear by her expression that she wasn’t kidding around.

I took the heavy plates to the miniature sink and threw them in. I had never once washed a dish in my entire life. The water from the tap tinkled into the sink. I held a dish under the flow and let it carry the gravy off into the drain. The gravy came off pretty quick and the plate looked the same before we ate on it, so I slid the wet thing into the cupboard.

Whew. I wiped my brow. This was hard.

As I continued to hold dishes under the water the panic started to set in. John was never going to give up his music. And I only had two months left. He said it, he said it to my face that he wasn’t going to give it up. So now what? Where do I go from here? How would I convince this stubborn, stubborn guy to abandon his lifelong dream, passion, and talent?

C’mon John, love me dammit. Your life depends on it.

Thorne was absolutely going to make me kill him. Because he wouldn’t give up the music and he wouldn’t propose to me. I could feel the anxiety beating down inside of myself. But I couldn’t be sure! Sometimes he seemed like he liked me. He did the twist and lean and took care of me when I was sick. I couldn’t deny what he said in private to Harrison and McCartney. He must like me! Well, no more chase, no more anticipation, Lennon. It was going to take me to move things along.

My insides were completely jittering. I had to push the relationship along for the sake of his life. Time to make a move, as they say. I was going to go right upstairs and kiss him dead on the mouth. That’s it. That’s what I was going to do.

I rushed up the stairs to John’s room and knocked on the door. He didn’t come to the door right away and I put my hand on my stomach. It had been so long since I had kissed anyone.

Traegar Baskins, that rat. He kissed me, the first night we ever met. I mean talk about brazen, but then I still kind of liked it to be honest. He was gorgeous. All the right mods in all the right places if you know what I mean. Everything was dreamy. That is until he broke up with me forever because I had written a stupid song about a pirate pig with no legs. He was the last one I kissed. And I honestly felt like it was going to be my last kiss forever and all eternity.

John opened the door. “Miss Hollywood. Fancy seeing you here. Were you in the neighborhood?”

I smiled and tucked my hair behind my ear, trying to conceal how horribly nervous I was. “May I talk to you for a minute, John?” I asked.

“Well, sure.” He flopped onto his bed with his book. “But if Aunt Mimi finds out you’ve been knocking on boy’s doors under her roof it’ll be the dickens to pay.”

“Gotchya, I won’t be long,” I said stepping right into his room. John raised his eyebrows at that.

Hmm. This wasn’t exactly how I had imagined. I was kind of hoping his lips would be a little more, well, accessible. But there he was laying on his stomach on the bed, blocking me with a novel. The orange cat stretching a step over the small of his back.

I tried to flip my hair all cool and confident. “Listen John, let me cut to the chase,” I said. “I like you.”

The way his eyes widened, I didn’t know if it was shocked or more confused.

Why are we wasting time with this? I know you feel the same way so we should just be together already.”

 “Erm…” Whatever shock or confusion his eyes drew up blinked away and he was back to his old cynical brow self.

Was I coming on a little too strong? Probably. Was I already in the middle of a train wreck with no way to stop it? Absolutely.

“That’s a bit big-headed of you,” he said.

Both my jaw and my heart fell into my shoes. Oh, wow. Oh, wow, oh, wow. I messed up. Royally. This was bad. Oh my Galactica, this was bad.

“Don’t you like me, though?” I asked feeling stupid as hell. “But I thought… I mean… Okay, but after what you said to your friends? What about that time you sneaked a peek on me in the tub?”

“I was picking up a mouth organ that slipped from me trousers,” he said.

“Yech!” I scrunched my face. “I don’t need to know about that.”

John pulled a harmonica out of his back pocket and tossed it on the edge of the bed in front of me.

“Oh. You call that a ‘mouth organ’. I see,” I said more to myself than to him.

John narrowed one eye at me. “Why do you like me?” he asked.

“What?”

“Why do you like me?” he repeated in the same cadence.

My mouth opened and my throat made this weird low gurgling as I tried to respond. Finally, when I couldn’t John responded for me. “Okay, because I’ve been trying to figure it out, you know. And I can’t at all. There’s no reason for you to be liking me like you do. I don’t have any money, or prospects, I mean you don’t even like the music that I play in me band so it can’t be that. I’m just a trouble makin’ Ted from all the wrong places, so what? What is it, then? There has to be some kind of a catch. And you’ll have to tell me because I can’t figure you out.”

“What makes you think there’s some underlying motive?” I asked with a nervous laugh.

“Because there is.”

I stared at him for a moment, then I crossed my arms. “Well, first off, you didn’t answer my question.”

“What question is that then,” John asked unamused.

“You didn’t say whether you liked me or not. You just skirted around the question, but you never gave me an answer.”

John’s book thudded on my bed he dropped his hand so fast. “You answer my question first. Why do you like me?”

“Nuh, uh, uh. I asked you first.”

John shook his head. “You didn’t ask me, you just decided that I fancied you and then sort of notified me about it just now.”

I kept my arms crossed and raised my brow. “Okay, well, do you?”

“No.”

I pursed my lips tight. The way he had knocked me over with his blunt answer. Galactica. Two out of three, Lennon?

“Well, why not?” I asked, still trying to keep my shattering confidence in the room. “Is it because you’re interested in Cynthia Powell?”

John let out a big snorting laugh. “What? Miss Prim from Hoylake?” he asked his voice raising pitch. “And what about Stu, then, huh? What about him?”

I could feel my face drop. “What about him?”

John waggled his eyebrows up and down.

“Oh, stop,” I said waving him away. “I’m not interested in Stuart Sutcliffe. He’s not my type. I mean, basically not. He’s always got that scarf and the glasses. Nerdy glasses. Definitely not interested. No, no, no. Not even at all attracted… not even at all.”

“Alright,” He said with this sweeping shrug of one shoulder. “I feel the exact same way about Cynthia Powell that you feel about Stu.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Alright.”

“Great.”

“So, that’s it, I guess.”

“Nice talking to ya,” John said and reopened the book in his hand. He reminded me so much of his AI that I almost considered ending the program out loud.

Instead, I awkwardly shut the door and stumbled into my room next door. Well, that was probably even worse than a thousand ex-boyfriends breaking up with me on Talent Search. Okay. Not to mention how Lennon rejecting me just got live-streamed to my least favorite person ever, who probably watched the whole thing with a big grin and a bowl of popcorn.

I crawled right into bed and pulled the covers over my head. I activated my IND and watched the video of Que and me at the lake. I didn’t even bother to cover the crack of the door in my bedroom to conceal escaping light.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

As The Quarrymen played in Julia’s cramped living room, they blew me away. My poker face was hard to hide. Not that I expected little baby George or baby Paul to be as magical or talented as their grown-up counterparts, but they still had something. Recovering from surgery, I had listened to hours and hours of The Beatles. And to find out that they had always had great sound even when they were basically kids? Well, that was kind of irritating in a way. Why couldn’t I have had that magical dose of whatever they had? I must have had the antidote.

John was so effortless about it. Right in the middle of everything, he unwrapped a piece of chewing gum and popped it into his mouth. And he sang like that. That loud rock n’ roll tearing voice of his. He did that while he somehow kept a piece of gum in his mouth. Like, who does that? Lennon was by far the most smug, talented, quirkiest son of a bitch I had ever met in my entire life.

When the band had stopped playing, Julia immediately leapt to her feet and cheered. She put her fingers in her mouth and whistled so loud, I could hardly hear the neighbors banging on the attached wall to silence them all.

John had an absolute beaming grin on his face as his mother showered them with all the praise and affection that would be multiplied by the millions in another timeline. He took a bow.

“Thank you, thank you.” He nodded at me. “Miss Hollywood, what did you think of the show?”

Everyone turned and looked at me. The room went dead quiet. My stomach practically flopped on the floor.

“Oh, uh—”

 The truth was. I loved it. Obviously. It was great. Their natural talent made me want to puke with jealousy. But how could I say anything really? This was the crucial moment. The moment to tear away the band and alter the timeline.

John could see my hesitation. He glanced at Paul and then back to me, his shoulders drooped. “Alright, out with it. No need to give us the bread pudding. How were we?”

“Um, it was— I mean, you know.”

My heart was whirring. Julia’s once applauding hands cupped under her chin, waiting for my response.

“It was what?” John asked in a biting tone.

“It was… It was alright,” I said.

John’s expression didn’t change. “You didn’t like it,” he said.

“I mean, it’s not that,” I said, feeling like I could shrink into the couch cushions and disappear.

What was wrong with me? I was already failing my mission. Why couldn’t I tell him that he was horrible, and he should give up music forever?

“Well, go on, if you hated it, just say you hated it,” he said, his voice harsh and angry again.

“Well, what didn’t you like about it?” Paul quickly stepped in as the mediator. “Is there anything we can improve on? You have any suggestions?”

“Uh…” I scrunched my skirt in my hands, thinking of how to respond, while the boys all waited. “If you all tightened the tempo on the intro, then Colin would have an easier time keeping up with George through the rest. Um… the chord progression is one, six, four five one. But you could always substitute the four for a two… And John is playing banjo chords… not guitar chords…” I swallowed and then quickly added. “Or if that’s too hard you could just give it all up.”

The group shot each other stunned expressions, except for John who stared at me, his cheeks growing red.

“Do you know a lot about music, dear?” Julia asked resting her elbow on the couch. “How do you know about chord progressions?”

“I— I do, yeah.” I let go of the sweaty folds of skirt. “I went to school for it. A conservatory. For a little while.” Not totally a lie anyway.

Paul stepped forward with his guitar in his hand. “Alright. I say we try out Emmeline’s suggestion.”

“Yeah, wow, a conservatory!” Julia added.

Paul nodded to a solemn Lennon. “John?”

John turned his mouth down hard. “No.”

Everyone’s shoulders tensed as they looked around to each other. Finally, George quietly peeped from the back of the room. “Why not?”

“Because no.”

“C’mon, love,” Julia said softly and calmly from the couch. “If you have an opportunity to better yourself you should take it.”

John shot her a look. “Because we’re rubbish, is that it? You think we should give it up?”

“I didn’t say that did I? Emmeline sounds like she really knows what she’s doing. She could help you be even better. She could be your manager.”

I pressed into the couch. Yikes.

“Nope, sorry. Already have a manager. Nigel Walley.” John ducked out from under the guitar strap. “We get on fine as it is.”

“But Nigel doesn’t know a thing about composing music,” Julia said with a laugh. “I think Emmeline is right about the tempo—”

“Oh, of course you think that!” John scoffed. “Knowledgeable little Hollywood! Pretty little Hollywood! Thinks-she’s-better-than-everyone Hollywood!”

I opened my mouth, but I didn’t even know what to say. I felt a horrible churning in my stomach. Well, so much for getting a ring at the end of the summer.

“John, calm down,” Paul said softly, stepping toward John.

“Group practice is over,” John said, his voice breaking ever so slightly. He swung his guitar on his back and collected his shoulder bag. Everyone else in the room stared at him dumbfounded.

When no one moved he turned to the rest of the band. “Didn’t you hear? We’re shit. Now, pack it up.”

John tore out of the house. I awkwardly slunked on the couch while the rest of the boys sighed in frustration and packed up their instruments.

***

I walked myself to Mendips, John-less. He must have come home late because I didn’t hear the floorboards of his room squeak until the dark, cold hours of the night. I contemplated knocking on his door, but I didn’t know what I would say. Not only that, but the burning in my throat had spread all the way to the tip of my scalp and into my lungs.

Everything was hurt and weighted. Every joint in my body even my pinky toe. My nose was so swollen that it felt like heavy chains were wrapped around my head.

I wanted to cry. Panic. Contact Thorne on my IND and tell him to take me back through the portal. But then when I imagined trying to jump off that cliff with how sluggish and achy, I felt. I just hoped for the best. Galactica. I hoped this feeling would go away.

I lay in my bed as still as possible for the rest of the night and into the morning. My nose and throat were so constricted that sometimes I had to sit up and try to sleep that way. I could hear John shuffling in his room and humming. Well, anyway. Humming was good. At least his mood had improved.

He went on shuffling until early in the morning and then was quiet until early in the afternoon. Mimi banged on his door to inform him that he would begin rotting if he slept a minute longer. 

When I heard his door open, I strategically opened mine.

John was about to step out sporting an extra fluffy bedhead. When he saw me, he stopped so fast at his doorway that he pulled back like a train braking too hard into a station.

“Hello,” I said, my nose so plugged that my voice came out like a housebot with a bad speaker.

He gave me a childlike scowl and slammed his door. I would have cried but my nose was already doing that for me.

Change of tactics. Change of plans.

Now I need to fix this mess. I was not about to forget our casual and friendly walk to his mother’s house. Or what he had said to his friends. At least I had some kind of a foundation with him. A cracked and decrepit one, but a foundation nonetheless. I clung to it for dear life as I pulled my sorry bones out of the house.

I slogged down the street. Were these my last moments on Earth? I had never felt like this before. My throat felt like it was coated with acid.

The bell at the record shop door sounded with a clang. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, I went through the records. Ding went the cash register. And clang went the bell a second time as I rushed with my gift back to Mendips. 

I stayed in my room for the rest of the day. Catching cat naps in between choking on my own nose discharge, until finally I heard John’s voice from downstairs bantering with Mimi and making her unwillingly laugh.

I dragged my sorry sore bones out of bed and down the stairs. Coughing with each step I took. Somewhere in between the catnaps, Mimi had served dinner and cleared the table. I tried to get a good whiff of that rich savory roast smell, but as soon as I sniffed my nose gargled like a vacuum hose slurping up a muddy swamp.

I sauntered through to the front room where I found John kneeling and turning knobs on a radio. As soon as I entered, he gave me a miserable glance.

“Coming over here to give me music lessons?” He asked, as the radio caught its station.

“John, I’m really sorry about that,” I said, horrified at my own wispy strained voice. I pulled the album from behind my back. “I got this for you… Elvis’ Golden Records. Because he’s the king, baby,” I said, shaking my hips like John had done yesterday.

His face softened. “For me? I… thank you.”

He slowly reached forward and took the album from me. As he examined the album cover, a coughing attack began and did not stop. I stood there hacking up one of my lungs, I thought my own throat was going to suffocate me.

“You alright?” he asked.

I rubbed my discharge onto my sleeve. “I think I’m dying.”

He laughed. “Didn’t know you could die from the common cold.”

This is a common virus?” I asked. “How do you people live like this?”

John’s lips curled into a smirk. “They don’t catch colds in California?”

“I never have,” I grumbled.

John gave me a gentle expression. His eyes flickered, his long heavy eyelashes following.

“Here, have a sit,” he said, sliding an armchair next to the radio.

I was too tired and sore to argue so I crumbled into it.

“I’ll get the tea on,” he said.

I nodded and sniffled. I felt so helpless and weak like a small little puppy in need of being rescued. John hurried off into the kitchen, when a voice on the radio announced a show called The Goons. I curled my knees to my chest until John returned with a cup of hot tea. He draped a woven blanket across me.

“There, see?” He chuckled. “Mummy’s here to make it all better.”

He handed me a piping hot mug of tea and patted my knee with the tips of his fingers. I furled my brow at this enigma. One minute he’s teasing you in front of everyone, then the next he’s chatting your ear off about aliens. Then the next thing you know, he’s slamming doors on you and tucking you into a chair and playing mother. Who was this guy? Everything I had read and studied on him had not truly prepared me for his complexities.

“You know,” I admitted out loud to him. “You’re different than I expected.”

“And what did you think I’d be?” he asked, grabbing his own mug of steaming tea.

“I thought you were going to be…” I looked around the room trying to think of the right word. “Rougher, I guess.”

His shoulders tugged up uncomfortably. “Why? Because I dress a bit like a Teddy Boy?”

I shifted my eyes. I had barely an idea what he meant by that, and I felt too dizzy to figure it out.

“You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers,” he said, giving me a warm smile and sipping his tea.

“Hmm.” I wondered how accurate his files were.

John looked at me with a curious tilt of the head. “Hollywood, can I ask you somethin’?”

I set my tea on my lap. “Yes?”

“You said you went to a conservatory,” he said, one eye squinting in scrutiny. “If you studied music for so long, what are you doing here at the Liverpool College of Art? Shouldn’t you be at the Albert Hall with a cello at your knee or something?”

“Oh, um,” I tried to suppress my grimace. “Yeah, I did the whole music thing for a while. It didn’t work out.”

“What do you mean, ‘it didn’t work out’?” he asked. “How can music ‘not work out’?”

“I, uh…” Man, this was painful as hell. Unattractive as hell. Maybe he would react like my ex-boyfriend Traegar. Maybe this would be the nail in his coffin. But I had to explain, otherwise why would I be here at the College of Art?

“I bombed an audition,” I said, my voice shaking.

“What? One audition?”

I sighed. “It was a big audition… like a music career-ending audition.”

“And so?”

I blinked at him. What did he mean, ‘and so’? That was it. That was the end of my music career. Was that not clear?

“I had to give it up after that. And whatever, it sucked, and I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.

His eyebrows raised and he broke into an opened-mouthed smile. “Ah, so that’s the reason.”

“What do you mean?”

“The reason you don’t like The Quarrymen.”

I doubled back, blinking rapidly. “What? No. That’s not the reason for anything.”

“Just because you made the mistake to give up music, doesn’t mean anyone else should.”

I closed my eyes and scoffed. “Now, hold on.

“Alright, don’t get worked up. You need your rest.” He re-tucked the blanket around my legs. Then he gave me a sympathetic half-smile. “Um, you know, about yesterday… you were right… I do play banjo chords. I haven’t gotten good enough with guitar chords to give it a go at group practice, but… I’m learning anyway.”

I curled my fingers by my face, not knowing what to say. John stroked the head of an orange cat sitting on the coffee table.

“This is my favorite program,” John explained as he knelt next to the radio. “That’s Spike Milligan and he’s good. But my favorite is Peter Sellers, because they always give him the best bits, you know.”

I nodded cluelessly. Even extensive training in time travel courses couldn’t teach me every old British actor and radio program.

I couldn’t help but watch John. Curled up on the floor, his chin nestled into the crook of his elbow as he draped over the coffee table. He played with the tip of the cat’s paw, poking at it, and getting him to bat him back. Every once and a while, the actors would deliver a sharp punchline and he would laugh hard and loud. Other times he would squint and grin wildly to himself as if he were holding in the hard-loud laughs unsuccessfully.

Something about watching John share a normal and boring moment was fascinating to me. Eye-opening. History had painted him as this sullen and cynical person. But really, John laughed at everything. And yes, especially at things that should not be laughed at. Despite a confusing and heartbreaking childhood, he never took anything seriously.

Although I knew, the worst had not happened to him yet. The death that would traumatize him for life. Julia, Julia, ocean child…


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