Del Sol Valley Many months after the showdown at Stryker's apartment
The talk show host was downright picture-perfect beautiful, not a hair out of place, her make-up the perfect level between natural and definite effort, her voice was sultry, her words were exact, her tone comforting yet assertive, and her smile was professional – with a few off-camera special smiles thrown in at Stryker. She was none other than Elena Bellemore, currently the most popular TV personality, she made the ‘sexiest people’ lists every year in the top ten – and she liked him.
He smiled too, it was genuine, even though some jokester in prop must have felt it funny to place a bottle of whisky and a glass in front of his seat. Bad move considering Stryker was a freshly recovering alcoholic on top of a laundry list of other issues, including hard drugs. Then again, it wasn’t anyone in the studio to blame, as Stryker noticed the host’s confused glares at it a few times and while a clip of his latest music video was played for the audience, she asked him if he wanted it removed.
Stryker shook his head, smiling, secretly he assuming it was another test by Blaine, there had been several planted items so far over the past weeks, Stryker had passed each and every test. It was always tempting but reminding himself of that one night and the fact that things were still nowhere near where they once were with Sophie was all it took for him to lose interest each time. Blaine had told him the first moment they started working together again that he wouldn’t tolerate even the smallest slip-up regarding drugs. Stryker needed Blaine’s help, appreciated all he had done for him and was doing for him, but the planted pitfalls started getting old and felt like schoolmastery now, not help.
“So … Stryker Hayes … flyin’ solo now. I must say, I love the new look …” Elena purred.
She had to interrupt as the studio audience cheered so loud, nobody could hear anything anymore. Once they calmed down again, a smiling Stryker winked at an also smiling host. She liked him. He could tell she did. And he would admit that he was tempted. Which healthy, straight man wouldn’t be?
“Thanks much. Figured now that I am actually sober enough to remember to comb my own hair, might as well show that I have some.” Stryker smirked and winked at the camera with the red light pointed at him.
“Oh my goodness, you are too much. I love how you can joke about the dark times in your life now. Anyway … what I was going to say was that I am obsessed with your new album. I am no music expert, but I would say it emulates the sounds we loved from Stryke 3 with a more mature blues-y kinda undertones. And who would have thought your ballads are THIS amazing! I must say, I am very impressed by your return to the stage, and just as pleased as all these wonderful people here.”
Another wave of screams and cheers reached near deafening levels, before Stryker got to talk.
“Yeah, mature is a good key term. I have matured during my … let’s call it ‘break’ – and not just in the professional way, but as a person, as a man.”
“You’re sexyyy … I love youuuuu!” screamed someone in the audience, making the host and Stryker both laugh, he waved in the direction of the caller.
“Well, she certainly isn’t alone with her opinion. You look great, Stryker, and I don’t mean it as sheer flattery. You look healthy and strong, like we haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Thanks. Yeah, I feel good too, for the first time in a long time actually good.”
The host smiled at some more fan interjected comments from the audience, then grabbed a handheld mic and went in to give them all a chance to ask questions properly.
The fans had lots of things to say, many questions, but luckily, everyone seemed to take well to his solo return. Then cheers got deafening again. The host was smiling big, standing next to another woman, way too perfectly dressed and styled to be an audience member. She was none other than famous pop artist gone actress Anais Mercier. Anais was often referred to as quintuple threat in the business for being beautiful, wealthy, talented, and a popular singer as well as famous actress equally successfully. Many tried the crossover, most failed, for they were either just more talented in one or the other, not both; or had been typecast already with nowhere left to go. Not her, even though because of her always slightly hoarse bedroom sounding voice and sultry demeanor, even now, as she demonstratively blew a kiss at Stryker, she was referred to as the modern-day Brigitte Bardot, and not only because of her French background.
The host smiled at Stryker, about the undoubtedly set up cameo.
“Stryker, look at this beautiful ‘fangirl’ here. I am sure you know who THIS is.” Elena asked directed at him.
“A blind man with a stick would recognize her. Hey beautiful, I feel honored.” Stryker laid on the flirting to match the situation.
“Hello Stryker, mon cher. Looking better than ever! Absolutely delicious, you! So glad to see you are doing well – and I was wondering if you were up for a special kinda treat. I am throwing together another charity concert for a cause that may be close to your heart, youth in trouble, from bad home situations, usually who end up living on the streets and in the downward spiral of substance abuse. May I personally invite you to join me on stage for a weekend? Would you guys like to see that?” Anais knew how to get fans to react and incite cheers.
The audience reacted as intended and got loud.
Stryker continued smiling, he was of course immensely flattered to be asked by such a high-level VIP celebrity but wasn’t sure what Blaine would think about him just agreeing on live TV to something like that. Then again, he always said they needed to get Stryker as much exposure as possible, ‘and if we have you dance nekkid atop the Starlight Accolade Awards Hall, you better start swinging them hips, kid!’, Blaine sometimes jested. Well, how about dancing fully clothed across a stage with one of the hottest acts currently in the music biz to get him some more exposure?
“Try and stop me! I am so there! Hope you can handle me!” Stryker smiled a fake smile, while wondering how Sophie would feel about this. The last thing he needed was her being even more aloof and him totally friend-zoned because she thought he was gonna have wild orgies with Anais and Elena. And he couldn’t even be upset at her thinking it, considering the many times he had REALLY cheated on her, the ones she knew about were barely the tip of the iceberg, Sophie had no idea about that, but Stryker remembered, and as much as he knew honesty was key, he knew if he were too honest about it, he’d lose Sophie for sure So he would keep it to live in his own mind to torture him with regrets, the only people who knew would never tell, his former bandmates and friends Drake and Nate and his therapist, who used to tell him that love conquers all. Well, it had been almost a year since the incident at his apartment followed by many long months in rehab, and long months after trying to get his life back in shape outside of rehab, get his career going after his bandmates had moved on and gotten real jobs, declining a resurrection of the band. How much longer would it take for Sophie’s love to conquer this, cos Stryker was starting to get desperate for certain things Sophie just wasn’t ready for with him again. Almost a year without was a long time for him.
Anais didn’t help his worry when she gave him that certain type of smile and with a sexy voice told him
“Oh, I can handle you. I’d be happy to show you. Question is, can you handle all of THIS?” Anais moved sensually and incited her own cheers.
“I can handle!” Stryker had to defend his masculinity.
Applause ensued, while the women hugged and air-kissed each other on the cheeks in a very bougie fashion, before Elena returned to her seat, across from which Stryker regretted his cockiness. If Sophie was watching, THAT would not sit well with her. Shit! Oh well. Too late now.
Elena put away the microphone and picked up Stryker’s latest album, on vinyl, as Blaine and he both insisted, since a lot of the fans of his music liked retro vibes. His heart beat faster yet, looking at this masterpiece again feeling like a proud father.
Blaine had really listened to him and heard him and helped him turn words scribbled on paper and music written on backs of placemats and informational sheets about mental health – anything Stryker could get a hold of to pour the many things popping into his mind during rehab on paper – into the perfect album. Each song more meaningful than the next.
“So, let’s talk about your album. I understand there is a lot of personal emotion and experience that went into it?” Elena asked as if reading his mind.
“Oh yeah, every single piece is about something significant, meaningful, important that happened to me, mistakes I made, lifesavers good people cast out to me, about me being too ignorant to take the many chances I was given, then again, I was pretty damn sick too. A dark place, lots of demons and pain, constant pain. But then when I hit my lowest possible point and couldn’t go any lower, the worst night of my life turned out to be life-changing for me. I really found out who my real friends are that night. Well, but the worst wasn’t over yet, not gonna lie, rehab was brutal, I seriously often wished I were dead, but I pulled out of it and am in a much better place than I can remember being in a long time, if not ever. Needed a lot of months to heal, probably still healing, you know how they tell you that you will always be an addict, there is no cure, but I am definitely in control now, recovering, as they say. Now I have a long road ahead of me picking up all the pieces of my life – and some of others I dragged down into the abyss with me.”
“So the album title, ‘Phoenix’, is not just one of the hit songs but also … well, you? Is that why you are alone now, your former band members perished in the proverbial flames? How are those guys? Do you still talk?”
“Yeah and no. I am the Phoenix, risen from the flames, watching the embers and the ashes fade in the night, as a line of my song goes. And naw, Drake and Nate are fine, super-happy living the good life now, they took the money we made as Stryke 3 and called it a day. Both planning weddings, Nate already has a little girl, she recently turned 1, they bought REAL nice houses and chose to lead regular lives now with their loved ones, starting families, 9-5 type of careers and all that. And yeah, we’re all still good friends, Drake’s actually been my best friend since we were kids, and without him, I might not be sitting here anymore. Their girls are VERY happy about their choice, I’ll be the first to tell ya that being on the road is a lonely way to live, not just for the person doing the traveling and the shows, but the ones back home. But yeah, everyone is being very supportive of my solo career, so now my new beginning is truly completely new all the way around.”
“And the song ‘Sophie’ … wasn’t that originally a Stryke 3 piece?”
“Well, it was on our album and part of our stage line-up but it was always a very personal song. In retrospect, probably not as personal as it should be, considering I probably shouldn’t have used a name.”
“So, this Sophie is the keeper of your heart?”
“Oh, I am not going there. All I am gonna tell ya is that she is a very special person. VERY special. Sadly, she got caught in the crosshairs of my shitstorm before the rehab, I feel absolutely horrible about that, it was seriously bad, she is still healing, so I am not allowed to elaborate if I want to ever get back on her good side.”
“I see, so – and I have to ask this very direct and very personal question, I was explicitly forced to by several member of our staff and I am sure many fans want to know the answer as well: Is Stryker Hayes currently single?”
Loudest cheers ensued, giving Stryker time to find a good answer, hiding his discomfort and pain behind a smile.
“At the moment, I am.”
He kept on the mask of nonchalance, the smile hiding his own sadness, while his mind trailed off to the heartbreak about that very fact which he had been carefully spending every free minute not away touring trying to change again, while the fans went nuts over his answer. Sophie was guarded, her heart shielded, even though she still welcomed him to her home, fed him like she always had, and they spent countless hours together, alone and with their son ever since his release. So, he waited, and waited, but it kept getting harder and harder to deal with the disappointment of his hopes that each time he went to visit would be the time she would let him back into her heart as more than just a friend and father of her son, only to find she still couldn’t go there.