Chapter One
Word Count: 1,964

July 1, 2002
Shermer, Illinois

He hadn't been back here in years. He wasn't even sure what he was doing here now really. They each had equal say in decisions on where they played. John was the swing vote on playing the venue this weekend. Claude and Billy didn't want to bother with a town the size of Shermer. Sean and Noel wanted to because they thought it'd be a nice change of pace from the larger venues they'd been playing lately.

Candy, Jazmin, and Farrah didn't have an opinion, or a vote, since they were backup singers and dancers. They were a dime a dozen and could be replaced pretty easily. So easily, Farrah (John really wanted to meet the parents who would name their child that.) was the fourth they'd burned through in the past couple of years.

They were playing two shows, one each Friday and Saturday night. Friday night was a last minute addition because the band that was supposed to play cancelled unexpectedly. Finding a band with the night open on such short notice who were willing to travel wasn't easy, or cost effective. John had no idea how many they'd tried to find before contacting Shooterz about adding a second night, but being Fourth of July weekend played into most bands already being booked.

Deep down he supposed he knew why he was back here. He'd recognized the name of the annual Shermer Days planner when he called. He, of course, had no idea that the guitar player for Shooterz was a Shermer alum. That's why John voted yes.

The rest of the band wanted to stay downtown, but John was having none of that. He wanted to be right here, in the thick of it. If he was going to come back, he wanted to be back. He'd been to Chicago before. Many times. They'd played a wide array of venues throughout Cook County, just never Shermer.

John ashed his cigarette into his all but backwash bottle of beer while popping open the top on his next one. He took a sip, running his fingers through his hair as he looked out of his hotel window. Almost twenty years since he'd been back here. He'd like to say it hadn't changed, but it had. Every suburb of Chicago had, though. He had to admit he was kind of glad it hadn't been for the worse in Shermer's case.

He regarded his reflection in the window. He hadn't changed a whole lot. His hair was longer, his body a little leaner, but overall he didn't think he looked any different than the last time he'd set foot in Shermer. He dressed a little better because he could afford to, but he was still most comfortable in a flannel shirt with a T-shirt underneath, a pair of blue jeans, and a pair of boots. These days he could afford real Doc Martens instead of the knock offs he'd gotten in high school.

It was going to be interesting being on the performer side of Shermer Days. He'd gone plenty of times growing up, listening to bands from secluded spots so he could get stoned or drunk. Or both. Usually both. Ninety-nine percent of the time both.

Little had changed. Just he got paid to get stoned and drunk while playing a guitar surrounded by thousands of fans on any given night. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had to buy his own drugs because there was always someone with something. Booze. That he had to buy his own of sometimes, but not all of the time. It wasn't a bad way to live.

His cell phone rang and he pulled it out of his pocket, cigarette dangling from his lips as he regarded the number. He brought the phone up to his ear as he pulled the cigarette from between his lips.

"Hey, Sean. What's up?" He took a long pull from his beer after speaking into the phone.

'We're going out for pizza. Do you want to come?'

"Sure," he said

'I've heard Chicago pizza is to die for.'

"You've never had it?"

'No,' Sean said.

"It's the best," he said and could honestly say that with sincerity. He'd been everywhere he could think of and he'd never had a pizza like the kind he'd gotten growing up. New York came close, but it wasn't the same.

'Meet you in the lobby?'

"Yeah, I'll be down in a minute," he said.

It was hot, so he didn't need a jacket or anything. He finished the last of his beer, putting his cigarette out in the backwash of that one. He grabbed one of his picks, sliding it between his index and middle finger before grabbing his room key and heading down to the lobby.

No doubt they'd look to him for pizza ideas since they knew he was from here.

"Missy," Claire said, exasperated into the phone. "It's your mother. Call me, please."

She disconnected, sighing a bit. She wasn't sure she'd ever gone a day without talking to Missy let alone weeks until now. Oh sure, she'd gone to camp and things over the years, but this was different. She was staying at Claire's parents. It wasn't a planned break. They'd gotten into an argument.

A huge argument.

Claire wasn't sure Missy would ever forgive her, and she supposed she couldn't blame her for that. She hadn't intentionally mislead her. She'd just never told the truth. The truth wouldn't have done any good, and likely would have hurt Missy more growing up. She had a pretty good life growing up being Claire Standish's daughter and Christopher Standish's niece. Any other facts about her background would have led to people like (now) Principal Vernon treating her poorly due to guilt by association.

Of course, part of their agreement was that his name not be on anything regarding her. It seemed like an ideal deal at the time. He'd never missed a child support payment, not once. The months of her birthday and Christmas he always gave her a little more, but he'd never sent her a card or given her anything directly. At first he'd sent the money directly to her, but eventually he just started sending it right to her bank so she never even saw the checks. The account was one she had set up specifically for Melissa so he wouldn't have had access to any of her financials if he'd tried to do that.

So she had the financial support she needed but no interference or anyone to talk things over with as far as Missy's upbringing. It was better than forcing him to be involved when he didn't want to be anything more than essentially a sperm donor.

There were some who thought she was nuts, but she'd been pretty okay with the agreement. Missy certainly hadn't suffered or led a deprived life because of it.

Or so Claire had thought. Maybe she'd been wrong. God, she wasn't sure anymore. The past week had been awful. The worst. She'd take losing Stu again over knowing Missy was alive and well just not speaking to her.

"At least you're not mad at me," she said while petting her Airedale Terrier, Scotty. He was really Stu's dog, replacing Claire and Missy's Scottish Terrier, Princess, who died almost eighteen months ago. She hadn't wanted to get another dog. Missy was going to be leaving for college soon, which would leave them more time to travel and do things. A dog would interfere with that new found freedom that she had never had as an adult. Stu had wanted one, though, and Claire couldn't say no to him. If she'd known Stu was going to be gone less than three months after getting Scotty she might have stuck to her guns more about no more dogs.

There were times over the last seventeen years that Claire wondered if she'd ever be alone. Now that she was she hated every second of it, even if it was her own fault she was alone. Well, it wasn't completely her fault, but mostly her fault. Scotty was welcome company, truthfully, so she was grateful Stu had insisted.

"She can't stay mad at me forever," she said to Scotty, rubbing along his ear and cheek as he liked. "Right? I'm all she's got, really. She knows that. She'll realize that everything I've done and every decision I've made has been because of and for her."

Even marrying Stu. She'd loved him, but had never been in love with him. He was older than Claire and she'd liked that he didn't think because she already had Missy sex was expected on the first date. Or even the second. He'd treated her like a queen and Missy no worse than Chris and Tina treated their own kids. Missy, for all intents and purposes, was Stu's.

"All right, Scotty," she said. "Let's go for a walk." Missy wasn't going to call her back at this time of night. Then, maybe she would, thinking Claire wouldn't expect her to call and shut her phone off. So, she grabbed her cell phone and brought it with her, which was not something she usually did while walking Scotty.

She walked him on their usual route, wondering why it was so crowded tonight. It was summer so people were always out and about, but tonight was busier than usual for a weekday night. Then she remembered. Shermer Days was starting the day after tomorrow. Likely there were some vendors and things setting up. She'd always enjoyed going because she liked her town. Stu hadn't batted an eyelash about moving here when Claire mentioned she'd like to stay here instead of moving away. He'd lived in a condo downtown when they met, but hadn't thought twice about selling it and buying a home in Claire's hometown so that she could live where she felt most comfortable.

"Yet another thing I won't be doing this year," she whispered to Scotty as she passed by a group of people. Going to carnivals and concerts just wasn't much fun alone. She scrunched her nose a bit as she regarded the women in the group. Skeezy wasn't doing their outfits justice. Did they not realize where they were?

Scotty stayed close to her side as they passed. He was pretty good at that sort of thing, barking occasionally when they passed another dog. People he was pretty shy around. She couldn't say she was too disappointed with this group.

"Nice dog," once of the guys said.

"Thanks," she said under her breath, moving past them quickly. She smelled smoke as she passed them, and not of the legal cigarette variety. Not her problem and she couldn't say she was surprised based solely on their appearance that she smelled it so prevalently. She couldn't help but think after the past few months she'd give just about anything for the mind-freeing effects pot had.

"Must be losing your touch, Noel," one of the women said. "She didn't even notice you," she heard from behind her.

"Hey," the guy said again. "I said nice dog. Didn't your mom and dad teach you to be gracious to people paying you a compliment?"

A burst of laughter followed that.

"Don't be an ass, Noel, she said thanks," someone said. Another woman, not the same one who'd spoken a second ago.

"I was going to offer her dog a free pass so he could come to the show Saturday night. Everyone's so uptight in this town, man, he'd have to liven things up."

More laughter as she continued down the sidewalk without looking back. Thankfully, she could get back to her house without backtracking the way she'd come.