Christmas Eve, 1997
“Always remember. . .” Lorena Colton cupped her ten-year-old son’s face in her palms, and stared deeply into his eyes.
She lay propped up in the hospital bed against three hard plastic pillows, and wore a thin white gown with tiny blue squares printed on it. The room smelled of Lysol, wilting flowers, and something darker, uglier. Her skin was spaghetti-squash yellow, and her lips the color of sidewalk chalk. A tube, attached to a bag of liquid, twisted into a vein in her arm like a clear plastic snake.
“Always remember . . .”
Cash hauled in a breath, fisted his hands at his sides, and shifted his gaze to the smiling, paper Santa Claus taped to the wall above his mother’s head, and waited for her words of wisdom.
“Never fall in love.”
Granny stood at the end of the bed, a deep frown pulling her mouth down, arms folded tight over her chest. Grandpa hovered near the closed door, Stetson cocked back on his head, looking just as stony, but less certain of it.
“Love is a trap,” Lorena rasped, her lungs rattling thick and wet. “Don’t fall for it. You’re special, Cash . . .”
She paused, coughed violently into a tissue. Wheezed. Started again. “You’ve got talent. So much talent.”
A hot shiver ran through Cash, landed hard in his belly. Burst. Bloomed.
“You can be somebody.” Her voice was low, her lips cracked and dry, eyes glistening with fever. “Don’t ever let a pretty face and hot body suck you into giving up your dreams.”
“Lorena!” Granny snapped. “That’s a horrible thing to tell a child!”
Summoning the last bit of strength in her, Lorena glared at Granny. “Cash is destined for great things, but not if he lets an ordinary life trip him up. He needs to know that.”
“He needs love. Everyone needs love,” Grandpa said, stuffing his long broad hands into the pockets of his faded jeans and hunching his shoulders forward.
“Then let him love Euterpe.”
“Who the hell is Euterpe?” Grandpa looked confused.
But Cash knew. His mother had been telling him about the Muses since he was a toddler.
“Euterpe is one of the nine Greek Muses.” Lorena’s voice grew softer still, losing strength the longer she talked, flickering, fading. “Euterpe…is the goddess of music, song, and dance.”
“There’s no such thing as a Muse.” Granny moved to cover Cash’s ears with her palms. “Stop filling the boy’s head with nonsense or he’ll end up just like you.”
Cash squirmed away from Granny, perched on the edge of his mother’s bed.
“Told ya we shouldn’t have sent her to that fancy school,” Grandpa mumbled. “It gave her funny ideas.”
“You’re the one who bought her the guitar,” Granny accused.
“Falling heedlessly in love got me here.” His mother struggled to sit straight up, her eyes flashing fierce for the first time since his grandparents had brought him into the room. For a moment she was her old self again. “Not education. Not the Muses, and certainly not the guitar. Music is the only decent thing in my life. My only saving grace.”
What about me? Cash bit his thumbnail. Aren’t I decent?
“I passed it on to you, Cash.” Lorena collapsed back onto the pillows that crinkled when she landed. “The music. My talent. That’s why you can’t ever let love lead you astray. You can make it as a musician where I failed.” Her voice was thin, evaporating.
He could hardly hear her, and he leaned closer.
“You can be famous, Cash, and rich beyond your wildest dreams. Just don’t let love lead you astray. Not ever.”
“This is wrong.” Grandpa shook his head like a windmill trembling in a West Texas sandstorm. “Wrong in so many ways.”
“Hush.” Granny grabbed his elbow and pulled him aside, and said in an angry whisper, “She’s dying. Let her say what she needs to say. We can fix it later. We won’t fail him the way we failed her.”
“Pick it up.” Lorena looked at Cash and waved a wispy hand at her guitar propped in the corner. The guitar she had never let him touch.
Cash hesitated, wondering if he’d misunderstood, wondering if it was a trick. Mom could be fickle like that. Tell him to do something, and then get mad when he did.
“Go on,” she prodded.
Granny and Grandpa huddled near the door, looking as uncertain as he felt. Granny laid a restraining hand on Grandpa’s shoulder, shook her head.
Cash eased toward the guitar, and cautiously picked it up.
“It’s yours now,” his mother said. “My Christmas gift to you.”
His heart caught fire, flamed. She was giving him her Gibson? It felt wonderful and terrible at the same time. Why was she giving him her most beloved possession?
Cash frowned, chewed his bottom lip. He didn’t like this. Giving away her guitar made no sense.
No. No. A creepy feeling crawled over the back of his neck.
And yet, and yet. . . he wanted that guitar. Wanted it with every muscle, cell, and bone in his body. Wanted, yearned, craved.
His mother closed her eyes, her hands flopping to her sides as if they were too heavy for her to hold up, and her chest barely rose when she inhaled.
“Mommy?” Cash called her the name he hadn’t said since he was a toddler. These days, he mostly called her Lorena, because she asked him to. She didn’t want people thinking she was old enough to have a son his age.
“Play for me, Cashie,” she murmured without opening her eyes. “Play “Stone Free.’”
From the doorway, Grandpa snorted. Granny nudged him in the ribs with her elbow. “Wrong,” Grandpa muttered. “So wrong.”
Reverently, Cash cradled the Gibson, sat in the chair next to his mother’s bed, his fingers strumming the first notes of the Jimi Hendrix anthem to restlessness. His mother’s favorite song. The first tune she’d ever taught him to play on the cheap pawnshop guitar she’d given him for his sixth birthday.
He sang the lyrics about freedom and rebellion. Sang as if he would never have the chance to sing again. Sang with all the heart and soul he possessed.
Sang and sang and sang.
Several nurses crowded into the room, watching him with wide eyes and opened mouths. Impressed.
Cash paid them no mind. He was playing for his mother. Giving it his all. Everything. Left nothing on the table.
His fingers flew over the strings, his voice ringing out clear and certain with each guitar lick. He’d never played so masterfully.
He was the music and the music was he.
No separation. No thought. Nothing but experience.
Sound. Vibration. Rhythm.
Jimi Hendrix lived inside him, through him.
As Cash sang the last line, the last words “bye-bye baby,” Lorena—his mother, the woman he’d tried so hard to please but could never seem to make happy—smiled softly, took her last breath, and finally flew free.