“Great.” Melly pulls out her laptop, and only quasi under her breath says, “For what I’m paying for this tour, I’d like something that’s not going to leave me hobbling by the time we get to LA.”
So we’re not even pretending to be nice today. Good to know.
As Joe passes him on his hunt for a chair, Rusty offers a look of commiseration that I’m sure is the dude equivalent of I know, right? But then Rusty steps into the back lounge and his misery is, as ever, short-lived: “Baseball all day?” he calls out, gleeful. “All right, my man!”
Melly takes a deep breath and bends her head to rub her temples. I can, oddly, relate.
We stop at a gas station in Salt Lake City for bathroom breaks, fuel, and junk food. A country song filters from the speakers overhead, and I find James in the Maverik coffee aisle, typing furiously into his phone. Stepping up beside him with arms full of Funyuns, Peanut M&M’s, and Red Vines, I bump his shoulder with mine.
“Still glad we told Melly?” I ask, snapping a bite of a Red Vine.
Instead of responding, he slumps. “They just rode Expedition Everest.”
I’m definitely missing an important piece of this conversation. “Who did?”
James turns the screen toward me and I see a pretty brunette grinning into the camera and standing just behind two scrappy boys wearing mouse ears. They look exhausted and sweaty and euphoric.
She’s got the same luminous brown eyes and narrow nose, but it’s the smile that gives it away. The McCann children apparently have great teeth. “Your sister?” I guess.
Nodding, he slips his phone back into his pocket and reaches for a Styrofoam cup from the display.
“Right, your sister in Florida. You were supposed to go with them. That was your vacation.” Ugh. I guess I could continue to give him shit about screwing up this week for both of us, but missing a trip to Disney World with his sister and nephews seems like sufficient punishment.
“It’s fine.” He places his cup under the spigot labeled LIGHT SUMATRAN.
“It’s not fine, but I get that it has to be. I’m sorry, James.”
He glances at me, surprised. “Thanks.”
“When did you last see them?”
James reaches for another cup and places it under the Almond Joy latte spout. See? Getting Rusty’s coffee. Assistant.
“I saw them at Christmas a year and a half ago.” He glowers at the coffee machine. “Rusty and his stupid dick.”
My eyes widen. “It’s been that long?” I guess I assumed that everyone around my age was much better about the work-life balance.
“Andrew was three, Carson was six. We had Christmas at my mom’s place—which, incidentally, is also the last time I’ve been home.” He drags a distractingly large, strong hand through his hair. “This trip, I promised my nephews we’d ride Everest until we puked.” He shoves the top onto Rusty’s sugary drink with a little more force than necessary, and it sloshes over the side.
“That’s an admirable goal. I can see why you’re disappointed.”
Drinks wiped off and tucked into a cardboard carrier, he takes a second to study the collection of food in my arms and meets my eyes, brows raised.
I raise mine back. Yes?
He scratches his chin. That’s quite a snack pile.
I grin. And?
James grins back and my heart thumps once, hard, at the weight of flirtation in his gaze. Unexpected, but welcome; this trip is already really boring.
“I’m stressed,” I explain, looking away and breaking the tension. “When I’m stressed, I eat.” Not the healthiest coping mechanism, but it’s that or my vibrator, and that would just be awkward for everyone on the bus.
James apparently comes by those teeth and also the muscles genetically and not from a personal ban on junk food—he reaches for a Red Vine and takes a bite. “About the trip or the—” He grimaces at the unintentional pun. “The Tripps?”
I laugh into another bite. “Both, I guess. I’m not used to babysitting them like this,” I admit. “Usually I just help with logistics.”
We stop at the line that leads to the register, standing behind two women in their midtwenties. The brunette absently scans the front magazine rack; her purple-haired friend scrolls through Instagram on her phone. I follow the first woman’s attention to the magazines, and my pulse accelerates as I am reminded there are four different weeklies with various images of the Tripps’ euphoric marriage emblazoned on the covers.
“I swear to God these two are everywhere,” the brunette says, picking up a copy of Us Weekly. The cover features a photo of the Tripps on their farm, leaning casually against an iron gate. Melly’s head is thrown back in laughter. Her teeth are so white I’m sure they can be seen from space. Rusty smiles at her adoringly, happy that he can still make his wife laugh like that after all this time.
“They’re just salt-of-the-earth types!” the brunette sings sarcastically to her friend. Her voice lowers as she flips to the next page of the feature, and on some instinct to duck or hide or otherwise eavesdrop more subtly, I step closer to James just as he presses against my side, too.
“Seriously,” she continues, “I bet she’s never actually ridden a horse in her entire life, but look at him. Look how he looks at her. I’ve gotta find a man like that.”
The purple-haired woman looks away from her phone and groans. “I don’t know. Whenever I see some celebrity couple on every magazine, my first thought is that they’re in damage control mode.” Even so, she leans in and starts to read over her friend’s shoulder.
James and I exchange another look, and this time we’re both making the Eek face. On instinct, I lean forward to peek out the window and my breath cuts short. Out there, visible to anyone nearby, Rusty and Melly are clearly arguing.
Melly points a finger at Rusty’s chest and leans forward, appearing to lay into him. Rusty has the gall to not even look at her; his attention is focused to the side, bored gaze fixed on the horizon. I remember the days when he’d hang on her every word. I remember, too, when Melly would roll with anything, always the optimist. Now it feels like she’d start an argument in an empty house.
James and I exchange another look.
“This is how shit goes viral,” I say under my breath.
“I think this is when we intervene,” James replies.
I jerk my chin toward the door. So go.
He jerks his in return. No, you go.
Instead of being annoyed, I’m oddly on the verge of laughter. Nervous laughter. Nauseated laughter. I have never had to do this before; my job has always allowed me to blend easily into the background. I imagine walking out there and trying to mediate whatever’s happening between them. I imagine Melly’s hard stare, Rusty’s avoidance of eye contact. It makes me feel like I have a worm farm in my stomach. “Don’t wanna.”
He reaches for a penny in the Give a Penny, Take a Penny tray. “Heads or tails?”
It lands on tails. Damn it. James grins at me. I toss him a ten-dollar bill for my food, but he tosses it back to me, waving the thick silver Comb+Honey expense card. So now I’m going out there, pissed off that I have to deal with the Tripps and pissed off that no one ever trusted me with a platinum card.
I step a foot out onto the oil-stained asphalt and absorb the sight of Melly and Rusty standing in front of the giant vinyl funhouse version of their blissed-out marriage.
“Hey, you two!” I call out, a pathetic singsong. My voice is shaking and reedy; my gut is a cauldron of bubbling anxiety. Ever since I applied for another job a few years ago and wasn’t hired—and had to eat crow when the potential employer called Melly for a reference—I feel like I’m often walking on eggshells with my boss.
She looks over at me, eyes wide, like she forgot she was out in public. I know her well enough to get that she doesn’t like my intrusion, but we’re all in this awkwardness together, and there’s no one to blame but Rusty. And, to be fair, probably Melly, too.
Her arms are folded across her chest, but she immediately drops them casually to her sides. And, Lord, why does she have to travel like this? Her tailored black pencil skirt and Louboutins are completely out of place in the scrubby parking lot. Salt of the earth, she is not.
Aside from their meltdown in the Jackson store all those years ago—and in their office the other night—I’ve really only ever seen them bicker, and they’re usually careful to do it away from witnesses. This current messiness makes me wonder if Melly is more hurt than she’s letting on—whether the affair with Stephanie has been a tipping point in their relationship and she’s not able to retreat to her bubbly persona as easily.
“Hey, Carey-girl,” Rusty says. It’s the first time he’s addressed me directly since all this happened.
“Hey. Everything okay out here?” I ask.
Melly glares at Rusty before giving me a smile that’s too tight at the edges, and fans her attention across the gas station parking lot, mentally clocking who might have seen them arguing. “Of course, hon!”
“Great!” I call back, matching her enthusiasm. “Just reminding y’all there are eyes everywhere!” I absolutely hate this new role. I feel like I’m wearing wet wool for skin. “Okay, I’m headed back on the bus!”
“We’ll be right there!” Melly smiles brightly.
I take the steps two at a time and make a beeline for the back, where I know Melly won’t come, because it’s where the sportsball games live. I’m terrified that she’s going to feel free to chew me out for interfering once we’re behind closed doors. Is it going to be like this every public-facing second of the tour? Probably.
Tonight we have a signing at a Barnes & Noble in Los Angeles. Then we’re up in Palo Alto. After that, it’s San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, Idaho. The events are always the same: We’re escorted to a greenroom, where there’s a rush to find an actual chair for Melly to sit on, not a stool or—God forbid—a director’s chair. There’s usually a friendly bookseller, some screaming fans outside, Rusty’s dad jokes onstage, and the Tripps answering the same questions at every stop.