Last of the Independents
Chapter 3: Joining the Team
Long ago, and oh so far away. I fell in love with you, before the second show.“Superstar” — The Carpenters
When Sasha woke up, she was in a tight white pantsuit with a black tank top that had Christy’s faux-signature across the front. She noticed that both Frank and Eve had left. Blinking awake, she noticed the big-breasted dancer practicing with her troupe, seeming unaware of what had happened. Something nagged Sasha, and she recognized it as a sense of responsibility. She had work to do! She had to do her job for Christy! She got off the table and sprinted towards the media room.
“You’re fine. Welcome aboard, Sasha,” one of the women said. Sasha noticed that everyone was in the same uniform, but it made sense- they were all there to do the same thing for Christy, so of course they should match. She smiled and got to work sending out releases and preparing statements. The afternoon flew and she saw herself go from preparing releases and pitching reporters to booking interviews and setting up the press conference. Nothing mattered but helping her team, and Sasha used all her training from Northwestern as they turned everything around in record time. She had no time for names, not even her own, except to make it clear who she was passing something to- the only thing that mattered was getting the concert as out in the media in as little time as possible and getting the word out for the next stop. There was no time for breaks, for food, for a sip of coffee or soda. They worked at breakneck speed, and Sasha only stopped when the rest of her team put down their pens or turned off their laptops.
“8:30, guys, time for Christy to go on!” one of the workers said with a smile. Everyone marched out of the room and up to the luxury boxes. Several were marked staff, and Sasha followed her veteran co-workers in. Their box was in the middle, and Sasha saw the rest of the executive staff in boxes on either side of them. Someone handed her a plate of chicken from the arena catering, and though it was rubbery and tasteless, she devoured it as her stomach reminded her it hadn’t had anything all day. Everyone around her was doing the same, some with more self-control than others. Then Christy took the stage, and by the end of the first number, Sasha’s head was floating. The world slowed down like a dream as her brain fed itself on the music she was addicted to. By the end of the show, all of the staff were glassy-eyed and blank-faced as they marched down to the buses. Jan was there, counting everyone off with a harsh snap of her fingers in front of each person’s face. No one moved.
“Great job, everyone. On to Minneapolis!” Jan announced, signaling that they could board the bus, since no one would be joining them. Sasha saw Christy’s face briefly, and she couldn’t tell if she was dreaming until Christy’s mouth opened and everything went black.
The morning came with the same cheerful song it had the day before. Sasha groggily realized she was still in her pantsuit from the night before, and she felt the dirt on her skin. She found her way to the locker room, undressed, and showered. The water woke her up, along with the rest of her team, and they put on the day’s uniform of white turtlenecks and plaid skirts for the women, and white sweaters and khaki pants for the men. Sasha caught her breath enough to learn some names, but there were no leaders, no followers, and certainly not anyone who needed to get out of the way. They were a team working for the same goal of making their idol as powerful as she could be. It was a passion they all strove for and exceeded in their ventures, and as Sasha learned from scraps of paper and logos on cards, they had earned many awards for their efficiency and teamwork.
“Well, that’s easy. We’re all fans of Christy Reed, and you know what they say- if you do a job you love, you don’t work a day in your life. We can’t fail,” Sasha remembered telling a reporter, but the cities and the days ran together. Days became weeks, weeks became months, until the tour was over, and it was only then that Sasha could see the differences.
“There are four people here I don’t remember from when I started,” Sasha said to Jan.
“Yeah, people leave. Long days, no nights, no weekends... you can see why some people might not be interested in staying,” Jan said sharply, admiring Sasha’s awareness.
Sasha took a deep breath before asking, “So is there a next?” She couldn’t bear for this dream to end, to be sent back to her ordinary life and away from everything she had come to love and want like she had never wanted anything in her life.
“Possibly,” Jan said with a wicked grin. “That all depends on your boss.”
“You mean!” Sasha squealed.
“Christy, yes,” Jan acknowledged. Sasha gasped and went silent with anticipation, crossing her legs tightly to contain her excitement, but a moan escaped under her breath. “She’s ready for you.”
As Jan left and the door closed behind her, Sasha heard Christy’s singing voice, more powerful than ever, and she swooned to the floor with a mindless smile on her face.
When she woke up, she felt empty, but a strange and good kind of empty. After a moment’s thought, she realized what it was: it was the way she had been before she ever heard of Christy, back at Northwestern. There were no songs pounding in her head at the slightest misstep to keep her in line with everyone else, no dream-like disconnect to the outside world. She felt free. It was a strange thought, but Sasha knew she could get up and leave any second, and Christy would make no move to stop her.
“I said no secrets and I mean no secrets,” Christy said. “You spent my tour as a worker bee. Having one of the dancers work you over was to make sure the leash was long enough for you to do your job. You didn’t need my presence. Just thought of working for me was enough to keep you at your peak. You outlasted eight of your co-workers. Only three made it this far. Giving you a long leash means it’s long enough to let go if things get to be too much. Some felt too much and left during the tour. Others begged to be released, so...” She threw out her hands.
“I understand. Why did you wake me up, though? You violated my mind. I could bring you down, and I think you’d let me do it, but you helped me. I mean, this kind of experience is priceless, and I enjoyed my work, and it didn’t feel too weird. But why couldn’t you do this without, you know, breaking me? Or keeping me broken? It doesn’t make sense,” Sasha asked, feeling her self-confidence return with a vengeance. The parts of her that had been buried for months were furious, but most of her felt a deeper connection with Christy, one that was real and transcended what she had done to Sasha.
“I’m a siren. I’m born to control. It’s more than a job, more than anything- it’s part of who and what I am. If I didn’t control my little empire, some major label would find a way to control me, and then, yeah, I’d break everything I touched. I know it’s wrong, but it’s the lesser of two evils. If you stay, you’ll understand. But you don’t have to. That’s why I restored your consciousness. I do this to everyone at the end of their tour. Some I just give a plane ticket to, and they take their money and their experience and run from the stress. But you don’t seem like the kind to break under the pressure. I worked you hard, and you worked hard. You’re meeting with me and learning the inner workings for a reason.”
“Jan said everyone...”
“Has to know how the tour works so we can plug y’all in wherever we need you in case something goes wrong. I don’t mean that. I mean inside of everything. I want you to be my chief publicist. I like your style, and the bonuses on your paycheck should show just how much you did for my image. I might have lied about what I was putting on it, but the new album? That’s real, and it’s coming out in eighteen months. I don’t think I’d have to tell you this is a full-time job.”
Sasha smiled. “From the look of your dancers, the world’s second oldest,” she shot back. She didn’t know why she did it, and all her common sense was screaming nice job breaking it!, but Christy laughed. She looked different when she laughed, radiantly beautiful and nothing like the diva off the album covers.
“See, that’s part of why I want you to stay and won’t be surprised if you don’t. Minds are like bodies- some are stronger than others. Yes, for my dancers I look for good looks and ways to keep y’all entertained on the road- keeps all y’all from snagging innocent groupies. But even they get paid and released if they’re strong enough. I try to restore them as best as I can. I don’t try to break people so they can’t be put back together. There are weak minds out there, and sometimes my ushers get so distracted they find them by mistake. But they serve a purpose too, and a real important one. Visual allure allows the ones who are far away to focus on my music, which—”
“Every note a dollar. With your voice, more like five dollars,” Sasha interrupted with a smile. The part of her that wanted to leave was growing smaller as Christy spoke, and she was keeping a sharp eye on herself to make sure Christy wasn’t trying to soothe her into staying. But she was sure that the glimpses of the woman Christy was were real, that behind the supernatural singer was a minister’s daughter who happened to have a voice that was superhuman, one that launched her into a different world- one that Sasha could be a part of if she wanted to, and more and more she wanted to, whether because of curiosity or love.
“Very true. Now, as my publicist, you’ll be stationed at my mansion in Hollywood. Don’t call it home, ‘cause Hollywood is no one’s home. You’ll live with staff and report to me. As always, you’ll be paid. You’re an employee, not a slave. I don’t break, and I don’t enslave, but I do what I must to survive. I’d be grateful if you, now of a free mind and will, choose to return to me. A hundred thousand a year, full room and board, use of any and all of my facilities, and of course oversight of the PR team.”
Sasha was torn. On one hand, she knew she had been violated and used as a puppet. But she remembered some of the free time she’d been given: brief phone calls to family and friends, pieces from the correspondence course towards her Master’s, laughing with some of the PR girls. Christy took out the contract, and Sasha looked at her. “Will I still have enough leash to leave if you go too far?” she asked, her voice harsher than she had meant it.
“Of course. I’m hopin’ you’re one of those people who can keep me from going too far. Once you see Hollywood for what it is, you’ll know this, but there’s a reason why I make such a big deal of not being a slaver and having no secrets,” Christy replied.
“I’d say I need to talk to my parents before making a decision like this, but I know Bree already has them hooked on your voice and they’ll say yes as soon as they hear your name. I remember some of those phone calls. Bree’s quite the viral marketer, I must say,” Sasha said, laughing and caught between pride, embarrassment, and slight horror.
“She takes off her sister,” Christy replied with a proud smile, watching Sasha read everything closely before she signed with a long sigh. “Let me know when you’re ready. If you want to go home to say goodbye, you can. I can give you three days for that.”
“Nope, just get it done. I’m yours now, after all. I read the fine print and everything,” Sasha said with a naughty grin.
“Don’t like that mindset, but I know what you’re trying to say,” Christy said as she prepared her voice.
The next five minutes blurred into an eternity of bliss in Sasha’s brain as Christy launched her most devastating attack. Sasha tried to keep her eyes open as long as possible, more in a test of strength than in true resistance, but she succumbed and felt nothing but her body riding on note after note of complete ecstasy. When the song ended, all she could see was Christy’s face, all she could hear were the echoes of Christy’s voice, and all she could feel was primal desire thrumming head to toe,
“You know I’m bisexual, but only by necessity. It’s the most natural of rewards. So I have to be able to reward everyone,” Christy explained, but Sasha could barely understand the words. The only thing she could do was lower her skirt and kneel as Christy put her feet on the desk, pulled her skirt up past her knees, and beckoned Sasha forward with a curl of her finger. Sasha came and obeyed, and just like that she understood that she belonged to Christy Reed as she descended into joy and lust and an endless greatest hits CD playing in her head for days on end...
“Welcome back, Sasha! Everyone, say hi to our new publicist now that she can remember. Don’t worry, that was just a lullaby. I’ve known that one since I was a child. I only use that one for those who are joining the group full time. It stuns you hard for a while, but I’m sure it felt good. I try to be gentle to the brain, not shock it like some of my competitors,” Christy said. Sasha barely recognized the dark diva of the stage in a sweatshirt and blue jeans, legs thrown over the arm of a seat on the tour bus and a cheap novel dangling from one hand. Sasha looked down and recognized her favorite nightshirt, then looked around and recognized a couple of people, but not everyone.
“First thing we do is get your clothes back for you, since you’re going to be living with us for a while, or so I hope,” Jan said. Her kimono looked out of place and a bit formal.
“Macon to LA is a long trek, but I never finish a tour until I see my parents for forgiveness. The hike back gives the new folks get their brains unscrambled. We’ve just left New Mexico. One more day and we’ll be in Hollywood,” Christy said with a smile.
“What would you be forgiven for- I guess it’s a perk of the contract to go, but not to ask?”
“Don’t do that,” Jan said irritably. “I know you’re still a little starstruck. That won’t go away for a while. She hates that, though. You’ll know why when you see Hollywood.”
“And whatever you do, don’t make any cracks about Disneyland unless you have someone to pick you up,” one of the men suggested.
“That bad, huh? Okay, sorry... Christy.” It took a while for Sasha to get the name off her tongue; her conditioning wanted to call Christy mistress, or goddess, or at least boss, but she could figure out that that would be a bad idea. Christy’s smile was a good reward for her instinct.
“Oh, this one’s a real winner. Welcome to the team, Sasha. In the front bunk, bottom is Hank from security, top’s Jeff the roadie manager. You know Jan, then over by her is Trish from ops. Other side is Herm, who handles bookings, and Lew from fan relations. Lisa’s our bookkeeper, and she called bottom bunk, so you take the top for the last leg. Rest of the crew’s at headquarters already,” Christy said, and everyone waved as she did the machine-gun-fast introductions. Sasha recognized that it was going to take a while for her to put faces to names, and the simple fact that there were so many of them made her wonder how many people Christy had at her home base. But the camaraderie felt like a Saturday morning with her family, and that was a fun unlike anything the shadowy pianist on Christy’s t-shirts could imagine.
Christy saw her looking at the shirt and said, “That’s my call to where we’re going. You know I’m a minister’s daughter from Georgia. They come to you, you don’t come to them. I knew I had a gift when I saw the way everyone swooned when I sang, even when I was just in choir. A label man saw how I had that town in the palm of my hand and how everyone just wanted me to sing. He tried to take me down, and just from me not knowing what was going on, he almost had me with his strobe light, and I’d have been just another weapon. It almost worked, but... it’s silly, ‘cause you know how I’m conflicted about God, or at least you do if you listen to the lyrics instead of my voice, but all that stuff my dad taught me about Satan saved me.”
“You saw him as taking your soul and you fought back,” Sasha theorized.
“Close enough for government work. That’s when I knew I had to leave home and make a name for myself, before someone tried to make it for me, or started using my family and friends as weapons. So I went to New York, turned a local producer into my agent when he made the wrong move, and I went into business. I wasn’t going to let them get me, and the only way not to join them was to beat them. And fourteen million records sold over two albums later...” Christy trailed off with a smile. She seemed so free spirited, and so unlike the dark lady of the stage she was at her concerts, Sasha wondered what could make her so dark.
The group spent the rest of the day’s ride in different activities. A fierce round of Monopoly revealed Jan’s frighteningly precise mathematical mind. Lew was stuck sorting through piles upon piles of letters and tapes, disposing of some and passing others over to Christy to sign. Lisa and Trish instigated a game of Truth or Dare that only lasted until Christy threatened to reveal their kinks. Hank fought with the radio to get a baseball game he’d heard passing over the band. In her element and at ease, Christy reminded Sasha of who she’d been before, and somewhat of who she still was: fiercely independent, defiant, and determined to reach the top, but at the same time, able to work well enough with people that she could build a team as varied as this one. They were different notes, but all on the same scale, and that scale was as twisted as any one of them.
Then, like a thunderstorm crashing down on them, everything changed.