the beginning of the end.
[Paris, France—February 2013]
The phone rings. Shrill, high-pitched jangles echo off the walls of the dark hotel room.
A woman’s hand fumbles to the bedside table, searching for the source of the early morning disruption. Riley wraps her black, manicured fingernails around the handset, her face still buried in the fluffy pillow.
“Hullo?” she croaks painfully, still half asleep.
“Riley! Wake up!” shrieks the woman at the other end of the line.
“What time is it? My wake-up call is for nine,” slurs the drowsy sleeper.
“Shut up!” she gasps, cutting off the protest. “Riley! Jenna … hospital … dying!”
Riley Kohl sits up, lightning fast, having caught only some of the words coming through the line. Her long, dark brown hair is all over the place; a satin slumber mask is falling off her face.
What? she asks herself, her ears becoming fully operational.
“Riley?” whimpers the feminine, high-pitched voice on the phone. “Are you there?”
“Elle, tell me exactly what is going on,” Riley hisses to her friend. She is now awake and grasping for control. She kicks off the ivory sheets, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. The room is still totally dark.
“Jenna … overdose … on tour in Europe. This is all his fault. He’s the one who got her into the drugs. He cut us out of her life … that self-destructive psychopath … pushing her to jump off the edge.” Eleanor sobs helplessly, long-distance from another continent. She’s about to enter a full-blown rage or hyperventilate in distress.
The hatred is being directed at their friend’s on-again, off-again, on-again boyfriend. A movie star whose idea of fun involves groping his way around dark nightclubs and making deals with gossip magazines to sell Jenna out.
“She’s dead?” Riley whispers, trying to understand, to refocus the emotional conversation back on fact and reason.
“Intensive care. But I think she really did it this time. They don’t know if she’ll survive the night.”
“Where is she?” Riley whispers, trying to quietly make her way around the hotel suite while grabbing her belongings.
She wiggles out of her men’s pyjamas and grabs some clothes off the chaise at the foot of the king-size bed—a pair of dark, straight-leg jeans and a chunky turtleneck, cosy for the rain outside.
Riley flips on a dainty lamp, casting soft light onto the guy still asleep in the bed. His bare back is facing her, and a deep snore growls from his throat. The clock by the bed reads 4:30 am Paris time.
“She collapsed after a concert in Madrid,” Elle explains. “You know how much she’s been partying … it’s all over the tabloids—”
“Is anyone with her?” Riley interrupts.
“No, the record label actually called Parker and me. I just got off the phone with him. He’s trying to get out through JFK tomorrow morning.”
Parker Ma. The tattooed pretty boy hired by Jenna’s record label to give her an air of rebellion—more street cred. Born and raised in New York, but of Korean heritage, he was a young producing prodigy who drew from his interests in hip-hop and punk—the cutting edge. He was the guy who helped Jenna through recording her first album, who knew her before the cameras took notice. In his late twenties, with jet-black hair and eyes as dark as coal, Jenna swooned over him right from the start. With his carefree and artistic manner, he took her precious ideas and breathed life into them, helping to turn them into chart toppers with the right amount of hipster flair. Someone who understood her passions and unbridled mind.
As if any of that mattered at this specific moment.
“Shit. Fuck. Shit. Okay, I’ll muscle my way in and set up camp first … I’ll contact the label and let them know I’ll be first on scene.” Riley sighs, trying to button up her jeans while cradling the phone and writing down the address of the hospital on the hotel stationery. Her left-handed chicken scratch clashes with the sophisticated letterhead reading Le Meurice.
“I’m heading out now—got standby on the red-eye so I’ll probably get in before Parker,” Elle informs.
“Elle, you know you don’t have to leave your family.” Riley sighs, thinking of the home Elle has so carefully built in peaceful, suburban Toronto. The anti of Jenna’s very public existence: a neat house with a husband and twin baby sons, lavender in the back garden, and a station wagon in the garage.
And all fit in place before the age of 25.
Eleanor Bryans, the feminine redhead with green eyes and porcelain skin who looks like she could be torn straight from a J. Crew ad. The petite and shy girly-girl who never swears, she always found herself as the swing vote between her two brash and sassy friends. Whether in grade school or front row at Fashion Week, she always preferred peace and harmony as her way of life. Elle’s dream was always to escape Jenna’s skyrocket to fame, to just be a mom and live in relative anonymity.
“No! I am going!” Elle affirms. “She hasn’t been herself in a long time—goodness knows I haven’t spoken to her in at least a year—but she’s still Jenna. She’s still the girl we played monkey bars with, and she needs us both. Unfortunately, we knew this day was probably going to come, and it has. She doesn’t have anyone else. So whether we take home a friend or a coffin, I will see you in Madrid,” she shoots back defiantly, her tiny voice fighting the grim reality of Jenna’s prognosis.
With that, the childhood friends hang up and scurry about, preparing to face the worst-case scenario.
Eleanor wakes her husband and leaves him an organized printout of all the information he’ll need for the next few days. She slips into the bedroom of her two sons and sweetly kisses them on the forehead before the taxi whisks her away.
The car splashes through the winter slush on the highway, darting to Pearson International Airport. Elle stares out at the night sky above, slipping into nostalgic thought.
I wonder how much has actually changed, she thinks to herself, remembering the lifestyle she once lived with her two best friends. Her pale cheeks are flushed from the subzero chill outside. She hugs herself, opting to brave the freeze without a winter coat, wearing only a simple pink cardigan instead. Less bulk to travel with, a lesson much appreciated from her work as Jenna’s personal assistant, suffering as the one to carry her belongings while they travelled the world. An international star was never supposed to schlep around a jacket or carry a wallet. It was totally unacceptable.
A little more than a year ago, before the current reality of car seats and wife life, Elle was one half of Jenna Ramsay’s entourage (the other half being Riley). They were a small unit of friends sharing her adventure of fame and success as the rising It Girl of the music industry. The parties and nightclubs, shopping and paparazzi, all got left in the dust, along with their friendship, when change inevitably took hold of them.
Elle pulls out an orange leather journal from her purse and smiles at the picture taped inside the front cover. It’s from the start of the wild ride, about three years back, a time when they could not imagine living without each other’s daily contact. The image captures the sheer elation after Jenna’s first big performance in London, the three girls hugging in the back of a cushy limousine. A split-second moment in the chaos of Jenna’s ride to celebrity, before she grew apart from Elle and Riley.
She flips to the back of the diary and looks at a postcard sent to her from the south of France —Jenna’s last communication, sent randomly a few months ago. The back is blank, a creepy sign of the emptiness of her friend’s life.
Elle looks at it sadly, trying to remember the last time she actually spoke with her childhood friend. Any news about Jenna’s life now has had to filter in from gossip magazines or old acquaintances. How different things had become since their school days when they’d spend hours on three-way calls, worrying about high school chemistry or learning to make out.
• • •
Back in Paris, Riley is focused on the immediate course of action she’ll have to take upon arriving in Madrid. She places calls to her former employers, Jenna’s record label and manager, and collects contacts for a security agency in Spain to assist in protecting the pop star. She throws a spare T-shirt in her large black Hermès bag, packing light and ready to go. She scribbles a note for her companion, opting to quietly slip out rather than wake him with news of chaos.
She stops at the door and takes one last, admiring look at him. Strong, tanned back, toned arms, matted hair … then, she reminds herself of Jenna and quietly pulls the door shut.
In the elevator, she braces herself for the hectic media circus that will surround her famous friend. The potential headlines flash in her mind’s eye:
“Pop star falls off the wagon—again!”
“Jenna and Carter back in action!”
“The Terrible Two!”
The hypercritical press following the life of Jenna Ramsay was almost as big a wedge in their friendship as her poor choice in relationships. Everything started out great and positive with Jenna’s music career. Solid support from the public, good reviews, awards, kind coverage from the media … But when her public love saga with Carter Sampson became the focus of the tabloids, she was no longer on a winning team, and bringing the couple down became sport.
The dread of feeling even a fraction of the attention constantly directed at Jenna is enough to make Riley queasy.
The way the cameras blinded them, flashes everywhere, candid photos showing up on the Internet or in magazines. Complete strangers staring and shouting, heckling with sensationalistic comments to try and provoke a response. The storm around Jenna was an instant energy zapper, forcing the three girls to forge on through the calamity and detach themselves from the outside world. It was the only way to try avoiding being hit by the fierce lightning of celebrity that struck Jenna like a golfer in a thunderstorm.
Riley twists her long brown hair into a low braid, looking at her sullen face in the elevator’s elegant mirror. Her olive skin is without any trace of makeup, just freshly washed and moisturized, and looks more worn than that of a 24-year-old. A small pimple is festering in the skin at the tip of her nose. Her brown eyes are red and irritated from forcing contact lenses in so early in the morning.
“Why couldn’t we stay seventeen forever?” she sighs to herself as she steps into the lobby, zipping across the green and white marble floors, and vanishing out the door.