River's Song - Stephanie Fowers

Chapter One

“Wake up, River. Please, you’re supposed to be my big brother. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. I love you.” His sister’s sobs somehow reached him through the heavy fog. “I can’t do this without you.”

River forced his weary eyes open, groaning. The weight in his chest felt like it was crushing him. A punctured lung? He remembered something about a surgery. Lots of doctors in masks working on him and pain, so much pain. Memories flooded through him as he watched his crying sister. Sirens. Lights. A car accident. Yes, he’d been in a car accident.

He tried to move his head and felt the tubes in his nose. He was on oxygen. In stable condition, a nurse had said earlier. Lifting his hand, he touched the smooth skin of Emily’s cheek, pushing the chestnut curls from her face so he could see how red her eyes were. She was ten years younger than him. After his parents passed, he was supposed to take care of her, not the other way around. She clutched his arm. Oh, her tears were nonstop. He couldn’t comfort her like he wanted. The tubes wouldn’t let him.

“You’re awake! I thought I lost you. I can’t lose another member of this family! Please! I need you. I don’t want to be alone.” Her voice, her sobs felt like music. Almost. He used to hear the music in everything before he’d ever picked up an instrument. Now that he got paid to perform, the music of his life had been dulled by the drugs.

“They said you were high,” she said. “That’s why you had the accident. They found your car wrapped around a telephone pole. It’s a miracle you’re alive. Why? Why are you doing this?” He winced against her whispered question like she’d blown a trombone against his ear. Did she have to ask that? Even he didn’t know why. Life was so meaningless. Nothing mattered. He couldn’t even find enough meaning to write his songs anymore. “You never wanted to be like anyone. Anyone!” she cried out. “Now you’ve just turned into a cliché.”

Ouch, that hurt. His sister was unwittingly echoing the rumors all over Nashville. River Mackenzie was another music star ruined by drugs. And right on cue, everyone blamed the media spotlight, but wasn’t everyone just as guilty of seeking fame? People willingly gave away their privacy all the time on social media, from their relationship status to sharing what they ate for breakfast, like they were all movie stars or moralizing politicians blessing the world with their constant public service announcements. How was River any different?

Normally when Emily got this way, he’d hang up the phone, laugh it off, or take offense and slam a door on his way out of her apartment. He’d made so many promises that he’d stop using drugs and he’d broken every one. Now he was forced to listen to the pain in his sister’s voice. “I used to look up to you!”

And she didn’t anymore?

River tried to reason with her, but his jaw felt raw. Of course. Now that he wanted to clear his name, he couldn’t move his mouth without pain. He could always fast talk his way out of anything. His father used to laugh at that… before all this happened, before River’s songs hit bestselling charts next to iconic country legends like George Strait and Kenny Chesney. That kind of fame seemed almost unbelievable at the time. Back then all River wanted to do was glorify God through his music, that same God who fed the soul of his songs like a never-ending spring of water. The muse of everything. Now River wasn’t so sure God existed.

“I’m not trying to hurt you,” she said. “I love you. Can’t you see how much? I just want you back. You were never like everyone else. You never wanted to be.” Strange, since his only wish lately was to be anyone else, and currently? He’d rather be anywhere else in the face of Emily’s tears. Dying and going to hell would be like this—with your sins blasted at you by someone who desperately loved you, and not being able to sweet talk your way out of it. He felt like Emily was tearing his heart out. “I just don’t get it,” she said. “You were always stronger than this.”

He groaned, feeling the familiar guilt consume him, maybe more painful than the ache in his chest. He remembered a party. Lots of drinking