Fear gripped her as she stood in the narrow poorly lit hallway. She stared at the layers of chipped gray paint and tried to think about anything except for what lay ahead. She was next and she knew it. Yellow flickering bulbs mocked her as they cast dirty light across graffiti covered walls, around crusty wads of fruit flavored gum and made shadows dance and skip among candy wrappers and other less favorable debris.
Meghan's attention was brought back to the task at hand by a bead of sweat slowly departing her hairline and venturing towards her brows. Nervously she blotted at the drop in an attempt not to mess up her makeup. Straining her ears she tried to hear what was happening just down the hall, through the double doors and up a short flight of stairs. Meghan rung her hands together as she tried to focus on her breathing, then mindlessly reached up in an attempt to smooth the peeling sticker on the door to her right. The old yellowed tag resisted her caress and curled up at the edges the moment her touch withdrew. She sharply exhaled at the poorly written block letter that had aged in accordance with the tag they resided on. “Guest Dressing Room”. Meghan felt less like a guest and more like a prisoner.
She knew what would happen if she went out there, but there was no other choice, it was the only way to save her mother, father and little sister. Poor Anna, Meghan thought as she blinked back what would be full blown hysterics if she wasn't careful. These were bad men indeed, to threaten to sell a three year old into a trafficking ring if she didn't do as they asked.
Meghan heard the crowd burst into applause as she smoothed her dress and gave her hair a quick tousle. She knew it was time even before the doors opened and a tall lanky stage hand waved her in. If she had only listened to her father and never let her secret out. A twinge of pain found the center of her heart, she had trusted that boy. Eleven years of road trips, long walks, cool summer nights and hot cocoa by a roaring fireplace. He had been her best friend. In the end it seems, greed always wins over trust.
At the top of the stairs the stage hand leaned and whispered in her ear, his breath hot and reminiscent of an ashtray. “Here, your manager said to give you this.” He slipped a small cold metal object into her hand. “Good luck Missy” he hissed as he smacked her on the rear. Meghan uncurled her fist to reveal her great grandmother's Zenlorian ring. The simple gold colored band shimmered wildly in the brilliant stage lights. An acidic taste crawled into her throat and she swallowed hard as she slipped on the ring and walked to center stage.
The accompaniment started as she picked up the mic and stared out into the dark sea of restless country fans. She sang. Rich cool tones floated across the audience as her strong twangy ballad reached every corner of the room. She sang of lost love and of trying to move past it as she became acutely aware that the room had fallen deathly silent. It was time. Continuing to sing, her lyrics no longer spoke of love, but instead instructed the crowd. “Take a picture of the front and back of all your credit and debit cards and message them to 312-547-8965, then delete the pictures and the messages from your devices.” A rustle broke out in the crowd as everyone under her control sent their financial information to her captors. Tears flowed freely as she sang to the sound of hundreds of people unknowingly being robbed—again. When the last of the cell phone lights had been swallowed up by the darkness, Meghan slipped off the ring and sang the last chorus of “Lost Without Love”.
The auditorium erupted in applause and shouts of encore. As Meghan took a bow she pocked her great grandmothers ring into her right skirt pocket and pulled out a similar looking gold band. A slight of hand she had been practicing for weeks. This ends tonight.
Meghan exited stage left and got nearly to the door before the walking ashtray of a stage hand blocked her path. “Your manager said I should get that ring and bring it to him for safe keeping. Doesn't look like it's worth much, but I do what I'm paid to do”. Dropping the ring into the cold callused hands, Meghan rushed down the stairs, past the mocking lights, under a sign that said EXIT and into the cold fall air. A short fat man stood near a black limo. There wasn't any need for him to let her glimpse his 9 mm as she got into the back seat, but she guessed it made him feel manly.
Back in the dark musty room Meghan rocked her little sister and sung softly of little Jackie paper and his childhood adventures with his magic dragon. Shortly after 6pm, the key creaked in the lock and a tall man carrying a holstered gun entered with two trays of food. “Eat”, he ordered as he slid the trays of gruel towards Meghan and her family. Meghan met her mother's gaze and gave a small nod. Her mother had already covered her left hand with her right, masking the line where a wedding band had once been. As the man turned his back to leave Meghan slipped her great grandmother's ring out of her right pocket and put it on. She began to sing.