‘Stop staring at me.’
The bottle of pills didn’t answer. Chiaki narrowed her eyes. She felt the thick eyeliner crack. She closed her eyes and remembered how it had felt, stuffing them into her mouth, the dry chalkiness making her cough before the tickle of the lemonade had washed them down. She remembered that moment of peace, that everything would now be all right, followed by the haziness as her vision started to blur and she fell into a pale, dreamless sleep—
The door flew open and Ryo peered in, his grey hair slicked back. With a start Chiaki twisted sideways, blocking his view of the dressing table so that he wouldn’t see the bottle. She brushed a strand of hair away from her face and tilted her head.
‘Are you coming? I know it’s hardly the Budokan, but we’re still keeping people waiting.’
She noted the use of “we’re”, as if it were anyone other than her own fault. She felt that familiar rising anger, but swallowed it down. He was trying.
‘Give me a minute.’
Ryo nodded. ‘Sure.’
Chiaki lifted her fingers and gave them a quick flex. Even now, after years of performing, she felt nervous being without the piano. It was her crutch, and without it she had always felt alienated, but the truth was that her own piano playing, while good, wasn’t quite concert standard. It—
She shook her head. It didn’t matter. Ryo, and the audience, were waiting. She closed the door and headed down the narrow corridor to the stage entrance.
The lights were up as she climbed onto the stage and strode to the microphone on its stand in the centre, forcing confidence into her movements. The crowd was already on its feet, clapping heartily in the kind of organised rhythm that Japanese audiences had perfected, with a few scattered cheers thrown in, mostly from the galleries. Ryo had already taken his place behind the piano, and the spotlight around the microphone waited for Chiaki, a circle of gold that could make or ruin her over the next hour.
‘Please welcome Ms Chiaki Hasegawa,’ came an amplified voice from overhead. A second wave of clapping and cheering ensued.
Her heart was thundering as she took hold of the microphone to steady herself. She could feel the pills waving to her from the dressing room. It had felt so easy once; perhaps, when her nerves had settled, it would be just as easy again—
Ryo struck the first chord on the piano, and like a swan taking flight, on autopilot Chiaki broke into the song that had made her famous, Heart from a Fallen Sun. As the words of the minor key ballad filled the silent hall, her eyes drifted out above the crowd, concentrating on the feelings of loss and isolation that had make her write the first awkward incarnation of this song in her bedroom nearly twenty years ago.
As the song ended and the lights dropped, the crowd erupted into applause and cheers. They sounded glad to have her back, despite everything, despite all the roadblocks and the scandals that had soiled her career. She managed a smile and a brief thank-you, then Ryo, aware of her career-long reluctance to engage the audience, began the next song. Her voice felt strong again, almost as it had been before the surgeries and the problems. No doubt its quality would be hotly debated by internet trolls over the next few days, but that was out of her hands now. All she could do was sing her heart out and convince her manager that she had another album in her.
Ikebukuro’s Higashi Kaikan was nearly full; she could tell whenever the lights dimmed enough to give her a look at the galleries. Ryo was right: it was no Budokan, but for a live comeback after two failed albums it was impressive. She actually preferred the smaller venues. She had never got as far as stadiums, but she had played Saitama Super Arena once, and the vastness of the stage had brought tears of loneliness to her eyes, despite the fifteen thousand cheering fans. Iida-sensei had never cared about her wishes, and would gleefully book up every arena in Japan if he could sell her new material. She had long ago given up on commercial success, but all the management ever saw were dollar signs.
She was starting to sweat. A spinning fan set into the floor at her feet was turned too low. She wanted to adjust it, but the veil she had chosen to wear was easily shed, and in the t-shirt she wore underneath she would be more comfortable. As the song ended she slipped it back over her shoulders and laid it down on the stage at the foot of her central monitor speaker.
The gasps from the nearest rows were obvious as she stood up straight again. A murmur rippled back through the crowd from those close enough to see clearly. Chiaki grimaced as she remembered, cursing herself for her mistake, but she had been off the stage so long that she had forgotten her supposed stage persona.
Now it was too late. Her fans could see that the girl they had fallen in love with was gone.
Big Dragon Records, an offshoot of an American major label, had marketed her as the next fragile damsel, a tortured soul with a voice that could bring tears to the eyes of God Himself. She was damaged and brittle, but above everything she was pure, the kind of girl that other girls wanted to be and boys wanted to be with. It was a marketing plan that had sold two million copies of her debut record.
She hadn’t graced a stage of any kind in three years. No tours, no TV, not even radio interviews. The public had quickly forgotten about the two records released on a small independent label; they wanted the Chiaki Hasegawa of the Heart from a Fallen Sun years, the girl who had broken their hearts by breaking her own.
That girl was gone. In her place was a thirty-five-year-old woman who remembered the glory years far less fondly than the fans did.
The crowd was settling down, but the spell had been broken. They would listen because many of them were still fans, but they would be full of bitterness as they made their way home, having seen their angel die live on stage.
In her haste to shed the silk veil that she had worn around her shoulders, she had forgotten what its absence would reveal: the tattoos that curled from her wrists up to her shoulders like a pair of protective snakes.