Chapter 1—An Unexpected Journey
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Patti’s normally droll voice hinted at interest. Back when she agreed to represent Carrie’s book, she had treated it like an embarrassment. And when Houghton Mifflin bought it, Patti’s shock sent tremors from her office in New York to Carrie’s apartment in Lambs’ Grove, Iowa. If Carrie didn’t know better, she’d think Patti was excited. Maybe it was her new cell phone. She shook the little gizmo before putting it back to her ear.
“We got solid reviews in The Boston Globe, Chicago Trib and Times Books in the UK,” Patti continued. “Psychology Today wants an interview. And…” She paused dramatically. “I got a call from Ellen Degeneres’ producer. She wants you on the show.”
Carrie stopped breathing. “Shut up,” she whispered.
Patti’s condescending chuckle floated from the phone. “Ellen tops Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz in airing shows about mental illness. I knew she’d be our best bet for national coverage. Aren’t you glad now that I sent a copy of our book to her?”
Our book. The irony snapped Carrie out of her coma and reminded her to take a breath. She stared at her dim reflection in the sleeping computer screen. A pudgy, middle-aged shock victim stared back. What started out as a self-soothing journal about managing her bipolar disorder was about to change her life. At least for a little while. Delusional thinking might be part of her illness, but Carrie pushed any fantasies aside as far as her book was concerned. This rush of attention would be over soon. She just had to figure out how to ride it to the other side.
“What?” she said, hearing Patti’s voice again.
“I said this producer wants you in LA on Thursday. Can you do that?”
Carrie looked up at her wall calendar. “So, I’d fly out on Wednesday?”
“Right. I’ll try to set up signings while you’re there… maybe another interview…” Carrie could hear Patti’s brain spinning. “I’ll text the details later.” She paused. “Are you sure you can do this?”
Carrie ground her teeth. “I can do it.”
“Getting Ellen’s endorsement will put sales in a new bracket.” Patti pressed, her tone shifting into New York Hard. “We’re talking bestseller here.”
Carrie’s anger flared. Last week she had to cancel a telephone interview with NAMI when her anxiety galloped out of control. Patti rescheduled it, but decided she could bully Carrie out of rapid cycling. If shaming and harsh words worked, Carrie thought, I’d have been cured decades ago. But, if she was honest with herself, Patti’s unpleasantness forced Carrie into Warrior Mode. And ferocity trumped depression or mania any day.
“I can’t predict what I’ll be capable of on Thursday,” she said sharply. “I’ll do my best.”
“Right,” Patti said, completely unfazed. “Check your phone later.”
Carrie broke the connection and settled back into her desk chair. Hamish jumped up on the desk and started purring while he glared at her.
“Exactly,” she told him.
The young production assistant who ushered Carrie through the studio explained the order of events with a soft, kind voice. The girl’s gentle manner surprised Carrie and helped to lower her shoulders from her ears. She expected the same kind of brusque treatment she had received at the TV studio in Des Moines. What a nightmare that had been. It took half of her five-minutes to explain to the Hairdo that she didn’t know Catherine Zeta-Jones or Claude Van Damme or any other celebrity with bipolar disorder. The other half of the interview, she scrambled to hit all of Patti’s “hot points.”
Afterward, she sat in her car and watched the sun come up behind The Principle tower, wondering what the hell she was doing. How much stress could she pile on before the depression and agitation leaped over themselves too fast for her to manage? How long before she couldn’t get out of bed? After some deep breathing, she found enough gratitude for the opportunity for any interview and drove home.
“Here’s Nikki,” the PA said, opening a door off the hallway. “She’ll get you camera-ready.”
An older, jowly woman plunked down a Starbuck’s cup and waved Carrie toward a kind of barber chair. A wall of lighted mirrors glared like high noon. “All right, dearie,” she said, studying Carrie as she sat, “let’s see what we have to work with.”
Hairspray, lipstick and a cloud of powder later, the assistant led her farther down the hall. “You can relax here in the Green Room until I come for you.” She ushered Carrie into a nicer version of a hospital waiting room. “Ellen’s other guest will go on first. You can watch on the monitor.”
She nodded at the huge flat screen in the corner. On it, Carrie could see a balding man with a headset warming up the audience.
“Thanks,” Carrie said. “Tell me your name again. My memory’s awful.”
“Sam,” the girl smiled, her fashionably-tiny glasses perched on a pert nose.
“You’re sweet, Sam,” Carrie told her. “I hope Ellen knows that.”
Sam grinned wider and shut the door. Carrie took a deep breath, feeling easier about the whole situation. She was prepped and fluffed. Never mind that she was going on national television.
Movement in her peripheral vision startled her. She turned to find a dark-haired man standing up from a sea-green couch. Tall and slim, he came around the coffee table to her.
“Hello,” he offered shyly. “Carrie Severide?”
Carrie nodded, trying not to stare.
He coughed out a laugh and looked at the floor. “I must admit, I arranged to meet you here.”
Apparently, her ability to rub two words together had left with Sam. Shock, she decided. She was standing in front of the man who played Corvus Blackwood, the Hero who had pulled her through a winter of non-stop cycling and suicidal depression. Carrie couldn’t remember how many times she’d seen the first movie in The Raven trilogy, but it was the only thing that had soothed her that winter, the only way to distract her from hopelessness and despair. She wondered for a moment if she’d finally, really, lost her mind.
“I’m sorry,” he fumbled, misreading her dazed expression. “Won’t you sit down?”
She dropped into a chair.
“You see,” he started, perching on the edge of the couch, “I wanted very much to read for the lead in Daniel Mann’s new project. Since the character is bipolar, a friend suggested I study your blog to prepare. And then, I read your book.” He flashed a dazzling, self-effacing smile. “I’m sure that’s why I got the part.”
“Oh.” Some of the words seeped through Carrie’s shock. Mostly, what she heard was the chocolatey cadence of his north-England accent.
“When I found out Ellen had booked you, I asked my manager to arrange an invitation for me as well… hoping I could ask you a few questions… I have so many…”
“Wait.” Carrie felt like a dog shaking off water. “What?”
“Officially, I’m here to promote a movie, but…” He chuckled again, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I’m babbling like a crazed fan.”
Carrie guessed he knew all about crazed fans.
“Perhaps, after this…” His tongue flicked over his lips. “… you’d allow me to buy you a coffee.”
“Coffee,” she managed. “Okay.”
“Fantastic.” Again, the brilliant smile.
Sam poked her head in the room. “Mr. Bierce? You’re on after commercial.”
“Right.” He stood, wiping his palms against his jeans. “See you in a bit.”
Carrie blinked at the closed door. She felt like she’d taken a bath in Novocaine. Except for the squirrel-quick pulse in her throat. Robert Bierce wants to buy me coffee. The words might have been in bird squawks for all the sense they made.
On the TV above her, Ellen’s audience applauded Robert onto the set. He smiled shyly and waved, then took Ellen’s hand before he sat.
“Now I understand…” Ellen started, talking over the last of the applause. “… I understand coming on the show today was a big deal for you.” She grinned at him, her bright eyes mischievous.
“Yes.” Robert sat up straighter, all shyness gone. “Carrie Severide is here. She’s a brilliant writer, and her story is remarkable.”
Ellen chuckled at his animation. “So, you wanted to meet her.”
“Have you read her book? The woman’s courage will astound you. The way she describes her illness puts you right in the middle of her battle. I’m preparing for a role as a man with bipolar disorder, and I’m indebted to Ms. Severide for her work.”
“Did y’all meet backstage?”
Robert took a breath to answer, then ducked his head. “I made an ass of myself, I’m afraid. She must think me a nutter.”
“Well, let’s see about that.” Ellen looked around at her staff off-stage. “Can we bring her out?”
Sam burst through the Green Room door. “Ms. Severide,” she panted, snatching at her arm. “Sorry… come on.”
Carrie found herself running through a short hallway, then shoved past a curtain into the blaring studio lights. She blinked, blinded, and heard the audience’s polite applause, then saw Robert and Ellen waiting for her. Carrie tried to swallow. Her throat clicked like an empty gun. All the prepared answers she had memorized flew out of her head, all the book-selling points Patti drilled into her fled—tiny rats abandoning ship.
Suddenly, the absolute absurdity of the situation hit her, pie-like, in the face. Carrie laughed and clapped her hands together as she trotted across the stage. She took Robert’s outstretched hand as she sailed past him to land with a plop in Ellen’s guest chair.
“Welcome,” Ellen said enthusiastically, making fun of Carrie’s giggles.
“Thank you,” Carrie grinned, shaking Ellen’s hand. “Thanks.”
“So…” Ellen gestured at Robert. “… do you think he’s a nut case?”
“Well, I am the expert,” she laughed, which got a laugh from the audience.
But, Carrie’s giddiness settled when she looked at Robert. He was trying to pull his dignity back together, but seemed resigned to whatever she might say.
“He’s very sincere,” she said, touching the sleeve of his jacket—a nice worsted wool. “Dedicated, not crazy.”
His impossibly-blue eyes rested on her a moment. An expression dashed across his face faster than Carrie could read it. Then, he reached past her to Ellen.
“You have her book there?”
Startled, Ellen fumbled the book from a side table and gave it to him.
“Two Fronts,” Robert read from the cover, “Fighting the Bipolar Wars.” He held it out to the closest camera. “Are you catching it?” He looked around at the monitors to check.
“You really are a fan,” Ellen grinned. “We have to go to commercial, but you can bet we’ll be back to see where this goes.”
As the stage director called them out, Robert shook his head and held the book out to Ellen. “Sorry,” he muttered, his eyes flicking to Carrie and back. “Sorry.”
“Why don’t you interview her?” Ellen pushed the book back at him. “We could have some fun with this.” She looked at the balding man by the cameras, who shrugged. “Yeah, this could be good.”
Robert looked skeptical.
“C’mon. You obviously know the book—your enthusiasm is contagious. The audience will love it.” She smiled at Carrie. “We’ll make it fun.”
“Okay,” Carrie smiled back. She looked to Robert. “Okay?”
His eyebrows arched, pulling a tentative smile. “Shall I ask about creating the Observer?”
“Perfect,” Carrie said. “That’s really the key.”
Ellen laughed. “You guys are adorable together. I’ve got an idea…”
He turned to her, his face lit with good humor now that he had a part to play. “Ms. Severide, what struck me is how you use your illness as a spiritual practice. Can you speak to that?”
Carrie tried to hold focus, but could see Ellen out of the corner of her eye. She fixed on Robert’s steady gaze. “In both spiritual growth and management of mental illness—”
Ellen released a loud sigh, drawing giggles from the audience. She fidgeted in her chair, then gave up. “Well, these guys don’t need me.”
She wandered downstage and flopped into a front row seat (emptied by the stage manager during commercial). More laughs from the audience as she watched Robert and Carrie proceed with the interview.
“It’s important to create a part of yourself that observes from a distance.” Carrie glanced at Ellen. “Sort of like that, but without the attitude.”
The audience roared.
“If Ellen were my Observer,” she went on, “she would watch my thoughts, my feelings, and my behavior without judgment.”
“So,” Robert pointed at Ellen, “not like that.”
Again, the audience laughed, especially when Ellen’s eyes bugged. “Hey!” she cried.
“No judgment and no attitude.” Carrie hurried to the edge of the stage and jumped off.
“What would be the Observer’s attitude?” Robert asked.
Carrie pulled Ellen out of her seat. “Compassion and curiosity. Simply watching.”
Ellen rolled her eyes at the audience. “That’s about all I am doing.”
“Don’t pout,” Carrie told her, bringing her back onto the stage. “Just because Robert’s a better interviewer.”
The audience laughed.
“He’s not a better comedian,” she continued.
Caught off-guard, Ellen laughed. “How do you know?”
“Go ahead.” She smiled at Robert as they reclaimed their seats. “Tell the one joke you know.”
His mouth fell open. “My one joke… you know about my one joke.”
Carrie gave him a sly look. “I watch You Tube.”
“Oh, god,” he chuckled, burying his face in his hands.
“Okay, now you have to tell it,” Ellen demanded.
Robert sighed, gave Carrie a long-suffering look. “A blond walked into a bar. You’d think she would have seen it.”
The audience groaned. Carrie and Ellen looked at each other. “Not a comedian,” they said in unison.
“But a wonderful actor. Hey!” She turned to him, remembering. “You’re supposed to promote your new movie.”
Before he could answer, she plunged on. “Blind Justice, right? Is there a clip?” She looked at Ellen, then the audience. “Don’t you want to see the clip?” The audience started to clap. “I want to see the clip.”
Ellen threw her hands in the air and went back to the front row seat. “Do what the lady says,” she told the stage manager.
Lights dimmed, and the clip played on the huge screen at the back of the set. An intense and bloodied Robert ran with Elizabeth Banks through a bombed-out city, dodging snipers, jumping over debris, and landing in a corpse-strewn lake. They swam through the bodies to the other side where they collapsed on the shore. Banks grabbed at Robert’s soaking shirt.
“I hate you,” she panted.”
“Get in line,” he answered.
When the lights came up, Carrie applauded along with the audience. “I read you got hurt doing some of your own stunts,” she said.
He squinted at her. “I dislocated a shoulder, but how…”
“Oh, my God!” Ellen yelled from the audience. “She’s a fan, too! Y’all…” She waved her hands back and forth between them. “Feel the love, people! It makes me want to dance!”
Reggae music blasted as Ellen danced them into commercial.
Carrie zombie-walked through the backstage hallway. “What just happened?”
“You were great—both of you.” Sam flashed a perfect smile as she opened the Green Room door. “Would you mind waiting while Ellen finishes the show? She’d like a word.”
“Are we in trouble?”
“No, no.” Sam laughed, a fairy-bell tinkle. “Nothing like that.”
“Of course we’ll wait,” Robert smiled, professionally gracious.
“Great. It won’t be long.” Sam shut the door quietly behind her.
Like shutting a sick room door, Carrie thought, biting the inside of her cheek. Not a good sign.
“Really? We’re not in trouble?”
“Really.” Robert rummaged through bottled beverages on the hospitality table. He wiped ice off a couple of waters and handed her one. “Even after my worst talk show performance—and most of them have been disastrous—no one has ever scolded me.”
Carrie chugged half the bottle. Her mouth tasted like glue. “If the hosts had shut up and just let you talk, those interviews would have been fine.”
Robert gave her a puzzled smile. “You Tube?”
Carrie sighed. “Okay. Time for my confession.”
She finished her water and sat in one of the minty chairs. “The first time I saw the trailer for Raven’s Cry, and I heard Corvus speak, I thought, Oh! I know who that actor is.”
Robert lowered himself into the matching chair.
“But, I couldn’t place it—the voice. And I couldn’t figure out who was under the make-up. I didn’t think much more about it, but each time I saw the trailer, it nagged at me. I knew that voice. Then, I saw the movie, and the credits rolled, and I didn’t recognize the name. I thought, ‘It’s the make-up. Once I see the actor underneath it, I’ll recognize him.’ So, I looked online and was totally stumped. I’d never seen you before.”
Robert sipped his water. “I’m not surprised. I’d not done much work outside the UK at that point.”
“But, I knew your voice,” Carrie protested. “I was sure of it. So, I kept researching—watching clips of your work, reading articles. I requested DVDs out of the library and audio tapes. It drove me crazy, trying to find the connection.”
Carrie made a face. “Okay, crazier. I was a mess that winter.”
“And did you find it?” he asked. “The connection?”
“No,” she said softly. “Unless you count today.”
Robert’s eyebrows rose. “Kismet?”
Carrie shrugged. “You tell me.”
“Hey!” Ellen burst through the door, gangly-graceful and beaming. “You guys were awesome. And you…” She pointed with both hands at Carrie. “You’re Q scores will be off the charts, I’m sure of it. Will you come back on the show once I’ve finished your book?”
“Sure.” Carrie blinked at her.
“And if you can come back with her, so much the better.” Ellen turned to Robert standing by his chair and shook his hand. “The chemistry between you two is incredible.”
“Thank you so much for accommodating me,” Robert said. “I’m forever in your debt.”
Carrie watched him, smiling. Was anyone really that sincere and well-mannered?
“Thank Bonnie, my genius booking assistant. I’ll have to give her a raise now. But, seriously,” Ellen went on, backing toward the door, “today couldn’t have gone better. I want you back. Okay. Great to meet you both. Thanks for a great show.”
And she was gone.
Carrie blinked at the door. “Not what I expected.”
Robert took a breath, his eyebrows high. He seemed to do that a lot. Nervous habit? Some sort of British non-verbal she couldn’t translate?
“Coffee?” he finally asked.
She nodded. “Yes, please.”
California sun burned through the cafe’s front windows, white-hot glare on molded tables. Carrie squinted from farther back in the cool dark. She didn’t like Burbank much. Miles of concrete and plastic that smelled like gym socks. People seemed friendly, but their eyes moved too fast.
Too fast, she thought, like me. All that snappy improvisation with Ellen, then spilling my guts to Robert afterward—
She watched him at the counter—a tall man with beautiful posture and dark hair that begged for her fingers. Carrie sucked on her straw—cold, bitter, smooth with an aftertaste of sweet.
Manic now, she told herself, feeling the delicious iced coffee blend with the juicy firecrackers bursting in her belly. It would be so easy to keep sliding into this pleasure, fall into it like a feather bed until only her nose and toes peeked out.
Robert turned with his mug and started through the table-gauntlet toward her. His crooked smile was apologetic and hopeful. Part of her dove into that smile and drowned. But another part took a breath and smiled back.
No, she told her Siren, and the Firecrackers, and the Coffee. Not today.
“I’ve been thinking about something you said in the taxi,” Robert said, folding himself into the booth opposite her. Rich, woody steam drifted from his mug.
No. Carrie wrenched her attention away from his tea and focused on what was wrong with his face.
“You said you’d need to read the script,” he went on, “to judge whether the bio I made up for Frank was accurate.”
Pink around the eyes. Hangover? Allergies? And I’ve never seen anyone so white.
“If I could send it to you—the script—might you read it?”
“And send you notes about it? Sure.” His nose is too long. Really. A little bit. “Can you do that, though? Aren’t movie scripts a big secret?”
“Depends on the film. But I don’t think Daniel would mind as long as you kept it to yourself.”
And listen to that accent—not upper crust, not Cockney. Definitely not Irish or Scottish. The burr is rougher than your usual BBC faire. “North England”—what is that anyway?
“If you could just write down your address…” He pushed a napkin across the table and patted his pockets for a pen.
“I have a card,” Carrie told him, digging in her purse. Better. Maybe. Be careful.
Robert studied the card, but Carrie could see he wasn’t reading it. Thoughtful, hesitant, afraid of causing embarrassment. She wanted to jump over the table and kiss him, but forced herself not to take his manner personally. He’s just a Brit, being a Brit.
“Ask,” she said. “Whatever it is, you can ask.”
It’s research, not personal. It’s why he bought the coffee—to look inside. Let him look. But careful. Careful.
“I started going manic early this morning. It’s big now.”
“And you’re trying to control it?”
Control, ha! A dozen other words, more accurate words, flew through Carrie’s mind, but she just pinched her lips together and nodded.
“How are you doing that?” he asked softly.
The buzz under her skin, the firecrackers popping like tiny orgasms, his eyes. God, his eyes! She closed hers.
“I don’t get manic often. It’s mostly depression with agitation—a mixed state. So when the pure mania comes, it feels so good. To be quick and funny, to feel strong, capable… To feel right after feeling so wrong. I want to believe what I feel. Part of mania is believing.”
She opened her eyes and focused past his shoulder. His beauty didn’t dazzle her so much on the periphery. Her hand pressed flat against her chest where the buzz vibrated.
“It starts out that way… just feeling better. Then, it builds and builds until I fly…” Her voice caught. “… fly off on a spree, or say what never should be said. And it all seems reasonable, and true, and brilliant.”
The peripheral Robert raised his mug, sipped his tea. There it was again—his stillness. It was actually quite comforting, all that space and quiet.
“I think… I think you’ve given me the key to Frank’s motivation.” Gentle voice, and careful. The mug floated back to the table. “He’s heart-broken.”
A hot flush rushed up Carrie’s spine. Shit, he’d seen her! Not the fireworks or the buzz or the babble, not the careful camouflage, but her. Other people saw what they wanted or needed. They observed her like a bug or romanticized her with pity. Sometimes, if they shared her illness, they tried to suck salvation out of her. But, no one, not even her therapist, saw through all the layers.
She faced him squarely, eye to eye. Am I making this up? Is he just an actor, milking a resource? Is he seeing himself and not me at all?
The speculations tumbled over each other, but she held his gaze. Robert waited, silent and watchful. Restful.
“Yes,” Carrie finally said. “Under it all, broken-hearted would be right.”
To read Chapter Two—Many Partings, click here.