As Max stood alone on a wooden bridge within the vast, beautiful garden, he could feel a gentle breeze flowing through his mane of hair. Pleasant floral fragrances floated at his nostrils. Everything around him was calm and still - a far cry from the chaos he'd escaped from - although, every so often, Max swore he could hear a few words in the wind.
"Staff at St. Benedict's hospital have refused to confirm if Max Miskin, 27 - better known as rockstar Max Velocity - has been admitted following an overdose..."
The voice faded, replaced by the soft sound of singing. A form of divine muzak, as it were.
Max knew exactly where he was. He was no fool. Moments ago, he'd been pouring all the booze and pills he could lay his hands on down his throat. Now, he was in this wondrous place. He was surprised he'd got in. The bouncers here were probably the toughest of all. Still, when you're a celebrity, you could try your chances anywhere.
As he headed over the strong and stable little bridge, Max thought he could see something up ahead. A strange pinkish blur. As he moved closer and closer, his eyes widened - sparkling with joy - when the mass of colour took shape, and became clearer to his vision.
It was Zara Van Halen Miskin.
Instantly, Max raced up to her - plunging to his knees before her as she sat peacefully on a bench in front of a large pond.
"It's... it's such an honour to meet you!" Max babbled frantically, like an excited child. "You're my idol! My heroine - my, my..."
"Your great-great grandmother," Zara told him, giggling at his eagerness.
Reaching down to take his hand, she pulled him back onto his feet, guiding him to join her on the bench.
"Calm down now, honey," she said softly as Max took a seat. "Take it easy. I'm not bigger than the "Big Guy", after all."
"Sorry, but... I'm just so thrilled to be here with you!" Max replied. "You're my inspiration! You are the reason why I am who I am!"
"Oh?" Zara said quizzically. "And am I the reason you wound up here so soon, too?"
Her disappointment was so apparent. Max felt as if he'd been slapped with a frying pan. In an instant, he fell quiet, hanging his head in shame.
Zara sighed deeply.
"Come on, Max, pumpkin," she whispered. "Tell me. What are you doing here?"
"Well," Max replied, "I mean... I'm dead, now, right? I let everything get too much for me... started using the wrong things to help me cope, and in the end, I - you know."
Zara nodded - and then, much to Max's shock, slapped him sharply across the face, sending him recoiling at the sting.
"You bloody idiot!" Zara screamed. "Pills and booze?! What the hell were you thinking?! Is this how you wanted to end up?! Another musician who died tragically young? Another shocking headline in the tabloids? Did you think it would make you immortal, or something?"
Max turned away, rubbing his cheek - unable to look her in the eyes.
"No," he whimpered meekly. "No... I never..."
"And your mother and father!" Zara went on. "My God, the pain they've been going through! And your ancestors up here! Christ, half of them couldn't watch you anymore - they couldn't bear to see you destroy yourself like that! To let yourself be abused by that tramp!"
"Yes, Max!" Zara snapped. "Trying to control everything you do?! Forcibly separating you from your family? Manipulating you, taking advantage of you? Did you really think that's what a loving marriage was? And now, thanks to her wicked ways, and your own weakness and selfishness, you are where you are! Is this what you wanted?! Well - is it?!"
"No!" Max wailed. "No, I never wanted to... I swear I..."
As he broke down sobbing, Zara embraced him tightly, stroking his hair as she gently shushed and rocked him.
"It's OK, Max, baby," she cooed. "It's OK. Let it all out, honey... there's a good boy."
When Max began to calm down, Zara released him and slid away again - tucking her hand under his chin as she lifted his head to look her in the face.
"As it happens," she went on, speaking in far calmer tones, "you got extremely bloody lucky this time.... and it had better be the only sodding time, too, young man."
"What - what do you mean?"
"You left the bus door unlocked, and someone found you. They got you to a hospital. You're not actually dead."
"I... I'm not?"
"No," Zara told him, smiling. "You're just having one of those - whatdoyoucallems..."
She waved her hand around, searching for the term: snapping her fingers when it came back to her.
"So... So I'm alive?!" Max gasped. "I... I can go back?"
"Your ancestors decided this would be a good opportunity to stage a little intervention," she said. "They sent me as they figured I'm the person who would actually be able to talk some sense into you. None of us want you to carry on down this road, Max... or one day, very soon, you might end up here for good. We just want you to be happy. We love you so, so much."
"And we're not alone," Zara added. "Do you really think Marlon and Cassandra would ever turn their back on you? Their precious, precious son? And even then... there's still someone else."
She leaned back on the bench, gesturing towards the large pond amongst the flowerbeds in front of them.
"I do so love this little spot," she said. "It's so nice just to rest here and think... to sit by the pond and gaze into the water. You should really take a look, Max. It's beautiful."
Intrigued, Max got up, and strolled over to the pond, peeking inside. As he stood there, he started to stare as he noticed something in the rippling water... a mysterious vision.
There he was in hospital, sleeping deeply in a bed, whilst a familiar figure leaned over him, resting her head against his as she stroked his brow, singing to him softly. An old folk song: one she had shared with him on the day they first met.
Hers was the voice being carried by the heavenly muzak.
"Laura?!" Max gasped. "She... she came back?"
He turned as he heard Zara's footsteps coming up behind him.
"That's right," she confirmed. "You're looking into the Pool of Truth. You're seeing yourself on Earth. Laura didn't plan to come back to you. She'd left her house keys aboard the bus. But the moment she saw you, she called an ambulance and waited for it to arrive. She hasn't left your side since, except when the doctors rushed you into the emergency room."
Max wiped away a tear that had appeared in his eye, smiling softly at Laura's caring expression.
"She truly loves you, Max," Zara went on. "But you must admit, you've not been very kind to her."
"I...I know," Max admitted. "But, from now on, I... I promise you... I'm going to give her all the respect she deserves. All the happiness she deserves. She's... she's like my guardian angel. I'm... I'm just so happy I have the chance to tell her how much I love her, too."
"Things won't be easy for you to start with, back on Earth," Zara went on. "You... you do know that, don't you? You're going to have to be very strong."
Max looked at her - nerves flooding his body.
"Do... do you really think I can do it, Grandma Zara?" he asked. "Get my life back on track?"
Smiling, Zara reached out for him, grasping his arms.
"I know you can," she told him. "I believe in you. We all do."
She embraced him again, even tighter than before.
"Whenever you're ready," she explained, "strip yourself down, and jump into the water. It will cleanse you of your fear and return you to your earthly body. And as much as I love you, I don't want to see you back here for a very long time - do you understand? Now get back down there and make your great-great grandma proud."
Kissing his cheek, she walked away: crossing the bridge and disappearing into the distance. Beaming with happiness, Max tore off his clothes, and cannonballed into the cool pool waters - a baptism for his rebirth - feeling his worries being washed away as he swam towards a bright soft light...
Laura sat beside Max in the private hospital room, her hand resting in his. It had been hours since his admission, and he hadn't stirred once. Turning back to the TV on the wall, she continued to watch the news reports as they speculated on what had happened to Max Velocity. She also scrolled through social media on her phone - questions and rumours from fans and media alike flooding the feeds.
Through the open window, she could hear the throng of reporters at the hospital doors, pestering all the staff entering and leaving for information. The blinds had been tightly drawn to shield Max from their cameras. They'd grabbed plenty of snaps of him when he was fit and well... they didn't need any of him now.
She wasn't ready to give a statement. Not yet. Besides, it wasn't her place. That responsibility lay with Katie, or Max's family. Still... so far, there had been no sign of them. Perhaps she really was the only person left who gave a damn about him.
Suddenly, Laura felt Max's fingers moving, locking between hers. Turning back to look at his face, she gasped as his lids of his eyes flickered - and then, moments later, they shot open.
"Max?" Laura called, rising to her feet as she reached out for him. "Max, you're awake!"
Groaning, Max turns his head towards her... and smiled as he saw her beautiful face looking down at him, tightening his grasp on her hand.
"Laura," he whispered. "You saved me."
"Thank God I lost my keys," Laura replied, tears springing to her eyes. "If I hadn't gone back to the bus, then... oh, Jesus, I don't even want to think about it..."
"You stayed with me? All this time?"
"Of course I did! I care about you so much! Damn it, Max, I... I love you!"
As Laura placed her hand on his shoulder, Max reached up for it slowly - his body still hurting - and patted it gently.
"I... I understand," Laura went on, "if you don't want to see me again. I can still go to Windenberg. I... I just wanted to make sure you were OK. I.... I know I'm not the kind of girl a rockstar is meant to be with. You should be with someone far more beautiful - "
Before she could say any more, Max shushed her softly.
"I don't want you to leave me," he told her. "Not now. Not ever. Katie threatened me - she said she would hurt you if I didn't send you away. I just wanted you to be safe. When I lost you, it... it was like I'd lost everything. I - I felt so lost. So hopeless. That's why I... well, why I did what I did. I'm so, so sorry. I never, ever meant to hurt you."
"Of course not. Laura... I love you too."
Gasping, Laura's hand flew off of Max's shoulder, and rushed towards her heart.
"Really?" she asked, amazed.
"Yes," Max replied. "Ever so much. You've shown me what love really is. Katie was just using me, abusing me, to get what she wanted. You've put up with so much of my crap, because there was no other way I could release my anger, and yet, you're still here beside me. You're shown me nothing but care and kindness. You dealt with the monster that stuff's turned me into. And I'm very grateful. I was wrong to treat you so badly. From now on, things are going to get a lot better. I'm going to get better. I promise."
Just as Max was lifting his head, moving his mouth closer to Laura's, they were disrupted by a door swinging open, and a woman carrying a clipboard entering the room.
"Ah!" she said happily upon seeing Max. "Mr. Miskin! You're awake. I'm Dr. Alexandra Calderon... I'll be looking after you during your stay here. How do you feel?"
"A bit rough," Max replied, "but I'm just so happy that I'm still here."
"Yes," Dr. Calderon answered. "You are very lucky to be alive. Thank goodness this young lady found you and called for help. If you'd been alone much longer, it's safe to say that things would have been very different."
Max nodded pensively, squeezing Laura's hand.
"It's not often that a person survives an overdose on that sort of scale," Dr. Calderon went on. "My team and I are so glad that the procedure worked. Gastric lavage - or stomach pumping, as people call it - does carry its risks, but it was the best thing we could do to get that nasty stuff out of your system and get you stable."
"Thank you," Max told her. "I owe you my life. I'll be sure to give this place a large donation once I'm back on my feet."
"No need, Mr. Miskin... but it would be much appreciated, of course. I'll let you rest now."
As she turned to leave, Max suddenly thought of something.
"Doctor?" he called.
"Have... have my family been in touch at all?"
"Not yet. I did call your wife - she said she would inform your parents that you were in hospital."
Max scowled. Of course Katie would say something like that.
"It... it may have slipped her mind," he said. "You know... since she'll have been so worried. She never was the best at organising things. If it's not too much trouble, could you contact my parents directly? Please?"
"Certainly. I'll phone them right away."
As Dr. Calderon walked out, a hubbub of shouted questions rose up from outside, along with a cacophony of camera flashes. A minute or so later, Katie burst into the room, dressed up to the nines with a full face of makeup. Naturally. Any run-in with the press, regardless of the situation, was a photo opportunity. Spotting Laura, she gasped loudly - swooning as she would in a TV show performance.
"Oh, Max, darling!" she cried, in a manner any drama coach would call 'over-the-top.' "Thank heavens you're all right. I came over as soon as I heard. I'm so, so happy that this nice lady was there to save you. We're so lucky, aren't we?"
Stifling a giggle, Laura turned to Max.
"I'll... I'll give you two some time alone," she said, stepping away - but Max firmly kept hold of her hand.
"No," he told her. "You're not going anywhere, Laura. She is."
As he jabbed a pointed finger in Katie's direction, the actress gasped, horrified.
"What on Earth are you talking about?" she asked, outraged. "I am your wife!"
"Not for much longer!" Max snapped back. "Go ahead and divorce me! Take all my stuff - I don't care anymore! Play the victim and put me down all you want. I'd rather be an everyday citizen and be happy without you than be a rockstar and spend another day in this hell you call a marriage!"
"But - but you need me!" Katie raved, stamping her foot like a toddler having a tantrum.
"Oh no I don't," Max answered - his confidence soaring by the second, so glad he could finally say how he truly felt. "It's you who needs me. You're a leech - sucking me dry, using me to get whatever you want. Well, no more. I don't need you, and I sure as hell don't want you. Do your worst. I'm ready for it."
As Katie hissed with anger, looking as if she was about to explode, Laura spotted something on the TV screen.
"Why, you mangy, no-good, son of a -"
"Hey! Look! They're talking about Oscar on the news!"
Whipping her head around like she was doing a pirouette, Katie wandered up towards the TV as Laura used the remote by Max's bed to turn up the volume. She was right. There was Oscar's name, scrolling by in the ticker tape visual across the bottom of the screen as the anchoress read the teleprompter.
"Going back to our top story tonight, we are still waiting on confirmation of the widely-spread allegation that rockstar Max Velocity is in hospital following an overdose. Shortly after the news broke out, the musician's agent, Oscar Powers, contacted us to request an interview. Our showbiz correspondent, Jessica Wilde, is with him now. Jessica?"
The screen cut to Oscar's living room, where he was sat in an armchair - the journalist interviewing him from the comfort of his own home.
"Mr. Powers," she began, "you contacted Channel 6 News tonight in order to inform us that you have been having an ongoing affair with Mr. Velocity's wife, the TV actress Katie Berühmt Miskin?"
"That's right," Oscar said. "If it's true that Max is in a bad way right now, then I need to get this off my chest... for his sake and my own."
"In fact, you were with Mrs. Miskin prior to her meeting her husband, and that you essentially arranged the marriage between them in the hope it would help boost her career?"
"I'm afraid that's true. I honestly thought it would be beneficial to Max, too, but - it wasn't. I mean, he actually has talent. He would have still made it big even without my help."
"Further, you claim that you are the father of Mrs. Miskin's infant son, Nathan, and that this has already been confirmed by DNA testing?"
"Yes. Max only found out about all this very recently. That's why he had the breakdown. I never, ever wanted him, or anyone involved, to get hurt. But Max deserves better. And my son deserves better, too. He deserves to know the truth about who his father is, and to have the chance to get to know me as he grows up."
"Why have you decided that now is the time to admit all this?"
"Because I just can't do it anymore. I love Katie with all of my heart. I want her to be my wife, not Max's. And Max should have the chance to move on... to start again, to find true love. I can say conclusively that I've heard no news about him since the overdose rumours broke out. Like his thousands of fans worldwide, I can only hope that he's OK."
As she stared at the screen, open-mouthed in horror, Katie shook her head wildly, and then flew into a rage.
"That... that idiot!" she roared. "He's ruined everything!"
Laura's phone was beeping wildly. As she scrolled through Max's social media pages, message after message began to appear, leading her to hand her phone over for him to read.
"Cheating cow! No wonder he was on drugs!"
"That poor guy - you can do better, Max!"
"Get well soon, Max! All your Velociraptors are rooting for you!"
Hearing the sound of low laughter behind her, Katie turned around. Max, having skimmed through the shower of support his fans had left for him, was smirking at her as he lay upon the bed, one hand still holding Laura's as she stood faithfully by his side.
"You know," he said lightheartedly, "I think I'll go and request the divorce, once I'm up and about. On the grounds of your infidelity. After all, it's all come out now, from Oscar's own lips - and on national TV, no less. You won't have a leg to stand on. Family history been damned: there's a first time for everything, right? We Miskins will survive. We always do."
Katie just stared at him blankly
"So... see you in court... darling."
Laura started laughing - unable to hold it back any longer. In Heaven, all of Max's ancestors jumped for joy... Montague breaking into a rendition of "Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead" on his violin, his relatives dancing to the merry tune. As for Katie, she merely let out a loud scream, and stormed out of the hospital - the journalists, having heard the update, interrogating her about Oscar and taking photos as she left.
Max found his eyes fixed to the door after Katie hurried out - still unable to fully process what had just happened.
"She's... she's gone," he whispered. "It's over. It's... it's finally over..."
Tugging on Laura's hand, he pulled her down towards him and wrapped her arms around his body, longing for her embrace.
"Now, then," he said grinning, leaning towards her, "where were we again?"
As he puckered up his lips, the door slammed against the wall as it flew open - the panting, exhausted forms of Marlon and Cassandra appearing in the gap.
"Max!" Cassandra wailed, rushing up to his bed. "Oh, sweetie, thank God you're alive!"
As for Marlon, he made a beeline for Laura - who bowed her head to him out of respect, raising her hand meekly in a gesture of greeting.
"You are Ms. Bennett?" Marlon asked.
"Yes, sir," came the reply.
In an instant, Laura had been swooped up into Marlon's arms - the older man pulling her close in a bear hug.
"Dr. Calderon told us everything," he said. "We owe you the life of our son. You will always be welcome in our home, and if you ever need or want for anything, ask for it and it will be yours."
"I ask for nothing, sir," Laura replied kindly, "but thank you."
After patting her back in a solidifying gesture of gratitude, Marlon moved away, and went to stand by his wife beside Max's bed, placing his arm around her shoulder. Tears rolled down Max's cheeks as he looked up at them.
"Mum... Dad..." he whispered, "I'm... I'm so happy to see you again. I... I was scared you wouldn't come... that... that you wouldn't love me anymore..."
"What?!" Cassandra cried. "Max, honey, don't be so ridiculous! All of those evil things that Katie did weren't your fault. And even if they were... you're still our only son. Our precious little baby boy. We could never stop loving you."
"We saw Katie storming out," Marlon said. "A pap was shouting about an affair she had, or something. I'm guessing you told her where to go? That you're going to divorce her?"
"Oh, thank Christ," Marlon sighed. "Finally, you're doing something sensible."
"And that bloody mansion is coming down, as well," Max added. "I'm not letting her have the pleasure of seeing it stay standing. I miss living in our house, anyway. It has far more character. That is... if you'll have me back?"
"Of course we will. One thing, though."
"Can... can we keep the hot tub? I've always wanted one."
Cassandra sharply elbowed Marlon in the ribs as Max chuckled.
"Only if I can park the tour bus on the lawn," he said.
"Speaking of paps," Marlon added, "you don't have to worry about any bad stories in the Willow Creek Chronicle. I got promoted two weeks ago. I'm now the Editor."
"Wow! Dad, that's great!"
"I've strictly forbidden any of my staff to report on this, or to hassle you for questions right now... but of course, feel free to approach them for publicity once you're all better. After all, anything they try and print goes through me. That bitch, on the other hand... well, I'm going to set the hounds on her, good and proper. If her career isn't over by the time the week's out, I'll eat my hat."
"That reminds me," Laura said. "We need to give a statement confirming Max is alive and well. We don't want any death hoaxes adding fuel to the fire."
"I'll go out there now," Max said, rising from the bed - only to be pushed back down by both Laura and his parents.
"No, honey," Cassandra told him firmly. "You need to stay here and rest. We'll give the statement. Of course, we'll include anything you want us to."
After spending a few moments in thought, Max turned to her.
"Tell them I thank everyone who supported me," he said, "and that my fans have no need to worry. Once I get myself sorted out, I'll be back out there making music again. This isn't the end of Max Velocity."
He smiled proudly.
"It's just the beginning."