I don’t know why I kept expecting things would stay the same. It should have come as no surprise that when Systex planned to reconvene the next day, the atmosphere would be different. The old elephant of songwriting woes and creative roadblocks shuffling off this mortal coil, another one waiting in the wings to take its place; larger and harder—heck, impossible to ignore. More things weighing down an already bogged mind: Just what I didn’t need. It seemed every window that opened after each door closed behind only led to more worries. Not a comforting thought. News about me and Kayla had traveled through the thorn-studded grapevines to Jason, which in turn made its way back to me. It seemed a little birdie couldn’t keep his beak buttoned. At first I suspected Adam, as he was the one who told me. He pled ignorance with such fervor, I felt stupid for even asking. That left only one other bird—one with a funny French accent, no less.
“How’d he take it
? ” I’d asked Adam
in the morning after learning this, not so much out of fear, rather curiosity. Truces may have been adopted between the two, but Jason
was far from being all buddy-buddy with Kayla
. Trying to predict his reaction was a challenge.
“He was surprised, no doubt about it. Other than that, didn’t seem to take issue with it.”
Well, good. I think. And why should it be such a deal anyway? I asked myself that afternoon while drifting between the many racks of metal vinyl, cassette and CD’s galore in the back room of Cage Records, lost in amazement at the bizarre artwork of a vinyl belonging to some German power metal band whose logo seemed all but lost in the surrealist cover. Of course it’s not a big deal, I kept thinking. It’s nobody’s business after all. If he has an issue... well, that’s his problem, isn’t it? Do I tell him what to do with his time? No.
“What’d you say, Richard? ” I turned to look at the long-haired man sitting behind the cash register, who watched me with a curious face from behind a guitar magazine. Derek Drummond, known as simply D, was a British ex-pat regarded as somewhat of a legend in the Brentwood metal community, having owned Cage Records for as long as I’d been alive, regaling customers, concert-goers and anyone who would listen with tales of countless concerts dating as far back as the early Sabbath days. He loved to tease diehard thrash fans about meeting the man, Cliff Burton himself, “back in the day,” a dreamy look coming across his ageless face while he talked. If only I’d been born a few years earlier…
“Didn’t say anything, ” I said. At least, I think I didn’t.
D looked at me a long time with a pleasant expression, although his eyes seemed to spell concern. “You just muttered ‘shut up, you’re just being stupid, ’ for the third time since you been in here. Are you holding out alright? ” His words, spoken in a unique accent, English crossed Canadian, could have knocked me down with a feather. My mind went blank while I desperately tried to remember just the last five minutes, drawing nothing but an error message telling me to reset system and have a nice day. Was this his way of letting me know the self-argument I’d just been having had just gone to air, live and uncensored?
“Oh yeah, ” I said, trying to play the whole thing off as a silly joke. “Just got the usual stuff on the mind, take no notice of me. It’s not like I’m gonna start frothing at the mouth.”
D thought that image over. “Please don’t. Foam is for lattes. Besides, that rabies thing tends to put a crimp in your day.” Err... well; you had to give him points for trying to make a funny. Then he changed subject with, “Been a while since I last seen you here. How are things going with band of yours, Systex, right? ”
“Yeah, Systex, they’re alright, got practice in a bit. I’m just killing time till then.” Too much time, I thought. The almost magical spell a quiet uptown has during business hours quickly fades for the teenager walking the faint line between student and dropout, even though the decision was clear in my mind. The only way you’d see me back in a classroom at Brentwood Central High is if someone held a gun to my head. That chapter of my life had been stamped "The End", signed, sealed and delivered to the publisher. But now what? The prospect of getting a job was almost nauseating, despite the often-suppressed voice of reason so casually dropping the truth on me like a ten-ton weight, that I couldn’t just drift the rest of my life. Sorry to disappoint you, Richard old pal, but record producers just don’t come from out of nowhere and slip their business card in your pocket, baiting you with such greaser lines like “I like the cut o’yer jib, kid, ya gots talent! Gimme a call, I’ll make you a star! ” If anything, I’d be more than a little suspicious if someone ever approached me like that.
“You guys going to enter the Thrash for Cash happening at Murphy’s? ” D asked, setting the magazine aside and admiring his shop from the view of his stepstool. “It’s gonna be a good one.”
“Of course we are! ” Was that even a real question? “Just the chance to play on the same stage as Black Heart Legions is enough to make me reach for my wallet, never mind a chance to actually tour with them! I take it you’re going.”
“Going, nothing. Yours truly is emceeing the event, and providing the entertainment in between sets.”
“F—k off, that’s cool! I didn’t even consider that they even needed an emcee, figured you just showed up at these things the day of, and played when they told you to.”
D chuckled, shaking his head. Waves of brown curls swung to and fro, hitting him in the face a couple of times. “I can tell you’ve never done one of these before. There’s a lot more goes on behind the scenes than even the most seasoned competitor might realize to pull these things off, especially if you want it to be more than a one-time shindig. That being said, don’t sweat those details, they ain’t your concern.”
“Many a battle you’ve seen, I take it? ”
“And competed in, but that’s another story.” He took on a more serious look. “I know the emcee is supposed to be neutral in these things...” You didn’t need to be psychic to see where he was going with this. Perhaps having a blank mind right now wasn’t such a bad thing.
“But..? ” I asked all ears.
“If there’s one thing I can give you, Richard, it’s this: Focus on perfecting your set, don’t be so tuned to how the crowd reacts to the other bands. Even for a last-second throw-together event like this, the last thing you wanna do is f—k up in front of your locals. One chorus of boos is all it takes to kill bands like that—” He snapped his fingers, adding emphasis, “—believe me, I seen it happen.”
“Duly noted, D—thanks.”
“No sweat. But you didn’t hear it from me.”
“Hear what? ” I smirked. These weren’t the kind of things you needed to explain twice to me. “Say, how big a crowd is coming out for this, anyway? ”
D shrugged. “You got me. On show nights, the place can hold a few hundred. But so far, only two groups have signed up, which blows my mind.”
“What, you mean besides me—us, I mean? ” Better watch that, lest I find myself on the receiving end of a collective glare from my bandmates.
“No. Two groups, period. In fact if I remember right, your friend Adam was the first guy, according to Murphy himself.” That was it? Wow. Even with over a month until the registration deadline, I’d expected a lot more of Brentwood’s most talented to scramble for a spot. What’s up with that?
“Two” I said, still not quite gripping the fact. “Sh-t, and to think I was worried about the list filling up before we got a chance. Who’s the other group? ”
“Uh...” D frowned, looked up at the ceiling, trying to remember. “I know for sure you guys, but the other one’s slipped my mind. Damn. I’d know it if I saw ’em. You never forget a death metal group with all girls.”
Thank God it was only a vinyl in my hands and not something more delicate like a glass. It likely would be scattered across the floor in sharp, tiny pieces after processing D’s last comment. “Death metal girls? ”
“I know it sounds f—ked up, but so help me, they’re pretty goo.”
“D, you telling me we’re going to be competing with Festering Brides in front of Black Heart Legions? ”
D snapped again. “Festering Brides, that’s the one! And judging by your dropping that copy of Pink Bubbles Go Ape, I’m guessing that’s news you could have done without knowing.”
Feeling foolish, I crouched down and scooped the album off the floor, looking down once more at the picture of a woman gazing into the unblinking, open-mouthed gawk of a dead fish, perhaps longing to kiss it. Or maybe not, how was I to know? How this fit in the metal section was well beyond my comprehension. Hopefully the music was a lot better than the artwork. I put the album back on the shelf, marveling in silence at the outlandish and, at times downright strange ways the creative process guides people to craft such names for albums. Some things never ceased to amaze me.
“I wouldn’t call it bad news, per se, ” I told D. "You’ve definitely added a dose of reality to this contest. Wait till the guys hear this little jewel.” I didn’t know how to describe my feelings. While I felt no worse for learning this little tidbit, I wasn’t exactly all warm and fuzzy inside either. With that, took my leave, promising D I’d buy something next time I showed my face, knowing he had little patience for chronic window shoppers. Being the good natured guy he was, D waved this one off and let me on my way.
As if the stakes weren’t high enough, the mountain before us now seemed to stretch well into the clouds, bringing about an all new seriousness to the forthcoming competition. Festering Brides... yikes! Well, they are local... unsigned, too. Today was getting more interesting, no doubt about it. I’d walked maybe two blocks, rehearsing how I’d share this little nugget with the guys, and feeling a little silly for it, before a frantic burst of beeping snapped me from my quiet trance long enough to make sure I hadn’t come within an inch of being turned to goo in the middle of Main Street by some speed demon. The honking rather emanated from a dark blue clown car pulling up alongside me, the side wheels narrowly missing riding up on the curb. A familiar face reached over and rolled down the window with some effort while the tailpipe rattled and chugged on.
“Hey-hey, ” Jason greeted, tipping a two-fingered salute my way. “How do, stranger? What brings you out here? ” I restrained from exploding into laughter at the sight before me. Were compacts suddenly the official vehicles of choice for Systex? Jason looked only seconds away from poking his head through the roof, whereas Mitchell always seemed to risk spilling out the sides of his. Thank God for different shades of blue, or I’d never be able to tell their respective rides apart.
“Oh, I just came from Cage, had some free time. Thought you lived closer to the Van City borders? ”
“I do. I went to fetch some extra strings before heading to practice. Current ones are feeling a bit soggy. Guessing your heading that way now, want a lift? ”
“Cheers anyway brother, but by the look of it, I doubt I’ve a chance of fitting in there, amazing you can. All that’s missing is—” Soggy strings? “—a tinny rendition of Pop Goes the Weasel and you’d make a decent Jack-in-the-box.”
“Har-dee-har-har” Jason rolled his eyes. “Boy, there’s one in every band. Come on, it’s not that bad. Compacts aren’t the friendliest to long-legged gentlemen, but it beats hauling equipment for miles on foot—” Jason’s sentence was interrupted by a sudden bright flash from above, followed by a deep rumbling that seemed to make the trees tremble. “—especially when that shit starts up” he pointed to the sky.
Touch, I thought, slipping my case off, opening the passenger door and climbing inside with some effort, shutting the door just as a large sheet of water began pelting the pavement. “Cheers, ” I said again as we set off.
“Sure thing...” Jason started, making no attempt to hide the mischievous glint in his eyes, “lover boy.”
Oh, this was going to be a fun ride.
Jason didn’t actually ride me very much during our short drive, echoing what Adam had relayed almost verbatim. “Hey man, if it’s what you’re feelin’, go for it I say. What business do I got telling you who to crush on? ”
“Man I dunno, I just thought what with the whole bullcrap thing when she first came to try out—”
“—that I’d cry foul and throw a wrench into the works? ” he said, finishing my sentence. Oh that’s right, he was good.
“In so many words, yes.”
He nodded. “I wouldn’t have blamed you. But you’re right, you know. I’m still not her biggest fan, but for what it’s worth to the band, opinions can change, given time. Just please don’t be making out in between songs is all I ask.”
If there was room to move so much as an inch in the rolling clown car, I likely would’ve slapped my face into my palm. Yep, he definitely talked to Adam.
By the time we arrived, everyone else was gathered inside The Garage. I could just make out a short, pink headed figure through the foggy, rain spattered windshield, waving a large black sheet overhead, along with the faint sounds of obscene references made towards the inclement weather. Guess Kayla decided today was a good day to walk, a common mistake many a lower mainlander was apt to make. I helped Jason gather equipment from his trunk and ran the short climb up the driveway with unprecedented urgency, getting inside with only a few nonthreatening drops beading up on my hoodie. Soon as she saw me, Kayla’s sour face lit up, then looked conflicted. Easy to see she wanted to kiss me, although reluctant to in front of the guys, who, good natures aside, were apt to strike with a teasing jab or three at any moment—and that’s only if they showed restraint. She did allow herself to grin at me, which I returned, though not as wide as yesterdays, partly out of mutual embarrassment. The cruel rains had soaked her clothes right through; her shirt clung to her tiny body, giving her the appearance of a child’s doll having just been pulled from the washing machine. A thin jacket lay by her foot, dripping over an upset bucket.
“Dedication, ” she said. “More important this stayed dry. I can use a towel no problem, but if this old thing got half as drenched... Well, not so much.” She patted her case before pulling the guitar out, a point of view appreciated by all parties. “I don’t need to hate the rain anymore than I do now, thank.” I smirked, reminded of Jason’s earlier comment about soggy strings.
“So what’s the plan for today? ” asked Adam, inspecting one of his drumsticks for damage, deciding that the few nicks and notches missing from the middle were not of immediate concern, setting them down on one of his snares. “From what I’ve gathered, Empty Shell is precisely that. Do we wanna recycle the tracks, make something else or just say heck with it all? ”
Jason scratched his chin and mulled the options. “Seems a shame to toss the music, you know? Mitch, that trio of arpeggios has substance, never thought I’d admit dropping my part down to BEAD tuning was a smart move. That scale’s normally one I avoid like the plague.”
Mitchell looked proud. “What I tell you? Don’t be so afraid of alternate tunings. ’Course, you ever try something like drop C while everyone around you is on another scale entirely, I’d be afraid too.” The mere idea of such a musical mismatch made Jason grimace while I watched fascinated. It’s as if they have their own special language, I thought. “But I agree, I don’t wanna piss it all away either. Richard, what you think? ”
“Hell, it’s your guys’ riffs, I didn’t contribute jack. The decision’s up to you, I’m just the added voice. Right now I need to think some more lyrics up.”
“Why? ” All eyes turned to Kayla seated on the steps, fiddling with her shoulder strap. She looked at me, dead serious. “Why do you have to worry about that? ”
“What do you mean, why? That’s my role” I said, failing to otherwise understand the question. “Unless you’ve got some floating around you’d like to share. Be my guest, I don’t wanna come off as some possessive lyric-Nazi.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean why do we have to have lyrics at all? What’s wrong with an instrumental? Richy, you were kicking butt yesterday when it was the three of us” she glanced over to Mitchell, “right? ” He nodded agreement, snorting a suppressed laugh to mirror yesterday. “I didn’t see no rule saying you can’t join in the fun. I say saddle up, pony.”
Mitchell fought to contain himself. “Ree-chee” he said. “I like that. I’m gonna call you that now.”
“Please don’t” I said, less than amused. “As for what Kayla’s said, she’s got a point. I don’t know how the rest of you guys feel about doing an instrumental, but I’m down to try it out.” A few seconds silence went by as the idea sunk in. Nobody seemed to object. Heads soon began nodding, contented smiles growing. “Metallica’s done a few and they haven’t made the rest of the albums suck. Of course they’re not the only one; and Kayla, I swear if you call me Richy one more time...”
Now it was her turn to snort. “Sorry” she giggled. “I forgot you don’t like that.” Sure she did. “Well what say, boys? Should we thrash it out? ”
The Garage burst into excited action, prepping amps and instruments for action. It would be my first time taking part in any serious guitar work and not just throwing out little ditties here and there since coming together into our current quintet. That was exciting, too. Then, I remembered about earlier. “Speaking of Thrash, gentlemen—and lady, I popped into Cage earlier and learned some interesting news about our upcoming competition.”
“Such as? ” asked Jason.
“You’re not going to believe me, but we are one of only two bands signed up.”
“Like hell I am. D himself told me.”
Adam seemed too distracted to care who it was, twisting nuts and checking the chain linking pedals to cymbals, keeping his back to the rest of us. “Well who’s the other two-bit talent we have to contend with?” he asked.
“Hope you like the taste of crow, Adam,” I told him. “I very seriously doubt Festering Brides come close to the two-bit category.” The hi-hat he had been fiddling with practically jumped from his hands, crashing into the other drums, making a hideous racket while Jason blinked in surprise. Being a newbie to the local scene, Mitchell didn’t seem to grasp this bit of info with the same awe as the others, though he offered an impressed whistle. Having experienced the macabre stage show himself over at Fox’s not a week ago; he knew better than to just shrug and ask “so what? ” Good thing, since Kayla did just that, bringing the brief chorus of oohs, ahhs and wows to a quick end. Judging from the expressions, the only one who didn’t look like Kayla had gone mad was Kayla herself.
“Serious, guys?” she asked. “I don’t get what the hubbub’s about, I’ve known for weeks, what’s the diff?”
“You knew? ” was the collective cry from us guys. “And you didn’t tell us?” I asked, wondering who would be the first to reach out and feel Kayla’s forehead.
She shrugged. “Does it matter? We got our own thing going on. Who gives a flying f—k what the competition is?”
“I thought you were friends with them?” Mitchell looked confused.
“Yeah, I am. But friendships got nothing to do with it. This is war. Now let’s stop wimping around and rock it. Are we Systex or ain’t we?”
Instead of standing there, feeling like a babbling idiot holding a bundle of patch cord, I was stunned to feel the adrenaline beginning to churn, something glowing bright and hot inside, a broad grin cracking through the deer in the headlights expression. Checkmate, Kayla! If it was possible to become more infatuated with someone after being chided, put a checkmark right next to my name, T’s crossed and I’s dotted. Her face didn’t crack once, she didn’t even blink. No more was said of it, the first notes began to crank out in another moment. We jammed, tweaked and tuned until well after sunset without incident, albeit a couple of wondrous looks continued to swap between the guys. And that was fine with me. They couldn’t see the smile hidden in her eyes, not that they were looking for it; which wasn’t to say I was, but I didn’t have to. It had already found me. Maybe it hadn’t left.
I would be fine with that, too.