After watching me lend a hand to the inevitable self-destruction of Systex's practice, I couldn't blame Adam for being pissed off at me and not really saying much until everyone else had gone home later that evening. To hell what the little voice said, there's no way I would shoulder all the blame. Our conversation took up a good chunk of our evening and consisted of little more than tense exchanges about who was at fault, though not to the extent they had earlier. Neither of us wanted to point fingers anymore. We did agree, the fact that Mitchell wasn't also mad, or chose not to show it was nothing short of a miracle. Eventually, we agreed to leave the past where it belonged and made up. We weren't into that physical, man-hug stuff very much. The whole notion of hugging with multiple slaps on the back until your skin turned red seemed a ridiculous gesture. We ended things the same way most of our conversations did: A round of beers, a round of laughs and a "Rock on!"
That was also good.
As the topic had never come up before and made little difference when it came time to practice, there seemed no reason for anyone to ever ask where Jason left, a fact that came back to haunt us when Mitchell arrived at The Garage the next day with news that he wasn't coming. Nobody was surprised. We'd all seen it coming after the idiocy of yesterday, but it did little to relieve frustration.
"This is crazy," I said, pacing around The Garage, being careful not to trip over the tangled web of patch cords covering the concrete. "This doesn't make any sense." Everyone else was seated; Adam behind his kit (of course), Mitchell on the couch, Kayla on the workbench. This was a blessing in disguise. When you're over six feet tall and your stomach sticks out further than you'd like, you don't so much pace around the place as you do lurk, and even that can be difficult in tight spaces with others standing around. Only Mitchell had bothered to unpack any instruments, straddling his Fender across his lap string side up, randomly picking strings as though it were a Japanese koto.
"Eet doesn't?" Mitchell asked. There he goes again with that heavy accent. "Not to say 'I told you so' or anything, but I wasn't that surprised when he called and told me he couldn't make it." He lifted his hands off his guitar, holding them up in the air. "Now, when he said some important family matter, he might have been serious."
"No," I said, "I meant the fact that none of us know where the f--k he lives. You'd think he'd have told at least one of us by now. You do have a point though, Mitch."
Mitchell shrugged. "He likes his privacy, I guess."
Kayla made a face. "Did he at least say he'd be here on Friday?"
"If he did, it was lost on me. 'I'll see you soon enough' were his exact words."
Swell. That could mean anything. "Alright," I said with some resignation, "Looks like it's just us again today, let's plug in and work some magic." At hearing this, Kayla practically leapt from the workbench and headed for her case. When she brought her guitar out, I noticed it sporting an interesting new design: A skeleton hand giving the finger, displayed right below the tuning knobs. "Amusing," I said.
"It works," she said without smiling. "Helps make the point loud and clear."
"Well considering that it's pointing square at me, I do hope I'm not its intended recipient."
That got a flicker of a smile from her. "Let's just say certain people at home aren't particular fans of it." I couldn't imagine why. Then I began to wonder if the dark storm clouds that seemed to permanently hang above Casa de Morton had been throwing jagged snakes of lightning again. Well, maybe not. Her sudden bolt for her guitar aside, she didn't seem wound up or sassier than usual. Of course with Kayla, you couldn't always tell. We'd grown to accept, or at least tolerate, an infinite undercurrent of 'f--k you, I don't care' running through her to which I was long accustomed to, dating all the way back to the Sarah Matheson days.
Ugh. That was a thought I could have done without. Damn my subconscious anyways.
Adam selected a pair of drumsticks from a holder attached to his hi-hat stand, halfheartedly twirling one between his fingers. Kayla tilted her head and watched him. "What's up, drum major?" she asked.
"Uh..." he started. "Don't misunderstand what I'm about to say, but..." Activity slowed to a stop almost at once. If anyone, especially Adam began a sentence with such gloom, something really bad was apt to follow. "I hope this is the last practice we have like this." He gestured with his stick. We all stared at him. "I mean, Kayla's right, practice is practice, but with no bassist here it doesn't feel right, you know?"
I did know. It was like ordering a pizza only to discover upon opening the box that a slice was missing. "He'll be back," I said. Unusual bit of optimism from me, considering I hadn't exactly tried to stop Jason from walking out yesterday.
(Tried to stop him? Please! You singlehandedly drove that nail into the coffin and you know it.)
Now, there are moments in life where someone may wish they didn't have a conscience, or a soul. In fact, I'd probably be the first to raise his hand and admit to making multiple wishes for both, if only to get that little voice to shut the f--k up. Such utterances are usually made in the heat of the moment when one is under great stress and often recanted once cooler heads prevail. Only a scarce few continue to wish until the lie has become so familiar that a new reality has been created, and the ability to see the world in any other light is lost, maybe forever. Dire consequences are often not far behind. Part of me knew this whenever the little voice butted in with its harsh-tongued opinions, and yet, a smaller, darker part of me continued to wish in spite of it all.
"What if he doesn't come back?" Adam asked. You might have thought he was being unusually pessimistic, but I knew he wasn't trying to play that role. It was a serious question, and a fair one.
"There is that," Mitchell agreed. "What do we do with that, look him up in the phone book and go to his house? What next?"
Dead silence. Later that afternoon, he would go on to insist he hadn't meant it literally, that it was just a rhetorical question, and he hadn't expected anyone, least of all me, to look up with a face that screamed "Eureka!" and say that was a good idea. He would also make a comment, albeit a tongue-in-cheek one, that he had to remember who he was talking to in the future.
I let him have that one.
The four of us made the best of practice, trying out a couple of new parts Kayla had written, throwing in bits and pieces from "The Mirror" just for kicks, and it was good. The experience that is, not the song. With no bass, and only a feeble attempt from Adam, the song felt light and airy like whipped cream. A quick post-practice consult with the white pages revealed at least forty Melendez households listed, seven of them in Brentwood alone. Now to navigate a whole page of microscopic print and try to find the same number that Mitchell wrote down in my notebook. He'd already left by the time we started, referencing his upcoming shift at what he now called 'the nacho slurpee factory' with no hidden disdain. "Time to go play helper monkey again." When Kayla said something about the rolling plastic hot dogs in the display window by the cash register as "not half bad if you're desperate," the guys just groaned.
"You can't be serious," Mitchell said. "Those god awful things are nothing but melted down plastic and cow parts you don't want to be eating in the first place," drawing another disgusted groan from Adam. "All filler," he added.
"Exactly," Kayla said with that adorable smirk of hers, "sticks to your ribs." She patted her flat stomach, "yum yum," before collapsing to the floor, shrieking with laughter at the face Mitchell made. I almost died while Mitchell collected his equipment and, still gagging, headed on his way, making a comment about buses no longer running where she lived anymore.
Adam refused to be drawn into such a discussion, keeping his nose planted in the phone book while we continued to laugh. "Got it!" he cried after a couple minutes. We stopped laughing long enough to crowd around him and peer down where he was pointing. "There it is. 'Melendez, B: 430-6012.'"
I took a closer look. The numbers matched up all right, and jackpot! The address was listed right below, the only Melendez in the whole page to do so. "Wonder why that is," I said to no one in particular. "White pages normally don't list addresses unless it's a business number but I see no business name."
Adam shrugged. "Who cares? The point is we've got it," he squinted and moved his head closer to the page until the tip of his nose was just brushing against the page, "B. Melendez must be his dad. 130 Montrose Court, unit seventeen." He closed the book and took it back into the house. "I know where that is," he said when he came back, "it's that big townhouse complex just a couple blocks from the bus loop. You'll see it, no problem."
"Montrose Court," I repeated. "Yeah, I think it's not too far from the fire hall on -"
Hold that thought. I'll see it no problem?
A half hour later, I was on the next bus towards Brentwood Exchange, surprised and yet not, at the same time, that the duty of paying our AWOL bassist a visit would fall to me. It was no secret I didn't relish the prospect of staring into the eyes of the beast so to speak when Jason would discover who was ringing his doorbell. Pride before the fall however, sending an emissary might be seen as cowardly or an insult -accusations nobody wanted flying around The Garage like a trapped bird desperately searching for an open window.
Kayla surprised both Adam and me by saying she was coming with me, making the announcement in a very matter-of-fact tone, like there was nothing further to discuss. A bold move, considering it was Jason of all people I was heading to see, bearing a conciliatory message like a carrier pigeon across enemy lines... or a lamb being led to the slaughter, depending on which side of the looking glass you were on. I certainly didn't object. In fact, I was sort of looking forward to it in a sense. It wasn't exactly easy to get some one-on-one time with the rest of the band there and even if we could, she would often be awkward and withdrawn; something I couldn't blame her for. I was the same, though you'd never hear it from me. Nor would anything be done about it. What could you say? "Hey guys, don't mind us sitting here, just pretend we're invisible"? Perish the thought! And we'd already been through interesting incidents together, what was one more? A fact Kayla seemed to pick up on when we were no more than a few blocks away from the house. "Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to another adventure we go."
"I know, right?" I said. "With luck, maybe I'll avoid another ass on concrete collision. Things are getting a little sore as of late."
She snorted and rested her forehead against my shoulder. "Oh man," she said between giggles, "you kill me sometimes, Richy." As if she could sense my face twisting into a grimace, she added, "Sorry, I keep forgetting."
"Yeah, of course you do. No, I believe you."
Still grinning with amusement, she turned and looked out the window, watching the traffic in the opposite lane pass by in a series of colorful blurs, creating a mystifying optical illusion. One of life's delicious little brainteasers: Which was going too fast, the bus or the other cars? Knowing how moments like these had gone before, I waited, anticipation mixing with desire all the while, to see how long before her hand 'accidentally' touched mine, one of the weakest white lies known to mankind. Although the sun hadn't made a single appearance all day, it was still bright outside. The grey skies above showed no immediate signs of a classic downpour those in the Greater Vancouver area have come to expect throughout the year, which was a good thing as far as I was concerned. Hoodies seldom pass for adequate raingear.
As the opposing traffic continued to pass by in a steady stream, I felt something small and cold suddenly brush against my hand. Well, I didn't have to be a genius to know what this was, but I looked down anyways - and was surprised to find the roles reversed. This time, my hand was the one on top. Kayla didn't turn around, but she didn't pull away either. In the cloudy and weather-beaten window, the thin reflection of her profile began to redden. Something inside me clicked and I began to draw my hand away, god knows why. It didn't get very far before her grip tightened, where do you think you're going, it seemed to say. "It's nice," she said, still pretending the world outside was too fascinating to avert her gaze.
"What is?" I asked, feeling stupid. Like I didn't really know what she meant.
"Not having to drag my case along with this time. It's a b-tch to carry after a while, gets in the way."
"You don't say." Okay, two can play this little coy game. The ball's in her court now, up to her to return the volley. Things grew quiet again instead. And here I was thinking the pink elephant in the room had finally vanished - silly me. Time passed by. With the outside world almost tuned out, I read, and re-read the ads running along the upper lip of the walls, finding no interest in discount eyeglasses or courtesy seat procedure.
Kayla's words broke through my distracted mental silence with force, like an air horn through the din of a stadium crowd. "I like being with you. I feel safe." When I didn't answer right away, she added, "When venturing into the unknown, I mean," her redness deepening with each passing word. "As opposed to exploring alone... or with one of the other guys, it's nice... you know?"
Interesting. This wasn't the first time she'd said something along those lines. It was like she was trying to hammer the point home, as though somehow I wasn't as aware of what she was saying. Quite the opposite, I was all too aware. Exactly what I should have taken away from that was still a mystery. Is this her way of saying she doesn't feel comfortable around the other guys? Or was there another point I'd missed altogether? I decided I'd better say something, anything to appease the silent, nervous impatience with which she watched me, fidgeting around in her seat.
"I like being with you too," I said, "and they haven't been all that bad, these adventures. Never thought I'd end up being both musician and explorer, but what the hell, life shouldn't be all work and no play."
She blinked once. "So that's what you see the band as, just another nine-to-five?"
"No, no. All I mean is that sometimes I forget to get over myself. Sure, being in a band should be a serious thing, none of that halfhearted 'I dunno, what do you wanna do?' sh-t. Don't forget to have fun with it, though. Stuff doesn't work out one day, big loss. You came, you tried, you should've tried to have fun regardless, at least try to enjoy each other's company."
(Even when you make a jacka-s of yourself, isn't that right, Richard?)
"Sometimes you forget those things when you're in a crowd," Kayla said after thinking.
"True," I said, "some things you do, others you don't. You're right, too."
"It's no fun exploring alone."
Cue the blush again, right when it seemed ready to fade away. Her face moved in closer to mine, lips drawn together in a tight smile before parting, allowing the often unnoticeable tongue spike to shine. Soon our foreheads were touching. Her eyes closed, mine following suit. In the darkness, I felt her lips brush against mine.
"Hey! You kids!" The booming voice came from the front of the bus. Both of us jumped, thrashing about our seats like we'd just been zapped with a bare wire. Kayla looked ready to vanish, drawing her hood over her bright hair, eyes lowered, face darker than her cherry colored lipstick. I looked towards the voice and saw the driver standing by the front doors, looking dead straight at me. I offered a choked "Sorry." It made me sound like a wimp.
"That's alright, but you're going to have to get off now, I'm afraid."
"What, are you serious?" I was shocked. "We didn't do anything."
The driver, an older looking man with a receding hairline and more than a fair share of wrinkles, stared at us again for a long time. "I'm not saying you did, son. I'm just wondering if you and your lady friend forgot this bus only goes as far as the exchange." He gestured with his thumb at a blue sign attached to a nearby pole: BRENTWOOD EXCHANGE BAY 1.
We were gone before he could bat an eyelid. Kayla's high-pitched cackle echoed across the near-empty bus loop as we crossed the road and disappeared down one of the side roads into a thicket of untrimmed brambles. Ah, the folly of one's youth.
Montrose Court looked as though it had been plucked right out of an article from Suburbia magazine. Quaint little two storied townhouses far as the eye could see, each one a carbon copy of its neighbor, right down to the speckled grey siding and white picket fences separating backyards.
"My God," Kayla said, almost laughing, "look at this place! It's the American Dream come to life. All we need is the tantalizing aroma of apple pie wafting through the air while it cools on the windowsill and we're set." How about that? Guess I wasn't the only member of Systex who had a way with words. We wandered around the complex in search of unit seventeen. The remarkable picture-perfectness of each home was beginning to give me the creeps. It was all too neat, too conformed. The two of us were the only ones out and about, no children at play, no cars coming and going. It felt like the scene from a horror movie where the two lovers fail to notice the psychopath sneaking up behind them, the blade of his axe glistening with a red sheen. I began to feel flush at the prospect of me and Kayla in such a role, and not due to anything involving the axe-man, either.
Unit seventeen, (sounds just like a horror movie title, doesn't it?) was near the end of the cul-de-sac. Kayla sat down by the curb and waited as I went up to the door and reached for the doorbell, only to stop and stand dead in my tracks, my finger half an inch away. The pause felt much longer than it must have been because the next thing I knew, I'd pushed the button. The resulting ding-dong sounded murky and out of tune through the door. I could hear movement inside, a sort of shuffling, followed by a muffled thud and an equally muffled swear. The door opened a minute later, a stocky middle-aged man in a plaid shirt and jeans looking right at me with strained politeness. His father, I assumed. "Yes?"
"Hi." It was all I could say.
"Can I help you?" the man asked, sounding less patient.
"Jason. Jason does live here?" Not the smoothest question ever asked. Judging by the man's expression, he likely thought so, too.
"Yes, but he's not home right now. Who are you, may I ask?"
"I'm his friend," I started to answer, "from sch- I mean, band."
A thoughtful look came over the man's face. "Oh, hang on. I remember now, he's mentioned you before." He looked me up and down. "You don't sound so Frenchy to me." His voice purred with the same country-esque twang Jason sometimes spoke with.
"Aren't you Mitchell?"
"No?" It was long and drawn out, sounding more like a question than an answer. "I'm Richard, the frontman - singer, I mean - vocalist." Grace never was one of my strengths.
"Oh. My apologies, he never mentioned anyone named Richard before." That didn't surprise me, didn't anger me either. Perhaps I'd overstretched it a bit, calling myself 'friend', considering I hadn't acted like much of one to him in recent months. "Only," the man continued, "he's only talked about this heavyset French kid with long hair named Mitchell he was starting a band with. No offense."
"None took mister." I tried to be polite while the alarms began ringing in the back of my mind. "Would you uh, happen to know when he'll be back? I wanted to talk to him about our next practice."
The man checked his watch. "Should be back soon, I hope. The shipping depot's not too far from here. You two are welcome to come in and wait." He nodded towards Kayla, who seemed lost in thought, sitting on the curb. "Bill Melendez, by the way," he introduced himself, "no relation to Peanuts."
I had no clue what he meant, but we shook hands anyway. "I'm sorry. Did you say something about shipping?"
"Yeah," he nodded, "we're sorting house, deciding what stuff stays and what comes back to Arizona."
I almost fell over. The alarm was now sounding red alert DEFCON one, cocked pistol. Mr. Melendez watched my face blank as his eyes darted about left to right and back to me, "something wrong?"
"Back to Arizona?"
"Indeed, heading back for the summer once school's out. I'm surprised he didn't mention it with all the time he spends with your guys' band." That makes two of us, Mr. Melendez. Puzzle pieces began to fit together while others no longer matched. Soon, all my thoughts were a jumbled mess. "I'd ask him about it on Friday when you guys are all together again. Sorry he couldn't come yesterday or the one before, but I needed help with -"
"That's alright," I said, extending my hand. "Look, sorry to bother you Mr. Melendez, I can see you're busy, we'll get out of your hair."
"But didn't you want to talk to him about your practice?"
"That's alright," I repeated. "It's not so important. I can wait. Have a good day, sir." Part of me was surprised my polite streak endured while trying to download and process all this information. The door closed. All I could do was start walking.
"Hey!" Kayla cried, sprinting to keep up with me. "Richard, what happened? You look like you seen a ghost."
"Let's go back to The Garage." I kept walking and talking, words just randomly flying out of my mouth while Kayla followed right beside me. "It wasn't about practice. He knew. F--king knew! Why didn't he say? No wonder. It's all been for nothing."
"What?" Kayla looked clueless. "Richard, you're not making any sense." She reached out with her tiny hands and pulled my arm, jerking me to a stop. I looked down at her with surprise. She could be a strong little firecracker. "What the f--k is going on? Tell me!"
"I will," I said, "But let's get back to The Garage. I'm pretty sure Adam will want to hear this too." She eyed me with some reluctance but didn't say anything else, reaching for my hand. I was glad to have it. What was going to happen once all this got out in the open, to the band, to our contest plans? Was Systex even going to be in the contest? More serious, was there going to be a Systex for much longer? The questions were enough to make my stomach ache. More were sure to come once Adam found out. It seemed real life suburbia, much like its fictional counterparts, had more than its share of dirty laundry hidden behind closed doors, patiently running out the clock until all was revealed, the inevitable hurricane not far behind. The question now was whether or not it would crash ashore before Friday.
I looked at Kayla. She was still watching me. I squeezed her hand tighter and said, "You know how we thought our biggest problem was deciding whether or not to play a cover for the Thrash...?"