After a slower than normal weekend, no doubt thanks to the heated arguments that now left the band's future in doubt, I was nose-deep in the classified ads, knowing perfectly well that money didn't grow on trees, but no way I was going back to that construction site with my tail between my legs; f--k that corpulent con artist Bear and his trainee pay. He's lucky that punch to his big stupid face was self-defense.
(You keep telling yourself that.)
Adam wasn't impressed. Who could blame him? I wasn't impressed with myself; facing my nineteenth birthday in a week and in no mood for either celebration or nostalgia. Unemployed and out of shape, fronting a band on the precipice of self-destruction, family relations dangling by a thread - not quite where I'd pictured myself at this phase of life. I was going back over the same page for the third time, not caring what the job was as long as the hours were band friendly, when the phone rang. Adam wasn't home, so I put the paper down and picked up the cordless handset in the hallway.
"Hey, it's Mitch." The liquid accent was almost shouting amidst a garbled ruckus.
"Mitch?" I glanced at the clock. The herds were probably shuffling to third period classes right about now. "Are you calling from Central? I can barely hear you. What's up?"
I heard him clear his throat and say, "You mind telling me what the f--k's going on with the band?" His words hit me hard. It was like being thumped in the chest with a heavy pipe. Looks like Jason spilled the beans after all. Couldn't this have waited until later?
I tried to speak. The only thing that came out was a stuttering babble that sounded something like "Wha-huh?"
"I think you know what I'm talking about, both you and Jason. I thought we were cool."
"We are -"
"Then why am I only learning this now? I'm p-ssed off, man."
"You're not alone there," I said. "I only got wind of this the other day. Go talk to Jason again if you want more, I'm not his keeper."
"I haven't talked to the guy since yesterday." He sounded clearer, the background noise practically non-existent now. "All I know, I got from Kayla." I was about to ask how she knew anything, until I remembered her coming along as self-appointed sidekick on the mission to Montrose Court, the purpose of which in retrospect, seemed pointless from the get-go. "Oh."
"Yeah, 'oh'." An untrained ear might have missed the hostility in everything he'd said up to this point. Except for the obvious expletives, you might think him jolly as can be. "Why all this cloak and dagger, why not just be honest about it in the first place? I'd be more understanding. We could work out a temporary solution together."
"I told you, Mitch..." I drew in a deep breath, closing my eyes. My empty hand thumped against the crown molding. How ironic it must seem to an outsider, an opinionated loudmouth struggling to answer a simple question. "All right, I f--ked up, I admit it. Biting his head off like that last week was stupid. And maybe - no, definitely - I should've brought you into the loop soon as I found out."
"You probably think I'm an asshole right now, odds are I am. But come on, dude, be reasonable. Why should I have to baby anyone else in the band? If Jason wants to quit, it's on his shoulders to say so. He can sack up and be a man about it instead of hiding."
(Can we say 'hypocrite'?)
"What I don't get is why he still played yesterday if he feels so strongly?"
"You've got me. Ask him." It struck me odd, too. I'd fully expected him to not stick around at all, but it wasn't too surprising that he'd been the first to leave, no longwinded goodbye speech, not even an outright admission of his feelings. His apparent departure from Systex consisted of little more than "See you around." I never did buy that 'I'm sticking around because I promised' excuse. If I'm the only one he hated, why not just try and get the others to quit and regroup as a new band under him?
Mitchell's voice boomed, his accent further reducing an already flimsy grasp of the English language. "F--k that! That's your answer for everything, happy to bask in glory but not get your hands dirty. Nothing's ever to do with you, is it?" He paused, waiting for some kind of response I couldn't deliver. After a few moments, he sighed. "Sorry. That wasn't fair. I'm just -"
"P-ssed off," I finished his sentence, "at us both. I deserve that." It seemed quite fair. "I won't take it personally if you decide not to come to practice later." I chuckled, more a scoff at myself than anything.
"Yeah, you don't get rid of me that easy. Look, I gotta go or Ballard will rip me a new one for being late. I'll see you later on, if it's not too late to save the band." Then he hung up. I set the handset in its charger, the little charge light snapping on; a bright green beacon in the dark and narrow hallway. I went back to my room and lay on the small bed, staring up at the speckled popcorn ceiling, drinking in the heavy silence of an empty house. Well go on, I thought, waiting for the little voice to kick me while I was down. What do you have to say this time?
Nothing; not even a mild "I told you so." You never can predict when it will speak. I lifted my head, looked at the newspaper on the small side table, snorted and fell back, sinking further into the mussed bedspread. The urge to resume my search was long gone, that phone call robbed my limp sails of what precious little wind remained. I wanted to laugh as much as cry. I also wanted out of this house with sudden urgency, realizing what a truly awful thing silence can be. A moment later, I was walking up Clark Street; coat in hand, no particular destination in mind, a reminder screaming in the back of my mind about how boring Brentwood could be during the daytime. I'd rather be bored in town than surrounded by silence. Distraction can be quite comforting, especially when the noise blocks out your other thoughts.
Not far from the spatial and often neglected athletic grounds of Arthur Compton High School is a seedy strip mall, home to a caf offering your typical short-order daily specials where the meat is often of questionable origin, and a few small stores selling a variety of boring trinkets and knick-knacks you'd expect to find at the neighborhood garage sale in a box marked 'one dollar or less.' Thanks to cutthroat name-brand superstores, there are barely a half-dozen cars in the lot at any given time, yet the area is still a beehive of activity with people coming and going at all hours. Compton students far and wide, along with a handful of Central High's more unscrupulous conscripts were known to frequent the area to blaze, practice their kick flips in the adjacent skate park and bomb the back alleys with all the spray-painted squiggles their little graffitist's hearts desired; the sort of place that normally held no appeal to guys like me, but when you're alone, bored and not yet legal age, not to mention obsessive about conserving your money, you'd be surprised how fast you can convince yourself to try anything.
I wasn't expecting much, wandering around the perimeter of the shallow skate bowl, eyeing the various tags and stickers, most of the lingering social rejects paying me no attention. The air was faint with pot smoke, sweet and skunky, not as offensive as some of the other blends I'd had the displeasure of smelling in the past. It seemed to concentrate over by the far end of the park, down by a funbox. Moving closer, the smell intensified and I could spot trails of smoke hanging overhead like low clouds while a trio of girls lounged nearby, appearing to almost relish the dirty looks some of the skaters were giving them. One of the blazers reached up and pulled at the black hood that seemed to swallow her head whole like a grape. I stopped dead in my tracks when the hood fell away, exposing an all too familiar crop of pink hair. This had to be more than just coincidence. It seemed the fates were all too happy to conspire to throw the two of us together, especially in the tougher of times. I smiled, remembering our time on the bus the other day. She'd been right in saying how these adventures were much better than being alone.
I brought my hand up close to my mouth and yelled out in a deep baritone, "Kayla Morton! Why aren't you in class?"
At first she jumped, turning to see where the strange voice came from. When she recognized me, a wide grin appeared on her face and she called back, "Why aren't you at work, you slack a-s?" Then she laughed and beckoned me over. "Well well," she said, throwing her arms around me soon as I was close enough, "what brings you to my little corner of hell, Richy?" She tipped her head in the direction of the rundown school. Goddamn, I'm fighting a losing war with this, I thought while Kayla's hand somehow managed to find room in my right pocket and slipped over mine. As if on cue, a shorter girl pulled a notebook from her backpack and began to scribble something down. A rather mean skull grimaced at me from the cover.
"Sup," said a girl clad in plaid. It was the first non-dirty look I'd gotten since arriving. "You're the famous Richy, huh?" she asked, taking a hit from the joint and holding it out to the short girl with the notebook, who looked like she could have cared less about my presence. "Kayla's talked about you." She appeared to have a small feather clipped to one of her chestnut locks. The notebook girl took a short hit and handed it back.
"Nothing too slanderous, I hope." She looked a few years older than me, twenty-one, maybe twenty-three, large eyes and the palest skin I'd ever seen, while notebook girl seemed to be closer to my age, and of Native descent. "Yeah I'm Richard, and I believe you have the advantage."
Kayla took care of introductions. "That's Christina," she said, pointing to notebook girl. "Don't mind her. She's not really a b-tch unless she forgets her morning cup, bless her stony heart."
"Love you too," she replied, closing the notebook but still avoiding eye contact with me. She began to fiddle with a drumstick that had been lying by her bag.
Kayla smirked, "- and this is Lizzie. She can lay down a mean scream or two, along with some of the sickest growls you've ever heard." Lizzie smiled confidently at me. That's right, a chick screamer, how do you like that, she seemed to say.
"Kayla, I'm devastated," I said, feigning heartbreak. "I thought I was the only screamer in your life." Both girls snorted, trying to keep from breaking out while Kayla's face lit up like a roman candle. Lizzie stepped in and took over, extending her hand towards me, the joint's glowing end pointed towards me.
"Lizzie Borden Blackman," she introduced herself, "and I'm no stranger to screams or axes."
"That some kind of bad joke?" I asked, taking a slow pull, sucking the smoke deep down into my lungs, blowing it out in a fat ribbon.
She glared at me for a moment and took the joint back. "I was born Elizabeth Blackman, but I go by Lizzie and I needed some kind of stage name to match the band's act - perhaps you've heard of us before, Festering Brides ring a bell?"
"It does." I was hardly able to believe I was talking with our future competition. I turned to Kayla. She shrugged and gave a little half-smile.
Lizzie continued. "Anyways, one of the girls came up with the idea of going by Lizzie Borden, but damned if we wanna copy anyone else, so I added my last name to the mix and it kind of stuck, so yeah. You make one joke about that name already being taken and I'll punch your lights out. There ain't no prissy glam metal being played here." She meant business.
"Wouldn't dream of it," I said, ignoring the slight irony. "I've caught your guys' - girls', show before. I like it, it's different, paradigm shattering. Never would've recognized you with or without the makeup."
"You got your own band, too, I hear. Nothing personal but I gotta ask. What kind of name is Systex?"
"It's a long story, and no other names have suited us. We used to be System X, to give you an idea."
"Catchy," said Christina. I ignored the sarcasm. "Kayla tells me you got some issues with your bassist? You guys still gonna make it into the Thrash?"
A slow burn began to smolder somewhere deep inside my chest. "You don't say. That's what she's been telling you?" I stared at Kayla, and her eyes immediately locked on the ground. Oh, to resist the urge to snatch her hand out of my pocket right now...
"Is there a problem?" Lizzie asked.
"No," I said, deciding not to tell the whole truth. "We're working on a potential lineup change, but we'll still make it." I gave the two band members (or was that 'bridesmaids'?) a sly smile, "No offense, but you want to win that opening slot with Black Heart Legions, you'll have to earn it the hard way." That got Christina's attention long enough for her to eye Lizzie and then me, no evidence of any emotion in her face.
I blinked. "What say?"
"Let's just say you're not the only group having problems."
"Chrissy...?" The single word came out in a lengthy warning tone from Lizzie, more of a question, translating into 'Are you crazy, selling secrets to the enemy?' I was intrigued by what I heard. Although I'd no aspirations to go around headhunting members from other bands, it's not like there was a law against it, and if the local metal maidens were having issues in the first place...
"Funny how this should be a mutual, yet exclusive problem," I said. "Much as I'd put the same question to you, I'm sure I know what the answer would be." No one else seemed to disagree. "And if you think I'll just swoop in and snatch your bassist like a vulture picking some carcass clean, you're wrong." It wasn't a complete lie; surely my conscience could see both sides of this. "However," I couldn't help adding, "if she - I'm assuming it's a she - sorry, only joking. You can understand though, that if she were to want out, I wouldn't necessarily write off the possibility."
No sooner had the words come out of my mouth, I felt a sharp pinch on my elbow. Kayla was staring at me, shaking her head. The movement was so small, so quick, that the Brides maids didn't detect it. She seemed to have forgotten about her hand, her mouth forming the words 'Don't do this.'
"Why?" I mouthed back. What did it matter?
"Don't do this." Her voice was a near silent whisper.
Lizzie squinted, looking me over top to bottom, trying to gauge how serious I was, as if I suddenly posed some kind of threat. She stepped back, crouching beside Christina and whispered something, using her hand to shield her mouth. A curious look flashed on Christina's face. After looking at me again for a minute, she reached down and unzipped the smaller pouch on her ragged backpack and began to paw through it like a raccoon examining a nocturnal buffet inside a dumpster.
"Why are they staring at me like that?" I asked Kayla. She didn't answer, perhaps afraid I was mad, afraid I might do something to her later. Yes, I was still pissed, but if she was entertaining the thought of me either screaming her stupid, or worse, slapping her, it wasn't going to happen. As she viewed me differently than the other guys in Systex, so too did I see her in a different light. I liked to think I could trust myself not to expose the really caustic side of my anger, despite the little voice screaming foul.
(For God sakes, how much longer do you think you can keep up this tango? Grow a pair and make a move, why don't you?)
Lizzie reached a hand into the backpack, removing a folded piece of paper. The glossy underside reflected in the late morning sun, hurting my eyes when looking right at it. She unfolded it and held the printed side close to her face while Christina zipped up the bag. "Here," said Lizzie, holding it out in front of me, "we're doing a show next week at the Paw. You seem alright, and Kayla's always singing your praises." Can't say I'm too surprised, I thought, taking the paper and turning it right side up. "Call it a professional courtesy."
It was a concert flyer. The first things to capture my attention were the large block letters at the top of the page, giving the impression of having been clawed by cats. How many brain cells are wasted creating (regurgitating in this case) this cutesy crap? I asked myself, reading on. I wonder if the folks at Murphy's use the same two-bit advertiser.
"FOX'S PAW PRESENTS: LOCAL METAL MAYHEM
FEATURING: FESTERING BRIDES & BLOODWOOD
FOOD AND DRINK SPECIALS. MAY 1ST, 8:00 PM. TICKETS: $10 AT THE DOOR. 19+ ONLY, NO MINORS."
"Well," I said, pocketing the flyer, "I'm sure you could twist my arm into parting with five bucks. It's funny, the show's on my birthday. What a way to celebrate."
"Is that so? Well, we'll try to make it a good one, then," said Lizzie, stopping short of giving an actual compliment.
"Who the f--k is Bloodwood, though? Never heard of them before, sounds like some kind of tree you'd find in a Stephen King novel."
"Damned if I know. Apparently it's one of those two-fer deals."
"Yeah, two bands fer one night." (Groan.) "Maybe management decided one band wouldn't bring in enough booze sales." She sounded almost apathetic to sharing the evening's billing with some unknown local. "Whatever. We're looking out for ourselves, nobody else. They could no-show and we wouldn't care, hell I'd almost prefer they didn't show at all." This did not surprise me.
"Looks like we got an opportunity to put that I.D. of yours into practice a bit early," I said to Kayla, holding the flyer in front of her. "Hey, why the long face?" She looked mortified, blinking once at the page, refusing to give it anymore attention. She could really be a mystery sometimes.
"Just thinking," was her simple reply. When the girls pressed her for more info, she stammered and said, "It'd just... I dunno, I sort of wish it was me - us, Systex, doing the performing, I mean. No offense." They didn't seem bothered.
"In time, sweetie," said Lizzie. "Hey who knows, maybe Bloodwood really will no show and you guys can take the support slot instead." I laughed along with them, pretending to be a good sport about the support jab, along with the sheer absurdity of the idea, but as the temporary hilarity died down, my brain began to paint a clearer image, having shifted gears, leaving fantasy mode behind. Suddenly things didn't seem so absurd anymore...
"Thanks for the toke and talk, ladies," I said, standing up from the rail I'd used as a temporary seat, the backs of my thighs dancing with the unpleasant tingle of pins and needles. "I must say it's been pleasant, but I should get on my way, I got business to transact. You sticking around, Kayla?"
"Probably," she said. "Unless your business is so terribly boring that only my coming with can save the day?"
"It might, you never know. A little added insurance never hurt."
"Hmm," she held her chin in her hand, pretending to look thoughtful, "I never have played the role of a savior before. Might be interesting..."
"Oh for God sakes, Kayla," Christina interrupted, "just go with lover boy already before I puke!" Lizzie was the only one who laughed.
We left the park a few minutes later, heading towards the downtown core. We weren't a hundred yards away before I released the hounds. "So, might I ask why you're spilling stuff to a group we're going to be competing against in two month's time?" Of course she didn't bother to look back at me, her hands burrowing deep into her hoodie pockets while we walked. "I mean, it's not like we have to keep our activities top secret, but of all people, why them?"
She hesitated, her lips twisting to form a pursed frown. "Lizzie's my friend, my only real friend it seems. She taught me a lot of guitar tricks. I just didn't think about it like that. I never had to make that distinction before I started hanging with you guys." She paused before adding, "Are you p-ssed off?"
Something didn't click. She called Lizzie her only friend. What did that make me? What did that make the band? Was it just a poor figure of speech? Too many questions, not enough answers and no time to stop and think. "I don't know," I sighed. "I guess not. You got a point, too. And don't think I'll all of a sudden flare up and say you can't be friends with them anymore, I wouldn't dare. All this bullshit with Jason's ruffled my feathers, I'm not thinking straight." You'd think I'd believe that by now, having repeated it enough times in the last week. "Whatever. If she knows, she knows. Let her try and stop us anyways."
Kayla's smile began to return little by little. "I doubt that'll happen. They have their own problems to deal with."
That's when I remembered. "Oh yeah, speaking of which, what was all that about? Begging me to drop it when Lizzie mentioned their bassist is giving them grief?"
Just like that, the smile was gone. "Oh. That. Let's just say the girl they brought in a couple months back is like Jason in female form."
I almost burst out laughing at the thought. "You're right, that is worse! The last thing we need is opinionated estrogen eating away at us like acid."
"I'll say. You already have me to deal with." We looked at each other and burst out laughing, loud, hard yells. A few passersby on the sidewalk decided to cross the street, lest they should have to pass by a pair of screwballs. We didn't care. Some time went by before she spoke again, catching me off guard when she did. "What are we?"
"Us," she said. "What are we?"
"We're still Systex, even without a bassist. We'll find someone else."
"No. Not that. I mean, I saw you blink when I said Lizzie's my only friend. We spend a fair amount of time together, outside of the band, too. What does that make us?"
Oh man. My conscience was right. You can't outrun anything. I stammered, trying to think of something. What did she want me to say? We're closer than most friends, a couple, kindred spirits, even? Well, maybe that was pushing it a bit.
"I'd say we're... how do you describe it? I mean, we're us, you and me. What else are we besides just 'us', you know?" Teenagers aren't always the most graceful of folk.
She smiled brightly. "I don't know, I kind of like the sound of 'us', gives it a sense of comfort, strength. Us: Two crazy kids against the world."
"With their loose-knit band coming along for the ride," I added.
She found that funny. "Hey, you never know."
"That's true, you don't."
"Some things, anyways," she continued, reaching for my hand, "I know this for sure: I'm not going anywhere," and kissed me. I held her close, forgetting about walking for a little while. Sometimes the simplest sentence can speak greater volumes than we could ever expect.
"I know you don't have plans."
"I could tell. You were getting tired of the conversation and wanted a way out. Why do you think I came along with you?" She proudly held her case up.
I grinned at her like a canary munching cat. "Oh, I just figured it had something to do with the whole 'lover boy' nickname." Pause for effect. "I think I like that one a whole lot more than Richy."
The thunderclap blush and tight lipped smile did wonders to help me forgive the rather hard punch in the arm she delivered a moment later, as well as reminding me why I'd silently forgiven her almost as soon as we'd left the park. I saw by her eyes that she knew I had.
She seemed to agree with me, too.
I called as soon as we got back to The Garage, leaving Kayla to set up her rig. It rang three times before a monotonous voice came on the line, prompting me to leave my name, number and a short message, thanking me for calling. That was fine. A short message was all I needed, no need to press pound for more options.
"Mitch! It's Richard. Thought I'd tell you about this first, before anyone else. Interested in hitting up a Festering Brides concert next week? It's a long story, but I got a couple ideas kicking around that could prove to our advantage. Call me back before you head on over here; I'd like to run something by you. Rock on!"