From The Brentwood News, May 2nd:
TWO INJURED IN NIGHTTIME BAR BRAWL
Scheduled concert cancelled as police investigate, lay charges in assault
Police are continuing to investigate an assault which took place last night at The Fox's Paw bar in east Brentwood. According to eyewitnesses, a nineteen year old male and his girlfriend, who were attending a concert at the bar, were standing in the parking lot when they were accosted by the suspect, who is believed to be in his early-to-mid twenties and heavily intoxicated at the time. Early reports suggest both men sustained several lacerations in the ensuing struggle. The suspect was taken into custody, while the nineteen year old was taken to hospital with non-life threatening injuries and is expected to recover. Police are working to establish a motive, according to Cpl. Alex Gate, who refused to speculate on whether robbery may have been the intent, but did mention that the victim's girlfriend was being sought for questioning in connection with the assault. Gate declined to reveal any further specifics, only saying, "We are currently questioning the young lady as per a routine investigation." No names are being released to the press at this time.
The performers, Quebec-based thrash metal group Bloodwood, cancelled their performance following the incident. No word yet on whether the group will be rescheduling the show.
"Richard?" The voice was distant and distorted. I had to strain to hear it again. "Richard?" The side of my head pained and my face was hot, something wet streaked across my mouth and down the side of my face. I could smell blood, it was an unpleasant scent. My eyes opened a little, a faint squint at best. The brightness from the lights above stung my eyes.
"Can you hear me?"
"Are you there, big guy?"
Consciousness returned, slowly seeping in like early morning fog. I could hear the voices again, but they did not echo or sound distant this time, they were up close and personal. Some of them I recognized right away, others took their time to register.
"Thank God, finally!"
"Step back guys, give him a little air."
"Somebody go find the doctor."
That last one was Adam's. It was the closest to me. I opened my eyes and looked around, expecting to wake up on the cracked blacktop pavement outside the Fox's Paw. Instead, I found myself on a hospital gurney, surrounded by billowy curtains. A weary and sweat-stained Mitchell stood by the far corner, his bulky frame blocking out the thin strip of light where the curtains drew apart, gripping his temples. Adam stood by my side, one of his hands resting nervously on the parallel bar attached to the gurney. Someone else was sitting behind him; I could see hairy fingers drumming the arm rest but little else.
"Ugh..." Slowly, I managed to sit up with support from Adam. My mouth felt sticky and dry. A long, wiry tube was sticking into the crook of my arm, a clear liquid dripping down from a fat bag hanging on an overhead stand. "What the f--k is going on?" I asked. "Where am I?"
"You're in the hospital, Richard," said the unseen man.
I blinked, certain I was still out of it. I hadn't heard that voice correctly, couldn't have. It wouldn't have made sense. "Jason?" my bewildered voice croaked.
Soft laughter answered. "I'll chalk that one up to that nasty sucker punch." I turned to face the man in the chair, sitting with one leg crossed over the other, arm drawn across the thigh like the bow moving across a violin. Now I recognized him, memories of our last encounter flooding my mind. He had a thin, forced smile on his lips, as though he missed his usual neutrality. He sure looked different without that God awful mustache, too.
"You always liked to be the center of attention, didn't you?" asked Eric.
"Eric?" My head fell back into the thin hospital pillow, and pain flashed up and down my face. "Ooh, this is the best birthday ever."
"It's nice to see you too, little brother."
"Where's Dad, off finding an involuntary commitment form?"
Eric looked up at Adam. "Good to know you didn't let him lose his sense of humor." Adam said nothing. "Calm down, Richard. He's not here."
"And the sun is purple." It hurt to even move my lips to form the words.
"I mean it." He sounded serious enough. "He thinks you're in Vancouver, whooping it up with friends and, if you don't mind me saying so, he can continue to think that."
It took a while for me to consider this. "You lied to him?"
"I prefer to think of it as exercising diplomacy." I was impressed. All right Eric, way to go against the grain! "Your buddies here called me," he added, as if to answer a question I hadn't yet thought up. "Call it a divine miracle I was at the house and got to the phone first."
Adam chose to step in here and exercise a little diplomacy of his own. "It was my choice, Richard. I know you're probably pissed off at me for it, but I took one look at you and well -"
"Moderation Merritt stepped in and took over," I said, finishing his sentence. "Whatever. Far be it for me to tell you what to do." If my tone sounded harsher than I was intending, Adam made no indication of being offended.
"The police left for now, but they'll be back."
"You know they're going to ask you about what happened." His eyes locked on mine. "Do you remember anything?"
Oh yes, I remember all right. There's no forgetting it.
"No," I said. "The last thing I remember was being outside with Kayla. Now I'm on a floor with a bloody nose. How the f--k does that happen?" Kayla! Good God! That's what was wrong with this picture. I shut my eyes and tried to force the hideous images from my mind; the swearing, the screaming, that menacing bottle slicing through so much flesh...
"Where is she?" I asked, trying to stand and quickly realizing I was lying on a hospital bed after coming close to tumbling right off it. Adam looked uneasy. Eric looked confused. Mitchell peeked through the curtains and then disappeared without a word. "Damn you, where is she?" I almost shouted.
The answer came from an unexpected source, the doctor who'd just stepped into my fabric prison, wheeling a small cart up to my bedside. "Oh good, he's awake," he said with a song in his voice. "Sorry Richard, no more visitors allowed right now." He produced a penlight from his coat pocket and shone it into my eyes. Soon all I could see was bright yellow-white. "Your friends shouldn't even be here technically, but your brother here put in a good word. How are you feeling?"
I absolutely hated hospitals; the sickly, sterilized scent of antiseptic surrounded by so much sickness and death while men in green and blue scrubs poke and prod you with every hideous device known to mankind, all the while asking ridiculous questions they already knew the answer to. Unless I was dying there was no way I was willingly going to stay in one. How the hell did he think I was feeling? Did he expect me to sit up and say I'm fine and dandy, Doc, never better? Give me a break!
"I'm alive." It was as close to full cooperation he'd get from me. The doctor grunted and replaced the penlight, reaching for the table. Next to a sheet of gauze and an unlabelled jar of yellow looking gel was a mean looking needle, bent at one end like a fish hook. "Oh goody," I said, "how many?"
"You've an odd way of showing gratitude for being alive," the doctor said, his wrinkled face void of any form of smile. "You could have been more seriously injured, or killed." Right away, I could tell this doctor, whose nametag introduced him as Ross, was not the sort of doctor who wanted to be your pal, your sympathy cushion or anything. He seemed to regard me as just another young punk too stupid to know what was good for him. "Luckily, x-rays show no sign of skull fracture, but you're definitely going to have a sore face for a few days. I'll also have to take a couple stitches right above your eyebrow."
"Super. Just don't put my eye out with that thing," I muttered as he applied some of the gel to my wound with a cotton swab. It stung for only a moment, soon replaced by a heavy numb sensation as though my temple had swollen to the size of a grape. Dr. Ross said nothing, seeming to have given up on any sort of fruitful conversation. I kept expecting Eric to offer his always critical opinion of me, and was surprised to see him sitting there, expressing genuine concern. This from the brother who'd desecrated my room and seemed to wash his hands of me not that long ago. I couldn't help wondering if this was some form of post-concussion symptom gone undiagnosed.
Mitchell reappeared, having donned a surgical mask that pinched the extra flab around his cheeks, his tangled hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Everyone looked agog. "Eh..." he shrugged, eyes locked on the ground, "Hospitals man, they mess with me."
I couldn't help smirking. "The great Mitchell Guerin a hypochondriac? Never saw that one coming." The smirk was momentary, departing as fast as it'd arrived. "Now will somebody please tell me where Kayla is? I want her."
Adam spoke again, with detectable hesitation. "She's not here, buddy."
"What?" I tried sitting up again, a firm hand pressing me back into the bed along with a strict voice telling me to be still and close my eyes, something I didn't want to do, lest those horrible images replay for a third time. "I don't believe it. She wouldn't just up and leave me to bleed, not her." Then I winced as I felt the needle slip through my flesh.
"Of course she wouldn't, not if she had any choice."
"I'm not following you."
There was a long pause before he continued. I couldn't see his expression while Dr. Ross sewed up the gash on my forehead. Part of me wasn't sure I would have wanted to when I heard his explanation. "The police got to her. They were still questioning her just before the ambulance took off. It was a split-second decision. Did we stay with her or go with you? For all I know, she's..." His sentence wound down like a record nearing the end of side A. He couldn't bring himself to finish that thought, nor did I want him to. Nothing about this spelled a happy ending.
I suddenly wanted to punch something - or someone. Not him. How could I be mad at him for that decision, God knows it mustn't have been easy, what if the shoe had been on the other foot? "I have to find her - we have to," I announced as soon as Dr. Ross announced that he was finished.
Dr. Ross was shaking his head. "Sorry. Head injury, you're in for overnight observation."
I turned on him. "F--k you," I snapped, "I'm not mental, I can name my ABC's and count fine. I'm not staying here."
"Richard..." Eric warned, albeit gently.
"Those are the rules," said Dr. Ross with his back to me. He was fiddling with the plastic I.V. Tubing. "Speaking of which, you can stop that foulmouthed garbage right now. We don't accept that kind of language."
"You know I agree, Richard," Adam said, "both of us," he pointed at Mitchell, looking a little green around the gills but nodding all the same. "But, and I know you're not gonna like hearing this - the doc's right. I had to when I fell off my bike a few years ago and got that nasty concussion. We know you're fine, but do you really wanna take a chance and God forbid have something worse happen while you're off Kayla-hunting?"
"I don't give a sh-t about something worse! I care about Kayla!"
"No doubt and I'll help you find her, we all will." He glanced at a stoic Eric, who hadn't made a move since my coming to. "Won't we?" Eric blinked but said nothing, big surprise.
"For sure," Mitchell added.
"Your friend's right, you should listen to him," Dr. Ross put in his two cents. "Right now, you need to relax." He set something down on the tray, the shape of which looked like a syringe.
I growled. "I'll relax when I find my girlfriend, you -"
Before the rest of that sentence could come out, I was gone again.
The next time I opened my eyes, I found myself in a small room, the door closed, daylight peering in through the window. The outside world looked amazingly bright compared to the dark clouds drifting in from the mountains. I decided it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. The first thing to greet me was a stunning revelation. No heavy lingering pressure from nightmares to shake off, no hangover from hell clinging to me. I couldn't believe it. A good night's sleep had been as elusive as the Holy Grail, so close and yet so far. I hadn't felt so refreshed in a long time. The second one was more of a shock than anything else: Eric, still sitting in the chair, still wearing the same clothes from last night, his shirt matted with wrinkles and out of place, a cardinal sin in his eyes. His face was hidden behind a copy of the Brentwood News, its bold, black headline shouting its top proclamation to the world. I read it through sleep-crusted eyes, feeling a flutter beginning to stir in my chest.
CHARGES LAID IN FOX'S PAW ASSAULT
Man faces 2 charges, victim's girlfriend released, RCMP say.
Jesus! They were thinking of charging her? I thought cops were supposed to be intelligent.
"It appears," Eric said from behind the paper, "that the justice system is not so flawed after all, wouldn't you agree?" As if he'd known my thoughts all along. He folded the paper and set it across his lap, looking at me with a tired and unshaven face. But something was different about him this time; it took me a minute to realize what it was. He was smiling. At me. An authentic, happy smile, like he was really happy to see me. This is some kind of side effect, I thought, has to be. "Sleep well?"
"Have you been here all night?"
"I was annoyed with that doctor too, administering that sedative to you without warning. But I must admit it seems to have gotten you through the night. How's your head?"
"Oh, it's fine," I lied. The stitches were throbbing and it felt like a hammer was beating away inside my brain. No dizziness or tilted camera view, though, and that meant the sooner I could get out of this sterilized prison. "Have you been here all night?" I asked again.
Eric set the paper on a side table, got up from the chair, stretched and went to the window. "Those dark clouds don't look too promising," he mused. "Yet if we lower our gaze for a moment, the world around us is as bright and welcoming as ever. The promise of a new day standing up to the foreboding doom and gloom of what lies ahead; defiant, its determination unswerving."
I moved to the edge of the bed and stretched, keeping a careful eye on the I.V. Still in my arm. "Very poetic, Eric, even for you, but what's your point?" It was obvious he wasn't going to admit he'd stuck around last night, probably enjoying the role of the martyr; you guys go on home, I'll stick it out.
(Listen to you. Everyone's against you, aren't they? It's all part of some nasty conspiracy. Do you really not trust anybody, Richard? Is it too farfetched to assume that maybe he stuck around for more altruistic purposes?)
I missed you too, little voice...
"Do you know what you are, Richard?" He faced me, his smile evolving into a more contemplative one. "You're the world." He stood there, waiting for some response, like he anticipated immediate protest: Now wait just a goddamn minute, I'll have you know...
Only, there was no response to give. The will to fight was gone, left behind at the Fox's Paw, its only remaining testaments now lying shattered and fragmented in the garbage bin. "Yes," Eric continued, "you are the world, defying the will of the clouds, clinging to your true nature even though the odds are stacked against you; the steady tempo of a lone drum marching to the beat, keeping the whole orchestra on course at all cost, if you prefer. You always have loved the music above all else. And maybe that's my fault, failing to recognize it sooner. Perhaps in my own pursuit, I too have forgotten to take my eyes off the sky and look at the brightness that's still around."
"You're not making sense Eric, in pursuit of what?"
"The dream, of course - your dream, your ultimate. You know, Richard, we Demin men... We're not always so direct about things. Rarer still, we're less accepting of anything we see as deviating from the path before us. I think you would agree this describes Dad and me in your eyes. It's alright, you can say it. For what it's worth, it's how we see you - a deviation from the norm; an accidental going against the key signature, even at the cost of someone's feelings, or worse - for some people - their pride. I will never understand what draws you to this kind of music, or what you find so appealing about it. But you're determined to achieve what you set out for, whatever the cost. I respect that, and I respect you sticking to your guns. The only question I have left for you: How much are you willing to sacrifice?"
I kept quiet, letting the words sink in. Who am I willing to sacrifice? That's what he really meant to ask. How many bodies will I have to step over in order to reach the summit? As if someone had turned a dimmer switch up to high, the world began to come into focus, lending a hot clarity to everything - all the difficulties and challenges, the reality of it all. It made all the accomplishments, both personal and band related seem irrelevant.
Sensing my inner monologue coming to an end, Eric, after stifling a yawn, continued with his. "You are nineteen now, and you've made it clear that you won't be returning home anytime soon and no amount of asking, discussing or ordering is going to get you to change your mind." He paused, waiting for a response that never came, taking my silence as confirmation. "That's okay then. I didn't stick around just so I could escort you back home afterwards, so you can stop thinking otherwise, I know you have been."
"So why did you, then?" I asked, slowly pushing away from the bed, reaching to grab the pole that held the dripping I.V. line. Stretching again, my back muscles yawned and groaned, delayed soreness from the hustle and bustle of last night's moshpit beginning to settle in. "And I can see you rolling your eyes, so do us both a favour and don't start the martyr routine. We're both adults as you said in so many words, so let's talk like adults." With some effort, I wheeled the I.V. stand across the room, the tail of my hospital gown flapping behind me like a plastic bag caught in an updraft. We met each other in the middle of the room, exchanging equally tired, patient glances. "The question still stands, backed with genuine curiosity. Please Eric. I'd just like a straight answer."
He considered this for a moment. Then he began to laugh softly through his nose. "Let me ask you a question first: Do you begrudge me so much that you refuse to entertain the possibility of brotherly love? I tell you, I didn't spend a night in a hospital lounge chair, swallowing cup after cup of abysmal vending machine coffee just to deliver you this big speech, I promise. You're my little brother, for God's sake. That should be enough for you. Would you not have done the same if it was Kevin, or Andrea, or myself?"
Again, his words left me without any of my own, and it was probably a good thing. Whatever response I might have conjured would have sounded weak and spineless, extracted out of pure guilt and nothing else. Heaven knows I had more than enough of that building up.
"It's a good thing you collected your stuff when you did," Eric said. "Dad has given me a message for you: You will not be returning home, even when you decide you're ready. You march to the beat of your own drum; Dad says to let you march. This is not a disowning. You're always welcome to visit when you're ready, but you will no longer be residing there. You call yourself an adult, it's time you experience the world for yourself."
His words shouldn't have hit so hard, I'd been singing a similar tune for months now, it made no sense to feel like my heart had just been torn out of me. I knew I had no right to feel betrayed, yet the feelings remained, like a stubborn wine stain against your best dress shirt that refused to come out. My legs began to shake, I was certain I'd have fallen over had I not been holding onto the pole. All I managed to say was, "Okay."
"Okay," Eric said, too, his voice robbed of any emotion, the thoughtful smile long gone, cue the revival of the ubiquitous, stoic, stone-faced mask.
"Is that all, then?"
"Yes. As far as Dad's concerned, perhaps a bit of time drifting between couches and, God forbid, the streets, will lend you some much needed character. I however, can't bring myself to watch a family member on the streets." He looked up at the ceiling. "It would be unfortunate if that trust account Uncle Len left to you when he died didn't go towards furthering your education as he (and Dad) would have hoped. Then again, we so often overlook music as a form of education, don't we?"
I wanted to fall over again, my grip tightening around the pole. "What," I began, "are you talking about? What trust?"
"Adulthood," said Eric, looking thoughtful again, "I think you'll find, has more perks to it than just being able to go pub-crawling and buying cigarettes." He smoothed his shirt and began to walk out of the room, his hand reaching out and brushing my shoulder. When he was at the door, he looked back at me, lips curling just a tiny bit. "I don't have to like your choices, nor respect them. If anything, I disrespect them. But," he lifted his hand, "it doesn't mean I don't respect you, that I don't love you. All I can do is hope you'll come to accept that in time. Apart from that, I can no longer help you. None of us can. But we'll always be here when and if that time comes. The question is whether you'll decide to take that step."
I let out a sigh through my nose. Time passed in silence, even the gentle tick of the wall clock seemed to have vanished. "So that's it for us, then? The lines have been drawn in the sand. Now we play the waiting game?"
"The question is who's going to take the first step over, before it's too late? The envelope is back at your friend's house. It's the only place I knew for sure to find you. Call it a birthday gift if you like."
"What envelope?" I asked.
"The choice is yours. You're my brother, and always will be. Just think about what I said." He was gone with that.
I continued to stand there, letting the silence reign. Even the most beautiful of symphonies have their moments where not a single note is played; an orchestral ellipsis between movements. Nothing felt beautiful right now. The big picture, which had always been the driving force behind everything I ever wanted for Systex, shining like a lighthouse cutting through a heavy, lingering fog, now seemed to be growing weaker, sputtering in the darkness like a water droplet on a candle. Instead of singing praises that I was alive and, for the most part, healthy, I felt a sullen, bored indifference. The next band practice held almost no interest. If I didn't find Kayla, there might not even a practice to hold. Then I heard Eric's voice again, in the back of my mind.
"How much are you willing to sacrifice?"
Outside, the heavens roared from above in a single breath. Soon, the rain began to fall.