I was discharged from the hospital a couple of hours later, after the doctor on shift checked my coherence and tried to persuade me, unsuccessfully, to eat the culinary abomination left for me by an attendant. "For the last time, man," I told him, "I am not touching those soggy yellow lumps of half-digested plastic that you call scrambled eggs. I'm going to find real food soon as you say I can leave." Fortunately, he was able to take my argument in good humor, unlike that walking dead excuse of a doctor, Ross. After changing back into my previous night's clothing, grimacing at the sticky abrasive sweat stains clinging to me like Velcro, I left the hospital, caught a bus to Contrast and indulged in my usual liquid fuel, adding a cinnamon bun, heavy on the icing, to boot. Damien served me in his usual good cheer, though it was impossible to ignore his concerned eyes bouncing between the espresso machine and my newly decorated forehead.
"Hate to rain on your parade, but the doc's say I'm going to live," I said, participating in our usual ribbing without much enthusiasm. "Sorry."
"Too bad," said Damien, pouring two black bullets into a large cup. "And here I was hoping to get rid of this damned syrup once and for all."
"Well, unless you'd care to do the honors yourself?"
"Nah, I don't do well in tight spaces. Besides, I've heard prison coffee is liquid sin. I guess I can grin and bear your existence a while longer."
"Ah, I'll break you yet."
"You can try." He finished off my latte and passed the cup and saucer over the counter, having demonstrated his talent for crafting drinkable masterpieces yet again, a large starred circle not unlike the Rush starman symbol, minus the naked body, thank God. That's where I draw the line. I thanked Damien, carried my plates to a far table, sat and thought for a long time. The cinnamon bun disappeared almost immediately, the latte stuck around longer, growing cold before joining the pastry in my stomach. I thought about many things; the concert that never was, the undeniable stagnation Systex had been drifting in for months, the parking lot. Kayla, I thought of her a lot, being the common thread weaving through this intricate fabric called time, and memory. Where did she go? Why hadn't she come to see me in the hospital? Did she even know? I wasn't angry. Upset, confused, sure and why shouldn't I be? Anger, though? Not a bit. Even trying to think of things that should have sparked my now infamous short fuse seemed boring now, the well that held a plentiful supply of temper seemed to have dried up.
F--k, I can't just sit here, wondering and worrying myself sick. I have to find her, if for no other reason than to satisfy the nagging worry chirping away in the back of my mind. Swallowing the rest of the cold latte, I left the cafe in search of the nearest payphone and called Adam back at the house. He answered my rapid-fire questions with equal speed, sounding as happy and optimistic as ever.
"Yeah of course we're still practicing today. No, I haven't seen hide or hair of her, either. I hope she's not forgotten. Are you okay, though? If you aren't a hundred percent, I understand but - Sorry, sorry, just checking. Well, if you think you can, then power to you, buddy. That girl though, she's got a way of making herself disappear when she doesn't want to be found. Alright, good luck. Try not to be late though. I know, but it'll be different this time. See you soon."
It didn't occur to me to ask what he meant by "different this time" until I was a good distance away from the cafe.
She wasn't at the skate park, or drifting around Compton. The few people I'd asked who knew of her were no help, she hadn't been seen for a couple days now. And as much as it went against my better judgment, an attempt to find her at her house also turned up nothing, as nobody came to answer the door, for which I was somewhat relieved. Too frustrated and out of ideas to continue, I gave up and headed for The Garage. The first thing I did after getting back was locate the envelope, which was sitting on my bed, put there by Adam most likely, and look over the documents. Sure enough, Eric kept his promise. They were all there. Everything seemed to be in order. All I needed to do now was go to the bank. I was sliding the papers back in when I noticed the note stuck to the front. In my hurry to get to the documents, I'd missed it altogether. At first glance, the note seemed simple enough in its three brief sentences. It was from Adam, that familiar cursive A in the lower right hand corner, the only handwriting he ever did. Everything else was written in his usual large chicken scratch.
"Hey Richard, thought you'd want to look at this right away. Had to run to the worksite for a bit, I'll be back in time for practice. Hope you're excited, this could be just what we've been looking for all this time without knowing it!"
This brief communication left me flummoxed. What was all this supposed to mean? I stuffed the envelope under my mattress and started to walk towards The Garage when I caught the light on the answering machine blinking like a solitary red eye; on-off, on-off, on-off. I reached out and jammed my finger into the play button. The tape whirred in the machine, let out a flurry of clicks like a typewriter, beeped, then played this:
"Adam, Richard! Just to let you guys know, we'll be there a bit late, probably closer to four, some unavoidable stuff to take care of first, see you then! Rock on!"
The machine let off a shrill beep and the red eye ceased blinking. If I thought I'd been confused before, reading Adam's note, now I was clueless. We, Mitchell said, "we" as in "somebody else besides me." Kayla was my first thought. But what would she be doing with him? Then I thought of Jason, dismissing that idea right away. Don't be silly, Richard, Jason showed no interest in talking truces; he'd donned his lifejacket and swum for shore. Has he found us a potential bassist? All these questions were beginning to make my head hurt, my body felt heavy as exhaustion caught up with me. I went to my room and sat down on the bed, my head found my hands, eyeballs pressing against the flats of my palms, producing speckled black pattern that shimmered and shook like a sinister kaleidoscope; dark shapeless forms twisting, folding across an unnatural green glow in the background. I could feel my head sinking the same way I felt when riding in an elevator.
When I lifted my head, and the momentary blots in my vision faded, I found myself standing on a stage - the stage from the Fox's Paw. No instruments anywhere, not even a microphone. Ghostly blue lights shined overhead, lending an ominous, supernatural atmosphere. Dead silence, not a single whisper could be heard. Confused, I raised a hand in the air to try and suppress the light. The floor below moved as though it were alive It was alive, with bodies, hundreds of them, cramming the venue. A solitary "Boo!" cried out from the pit. It struck me like a knife in the heart, as more cruel and jeering boos and hisses joined in. The shock laced with pain in my chest, a sharp, agonizing sting. What is going on? What have I done to deserve this?
"Adam?" I called out, looking around. "Mitch? Kayla? Anybody?" Nobody answered, nobody came to my rescue. I was alone - weak and exposed to the hatred. Panic began creeping into the recesses of my mind like a hurricane crawling ashore. Bottles and cups began to pelt the stage. One flew just shy of my right cheek, a quick jerk of the neck and I was able to miss it. I wasn't so lucky the second time around. A beer bottle caught me across the forehead and exploded in a cloud of brass shards, a well aimed shot that drew sadistic cheer from the crowd. The pain started out as a dull nag, soon overpowered by the burning sting of stray glass burying into my flesh, shredding it like thousands of tiny knives. Before I could even bring my hand up to wipe the blood away, something heavy crashed into my back and next thing I knew I found myself falling, the giant mosh pit opening up like a Venus Flytrap, greedily swallowing me whole. Bodies slammed me left and right, strands of hair tugged and ripped from my scalp. Insults and curses grew angrier, distorted; the only sound ringing through with any clarity being my heartbeat pounding in my ears. Blood ran into my eyes again, leaving my vision a thick, liquid blur. Voices and laughter and insults sloughed together, no coherent words in any of the strange tongues they spoke. They ripped the clothes from my body and threw me into the middle of a very large, very empty circle pit. The eye of the hurricane, never a good place to be in, I'd seen enough of these to know what was sure to happen next. All at once, breathing became impossible. I collapsed to my knees, gasping. It felt like the bar was depressurizing, oxygen being sucked from my body with every gasp.
A tall, shadowed figure emerged from the crowd and faced me. Vision was still blurry. Whoever it was, I could feel their cold stare penetrating me, it felt like my chest was caving in. "What do you want from me?" I screamed. No answer. "Who are you?"
"Look at me." It sounded like a woman's voice.
"Tell me what you want from me!"
"Look at me!" it commanded again. As best I could, I wiped the sweat and blood from my eyes and looked at the pair of legs before me. "You thought you could have it just like that? You think you're special?" the voice asked in an accusing tone. Have what? My mind frantically searched for reasoning.
"Have what?" I asked out loud.
Fingers pointed at me.
"Dreamer," the voice whispered. I could just make out the shape of the person in front of me. My heart almost stopped. The slim build, the bright hair, the tongue stud in her mouth glistening as she laughed at me - mocked me! - with that psychotic look of hers, holding the broken bottle in her tight little hand. Blood dripped from the jagged end. The laughter was getting clearer. Except, that wasn't her laugh, it was too deep, too... masculine?
"What's the matter, buddy?"
The shock of hearing Adam's voice crashed against me like a wave against a shoreline in a windstorm. The distorted laugh returned. "Dreamer," her voice laughed again.
"Dreamer," the crowd chanted in unison, softly at first, rising in volume and intensity with each recitation, "Dreamer! Dreamer!"
"Stop it!" I screamed, feeling the fragmented remains of my sanity slip through my fingers like sand in an hourglass. The scream, echoing in my head, was all I could hear now, as she raised the bottle above my head and brought it down, slicing through the darkness.
I awoke in a daze, leaping off the bed and racing around the room in a panic. I was drenched in a cold sweat, causing my clothes to cling to my body while gooseflesh broke out all up and down my arms, the back of my neck. The worst nightmares are always the ones where you realize you're dreaming yet you can't awaken from them, trapped in a subconscious prison, forced to let the movie play through, never mind the cost to one's sanity. In my more pessimistic times, I'd often reiterate the amount of data psychologists could get from my brain by dissecting just one of my dreams, frightening or otherwise. Maybe they'd be able to help she'd some light on the subject; God knows I was out of ideas. I knew next to nothing about the meaning or symbolism in dreams, I left all that kind of psychobabble to Adam. If there was any to be found in that horrific episode, let it stay a mystery. Experiencing it once was painful enough.
Adam! That was his voice I heard, not hers! And why was Kayla looking to stab me? What the hell was all that about? I groaned, rubbing my eyes and looked about the room for the alarm clock, cursing my subconscious for interfering with another attempt at sleep. I was stunned to see the time, 2:14 P.M. certain that the battery had died in the night; I reached for my watch and looked at the clock. 2:14, not even an hour had passed since I'd got back. "F--k off," I cried, tossing the watch aside, "a cat nap, of all things..."
Still shaken from, if one could call what I had just endured "sleep", I went into the bathroom and drenched my face in cold water, trying to put myself together. I gazed into the mirror and was shaken by the pale face that greeted me. The dark circled, bloodshot eyes were laden with menacing glare; they questioned, they accused, they sneered. For a moment it felt like I had left my body and was standing on the sidelines watching a man stare into his own soul. What had happened to Richard Demin, where had he gone? As I stood there letting the water drip down my face, my eyes became drawn to the jagged swollen red line living just beneath my eyebrow, the thin sutures sticking out just as hideous as ever. The memory loop began to replay once more and I pounded the corner of the sink in frustration. Can't things just stay in the past where they belong? I robotically reached for the bottle of aspirin in the cabinet and swallowed one without water, finding it a struggle to break my fixed stare and clamber halfheartedly into the shower. I didn't understand why, but for once the icy needling did not bother me. Maybe the cold water matched the cold I felt inside.
I went out for a walk after showering, deciding it was no more or less pointless than sitting around the house alone, waiting for four o'clock to arrive, and spent an hour navigating one of the city's many off-road trails that wound through acres of undisturbed forest, eclipsing the part of the city that never slept, where everything was always on, where cars never stopped and shops never closed. Here was the opposite; slow, quiet, a sense of temporary escape. The deeper into the forest I went, the quieter the din until all that was left was the soft rasp of my breathing and the occasional chirping of birds in the woods. Standing at the foot of a sizeable hill that climbed for several feet before rolling over the earth like the lip of a waterfall, leading to parts unknown, I looked around, making sure I was alone.
That's when it started building up in my stomach. At first it felt like a small pinch, the sort of pain you get from a bee sting. Then the stress and tension of life in Systex over the past six months began to churn and toss, heat rising up my chest and surfacing in my mouth where it exploded in a raw, primal scream; half frustration, half anguish. It felt like it was erupting from the crown of my head, shattering my rib cage and bursting from my chest; why for a minute I was sure the world was spinning, the ground beneath my feet crumbling from sheer magnitude.
"Hello?" a cautious voice called from somewhere over the hill crest. "Who's there?" It sounded scared, trembling a little. "Hello?" it repeated. "Are you alright?" Silence, and then, "Don't try to pretend you're not there, I heard you."
That scream made my throat feel like it was full of thick, wet sand. It took a few seconds to clear the lump before I could manage any words. "Who are you?"
"Who are you?" the voice replied, putting emphasis on you. It didn't sound afraid of me anymore.
"It's me," I said, then smacked myself upside the head. Brilliant answer, Richard, of course it's you! This call and response was beginning to get old, fast. I walked up the hill faster than I should have, arriving at the top a little short of breath. The hill flattened from here, folding into the spotted brown earth and flattening into a wide clearing overlooking a nearby creek, giant evergreens surrounding the area like an army of green spears, standing as the only line of defense between here and the busy city. The remaining trail broke off from the plateau, carved by a long, twisting ravine, a small footbridge on the far side serving as the only link between here and beyond, the creek trickling below. Below a gathering of large, weathered boulders was a boy, sitting cross-legged atop a smaller rock, a fire-red six-string straddling his lap while a tattered soft case lay in a heap off to one side. His small, round face looked at me with cautious concern.
"Hi," I said, raising my hand in greeting. "Didn't mean to disrupt your practicing there, I didn't hear a sound."
"Don't sweat it, dude," the kid said, brushing shaggy brown hair off his face. What was he, fifteen if not younger? He nodded his head, beckoning me over.
"What are you doing out here?" I asked, walking closer.
"Playing," he said, looking at me like I should have known better. His pick hand struck the strings, producing a random, tuneless pattern. "Those screams come from you? Pretty intense stuff. Who died?"
I let him have his jab at me. "Warming up," I said. "You got a band?"
"Sort of," he said. "My friend's learning drums. We jam together sometimes." Just like how Adam and I used to, I thought. Back when things seemed so much simpler, back when reality didn't rear its ugly head. "We need to find a couple more guys though." He looked at me again, his strumming coming to an abrupt halt. "What's so funny?"
"Was I laughing? Sorry. You just remind me of when I was your age, back when I had the same dream."
"Hey dude, I'm fifteen, you don't look that much older than me."
"No, but I've been where you are now. I used to think the same way when my band was in its own infancy."
"Used to?" asked the kid. He let his guitar go across his lap, the tuning keys shining as a stray sunbeam shone on them.
"Like I said, back when reality wasn't going 'f--k you' and messing everything up."
"What kind of thing is that to say? I never talk like that."
"That's because you don't know any better."
"Hey man, who the hell are you to talk down at me?" He scowled, holding his arms out like he would gesture a willingness to start scrapping if I kept talking.
"Someone who's been through the ropes," I said. "Kid, let me give you some advice right now. Don't dream too big. Dreams are nothing but a waking hallucination of things that never turn out the way you expect. I used to be like you, full of hopes of making it big, and you know what it got me?"
"Clearly nothing," the kid said. "Or else you'd be boasting instead of bitching. And by the way, who says I want to make it big, become the next Steve Vai? I play because I love music. Sure, maybe in time I might get a band together, record a demo, why not?" I noticed that he spoke without a trace of hostility, if anything he sounded amused by this random guy in the woods trying to lecture him about being in a band. "And who made you the expert? Does your band have an album?" He waited. "A demo, at least? Do you even have a band?"
"Of course I have a band!"
"Then let me give you some advice." He climbed off the rock, dusted his pants and packed his guitar. "Spend more time focusing on it than what others are doing and save your opinions for someone who cares. You're not in charge of my destiny. I am. If you wanna quit, then go ahead. Quit. More room at the top for me." He walked away.
The words echoed in my head like a ringing gong. "Hey, kid!"
"I have a name. It's Stephen," he replied without looking back.
"Stephen. No hard feelings. It's just been..." Been what? "... A rough little while. A lot of stuff's gone down, it's been taking its toll on m - on everybody."
He stopped, looked over his shoulder, and offered a half smile. "My condolences. Put a period and move on. Let the rough patches smooth out on their own. If your band means anything to you, then focus on the music, and to hell with tomorrow." He crossed the bridge and followed the path, around the corner and out of sight.
Now it was my turn to sit on the rock and think, and wait for the little voice to lecture me on what a bloody idiot I was.
(I think you can take care of this one on your own.)
Perhaps it was right. Perhaps Stephen was right, too. I had almost forgotten about the whole point of why we even existed as Systex. Making f--king music! Everything else, the Thrash, the tour dreams, that was all secondary. Even now as the memories of the initial few jam sessions when it was only me and Adam, the sticks and strings, blasting along to Sepultura and other tapes in The Garage began filling my brain again, they didn't bring the same sense of sorrow and loss from before. It was as though they had been reborn, a mental testament to how things used to be. And how maybe, with a little luck and a lot of heart - Heart, not mind! I'd done enough thinking for quite a while - things could be better again.
I stood off the rock and looked up, clear, perfect blue, not a wisp of cloud in sight, the sun shining its light, its warmth on the world below. Suddenly, it felt good to be alive, to feel alive. How strange to feel so optimistic after being kicked while you're down. Maybe in time I could learn to like this optimism thing. I wonder if this is how it feels to be Adam sometimes. Then I laughed out loud, stood up and took off down the hill. Yes, it was good to feel alive. And to hell with tomorrow, today belongs to the music.
Walking up the street towards Adam's house, I noticed there were no cars parked along the curb. Odd, I knew Mitchell wasn't coming until later with whoever else was included in that "we" he kept using, but surely Adam should've been back by now, someone was bound to drop by early, to share a riff that couldn't wait or just hang. That's when I noticed someone was there, sitting on the steps by the front door, arms folded, hood drawn up, hiding the face, but not the case that bore a familiar warning to potential thieves, and I didn't know anyone else that short and slender.
At the sound of my voice, the hooded head bounced up and looked at me. There it was. The small, adorable face I'd grown to miss whenever she wasn't around, looking sadder than normal. She leapt from the steps and ran towards me, squeezing me so tight that for a second, I thought I was going to hear the brittle, twig-like snapping of my ribs. It made breathing difficult, but I didn't pay too much attention, focusing instead on the muffled "I'm sorry" being repeated with F-bombs and other profanities punctuating the apologies.
"Where the hell did you get off to?" I asked, holding her close. "Adam told me those idiot cops were questioning you."
She sniffed hard, her face pressed against my chest, her voice swallowed by the padding of my jacket. "They treated me like I'd been the one who'd stuck the bottle in your face. I tried to tell them but they wouldn't f--king listen. It took a hell of repeating before they got the point. I was so scared."
"I don't blame you."
She blinked away a tear and looked up at me with a glassy expression. "Huh? No, about you, I mean." Words began to pour out of her with that, I did nothing to prevent them. "I tried to get in to see you after they let me go. You wouldn't believe what I had to do to get them not to call my house. I'd be dead if they got wind of this, they wouldn't believe me, but I tried, I did try to see you in the hospital when I found out that's where you are but they wouldn't let me, said I had to be family or some stupid sh-t like that. I just about went crazy." Then she shuddered and broke down again.
Same goes for both of us, I thought, ignoring the damp patch her tears were beginning to leave on my jacket. I waited until she grew silent before speaking. "Well, it's like I told Damien a while ago. But for the lovely fashion statement above my eyebrow, I'm afraid I'm as healthy as a horse, so you're stuck with me." She managed a weak, shaky laugh. "What did you do, though, afterwards? I tried to find you, fearing you'd - oh, I don't know what I thought."
"What, and miss practice?" she said, sniffing again, taking a step back and dabbing at her eyes. "I stayed at Lizzie's place. It was the only place I knew where to go. When she found out what happened, she insisted." She wiped her nose along her sleeve, and I pretended not to be a little grossed out. "I'm gonna keep staying there - until I can find somewhere else to go... If I can find somewhere. I can't go back to that house again, I - I can't, that's all."
"I understand," I said, relief washing over me. "It looks like you and I are in the same boat."
"Uh?" she said, looking lost. "I thought you lived here."
"Stay here," I corrected. "But I'm beginning to feel that it's time to move on as well. There's no going back for me, either." I took her hand in mine. "Let's go inside," I said. "We're not starting till about four. Quite a lot's happened in the last couple days. There are a few things that I think we should talk about."