Anson gasped and began to stumble, reaching desperately for the grate. But he would never reach it in time. Whoever was coming up the ladder would see him. He waited. Waited for all the little things to break; his life to smash into pieces. The fear of being caught. The thrill.
But as the light shone on him, he looked to the dropped flashlight. Even if he had escaped, the light would have given him away. They would have known he was there.
What emerged from the ladder was not the vision of horror he had imagined as his mother, a vile thing. Rather, it was the face of Tony, his brother, plain and angelic as always. He looked the same he did before the summer began.
Tony, the hell? Anson asked quietly, slinking back into the light of the flashlight.
Anson? Tony replied incredulously. Dude, why are youin the attic?
Why are YOU in the attic? Anson returned with a pointed finger and an incredulous attitude.
Mom would kill you. Tony said softly in his quiet, calm voice.
But she won't. Anson replied, looking down at the album on the floor. He reached down to scoop it up, but Tony moved faster and snatched it in his adolescent hands before Anson could.
Because I won't tell her. Tony stated plainly, flipping through the album. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Why would you want to steal the family album?
For sh*ts and giggles. Anson replied harshly, trying to pry the album from Tony's grasp, but the little man stood strong, holding onto the book as if it were his personal journal.
I can't let you take it. Tony said sharply, clinging onto the album like a leech.
Why? Anson asked, sounding a bit angry.
Because it's my memories, too! Tony cried, his eyes bright and teary.
Anson stopped, suddenly shocked by his brother's emotional response. He had never been that kind of kid. He was always kind of quiet, staring scathingly at nothing; boring holes in the walls with his evil eyes. They spoke to him now, such the opposite of dry they usually were. Such deserts, those eyes. Brown as a paper bag; lifeless as such.
Anson slowly backed away, holding up his hands. He frowned sadly and went over to the vent to the attic and bent it outward. As he tossed his leg over the side and onto the vines growing up the side of the house, he looked back at his brother. That soulless, empty thing, now so full of life. He was better off without Anson, and Anson knew it.
Take care of yourself. Anson said, lowering the vent. Then, from behind the corrugated metal: You're the best of the bunch, kid.
It's been a while, huh? Charlie asked, leaning back on Eric's Marshall stack amp and resting his head on Jay's (who now went by his birth name, Jason) drum set, still marked with the tape reading Chagrin in bold gray lettering. Charlie had let himself become grizzled: a thick line of stubble owned his jaw line and lower chin. He was currently decked out in a dark blue Harmony Hill E.M.T. t-shirt and long black shorts. His eyes seemed oddly hopeful, as if he had something to look forward to.
Becker's basement was as cold as they all remembered it. Rather refreshing in the summer heat, really. It was still dim, but Becker had moved some old furniture aside to let in the natural sunlight, giving the room an ethereal, unnatural quality. The light wasn't normal here, and its disturbance was obvious to Chagrin. But nobody cared. This momentary escape from their real lives was enough to propel them into a final practice before the Fundraiser Fire show.
Anson grunted at Charlie's statement, gripping his Strat with sweaty hands. He was still shaky. The sudden loss of his family was still throttling him, as if he were being choked by his family's familiar spirits. Today, he looked a bit out of it. His torn jeans were hanging loosely about his knees, flapping quietly in the gentle breeze of the lackluster air conditioning. His face was white; hoary almost. He looked at least a year older, and that year had gone by without sleep. His normally black hair appeared almost as a salt and pepper gray. The world had taken his will.
Eric looked as he always did: a shaggy, untamed man. His hair was wired out and hanging in coils around his neck like rattlesnakes. He had trimmed his facial hair into shape now, but the hair lowered his appearance rating by a good 4 points. Meanwhile, Jason looked rather calm, flipping through the latest FHM find in the CVS dumpster. His eyes were glazed. He looks defeated, Becker thought sadly, his own hands weak with fear.
Sure, this was their respite from the harsh reality of Harmony Hill. Perhaps this room was impervious to the harsh waves of dark radiation that the town gave off like a nuclear reactor. Perhaps the mutations would not begin until they were exposed for so long. How about 17 years? Enough?
Looking down at his phone, Becker knew it was only a matter of time. Darryl had to know some other musicians. If he didn'twho knows what would happen? They'd be missing one spot on the show. The show was more or less the Fundraiser for Jana, but it was also the Welcome Back To Hell show. School would begin two days after.
At the same moment, Charlie looked down at his own phone, waiting for Becky's text. Would she accept? Or would she just blow him off? Like he deserved redemption. A user, no less. A man who is a craftsman; a carpenter, using others as his tools. Tools using tools.
How does it work? Jason asked, breaking the momentary silence. The others looked to him in a confused manner. He nodded sadly and continued. These things controlling our lives. How do they work? Are we just some little things, small insignificant events on the road to something bigger?
Don't get all philosophical on me, man. Anson begged lazily, his head resting on the wall behind him. In the dim lighting, Becker could see Anson appeared very, very tired. Something had beaten him, the same as the others. It's too early. Haven't had any whiskey yet.
Honestly, Jay. Eric agreed, shaking his head somberly. This bullsh*t town is beating the hell out of us.
That's just it, though. Jason said, slamming his stick into the snare. This town may as well be the portal to hell. I'm honestly waiting for some black hole sun to open up and swallow it all up.
I wish. Becker sighed. He rolled back uneasily on his Fender amp, pressing the back of his neck into a nail sticking out of the wall behind him. The odd pressure was an almost pleasurable sensation. He needed something physical to outweigh the mental. Then, an epiphany: he had an idea. A little melancholy trip. Memories and waves. The lake.
Come on. Becker said, standing and moving into the messy garage beyond the drumset.
What? Eric asked, standing.
Just get in the van. Becker replied. He gave a slight grin and weaved to the garage door. With a heave, he lifted the garage door open and disappeared into the hazy outside world. Eric shrugged and grabbed his acoustic. He, too shifted out through the mess of a garage. A moment later, the remaining three heard their familiar unmarked white van start up with a sickening shudder.
Jason sighed and led the remaining three through the rubble, passing by an old navy sword that once belonged to Becker's grandfather. It stuck out awkwardly, deeply bothering the slightly autistic side of the Zippler within Jason's head. A soothing little tick tock sounded off there, gradually growing out of time. Tempo lost, he emerged into the sun, and the ticking faded away.
Consider this our Canterbury Tales. Becker said, leading his compatriots onto the sand of the beach they had all grown up on not five years ago. Now, it had assorted patches of green grass and weeds sprouting out of the sand. The wooden play-boat that had been dedicated to a boy that drowned in the lake was now downtrodden and falling slowly apart. It was a gray, miserable beach Becker had brought them to. The sands themselves seemed to fall beneath the footsteps of its newfound visitors. The grains were bowing to the only children foolish enough to return.
How is this supposed to cheer us up? Anson asked, sounding very flustered. His brow was now curled in a menacing snarl.
Because. Becker laughed, falling into a large circular pit. This, he guessed, is where the campfire pit used to be. Yes, he could tell, as the circle of rocks were still cemented to the earth. We're going to relive when things were just perfect.
What, before high school? Eric asked as he joined Becker in the pit. Because that's when sh*t hit the fan.
Precisely. Becker nodded, taking the cross lighter the Shredder had used on them out of his pocket. Time for a little reminiscing. Gather some firewood.
Charlie sighed and complied, scouring the woods nearby for about ten minutes before returning with a huge pile of sticks, grass, and logs. By then, things had settled down. Anson had fallen into a sort of trance, staring at where a fire would soon be burning bright, sending Eric into a sort of equal trance. Their eyes were tired and broken, like their spirits.
Becker wasn't handy with a lighter, as he was fairly certain he had never had the urge to burn anything. So, in a way of saying this is who I am', Eric snatched the lighter and flicked it with one hand, starting a blazing inferno in the center of a cold, gray beach on the edge of a town with no soul. It was like the last glimmer of hope for such a place. The black hole was coming. No backing down now; no escape. Inevitability.
So who wants to go first? Becker asked, sounding lucid. No one spoke up. Rather, they seemed to bury their heads. The summer heat was giving away to the slightly cooler breeze of the early evening. The last bits of daylight were fading behind the darkened horizon.
Fine. I'll go. Becker said, falling back onto his stone and crossing his arms forcefully.
Becky paused before the door to the garage, wondering if it was really worth it. Charlie was a user, of all things, but what else? He had a beautiful soul, tarnished by the hellish town they lived in. Why couldn't he have seen that earlier.
She knocked heavily on the metal door, but knowing that no one sane in Harmony Hill locks his or her door, she simply lifted it and stepped into the cluttered garage. She carefully made her way toward the door to her left, as there was a beam of light barely seeping out from under the door.
As she neared the door, a sudden sense of unease surrounded her. Something felt wrong here. It was as if she could see through walls. Something was off, but her need to talk to Charlie off put everything else in her mind. She opened the door to the practice hall. The single light was coming from the bare light bulb hanging just above Becker' bass amp. Becky gave a sigh of relief, but the gloved hand that wrapped over her mouth quickly silenced it.
Tsk tsk. A voice said. Always check behind you.
Becky tried to scream, but nothing emerged. It was too muffled. Her cries for help would go unheeded.
Now, I would like to know why it is you came here. The voice said, slowly releasing Becky's mouth. Speak.
I-I came to talk to Charlie, but
Shh. The voice said, clapping her mouth again. You're going to help me. This is now a game. And it looks like you are now the prize.
Anson laughed and kicked at Becker.
That was a lame ass story. Anson chortled. What the hell?
Well, mischief night is mischief night. Becker shrugged. But now, some business.
The rest of the band straightened and stared at Becker across the fire, suddenly very serious. The fire was still roaring strong, a blazing symbol of their friendship. It would not falter, even in the face of adversity.
For the show, we need to come up with the set list. Francis has agreed to still sponsor us, despite Mike's arrest. Becker leaned toward the fire, illuminating his face in an eerie manner. He was a man and a monster in the dim light. Something wild and extraordinary. Chagrin had passed the boundary of boys. They were true men now.
So, we've got a few things going for us. Becker continued. Suggestions?
Well, since the school is hosting us, we need to play something non-threatening at first. Eric said, strumming an A minor on his acoustic.
How about a cover? Jason suggested.
Sure. Charlie replied. How about Everlong'? God knows we owe that song something, huh, Jay?
Jason. Jason stated, plain faced. I'm Jason now.
Right, sorry. Charlie laughed. I suppose it's my turn to tell a story now
Jesus ***damn Christ! Darryl cried, flinging himself up the stairs. Someone had spiked it. Someone had f*cked with his stuff. The g*ddamn world was melting, giants bats and manta rays flying at his head, lizards copulating as his floor slithered around like an angry snake.
His stairs were razor blades sticking out of a giant icicle as he rounded up to his room and slammed the door, now covered in spikes. In the solitude of his room, things still didn't calm down. The punk posters on his wall were real, with little concerts going on and children screaming bloody murder. His desk lamp had tied itself in a knot, and the floor was shifting like a liquid. He fell to his knees as the phone began to ring.
He crawled over the floor, unsure of what was moving and what wasn't. Regardless, he reached the phone and placed it against his ear.
Help me? he answered, rather than the usual hello?'
Game's on, Darryl. The voice from the other line said. Want to go back to normal? I can help you, but you need to do something for me.
What? Darryl asked, looking back at his door, which had turned into a giant button. I'll do anything!
Coming back from their night of remembrance, the members of Chagrin were in a fantastic mood. The stress of the world had melted away. They weren't just a band anymore. They were honest friends, despite their faults. Through all the madness, they had emerged healthy, but they had changed. A new life was slowly rising. The phoenix from the ashes.
But as they entered the band hall, ready for a great night of practice, they found something odd. A singly note left on the bass drum, which Charlie retrieved.
What's that? Eric asked, leaning over Charlie's shoulder to read the message.
Charlie read aloud.
This is the endgame. Your lives have become too far entangled to fix. God knows how I have tried to fix you. But some people cannot be helped. You are about to participate in the final game. If this doesn't fix you, nothing will. I have taken something valuable from each of you. They can be found in various locations around Harmony Hill, to which I will be providing clues. These locations are going to test your meddle, and teach you a lesson about yourselves. Good luck.
Charlie then flipped the plain piece of printer paper over. Written in shorthand was each clue.
Eric Where innocence died Becker The first strike witnessed Charlie Where real life meets fantasy Anson A safe place to think Jason The field where men's blood stain