I wake up in the usual hangover fog I'm becoming uncomfortably used to. The world outside is a bright, glowing ball, backlighting the faded curtains in my bedroom. Just looking at it makes my eyes burn and tear up, my head pulse with aching throbs, my stomach give a warning groan. Everything around me wants to spin, it takes an incredible amount of will to keep it, and my stomach, steady long enough for me to stumble into the bathroom.
I look like a blurry mess in the mirror and try to clear things up with a series of blinks. The word "cheeseburger" floats through my mind for some reason, possibly last night's midnight snack at the Stone's Throw coming back for one final farewell.
And just like that, everything comes back: the beer, the Jäger shots, the food... Right into my throat. Only by fool's luck am I able to turn and fling the toilet lid up before everything's evicted in a heavy lurch that makes everything hurt. A few seconds grace, enough time to catch my breath, before round two comes up; yesterday's breakfast and the dinner from the night before last.
The next few minutes are an ungodly collection of gagging, gasping and vomiting. By now, all that remains are beer and bacon flavoured strings of drool. When the show is finally over, I summon the energy to hit the flush handle and fall back away from the toilet into the bathroom wall, where I spend another chunk of time letting the inner storms quell, and the grinding in my brain settle back into a dull throb.
I'm just a f--king stereotype, aren't I? I think, and then I check out.
I awaken to find myself in the back seat of a cab. Late night Vancouver has fallen into a terrible fog, thick and foul-smelling, like smoke from a cheap cigar. Everything is harder to see, and seems to be happening rather slowly. I'm handing over a card to a cabbie, who swipes it through a reader attached to the fare meter on the dashboard. The meter is displaying a number with double digits in bright red. The number makes me quite unhappy, although I don't seem to raise any objections, not in any form of English, anyways. The cabbie hands back the card - it seems to be smoking now and feels warm to the touch - and says something in what sounds like a hilarious mixture of Farsi and drunk. I utter something in the same language back to him, and exit the hot and sticky sauna-like interior of the cab into the harsh, needling cold.
It's a short but dizzying walk up the cobbled pavement walk to my building. As I go to fish for my keys, forgetting again which damned pocket I shoved them into, a small, shadowed boulder emerges from inside the fog, which suddenly seems to caress and then break off it, revealing two small glassy marbles that appear to blink and cut through the night air.
They're eyes. And they're locked onto mine. The shape grows taller and wider before collapsing back into itself, growing a mouth. It's the mouth of a demon, lined with rows of long, thin, needle teeth and they're snarling at me. Words form. The voice is garbled, hard to understand. It also sounds far away. I can almost feel the echo bounce off my aching head, but they're without any meaning.
I'm terrified. Yet instead of backing away from this shadow creature, I take a step forward, the now found keys clenched in a fist so tight, I can feel little pricks in my palm where flesh is shredding under the weight of gnashing key teeth, while the tattered remains of my right mind screams - no; f--king pleads with me to stop. I don't. Of course I don't. Autopilot has taken over, and it's guiding me right towards the mouth of the beast, which opens up, seemingly preparing to receive and devour me.
But first, it speaks again. The words come out in another incoherent mess. I've never been good at reading lips, but these ones move slow, almost with an odd sense of elegance, and I can make them out.
"Jay! Jay, wake up!"
Another step forward, this one is easier. And another. Then a pause, a long one. A step back. Two. Three. Then forward again.
"Wake up! Wake up!"
Closer now. Close enough to almost touch. Keys change hands. The newly freed one opens up and reaches out to touch... something... It's cold, but also soft, like skin.
Oh God, it is skin.
The first thought to break through disappears as quickly as it came, a lone shooting star across an otherwise pitch-black sky. I'm dreaming, I tell myself, trapped somewhere in that no-longer-sleeping-but-neither-awake-realm of consciousness we sometimes find ourselves in where it becomes clear you're only living in a cookie-cutter creation of your psyche, but waking isn't yet possible until something external snaps you out of it.
Then the shadow rises up and overtakes the world.
It's not the hardest slap I've ever been dealt, but it sure to God doesn't tickle. Blackness shatters, and the world jumps clear and alive after a swish of bright white crosses my vision, sweeping away the bizarre dream world with it. The left side of my face is radiating a painful hot. Instinct is in the driver's seat now, and the first action is to jump - up to my feet, and away from whatever it was that just went upside my head.
Like most of my ideas about anything over the past two months, this one is bad. Gravity and the remaining hangover tag-team together to throw my sense of balance to the wind, the backs of my shins bump against something cold and smooth and I fall backwards, realizing too late I'm falling into my bathtub. The landing makes my entire body scream and my eyes roll back into my head. When they reset, gravity pulls them earthward. The first tangible things to enter my vision are a pair of rail thin bare legs that seem to rise up forever. When they stop, I find with a slew of confusion, surprise and horror, that they're attached to an equally bare woman using a shaggy mess of clutched clothes to shield the more delicate features. She stares straight at me, silent, beady eyes set in a reddened face appearing to bore tunnels right through me.
I have never been what you would call "a praying man," partly because of my upbringing in a family that never bothered to test its paper-thin agnosticism, but also partly because I also believed whatever God, if God exists, out there had better things to do than listen to the b-tching and moaning of a struggling wannabe musician who hadn't done much to warrant getting his ticket punched for Heaven. But if there ever were such a time I felt the need to utter one, this was it.
Instead of a "Hail Mary!" or an "Our Father," only one word escapes from me in a sour hiccup that makes my mouth curl. "B-Brea?"
Now the prayer comes, circling my head like the flushing toilet water rinsing away the remnants of this morning's deposits, something along the lines of "Dear God please let me still be dreaming."
There is no divine response, just a monotonous "Hey," which ruins any hope I might have had of an easy way out. Which is a fine joke on me, when I think about it now: When in the hell have I ever had an easy way out?
"Brea!" My voice un-kinks as though something inside my throat flipped a switch. What follows is a cascade of every profane and blasphemous word in my vocabulary. So much for any good that prayer may have done. Somewhere in the tirade, a perfectly rational question emerges. "What in the hell are you doing here?"
She stares at me for a long time, her eyes searching. "Damn," she finally says, "you really did get hammered last night."
"I'm not joking."
"Do you see me laughing?"
"Dammit, woman, be serious!" I snap, feeling a sharp twinge of regret, waiting for the verbal broadsword to skewer me. But Brea doesn't say anything, just stares at me more, as though looking into the empty, wanting eyes of a Picasso character, which doesn't make me feel any better. "What the hell did you hit me for? There are better ways to wake a guy, don't you know. And quit staring at me like that, it's creepy."
She relents. "Are you hurt?" It's oddly touching, in spite of the total lack of emotion in her voice.
"My pride more than anything else," I mumble, doing my best to ignore the pain in my neck the same way she's ignoring my questions. She almost seems to be enjoying watching all this, I think, noting the corners of her tiny lips twitching against an otherwise stone mask I've grown too used to seeing. "Are you just gonna keep standing there, naked?"
"Are you gonna get the hell out of here so I can change?"
Damn her. She's playing me like a damn fiddle. I struggle to my feet, using the tiled wall as a back brace, and exit the bathroom with little grace. The a-s of my boxers feels wet, along with the rest of my back.
"Coffee would be nice," Brea says as I move to shut the door. I stop and stare, door half-closed, my hand gripped tight around the knob, growing tighter.
"Anything else, Your Highness?"
She reaches out, grabs hold of the other knob and yanks. For the third time that morning, I'm caught off guard and fall - face first this time, though, into the doorframe.
This sh-t has got to stop, I think, pushing myself off and shuffling towards my bedroom, still not quite of this world. I'm at peace with this, because when and if the unstable frontman of Dichotomy of Mind finds out, I'll be crossing the void by dinnertime. And possibly with company, to boot.
Things happen very fast over the next ten minutes. Clothes are put on. Coffee is made. Brea emerges from the bathroom in last night's attire and drops into one of the two stools around the large counter that serves double-duty as a breakfast bar, watching the coffee machine without much interest. Billy isn't going to find out about what happened, she tells me over large cups of double-strong coffee, because nothing happened. I laugh at this, not a single-noted "Ha" either, an explosive fit of poorly contained titters. If she expects me to believe this, she's more twisted than her beau.
"Sure," I say, "that'll work fine, right after he and I hug it all out over a good man-cry."
She frowns behind her cup. "Don't be an a-shole."
"Well, hell!" I all of a sudden snap. "Kinda hard when you treat me like one. I mean really, you call standing in my bathroom naked."
"I had my panties on, not that that's any of your business, thank you."
"Scantily clad, then, forgive me. The point remains; this is hardly 'nothing happened,' even if we didn't end up at the summit of Mount Climax, which I don't mind telling you, is a trifle hard to believe." I swallow a large mouthful of coffee, ignoring the near-scalding heat that runs down my throat, surely turning my fleshy pink interior a grisly spotted white. "Ah f--k it, what does it matter? I'm dead, anyways. Billy is going to f--king kill me for this. And God knows you're not likely to be spared his wrath."
Brea mutters something about Billy being more than welcome to perform an impossible act with one of her drumsticks. Then she sets her cup down on my counter, rests an arm across the ledge and leans over far enough to create a display for which I'd surely be slapped if my eyes dared wander lonely across those clouds. She locks eyes with me in that unnerving stare of hers and asks a question that seems to insult both our intelligences. "You don't remember. Do you?" I think about asking her what exactly she's talking about, but I think better of it and hold my tongue. Brea shakes her head and leans back, her hands moving to cradle her cup. "Wow. You really did get tossed to the wind. It was just in one ear, out the other with you, wasn't it?"
I sneak a guilty peek at the coffee table in my makeshift living room and am more than a little dismayed to see more cans than table space. Cans I can't remember buying, much less consuming. No wonder I vomited something fierce. I turn back to my cup, trying to shake the image of me clutching my toilet from my mind, and take another hard sip.
"I remember getting out of a taxi," I say, looking up at the popcorn ceiling. "Then I remember... I don't know, a dark shape, a shadow, whatever, something that I'm guessing turned out to be you, and after that?" Here comes another image of the puke filled toilet and the poor sod gripping onto the sides like a drowning man clutching a life preserver, and shake my head. "After that, I remember waking up from a really f--ked up dream, thanks to that backhand of yours."
Brea sits in silence, caressing her cup and looking thoughtful, then troubled, and then back to normal, which for her is the mask of sullen bemusement. She lifts the cup up to her mouth with both hands and takes a long swallow. The cup clatters against the Formica when she brings it down from her face, and looks at me again. The left side of her face appears a lot brighter than I remember seeing before, as if she'd been sunburned, but only on one side. "After you and Billy fell off the stage, I got up from the kit and stormed outside to smoke while the chaos burned itself out." This is news to me. In all the time I've known Brea, I've never seen her reach for a pack of the happy poison, always staying a fair distance downwind from me or Billy, or that f--king Curtis bastard.
"I don't know what happened between you two, but the bouncers threw Billy and... him..." I assume she means Curtis by the way the word seems to burn in her mouth like acid. "They threw both of them out, and wouldn't you know it? Another round of chaos erupts."
"They fought, too?" I ask, realizing how stupid I must sound.
"More like they grappled and spun around like the steroid-abusing dorks in tights you see on Monday night wrestling until that was stopped, this time by a pair of Vancouver's finest."
Sh-t. I thought the manager had been bluffing when he'd mentioned the cops to me before my own exit.
"Of course, f--king Billy isn't done, he tries to lunge at Curtis again and the cops hold him back. By now, I'm trying to pull him away, to forget it, collect our pay and get the f--k out of there, but you know how well he listens to suggestions, don't you?" I nod, cup against my lips. "I told him if he didn't quit it, I was going home and he could walk." She pauses and thinks. "Not exactly the greatest idea in the world, but I was p-ssed. No, that's a lie. I was furious. Humiliated, too, it felt like I was watching a scene from 'COPS,' my life on display for the entire world to see." Another pause, this one is longer. The corners of her mouth begin twitching again, her hand leaves the cup to brush against her blushing cheek; an involuntary gesture it seems, because she catches herself in the act and the hand drops back to her cup before I can blink. Her eyes have quit focusing on me, now they're firmly locked onto the liquid in her cup. I notice they're glistening in the soft rays of sunlight peeking out from the curtains.
"He did that to you." It's not a question, a whispered statement of truth more like. The sharp twist in my stomach returns, but this one is far from regretful.
Brea, keeping her head down, mumbles, "This is probably the part where you expect me to tell you it was my fault. That I egged him on, made him mad, and he lost his temper and took it out on me, but now he's really sorry, he doesn't know what came over me, and he's promised to the heavens and to me that he'll never ever do it again, right?" I'm too stunned to speak, and she seems to sense it, snorting and emptying her cup, then rising to her feet and moving toward the machine for a refill. "That's normally the way these stories go, isn't it? Boy meets girl. Boy slaps girl. Girl forgives boy. Boy and girl live happily after, huh?" She pours more coffee, replaces the carafe and sips, long and hard, closing her eyes. A single tear runs down the side of her face, leaving a trail through the red of her face. Uncomfortable silence descends, lingering in the air for what feels like a long time.
"Well, not this time." Her eyes are open again and she's standing in front of one of the curtained windows, looking. "The last thing I heard from Billy Glass was a rage-fuelled tirade about his plan to murder 'that son of a b-tch' if it's the last thing he ever does. Huh. Cliché, isn't it?"
"Perhaps, but it still doesn't explain how you ended up in my bed."
She looks over her shoulder at me, scowling. "Please. Don't flatter yourself." Her eyes move to the couch, where a ruffled Metallica blanket and worn pillow sit in a sad heap. I shrug and empty my own cup. Remarkable how fast that armor of hers can lower and rise at the flip of a switch. Brea continues. "I managed to slip away from the commotion and hid in an alley for a long time. I think it was then that I knew I wasn't going back. Anyways, after bawling like a baby for a long time, something just, I dunno, made me get up and come here." She sees me moving to say something and quickly goes on, saying "I at least knew I'd be safe here. And that's pretty much that. We made good work on that case..." She nods over at the mangled red and white cardboard sticking out of the garbage bin "... and made numerous threatening remarks about Billy, and then blacked out."
You can say that again, I think, lost for words. It's hard to tell whether it's because of what I've been listening to, or that I'm hearing it from a girl who seems immune to the rusty fishhooks of a hangover. If my calculations are correct, knowing me of course, they could be way off - we made a fifteen-case disappear. "Well," I finally manage to say. "That's a relief. I think." Then I look over to Brea. "No offence."
She shrugs. "I've heard worse." I can imagine. "You're an alright guy, Jay-Jay, I guess, but you're also the farthest from my type."
"Oh, thanks." More coffee is sipped in silence for a while. "So, what do we do now?"
"About what?" she asks.
"Everything," I say, making a wild pantomime with my hands, a few remaining drops flying out of my mug and dripping on the floor. "The band's a smoking crater now, you're obviously gonna need a place to stay, and God only knows what's happened to all the gear, minus Stephen's that is."
She looks curious. "Oh?"
"Yeah," I say, "he had a few choice words to say about last night, then collected his gear and left."
"That sucks." She doesn't sound particularly disappointed, which doesn't surprise me too much. Then she excuses herself to the bathroom again without another word. I listen to the door close behind me, refill my cup and go sit on the couch, letting my head tip all the way back until it bumps against the frame of the couch and just sit and stare and think, as the still hot coffee begins to overheat the cup, and by extension, my hands.
I'd make a really bad janitor, I think. I'm better at making messes than cleaning them up.
My phone rings, off in the bedroom. I let it go to voicemail, if they're important enough to leave one. A little time passes before it begins ringing again, playing a tinny marimba. I groan, put my coffee on the table, and get up, feeling a slight pinch in my neck and make for the bedroom. I manage to get to it before it becomes "2 Missed Calls."
"What?" I answer.
"Well, good morning to you, too," a voice responds. It's one I recognize right away, from last night. "How's the hangover, big man?"
"Kevin? Oh. Hey, sorry, things are a bit hectic around here right now."
He laughs. "It's all good. This morning proved a bit of a challenge too. That's what you get when you trust the house beer, I guess."
My stomach makes a whining noise. "Please, don't say that word."
More laughter comes through the speaker, loud enough to make me wince and hold the phone away at a distance from my ear. "I thought so."
"Yeah, well anyways, what's up?"
"Well, it's about our conversation last night."
"Yes sir. Tuesday the 19th."
"A month from tomorrow," he says with a chuckle, but carries on quick after hearing my sigh. "You asked last night if we were ever gonna record a demo. Well, there you go. Linds knows a guy who knows a guy who runs his place out of a warehouse out in the Tri-Cities. He's giving us what he calls 'the pal discount.' Rehearsals start Monday."
"Wait - wait a second, here: 'Who's we?'"
"Boy, you really did get hammered last night." Goddammit, I think, will people just focus on one thing at a time?
The first step is always denial, whispers the little voice.
Kevin prattles on. "Listen, Jay, neither of us are pleased you, ah, became a solo act, the way it fell out, understand that."
"Uh-huh," I say, badly wanting to believe it but still somewhat reticent.
"But, in all fairness, you have to admit that sometimes blessings do come in disguise."
I sigh again, making sure it's low enough that Kevin doesn't hear. "Alright, alright, you've got a point. Sorry, man, I'd love to talk more about this but..." My mind races to come up with an excuse, and I blurt the first thing to come. "I've got... err, company."
Brea suddenly comes from out of nowhere, poking her head into the doorway. "Who is it?" she asks.
There's a pause on the other end, and then Kevin begins laughing again. "Gotcha. Say no more, Romeo, I'll call you back tonight."
I start to explain that it's not what he thinks, but quickly decide it's not worth wasting further time. "Yeah, alright, that'll be fine," I say, motioning to Brea with a finger. "One question though, before you go."
"I get you're excited about this. Hell, so am I, but is it so important you had to call again right after leaving a voicemail?"
"Huh? I didn't leave any voicemail."
"Oh." That sets my mind off racing again. "Sorry."
"All good, dude. We'll talk later!" With that, he hangs up. I toss my phone onto my bed, then remember how confused Kevin sounded, and pick it back up. The missed call is identified as "Blocked Number," with a voicemail symbol next to it.
"Who was that?" Brea asks, all of her standing in the doorway now.
I think for a minute. "Work," I lie, turning my attention back to the voicemail symbol. I reach out a thumb and tap it. The phone screen is replaced with a muted backdrop sporting two words, "Calling Voicemail," a little red hang-up button glowing at the bottom. The auto-nag comes on and begins to invite me to choose from a variety of options. I hit another button, and the auto-nag disappears. She's replaced with a firm, no-nonsense voice that would quickly make me regret calling.
"Hi, this is message is for Josh Mallory. This is Constable Brian Ballard with the Vancouver Police Department. I'm calling in regard to an incident..."
Constable Ballard continues to drone on, but the words lose all sense of meaning, becoming a tangled, echoed mess. What little energy I have gained in the last hour floods out of me, and I collapse, face up, onto my bed. The springs squeak and the frame moans under my bouncing weight. The phone slips out of my hand and clatters to the ground. The boring constable's monologue continues. His words are no more than metallic whispers.
"Jay?" Brea asks, alarm rising in her voice. "Jay, what happened? What's wrong? What's happened?"
"Chaos," I tell her, staring up at the ceiling, "more chaos. You better brace yourself."