Part 1 : Ricky
Auckland, New Zealand
The bottle arcs gracefully through the air and collides with J.C.'s head. He twists away from the mike as beer and glass shards spray across his face. On the drums, Kace is taken by surprise, losing the beat on his toms. He stands to flee the stage as assorted beverages begin to rain down. Dom the bassist has the same idea and the rhythm section collide, cymbals bouncing into the audience as the two men clash heads.
Rumble Strip are two minutes into their first song.
The clubs backstage area resembles a closet. The band squeezes inside. They try not to bleed on one another. Kace is the first to speak.
The band stands listening to the rioting crowd and contemplates Kace's statement. It seems to sum up the situation pretty well. J.C. pulls off his shirt and begins to sponge the blood out of his long blonde dreadlocks. He adds his own thoughts.
"Could not agree with the two of you more." Says Dom. "What did we do wrong?"
Kace snaps. His eyebrows bounce erratically as he vents on the band.
"What did we do right? We were all out of time, and we have to face facts here; starting a band to express the futility and despair of our generation's existence was a great idea. Making said band a reggae act was not." He whirls on J.C. "Jared! Where did you get an autotuner? Why would you want to use an auto tuner? How the f--k do you use an autotuner and still end up off-key?" The singer cowers from this unexpected tirade.
"I was trying to sound like Lil' Wayne." He mutters rebelliously. With his pale skin, greasy bleached dreadlocks, scratched Oakley sunglasses, and tarnished silver braces, J.C. looks like his hero's impoverished albino cousin.
Kace gives him a look that could rot fruit. "Pathetic." He turns toward the bassist.
Dom clutches his jacket around his lanky frame and braces himself for the onslaught. The black ink designs curl protectively around his neck. "Dom. Whatever that shit was with the girl in the front row. . . That was your girlfriend, right?"
Dominic looks down" My cousin."
For what seems like an eternity, no one makes eye-contact. The band are so engrossed in this latest development, they fail to notice the crowds raving has died away.
Kace inhales deeply. "Ricky! Wait . . . where the f--k is Ricky?"
Lost in the music, Ricky plays on. His hands flow smoothly across the fretboard, his mind and the strings as one. The body of his blue Ibanez reflects an eerie calm onto Ricky's face. The crowd have stopped throwing things and are watching the stage in the same way a pack of baying dogs might react to finding an oblivious cat sitting in their path licking its balls. A confused curiosity hangs in the air as the solo reaches its fourth minute.
Grant the barman hurriedly takes to the mike. "Thank you ladies and gentlemen. That was the Rumble Strip."
Grant pauses to kick Ricky, who finally stops playing. "Next up are your old favourites; The Lingering Doubt. Double bourbons are two for the price of one for the next hour. Thank you!" Grant hurries of stage before the crowd gets excited again. Ricky blinks into the lights and shuffles off stage.
Rumble Strip work through their bar tab in a matter of minutes and leave early.
On the drive home they come to a mutual agreement to disband.
Two weeks earlier.
A strip of road cuts through the sand. The tar is already starting to sizzle with the heat of the morning sun. Horizon lies in every direction, although it could be any direction. No land marks, plants hills, nothing. Only the road.
Ricky stands alone on the tarmac, and wonders why the dream has brought him here again. Although the heat from the sun feels unsettlingly real, he's guessing it's a dream. This place couldn't exist in the real world. For one thing, the stars are still visible even though the sun is out. Another clue is the pure red sand that covers everything but the road. Sand can't be that red.
Also, as he walks, the road morphs into an endless fretboard, the sun begins to flicker like a giant strobe, and several hundred Meer cats leap up from the sand and begin to waltz in pairs, oblivious to the rainbow sand dragon swimming through the air trying to gobble them up with its giant liquorice tongue.
At this point Ricky is pretty sure that it's a dream.
The sky and desert melt away, leaving Ricky and the road stranded in nothingness. The air around him takes shape and Ricky can see the music forming, in that special way that is only possible in dreams. The song is uplifting and melodic, and Ricky is left wondering what it all means.
As he begins to wake, he tries desperately to hang on the tune, but the harder he tries, the faster it fades, passages and notes slip away one by one, until Ricky is left alone, his sheet constricting his limbs like a giant squid. The dream is gone, replaced by the numb dread of day to day life. Forgetting where he is for a moment, he rolls off his mattress onto the surrounding fiberglass insulation. He yelps as the itches set in, and scrambles to grab his clothes.
It's not until he glances at his phone that Ricky realises that he's slept in today. It's not that he has to rush to work, because, well, he's already here. It's more to do with the fact that Wally was only a few minutes away from walking through the front door, and while sleeping in the roof hadn't been explicitly brought up in his contract, it did seem like the kind of thing his employer would probably frown on. He pauses to glance longingly at his guitar. The temptation was always there to just stay up in the roof and play all day, and he thought that the roofs insulation would probably act as a pretty effective baffle. It wasn't an especially pretty guitar, a battered second-hand Washburton acoustic. Scratches and chips marred its pale surface, and the stylised R he'd spent half a day carving into the back of the headstock was black with grime deep in its grooves. It still played fine though, and back when he used to play at the local coffee shop, a mike had been surplus to requirements, as it filled the space with warmth. The last time he'd played to an audience was becoming unclear, but the guitar was still a friend. He only wished he'd taken the time to grab his electric Ibanez as well before he stormed out of his mother's house last month.
Finally pulling his eyes away from the acoustic with some effort, he moved to the celling hatch and dropped down into the stockroom, onto several crates he made sure were stacked there each night. If he was quick, he could have a shower in the bathroom sink and sneak out the back door before the boss arrived to open up. ---- J.C. was twenty minutes late for work that day, which was thirty minutes earlier than usual. It was Ricky's job as the stock supervisor to discipline and report J.C. on such occasions, but he never did, because despite being useless at his job, J.C.'s cheery manner made the day far more bearable. The two of them worked in a large downtown store called Wallys Warehouse. Wallys Warehouse specialised in selling everyday items, most of which doubled as sex toys. Vibrating salt-shakers, flavoured fly swats and 13 piece screwdriver sets were on special this week. Wally was rumoured to have three secret wives and to be hung like a Rhinoceros.
As J.C. monologue about some hip-hop crew he was currently obsessed with (I'm telling you bro, the most brutal lyrics you'll ever hear, makes Ghostface Killer sound like a children's entertainer), Ricky contemplates confessing his situation. J.C. was the closest thing he had to a friend right now, and surely he would have something to say about the situation. He'd probably have a whole verbal novel to say.
"It's more about freedom of expression and pushing the . . Yea bro, what's up?" Seeing J.C.s expectant face, he can't do it, can't ask for help, has to preserve his mana here. He was twenty now, surely he could sort his own life out. He diverts to the other subject on his mind.
"I had this dream last night . ." Ricky gets no further before J.C. jumps in with a tale of his own dream.
"Dawg, me too! I was running over Nazi's in my tank while Megan Fox and Emma Stone were making out in the back seat. ." Ricky manages to tune out most of the rest of the story while he stacks several boxes of toothbrushes with especially thick handles. He tunes back in just in time to catch the end of J.C.s dream. " . . and then her voice turns into Darth Vader's and she goes "You must fix the Rumble Strip"." He stares at Ricky. "What do you think it means?"
"That you have an unhealthy relationship with your mother?"
"Nothing. Hurry up and give me a hand with these."
Rumble Strip, Ricky thinks. No idea what it means, but it sure sounds cool. He pictures a mongrel Los Vegas, graffiti and windowless rave halls replacing the usual neon signs and skyscrapers. Packed with underground fight clubs and cut-rate brothels, it was a place where dreams were drunk, fought and f--ked away. Fits perfectly, Ricky tells himself sternly, and pushes aside the endless stretch of road lurking deep within his mind.
The sun is resting on the edge of the parking lot as J.C. and Ricky leave the store. A Land Rover drives past, causing the sun to flicker momentarily, and Ricky hears the faintest of riffs. He manages to catch it before it escapes this time, locking the few notes inside his brain. Fleeting triumph is replaced by a numb feeling at the top of his brain when he realises it's just the Land Rover's stereo.
"You wanna ride or not?"
"Huh?" Ricky pretends not to realise he's gone right past his friends' car. J.C. stands expectantly next to his late model Nissan Skyline. "Nah, I'll walk today."
The grin locks in place on J.C.'s face. "All the way to Western Springs? You sure bro?"
"I got some things to do on the way. Thanks anyway." He turns and begins walking, aware of eyes on his back. It's not until he's heard the Skyline's engine fade into the distance down the street that Ricky turns around and walks reluctantly back to the store. As he's walking back he realises that he hasn't been further than a kilometre away from the store for almost a week. From work to work to wok to work, guitar his only outlet. For what seems like the thousandth time Ricky promises himself he's going to sort his life out. It's getting harder to respect himself every day that promise goes unfulfilled.
He nods to the chubby Asian security guard on his way back into the store. The tall man smiles at him.
"Hello Ricky" His accent is hard to place, all the vowels sounding similar and flat. What was his name? Hong or Huang. Some Asian crap. Ricky glances at the man's chest. A rectangular piece of blue plastic reads HANK.
"Hi. Forgot my jacket." Ricky mumbles as he sweeps past into the store. As if judging him, the automatic doors fail to open immediately, and Ricky is forced to stand outside with Hank for half a second longer than is comfortable.
Closing time is approaching rapidly when he gets inside, and both remaining cashiers are desperately trying to avoid eye-contact with the few customers left milling about. One of the cashiers, an attractive teen brunette named Sasha looks at Ricky as he heads for the back of the store. He winks back at her and she glances away, warmth colouring her usually pale cheeks. By the time she peeks up again Ricky is gone.
Ricky had spoken only three sentences the Sasha in the week she had been working at Wallys Warehouse, and by the third sentence, she had decided he was going to be her next boyfriend.
It began as she was leaving the store after her job interview with Wally. The interview had been uncomfortable, beyond the normal pressure of such an occasion. Wally had been something else. The office reeked of fruit-flavoured latex and he didn't make eye-contact, instead choosing to focus through his spectacles on an invisible point a hand span in front of her eyes. The effect left her feeling cross-eyed and nauseous. By the time he offered her a job, she was on the brink of vomiting. It was all she could do to stammer something about other offers and flee gagging, swallowing her lunch for the second time that day. Sasha collided with Ricky on the way out of the staffroom.
"Hi, are you the new girl? I'm Ricky."
Sasha stared at the handsome Maori boy on the brink of manhood. Black curly hair fell gracefully across his shoulders, and the suggestion of a moustache hovered on his upper lip.
Sasha's stomach lining chose that moment to make another desperate bid for freedom. Having been foiled by her mouth on its previous attempt, this time it left her body via a different orifice. Copious amounts of chunky orange butter chicken bile spluttered out of her nose. It splattered across her shirt and down onto Ricky's shoes. They both stared down at his gleaming white Nike pumps spattered with her digestive fluids.
"They look better with a bit of colour." He said.
She fled. The next day though, she went back the store, and took the job, because work was hard to find right now, and because her last boyfriend had managed to finalise that restraining order. That wasn't going to happen with Ricky though. She was sure of this one. She knew they would end up spending every waking moment together, just as soon as she found the courage to talk to him.
Ricky only had limited memories of the event. After getting high at the park with J.C., he had been sneaking back in the store to head to bed. A pretty short girl with hair halfway down her back had literally run into him, enough to give anyone a mild bout of paranoia. He'd managed to babble his way through an introduction before her nose had erupted, a sight that his stoned brain had found both terrifying and hypnotic. He thought her brain was melting and fled, before Wally could come out of his office. Sasha had evidently been so disgusted by his lack of chivalry in this situation that she hadn't spoken a single word to him since.
She turns and smiles broadly at the next customer, a husky man in a bulky hunting jacket.
Ricky's counting the staff as he makes his way utilities to the back of the store. Hank on the door, James and Sasha on the tills (he unconsciously glances at the faint orange outline on his shoe) and Sadie who was busy mopping up an octogenarian's drool puddle on the trial massage chair.
Two kids, a fat man, and the cleaning lady. And one more he realised. It was Thursday. Wally stayed late on Thursdays to take advantage of the businesses high speed broadband. Ricky and J.C. had a few theories about what he got up to in the privacy of his office, and neither of them thought Wally's explanation (Okay guys, you got me, I'm a real World of Warcraft geek) held much water. That was fine though. All Ricky needed to do was jam the lock in the back door and he could come back any time of the night he wanted.
Five minutes to Five. He was just walking past the office when the door opened, revealing his boss.
Tall, scrawny and clean shaven, Wally was the kind of person who would vanish in any crowd. He glowered down at Ricky through his glasses, two magnifying lenses focusing his gaze unnaturally.
"Hello boss. Just forgot my jacket"
"Uh huh. Would you happen to know anything about this?"
Ricky looks past him into the office where Wally was pointing. Leaning against Wally's desk is a guitar he knows only too well. He knows he's in trouble, but a flash of irritation runs through him as he sees the angle the guitar has been resting. You bastard, he thinks. Do you have any idea how hard that thing is to tune. Aloud he says "It's mine."
Wally nods, lips tight and neck strained. "Your days of freeloading are over. I've called the police. Follow me please."
He followed Wally.
Hank had been fantasising about his wife's sister when the van rolled into the car park. Hardly the most observant man at the best of times, he was busy picturing her slim legs wrapped around his neck, his eyes glassed over like two greasy marbles. That was the reason he didn't notice the gun until it was an inch from his left eye.
"PUT YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD YOU FAT CHINK." The balaclava screamed at him.
Wally reached the checkout area at the exact moment that the two balaclava clad shoppers' entered the store. Both of the new entrants were identically dressed in navy blue Adidas tracksuits, complete with white balaclavas and hunting rifles. The most noticeable difference between the two, was the low cut top one of them was wearing, revealing the top of a spectacular pair of breasts. She was holding the rifle in the firing position, pointed directly at the back of the security guard head. His hands had been strapped together with cable ties so tightly that one of Hanks thumbs had already turned a dark purple.
Wally let out a sound like a kitten being crushed by a dumpster and collapsed to the floor, eyes rolling back into his head. The male balaclava took no notice and turned to Ricky and the remaining staff. His voice is so soft and deep, but they all hear every word.
"On the wall. All of you. Or Gook here gets it." He gestures to the far wall behind the checkouts with the tip of his rifle. They follow the direction of his gun butt without a word, Janice faintly trembling Rumble Strip and Sasha looked like she had the day Ricky met her. As Ricky moved towards it he realised that once the staff were on by the wall, they would be invisible to any stray passer-by's who might chance a glance through the windows. Hank is shoved face first into a shelf full of model guns. The real rifle in his back looks dull and unassuming next to the shiny black plastics and outsized ammo clips.
The male moves to Wally's prostate form. His footsteps make a shrill clinking sound, as if his odd footwear have metal teeth in the bottom. He looks down at the man casually, like a diner debating the particular merits of two different side salads. He then lifts his left boot. Ricky can hear the impatient thump of his own heart, filling his eardrums with blood. The boot comes down, faster than gravity. Wally's legs spasm and one of his shoes flies across the room as his mouth becomes a mess of teeth and blood, lower hanging in useless shreds, shards of his incisors piercing into his tongue. His eyes fly open and he chokes something between a gargle and a scream that is only partially muffled by the boot in his mouth. He keeps trying to scream with the boot pressing harder and harder into his face, snapping, crackling and popping until even the female balaclava has torn her eyes away. Eventually Wally transitions into wheezing sobs and the boot is withdrawn from his jaw and rested on his chest. The tart smell of urine hits the air as Wally's pants darken. The male balaclava lifts his head to gaze at the stunned staff.
"You." His voice is even quieter than the first time he spoke, and Ricky strains his ears, trying not to hear the pitiful whimpers from the ground. "Lock the doors." He realises the man is talking to him and forces his legs into action as he crosses the void to the automatic door control panel. It can't have been much more than a dozen paces, but in that moment it feels like the endless highway in his dreams, cruel eyes boring into him with every step. He reaches the door and presses the appropriate button, sealing the building. Ricky turns to walk back, but the voice interrupts him. "The key. Toss it here." He turns and reluctantly pulls out the key sitting in the door panel, breaking the circuit. The lights in the buttons go out. "Toss it here." He stares at Ricky.
Ricky pulls back his arm and sends it arcing through the air. It falls to the ground just before Wally's body with a clink that causes Sadie to flinch, and slides under Wally's hip. The gunman continues to stare at Ricky, whose eyes are still locked on the glint of silver poking out from underneath the prone man. The silence finally breaks. "Back on the wall."
As Ricky makes the return journey across the floor, Sasha exhales for the first time in a minute. As he slips into place next to her, their hands brush and he has an overwhelming urge to squeeze her hand, tell her she'll be okay. Before he can act on this instinct, the balaclava begins to talk again and his confidence disintegrates, and he knows from the tone of the guy's voice that even their own survival is in doubt here. He still wants to grab her hand, but now he want to do it to reassure himself as well.
Balaclava begins his monologue, and for the first time Ricky notices the speed of the speaker seems to fluctuate, as if he is battling to control his excitement. He silently prays that Wally's earlier claim that the police were on their way had not just been an empty threat. "Here is how everything is going to happen. You are all going to do what we say. If you do not do what we say wewillshoot you. If you try to escape we will shoot you. If you try to call for help we will shoot you. We'll shootyou if you pissus off in any way." He pauses to gesture to Wally. "This shit here is going to take me to the safe. My girl here will be keeping an eye on you. You will help her empty thetill. When we're done we'll go. We will lock you in the back office so you can't callthepolice. If you do everything we say, you will get out of this in one piece." The last of the speech is directed at Wally. "Get up."
With encouragement from the barrel of the gun, Wally somehow manages to get to his feet. He sways unsteadily as he makes his way to the back of the shop, the bottom half of his face dripping down onto his shirt. The robber scoops up the key from the urine puddle as he leaves. The footsteps of the two men gradually fade, and for the first time Ricky focuses his attention on the woman. She seems far less sure of herself with her partner gone, and she pulls the gun back off Hanks neck. The fat man lets out a grunt and slumps to his knees, his thumb resembling a swollen black pudding. She swings the barrel around to point at the expectant staff and gives them her orders.
"Can you two empty the cash drawers?" Her voice has none of her partner's authority nor his malice, and she seems to realise this when James and Sasha move forward almost eagerly. "NOT YOU, BIEBER." James freezes, terror disguising his face as much younger than his sixteen years. "The tall one and the girl. Empty the f--king drawers." Ricky picks up something else in her tone when she glances at him, something he can't quite place. It isn't fear or disgust, and the more she talks, the warmer her tone toward him seems to be.
There are six checkouts in the Warehouse, and Ricky is a little surprised to see how little money is in each of them. He and Sasha work as one, her holding a backpack the woman tears off a shelf, and him dumping the whole cash drawer inside. Shoulder to shoulder, each of them takes what little comfort is possible through the contact.
A siren wails in the distance, and the robber squawks in alarm and drops her rifle. Ricky briefly contemplates doing . . . well something, but she has already bent over to snatch it back up. Ignoring the display of cleavage she offers from this position, he instead takes a moment to glance up at the convex mirror covering the front of the store. In that moment, his eye is drawn to something that unmistakably alters the situation. It burns across his eyes and all of a sudden he realises what that tone in her voice is. Familiarity.
Ricky mind drops back a decade to when he was eight. His mother was out on one of her dates'. He didn't realise the full implications of the parade of different men cycling through his mother's life at the time, merely noted how there was always a bit of extra lunch money for him, the night after she brought a guy home. Harlowe, a thirteen year old neighbour who played sitter for him on such occasions had something new to show him before her boyfriend arrived. "Check it out Ricks." She smirked, hoisting her top and yanking down her jeans simultaneously to show off the new ink on the small of her back. Even at the age of eight, he hadn't been impressed the lettering was poorly done and the skin was red and weeping. Harlowe had tried to tell him that it was the name of a demonic seductress, but his favourite book on Greek mythology translated it as a hideous flesh-eating bird woman. In thick blue gothic font it read HARPY'.
It was still there today. A little faded and stretched, but the girl who was now pointing a gun at him had been his neighbour, babysitter, friend even. A sense of perspective chooses now to dawn on him as he considers that, considering where he came from, he really isn't doing too badly after all. She was staring at him now, as intently as he was at her, and Ricky knew she knew he knew. She must have been terrified that he could reveal her at any moment.
"WHAT?" She screamed at him suddenly, and not thinking, his mouth opened to greet her by name and . . .
. . . a gunshot sounded from the back of the store.
When the robbers had first burst into the store, Sasha had been as scared and confused as anyone else. As she got over the initial shock of the situation, dangerous thoughts began to enter her head. Her frequently absent military father owned a sizeable armoury of pistols, rifles and one enormous illegally-acquired-and-modified anti-tank turret all of which her paranoid agoraphobic mother insisted she frequently practice with. As a result, she was completely confident that the woman in the balaclava didn't want to use her weapon. The man was a different story. She hadn't needed to see his violence toward Wally to be sure of that, so she began to get excited when he left and she found herself within striking distance of the woman. Ricky's proximity had been warming, and she could feel his fear. It awoke something in her, something jealous and maternal that yearned to dispose of the threat to her man. After all, actions spoke louder than words. Under the third counter she found a sizeable pair of scissors that she was able to conceal in her belt under her shirt.
Like a canny gambler with a single chip to spare she sat back, and waited for the right hand to make her move.
Nothing happened for several seconds. James and Sadie remained pressed up against the wall, Hank slumped by the toys and Sasha and Ricky froze at the till. Harlowe's voice was barely audible. She tried to yell, but all that came out was a squeaky whisper.
She took a couple of tentative steps toward the back of the building and tried again.
"Chalky, baby is everything okay?"
Running footsteps, closing in on them. Chalky burst into view, mask askew and breathing heavily. Harlowe moved to embrace him but he palmed her aside without even a glance and screamed. "Youreallmyhostagesshutupgetinfrontofmethecopsarecomingthefuckingcopsarecoming. What are you doing? Youfuckingcovermefuckingcoverthe fuckingdoor shootallthecopsastheycomeinjustlikegrandtheftautobabyhahahahawefuckinggotthis. " The whole rant takes only a few seconds to come out and Harlowe stumbles backwards toward Sasha, her grip loosening on the gun. He yanks his balaclava round, tearing an eyehole down to his mouth in the process and from where Ricky stands he can see Chalky's eyes clearly. One of his pupils has ballooned, swallowing the watery blue around it with darkness, while the other pupil is a mere speck, an ant drowning in a sickly pond. Ricky's guts turn to ice and he sees his headless corpse being unceremoniously hurled into a plywood coffin while a distorted guitar shrieks an off-key funeral march. The rifle cracks and bucks as Chalky's fingers spasm, loosing a round that punches through the front door and causes the volume to drop in Ricky's ears. Sadie's hunched in a ball, James has gone, somewhere safe, out of sight, and Hank thrashes about on his stomach, trying to head the same way, but Chalky is past the point of noticing as he turns to Harlowe again, pupils swelling and shrinking erratically, "Babe. It's okay. I took toomuch but igotthisunder controland wewillbe sweetjusthavetograbthemoneyandgobeforethecopsgethere imgoingtofuckyoulikeyouveneverbeenfuckedbeforebut that. Can. Wait. For. Now. Justbecoolbitchhahaha. I need somewaterGETMESOMEFUCKINGWATER."
He's swaying, but still holds the gun, advancing on Harlowe. She tries to calm him, talking almost as fast "Chalky we gotta go! I'm scared. F--k off!" Her voice is cracking as it cannot get any higher. "I don't wanna do this anymore!"
It's the wrong thing to say. There's another deafening crack and Ricky still can't move and Harlowe is trying to crawl and scream at the same time and bits of her blood and her knee are everywhere and she screams Ricky's name and begs him to help and the gun swings around to Sasha, words blurring now, something unintelligible, something angry, something evil, and Ricky finally can move and he steps in front of Sasha and opens his mouth to tell Chalky to stop, to reason with him but blood spills out and runs down his chin and meets the bullet hole just above his navel and Chalky has scissor handles sticking out of his neck as he runs and leaps through the cracked glass doors and Ricky hits the ground face first. Sasha is in front of him kneeling on the wall, sideways somehow. He wonders why she's sideways as her hair falls over his face, and he coughs, spitting blood on her shirt and he'd apologize, but his mouth won't work except to cough more blood, spattering her chest with gory red. His ears are a mess, ringing and screams and now sirens, but over it all he can make out the voice of an angel as he hears her voice for the first time as the world goes black; "It looks better with a bit of colour."
When he wakes up, everything is white. "Heaven." He moans.
"Yep, the morphine tends to do that"
This angel has a much deeper and gravellier voice than the earlier one. Less sexy and more funny he thinks. Morphine. Haha. What a witty angel. He smiles, and finds he can't stop, still riding the orgasmic wave that God's chosen get to experience. A face looms into view. It's definitely not an angel.
"Hell." Ricky sighs pensively. The knowledge doesn't hit him in the way he thought it would. He still can't stop smiling. The demon looks a little taken aback.
"We might need to lower your dosage buddy."
The demon comes closer. He's wearing funny blue clothes, that Ricky takes a moment to recognise as hospital scrubs. Realisation dawns. He's still alive. The morphine decides that this is a good thing, so he keeps smiling. "Are you the doctor?"
"Nurse." His thin face tightens. Ugly black tattoos' stain his neck. "We're just about to take you through to operating again." Ricky glances down to see his midriff swathed in gauze. "Bullet just missed your spine. You're one lucky bastard."
A thought occurs to Ricky. "What about Wally?"
The nurse swallows. "He's alive." Ricky waits, but that's all that is forthcoming and an uncomfortable amount is left to his imagination. The nurse changes the subject. "You play guitar, right?"
"How did you know?"
The nurse looks at him. "Do you believe in fate Ricky?"
"I . . ." The question throws him, events still fresh in his mind.
"Me neither. I saw your finger callouses." The nurse looks away.
"That's how I knew you play guitar. Time we got you to surgery." The nurse has the needle in his arm before Ricky can feel it. "See you later."
He slips out of consciousness again. When he comes to, the nurse is back. He sees Ricky come to and begins to speak, awe in his voice.
"While you were out, a car-crash victim came in here. Nothing too serious, just a concussion, could have been a lot worse though." As he talks, the nurse reaches up to adjust the I.V. pouch. The moonlight reveals to Ricky that the nurse's tattoos extend much further than his neck, the black tendrils clawing up his arms like arteries pumping tar throughout his body. The morphine hasn't yet worn off, and there's still a wave of bliss he is content to ride as he listens to the nurse talk. "We asked the guy what happened and he told us he fell asleep at the wheel. Car was headed right for a tree when this wall of noise hit him. He swerved just in time to hit a tree instead of going off this monster of a chasm." The nurse pauses and looks down at Ricky cautiously. "One of the ambo's said the guy hit the rumble strip. Those lines of bumps on the side of the road that make your tyre roar if you're heading off course." A cold sobriety washes over Ricky, banishing the morphine as his heart speeds up. "I know what you dream about Ricky. I've dreamt it too. The rumble strip. That wall of noise promising to show you how to fix your life."
As if waiting for this moment, the hospital speakers crackle into life. What comes through is distorted and eerily scratchy, but it's unquestionably the melody Ricky hungers for. For a second all his pain slips away and he can't remember where he is. One look at the nurse's face is all he needs to know that they share this feeling. As abruptly as it started, the melody cuts out. The nurse gives him a sheepish grin. "I'm pretty sure this place is haunted. You should rest."
He's gone and Ricky is left with only questions, and no matter how many times he digs his thumb into the morphine button, no relief comes, leaving him to struggle through the night, stomach burning like a live fire. Only when day breaks do the embers finally simmer down and he gratefully passes out.
A week passes before he can leave the hospital. The sheer number of visitors overwhelms him, and he is unsure of his response to many of them, yet they all seem joyed to see him well. Sasha comes in several times, and their conversations grow from awkward pleasantries to comfortable flirting. His mother visits, although chooses to leave after all safe topics of conversation have been exercised. Several other workmates visit, all of them choosing only to spend seconds on Wally's presence, but most of them lingering a little in his own room. He learns from J.C. that Harlowe has been denied bail. Anger overwhelms him momentarily when he hears this, and even J.C. shuts up for a moment, seeing the look on his face. It somewhat alleviates when he later hears she will be unlikely to face any charges until the elusive Chalky is captured. The police stop by for an unexpected chat, but seem to have the facts already and praise him for his actions. Hospital staff come and go, but he doesn't encounter the tattooed nurse again until the day he is leaving the hospital.
His official release isn't until Midday on Thursday, so Ricky is surprised to see J.C. at breakfast time. He comes in beaming at Ricky, holding an acoustic guitar in each hand. One guitar is J.C.'s own, a shiny sunburst Ibanez, and the other guitar Ricky realises, is his own.
"Look what I found dude! You've been sleeping in the store? Why didn't you say nothing bro? You don't have to feel bad bro. Anyway, it's all sussed now; you're going to stay with me and my folks from now on." It's all out there at once, and Ricky feels a pang of relief, not for the offer of shelter, but for his friend's ability to have an entire conversation in one breath.
"Thanks bro." He tries to make light of the situation. "What happened to my mattress? That was at least a twenty dollar mattress."
"Forget it." J.C. grins. "Here. I'm surprised you aren't going into withdrawal." He hands Ricky's guitar over, and the lines drop from his face as his hand curls around the neck of his battered toy, hands finally having something more interesting to do than force out a wank when no one else is awake at night. He plays, and J.C. does his best to imitate the odd chord. The warm acoustic tone manages to cut through the dreary buzz of healthcare workers moaning and patients groaning. For a short time, it feels, not like a sickbay, but a place of healing. The next time Ricky looks up, the nurse is in the doorway watching them. Ricky doesn't stop playing.
"Come and jam." It's as much a challenge as an invitation. The nurse moves to stand next to them.
"Howsit bro, I'm J.C." He extends his hand to the nurse.
"Dominic." They shake, and with his other hand he takes the guitar from the dreadlocked boy. J.C. releases it wordlessly. Dominic and Ricky play. Far different from Ricky and J.C's one sided interactions, where one would dominate conversation, and the other took the lead musically, Dom and Ricky play off each other, smooth harmonies exchanging with aggressive licks. Dom's style has none of Ricky's fluidity, but he compensates with speed and passion. Somehow, Ricky feels, the sound is actually working. Like great lovers, they finish at the same instant, the last joint chord echoing down the drab white hallways.
Dom raises his eyebrows. "I'm starting a band."