It turned out Jason's being out of touch was just as Mitchell predicted: Logical, as far as he was concerned at least. Being out at a family dinner that night kept him away from the phone until quite late that evening, too late to get hold of anyone. Messages were sent out from Adam early the next morning relaying that information to the group, along with an important announcement: Getting the band together was a lot easier than people were figuring. Today's practice would simply be designated Meeting Day, or in a more ominous sense; Judgment Day. The plan was to gather at The Garage an hour earlier than normal and tackle the Thrash for Cash question head on. Full disclosure among us guys, no more crossed wires.
This is good. Extended practice is in order after the skull session, I think. See y'all later. Rock on!
For as long as I'd known him, Adam was the logical, level-headed one, almost never wanting to jump into any situation head-on. He who jumps from the high-dive had first better make sure the pool is full, he once told me when jamming in the school's music room, a couple months before the creature that came to be known as Systex was born. Not the most creative one I'd ever heard. Even so, I understood his point. This made the excitement in his voice more puzzling as I hit the erase button on the machine. Well, maybe he's just glad we're all willing to sit and talk, no more of this bullshit he said-she said. Something else then came to mind. Part of me wanted to reach for the phone and call him back right away and point out that leaving Kayla out of these decisions was unfair and could be risky. If she found out no one else had bothered to include her in the meeting, she'd quite likely be furious. Never mind that no one had a phone number to call her at, it was the principle I thought.
(Forget that, just shut up and go. This was your idea after all.)
I'm being ridiculous, I thought, walking into the kitchen and pouring a glass of orange juice. It was just a bad day. Of course, that's all it had been, everyone has them. Back towards the phone I headed.
(Are you serious? What is wrong with you? She humiliated you, Richard. Have you looked in the mirror lately?)
Much as I hated to admit it, the little inner voice had a point. I stopped in my tracks, one hand outstretched towards the phone; the other traced the still healing scratches stretching across my cheek. Suddenly it didn't seem so easy to justify anymore. Bad day or not, the scars were still there to prove the unpredictability of Hurricane Kayla's wrath; one minute calm, cool and quiet; the next, Holy Mary, Red Alert, duck for cover! Frustrated, I swiped the glass off the counter, spilling a few drops and swallowing the rest in one gulp. The tangy liquid puckered my cheeks, drawing a sour grimace from me. So many thoughts, so many reasons, so little time. Going into my room to change and ready myself for another day in prison, sometimes known to others as high school, I began to wonder if the only thing to do was break out earlier than planned and try to track Kayla down. The prospect of the girl who'd snorted and spat at the mention of the word actually studying was beyond logic. But I couldn't just do that could I? Or perhaps, more appropriately Should I?
However you put the question, an answer was needed and fast.
I saw what Adam meant by new stuff when I arrived at The Garage later that afternoon. If someone in the band said new stuff, nine times out of ten it was a new riff, beat, line or lyric. Not that that was bad, any growth was good, and while Adam did indeed have more beats to try out on us, that wasn't all. Cool, right? he said when I arrived. Mitchell and Jason were already there, seated on the couch and looking at the wall with expressions akin to awe. With a proud smile, Adam pointed to the large whiteboard that now stood proudly in the corner of the garage where a set of old stained shelves used to live and where old, empty cans of paint; car wax and cymbal polish had gone to die. Curious, its presence actually made The Garage feel almost bigger. Some guy had it sitting down on the curb. No serious damage, it even had half a box of pens taped to it. That bad-boy was in the truck not ten seconds later. No eraser but that's why God made dust rags. He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb to a large sack of old shirts and other cloths hanging alongside one of the few remaining shelves. You couldn't argue with that. It didn't matter how run down, second-hand or just plain utter garbage it was, if something had the word Free' on it, you were drawn to it like moths to a light. Whether or not it came home to live with you was quite another matter.
Not bad, I nodded, pleasantly surprised. What'cha thinking we use it for? Composition, lyrics, stuff like that?
Sure, if we felt like it. Hell, doodle on it for all I care, I saw it and adopted it, simple as that. How could anyone not smile at that?
Doodle? Mitchell asked, looking puzzled. That's what a guitar is for?
Never mind, Adam said. Right, so now that we're all here, except for Kayla, unfortunately
About that, I spoke up, perhaps a little too soon as all the eyes were once again on me before I could blink. Oh, me and my big mouth. I cleared my throat and tried again. I know no one has a number to reach her at
Yeah, what's up with that anyway?
I ignored Mitchell's interruption. I went to Compton earlier before coming here to try and find her. I know she said something to you Mitch, about her test week, but I just got to thinking after hearing the message from Adam. If we're gonna have this meeting, it's only fair she be here too, right? The lack of immediate response was unsettling. No one's gaze averted mine. What had I just done? Am I right? For crying out loud, say something already, I shouted inside my head. Bad enough the passing seconds felt like hours in school, that sort of feeling had no place here, now or ever.
(Smart, Richard. Smart.)
When Mitchell broke the silence after a few seconds more, my heart did the old trampoline into my stomach and back into my throat trick I was growing to hate. You know, he's right. And no one dissented.
Probably wasn't easy picking her out from the others there, Jason mused. That fing place gives me the creeps. Arthur Compton? Try, Abandon Hope.' It's like a Goth fetish ball over there. He scratched at his stubbly chin and groaned in disgust. Once again, there were no disagreements from the others. It was true, ninety percent or more of its student body wore black clothes lined with more spikes and sharp points than a cactus and multi-colored hair far as the eye could see. Trying to spot a normal crew-cut was a lot like playing Where's Waldo: The Home Game. And I thought Central High was badyikes!
From afar, Arthur Compton High would fool any passersby into thinking it just another school in the Brentwood community. Half the letters missing, (Arth Copto Ig Cool?), graffiti tags adoring its shabby exterior, it looked more like a neglected juvenile prison. Well, what was the difference anyway? It was given to understand that all the members of Festering Brides had gone there. This did not surprise me at all. In fact, I surprised myself by grinning at the humor of "student body." No one else seemed to get it.
Is she coming? asked Adam with a faint glimmer of hope in his eyes. And the attention was back on me like a spotlight at center stage. For the first time, it occurred to me that if Systex was going to perform at Thrash for Cash, or anywhere in the world, ever, I'd better get over this complex and fast. These were my friends, my brothers in metal; the only ones less apt to be cruel; the same couldn't be said for audiences and album reviews.
(Album reviews this early in the game? Get real.)
Unlikely, I answered. I asked around but gave up after a while. Jason's right, that school's full of girls like her, so unless she somehow spotted me, it's just us fellows today. The guys offered their own grunt of disappointment, or perhaps annoyance, grunts are sometimes hard to translate. I shared in it. Around when unwanted, nowhere to be found when she is. If this was Kayla's idea of a joke, nobody was laughing.
Alright, Adam said with a sigh, reaching for a milk crate that had seen better days. The dummy amp, originally mine but since donated for either guitarist to use when both were present thanks to Captain Bob's totalitarian vetoing its addition to the Demin house, sat crammed inside, it's hard plastic corners catching on the edge of the yellow crate handles, not quite touching the bottom. He shoved it underneath the workbench, went to his setup, plucked the stool from behind and set it in front. The poor thing probably had more duct tape on it than you could find in a hardware store, the stuffing long gone. It spat out a cloud of dust when Adam's muscular frame descended upon it.
Alright, he repeated. Let's start then. Richard.
Uh-huh. He didn't have to ask. I pulled the contest announcement from my pocket, unfolded it and passed it over to Adam who eagerly accepted it. This was the first chance he had to look it over in entirety, having only heard about it from word of mouth. When he finished reading, he laid the paper down and said, Okay. It's obvious that we have a couple headstrong opinions about where we go from here, he raised his hands as though to prevent anyone interrupting him, which I think both have valid yeas and nays. Am I right? Everyone nodded. Good, so before we get too ahead of ourselves, it says here to call up Murphy's for more details. Did anyone do this?
Now, without any mirror in the garage, it was impossible to say for certain what my face looked like, but judging by the others' expression, it was a safe assumption. No, we didn't. I waited to see if Adam would lecture or laugh. He did neither, instead rising, grabbing the paper and saying Right-o, well then I guess it's up to me. In another moment he was through the door and out of sight. The interjection of a braying donkey would've been the cherry on top.
Stupid, I hissed, burying my face behind my hand.
Hmm? someone grunted, though I couldn't tell who.
I said, how could we be so fing stupid?
What do you mean, we? You had the ad before the rest of us. For once, I didn't want to argue with Jason.
Adam returned a few minutes later, holding a second piece of paper covered in thin red chicken scratch. He looked to be off in some other world, almost tripping over his old stool.
You feelin' alright, dude? asked Jason, curiously tipping his head.
Yeah, I'm good. I'm good, he said, waving a hand.
Bullshit. Adam was the worst liar of us all, I knew something was up but decided not to put him on the spotyet. So here's what I got from the guy I talked to at Murphy's, he said, trying to act as though everything was hunky-dory, while I turned towards my bag in hunt for a bottle of water, even though I knew perfectly well I was welcome to the water in the old fridge Mr. Merritt had set up in the far of the garage, we all were. They're expecting quite a few bands, so the sooner you sign up, the likelier you are to get on stage. Sets are limited to a maximum of twenty minutes, only one cover song per group, maximum five members, any and all instruments permitted.
What about entry fees or tickets?
Well luckily, that's to our advantage. Since the whole point of this contest is about showing off unsigned local talent, the fee covers the whole band, instead of pay-per-person and we're not responsible for any ticket sales for this one time only. Thank God for that, I thought. I wasn't very good at a lot of things, least of all sales. Every school fundraiser I was guaranteed to be in the bottom percent.
Adam pressed on. Groups are responsible for bringing their own cords, pedals and effects, stuff like that. But here's the thing: They'll actually have speakers and amps set up for this.
Serious? Mitchell looked incredulous, leaning forward with a forearm across his knee. In all the contests I've ever been in, never was there available equipment. Either you bring your own or you don't play.
This isn't just another ordinary battle-of-the-bands, dude. It's bigger than I bet even Richard was expecting it to be. I turned to look at Adam, my fingers wrapped around the elusive bottle, though not quite free of my bag's clutch. He saw me look up and nodded at my direction.
Curious, Jason said, looking thoughtful. I thought Murphy's had little more than that piece of trash P.A. system they use for calling their meat draws.
They don't. Get this; they're going to have special guest judges there who are going to be performing too.
What? I asked. The ad said Win the crowd over, win the pot! Now they're bringing in some know-it-alls? Why even have crowds there? That's false advertising, man.
I know, Adam said, and that's how it was planned originally, but then the group's management called and apparently changed the rules on them this morning, something about unbiased representation. New fliers are going out tomorrow with the announcement.
I spat, making sure to aim for the garbage can, Adam was never too happy wiping gobs of spit off the floor after practices. Unbiased. Ha! Talk about Wait just a minute. Did he just say the group's management? That didn't sound right. It didn't make any sense. Hey, who are these judges anyway?
Guys Adam dropped the paper and leaned towards us, eyes wide. Black Heart Legions themselves are judging this thing.
The bottle of water I had been reaching for fell right back into my bag and for a moment, the world stopped turning. Holy fk, I whispered, repeating it over and over, each time louder than the last.
Mitchell was the only one of us not looking star struck. Uhguys? Promise you won't kill me, but who exactly are these Black Heart guys? I never heard of them back home.
Never heard of them? I almost shouted. Blasphemous! Mitchell was about to get a quick lesson in Local History 101: The Metal Scene.
Black Heart Legions were a quintet who'd won a contest some years back to record a four-song EP. That EP, titled "Draco," quickly became one of Cage Records' fastest selling records of all time, closely rivaling Slayer, Metallica, and the other top grossing records. Draco had in fact been the group's former name, however when they discovered that another group had already trademarked the name, they became Black Heart Legions, taking their name from the first track off the Draco EP. Their unique blend of thrashing riffs, thundering drums and death metal inspired bass lines had earned them an increasingly loyal fan base which only seemed to grow larger with every concert. Bootleg tapes of their shows were becoming more popular than almost any piece of merchandise found at Cage Records, and with the imminent release of their full-length, self-titled debut album, B.H.L. were now being touted as Canada's new heavy metal giants. And they would be single-handedly choosing who opened for them across our countryright in our own backyard. The feeling was so overwhelming that for a moment, I thought I actually might cry.
Well that settles it: We're so doing this.
Of course I should've known that would set off a debate which had potential to turn very bitter and very personal, very fast. Contrary to life at Central High, the next hour passed with incredible speed, with more than a few jabs being traded. While conceding to the magnanimity of the contest's potential, Jason insisted throughout that where we were at as a band, Systex simply wouldn't be able to pull off a gig like this, especially not with the timeframe we'd be facing. And over in this corner, wearing a Master of Puppets tee and faded jeans, standing at well over six feet was me, The Melendez Antithesis, sometimes known to you as Richard. I refused to concede my firm belief that a cogent set could be produced in time if we threw in one of the many cover songs we jammed to in between our own material, which was growing better by the day.
Playing a cover live did not sit well with Mitch, who felt we should focus on writing and fine-tuning our own material above all else. This was not unreasonable to me, although I tried to point out that having a cover in our lineup guaranteed us some sort of solid ground. Sure our own stuff is killer and I'm totally for laying down all original Systex, but throwing in cover might give us some flexibility, you know what I mean? Mitchell agreed, but still didn't look too happy. The band meeting was quickly becoming little more than a repeat of yesterday: Me championing the contest, Jason adamantly against it and Mitchell walking the middle ground; dj vu once again. The only one who offered no opinion at all was Adam, sitting there on that derelict little stool, one leg crossed over another, arms folded, eyes closed. He'd been quiet for so long, he could have left us three in the garage, gone inside or left altogether and we might not have noticed. Safe to say we were all startled when his booming voice cried out Enough!
Nobody had to be asked twice.
Stop it! This is getting us nowhere, Adam said, walking over to the old workbench with an air of purpose. There's only one way to decide once and for all. He slid a large drawer open, pulling out a large sheet of paper and a handful of pens before hitting with the side of his knee to close it. It wasn't much of a guess what he intended with those.
What's the point? I asked. It's obvious where people stand on this. It'd just be a bigger waste of time
Says you, Mitchell butted in. How do you know where my feelings lie? So far, this seems like nothing more than you versus Jason, round two.
Speak for yourself. Jason, who now looked more tired than anything else, turned towards Mitchell. I don't want to fight with anybody, but I stand by what I said, if others don't like it well, that's their problem. He said all this without even glancing at me. And as far as feelings lie, dude, it'd be nice if you actually voiced a firm opinion instead of trying to play populist; Adam's right, this is getting us nowhere, and frankly, your teeter-tottering is no help.
Wow. Harsh words for such a calm voice. Perhaps Jason and I were not so far apart as I thought. Mitchell had no response to this other than to blink, move his mouth, then slump back against the couch, his face blank and eyes seemingly empty. The garage was silent for a long time. Multiple scenarios ran through my brain, each one more difficult to answer, or even contemplate, than the one before it. What if we did, what if we didn'twhat if the band didn't survive long enough to make that decision? I no longer had an answer for anything. The others seemed either lost in deep thought or justlost.
I say we go for it.
Everyone jumped. Jason actually let out a little yell, and who could blame him? It's not like we were expecting anyone to jump to his feet anytime soon and make such a bold declaration; certainly not a shrill cry like that. Reality sunk in just as my heart dislodged from my throat, pounding away like a jackhammer: That voice had come from right behind me. All eyes turned to face the open garage door. Two short figures stood on the line that divided the smooth, paved garage floor from the coarse speckled concrete of the driveway where Adam's truck sometimes lived when his father's Caprice was elsewhere. Their shadows stood behind them at attention, elongated and stretching down the driveway in the mid-afternoon sun. One of them carried a thick guitar case in one hand and a hoodie with some obscene graphic clutched in the other. Her companion carried nothing, except an expression that screamed fk you, I don't care.
Kayla. Adam was the first to speak. His tone asked the question the rest of us were thinking: Where the hell did she come from? I waited for him to ask it out loud. He didn't. She flashed a smirk which seemed to serve no purpose other than her own amusement.
That's right, boys and girls. I'm back! Miss me?
How long have you been standing there?
Oh, long enough. Like that was supposed to be a respectable answer. Her hair hung back in a little ponytail, faint traces of dark roots, either black or brown, poked up underneath the pink and blonde streaks running parallel to her crown. I couldn't help but think it attractive on her. She must have seen me looking at her, because her eyes locked onto mine for a few seconds. If you're talking about the Thrash for Cash Murphy's is advertising, my vote belongs to the yeas. You'd have to be deaf to miss the stinging hostility in her voice.
I tried to find you around Compton earlier, I said, hoping to put out any fires before they grew into another raging inferno.
I believe you. No, she didn't. She must have sensed lingering questions, because she abruptly turned the attention to her companion. "This is my friend, we were already hanging, and she's been asking me about us."
I'd been watching Kayla's friend a fair bit since they arrived. She was only an inch or so taller than her, messy brown hair and clad in black from head to toe. Her small, chiseled face was flush and glistened softly in the sun as if she'd been sweating or possibly crying. Sweating was likelier, I decided, given the heavy-looking Nirvana hoodie she wore in spite of the day's unseasonable warmth. There was something else about her too, I was almost positive I'd seen her around somewhere before but just couldn't place her anywhere. As if on cue, she turned and looked at me. Any trace of the fk you, I don't care face disappeared when we caught a look at each other. The garage suddenly seemed to get a lot brighter. Kayla didn't seem to notice while she pointed at each of us by way of introduction. "That's Jason and Mitchell, Adam and...Richard." Her slight hesitation when it came round to me shouldn't have been surprising, but it was. "Guys, this is"
The word came out of me quicker than I could stop it. Her eyes continued to point daggers at me. No one needed to introduce us. I knew exactly who she was now.