Sticks And Strings. Part 8

Richard awakens the next morning to surprises both good and bad...

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The first thing to come back online was smell. The sweet and savory scent of frying bacon filled my nostrils, the best kind of smelling salts one could ask for. Not quite enough to break the stranglehold sleep held over me. Almost robotically, I rolled over and pulled the covers from my head, an act which intensified the aroma. Sitting up was a struggle. It felt like an anvil was resting on my chest squeezing the air out of me as though I were being vacuum packed. Garbled voices drifted from afar, too jumbled to make any sense of who was saying what to whomever. Opening my eyes for the first time, the first instinct was to swear and slam my lids shut again as sunlight easily broke through the film of dust caking my window and turned my vision into a bright, blinding blanket of white.

"Ugh! Goddammit, what the" After my vision adjusted, I came into contact with two small eyes staring up at me with wonder and amazement. The surprise was so great I jumped against the wall, pulling a corner of my Metallica poster off the wall. It hung limp in the air like a leaf on a branch. Doing a double take, I saw my little brother watching me with the same look a freshly caught salmon has while laying on ice at the marketopen mouthed, eyes bugged wide.

"Dammit Kevin," I cried after finding my voice. "I told you not to just stare at me like that, it's creepy as hell!" My heart was busy doing cartwheels inside my chest, pounding against my ribcage like a bass drum.

"Sorry," he said in a small, squeaky voice. "Dad said to wake you. Breakfast is almost ready. Eric's here too."

"What? It's Saturday though."

"I know," Kevin said, flashing a gap-toothed grin at me. It was his proudest feature, losing his last baby tooth at the age of twelve. "Better hurry, pancakes today." He raced out of my room without another word, leaving the door ajar.

Oh goody. Barely awake a minute and already the day was off to a bad start. Fumbling in a sleepy daze, I managed to locate an old pair of jeans and a plain tee that didn't smell too offensive, slipping it over my head as I walked to the bathroom to relieve myself before stumbling towards the kitchen, my brain still in bed.

Keeping his face hidden behind the protective barrier of a newspaper, Eric's voice was flat and dull. "Good morning, sleepyhead. How you been?" I saw my father standing at the far counter, his back to the ubiquitous well oiled electric griddle that made an appearance at every family breakfast. Four pancakes, wide and flat and golden sat on top, frying away. He watched me without saying a word, his face expressionless for once as I sat across from the man behind the newspaper. Kevin and Andrea sat on opposite ends of the table, Kevin with his nose buried in an Archie comic book, Andrea stirring a glass of orange juice with a straw, watching fascinated as the liquid sloshed around inside; neither seemed to notice me. Funny how the mind of an eight year old works, I thought.

"Hi Eric," I said without much enthusiasm. "I'm good." I silently wondered if others could feel the tension building in the room. It felt like I was stepping into a simmering pressure cooker. Usually my older brother graced us with his presence only on Sundays, university and work keeping him busy the other six days of the week. Of course he'd moved out over two years ago which was for the best. If there was one person in this world who disliked the so-called changes my life was taking thanks to the negative influence of that music' more than my father, it was Eric.

The newspaper rustled and pages turned. "So, Dad tells me you've got a band now, started with your best friend."

"That's right." I entered the conversation with hesitance. In the past, whenever Eric had something to say about my music, it was rarely positive and I was sick of having to always justify myself.

"Interesting," he said. "When did this happen?"

"A couple months ago, we only just found our guitarists a few weeks back." I wasn't sure if he was listening or just asking so as to pay lip service to his brother so I decided not to give him more than the bare minimum. If he wanted more, he could ask. Or not. No skin off my nose either way. "How are things with you?" I asked, reaching for my own glass.

"They're well. Councilor Jameson is considering a run for the mayor's chair in November. If that's the case, things are going to get a lot busier for me than they already are." To Eric's credit, I had to admire his resolve working as a political assistant. I couldn't think of anything more boring.

"And how's Michelle?" his roommate and girlfriend of almost three years.

"Top of her class in Political Science and a shoe in for Dean's List," he said with a hint of swank. The polite exchange came to an end with my father bringing two plates, one stacked high with pancakes, the other with bacon, fanned out in an arc flat against the plate. Eric's newspaper disappeared as quickly as the food arrived and everyone helped themselves. We ate in silence for the next few minutes, interrupting with a brief "yum" or "delicious." The food helped bring me little by little into the world of the fully awake. Hats off to Captain Bob, he did make a mean flapjack.

While we ate, I noticed Eric watching me with a careful eye. At first I thought nothing of it but the longer it went on, the more unnerving it became. At last I cracked. "Is there some reason you're staring at me like that?" I asked Eric, setting my fork down and giving him my full attention. He copied my action, folding his hands one over the other and tipping his head to one side.

"You don't look quite yourself today. Those circles under your eyes are darker than normal, and you've been eating a lot slower than usual."

"Really? Huh, didn't notice," I said, which was true. This was all news to me.

"Maybe it's because you were up almost the whole night," said my father without looking up from his plate. Up all night? What was he talking about? I had no memory of the sort. He swallowed a mouthful of bacon, his fork clanking against the plate. "When I got out of bed at three this morning I could hear you laughing and talking to yourself. Just what was going on in there?"

Now I didn't know what to think. For once I had no answer, legitimate or otherwise. Sitting there, staring down at a pile of half-eaten pancakes, I racked my brain for somethinganythingthat would shed a little light on the dark blur that was my memory. Dad came into my room and criticized my music again, that wasn't unusual. Then I remembered going through my bag for my notebook but finding the joint Mitchell hid for me instead.

The joint! Oh my God! It all came flooding back to me as if someone had turned on a light bulb inside my head. That was it, it had to be. Panic began to flood through me. Here I was sitting in front of my family, probably still high, with the Sword of Damocles slipping from the fist that held it above my head. Game over. I was a dead man walking. No talking my way out of this one, but damned if I wasn't going to try anyways.

"It's a secret."

The little man in my head was cursing at this point. A secretwas that really the best I could come up with? Neither Eric nor my father looked too convinced. "A secret, eh?" Eric asked. "You don't normally stay up late for anything, this must be some secret." He sounded as though he thought me an idiot for trying to bluff my way out, as if somehow he knew I was a lying through my teeth and was just waiting for me to make one slip-up so he could call me on it.

"It's just a project I've been working on," I said, trying not to sound overly defensive. "I don't necessarily wanna share it right now, that's all."

"Is it for school?" my father asked.

"No, just a little hobby of mine."

"Hobbyis it for this band of yours?"

"No. It's just for me, Dad, really." The emphatic tone seemed to satisfy his curiosity and he went back to cleaning his plate. So did Eric, although I didn't get so good a feeling from him. We all ate some more and when breakfast was over and the dishes done and drying in the rack by the sink, I excused myself to my room, going on a blitz the minute the door was shut.

The first thing I did was to locate the baggie Mitchell's joint had come in, which was easy since it was nestled on top of a small mountain of crumpled papers in the wire wastebasket by my desk. I plucked it from the basket and tore it to pieces, perhaps an unnecessary move but it made me feel better. I dumped the papers out and sprinkled the ripped remnants in the bottom, burying all the failed poems, school papers and essays past on top. Then I repeated the same action with my laundry hamper, hiding last night's clothes in the bottom. Luckily the smell of pot was nowhere to be found in my room, which was a great help.

With all evidence of last night's indulgence destroyed or hidden, I sat down at my desk. My notebook lay open to a page filled top to bottom with black scrawl. Many of the words were scratched or crossed out, but the words left behind spelled out the makings of a song.

Did you care if I was down and out again? Surely you would see the disappointment Maybe it was shreds of hope left behind Or an obvious self-delusion

All your promises filled with hope Have gone and walked away with you Whether words of truth or lies you speak I'm not your empty shell

Looking back at all the times That passed me by with every day Memories of what once was Pride and love turned hate and scorn

You act like I'm now dead inside When the truth is I feel more alive Seen it coming, seized the moment

All your promises filled with hope Have gone and walked away with you Whether words of truth or lies you speak I'm not your empty shell

Empty shell I'm not your empty shell

All the praise that I once heard Has brushed me off and left me alone (I'm not an empty shell) The hope that I've held onto is gone All that remains is me

I had to stand up and walk around when I finished reading. Wow, I thought. I wrote this? If there was an appropriate word to describe the baffled happiness I was feeling, it eluded me as my fingers ran across the page, making sure the words were real. A bit of the ink smeared from the sweat on my fingertips but the words were still legible. Where did all this come from? For days now, Empty Shell was little more than a title and a few free floating words. Upon reflection, the whole audition seemed less stressful than my numerous attempts at writing. I flipped the notebook closed with one finger, and then my eyes drifted from the page to the wastebasket where the baggie lay in at least a dozen pieces.

A second light bulb went off. It was ridiculous to assume, and yet at the same time, it seemed to make perfect sense. Once more, I sat down at the desk, opening to the marked page and reading the poem over, with my eyes looking up periodically from the page towards the wastebasket as my mind tried to piece together the pot paradox. In another minute, I was able to break away from the hold the words held over me and bolted from the chair, out of my room and down the hall to the phone. My fingers moved so fast on the number pad I had to re-dial the number twice before I got it right. The dial tone rang three times.

"Hello?"

"Adam, hey, it's me. I know Saturday's not a rehearsal day, but I've got something you just have to see."

***

We met up later that afternoon at Contrast, the local pool hall and cafe which served as my second home. True to its name, the local hangout's interior counterbalanced the rough and worn brick exterior. Beige walls provided a warm comfortable support for the sharp exposure of black and white photographs adorning the wall opposite a black granite counter, complete with mammoth espresso machine and cash register. The glass display case had a well-stocked showcase of various pastries and sandwiches but I was not hungry. The cafe was empty, save for me, Adam and Damien, the friendly tattooed server behind the counter.

"Holy cow Richard," Adam said, looking stunned. "I don't believe it. That's nuts."

"I know, right? How does that work? By all logic, it shouldn't have...and yet, there it is."

Bewildered, Adam shook his head, closed my notebook and slid it across the slick plastic tabletop. It flew off the edge and into my lap with pages fluttering in the air. "And you're telling me that this all just came to you like that?"

"It sounds crazy, I know," I said, putting the notebook away. "I don't know how it happened either, and I'm the guy who wrote the dang thing. One minute I'm sitting there in my room bored off my conk, nothing happening. The next minute, I'm outside polishing off the joint and then"

Adam sat up sharply, the tops of his thighs bumping against the table as though the word joint had stuck him like a pin. "You were high?" The disbelief in his voice was a surprise. Like me, Adam was no stranger to the green leaf, although the number of times he did partake on a yearly basis you could count on one hand.

"Yeah I was."

"Where did you get the cash for that from? Last I knew you were skin tight for extra cash."

I took a minute before answering. "Actually I didn't pay for it. It was left in my bag. Mitchell put it there."

"Mitch is a blazer? Jesus, I never would have thought."

"He took me by surprise too. We chilled in the smoke pit for a few yesterday. At first I thought there was a skunk in the woods but when I got through the brush, there he was on the rocks." I sat in silence for a few seconds, reflecting on yesterday. "It's funny, you know."

"What is?"

"Oh, how it happened. While we were chilling, he offered me a hit. I don't know how he was able to tolerate it; this was some really harsh stuff. We talked about lyrics a bit too; in fact I showed him what I'd written for Empty Shell."

"Hmm." Adam's guttural response was monotone, neither encouraging nor disapproving.

"Next thing I know, I think he's putting my notebook back in my bag but when I go to find it later that night, I instead pull out this little baggie and there it was." I suddenly felt silly. "I don't remember much else, I just wake up this morning and see it all right in front of me," I said, nodding at my bag.

A sudden, loud hiss from the espresso machine made me jump slightly and I lost my train of thought. Damien the barista brought a white cup and saucer over and set it on the small table in front of me. "There you go Richard, the usualone medium almond cappuccino, heavy on the foam."

"Thanks, Damien."

"No problem, dude." He took a quick look around the cafe. No customers. He pulled a chair free from a nearby table, its plastic legs scraping against the hard tiled floor as he plopped down into it and pulled in close to the table.

"Haven't seen ya guys around for a few days, that band of yours keeping ya busy?" He spoke with a tease in his voice but at the same time, looked genuinely interested.

"Eh, somewhat," I said. "We finally got the guitar position worked out, now we can focus on the songs." I lifted the cup to my lips. The rich espresso was smooth and tasty and the almond flavour paired pleasantly with the frothy milk.

"Awesome. Glad to hear that." It was always a bit strange seeing Damien, a fellow rocker, dressed so chicly conservative, the solid black tie dangling from the collar of his button-down shirt made him look like a walking contradiction against the slick gelled spikes of his brown locks and the edges of his multiple tattoos peeking out from under the short sleeves. The things we do to make a living.

"How's the cap'?"

"Quite good, thanks."

Adam remained silent throughout the entire exchange between me and Damien. Once or twice I watched him sitting there stone-faced from the corner of my eye, seemingly uninterested in joining the conversation and only shaking his head when Damien rose to return to the counter and asking if he wanted anything. It was hard to say for certain but I thought I saw concern in his eyes. Once Damien was out of earshot he finally said something. "Does Jason know?"

"Huh?"

"You know, about Mitch and the grass. Does Jason know he's into it?"

"Uh..." Whether he did or not seemed irrelevant. I didn't know how to answer that question. "I really don't know, man. Jason's never said anything. Does it really matter?"

"Well you know how much he hates it," Adam said, an understatement writ large. It seemed to be the only thing Jason hated more than cigarette smoke. "We only just got the whole Kayla vs. Jason fiasco aside, the last thing we need is more salt in the wound." Deep down, I respected Adam's concern, even if I thought it being a bit of a worrywart. The only thing Moderation Merritt wanted was for everyone in Systex to be happy and work out so we could make the best music possible, a dream I certainly understood and shared. However in all honesty, whatever people chose to do in their private lives was their business. If Mitchell wanted to blaze, let him I thought. It didn't seem to affect him any at practice.

"I don't think there's anything to worry about," I said, trying to reassure Adam. "It's not like he's been coming to practice baked silly. He seems smarter than that."

"I guess that's true." Adam sounded reluctant. He looked at me with a serious face and asked, "You aren't smoking it just to try and write are you?"

"What? God no! Dude, come on."

"Sorry, sorry. I didn't really think so, just asking." He checked his watch and frowned. "Damn. I'm gonna have to split, promised Dad I'd help him clean out the rest of the garage."

"We haven't made that much of a mess, have we?"

Adam chuckled. "Hardly, just tossing out some of the useless crap to give us more room to practice; the empty paint cans, dusty spare tires, stuff like that." He stood up and stretched, raising his arms high above his head like two tan tree branches. "That is some good writing right there, Richard, we'll definitely have to try it out with that melody Kayla wrote on Monday. It's got a good feel. Just... keep it all in perspective."

"Thanks," I said, taking another sip. "I hear you, no worries."

Adam picked up his keys from the table and headed for the exit, his hand reaching out and clapping my shoulder as he passed. "Stay cool buddy." And with that, he left.

"Stay cool." I stared into my cup, watching a billowing cloud of milk foam float across the light brown pool of coffee, wondering what Adam meant by "keep it all in perspective." Surely he didn't think pot was going to become a crutch to hobble over writer's block, even I wasn't that foolish. Still...

Damien's loud voice broke the quiet hypnosis the cappuccino seemed to have over me. "Something wrong there, Rich?"

Damn it all, didn't people ever listen? Glancing up at him with a narrow-eyed, disdainful look, he was quick to correct his mistake. "Sorry. Richard."

"It's all good. And no, I'm good, just thinking." I swallowed the rest in one large mouthful and got up from the table, wiping a thin foamy mustache from my lip. "I should get going too, gotta get home in time for dinner." I took the cup and saucer to the counter, where Damien accepted it and put it into a dish rack behind him.

"Alright dude, thanks for dropping by. Good to see you guys again."

"Yeah you too Damien, catch you later."

"Later," he said, flashing me the horns before turning to the counter. I smiled and returned them as I stepped out onto the sidewalk. The sun was starting to take shelter behind a mass of grey clouds sweeping ominously across the sky, casting shadows of the outdoor tables and umbrellas against the pavement. The tall, dark man that was my own stood behind me, mimicking my hands on hips pose as I contemplated.

Maybe I've got this wrong, I thought. It's possible I wrote all that stuff down before touching the joint. It was hard to tell. My mind felt like a patch of fog with sparse bursts of clarity stretched across it.

Soon I began to walk east, towards the center of town and the direction of home. Only I had fibbed when I'd said that to Damien. I wasn't going home. Not yet, at least. There was something more important on my mind.

I had to see a man about some words.

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