Nick sat at home. Despite months of wanting to be there he wished he could be anywhere else. He sat in his home studio, at the front of his house. He kept all his gear in this room. He held a Nick Avers signature guitar. He hadn't taken this one on tour, and its floating bridge sat at a wonky angle. Nick had tried retuning it but had nearly thrown it across the room. He strummed an open D chord, winced, and then played a riff from Master of Puppets. He sighed and put the guitar back on its stand, then stood and walked towards the opposite wall.
The studio floor was still in the relatively clean state Nick had left it before going on tour. Piles of gear lined the right wall; rolled up leads, a container full of pedals, a few combo amps, two multi-guitar racks and a cabinet stack. A few stools were scattered around the room. Nick walked around the drum kit at the far end of the room, underneath the window, and peeked out from behind closed curtains. A media pack milled around on the street outside. His car was parked behind the mob, and he thought for the fiftieth time that day about how stupid he'd been to park it there. A flash went off. Then another. A few people in the group turned and started taking pictures. Nick stepped back and let the curtain fall back into place. He stood for a moment, staring into space, then turned and walked back through the room and out the door.
He emerged into the hallway. A few pictures lined the walls, all of them of his family. The wall seemed empty. All of Maddie's pictures were gone. The only pictures left of her also featured Nick. He walked to the end of the hallway and into the kitchen. He went to the white countertop, picked up the piece of paper there and read it. It said:
Nick, I've gone to my parents house. I've taken my things. We need to talk. Maddie.
Nick reread the note twice, then put it back down. He pulled his mobile phone out of his pocket and looked up Maddie's number. His finger hovered over the call button, but he didn't press it. He put his phone away and started pacing. We need to talk face to face, he thought. Anything else felt cheap. He stopped pacing and looked out the sliding glass door. The sun was still rising in the sky, though there was a hint of greyness on the horizon. Something flashed in the distance. Nick looked in that direction and saw a man in a tree holding a long lense camera. "F--k off!" Nick shouted. He gave the photographer the finger, moved forward and pulled angrily at the doors curtains.
Nick walked back to the counter and took his car key from the bench. He went back down the hallway and, without pausing, opened the front door. The clicking of high speed cameras rose like a swarm of cicadas as Nick locked the door. He strode through the front gate and entered the swarm. He pushed his way through and reached his car, an old piece of GM shit. The door opened with a squeal. Nick stuck the key into the ignition and turned it. The engine coughed and wheezed, but didn't start.
Photographers crowded against the side of the vehicle. Nick looked up and saw the van in front of him reversing. He looked at it for a moment, confused. The van had been parked in the same place for hours. Nick turned the key in the ignition again, and the engine roared into life. He set the parking brake and moved into first gear. The van inched closer. Turning the steering wheel, Nick pulled out from the curb and accelerated. The front of his car clipped the rear of the van. Something broke.
As he drove down the street, Nick looked in his rear-view mirror - broken glass littered the road. A fat man in a sweat-stained tank top got out of the vans' driver side door, looked at the back of his van and started moving animatedly. Nick looked back at the road and almost smiled.
As he drove, he thought about what he was going to say. He simulated conversations in his head. In one version Maddie forgave him, and said she'd come back. In another she screamed at him, throwing things at him and breaking his heart. In a third, he ranted at her, and she became so ashamed that she asked him to come back, begged him, but Nick pushed her away. He pulled up to the curb a street away from her parents' house and cut the ignition. He sat in the car for a minute, then two, before getting out.
The midday sun beat down on him. He walked along the sidewalk, then around the street corner. Ahead, a small cluster of people stood in the shade of the big oak outside Maddie's parents' house. Nick's stomach dropped when he saw they held cameras. He turned his face away from them and kept walking. They didn't notice him until he was a few metres away. One of the men looked up. He gaped for a moment, then lifted his camera. The others glanced around and did the same.
Nick quickly turned and strode across the lawn. He knocked on the door rapidly. No-one answered. He knocked again, harder this time. A muffled yell came from behind the door. Nick knocked again. Finally the door opened, and Maddie's mother, Roselyn, peeked out.
"Hey Rose," Nick said. "Can I come in?"
She paused. "I don't think it's best." She started to close the door.
Nick pushed against the door, stopping its motion. "Please don't do this to me," he whispered. She looked up at him briefly, and the silence stretched out. Then she opened the door.
Nick walked through, and Roselyn shut the door quickly. "How long have they been there?" Nick asked. Roselyn turned and walked past him.
"Follow me," she said. She led Nick through the house and to a closed door. She opened it. Nick knew it was the sitting room - it was where he'd first met Roselyn and David. Maddie's father sat in his armchair, and looked up when the door opened. He stood and walked towards Nick.
"Hey Dave," Nick said. David looked at him, stone-faced, and walked out of the room. Roselyn ushered Nick through the doorway.
"I'll get Maddie," she said, then shut the door. Nick sighed. He walked to the couch and sat down. It was only a small room; apart from the couch, there were a few armchairs, a bookcase and a TV. Nick looked at the blank TV screen. His gaunt reflection looked back at him. He realised he hadn't shaved in almost a week.
He waited fifteen minutes before she came. The door opened slowly, and Maddie slipped into the room. "Maddie," Nick said, rising. She shut the door quietly. Before she could turn Nick touched the inside of her arm. Maddie spun and slapped him. Nick stumbled back, a jolt of pain piercing his head. His face grew hot where Maddie hit him. "F--k," he said. "F--k."
Maddie panted, staring at him. Her shoulder-length brown hair hung wildly across her face. She parted her hair and pushed it back. Nick looked at her almond-shaped eyes for the first time in months. Her face looked thinner, her cheekbones more prominent. "Hey, c'mon," he said. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that."
Maddie just looked at him. The silence stretched out. Nick tried looking back, but couldn't hold her gaze. He looked down at his hands. He looked back up, and she was still staring at him. Nick opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't think of anything to say. "Why?" Maddie asked.
Nick watched her, silent.
"Why?" Maddie repeated, brandishing a magazine. His image was on the cover. "Why were you getting drunk? Why were you getting into fights? Why were you sleeping with other women!?"
Maddie laughed wildly. "Oh f--k off," she said. "Don't lie to me, Nick. I know. Everyone knows!"
Nick moved closer to Maddie. He tried to take her hand, but she pulled away. "It didn't happen like that. It didn't happen like they say. I didn't do those things. You have to believe me." Maddie watched him silently again. Nick sighed and rubbed his face. "Why don't you believe me," he said.
"Why should I?"
Nick shook his head disbelievingly. He thought about saying because they were engaged, that they were supposed to trust each other. "How's work been?" he asked.
"Trish been given the boot yet?"
Maddie took a deep breath. "You know that i've been followed by photographers for a week?" she said slowly. "That reporters have been following my parents and asking them questions about what you were doing? That people have left messages on our phones calling me a slut and a whore and that I should die? Those people have been following us everywhere we go. I can't go to work. I can't even go outside without having a camera shoved in my face! So don't f--k around with me!"
Nick looked at her, slack-jawed. He tried to think of something to say, something to calm her down, to comfort her. "I'm sorry... but it's not my fault," he said.
Maddie's eyes widened. The look turned into a glare, and her lips drew thin. She ripped through the pages of the magazine, pages crunching in her grip. She stopped, lifted the magazine and shoved it at Nicks face. "Did you sleep with her?"
Pictured in the centre of the page was a tanned blonde. Emblazoned across the top of the page was the headline MORE SEXY GALS COME OUT OF THE WOODWORK WITH THEIR STEAMY TALES. Nick almost laughed. "What? No, of course not."
Maddie flipped the page. "What about her?" A fair-skinned girl with black hair beamed at Nick from the magazine.
The next magazine page ripped through the air. "Her?"
It was the brunette. Her crescent shaped blue eyes looked out at him. Somehow they'd captured her smouldering gaze in the picture. Nick hesitated. "No."
Maddie looked at him intensely. The tension left her face, and her lips parted slightly. "You did."
"What? No, I didn't!"
"Don't lie to me, Nick. I can tell."
Nick looked into Maddie's face. Her lips turned down at the corners, and tears brimmed in her eyes. Her skin, normally a tanned brown, looked almost translucent. She looked at him, and he felt her eyes begging him to tell her nothing had happened, that it was all a lie. He opened his mouth to tell her that. "I did," he whispered.
Tears spilled from Maddie's eyes. She turned away, took two steps toward the door and shrieked. She turned back, brandishing the magazine in a clenched fist. "How many more?" she screamed. "How many more are there!?"
"None," Nick said. Maddie strode back towards the door, then back. "It just happened once."
"Just once? JUST once!?" Maddie paced back and forth. She rapidly clenched and unclenched her hands. Her eyes turned a puffy red.
"Jesus Christ... we were on the road... it had been months since i'd seen you... I got lonely, then Wes brought her back... Christ, Maddie, what was I supposed to do?"
She whirled on him. "DO? What were you supposed to DO? All you had to DO was not f--k her!"
Nick walked forward and tried to wrap his arms around her. "It was nothing. It meant nothing." Maddie slapped him again. She swung the magazine at him but missed. Instead, her clenched fist hit his temple. One of her rings cut him, and blood spilled down his face. She pushed away and shoved a hand into a pocket. She withdrew her hand, holding a ring. Their engagement ring. She threw it at him. It bounced off Nick's face and rolled under the couch.
Nick walked towards her again. Maddie tried to hit him, but Nick moved quick and grabbed her arms. She struggled to try and get an arm free, then collapsed into Nicks embrace, sobbing. Her whole body shook. "Please don't do this," Nick whispered. "Please don't do this."
The door opened, and Maddie's parents walked in. Maddie pushed away from Nick and fell into her parents arms. David watched Nick icily. "I think you should leave," Roselyn said. Nick looked at the group for a moment. He walked past them, through the door and, moments later, out of their house.
There were more cameramen outside than before. Nick crossed the lawn, and the pack moved with him. He strode along the sidewalk. His temple itched, and he rubbed at it with his hand. He felt wetness, and looked at his hand. Blood pooled in his palm, then Nick remembered the sting when Maddie hit him. He walked faster.
A photographer got in front of him, walking backwards slowly. Nick tried to walk around him, but the man kept on cutting him off. Suddenly Nick hated the man. He jumped forward and punched the guy. Nick watched the man stumble back, then grabbed the camera from his hand and threw it as hard as he could at the ground. He stomped on it.
"Hey, what the f--k you do that for?" the photographer yelled. Nick punched him again. He ran down the street, around the corner and towards his car. He got there, and pulled away from the curb ahead of the pack reaching him. He sped around the corner and drove past Maddie's parents' house. It looked picturesque, like the photo a real estate agent might show a potential customer.
Nick turned the next corner and thought about heading for home. His phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out, and saw one new message. It was from Taylor. It read:
Meet us at gighouse. Wes and Andy coming 2. We need to tlk.
Nick put the phone back in his pocket and bashed a hand against the steering wheel. More talks I need to have, he thought. He drove towards the gighouse.
* * * Nick walked through the front door of the gighouse. A group of other local musicians had rented the house a few years ago and transformed it. Everyone who chipped into the costs could come and use it, either for practice in sound-proofed rooms or a private show. Nick had been in on it from the start, and had brought the other members of the Renegades in too. There were no photographers here.
Nick walked through the house, opening doors and glancing into rooms as he went. He heard a muffled sound in the drinks room, straight ahead, so he went there. He opened the door. Taylor, Wes and Andy sat around the table in the centre of the room. They all rose as Nick walked in. Taylor's right arm was held in a sling.
"Hey, Nick," Wes said.
"Hey guys," Nick said. He looked at each of his bandmates faces and grinned. None of them smiled back. "What's this about?"
"We need to talk," Taylor said.
Nick rubbed the cheek Maddie had slapped. "Heard that before," he muttered. "What do we need to talk about? And let's just cut to the chase, right? I've had enough of f--king around for today."
The other bandmates looked at each other. "Nick... we don't know if we can take the Renegades on with you," Andy said.
Nick hesitated. "What do you mean?" he said slowly.
Wes and Taylor tried to talk at the same time. They looked at each other, then Wes nodded to Taylor. "We've all had a talk," Taylor said. "And we think it's best if we go on without you."
"I mean, it's not as though we want to do this," Wes said. "It's just..."
"You've lost sight of the music," Taylor said.
"What? How have I lost sight of the music?" Nick stuttered. He looked wildly at each of the band members. "I'm ready to record and tour right now!"
"You're not," Taylor said gently. "I'm sorry, but you're not. We can't take much more of this. We're auditioning new guitarists from tomorrow. I'm sorry man, but we've made our decision. You need some time out. You need to learn to love your music again. Shit, i'm sure you'll make it again. I know it."
Nick looked at the Renegades. Wes and Andy shuffled and looked at their feet. Only Taylor was looking him in the eyes. "Whatever," Nick said. "Just... whatever... if you've decided... if it's for the band... ok. Ok." His eyes stung. He turned and headed for the door.
"We didn't want to do it like this man," Wes said. Nick didn't respond.
"All the best man!" Taylor called after him. Nick slammed the door on his way out of the room, then slammed the front door to the gighouse. He got in his car and started driving. There was no direction to where he went he didn't want to go home, so he drove aimlessly. After fifteen minutes he recognised a few of the houses, then realised he was driving near Maddie's house. He took a right turn, in the opposite direction, and headed that way. Thoughts flew through his head. He told himself the Renegades wouldn't find a new guitarist, they'd call him and tell him they needed him back. He told himself Maddie would come back, that she'd forgive him after she'd realised it was all a horrible mistake. He told himself that people would realise he didn't want their attention, that he needed the opposite, and that they'd all go away.
In the end, Nick pulled over at the side of the road, cut the engine and cried.
* * *
Three months later, Nick sat by himself on the stage at a local pub. It was jazz night, and he held a Catorce hollow body guitar. The stage lights shone down, but they weren't bright enough to block his view of the audience. A handful of people sat scattered around the room. When he'd first started playing here, the brunette had showed up, clapping enthusiastically after each song. She'd tried talking to him, but Nick had avoided her. This was the first night she hadn't showed.
Nick leaned forward into the microphone. "This song is called Cars'," he said. There was a smattering of applause, then silence. Nick played an intricate sweeping pattern, followed by a strummed G#m7b5. It was a fast paced song, and he began to sweat. He played one of the rhythm lines, which had several pauses. He added a second rhythm line into the mix, his hand a blur as he adjusted positions on the fretboard to play the alternating rhythms. Nick smiled as he pulled off a string skip with sliding tap, playing a three note per string pentatonic scale on the G and E strings, followed by the middle finger on his picking hand sliding between the 20th and 22nd frets before descending again.
Then the song was done, and though it was supposed to be five minutes long it felt like only moments to Nick. The crowd applauded again, but cut off quickly. The smile slid off Nicks face. The Renegades have just started their European tour, he thought. Nick cleared his throat, and leaned forward into the mic again. "Thanks. This next one is Verisimilitude'."
He leant back and was about to start when the bar door opened. Nick looked up. It was Maddie. She wore a long coat, and she hadn't swept her hair out from beneath the collar. She sat down at a table on the far side of the room and looked up, towards Nick. He almost smiled. He struck four times at muted strings. And he played music.