We were onto something. That was the general feeling among the group when the inevitable day's end came and the plug was pulled on yet another productive session: On the right track, not there yet. The almost four hour practice though yielding much fruit hadn't produced any concrete backbone from which a new song could be built. It didn't bother anybody. At least we were playing, progress from a month agoeven the small victories should be celebrated. This time I was determined not to let typical overcomplicated thoughts wear me down, borrowing a page from Mitchell's philosophy. Free flowing never should be seen as a bad thing. The trick now was not to become so laissez faire and let our minds atrophy. Although some students heavy into the liberal arts were sure to cry foul at such a thought, the mental attitude of "Hey man, shake off that old straitjacket and just chillax! Dig the vibe, yo" wouldn't get us far either. A fact everyone seemed to agree on as well. We closed down the night with a once-through of Rage, one of only two checkmarks on our to-do setlist in order to get ready for Thrash.
Mitchell was the first to leave, driving off under the gloomy cloud of a pending graveyard shift at what he referred to as "ye old 7-11 wannabe." To hear him describe it, you would be tempted to think the shanty stores on Slum Row were a safer place. Of course you had to sympathize with him in some regard. Poor guy, I said, watching his dim taillights travel over the breast of the Clark Street hill and out of sight. I couldn't imagine a more boring way to spend an evening than to point some gourmand with a dangerous bulging beer belly towards the fountain of melted plastic advertised as nacho cheese while some of Brentwood's more unscrupulous youngsters try to convince you they really are old enough to buy cigarettes. "Nah bro I really am nineteen, I just forgot my I.D. At home. Come on man, gimme a break," speaking in the dopiest voice I could mimic, eliciting gut-tossing gales of laughter from the others.
"Oh man." Jason wiped his eyes. "I think you just pissed off half the student body at Compton, no offense Kayla. Fk, that's funny." Kayla, caught in a hiccupping fit from her own hysterical episode didn't seem to be offended. Rather, she looked too preoccupied paying attention to me to notice anyone else was around. Attention that was both flattering and a bit unnerving. What did she think? Take your eyes off me for one second; I'm liable to vanish without a trace like some ghost? I could talk. My attention wasn't exactly focused on other things.
The sudden thunderclap of Adam's voice made me jump. "Damn! What, dude? Don't do that, you'll give me a heart attack!"
"He said from worlds away."
Adam blinked. "For the third time, watch where you're sitting. That cord looks ready to break right off your plug-in. You wanna bust your only amp?"
I followed where he pointed and saw the plug end of the cord bending steeply under my weight while I sat by its side, resting an elbow on one of its worn corners. The amp itself looked unsure whether to let itself be pulled over with the cord or just allow the thin jack to snap like a brittle twig. Cursing, I lifted my ass off the concrete, pushing the cord away before sitting back down. The plug-in relaxed, the amp was safe.
"That's better. This thing goes and I'm really up the creek."
"Where the heck did you go just now?"
Think, Richard, think. Fast! "Just thinking," was my answer. "About stuff, our songs, the contest, you know how it is."
"I see. Well, try to think with one ear open from now on, or you might not be so lucky next time."
"Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full sir." He didn't appreciate that, judging from the squinting frown. Hearing the word time, Jason checked his watch and, remarking that he should be heading off himself, packed his equipment and after completing a round of farewells and fist bumps, left. The downpour from earlier had subsided, no need to run this time, which he seemed appreciative of. Pulling off wind sprints with an amp in one hand a bass strapped to your back isn't that easy. And then there were three. We continued to shoot the breeze for a while, during which Kayla scooted over to me, touching my hand with some reservations which faded after Adam caught sight and told Kayla to quit being shy. "Relax. It's not like I'm going to start making kissy faces at you guys all the time now." He let her fingers lock with mine before adding, "I haven't got any mistletoe anyways."
Kayla blushed and made a playful swing for him. "Bite me!" she squeaked.
"What? And make Richard jea" He decided against finishing that second jab, lest one of us shove one of those drumsticks down his throator some other delicate place.
That was enough to make Kayla want to change the subject, and fast. "How many songs we need to have for the Thrash, do you remember?" she asked.
Adam thought. "Well, all I got from the guy I talked to at Murphy's was the twenty-minute time limit. Didn't say diddly about the number of songs allowed, just twenty minutes and you're off."
(No, Richard, you're not imagining things. He really said it.) Boy, the subconscious chooses the strangest things to focus on. "Diddly, Adam? Really now, what are we, six years old?"
He of course ignored my interruption, continuing to call up more memories without having to bother going to get the info sheet from inside the house. "Oh, and the one cover rule, too. Guess they don't want a night of tribute to this or that. Fair enough. I wouldn't want that either."
"Ditto," Kayla added. "If I wanna hear a bunch of psy posers belt out butchering of Every Rose Has Its Thorn' and the like, I'll go to school." Oh man, this girl just doesn't hold back, I thought, watching her with gleeful admiration. I love it! Perhaps tired of constantly being shoved aside to make room for less helpful thoughts, the logical part of me spoke upshouted more likein order to be heard, asking what outsiders might have viewed as a fair question:
(You find her belligerence attractive? Why?)
I however viewed it as a nuisance. Not now, I told myself and forced it back into the mental recesses from whence it came. This isn't the time or place to be thinking such things. Before the door to the battered cage of denial slammed shut, it fought back with one final swipe.
(You won't be able to keep running. Nothing stays buried forever.) Oh yeah? Well, we'll just see about that. "I kind of feel like a coffee right now," I said, kicking that door shut. I didn't really, though I was never averse to one. Anything to shift focus onto more important things, that's all I wanted. To my surprise, Adam voiced agreement. He even suggested we continue this conversation over at Contrast once equipment was safely packed away and he was permitted to shower and change beforehand. "Eau de Drummer ain't too attractive a scent," he quipped. And they say my jokes are bad.
"Uh," Kayla said, her smile beginning to fade. "I can't."
"Why not," I started, noticing her grip on my hand was tightening. "It's not that late?"
"I know. But II just can't."
Adam chimed in. "Ah, your parents of the weekend only school of thought? Or you got other things already planned?"
"A little bit of both. You know." Well no Kayla, I don't know, I thought, puzzled by her abrupt change of mood. By now, any traces of her former smile had been wiped clean off her face as if someone somewhere had pushed an erase button. Then she got up and gathered her stuff together, poking at her still drying jacket with a cautious finger as if the thing was liable to reach out and bite her finger off without warning. After scowling some more, she picked it up, letting the pooled water run down the back into a nearby bucket and slipped it on, the scowl deepening all the while. "Bleecch," she muttered.
"Do you want a different coat?" Adam asked. "I got more than a few kicking around my closet. They might be a bit big, but you're welcome to one for tonight."
"No no, I'll be fine, thanks. I've had worse," she answered, before throwing her arms around me. I didn't say anything about the wet imprint her sleeves left along my back. "I'll see you guys next time." And then she was gone. I watched the darkness envelop her figure as she walked off.
Adam watched, flashing a cheeky smile when he saw my face, as though fighting a desire to say "Aw, no hug for me?" What he actually said was, "She's an interesting one. Hell of a good shredder, but an odd one."
"Don't I know it? Wonder what got into her just then?"
"Not a clue. She always gets that way though when we wrap things up. Guess she really likes being part of the band." Adam picked up the large paint-marred sheet used to cover his kit between practices, unfolded and threw it over the kit. A cymbal clanged briefly as the large sheet drifted down and settled.
"She probably shouldn't be walking home alone in the dark like this," he added.
"Eh? It's not that late," I said. "Besides, she's done it before and lived to play another day."
"Richard." The expression on his face, a 'let's not be coy here' smirk, said it perfectly. Then it hit me for the first time how far over my head his original point had gone. "Just go. You know you want to." For a moment, I pondered exactly how many of the members in Systex possessed some hidden psychic talent. The likelier explanation was that I was a lot more transparent than I liked to think. Right on cue, he said, "I'll catch up with you at Contrast." Like he knew right from the get-go I would come up with some kind of lame bluff.
"I owe you, dude," I said, grabbing my hoodie, almost shooting out the door.
"Yeah yeah," he called back, chuckling. "Remember: Dash of nutmeg on my latte, none of that cinnamon crap!"
It didn't take very long for me to catch up to Kayla about two blocks east of The Garage. With no streetlights in close proximity, trying to spot her from even a few feet away would have been a challenge were it not for her pink hair cutting through the dark like a neon firefly. "Hey!" I yelled as soon as I saw the color break. She didn't slow down, didn't even turn towards me. Her pace began to quicken, like she wanted to get away from me. "What the hell? Hey!" I yelled again. It would've been an understatement to say I was a little caught off guard to watch her raise a certain finger in my direction. "Whoa, Kayla, save that for somebody who deserves it!"
That last one finally made her glance over her shoulder. Recognition set in at once. "Richard?" Immediately she stopped and allowed me to catch up to her. "What are you doing here? I thought you and Adam were heading to Contrast?" It was the first time I hadn't seen her smile upon seeing me in almost two weeks and it caught me off guard. The explanation I planned to give lost all meaning, falling apart into a jumbled mess of untranslatable gibberish.
"We are. Not now, in a bit. Before we do, I wanteduh, that is, we were talking and I-well, Adam too. We wanted to make sure you made it safely back to your place. I'll meet him there later." Factoring in the outdoor temperature along with the speed at which my heart was beating, I guessed it would take anywhere from two to ten seconds before my face matched her hair color.
Kayla looked at me for a long time, perhaps trying to gauge whether I was yanking her chain or not. "But, my house is in the opposite direction of Contrast."
"You'll be covering twice the distance."
"Exercise is never a bad thing."
"It could start to rain again."
"It's Brentwood, it always rains." Good lord, how much longer was she going to play this game? For a second, I wanted to ask whether I was just wasting my time, as well as hers.
I got my answer when her lips curled in a tiny smile. "Cute." She resumed walking towards whichever part of town she called home, and I stuck right by her side, needing no further cue. The journey was largely uneventful and silent, and not in one of those there's nothing much to say' ways. Something was definitely on that girl's mind; a suspicion self-confirmed when my pace eclipsed her, leaving me almost half a block ahead. "Like your exercise, huh?" was all she said after walking back to her, flustered and more puzzled than before. My natural speed was higher than normal to begin with, a fact usually attributed to having longer legs. Most people had to chug along at a slow jog just to keep even, but I never got this far ahead even with the slower ones. There was more to it than just an unwillingness to hang up the guitar for the day. The question waswhat, exactly?
"I like being in the band with you," she said after walking a bit further. Her fingers brushed against mine.
"I like you too," I replied, trying to believe it was the cold air making my face prickle. "You're alright." ... Fk! Idiot! As with many an awkward moment in life, saying the first thing that came to mind only made me want to slap myself. F-king band, she said! And that's the first place you go to? Idiot!
Kayla seemed to delight in my faux pas. "Thanks... but I think I'll pretend you said cute instead. Save you the trouble of trying to backpedal." She laughed at the apparent relief and embarrassment washing over me. Oh, Cupid, you mischievous little runt, you. Her laugh was short lived, coming to a halt just shy of the crosswalk. "Home sweet home," she said, and then snorted. I looked over at the house she pointed to, using great effort to avoid voicing the disgust rising in me.
The bungalow was reminiscent of the sort of housing one expected to find along the fringes of Slum Row and Hillbilly Boulevard. Broken screen door resting against a boarded up window. The shaggy, weeded lawn looking more like a formless dark quagmire under the street's lone lamppost, swallowing all but the bare outline of a cracked blacktop driveway. Discarded beer cans protruding from a large bin. All that's missing is a toilet in the front lawn and a stereo spitting out a butchered rendition of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. I'd have started in with a mocking "Hey, hey, hey! I was born a rebel, down in Dixie..." if I wasn't so put off by the sight before me.
"You live there?" Sometimes there's no genteel way to otherwise phrase a question.
"Quaint little place, ain't it?" If Kayla was sad before, now she looked downright miserable. "Huh. The board wasn't there this morning. He got that fixed quick."
"Talking about your dad?"
Another snort came out. "If you wanna call him that," she mumbled, dropping a gob of spit on the pavement dangerously close to my shoe. Don't frown, I thought, get over yourself right now. "Wonder how many tonight?"
"Forget it, just thinking out loud." She tried to smile at me, and did a terrible job. Who could blame her? If I was a praying man, I'd have dropped to one knee and started reciting the entire rosary.
Managing little more than a weak chuckle, she spoke again. "Yeah, you can tell why I don't talk about much other than music when at practice. Or why I'd rather let myself get soaked than take Mitch or Adam up on their offers to drop me off." It was no accident she neglected to mention Jason among the others.
"So," I started, reluctant to complete the sentence. Well, I've already opened my mouth, I'm stuck now. "That's why you ignored me in the beginning? And didn't seem all too keen on me walking you back to your place?" The words didn't have enough time to settle before I added, as if bracing to prevent a sudden backlash, "I get it. I'm not mad or anything."
She blinked. Apparently the thought never clicked with her. "What? No, I didn't recognize your voice at first, wasn't paying attention; figured you were just another jock-sniffing wolf whistler from Central." Her face fell again. "Sorry. Plus you can probably tell why, you know?" She gave the slightest nod towards the ramshackle shanty. "Besides, you're different, more than just one of the guys. You seem capable of certain discretion."
I let that run through my mind, pretending to be less embarrassed than I was. Jock-sniffing wolf whistler... Not bad, kind of a catchy rhythm. And I did understand, maybe not completely, but enough to breathe some fresh perspective on the enigma that was Kayla Morton. Complete and total forgiveness might still elude for now. Neither of us would mind. The memory loop no longer played those particular films in searing red, instead showing any and all past transgressions of hers in a new light. Getting angry now seemed beyond petty. Of course I'm capable of discretion, I'm not that insensitive. But what did that say about the other guys?
"I appreciate you, Richard. I got it from here though. The old man isn't friendly towards-"
"-Guys my age?" I asked, not entirely sure whether to feel flattered, offended, or both.
"People, period; though I'd bet my guitar you're right, too. See you tomorrow?"
"Well seeing as how I live there for now, yeah, I'm afraid you'll have to put up with me, sorry."
Self-depreciating jab aside, she seemed a little comforted, putting down her case and leaning towards me with outstretched arms. Her lips twitched again in that little smile I was quickly coming to adore. No sooner had she put her arms around me, we were bathed in blinding white. Elongated shadows crawled up the rows of shrubbery behind us like two bloodthirsty monsters of the night, zeroing in on the unsuspecting evening meal. The silhouette of a parked car reflected against the shine, its high-beams trained on us like a powerful spotlight plucking two prison escapees from the otherwise safe confines of darkness. More alarmed than aggravated, I waved and yelled at the car, squinting into the brilliant abyss. Whether he heard me or not was irrelevant; the flailing seemed to make my point known: Kill the lights, jackass! And so they were without requiring further prompting.
When my eyes adjusted from the illuminating assault, Kayla was gone. It hadn't struck me before when she let go of me, reacting to the shock of having the world get a whole lot brighter. Instead of perhaps protecting her eyes, she'd taken off like a frightened deer. I looked across the walk, spying the briefest glimpse of her ducking into that horrible excuse for a hillbilly home, the door closing behind her.
The stereo momentarily ceased spewing the warbling country twangs, resuming a moment later at a volume sure to piss the entire street off. My concern wasn't alleviated. But what could I do? Nothing that would help, that's for sure. Nor did I have any right to. Out of options, I readied to begin the hopefully uneventful walk uptown to Contrast, wondering how long Adam would be kept waiting for me. Perhaps I should re-examine my transportation priorities, I thought, taking a step forward, tripping and tumbling to the ground below, expecting to embrace pavement for the second time in as many weeks and instead collapsing on something hard and rectangular, a rounded corner digging into the fleshy part of my thigh. It hurt, but not in the way I expected. No grating of flesh against speckled cement, no burning, no warm river of spilled blood; rather a heavy thump against the ribcage, the wind knocking out of me.
"What the hell?" I groaned, lifting my head and reaching underneath my chest. Dim as the lone street light was, it was enough to make out some kind of scribbling not far from my face. At first I thought that empty-headed DABOMBMEISTER had progressed to a new low, before realizing this penmanship was different. Neater, tighter, and a hell of a lot more creative than any street slang accentuated with that ever-painful "bi-otch" bullshit. The Sharpie ink was a near perfect camouflage against the porous polymer preventing my body from becoming better acquainted with the sidewalk. It took some effort to make out the full line once I lifted myself up: "Like having hands? Keep 'em off my case!"
Now I didn't know what to think. She forgot her guitar? No, that was absurd. One does not simply 'forget' one's instrument even if one has been startled silly. Doing so is the kind of mistake that even the newest of wannabes wouldn't dream of making. Lose a pick or two, sure. Forget to pack a backup set of strings, silly but forgivable. Forget the entire fking instrument? Sin! And Kayla was smarter than that, too. It was then that it dawned on me the possibility, never mind how juvenile or ridiculous, that it wasn't an accident. In truth, that was a harder thought to reconcile, far as she was concerned. At first I wanted to just take it with me to Contrast, keep it safe with me. Bad idea, it felt heavy enough, lugging it almost three kilometer walk to town, not to mention up that bitch of a hill, wasn't the sort of exercise I was interested in. The next thought: take it back to The Garage, keep it safe until tomorrow, no way would I let it just sit out here on the sidewalk, practically screaming "Steal Me!" That it was a lesser-known brand most shredders tended to sneer at was irrelevant. A guitar is a guitar is a guitar, I'd once heard. It seemed childish at the time. Then again, didn't someone else once say that children were a lot smarter than given credit? Still, it wasn't going to be left sitting here in the hopes that some Good Samaritan might just perchance come a-strolling down the road, spy the case and endeavor to locate its owner.
The car responsible for my temporary blindness continued to sit there while I walked towards the house, case in hand.
The stereo volume drowned out the first knock. The second and the third were also unsuccessful. It took locking both hands together and, going against the worrywart in me, tiny though he was, pounding on the door hard enough to turn the skin red. It was enough to kill the tunes and bring forth a burst of muffled yelling, the amount of F's involved enough to draw a "whoa now, just a minute there," from even the most colorful a linguist. The momentary shock settled in for the long term when the door popped open without warning, bringing me face to face with a heavily whiskered, obese monstrosity, glaring at me behind dirty spectacles.
"What the hell do you want?" he barked with stale beer breath assaulting all of my senses. It was hard to tell where fat ended and muscles began on this behemoth.
What I wanted was to just drop the case and book it towards Contrast. But that no longer seemed like an available option.