Chapter One

Her lips are soft; I can tell just by looking. They’re shameless but timid. They’re waiting, begging for mine.

Wait, I need to back up.

There’s this girl getting in my face, one with not nearly as attractive lips. “You rug lickin’ dyke!”

Wait, wait, wait. That’s still not the place to start. Okay, let’s go to the beginning of that evening, the evening I met Jaselle.

I’m in my alley, passing the time by walking up and down the parking space line like I’m doing a roadside sobriety test. I’ll do anything to take the focus off my ice cube limbs. The back door opens and Benny sticks his balding head out.

“Rainn, you only got fifteen minutes left. You know that, right?”

“I know, Benny. I know.”

“Where are they then?”

“They’re coming.” God, I hope they’re coming.

“I got people lined up after you, you know? You’re going to throw my whole night off again.” The door closes before I can say anything. Poor Benny. If he wasn’t so attached to us losers, he’d have told us never to come back a long time ago. Although, I guess he does get us for a pretty good price: free.

Jayden swings wide around the corner in his beater pickup, the back of which is spilling over with drums, amplifiers, cords, and all kinds of other miscellaneous crap. Alex and Shiloh comprise part of the “miscellaneous crap,” trying to keep everything balanced and nearly falling out themselves.

“You’re late.”

“We don’t go on for fifteen minutes.” Jayden slides out of the driver’s seat, and I see the most probable reason they’re late. His foot-tall Mohawk is in excellent condition and freshly dyed red.

“When’s the last time you set up that fast?”

“Will you just grab the snare?”

We set up at Mach 3 and still don’t even come close to being ready in time, but Benny is a pal, so the house music blares while we finish up and the band in the slot after us gets bumped. Not a good way to make friends.

We’re regulars here, and so are the Chapel-rats, so we get some cheers when I finally lean in to the mic.

“We’re the Suicidal Angels.”

The music pulses through me so loud my teeth are rattling. I don’t have to think about the words I’m singing anymore. They just come out. I try to think about them, though, to stay in the moment and feel every note, every syllable, every subtlety, to connect to those secrets woven beneath the surface that are so much more than the simple vibrations.

But every time I start to slip away into that erotic dimension of pain and instinct, I’m drawn back by Alex, who’s wandering off the beat every eighth measure; Shiloh, who’s jumping around with his bass like a lunatic, wrapping himself up in the cord to the point there’s no way he won’t eat shit; or Jayden, talented Jayden, who’s not so much messing up as much as ignoring the song completely and playing whatever he damn well pleases.

And now I suck too because I’m not in the music anymore. Now I’m chewing Jayden out in my head, telling him how hard I slave writing this music, how many times I’ve begged him to help but he never does. No, he’s not creative until he’s on stage playing on a whim and sounding like hell because of it.

Still, the rats are jumping around in a state of intoxicated, brain cell stunted glee. It’s all the same to them. “I’m talking to myself again, echoes of insanity,” I sing.

Finally, the pain is over. The show is done, and it felt more like public humiliation than performing. We head to the bar for shots. It takes all of three seconds for Jayden to be in the center of an adoring circle of tramp stamp bearing underage females. He’s always surrounded by girls. He’s hot, I guess, if you like red Mohawks.

They’re asking about the scar above his eye, which is a slash through his eyebrow where the hair won’t grow back.

His story: “I was snowboarding in New Zealand with Shaun White. He dared me to hit this wicked rail. He was too chickenshit to do it ’cause it was getting icy. I was doing this sick tailslide and wiped out. Hit my face on the rail. Had a concussion. It knocked me out for five minutes. Shaun was flippin’ out.”

The girls ooh and ah, and he gets laid later.

Real story: Jayden, Alex, Shiloh, and I are piled in the pickup. Jayden finally caved and let Alex drive because only Alex knows where we’re going. He has friends in the mountains having a party we can’t miss.

The party has already started. We’re all inebriated and far beyond responsible driving capabilities. We’ve each eaten a handful of mushrooms and are seeing things that aren’t there.

The radio is blasting one of Alex’s favorite songs. He gets so worked up in a drunken steering wheel drumming session that he mistakes the brake pedal for a kick drum. He slams the brakes so hard Jayden flies out of the passenger seat and smashes face-first into the windshield.

He does not have a concussion. He does not lose consciousness. No one is flipping out. Actually, we’re all laughing hysterically.

The girls think he’s a moron, and Alex and Shiloh get laid. Needless to say, Jayden tells his story.

“Look who’s here.” Alex nods at the door.

“Shit.” It’s this major pain in the neck named Bianca. Every time she’s here she makes sure to come ruffle my feathers. I don’t know how I got on her bad side, but she’s relentless.

Like there’s a Rainn detector in her brain, her eyes lock on to me. I already know there’s no way to avoid the confrontation that’s waltzing toward me on stilettos, freshly ripped out of a Jersey Shore episode.

“I thought I told you to quit coming in here,” she says.

“Fuck you, bitch.” Yes, I know, my wit is dazzling. We’re close to a table where two women are just trying to enjoy a couple beers. I notice her immediately but am way too caught up in the Bianca situation.

Bianca shoves her whole body up against mine, our noses nearly touching. “Take your no-talent scrubs to another spot. We’re tired of hearing your dumb asses.” I laugh and give my friends a “what the hell is she doing” look.

“That’s not sinking in for you, bitch? Listen, no one wants your disgusting fag ass in here.” Yeah, we’re up to speed. Bianca is the female with the not so attractive lips.

“You rug lickin’ dyke!”

I’m not supposed to fight with the customers. I have to stay cool.

She spits in my face.

She spits in my face. (Just making sure you’ve got the picture) She spits a big ol’ wad of saliva in my face.

My fist acts of its own accord. It winds back and swings without asking my permission. It lands with vicious force, not disrupted along the way by anything, no arms flying, no grazing off her because she managed to move a little, nothing. Pure connection.

It sends her to the ground. I’m on top of her before I know it, my knee in her chest, my fist beating her face repeatedly. Blood is coming from somewhere. Her entire face is covered with it. I swing again, but finally something prevents me from annihilating her.

A strong arm wraps around me and pulls. It’s Jayden. He lifts me all the way to my feet and bouncers take over from there. They drag me, kicking and raging, to the door and give me a shove that knocks me to the gravel outside. The boys are already piling out after me laughing.

Then Benny comes out. “Settle down, girl.”

They’re high-fiving, nothing like a Friday night chick fight to paste smiles on their faces. I get up and dust myself off, then shove Benny.

“What’s so fucking funny? How could you bounce me and not her?”

“Hey, she’s not exactly in there drinking it up,” he says. “She’s trying to find her face, and then she’ll be going to St. Joseph’s to have them reattach it, okay?”

“Whatever.”

“Look, someone is going to call the cops over this, and when they get here what am I supposed to say? That the chick on the floor with the crushed skull is to blame? She started it, Officer, I swear? It won’t matter. You have to get out of here.”

“But, Benny—”

“I know. I heard what she said. I saw her spit at you, okay? I know, babe. And I’m glad you did what you did. I just don’t want you getting in trouble.” He slaps me on the back like he’s a coach.

“Go on, get. Take that bloody shirt off too.” He tosses me his T-shirt, which leaves him in his undershirt, round belly bulging. I change right there in the street and get a whistle from Shiloh.

“Fuck off.”

Jayden comes and gives me a hug. “You need a ride?”

I can’t help but laugh a little. “Who needs a ride to nowhere?”

He smiles and gives me a punch on the arm before he turns to go back inside. It’s times like this I wish I did have a place, times like this when the romanticized image of the struggling musician from the back alley turns into the idiot bum who should have at least picked a fuckin’ beach to be homeless on, not cold ass Denver.

I go around the building to retrieve my coat from the alley. I crouch down and start digging in the small storage space that contains all my possessions. I hear music spill out of the Chapel behind me. People aren’t supposed to come out the back door, and since the back door leads to my domain, I find it more irritating than most people expect. But when I turn around to chew out the offender, I stop short.

She’s stunning. She has tattoos covering the majority of both of her arms, not sleeves though, individual tattoos. And she has dreadlocks. Long, dark, perfect dreadlocks, if there is such a thing as perfect dreadlocks. If you asked me five minutes ago to conjure up my ideal female, it would not have sounded like this, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been so attracted to someone. And the second I see her I know with absolute certainty she is about to change my life.

“Can I help you?” My voice comes out sharper than I wanted, residual effects of my initial irritation.

She shakes her head only once and digs in her pockets. She finds what she’s after and emerges with cigarettes. She lights one with a match. The orange glow reflects in her eyes. She shakes the match out and exhales.

“Need one?” I notice the word “need” immediately. She didn’t say “want one,” but why? Because my shoe sole is a free hanging flap and she assumes I can’t afford my own? I take the cigarette she’s offering and lean into the match she lights. As I lean toward her, I catch a whiff of a heart-stopping scent, strong, smooth, warm. I’m halfway through a Newport before I remember I don’t smoke.

I allow myself to drift away for a moment before a faint but unmistakable sound disturbs the air. Sirens. And I know they’ll only get closer. I sigh loudly and turn to tell her I have to go, but when my eyes make it to hers, she smiles just a little and nudges her head toward the front of the building.

“You need a place to crash?” I force a smile. There’s that word again. I want to go so bad, but not like that. “I got some wine at home,” she adds.

I return my smelly coat to the storage space and stand up with a grin. She smiles. It’s over when she smiles. She leads me back around front to the parking lot.

My stomach lurches when two cop cars pull up as we’re walking away, but she appears to be unperturbed. She puts her cigarette between her lips as she opens the door to a ninety-something Toyota Celica and slips inside. She leans across the car and unlocks the passenger door for me. I take a last look at the Chapel, the flashing red and blue lights, flick away my cigarette, and sink into the passenger seat.

Inside the car, it seems like a different world. Yes, the lights are still flashing behind us, but I’m no longer vulnerable to them. It’s all a big joke now. The only thing to remind me it even happened is my torn and bloody knuckles, throbbing deliciously.

She pulls out of the Chapel’s parking lot. Her Celica jerks eagerly. She’s so relaxed I wonder for an instant if she realizes they were there for me. Of course, she does. Aside from the knowing look when the sirens were closing in, we’d crashed into her table for Christ’s sake. That reminds me, she’d been there with a chick.

I steal a glance. She’s so friggin’ beautiful I still haven’t gotten over the awe factor.

“So, where’d your girl go?” I ask.

“She wasn’t my girl, and I imagine she probably went home.” I try to stop myself from smiling but can’t.

I catch myself zoning out watching the road zip by. I try to pay attention to where we’re going and am vaguely aware we’re heading over the borders of my part of town. I can breathe easier here.

When she parks, I feel like I’m waking up from a nap. She’s stopped in front of a cozy looking five-story building. I get out and follow her up the stairs, admiring the stone lions on either side as I pass.

We’re uptown now, not in the richest of neighborhoods, but a few steps over the Chapel for sure. She appears beside me and finds her key. Again, her warm smell overwhelms me.

“Well?” she asks. I step inside. Where does she live? Top floor? First? She leads me around the corner and starts down some stairs. Basement. I follow along behind her. She stops in front of a door at the end of the hall.

“I should probably warn you, I have a roommate.” Her face tightens with anxiety as she says it.

“Okay. That’s cool.” I don’t have to tell you I’d rather be alone with her, but I smile anyway and try to seem nonchalant.

She turns the key and creaks the door open. She steps in so quietly it feels like we’re sneaking in. I guess we might be.

“Jaselle?” It’s a man’s voice from another room. She sighs and looks at me apologetically before answering.

“Yeah, it’s me.” There’s a short hallway that is the entrance into the place, and to the left an open door reveals a room in disarray. There’s a mattress on the floor, One Love posters on the walls, clothes everywhere, and dishes littering the ground. I know instantly this is the roommate’s room. It has man written all over it. Around the corner to the right, the place opens up into a much bigger living space than I would have guessed.

The most conspicuous thing in this room is the man lying stretched across a brown couch in a torn, fringed, and faded bathrobe far beyond its lifespan. He’s already starting to sit up when we come in, but when he sees me he shoots to attention.

“Who the fuck is that?” He flings his arm my way.

“This is, uh—”

“Rainn,” I say. Nice, she doesn’t even know my name.

Rainn? Damn it, Jaselle, you can’t just bring home any trash you want. What’s the matter with you? Where did you get her?”

“She’s not a stray dog, Noah, she’s a friend. Relax.”

“Who do you think you’re fooling?”

Jaselle stares him down, grabs my arm, and pulls me into the kitchen. “Here, sit.” She pats the counter, then goes to work running my bloody hand under the faucet.

“You don’t have to do that,” I say.

She looks at me. “Hey, don’t worry about him. He’s an idiot.”

“I can hear you,” Noah says from the couch.

“He can’t help it,” Jaselle continues with a grin. “Dementia runs in his family.”

Noah appears from around the corner. “I’m not crazy. I’m enlightened.” He comes to get a closer look. “Oh, that’s wonderful, she’s getting blood everywhere.”

“Shut up already, Noah, Jesus. She got in a fight.”

“How barbaric.”

“It’s not like I started it,” I say.

“Are you really that weak-minded? Violence is ignorant. Reverting to the ways of the caveman.”

“I told you, I didn’t start it.”

“What difference does that make? Thank God you’ll never be president. Every time someone pisses you off you’d just nuke them.”

“I hardly think that’s the—”

“She’s a savage, Jaselle. Look at her.”

“I was there. The bitch got what was coming to her.” Jaselle turns the water off and pours two glasses of the promised red wine.

“You’re both savages,” Noah says.

“Well, we savages are going to bed.” Jaselle hands me a glass, grabs my free hand, and guides me out of the kitchen. We turn the corner to the hall I had already predicted to be Jaselle’s section of the apartment. It’s like a different universe from the hall we entered through.

There are paintings covering every inch of wall from the hallway all the way into her bedroom, hundreds of them, big and small, hung and stacked and leaning.

“Wow. What are all these?”

“They’re mine. I can’t afford a studio for all this right now. Sorry about the clutter.”

“Sorry? They’re amazing. You painted these?”

“Yeah, but trust me, I’d rather they weren’t here. I need to sell them.”

I’m aware of Jaselle shuffling things around behind me, doing I’m not sure what, but I’m preoccupied with browsing the walls. The colors are striking. The scenes are somehow sad. I feel like I just dropped into Wonderland.

“They’re beautiful.” Jaselle doesn’t seem to mind when I leave her room again to look at the paintings in the hall. Each is more intriguing than the last. They pull me farther and farther down the hallway until I’m at a second door. It’s open just a little, and through the crack of space I catch a glimpse of it, a grand piano, cherry wood finish, curved legs, intricate hand carvings. I’m craning my neck for a better look when Jaselle startles the stealth right out of me.

“Go on in.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, come on.”

I circle the flawless piano, afraid to touch it, certain I’m imagining it. “Do you play?” I ask.

“Nope. My grandmother left it to me.”

“It’s spectacular.”

She must notice I’m salivating over it. “I’m told it has a beautiful sound,” she says. Instinctively, I go to it and hold my fingers over the keys.

“Play something,” Jaselle says.

“You sure? It won’t irritate your roommate?”

“I’m sure it will, but if we live in accordance with Noah we won’t be allowed to do anything but smoke weed and draw peace signs.”

I sit down and take a deep breath. I’m nervous. It’s been a while since I could say that. Besides the fact that I have a gorgeous woman watching me, I’m unsure of my abilities. Back in my little alley, all I have to work with is a not so glorious hundred-dollar keyboard I can only power by jacking Benny’s electricity. And here I have the most beautiful antique grand piano I’ve ever seen. Completely different animals. The keys of a piano are heavier and a little wider. Aside from aesthetics the differences are subtle, but can still spell catastrophe for muscle memory.

I decide something short, slow, and pretty is a good way to go, so I start playing Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28 No. 2, one of my favorites. Once I’m past the first measure my fingers take over, and the rest of the room melts away.

Then I feel her arms slip around me, her breath in my hair. I press the last note and spin around on the bench.

She doesn’t back away. “You’re really good.”

Her lips are soft, I can tell just by looking. They’re shameless but timid. They’re waiting, begging for mine.

 

Chapter Two

Something about not being on my own, well, pavement, keeps me half-awake all night. The soft pastels of sunrise are only just creeping in, and I’m staring at the ceiling with a titanic knot in my stomach. I can hear Jaselle breathing next to me though I refuse to look at her.

Instead, I look out her window, which is three-quarters of 
the way up the wall since we’re in the basement. It feels like it’s a mile away. The view is overgrown weeds and some kid’s bicycle wheel.

I sit up slowly, in microscopic increments so as not to wake her. Once I’m up, I notice the weakness and dehydration that comes from drinking. I don’t have a headache, though. I didn’t drink nearly enough to get sick, and still there’s this nauseous squeezing in my throat. What have I done?

The night comes back to me in flashes, Bianca’s spit landing on my cheek, the moldy pizza on Noah’s floor, Jaselle’s breath in my ear, her thighs around my neck, the warmth of her kiss. Too warm. Way too warm. I have to get out of here.

I ease out of bed and start putting on my clothes. My heart is pounding like waking her will detonate every nuclear missile in the world. I’m missing a sock and using every ounce of my energy to calm my frantic search. I’m certain I’m going to wake her up. Finally, I say screw the sock and put my shoe on without it.

I stand in the doorway for a minute, looking at her finally. Something about her pulls me toward her in a way I’ve never felt. She’s a magnet, and I’m metal. I’m certain it must be exactly that, not the other way around.

I roll my eyes when I notice the wood floors. Last night they looked nice, but now they look like a never-ending death trap. No matter how slow and careful I step, I can still hear the tap of my shoe, and as I shift my weight there’s a steady groan. It takes me ten minutes to cross the living room.

I feel that thunder in my chest again as I turn the corner. Noah’s bedroom stands between me and freedom. I take long, painstaking strides past his open door. He’s facedown on his mattress. His muffled snores are steady.

I put my hand on the doorknob, squeeze my eyes shut, and turn it. It sounds like someone crumpling up a newspaper. Noah stops snoring. I stop moving, frozen, petrified. Then he starts again. I let out a huge breath of relief and cram myself out the tiny opening I’ve made.

Outside, the wind is blowing, making what should have been a warm day sharp and cold. I curse myself for not bringing my stupid coat. So what if it’s dirty and ripped?

I walk fast like she’s going to come get me until I’m off her street. Then I start laughing like a crazy person. I can’t stop. What an absurd fear, that someone’s going to come after me. Then the tears come. I can’t put my finger on what it is, that she’s going to wake up and think I played her, that I’m running from something I should want, or the irrational terror that she’s actually going to chase me. No one is chasing you, Rainn. No one will ever chase you.

I take a deep breath and wipe my face, then turn my attention to figuring out where I am and how to get home. Why didn’t I pay better attention on the way here? I pick a direction and walk, hoping something along the way will jog my memory. I call this psychic walking, letting intuition take over and hoping for the best. It usually works out.

But today it doesn’t, of course. I’m walking and walking and nothing seems familiar. Eventually, I do what I should have done from the beginning and stop at a gas station to ask for directions. The relief of walking inside makes me want to just curl up and stay here. My hands and arms have this nice pattern of purple going on, like the shadow of water. My knuckles have cracked back open and are bleeding again.

I walk around like I’m doing something for a minute, stalling so I can warm up. The cashier is eyeing me. I don’t know how people know you don’t belong, but they always do.

I go up to him. “Hey, I’m trying to get downtown, 20th and Welton-ish.”

He smirks at me. “Well, you’re all fucked up then.” He rolls out some blank receipt paper and goes to work drawing a map. It’s never a good sign when the directions are so extensive they need to draw. He turns it around for me to examine and starts going over all the different ways I might choose to go. They all boil down to one thing: you should have found your sock.

I thank him and take the map. Outside again, I notice a pay phone and think really hard about calling Jayden to ask for a rescue. I despise doing that, though, and the sun is starting to get higher, so it should be warming up. One day in the dead of winter I’ll need that call more, and I’m mad at him about last night still anyway, so I start walking again.

Three hours later, I can see the beat-up sign that reads “Blue Moon” with a cheesy crescent moon shaping the second o, which doesn’t even make sense. That’s what the bar is really called. Only the guys and I call it the Chapel. I said it one day and it just stuck. It always seemed so much more appropriate.

Jayden’s pickup is parked in front. I close those last few yards to the bar, take out my key, and let myself in. Benny and the band are all here. They’re on their feet and all over me the second I step inside.

“Rainn!” “Where have you been?” “Where did you go?” The questions are a barrage. Benny seems genuinely concerned while the others are more curious than anything.

“I need a drink.” My throat is on fire from the walk and the dry, chilled air. I meant water, but Benny slips a rum and Coke in my hand. I take a sip. The warmth of the rum runs down my arms while the Coke is the most refreshing thing I’ve ever tasted. Brilliant bartender, Benny.

They’re already set up for practice. I must be really late. I go grab Jayden’s guitar, sit on the stool in front of the mic, and absentmindedly start tuning it for him.

“Heeel-looo,” Alex draws it forever. “Rainn, what happened?”

“I went home with some girl.” I try to sound as casual as possible, hoping if I sound like it’s not worth talking about, 
they won’t drill me. Alex and Shiloh start whooping like third graders.

“Ohhhh, some girl, huh? Which one, player?” Shiloh says.

“The one with the dreads.”

“Oh, yeah? She was hot. How come you get better pussy than I do?”

“Who says I got any?” Alex and Shiloh look at each other for half a second and then burst out laughing.

“Come on, tell us what happened. Was it good? We want to know!”

“No, no, no. We’ve got work to do, guys, come on. Get your shit.” They moan and groan but eventually move to their instruments. Jayden is still sitting at the bar, unusually quiet. I go over and give him his guitar.

“Let’s go. Only a month ’til Brad comes in.”

He takes his guitar from me reluctantly. “I think we’re ready,” he says.

“I don’t.”

“You never do.”

“Last night sucked. You know that.”

“I was just trying something new. That’s what artists do, not stick to some rigid formula like a paint-by-numbers.”

“The stage is not the place to be creative, practice is. When we’re on stage we need to be on it,” I say.

“The show needs some life. You can’t just stand there and deliver the same crap the exact same way all the time. No wonder we aren’t getting anywhere. I’m bored by us, and I’m in the band.”

“People want to hear good music, Jayden. Jumping around and acting crazy is great if you can do it and still sound good. New music is fantastic, but we all have to be playing it, not just you.”

Jayden rolls his eyes.

“This guy knows everyone, Jay. I just want us to sound good when he comes to see us.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“So, fluff up your Mohawk and let’s go.” I flash him my biggest smile, begging with my teeth for cooperation. He glares at me but moves to his place.

The guys all have short attention spans on stage. Take away the audience and it’s hard to get them through a single song without someone screwing around, but today they’re on their best behavior. Jayden sulks his way through practice, playing everything exactly as it’s written, offering no feedback. I know he’s trying to make a point of how lame and boring that is, but he sounds fantastic, so the effect is lost on me. I don’t let myself get irritated that now is the time I want him to share his ideas and be free, yet he refuses once again.

Alex and Shiloh tend to take their lead from Jayden, so when he stops with the antics and just plays, they do the same, and the music comes alive. This is what gives me hope, these small little moments. They keep me playing, keep me nagging and pushing for perfection. They keep me banging down Brad Schafer’s door even though he’s failed to appear the last two times he’s promised to come see us.

The music industry is brutal, though, and I figure if he didn’t want to see us he’d have no reason not to just say so. No one tiptoes around feelings in this business, so he must want to come see us. We’re obviously not on the top of his priority list, but he wants to see us. I know it.

We barely get to practice since I was late. The bar opens at four o’clock, and we have to get our stuff out of the way so the band that performs tonight can have time to set up.

The guys have their hoodies on and are about to leave for the night. All three of them live in a one-bedroom apartment together. I say good-bye and spend the last hour before it gets busy hanging out at the bar with Benny. Then I head out the back door to the alley.

It’s not too cold yet. I flip down the door to the little storage unit in the wall. It’s a ground level, two-by-five-by-two hole in the wall by the dumpster with a thin metal flip door. It’s probably intended for tools or something, but I use it to hold my few belongings.

I have three good blankets inside, my coat, a few changes of clothes, a couple books, notebooks, my keyboard, and the foldable stand and seat that go with it. I pull out my keyboard and set up my little music station. I use headphones and keep myself tucked away behind the dumpster so no one bothers me. Bad headphones though, really bad, bad on purpose so no one gets interested in stealing them.

And then I play. I start with the music before I worry about lyrics. It always happens a little different. Sometimes it’s a beat, other times it’s a melody, a chord progression, but there’s always something rattling around in my head, and I just play until it sounds right. Then I add another layer, and another, and another. Then maybe I’ll move things around, go up or down an octave, push a handy little button on my keyboard and see what it sounds like with a violin thrown in. We don’t have a violin, or a violinist for that matter, but it’s all about the creative process.

I’m deep in my mode when the back door of the Chapel opens and Benny steps out with a cigarette in his mouth, a plate in one hand, and a cup in the other.

“Hey,” he says. I smile at him and accept the opportunity for a break. It’s two o’clock in the morning. Benny always comes out for his last cigarette after the bar closes, which is two a.m. tonight. I sit on the step with him. He plops the plate on my knees.

“Benny, you—”

“Shut up and eat it. You haven’t had anything since breakfast. I’m hoping that girl gave you breakfast.”

I take a long look at the turkey sandwich on the plate. I can tell the bread is soggy without touching it. José must have made it. He’s Benny’s main cook, and he’s not what you’d call a gourmet chef.

I pick it up and take a bite, for Benny’s sake. He’s such a worrier.

“So?” he says.

“So…”

“Did she feed you or what?”

“Sorry, I didn’t realize that was a question.”

“Did she?”

“She probably would have,” I say.

“What’s that mean?” He hands me the cup he’s been holding, coffee. I take that a little more enthusiastically.

“I left before she woke up.”

Benny stares blankly at me for a while and then starts chuckling. He takes a long drag off his cigarette before he speaks. “You’re a piece of work, kid.”

“That’s what they tell me.” I take another sip of coffee.

“Was it that bad?” he asks.

“No. It was that good.”

Benny nods emphatically, like what just came out of my mouth could not have possibly made more sense. I love that about him.

“I think you could use something good,” he finally says. I know what he’s thinking about, but I’m not about to invite him to bring it up. “You have to quit punishing yourself someday. You deserve something good.”

“No, I’m much happier depressed.”

He begrudgingly chuckles, that big-bellied bear chuckle of his. “Seriously, Rainn. It’s been, what? Two, three years since Michael?”

“Come on, Benny, I don’t want to talk about that.”

“All right, all right.” He sighs. “I’ll shut up. Sweet dreams, kid.” He messes up my hair and takes my plate and cup back inside.

I flip down the storage door and drag out my blankets, then put my keyboard back inside. I put one blanket flat on the ground, then cocoon myself up in the other two. Benny’s light flicks on upstairs, and I see his silhouette in the window. He’s there looking down on me for a long time. Finally, the light flicks back off. I wonder if he’s still standing there.

I stare at the dumpster wheel that’s two feet away, at my eye level. It smells like rotting food and sour milk. That’s probably exactly what it is.

Better than butane.

 

Chapter Three

“I shouldn’t have snuck out, huh?” It’s been a month and I’m still talking to the graffiti cat I like to call Libido about Jaselle. His smirk has continually changing meaning to me. He’s kind of like the Mona Lisa of back alley spray paint art, I guess. Today Libido is telling me I’m a moron. He’s telling me that leaving was a chicken move, that I’m always in too much of a hurry, that I could have left any time if things went bad, but I can never go back and see if they would have.

“You weren’t there. You don’t get it,” I tell him, but that blue smirk of his is unconvinced. “Regret is useless anyway. What a waste of emotion. Even if I wanted to do something about it, I can’t. I don’t have her number. I don’t know how to get back to her apartment, and even if I did she’d probably shut the door in my face. So, stop bothering me about it.”

Libido’s expression refuses to morph today. Usually, I just tell him to change and he does. I’ll notice some feature I’ve never paid attention to before, the friendly orientation of his ears telling me he’s not judging me, or the curious tilt of his head saying he wants to understand. All I can get from him now is unrelenting skepticism.

“I should have let Benny paint over you months ago.” I open the back door to the Chapel. I have better things to do than talk to a spray paint cat anyway. Brad is supposed to come see us perform tonight.

Backstage, Jayden looks like he’s going to puke. I’m the only one who sees that, though. Everyone else sees the same old smooth, carefree, punk rocker.

“You ready?” I ask. All he can muster is a nod.

We spend our limited extra time peeking at the bar, hoping to see Brad, but before long the lights go out like we’re doing a real concert, compliments of Benny, and it’s time to take the stage.

I hear Benny doing our intro, but it’s just a distant sound, taking a back seat to the twinge in my stomach. I clear my throat a little and pat my chest, nervous tics with no real function. Jayden’s face is shiny with anxiety sweat, but there’s no time to try to comfort him.

Benny’s voice booms through the bar. “The Suicidal Angels!” The red lights by my feet and above my head paint me in time with Shiloh’s pulsing bass intro. The sound is so strong and sensual it overflows me with energy. Then the drums thicken the sound. Jayden’s guitar over the top, screeching heartache.

Calling up the dead. Awakening the sickness in my head…” I sing with everything inside me. I scream until I’m raw. I feel.

You’re alive somewhere, but you weren’t there, you weren’t there…” I pull away from the mic so hard my sweaty hair flies away from my face. The lights beat down hot and smothering.

Ecstasy.

I try to penetrate the black wall the bright lights in my face have thrown up, but I can’t. I want to know where Brad is. I want to sing to him personally. There’s just no way for me to know, though, so I pour my soul into the entire room.

The end is coming. “I have a confession for you, since we’re alone. I think I want to die tonight. I think this might be it tonight.

Alex goes into his drum solo that caps off the performance. With his last powerful blast to the symbols I scream, “We are the Suicidal Angels. Thank you and good night!” It’s cliché, I know, but I’ve always wanted to do it. We take a bow to the wild applause and buzzed roars.

There’s a knot in my throat from the happiness. We’ve never performed so well, ever, and what a night to pull it together. I blow kisses to the crowd as we make our way off stage, fulfilling every cheesy whim.

The overhead lights come back on and the house music returns, quiet compared to us. The next band, Travesty, goes to work preparing their set. Benny is waiting to the side and spreads his arms wide for me. I fall into the bear hug.

“You guys were great!” He grabs my head and jostles me around. The guys come in for a group hug, smiles bursting off their faces. People are fist bumping the guys. Girls are coming up to compliment me. One person even asks for autographs. We’re mini-celebrities.

I crane my neck to try to catch sight of Brad without being too obvious I’m doing so. He’ll find us, so the guys and I go to the bar and get drinks. I turn on the stool so my elbows are resting on the bar and I have a view of the tables, dance floor, and stage. Brad. Where’s Brad?

It’s crowded and visibility is limited. I wait. He’s here somewhere. I wait and wait. Benny keeps the drinks coming with added potency every time. Travesty gets further and further into their performance. It’s been an hour and a half. The crowds are starting to clear. There are fewer and fewer nooks I can’t see.

He’s not here. He wanted to see us, had to see us. He promised, but he’s not here. We gave the ultimate performance, technically and emotionally. He didn’t see it. I turn back to the bar and take a shot.

“Easy, tiger.” Shiloh rubs my shoulders. “It was still a great night. You know Brad. We should have seen this coming.”

Well, he’s right about that. This is, after all, the third time Brad’s stood us up. I just thought for sure this time he was serious, that he’d be here. I always think I’ve learned my lesson about counting on people, but then something happens to make me realize I haven’t. I genuinely thought he was going to come tonight, because he said he would. I take a shot.

We were supposed to be on the cusp of victory. We were supposed to have a real opportunity in our hands, but we’re no closer than we’ve ever been. We’re still street rats making noise in the local bar. We’re still nothing.

“Hey.” Benny breaks into my thoughts. I look up. “Fuck him. You guys are amazing. Talent like that doesn’t stay in a dump like this for long.” I smile for his benefit. We’ve been here for two years, so apparently it does. I take a shot.

A cloud of sweetness takes me, the smoothest, warmest smell. I glance over my right shoulder and there, so close the loose fabric of her shirt is brushing my arm, Jaselle. My chest tightens with fear, relief, desire, need. I look into my empty shot glass, only allowing myself to watch her through my peripheral vision.

There’s a glow to her skin, a luminescence to her eyes, bone structure to make a sculptor drool. If she knows I’m sitting here she shows no sign of it.

“Two Coronas.” She tosses a ten on the bar. Benny gets her the beers, but he’s looking at me the whole time he does it. His face looks like his brain is busy trying to assess what’s happening. She turns and walks away, returning to a table with a woman, a different one than the night we met.

Benny stares me down, hard. Then he nudges his head toward her sternly. He knows how much time I’ve spent thinking about her, and he was the one who planted the idea that I messed up “something good” to begin with.

I inhale deeply and stand up from my stool. I notice for the first time my level of intoxication, higher than I thought. I’m not trashed, but there’s a little sway to my step, for sure, if only in my mind.

Each step I take presents a new fear. What if she cusses me out for leaving? Step. What if she won’t acknowledge me at all? Step. What if she looks at me like I’m crazy for having spent any of my time thinking about it? What if she expected and wanted me to leave immediately? What if she wasn’t even asleep, but pretending to be until I left to save herself the awkward conversation of kicking the homeless one-night toy to the curb? Step. Step. Step.

I’m standing at her tall table with my hands resting on the back of the empty seat before she looks at me. My stomach clenches.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey.” She smiles. I try to resist the instant infatuation that happens when she does that. I toss a rudely disregarding and unconcerned glance at the woman she’s with, then scratch the back of my head.

“I just wanted to—”

“We loved your show,” the other girl blurts. “You guys were incredible. I had no idea you know her, that’s so cool!” she directs the last at Jaselle. Jaselle just smiles subtly and sips her beer.

I stand, awkwardly shifting my weight, trying to think of what to say, if I’m welcome, whether or not I’ve just walked in on a date.

“You just wanted to…” Jaselle says.

“Uh,” my voice gets stuck in my throat. “Just say hi, I guess.”

“Here, sit down! I’m Shelby.” Shelby hastily goes to work clearing the extra chair of her purse and coat so I can sit. Jaselle is still leaning far back in her chair, silently watching.

“No, no. Thanks, but that’s okay. I’m interrupting. I just came to say hi.” I can feel my cheeks getting red. I wave at Shelby like a moron and start to turn.

“Sit.”

I look back and examine Jaselle’s face. “Sit,” she says again. I slip into the chair, holding eye contact with her as I do, trying to say everything I need to say by staring it into her. I’m sorry. You’re so beautiful. I was scared. I can’t tell if she’s seeing me or not.

“So who came up with your band name?” Shelby asks. I feel the seconds passing in silence while I stare at Jaselle. Shelby clears her throat to draw me back.

“Oh, uh, I did.”

“What’s it mean?”

“It means some people aren’t here to stay.” Jaselle leans forward and stares into me while she answers. “It means that sometimes, even the best of us, even ones chosen by God, still will self-destruct. There’s a darkness inside that will never go away, and it’s always calling. There’s nothing that can fix it. They touch our lives and then they’re gone, looking over us. Angels.”

Her eyes are blue-gray and stormy. I take a deep breath and look back to Shelby.

“Well, there you go,” I say.

Shelby looks uncomfortable suddenly, her peppy disposition interrupted. She blabs on about something, obviously not picking up the tension between Jaselle and me.

“Let’s get out of here,” she finally says. I nod my head and prepare to take my leave, but Shelby reaches out and squeezes my arm. “You’re coming, right?”

“Where?” I look Jaselle’s way again, feeling incredibly anxious that I’m unwanted, guilty that Shelby is dragging me along.

“We’re going back to Jaselle’s. We got some boomers we’re going to do.”

“Boomers?”

“Yeah, you know, mushrooms.”

I chuckle a little. “Yeah, I know.”

“You ever done them before?” Shelby leans closer.

“Once or twice.”

“We have plenty. Come with us.”

I turn to Jaselle again. I wonder why it’s not occurring to Shelby to run any of this by her. I keep silently asking permission for her. Jaselle gulps down the rest of her beer.

“Let’s go then,” she says. We all get up and head for the door. I notice the guys watching and nod my good-bye. Benny does a silly little salute.

I somehow end up in the front seat with Jaselle. Shelby volunteered for the back. I haven’t quite figured her out yet. She breaks out the ’shrooms immediately. My buzz from the shots is starting to wear off a little already, a fact I’m grateful for as I pop the mushrooms in my mouth. I muscle through the familiar unpleasant taste. It’d be easier to just swallow them, but instead I chew and chew. Jayden taught me that chewing makes them affect you sooner. I don’t even know if that’s true, or why it would be so important to make them kick in fifteen minutes earlier anyway. It’s one of those things you just do. Jaselle takes the bag next and puts a couple in her mouth, breaking the long stems so they’re more manageable.

We’re parked in front of Jaselle’s building before any of us are feeling anything. I’m starting to get queasy from the mushrooms though. We head down the stairs, and Jaselle opens the door. I listen for Noah, expecting him to come chew us out, but he doesn’t.

Shelby starts laughing beside me. I look over at her for the explanation, but there isn’t one. Her smile is about to bust her cheeks right open. My stomach is starting to feel warm. Any minute now. She must be a little ahead of me.

We settle down in front of the TV and watch South Park. We’re laughing hysterically within ten minutes. Shelby keeps falling all over me, making sure some part of our bodies is constantly touching. I figure she’s just high.

“Hey!” she says abruptly. “Hey! You know what song I really like?”

“What?” I try to focus, but her arms are rippling like little sound waves and I keep chuckling, then trying to stifle it.

“Oh, man, what’s it called? That one that goes ‘you’re my forever, I’m your first drink,’” She sings a terrible rendition of one of our songs.

“Yeah? Cool.” I’m no good with compliments.

“Oh, and the one that goes, ‘drown me in the blood of yesterday’s heartache.’”

I just smile.

“Do you write the lyrics?”

“Yeah.”

“I love them. I get them, you know? I feel like I already know you.”

She springs to her feet before I have to answer and heads to the kitchen. I look over at Jaselle. She’s smoking a cigarette and staring hypnotically into her swirling exhale, seemingly detached from us.

Shelby returns with three beers. The mushrooms are really starting to take me now. I’m getting a strong body high and I just feel good, about everything. And I want to touch.

Jaselle finally speaks, but it’s a whisper, so quiet I barely hear. “Drown me in the blood of yesterday’s heartache. I am tomorrow’s tragedy.” She hums my song. I close my eyes and listen. I want to reach out and hold her.

“That’s a fucked up image, actually!” Shelby blurts. Jaselle and I both look at her, both obviously irritated.

“Seriously, have you thought about that? Drowning in blood?”

Once or twice, Shelby, it’s my song, you idiot. “I guess.”

“I don’t think I like it anymore.” I don’t bother answering. I zone out for a minute, and then I hear a strange wind behind me. No, not wind. Something swirling? I look over. Shelby is holding her chest and breathing weird. In in oooooout. In out in innnn.

“Are you okay?” Jaselle asks. She just keeps breathing like that, holding her chest, turning pale.

“Shelby?” I say. “Dude, are you all right?”

“I’m freaking out, man. I don’t feel good.”

Jaselle sits up and puts her hand on Shelby’s back. “What’s happening? How do you feel?”

“The walls are red. Everything is blood. I don’t want to be high anymore. I don’t like this. I want to come down!”

I kneel down in front of her. “Look at me,” I say. It takes her a long time to do so. “Look at me. It’s going to be fine. You’ve got at least three hours to go, okay? But it will stop. Don’t try to fight it, you’re making it worse. Let’s go outside for a minute, okay?”

In in ooooooout. In out innnnn.

“You’re making the trip go bad. Stop freaking out,” Jaselle says. Shelby can’t answer. She’s just busy breathing weird with wide eyes. I wonder what she’s seeing now. Out of nowhere, she screams, loud. It makes Jaselle and me both jump.

“I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!”

“Come on, honey. Let’s go outside.” Jaselle starts trying to pull her up.

Suddenly, trying to handle this is demanding too much thought, too much control. My trip starts trying to turn on me. I see the hallway that goes to Jaselle’s room and it’s too dark, dangerous. It turns into a mouth. Then it’s just a gaping hole in the house, a cold vacuum that’s trying to swallow my soul. It’s evil. I’m certain there’s a thousand bats and Satan himself in the shadows. Everything is collapsing on itself.

Stop. Change the scenery; that’s the fastest way out of a bad trip.

“Shelby, get the fuck up!”

The sooner I get her to relax, the sooner I can. Stop resisting the high. It’s the first thing you want to do when things aren’t going right, get sober, stop seeing bad things. But that only makes it worse. Give yourself to the drug.

Finally, we tug Shelby up. We burst out the front door, where I’ve convinced myself the shadows can’t get me. The nature of all my hallucinations changes. Now I’m in a Super Mario Brothers game. The sky is purple. The trees reach out forever.

Shelby has quieted down a little too.

“Shel, look,” Jaselle says, pointing to some falling leaves. They leave trails of color behind them, so bright and beautiful. That takes care of it. Shelby starts giggling, then laughing.

We’re out there for over an hour before we’re comfortable coming back in. Shelby is sloppy and continuously erupting into hysterical laughter, falling all over me again. “You’re really pretty.” I wonder if she’s ever done ’shrooms before.

When we come back in, Noah is in his room. He doesn’t say anything to us, thank God. We settle back down in the living room. Shelby goes to get us more beer. When she tries to hand me mine, she trips and spills it all over me. She starts laughing until she falls on the floor. The anger threatens to turn my trip again, so I force myself to let it go.

Being high with this girl is exhausting and infuriating. Jaselle is beautiful though, soothing, like a river. I want to hold her.

“Come on.” Jaselle is staring at me, and I realize I just went through a time warp and missed the last ten seconds or so.

“Huh?”

“You can wear one of my shirts.”

Right, the beer. I forgot already. I follow her into her room. She’s sliding the hangers over one by one, selecting something for me. She eventually pulls out a Grateful Dead shirt, tie-dye with the bears, perfect choice for the evening’s extracurricular activities.

She doesn’t make a move to leave, so I take off my Corona-soaked shirt right there, turning away shyly. I laugh to myself. She knows what I look like already, what am I hiding? It feels like she doesn’t though, like that night never happened. She’s so relaxed, like there isn’t a huge question hanging in the air. I’m dying to answer it, but I want her to ask first.

“What’s this?” She’s pointing at one of my tattoos. It’s a staff of music starting on the back of my shoulder, winding down my ribs, and ending by my hip.

“It’s a song,” I say.

“Well, duh, smart-ass. Which one?”

“You’ve never heard it.” I hate the cold way it comes out, but she seems not to notice.

“How do you know?”

“Because my brother wrote it.”

“He’s a musician too?” She gently traces her finger along it. I shake with desire.

“He was incredible. Incredible,” I say.

She doesn’t dwell on the “was,” just nods. “Will you play it for me sometime?”

I look into her eyes. My throat hurts just at the idea of it. I haven’t been able to play it since he died. It’s just too hard, to hear something that beautiful and know that it’s all that’s left of its creator. I’m too choked up to answer.

“Do you not want to talk about him?”

Again, my voice gets stuck. Jaselle is so gentle and soft about it I don’t want to deny her, yet talking about him, well, I’ve never been any good at it.

“How about just one question, then,” she says. “Nothing major, I promise.”

I smile. “Okay.”

She thinks for a minute, choosing her question. “What did he play?”

“Violin. And drums.” Jaselle opens her mouth, then closes it again. I telepathically know it was another question she had to stifle.

“He loved the drums. Mom made him play the violin, the way she made me play piano.”

“You didn’t like playing piano?”

“No, I did. I always loved it. I just mean it was important to her that we both learn to play classical music. But Michael hated violin. He was just so good…” I can hear the soft notes in my ear. “I don’t blame her for making him play. It was the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever heard.” If tears have a sound, he knew what it was. That song, the one I have tattooed, it never fades. I can always hear him playing it. It’s immortal the way nothing else can be. Even his face, his laugh, our last conversation, all those things blur, though I hate to admit it. But that song, that’s him, and it’s always there, fresh and alive.

“But I haven’t heard it,” Jaselle says. She looks ever so slightly toward the room that houses that dazzling piano. My eyes fill to the brim.

“Another time, maybe,” I say. She doesn’t press. We stand there just looking at each other. Ask me. Let me tell you. Why did I leave?

“Come on,” she says and leads me back to the living room. Shelby is crashed out on the floor. We each take a huge sigh of relief, then laugh as we catch each other.

Jaselle lies down on the couch. I settle down between the couch and the coffee table, which puts me right by Jaselle, but two feet lower.

“Can I ask you one question now?” I say.

“You can ask me however many questions you want to, darlin’.”

A wave of warmth goes through me. “Do you really like her?” I nod at Shelby.

“Nah, she sure likes you though.”

“She’s just high,” I say.

“No, really, she was going on about how beautiful and sexy and talented you are before you even came over.”

“Shut up.” I fidget uncomfortably.

“She’s right, you know, but in all the wrong ways.”

I just let that hang in the air for a while. I can’t think of anything to say that won’t come out weird.

“Hey,” Jaselle says, soft because she’s falling asleep.

“Yeah?”

“Be here in the morning, okay?”

My insides melt. “I will.”