CHAPTER 26: GUITAR HERO
Ob-Nox-Ious! Ob-Nox-Ious! Ob-Nox-Ious!
Outside the hospitality tent, the Riot Fest crowd grew wild with cheers, chanting the name of the band in growing anticipation. I held a fist full of ice cubes against my eyelid feeling the trickle of cold water between my fingers and down the side of my face.
“If we’re goin’ onstage, we gotta go now,” Jojo said, drumsticks in hand. She cast a doubtful glance toward Tombstone who was locked into some kind of undertone argument with Marla. Whatever it was about, Marla was winning, shaving him down to size with a thousand surgical cuts.
“Go on with the others,” I told her, gesturing to the stage with my head and regretting it the minute I did. “I’ll get him onstage if it’s the last thing I do.”
Jojo nodded and backed reluctantly toward the stage. Tedrick passed me the Blackjack wordlessly: if anything would get Tombstone on stage now it would be his guitar. I rested it on the toe of my boot and considered my options. Lacey and Piper still hovered nearby. Piper sniffled gently. Lacey’s eyes were thick with tears she was trying not to let fall.
“Your dad’s got a helluva right hook,” I told them. “Let this be a lesson to your future boyfriends.” I chucked the ice cubes into a trash can nearby and wiped my hand on my t-shirt.
“Why were you fighting?” Piper asked.
“It’s complicated, kiddo.”
“He hit you!”
“Yeah, well, I deserved it. Trust me.” I could tell from her face that this neither answered her question nor offered any comfort. I stooped down to her eye level. “It’s okay,” I assured her. “Your dad and me are like brothers. Brothers sometimes gotta…duke it out.”
Behind her, I saw Marla finish grinding Tombstone into a fine powder. She looked up, victorious, to see me talking to her daughters and recoiled in surprise: no doubt realizing for the first time that they were there.
“Lacey Lynn! Piper Jean!”
“Oh, shit,” Lacey groaned. Piper blanched.
“Mom’s gonna kill us!”
I grabbed Lacey’s hand: “Come with me if you want to live.”
A single glance at Marla’s thunderstorm face was all it took for Lacey to make the decision. She grabbed Piper’s hand and the three of us fled out of the tent and bolted along a row of metal barricades to the side of the stage.
“Either of you play guitar?” I shouted to the girls as we ran.
“Shut up.” Lacey looked embarrassed.
“They’re with me!” I shouted to the security guy as I flashed him my badge and we plowed up the steps onto the stage. Tombstone and Marla rolled toward the stage like an avalanche, but the security guy stepped in their path.
“Where’s your badge?” I taunted him from the safety of the high ground as Tombstone swore and dug in his pockets. I hustled the girls along the backline to where Tedrick and Kilroy waited, anxiously.
“What the hell, Warner?” Kilroy knew a problem when he saw one, but I waved him off.
“Your dad ever let you play his guitar? Now’s your chance,” I asked Lacey. I held out the Blackjack to her, but she shied away.
“Now you really sound like your dad. You got stage fright?” A muscle in Lacey’s jaw bulged as she clenched her teeth.
“I play Guitar Hero,” she clarified. “I only know one or two chords on a real guitar.”
I looped the strap over her head and settled it on her shoulder.
“I can’t!” she panicked. “I can’t! I can’t!”
“What the hell are you doing?” Kilroy hissed. Tombstone and Marla were past security now. Together they charged up the steps to the stage with all the force of a panzer battalion. Lacey’s knuckles went white around the neck of the Blackjack as she saw them. She froze, stiff with fear, gasping her way toward a panic attack.
“Zip it, Tedrick,” I snapped. I put my hands on Lacey’s shoulders, trying to calm her down before she passed out. “C’mon, they can’t touch you while you’re on stage.”
“I can’t I can’t IcantIcantIcantIcant.”
“C’mon. We’ll do the national anthem. We have the guitar part pre-recorded. Just like Guitar Hero: just stand on stage and look good. You can handle that.”
“I’ll look stupid.”
“I know what I’m doing. Trust me. You trust me?” Lacey looked like she might vomit, but she nodded. “Good. The national anthem. Right? We got this.” I glanced from Tedrick to Kilroy and then to Jojo who nodded as comprehension dawned. We’d performed a USO show once and recorded a version of the national anthem Tombstone kept banked in the console in case a crowd ever got out of hand: there was no get-out-of-jail-free card quicker than a tribute to the troops. Tedrick nodded and hustled to the sound rack to mute the Blackjack’s inputs while Kilroy escorted Lacey out onto the vast expanse of the stage.
The crowd cheered as they appeared, faltering slightly as they realized the band now consisted of three grown men, two teenage girls, one transgender drummer, and a partridge in a pear tree. On the far side of the stage, I saw Tombstone come to a screeching halt at the sound of the crowd’s roar. He tried to backpedal, but collided with Marla behind him. His eyes searched me out and he glared: his face torn between anger and terror.
He gestured toward his throat. You’re dead!
I gestured toward my crotch. Suck it!
“What about me?!” Piper tugged at my elbow. Unlike Lacey she showed no signs of being afraid of the crowd, but she sure as hell had a healthy dread of Marla.
“You know how to play anything? Tambourine? Cow bell?”
“I can sing, I’m a good singer.”
“You think you can do the Stars and Stripes in front of a crowd?” I asked.
Piper looked out over the sea of Riot Fest fans churning beyond the edge of the stage and swallowed hard. Then she looked at Marla, swallowed harder, and nodded.
“C’mon.” I led Piper out on the stage and pressed myself up to the mic. “Hello, Chicago!’ My voice boomed out over the park on a dozen speaker-arrays. “The National Anthem.” A delayed cheer rose up in a wave as this registered and I twisted the mic stand to lower it to Piper’s level.
“Knock ‘em dead, kid,” I told her. I gestured to Jojo who counted off and started with a drumroll, just enough to ease them into it.
“Oh say can you see…”
Piper’s voice was clear but quavering. Lacey mimed her way through the first few notes before she got lost and began to panic, her eyes wide. Her lip trembled and her face crumpled into tears.
I’ll look stupid.
Trust me, I know what I’m doing.
I looked back at Tombstone. His face twisted with anguish at Lacey’s distress, but terror kept him rooted to the spot until Marla gave him a shove and forced him out onto the stage. Rolling on the force of his own momentum, he rushed toward Lacey and put his arms around her, guiding her hands through the right movements. Dad was there for her. Dad had her back. He murmured something in her ear, the tension melted off of her, and she grinned: wrapped in the safety of his arms.
Piper’s voice was now a full, open-throated belt. A flush bloomed on her cheeks; eyes bright—coming alive. The crowd joined in, unprompted, the rumble of voices filling the park. She hit the high note like she was breaking a heart and delivered the final word as a ferocious roar—the most metal thing I’d ever heard come out of a twelve-year-old girl.
The crowd went wild.
Jojo brought the song to a halt with a thunderous crash of cymbals and I turned my back on the crowd to measure Tombstone’s reaction. His mouth formed the words Fuck You, Warner but he didn’t mean it—his attention was on Piper, radiant with pride. Lacey unstrapped the Blackjack and gave him a hug. I thought he might’ve been tearing up.
“Thank you, Chicago!” Piper grinned, feeling the living, breathing mass of humanity responding to the sound of her voice. I knew how she felt. I didn’t envy the crash that was coming for her.
“Okay, beat it Jagger: you’ve upstaged me long enough.” I wrestled the microphone from her hands. Piper threw the horns and walked off the stage as the crowd roared with approval.
On with the show.
* * * *
We only made it through half of our setlist before my eye swelled shut and I had to stagger off the stage with my tail between my legs. I retreated to the bar, wishing the show had felt more like a victory. I wished Gorey could have been there. I wished Melody could have seen it. The bartender handed me a beer in a cold, aluminum bottle, dripping with condensation from the cooler. I pressed it to my eye gratefully and listened to the roaring of the crowd as Tombstone finished out the set with a guitar solo of shock and awe proportions. He laid claim to the stage, shredding out an improvisation of such complicated virtuosity that generations of future guitarists would curse themselves and count their manhoods weak, but the statement he was trying to make was directed at just one person: me.
You need me, it said in a thousand lightning-fast riffs. You can’t do this without me.
And he was right. I couldn’t. We were symbiotes.
The set ended and the rest of the guys made their way to the tent along with Piper and Lacey who were both giddy with elation from their stage-side experience. Tombstone wasn’t among them, and neither was Marla. Any idiot could do that math. And sure enough, when he emerged somewhat later to lean on the bar beside me, he had the glassy-eyed equanimity of the recently laid.
“You and Marla made up, I see,” I said.
He grinned a sheepish, gap-toothed grin.
“She gonna let you see your girls now?” Lacey and Piper were making the most of their fifteen minutes of fame by taking selfies with a cluster of fans. He nodded again.
“Su—suuu—sssorry.” He made a fist with his left hand and drew a circle on his chest, just in case I couldn’t understand his words. Sorry.
“Yeah, me too,” I said. I wasn’t angry anymore. The stage high had me feeling no pain. “How’s your hand?”
Tombstone held it up; the knuckles were the same dark, swollen purple of my eye. He curled all his fingers as far as they could go, the middle two fingers didn’t want to bend, giving me the finger. He grinned. We were even.
Marla entered the tent looking disheveled but content and scanned the room, trying to look casual, but failed. There was no hiding the glow of satisfaction on her face and neck. It wouldn’t last, of course, it never did, but for right now she actually looked human and happy. Tombstone followed my gaze and grinned again with a hangdog shrug.
What can you do?
I slapped him on the shoulder.
“Go on, get the fuck out of here,” I said. “Go be with your family. And tell your daughter to wear more goddamn clothes.”
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