“Don’t you get tired of plummeting through life face first?”
I couldn’t tell if Sam was annoyed or genuinely curious: he sat across from me in the back seat of a service car as we glided through the city toward the Big House. I’d gone to his office to complete the paperwork that would sign my fate over to Judge and arrived just as he was preparing to ferry a stack of documents over to Dearie for review. He had suggested that I accompany him, but his tone made it clear it wasn’t really optional.
“Is there any other way?” I asked, not sure if I was being a smartass or if I actually expected him to answer.
“Most individuals can make it through a day without getting a black eye.”
“There are worse things than boredom.”
“What’s worse than watching the minutes of your life go by, knowing you’ll never get them back, helpless to make them meaningful, only to die knowing years of your life were wasted on boredom?”
Sam raised an eyebrow and a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. “What indeed,” he said in an arch tone as if this were a private joke.
The service car pulled to a halt in front of the house and I climbed out to find Evelyn standing in Dearie’s garden wearing a bee-suit. As I watched she gently waved smoke over the hive before lifting out one of the combs, dripping with golden honey to inspect it.
“Since when did you become an apiarist?” I asked from the relative safety of the sidewalk. Evelyn’s head snapped up in surprise. I couldn’t see her expression behind the gauze of her veil, but surprise/recognition/pleasure played out in her body language.
“Dearie’s been trying to teach me. She wants me to take over the hive. The Gardens is looking for one. Our last hive absconded and died off in a cold snap.” Evelyn slid the comb back into the hive and approached the fence brushing a cluster of sluggish drones off her bee-suit. She raised the veil on her hat to reveal an expression of concern. “What happened to your face?”
“Tombstone punched me.”
“And your hands?”
My hands were red and blistered with burns. They looked gnarly and hurt like a motherfucker, but I shrugged it off and said: “Playing with fire. As usual.”
“Mom’s gonna freak out.”
“Mom doesn’t have to know.”
“Yeah, good luck with that.” Evelyn tossed her head toward the house. “You know she’s been living here, right?”
“No one tells me shit,” I said, but suddenly Sam’s insistence on my presence made sense.
Evelyn nodded. “Ever since she and Dad split. All she does is clean. She’s got some bug up her ass about getting the house in order. The wedding isn’t for nine months!” Evelyn threw up her hands helplessly and sighed. “If it’s a choice between being trapped in the house with Mom or covered in bees, I’d rather be covered in bees.”
Behind me, Sam cleared his throat.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” I said. I gave Evelyn a wave and climbed the steps into the house to head inside.
Sam and I entered the front door to find the first floor in a frenzy of activity. The airy tranquility of benign neglect was gone. Rooms that were normally dim and cool now buzzed with swarms of women on stepladders pulling curtains down from the windows and wiping a decade’s worth of grime off the glass. Mom stood in the living room in a flood of morning sunlight, supervising the upholstery service as they tagged and bundled the draperies into plastic bags for cleaning.
“I never took you for the domestic type,” I said by way of greeting. Mom finished her signature on a work order before looking up. She took in my face at a glance, passed judgment, and kept it to herself.
“I am not a type,” she said, then stopped short as she saw Sam standing on the threshold behind me.
Mom’s expression darkened as the sun went behind a cloud, casting the room into sudden darkness. She smoothed her hair, self-consciously. “Sam.”
“You’re looking luminous, as always,” Sam told her. His tone was light, but I could sense something underneath: was Sam actually nervous?
If he was, I couldn’t blame him: Mom crossed her arms over her chest, radiating defensiveness. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I’m here to see Sophia. She’s expecting me.”
Mom grimaced and took his elbow. “A word, please?” she commanded, dragging him toward a quiet alcove in the dining room to have her say. Sam followed her willingly, leaving me alone in the entryway. I skulked off in search of someplace where Mom’s enthusiastic reformation had not yet reached.
The kitchen turned out to be the only place where the world was still comfortably dim: lit by a watery light filtering through a Tiffany window over the sink. The colored glass depicted the archangel Michael preparing to drive a spear through a demon’s skull. Because, of course.
The room had once been some kind of uppity drawing room for entertaining the Palmers and the Fields and the Adlers and Stevensons and other social elite who wanted the Adomnans to manage the brick-and-mortar details of their stately pleasure domes. The window had been a way of masking off the service alley behind the house. Times changed and the room was retrofitted with water and gas lines to turn it into a kitchen, but the alley was still a view no one wanted to look at so the window stayed. I glared up at Saint Michael’s placid face and flipped it the bird.
“Hello, Blue.” Dearie’s voice startled me from my bitter thoughts. I turned to find her sitting at the kitchen table behind me.
“Oh, hey, Dearie.” In the dimness of the room, I wondered if she could tell I was blushing. I couldn’t tell if she had even noticed: she was staring into the bottom of her cup where a few dregs of some bitter liquid sloshed against the china.
“You must have come with Sam.”
“Yeah, he got waylaid by Mom,” I said. “Is it true she’s living here?”
Dearie sighed. “Yes. I invited her to stay with me. Me wanting to keep the family close, I suppose. I’ve more than enough room. She means well, but she can be very…” Overbearing. Domineering. Imperious. “…efficient.” With an effort, she shook off her trance and looked up at me. “Will you sit with me awhile?” she asked, patting the seat of the chair beside her, hopefully. I sank into it and she seemed to notice my eye for the first time.
“Oh, your poor eye!”
“It’s nothing,” I said quickly. “Me fighting with my guitarist. You know, burning off some aggression.”
“Oh, Blue!” Dearie grabbed my hands and I gasped aloud as her fingers pressed on my burns. I tried to hide them under the table, but it was too late: Dearie had already seen the blistering weals. “Oh, Blue!” she said again.
Dearie just fixed me with a look. “Please, let me look at them?”
She held out her own hands and I reluctantly rested my own on top of them. She tsked over the blisters, then took out a first aid kit from a kitchen drawer and began to smear some kind of clear gel on them. The salve burned with cold and then eased into numbness. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’ve watched you wandering in the wilderness for a long time, Blue,” she said as she began to wind gauze around my fingers. “All these bruises. All these burns. I feel them like they’re my own, you know. All this time believing that you don’t belong anywhere, but it isn’t true: you always have a place here. You don’t have to be an apostate forever.” She wrapped a final length of gauze around my palm and stuck it down with a tab of medical tape.
“That’s…heavy, Dearie,” I said clenching my hands into fists. My fingers still hurt beneath the gauze, but at least the blisters weren’t rubbing against one another anymore. I wiggled my fingers experimentally and breathed a sigh of relief. “Where’s all this coming from?”
Dearie sighed. The corners of her mouth twitched upward, which somehow made her look sad. “I’m afraid I’ve had some bad news,” she said.
In a sudden, shadowy premonition, I knew what was going to come next.
“I have stage four cancer.” Dearie’s tone was soothing and solemn, but the words exploded across my brain like artillery shells. “And I’m choosing not to pursue treatment.”
The time has come for judgment to begin in the house of God.
It all made sense now: why Sam was making a house call; why he’d dragged me along with him; why Dearie kept pushing me to reconcile with Michael. The pieces that had been floating in my head clicked into place and the bottom dropped out of reality. I felt the plunging sense of vertigo as if the thought alone was heavy enough to bend gravity.
“You’re—” Dying. I felt myself shaking. I could hear it in my voice. The edges of my vision wavered and I put my head between my knees waiting for the room to stop spinning. “How soon?”
“Not today,” Grandma Dearie said firmly. She laid a hand on my back and rubbed it soothingly, but there was no soothing this away with a gentle touch. “Not tomorrow either. It could be weeks or even a year.”
“The doctor thinks it will be about six months.”
I couldn’t concentrate. Six months. Maybe less. Why hadn’t anyone told me? Were they even planning to?
“Does Edward know?” I demanded. “Stupid, of course Edward knows. He’s the fat fucking favorite… When were you planning on telling me, huh? And, where is he? The fucking coward! Why isn’t he here for you?!” I wanted to get to my feet, wanted to pace the room in agitation, but the world was still spinning around me.
“Damen, please, I haven’t told anybody yet,” Dearie said. “I wanted to get my affairs in order first.”
“How do they not know?” I said when I found my voice again.
“Not everybody is as astute as you.” Dearie looked away, tracing a crooked finger over the polished granite of the countertop. “You always did have an eye for detail.”
Only Dearie would think to call me astute.
My mind was reeling: free-falling through empty space. I gazed blankly up at the now dim Tiffany window: a world on the verge of losing all meaning.
Dearie laid a delicate hand on mine—her fingertips cold against my skin. I wrapped my fingers around them to warm them.
“Please,” I begged, “it’s too soon, you can’t leave—” I realized I was about to say leave me and I stopped.
Grandma Dearie pressed her lips to my bandaged hands and smiled. “I’m only human, Blue. We all die. Even me. Even you, someday. But not today. And not tomorrow. Let us make the most of the time we have left.”
Mom opened the kitchen door and a beam of light cut a wide path across the tile floor. The brightness of it clipped the toe of my boot and I pulled myself back into the shadows without thinking about it.
“Sam is here,” she said. “He says you’re expecting him.”
“Yes, I am. Thank you, Gloria.” Dearie struggled to her feet and I leaped up to help her. She squeezed my arm gently in thanks, then shuffled along the path of light to where Mom and Sam were waiting. Then the kitchen door swung shut and they disappeared from view.
“Going so soon?” Evelyn asked when she saw me emerge from the house. She once again raised her veil to read my face and seemed to see something there that worried her. “Everything okay?”
“You should go in,” I told her. “Dearie’s…got something to say.”
“You’re not staying?”
I shook my head. “I already know.”
Evelyn peeled off her bee-suit like she was shedding an old skin, emerging clean and new in leggings and a sundress printed with apples and apple blossoms. She climbed the steps to the kitchen door and cast an anxious backward glance in my direction before going inside. For a minute, I just stood alone in the garden feeling the world collapse around me.
What shall the end be for those who did not obey? When the sinner plunges into the darkness, who can call him back from Damnation?
I felt the wind pick up off the lake and I shivered. The first chill of fall was beginning to turn the leaves yellow on the trees. The sun was gone; hidden behind a thick haze of clouds. There would be rain later, but for now the city was shadowless and empty: as if it occupied a gray area along the margins of reality.
The bees around the hive were subdued too, as if they were dreading the loss of their queen. But bees could grow virgin queens out of wax and honey. There was no replacing Dearie and once she was gone, there would be no one left who would think I was worth saving.
Melody’s place turned out to be a crumbling brick building wedged onto a dead-end street overlooking the highway. The shredded chain link fence was festooned with trash and the vestiges of memorials to victims of…what, I wasn’t sure. Half of the streetlights were dark—burned out or shot out or both—and the front steps of the building were lively with a knot of homies watching cars creep up the street, stopping just long enough for an exchange of goods. Overhead, a blue police camera flashed, a silent witness, but the lone patrol car went past without stopping.
There was a chorus of whistles and raucous Spanish from the homies as Melody led me toward the gate. She unlocked it with a key and stepped through, but when I moved to follow, I found my path blocked by a wall of round-shouldered men sizing me up.
“Let him through,” Melody told them. “He’s with me.”
The homie sea parted, but their stares followed me even after I was inside the fence. This was their turf. I was a guest. For now.
The side door had three deadbolts and showed signs of having been kicked in more than once. The window beside it was covered with two security grates—one a diamond-shaped mesh and the other a grid of iron bars. The window behind them was still broken. Someone had covered the crack with packing tape so old it had long since turned yellow.
The stairs leading up to the top floor were wooden and painted battleship gray in a thousand dripping coats. Patches on the walls showed places where graffiti had been painted over. Every landing was cluttered with discarded toys and broken bicycles.
Melody’s apartment was on the fourth floor in the back of the building. The door was scarred wood and even after unlocking all the locks she had to put a shoulder to it to get it to open with a sharp wooden shriek, but when she flipped on the light, I saw that the apartment inside was cozy and clean. The front door opened directly into a little girl’s room, painted a bumblebee shade of yellow. A child size bed was tucked into a corner beside a mismatched dresser and both were covered with teddy-bears that looked like they might once have come with roses, chocolate, or lingerie.
Melody dropped her keys onto a bookshelf by the door and kicked it shut before turning to press her body against mine.
“I want you now,” I managed, my voice thick.
“Not in here.” Melody was firm. She pushed my hands away and stooped to pick up a pair of little girl underoos and toss them into a laundry hamper. Then she glided across the hardwood floor toward the back of the apartment, pausing in the doorway to see if I was watching.
I followed Melody to her room which was filled from wall-to-wall with a queen-sized mattress. Every other surface was covered with clothes: clean and dirty, dancewear and streetwear. With the snap of a lighter, Melody touched a flame to the wick of the candles staged on a shelf over the bed. She glanced at me over her shoulder and shed her dress into one of the heaps. She unhooked her bra and let it fall to the floor and then crawled into the bed with her shoes still on. I sat down beside her on the mattress and she leaned back on her elbows and put her feet on my lap, demanding without words that I unbuckle them for her.
I fumbled with the straps and succeeded in getting one of them off. I set it on the floor and gently massaged the arch of her bare foot with both hands. Melody gave a sigh through her nose and let her head fall back, luxuriating in the feel of it. In the cool air of the room, her nipples were tightened into firm buds at the crests of her breasts. I didn’t bother to hide that I was staring as I kneaded the muscle and bone of her foot, watching her toes curl and uncurl with pleasure. Then I kissed the top of her foot as I fumbled with the other shoe.
Melody pushed herself upright and swung her legs around my back until she straddled me. Reaching around my waist, she undid the buckle of my belt and pulled it out of the belt loops, coiling it around one hand to set it on the chest of drawers, then snapped her fingers at me to unlace my boots.
I felt the weight of her body settle against the bare skin of my back as I bent forward to untangle the laces. I could feel her head resting against the back of my neck and a fingertip tracing the curved patterns of the tattoos across my shoulders.
I kicked off my boots and socks as Melody’s hands slipped around my waist to unbutton the front of my jeans. I stood long enough to shed the rest of my clothes and then turned to stand in front of her. She reclined on the bed, naked except for a thong. I started to move toward her and she held me back with the toe of one foot.
“I want to look at you,” she said in a low murmur.
I couldn’t imagine why. I was suddenly aware of how I must look: sweaty, bruised and disheveled. And the room was cold. I moved to cover myself, embarrassed.
“Don’t.” Melody’s tone was sharp even though her voice was quiet.
“I stink,” I muttered.
“Look at me.”
I forced my eyes to meet hers. Her eyes were shadowed beneath her long eyelashes by the flickering light from the candles.
“Get on your knees.”
I stared at her, uncertain if she was serious. She just waited and watched me—watching to see if I would do it or not.
“And if I don’t?”
Melody shrugged. “Leave then. I won’t stop you.”
I got on my knees feeling like an idiot. Melody stood. She wasn’t tall. Kneeling, as I was, my head was level with her collar bone. She circled me, stroking her fingers over my shoulders, tracing down the tattoos on my chest. I watched her hand, mesmerized. Everywhere she touched grew warm. She drew her fingers up my throat, fingernail scraping against my Adam’s apple. I resisted the urge to clear my throat.
She caressed my cheek with one soft palm, then leaned forward and pressed her lips to mine—unbelievably soft, unbelievably warm. Her tongue invaded my mouth. I reached for her, but Melody caught my wrists and dug in her nails.
“No, no hands.” She could touch me, but I couldn’t touch her. I held up my hands in surrender and she released my wrists.
Melody settled back onto the edge of the bed. She reached out one foot and rested it on my shoulder. I nuzzled it with my cheek and she didn’t stop me. Cheek was good. Hands were bad. She spread her legs for me.
“Kiss me. Here.” She reached down with one hand and parted the lips of her sex to reveal the tempting nub of her clitoris. I shuffled forward on my knees and flicked it with the tip of my tongue, just once, and she shuddered with pleasure. Tongue was good. Hands were bad. I kissed my way down her neck, her collarbone, the plain of her chest, lingering on her breasts then across the smooth hollow of her belly to the mound of her sex. I glanced up at her to see if she was watching. She was. She propped herself up on her elbows as I slowly sank below her horizon.
I heard her gasp when my lips made the first contact with her pussy. I flicked at her with my tongue, just a taste, and then I plunged deeper inside her, feeling her body go taut, hearing her moan in a low, wild sound. Her fingers traced through my hair, gripping the back of my head.
I kissed the inside of one thigh and then the other and then pressed my lips against the delicate folds of her pussy. I felt her writhe as she threw her head back and moaned. With her free hand, she cupped a breast and rolled the nipple between her fingers, lost in her own pleasure.
It didn’t take long; she was already close. I could hear her climax before I could feel it. It began low like the horn of a distant train and became a scream of ecstasy as her legs spasmed and clamped around my head.
When she at last released me, I sat back on my haunches, gasping for breath. My back and neck ached and my cheeks were smeared with her juices. The smell of her filled my senses. Melody lay spent on the bed, breathing heavily. Her head lolled against the blankets in the wild corona of her hair spread out around her.
“S’amazing…” she murmured. “Come up on the bed.” She tugged me toward her.
I crawled up onto the bed and she shoved me against the wall, partly upright, and straddled my lap. I reached for her again, but forced myself to stop short of touching her. It took all my will; my body ached for her. I was pretty sure my erection could’ve drilled through cinderblock.
“Can I use my hands now?” I begged.
“You’re not in charge here,” she said. “You understand?”
I nodded reluctantly. Melody smiled.
“Put out your hands.” She held out her own hands, palm up to show me. I followed her lead, unsure what it was she had in mind. Reaching up onto the shelf, Melody picked up a pair of candles and pressed one into each palm.
“Don’t let go,” she said.
Hot wax dripped onto the fingers of my right hand and I seethed at the pain, but didn’t dare let go: there was playing with fire, and then there was playing with fire.
Reaching into the top drawer of the dresser she extracted a condom and tore open the package. For a minute she just held it up between us as if it were some kind of communion wafer and she was preparing to bless me with it.
“This is what you want?” Both a question and an answer.
She put the condom between her lips and bent her head to roll it on me with her lips and tongue. No hands. I gasped at the sensations she sent through me. Another stream of wax burned across my fingers and I struggled to keep the candles steady as the combination of the pain and pleasure short-circuited my brain.
Melody raised her head and eased her hips forward and with torturous slowness began to sink down on the length of my cock, consuming me inch by inch. I felt myself getting lightheaded. She began to ride languidly, taking her time with each stroke. She slid her hand around the sides of my neck and tangled her fingers in my hair. Once again, she pressed her lips to mine, breathing life back into my dying body. I groaned. Her rhythm was too slow: I wasn’t going to be able to cum like this and she knew it: it was just another way to torment me.
Melody pulled her lips away, still pressing her body against my chest. I could feel her nipples brush against my skin. “Please what?”
Melody waited to see if I would beg her. When I didn’t, she slid herself upwards with excruciating slowness until she broke contact. I gasped at the sudden loss of sensation.
“Don’t leave me like this,” I begged.
I swallowed hard, close to tears again. Why did she have such power over me?
“Beg me to fuck you.”
“Fuck me, please—”
“You belong to me,” she said. “Don’t speak. Just nod.”
I nodded feeling my arms begin to sag. Dizziness overtook me as she once again penetrated herself and began to ride: harder now, and faster. Each stroke sent a new rivulet of wax over my fingers, but I couldn’t feel the burn anymore.
“Now!” Melody cried as she suddenly clenched in her own orgasm. I came hard, feeling the sensation flood me from head to foot more intense than I’d ever felt before. Once again, I was drowning in the strange dark music she called up from somewhere deep inside me and all I could do was let it wash over me.
I came back to my senses in bits and pieces as Melody climbed off me. One by one she blew out the candles and pried them out of my listless fingers: the hardened wax tore at my raw skin. I let my arms drop onto the bed and slumped over in a heap. Melody snuggled her body up against mine and pulled one of my arms over her, pressing my hand against her belly.
My fingers throbbed with burns and my whole body ached. We were playing a dangerous game. Melody had left her mark on me, and I loved it. I sank into sleep, letting the last echoes of her music decay across the landscape of my darkening consciousness. It was close as I was ever likely to come to a happily ever.
I hoped I’d never wake up.
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By the time the sun went down I was the only one from the band still lurking in the hospitality tent. I huddled by the bar, nursing a beer and icing my black eye. The bartender had given me a glass full of ice along with her email address. Melody was a no-show.
Fuck. I was a sucker. I should’ve known she wouldn’t come. What a waste of a perfectly good stage-high. “What’re you looking at?” I snapped at a tall, plain girl hovering nearby with a backstage pass clutched in her hand.
“You?” she said and blushed. It was clear she’d never been backstage before—I could see her trembling around the edges with nervous excitement she couldn’t quite contain.
I forced myself to take a deep breath. It wasn’t her fault. Hell, maybe it was her lucky night. I took another look:
“Well, now you’ve seen me,” I gave her a deliberate once-over: strong more than beautiful, tall enough to look me in the eye, slightly hunched like she was ashamed of it. I would’ve bet money that her ancestors had been Vikings. I imagined her standing over me in a Scandinavian sauna with a bundle of birch twigs in her hand, preparing to flog me within an inch of my life. I could dig it. “And now I’ve seen you. You got a name, stretch?”
“Laura,” she said—or tried to—her voice cracked. She tried again: “Laura.”
“Sit with me, Laura-Laura.” I leaned back on my stool and patted my knee. She perched on it lightly. Her legs felt muscular, maybe a runner. Wholesome. That was the word. She looked like a poster child for Alpine dairy and daily multivitamins. Rosy cheeks. Virgin hair. Strong teeth. She was blushing again. She wore her niceness like armor: I tried to imagine her listening to, much less enjoying our music.
“What brings you to Riot Fest? You look like you had a normal childhood.”
“I-I won a pass. On the radio. Heard you were gonna be playing and…”
“Are you a fan?” I teased her with mock astonishment. “You don’t strike me as the metalcore type.”
“Oh, um… Sorry?”
I’d forgotten how fucking nice Midwesterners were: here I was teasing her and her impulse was to apologize to me. There was a hunted look in her eye—afraid to disappoint—eager to be whatever I wanted so long as I didn’t make her leave.
“You wanna get out of here, Laura-Laura?” I asked.
“You mean, like…like… sex?” She mouthed the word ‘sex’ as if it were a curse that she was embarrassed to say out loud.
“Yes, Laura-Laura. I want to sex you up. Let’s find a dark place where we can do unspeakable things to one another.”
“I—” I could see conflicting impulses overload her brain as she struggled to answer. She wanted to say yes—wanted to say whatever it would take to keep my attention on her, but a bigger part of her still couldn’t believe it was happening. “I can’t,” she managed at last. The words burst out of her like a sneeze, a reflex to protect herself. Her voice was shaking. “I’m sorry—I want to, but…” Her eyes glistened and she stood up and fled out of the tent before I could see her cry.
I watched her go, regretful, but not surprised. This was out of her depth—she probably had a nice suburban home to go back to. Steady job. Maybe a dog. I was just an interesting detour in a straightforward life.
It could be my life. For a minute I was tempted: give up, give in, fade out, fit in. Like Tombstone. Like Gorey. Surely, I could find a wholesome Alpine maiden who still blushed at the thought of being desired to settle down with. A clean and quiet life in the Midwest. A few Hummel figurines for children.
A life under glass. I imagined myself caged in Laura-Laura’s house, wearing khaki and watching my language—maybe joining a Presbyterian church. Coaching Little League. Teaching Boy Scouts how to tie knots. Drinking light beer; claiming to like the taste. A surge of vicarious depression skated across the back of my mind like a cold wind and I shuddered.
“You deserve that black eye,” Melody’s voice cut through the ringing in my ears. My heart leaped and I turned the wrong way to try to look at her and had to turn all the way around before finding her with my good eye.
Thank you, Holy Father.
“Yeah? You want to kiss it better?”
She assessed the damage to my face and licked her lips. “I don’t kiss assholes.” She leaned on the bar beside me and held up two fingers to the bartender.
“Take pity on me: I’m a wounded man.”
The bartender set down two plastic cups on the bar, poured a measure of whiskey into each, and chased it with a dark look in Melody’s direction. I reached for one of the cups but Melody held it out of my reach and downed it.
“Evie says you keep asking about me,” she said.
“You seem surprised.”
“Most guys…” she trailed off, glancing away self-consciously. Most guys freaked out when they found out she had a kid.
“I’m not most guys.”
Melody came around the stool to stand in front of me. She had my pass around her neck and I tugged on it to pull her close.
“I’m glad you came,” I said, and I meant it.
“I promised I would.” Melody stepped in closer until she had a knee on either side of my legs. I wanted her so badly, but I held up my hands: not touching. Melody looked at them, then looked back at me, and settled her weight onto my lap.
“I’m not looking for a relationship,” she said, “nothing…serious.”
“I don’t want you tellin’ me how I gotta live my life. I don’t belong to you, and I never will,” she said. “You get me?”
“Yes.” My mouth was dry. My voice cracked. Something clenched in my chest.
“I don’t get to tell you how to live your life.”
“You don’t belong to me.”
“And you never will.”
Melody poured the second shot in her mouth and leaned forward to press her lips against mine, spilling the warmed liquor across my tongue. The sweetness of it sent me reeling: I sank into the kiss like I was drowning.
“My baby’s with her father tonight,” she told me when she finally pulled away. “Court-ordered visitation. Apartment’s too empty without her.”
An invitation? I held my breath as she twined her arms around my neck.
“I don’t want to be alone tonight.”
“Me neither,” I said. “You wanna get out of here?”
“Back to your ‘friend’s’ place?”
“No, I’m banished. Let’s go to your place: I’ll fill your emptiness.”
Melody hesitated. “Can I trust you?”
I tugged at the lanyard dangling around her neck again. “I asked your priest friend the same thing when I gave him this. Wasn’t sure he’d give it to you. He said I was just gonna have to take the leap: I wouldn’t know if I got it right till afterwards.”
“Seems to have worked out pretty okay.” I leaned in to kiss her again and she parted her lips to meet me with a faint gasp of pleasure before pulling away again.
“But can I trust you?” she persisted.
I sighed and looked around the hospitality tent as I considered how to answer.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’m a dumpster fire of a human being: I drink. I do drugs. I chase women. I swear a blue streak. I get into fights.” I gestured to my black eye meaningfully and she caressed it with the edge of her thumb with a faint smile. “But I won’t lie to you, or try to control you. I’m not looking for anything serious, but I’m not gonna treat you like you don’t matter. I get tested, I wear a condom, I like making you cum and I want to eat your pussy till you squeal. And I make pretty good pancakes the morning after. And I get the feeling Judge’ll kick my ass into next year if I hurt you, so…”
The more I talked the more Melody struggled to hide her smile until at last she burst out laughing. “I never had a guy try so hard to sell himself short like you just did,” she admitted.
“Well, it ain’t pretty, but it’s the truth.”
“It’s something alright.” She climbed off my lap and got to her feet. “Maybe you’re not like everybody else after all.”
“Baby, I’m not like anybody else.”
She offered me a hand and pulled me up. “C’mon, let’s go home.”
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CHAPTER 28: MELODY’S PLACE will go live Monday, January 3rd, 2022
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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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CHAPTER 27: NOTHING SERIOUS will go live Monday, December 27th , 2021
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Riot Fest had begun life as a scrappy punk/rock showcase in the dank undergrowth of Chicago’s alternative music scene. Left unchecked, it had flourished like mold in a refrigerator until it finally spilled out of its traditional home at the Congress Theatre and emerged into the sunlight as a full-grown music festival. It was now a carnival of porta-potties and amusement rides, which occupied the grassy expanse of Humboldt Park just a few blocks from the Cursèd Place. Our street was now a nightmare snarl of box trucks and cargo vans and tourists from the suburbs who didn’t know how to fucking parallel park.
I sat on the roof watching the traffic lurch past on the street below and stewed about Tombstone. He still refused to answer my messages, so I’d programmed Google alerts to ping my phone any time his name or photo appeared on social media. There had been a handful of sightings in the neighborhood, so wherever he was staying, it was close by, but the festival was closing in, and I still didn’t know if he would show up.
“Still no word from Tombstone?” Kilroy stuck his head out the window and lit a cigarette.
“Christ, we’re fucked.”
“He’ll be there,” I said with a confidence I didn’t feel.
“And if he isn’t?”
“He’ll be there. His girls’ll be there. And we’ve got the Blackjack.”
It had been an unexpected stroke of luck to learn that Tedrick still had possession of the Blackjack. The rain at Lollapalooza had futzed with her circuitry and Tedrick had taken it upon himself to perform a full technical overhaul on the electronics. I snapped a photo of the guitar laid out on Tedrick’s workbench with the viscera of wires and pickups spilling out in all directions like a biology specimen and texted it to Tombstone.
Tombstone didn’t respond.
“You’re playin’ with fire, dude,” Tedrick said.
“Whatever it takes to make him show his face,” I replied.
But when the morning of our show rolled around, Tombstone had still not appeared.
I stood on the stage overlooking the still-empty park feeling panic knot in my guts as I watched Tedrick sound check the Blackjack; methodically testing all the pedals and effects as he dialed in Tombstone’s signature tone.
“Still no word from Tombstone?” he asked.
Tedrick ran a riff like he was mentally preparing himself to have to play it in the show. The odds were in his favor. “If he does show up—and that’s looking like a pretty big ‘if’ right now, how’re you going to get him on stage without The Ritual,” he asked.
Ahh yes, The Ritual.
Tombstone’s stage fright was a force of nature. Getting him on stage involved a complicated series of coping mechanisms we called The Ritual: booze, weed, exhaustive guitar warm-ups. A blowjob if we could find a girl who was game for it. He couldn’t go onstage without his hat, without his mirrored sunglasses, without the bottom half of his face hidden beneath a black bandana that made him look like a redneck rip-off Charlie Scene. Pleading. Threatening. Coaxing. Bribing. Guided meditation. We’d tried it all. It usually came down to a matter of force: Tedrick typically had to shove him onto the stage hard enough for him to get him to his amp and plug the Blackjack into its inputs, then he’d be fine.
“I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it,” I said. One problem at a time: first I had to get him to the stage, then, I’d worry about how to get him on it.
My phone pinged to tell me that Lacey was at the side gate with Piper in tow. I arrived at the security checkpoint and waved to a guard to let them inside. Lacey strode into the park boldly, pausing by one of the Riot Fest banners and pursed her lips into a duckface to snap a selfie. She was wearing some kind of sack for a dress with a hem that ended somewhere around her navel.
“You tryin’ to get arrested?” I plucked at the ends of the fabric and she rolled her eyes.
“You sound like Daddy.”
“You tryin’ to get me arrested? Go on, call me ‘Daddy’ one more time.”
It was her turn to blush. “I’m just trying to have some fun,” she said, sullen with embarrassment.
“Well, don’t fun yourself into a roofie.”
“Do I look stupid?”
“No, you look like a plump, fluffy bunny in the middle of a starving wolf pack.” I could feel eyes turning toward us as we passed through the crowd and for the first time in a long time none of them were looking at me.
“I told you,” Piper said. She didn’t look like she was having any fun or like she expected to. She was wearing one of Tombstone’s threadbare flannels over an ancient, faded OBNXS t-shirt that came down practically to her knees; unintentionally hip in her own blithely un-ironic way. I ruffled her hair to her evident annoyance.
“You know everything, eh, kid?”
“I’m not a kid,” she insisted. “I’m a mature young adult. And at least I know not to dress like a prostitute.”
“Seen a lot of prostitutes in your life?” I asked her and she blushed. “They don’t dress any certain way.”
“How would you know.”
“How do you think?” I said, knowing her mind would make the worst of it. Lacey’s lip curled in disgust.
“Keep it up, missy, and you’ll find out just how gross I can be.” I gestured her into the hospitality area where tables had been set up with food and drinks. I glanced around for any sign of Tombstone. Nothing.
Thirty minutes until showtime.
“Where’s Dad?” Piper wanted to know, looking around. Tombstone was close: the Google alerts were all coming from inside the park now as he drifted among the festival goers—just another rock enthusiast out to hear some tunes.
“Don’t know, kiddo. Must still be on his way.”
Fuck. I was going to have to take this another step.
“C’mon, let’s get a selfie.” I handed Lacey my phone, and her face lit up. The light of the display cast two blue sparks into her eyes as she tilted her head until the angle was perfect and the gap in her collar teased a glimpse of her cleavage.
“Ready,” she declared, with eyes only for herself. I squeezed Piper into the edge of her world and put an arm around them both. Piper smiled the artless smile of a pre-teen while Lacey made a peace sign with her free hand and pursed her cotton candy lips. In a burst of camera flash, I licked the side of her face, chin to hairline.
“EEEEEEWWW!!” she squealed, elbowing me away. “You’re so—”
She thrust the phone back into my hand with a dismissive scoff as she scrubbed her face. Jojo chose that moment to rescue me, arriving in a romper nearly as short as Lacey’s dress.
“Cute dress,” she said.
“You like it?” Lacey flashed a victorious smile at me. “He’s being a huge perv about it.”
“Rude,” Jojo agreed, managing to keep a straight face. She turned to Piper: “And look at you, lady—just…look at you.” Piper’s utter lack of fashion sense left her at a loss. She cast a look at me and I shook my head, answering her unspoken question: still no Tombstone.
“C’mon, let’s go talk, just us girls,” she said as she twined an arm through Lacey’s elbow to guide them toward a secluded area where they wouldn’t be kicked out for being underage.
“Still no sign of Tombstone?” Kilroy shuffled up looking worried.
“He’ll be here,” I assured him. I scrolled through the photos Lacey had captured, a rapid succession of frames telling a story of vanity, leering misogyny, and disgust. Every father’s worst nightmare for his underage, teenage daughter. I picked the worst of them and texted it to Tombstone’s phone.
Tastes like Teen Spirit.
“If that don’t fetch ‘em, then I don’t know Arkansas.”
I turned to find Marla lurking behind me like a vicious rumor.
“You just get here?” I asked her, stifling the urge to ask how long she’d been there and how much she’d seen or heard. Her outfit was an exercise in conflicting impulses: a milf cosplaying as thot. Her North Shore suburban soccer mom veneer was flaking like the paint job on an ’82 Fiero. Lacey was going to be mortified.
“Took me a minute to flirt my way in,” she preened as she lunged toward me with arms outstretched. “I still got it.”
“Oh, you got it alright.”
I’d given the dude at the gate fifty bucks and strict instructions to let her in but not to make it too easy for her. I wondered how far he’d let her push it.
My phone buzzed in my hand and I glanced at it behind Marla’s back.
You’re dead, shithead.
Come and get me, cocksucker. I texted back, and then added: Your wife says ‘hi’. I took a selfie of myself behind Marla’s back, giving him the finger. I pressed send.
“Did you just take a picture of my ass?”
“Just trying to get your best side.”
Marla snatched for my phone and I held it over her head hooking a finger in the collar of her dress to snap a photo of her tits. I glimpsed a gleam of metal.
“Is that a nipple ring?” I needled her. “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”
Marla blushed and rolled her eyes; it was clear where Lacey got it from.
“It’s a nipple shield,” she said. “It’s not permanent or anything.”
“What’s the special occasion?” I leered, then lowered my voice suggestively. “Did you dress up just for me?” I tugged at the collar of her dress again and she blushed more deeply, her eyes bright. I moved closer until we were chest to chest. “What would Tombstone say?”
“I won’t tell him if you won’t,” she whispered, biting her lip. Her hands slid up my chest and I caught her wrists and held them against me. The thought of fucking Marla made my skin crawl but I swallowed my revulsion and bent my head until my lips were a breath away from her neck. I inhaled the smell of her, letting her feel me do it.
“You smell like a woman who hasn’t been fucked in a while,” I growled in her ear, feeling her squirm against me at the sound of the words.
“Yes…” she whispered, her eyes closed, skin flushed with warmth.
“There wouldn’t be anything left of you if I had my way with you,” I extended a finger and brushed the tip of it against her collarbone, the lightest touch. Marla moaned out loud and let her head fall back, sinking into the sensation as—
Tombstone’s arm wrapped around my neck, yanking me off my feet. I let go of Marla and tumbled over backward landing on top of a hundred and eighty pounds of angry redneck. I twisted to my side, struggling to free my throat from his arm before he could lock the grip. We wrestled on the ground, tearing up tufts of grass in our struggle while Marla fluttered nearby, more than a little pleased to have two men fighting over her.
“TJ stop it!” Marla screamed at him, still glossy with lust.
I got out of the headlock, but Tombstone twisted me onto my back and pinned me to the ground. He straddled my chest and wound up a fist.
Tombstone froze in place, chest still heaving, red-faced with rage. I followed his gaze to where Lacey stood over us, too scared to play it cool. Piper’s lip trembled as she fought back tears.
“We’re on.” Tedrick strode up with the Blackjack in hand, tuned and ready to go. I saw Tombstone close off again: he knew what I was doing. No way was he letting me get away with this. No way was he going to let me win.
“Daddy, please don’t—” Lacey begged. The sound of her voice seemed to cut through his anger and I could see his fist loosen. He didn’t want to fight in front of his girls. He seethed and I could see his mind racing. It wasn’t too late: he could still walk away without losing face and I’d be left with my thumb up my ass. If I ever wanted to be able to leverage him onto the stage, I was going to have to make him take the punch.
“Daddy, stop,” I mimicked her. “Daddy, please don’t—”
Whatever control Tombstone had over his anger broke. I tucked my chin, bracing for the impact, hoping he didn’t decide to aim for my mouth—not if I wanted to have any chance of doing a show afterward. I felt knuckles connect with my left eye and saw stars.
Tedrick hauled him off of me before he could punch again and fuck up his hand, but Tombstone still managed to kick me in the ribs hard enough to knock the wind out of me. He spat, the gob of it hitting the ground beside my head as I coughed and groaned and struggled to roll onto my feet.
Tedrick held out the Blackjack again, but Tombstone waved it away, pacing in an angry circle, burning off the anger and adrenaline. Marla was on him like wet silk on a windowpane, murmuring something in his ear, pressing her body to his side. A minute ago she’d been ready to let me bend her over the table, but now she was Tombstone’s girl: all sweetness and devotion.
“You alright?” Security was closing in. I waved them away.
“Fine,” I said. “It’s just my face.”
“You want to call the cops? Press charges?”
“Fuck, no. I got a show to do.”
The show must go on.
New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!
CHAPTER 26: GUITAR HERO will go live Monday, December 20th , 2021
Don’t want to wait? Purchase a copy of the full book here: www.amazon.com