CHAPTER 18: VEEVEE WUVS BWOO

Evelyn stood by the door to the club when Camille and I returned with Sister Mary Edith between us.

“Is Jesse inside?” Camille asked her as she ejected a valet from his folding chair and settled the elderly nun onto it. “One of his sisters is loose.”

“I think so? I haven’t seen him leave, but …” Evelyn frowned as she tried to figure out what she was looking at.

Camille stubbed out her cigarette in the bucket beside the door and bent down to speak to the old woman at eye level. “I’m going to go get someone to bring you home, Sister, okay? Wait here.” She straightened and glanced from me to Evelyn and back again. “I can’t take her inside; she’ll have a heart attack.”

“I’ll stay with her,” I told her.

Camille nodded and disappeared inside.

“Who’s your friend?” Evelyn asked.

“Found her wandering along the property line. Apparently, there’s a convent next door?”

“So I’ve heard. What were you doing along the property line?” Evelyn asked, then thought better of it. “Actually, no, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

Sister Mary Edith took my hand and beamed up at me toothlessly. She pressed the back of my hand to her cheek fondly and began to croon something in a language I didn’t understand.

“She likes you.”

“Of course she likes me; I’m extraordinary,” I said, although in truth I was surprised that the sight of my piercings and tattoos hadn’t sent her running for the hills.

“Oh you’re something else alright,” Evelyn said. “I heard about your fight. You okay?”

“I’m fine,” I assured her. “Just band drama—”

“Sister Edith!” The Mohawk Dude emerged from the club in a rush and took a knee at the nun’s feet. He smoothed her hair and gently straightened her nightgown. “It’s me, sister. It’s Jesse—you know me?” Sister Mary Edith took his face between her hands and smiled beatifically and utterly without recognition.

She might not have known him, but Mohawk Dude seemed to know her. He dabbed at her cheek with his thumb and untied a hoodie from around his waist to drape it over her shoulders. I realized there was a clerical collar safety pinned to the collar of his t-shirt, partly covering a neck tattoo of a flaming skull. The crest of his hair stood out from his head in tall, aggressive spikes that seemed utterly at odds with the gentle, one-sided conversation he was carrying on for her benefit.

“Decided to go for a nighttime stroll, huh? Nice night for it, isn’t it. Late now, though—we oughtta get you back. Right? Yeah—” Realizing that her feet were bare, he untied his sneakers and pried them off one by one to slide them over the old woman’s muddy feet.

“That’s better, isn’t it? Yeah, that’s much better. C’mon sister, let’s get you home.” He helped the old woman to her feet and cast a shy half-grin in my direction. “Thanks for the help.”

“No worries.”

“…bless,” he said, pressing his palms together and ducked his head before turning taking Sister Mary Edith’s elbow and heading out into the waning night.

“What just happened?” I asked, watching him go.

“Apparently, he’s a priest? Everyone calls him Father.”

“What the hell is a priest doing in a strip club?”

Evelyn shrugged. “This is the first time I’ve seen him, but I guess he’s a regular. Judge just lets him do his thing.”

“His ‘thing’?”

Evelyn held up her hands. “I just work here.”

The valet finally managed to extract the Goat from whatever alternate dimension he’d parked it in and pulled up in front of where we stood. He climbed out and held the door open for me, but I didn’t get in right away. “Hey, you hungry? Let’s get breakfast,” I said to Evelyn.

“What?”

“Breakfast. You know: pancakes, bacon, coffee.”

“It’s two in the morning!”

“So? The Pancake House is open twenty-four seven. C’mon, Evil. I haven’t seen you in forever—it’ll be fun.”

“I’m working.”

“Judge’ll let you go. You’ll be doing him a favor; making it so he doesn’t have to kick me out. C’mon, please?” I wheedled. “Tell him you gotta hang with your big brother.”

Evelyn looked back toward the club and weighed her options. “Fine,” she said at last. “You go on ahead. I’ll go ask Judge, and if he says I can go, I’ll meet you there. Deal?”

“Deal,” I said. “Be there or be a fucking polygon.”

*          *          *          *

Evelyn arrived at the Pancake House twenty minutes later wearing a pair of yoga pants and an oversized Northwestern t-shirt. The last time I’d seen her was at her college graduation when she still looked like a kid. She looked like a grown-up now.

The waitress, a dead-eyed woman in her fifties who smelled like cigarettes and cats, came and took our orders: bacon and eggs for me, fruit with cottage cheese for Evelyn. Coffee all around. The waitress poured the coffee and disappeared into the kitchen to put in our order.

“I can’t stay long. Markos’s going to worry if I’m late,” Evelyn said, pulling her mug toward her and inhaling the steam. Under the half-watt lights dangling over the table, she looked as exhausted as I felt.

“Tell him you’re with me.”

“That won’t help much. He’s heard enough stories about you.”

“So, you’re living with Markos now?”

“I stay with him when I work nights,” she said. “He is my fiancé.”

“That’s a sin, you know.”

Evelyn made a face.

“Fornicator.”

“Don’t be a child. “

“What would Mom say?”

“She doesn’t know,” Evelyn said. “She might guess but I haven’t told her. We’re kinda not speaking right now—we got into this huge fight about the wedding plans last week. Ever since her hysterectomy she’s been a nightmare—”

“Hang on, Mom had a hysterectomy?!” I froze, sugar packets half tipped toward the coffee and looked at her to see if she was serious. She was. “When the fuck did this happen?”

“A couple of weeks ago,” Evelyn said. “Sorry—I thought you knew. I didn’t mean to spring it on you.”

“No one tells me shit. What happened?”

“She had these growths—fibroids or something—and they kept bleeding…you know, like a really heavy period or whatever. She thought it was just because of The Change, but she got so anemic she fainted after Gaya’s wedding and Dad had to rush her to the emergency room. She decided to just have them take everything out.”

“Eew, Jesus. But she’s okay?”

Evelyn sipped her coffee. “Yeah, she’s fine. But it messed with her hormones so she’s unbearable now.”

The waitress brought our food. I wasn’t hungry, but I ate anyway.

“Eating like that’s going to kill you,” Evelyn said, watching me shove bacon in my mouth. I eyed her plate of melon cubes and cheese clots.

“You’re one to talk. You on some kind of cleanse?”

“I’m not eating sugar,” Evelyn said. “I’m a bride. I gotta fit into the dress.”

“And I’m a rockstar. I gotta fit into an early grave.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes and drank her coffee, bracing her elbows on the table and holding the mug in both hands. “What’s that like?”

 “An early grave? Probably a lot like being thirty.”

“No, being a rockstar,” she said. “Happy birthday, by the way.”

“Thanks.” I thought about it for a while, chasing egg yolk around the plate with a crust of toast I knew I wouldn’t eat. “I dunno. I’m not really a rockstar, I just play one on TV.”

“Yes, you are,” Evelyn insisted. “You got albums. You tour—you’ve been all over the world, right? People recognize you. Heck, I see more of you in magazines than I do in real life.”

“I travel all the time and never get anywhere. I scream obscenities into an uncaring void and prance around on stage like I’m too stupid to know I look like an idiot. I live with lowlifes and I hang out with strippers. Welcome to the grand fucking illusion.”

As if the very mention of “lowlifes and strippers” could conjure them into existence, I heard a commotion at the door, and I looked up in time to see Tombstone and the guys enter, followed by a cohort of dancers from the club, now plain and drab with their street clothes on. Tombstone stopped short when he saw me but didn’t approach.

Evelyn glanced over her shoulder as the entourage laid claim to a corner booth on the far side of the restaurant. I could hear the hubbub of voices and laughter from across the wide swath of No Man’s Land between us, but I couldn’t make out any of the actual conversation.

“Hey. Focus.” Evelyn snapped her fingers in front of my face to get my attention. “I’m here for you and I’m gonna be a wreck in a few hours when I get to work, so pay attention.”

“Yeah—sorry.” I wrenched my attention back to the table in front of me

A thought occurred to me. “It’s Saturday.”

“Yeah, so?”

“You said you have to work in a few hours but it’s Saturday.”

“I have a weekend job.”

“Bullshit. Where? Doing what?”

Evelyn blushed. “It’s at the Renaissance Faire. I help lure people to Markos’ shows. Not that he needs the help. I think he just hired me so we could see each other.”

“What about the Botanical Gardens?”

“I do that during the week.”

“So, you work a full-time day job, a part-time night job, and a weekend job? Are you paying off a mob debt or something?”

“It’s just something I have to do,” she said with a finality that said none of your business. “Which reminds me, Camille said to give you this.” She reached into her purse and produced a business card that she handed to me. Neither the name nor the company meant anything to me.

“What’s this?”

“One of her regulars is in advertising. She says he’s keen to meet you.”

“Will I be required to fellate him?”

“Uhh,” Evelyn decided not to rise to the bait and soldiered on. “Something about licensing one of your songs for an ad. Sounds like it’s good money if you can get it.”

“I shall butter my anus accordingly.”

“Ohmigod you’re gross,” Evelyn muttered. Her phone buzzed against the sticky table and she reached for it, glad to have the excuse to avoid my gaze. “Markos is getting antsy,” she said, glancing at a text on the screen. “I oughtta get a move on.”

She retrieved her purse and dropped a handful of bills on the table, then cracked her jaw around a yawn. She got to her feet and folded me into a weary hug. “Be good to yourself,” she said with her ear pressed against my chest. “Veevee wuvs, Bwoo.”

Evie loves Blue.

It was how she used to wish me good night as a kid. I felt a pang of nostalgia for a time I’d almost forgotten had even existed.

“Demon loves Evil,” I replied. Evelyn held on for just a moment longer than she needed to, then she pushed away with a weary smile and walked out the door, leaving me once again alone.

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 19: MONEY, PEOPLE, DIRT will go live Monday, November 1st , 2021

Don’t want to wait? Purchase a copy of the full book here: www.amazon.com

CHAPTER 17: THE GOOD SISTER

After the roar of the club, the outdoors rang with silence. The night insects were silent, and the birds hadn’t started yet leaving only the susurrus of cars rushing by on the distant highway. I gulped the night air still trying to bring myself back down to earth while Camille handed my parking stub to the valet. She climbed up onto the curb beside me and ran her fingers through my hair, massaging my scalp. It helped. I felt myself start to calm down.

“So, you and your red-haired friend got some kind of beef, huh?” she asked, but it wasn’t really a question. “What’d he do? Fuck your woman?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Yeah, I gathered. Tell me anyway.” She took out a cigarette and pressed it between her lips. In the glow of the building’s LEDs she looked older than she did in the dark, but she was still hot, and my body warred with itself over which brain it wanted to send my blood to.

I struck a match and shielded it from the wind for her while I considered how to explain the perfect storm of co-dependence that summed up my relationship with Tombstone. I was closer to him than I was to my own family, but he couldn’t have been more different from me if he’d tried. We orbited each other like two stars trapped in a gravity well. If fate saw fit to drop me into the deepest jungle, or the most remote arctic ice floe, sooner or later I would find Tombstone there, crossing my path, haunting me like bad luck.

“You know what an angler fish is?” I asked. “One of those ugly-ass deep-sea fish with the little dangling light?”

“Yeahhh, okay?” Camille sucked in a deep lungful of smoke and held it while she tried to figure out why the fuck I was talking about fish.

“When they mate, they kinda just fuse together and that’s it. They’re one fish after that. The male just becomes a part of the female and they can’t ever…break apart again.”

“Symbiotes,” she said.

“Gesundheit.”

“The fish: they’re symbiotes. They depend on each other.”

“Yeah, well…that’s me and Tombstone. I write the music. He plays it. He writes the lyrics. I sing them.” A snake endlessly eating its own tail.

“Okay, so? A lot of people are co-dependent without…” Camille waved vaguely in the direction of the club with her cigarette surrounding both of us in a halo of smoke. “Why all the chest-thumping?”

“I dunno. Stupid stuff.” He tried to sell my grandfather’s watch! I wanted to say, but I realized how faint and weak that would probably sound to a stranger. “We were broke and he tried to sell something that was important to me. Like, really important to me. Something I couldn’t replace, and…I got it back, but…”

“Okay, sounds like a dick move, but you said you got it back, right? So, what am I missing here?”

I stared out over the club’s parking lot realizing she was right: the watch had just been a convenient excuse. Our real problems ran deeper than that. We’d been at each other’s throats for weeks before that, fighting over everything. The band. The tour. Women. Booze. We’d been on the road almost non-stop for more than a year, and I’d loved every minute of it, but Tombstone hated it. He hated being on the road, hated going onstage, hated being away from his girls. But the money was too good to pass up, so he went along with it.

But now the money was gone. The tour was over. Tombstone had a home to go back to while he licked his wounds. And I didn’t. He had a family waiting for him. And I didn’t. He had someplace he belonged. And I didn’t. Without the band I was nothing. And without Tombstone there was no band.

“Fuck…” I muttered as the realization set in. Camille just nodded as if she understood and slung an arm across my shoulders.

“Look, sometimes symbiotes can live without each other and sometimes they can’t,” she said. “But the whole point is that they’re stronger together. Sooner or later you and Tombstone are gonna have to work out your differences. I like you too much to see you go down like that.”

“Oh, trust me; you’ll like how I go down,” I assured her with a raised eyebrow. Camille threw her head back and laughed.

“Yeah? Well, in that case…” She leaned in close and pressed her breasts against my chest. “What do you say we finish what we started?”

“What, here?”

Camille grinned.

I grinned back.

“I’m taking my smoke break,” Camille announced to the door guy nearby. He glanced up from his Sudoku, took one look at me, and knew a lie when he heard it.

“Uh-huh.”

“Don’t ‘uh-huh’ me, mister.”

“Just take it to the other side of the property line,” he told her.

“I know the rules, Dutch,” Camille rolled her eyes.

“And be back before your rotation. If Avi goes on the warpath I’m not covering for you.”

Camille waved the cigarette in his face. “I’ll be back before this is done,” she said. “Just see if I don’t.”

Door Guy Dutch rolled his shoulders in a shrug that said do what you want and turned back to his Sudoku. Camille took me by the hand and led me along the side of the club to the fence line. A narrow gap opened onto an easement at the edge of the property, and a shallow drainage ditch ran between two fences: chain link on one side, wooden panels on the other. A series of wooden pallets bridged the gap. Camille stopped at a secluded spot between the dumpsters and a propane tank.

I had to admit, it was a new low, even for me.

“Homey.”

“Don’t be precious,” she said balancing her cigarette on the top of a wooden post. “You afraid to get a little dirty?”

“Fuck no.” I reached into my pocket for my wallet, but Camille caught my wrist.

“Put that away, I’m a slut not a whore.”

“How dare you, I would never presume such a thing,” I told her in mock outrage. “I am a gentleman.” I extracted a foil packet from out of the billfold and held it up to her. Camille’s expression softened in comprehension and she laughed.

“And a boy scout. Very prepared.” She reached down between us and undid my belt and the fly of my jeans, tugging them down off my hips. My erection sprang free in the warm summer air. The soft, warm skin of her palm stroked the length of my shaft once or twice and I saw stars. “You clean?” she asked.

“Yeah. You?”

“Just got tested. Came back clean.”

Ahh romance.

“Gonna need a condom anyway,” I told her as I ran my hands up her waist and sides to squeeze her tits under her dress.

“The piercing?” I felt her thumb find the barbell and gasped.

“Yeap,” I managed.

“Don’t worry, I can handle it.” She tore the foil packet open with her teeth and rolled it on in a dexterous movement almost too fast to see. I pressed her back against the cinderblock wall with a surge of frantic need. She wrapped her legs around my waist, and I thumbed aside her g-string to sink into her in a single, swift movement. A gasp escaped her lips.

“Oh, God,” she moaned as I pinned her to the wall with my hips. Her legs clenched around me, pulling me in deeper. “Fuck me hard.”

I thrust into her, bracing myself against the cinderblock wall, aware I’d put my hand down in something sticky and greasy at the same time. My brain shut off. All I could hear was the pounding of my own blood and the frantic panting of Camille’s breath in my ear. The dumpsters reeked of putrefying food and moldy paper and I felt like filth, which felt like a relief. My back ached from holding her up, but I couldn’t stop. I thrust harder as the low, continuous siren sound of Camille’s moaning sent sensations of ecstasy through my body.

“Ohh, fuckkk….” I groaned in pleasure. Camille came with a clenching gasp that gripped me inside and out. The force of it pushed me over the edge and I came too, like a flood, draining all my anger and frustration and leaving me empty but unfulfilled.

In the emptiness came disgust. Disgust with myself. Disgust with Camille. Disgust with the smell of the trash and the filthy dumpsters.

This is your life. This is all there is. This is all there will ever be.

I pulled out of her abruptly and turned away to vomit in the weeds that were overtaking the perimeter of the easement.

“Goddamn,” Camille said behind me. “It wasn’t that bad.”

If she was insulted, she didn’t show it. She straightened her dress with the businesslike attitude of someone who spent a lot of time getting in and out of clothes and retrieved the still-burning cigarette from the fence post to take a drag while she waited for me to finish retching.

“Sorry,” I croaked when I finally ran out of bile. I pushed myself up onto my knees to shed the condom and threw it on the ground before looking up at her. “I don’t know what came over me—oh, fuck!!”

In the stagnant water of the ditch behind Camille stood a ghoul-like figure staring at the two of us with an expression of inarticulate horror.

“Ohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuckofuck!”

I was hallucinating. I had to be. I’d finally broken with reality. Lurid neon flames crowned a face carved out of deep shadows, and a pair of hollow, unblinking eyes that drilled into my soul. I struggled to cover myself.

“What the hell?!” Camille turned to follow my gaze, saw the ghoul, and started to laugh. “Oh, it’s her. Take a breath. It’s just one of the nuns from next door.”

I gasped for a breath. My wits struggled to catch up with me.

“There’re nuns next door?”

“Yeah, and they’re a pain in the ass. Been trying to close us down for months.” Picking her way along the grassy incline, she held out her hands to the woman and made a kissing sound as if she were trying to coax a kitten. “C’mere sister. It’s okay, c’mon.”

The figure shuffled toward Camille and I could see she was a woman: old, and probably demented, but human. The good sister did not seem to be aware of my presence: her wild stare was fixed on the colored lights playing across the front of the club, and her mouth sagged open as if stricken with awe. She was wearing some kind of limp nightgown. Even in the darkness it was possible to see the dark points of her nipples hanging down over the ridge of her belly—a round, doughy mass balanced on two spindly legs. Her feet were bare.

Camille got a grip on the old woman’s flaccid bicep guided her up the grassy incline of the easement onto the club side. “Damen Warner meet Sister Mary Edith,” she said. “She’s got the Alzheimer’s so she tends to wander. We better find someone to walk her home. Fucking nuns. Know how to ruin all the fun.”

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 18: VEE VEE WUVS BWOO will go live Monday, October 25th, 2021

Don’t want to wait? Purchase a copy of the full book here: www.amazon.com

CHAPTER 16: THE EVIL SISTER

Melody. Melody. Melody.

She was all I wanted to think about. All week long my memory kept calling up her scent and sending me spiraling back into obsession.

I hated it.

I loved it.

Suddenly, I had energy for music again. Hell, suddenly I had energy for everything again. I was ready to run a few laps around the Loop and climb a skyscraper while beating my chest and swatting at helicopters. I no longer felt compelled to drink myself into a stupor. I occasionally caught myself whistling.

My newfound energy was not universally well-received.

“What the hell are you so happy about?” Jojo wanted to know. She appeared at the doorway to her room looking worse for the wear and scowled at me.

“I feel alive again,” I said.

“How much cocaine have you had, honey?”

“None, why?”

“You haven’t slept in, like, four days.”

“What day is it?”

“Friday. We’re goin’ to the club. You comin’ or not?”

Melody. Melody. Melody.

“I’m coming.”

*          *          *          *

Club Lure was packed when we got there. I did a quick, hopeful glance around the room in search of Melody. There were a lot of dancers working that night, but none that I recognized. On the nearer stage, caged in by brass poles, a leggy redhead looked me up and down and shook her ass in my direction until Tombstone bellied up to the tip rail with a stack of singles. I’d largely forgiven Kilroy and Jojo for leaving me out in the rain, but Tombstone and I were only barely on civil terms.

“Well, well, look who it is.” Judge made his presence known by thumping me on the back hard enough to knock the Holy Spirit out of me.

“Here I am,” I said.

“I heard Melody had her way with you, but you look like you come through it okay.” Judge stowed his cell phone in the breast pocket of his bowling shirt and peered at me over the top of his glasses. “Where’s the bar girl? I need a Coke.”

I shrugged. The bartender was also the waitress. I could see a long blondish ponytail circulating in the crowd with a tray, blending in more with the lumpy shapes of the patrons than the bright undulating curves of the dancers.

Judge grunted in acknowledgment and gestured toward the door to his office with a nod of his head. “Come with me, we got stuff to talk about. Send Eden up when she gets back.” This last was directed to a skinny dude with a mohawk and a utilikilt leaning on the bar nearby: clearly some kind of regular. Mohawk Dude nodded, his eyes flicking over me with a startle of recognition, but he stayed put.

I followed Judge up the stairs to his office and took a seat on one of the couches.

“Lolla was somethin’ this year, eh? Helluva storm.” Judge sank down in the swivel chair behind the desk in a creaking of springs.

“Yeah, we played all of one song. God fucking hates us, but whatever, we got paid.”

“Drink?” Judge produced a bottle of rum from the bottom drawer of his desk and held it out to me.

“Fuck yes.”

Judge poured a measure of rum into a glass on his desk and handed it to me while he poured a second. I swallowed it down in a single gulp and held the glass out for more. Judge eyed me for a moment and then filled it again.

“Pace yourself, crustbucket. Don’t need you passing out again.”

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” I asked, but I took a dainty sip of the rum with my pinkie raised for his benefit.

Judge chortled with a sound like he was boiling mud in his chest. “So, what’s next?”

I stared down into my glass as if it held the answers I was looking for. “Hell if I know,” I said. There had been a time, not long ago, when I would have done anything to get my ass out of Chicago the minute Lollapalooza was over. By all logic, I should have been on a flight back to L.A. by now; back in the city of sunshine and beautiful women and the dry rot of broken dreams and unfulfilled potential.

“Riot Fest coming up, you playin’?” Judge asked.

“Fat fucking chance.”

Thanks to the radius clause, our chances of making it on stage at Riot Fest were about the same as being launched into orbit. I didn’t need anybody rubbing it in.

“I know some people, could put in a word for you,” Judge said.

“Bitch, please, if you get us on a stage at Riot Fest, I will personally suck your—”

Holy shit!

The sudden sound of shattering glass interrupted my thought. Judge’s eyes flickered over my shoulder with an expression of annoyance.

“All good, there, E?”

I turned to see the bartender standing in the doorway to the office and startled with recognition: it was Evelyn.

It was my little sister.

“Damen?! What the hell?!” Evelyn stared at me in astonishment. Evelyn: the perfect one. Evelyn the normal one. Evelyn, the success. The college graduate with a Master’s degree and a day job and fiancé. Here. Wearing short-shorts and mile-high heels.

“I could ask you the same thing, Daisy Dukes.”

“You two know each other?” Judge asked.

“He’s… my brother,” she muttered, stooping to gather up the pieces of the glass she’d dropped. Judge’s eyes narrowed as they flickered back and forth from Evelyn to me and back again; appraising our obvious differences.

“Half-brother by blood,” I supplied. “Speaking of which: you’re bleeding.”

Evelyn looked down at her hand where her finger was bleeding from the broken glass.

“Shit.”

“You got a first aid kit?” I asked Judge.

“There’s one behind the bar,” Evelyn said. “Sorry ‘bout the mess—let me take care of this…” She waved her bloody finger in his direction and turned to head down the stairs.

“I’ll be back,” I told Judge and went after her.

What the hell was she doing here? My dismay vied with my fascination. Evelyn liked keeping secrets. She was wicked good at it too; this was the biggest secret I’d ever caught her out in. I felt slimy and delightful knowing that I wasn’t the only disappointment in the family.

 “Your fiancé know you work here?” I needled her as she ducked under the bar counter and stuck her hand under the tap to rinse away the blood.

“He helped me get the job, fart face.”

“Turd hurdle.”

“Stab rabbit.”

“What about Michael?” I asked. “He know about this little side hustle you got?” Evelyn’s lips thinned to faint pink lines over her teeth.

“No,” she spat. “He doesn’t.”

I leaned across the bar and crowed.

“Shut up! It’s just a job.” Evelyn blushed furiously and splashed water across the counter at me. It was lukewarm and smelled like rust. “So help me, Damen, if you breathe one word of this to Dad, I swear to God, I’ll chew your face off.”

“Well, that was explicit.”

“Well, I—” she didn’t have anything else. I could see her throat working and I realized she was about to cry. I was suddenly sorry. I’d taken things too far; I always did. I took a bar napkin from the stand at the corner of the bar and took her hand to wrap it around her finger.

“Sorry, Evil,” I said. “I didn’t mean it. I’m glad to see you.” I reached over the bar to give her a one-armed hug. She smelled nice. Normal. Like soap and fabric softener. She hugged me with her free arm, keeping her bloody finger away from my back.

“Hands off, bitch, I saw him first!”

I felt a pair of hands smacking at Evelyn’s arm around my neck. I pulled away to see Camille whacking at her with a clutch purse and smiling like it was a game. She was wearing thigh-high black boots paired with an electric blue dress that clung to every curve. I threaded an arm around her waist and pressed her body against my side.

“Don’t worry,” Evelyn assured her, struggling with a Band-Aid from a safe distance behind the bar. “He’s aaaaaall yours. He’s my brother.”

“Shut up!” Camille grabbed my chin and angled my face toward the light of the cage-stage. “You don’t look anything alike.”

“Trust me,” Evelyn said, darkly.

“I don’t trust anybody anymore.” Camille put on a pout that was only half-serious. “D’you know, I left him alone with Melody for five goddamn minutes and he gives her an all-access Lolla pass? That should’ve been mine.” She winked at me and lowered her voice to a purr. “I heard all about your…performance. What’s a girl gotta do to get an encore?”

Her eyes swept over my body in a way that told me she wasn’t interested in my singing.

Evelyn seemed to know what Camille was about and rolled her eyes. She finished bandaging her finger and gathered a dustpan and a roll of paper towels under one arm and headed back up to Judge’s office leaving the two of us alone.

*          *          *          *

“Now, where were we?” Camille stood over me with her hands on her hips as I once again sank into the velveteen cushions of the same champagne booth where I’d passed out a week ago. Her gaze was hungry as if I was a piece of rare steak, and she licked her lips, “You’re not gonna pass out on me again, are you?”

“No, that was a one-time thing,” I assured her, throwing a look across the booth to where Jojo was writhing against her Suicide Girl in the shifting kaleidoscope of the stage lights. She heard my oblique accusation over the thunder of the music and rolled her eyes but said nothing.

Camille settled onto my lap and melted against my chest, every inch of her soft and warm and supple; as willing and eager as Melody had been rigid and untouchable.

Melody, Melody, Melody.

I felt a twinge of guilt remembering that she was the reason I’d even come out tonight, but I quickly squashed it. It wasn’t like I owed her anything. Melody wasn’t here. Camille was. With an effort, I put Melody out of my mind and nuzzled Camille’s velvety throat with my nose and cheek. She giggled and kissed me hard, her teeth scraping my lip stud against my teeth. I hooked my thumbs on the top of her dress and waited to see if she was going to stop me. She didn’t. Instead, she put her hands over mine and tugged it down, exposing her bare breasts to me.

“You like that?” she asked, pinching a nipple with one hand and twisting a lock of hair around a finger with the other.

“I like where it’s headed,” I said. My body was beginning to sit up and beg.

“You’re gonna love where it ends up,” she smiled in my ear, pinching my earlobe between her teeth as she undid my belt. “I love a story with a happy ending…”

Kilroy chose that moment to burst into the booth in a clatter of beads, with Tombstone trailing in his wake.

“Dude!”

“Dude. Not a good time.”

Dude,” Kilroy insisted. He landed on the cushions beside me and smacked my shoulder with the back of his hand, one of his heavy silver rings clipping my collarbone. “Judge’s got a hookup for Riot Fest!”

“Ow, fuck, dude—Not. A Good. Time.” I gestured to my lap where Camille sat topless, one hand creeping down the front of my pants. Kilroy glanced at the goings-on, gave an appreciative nod, then turned his attention back to me, uninterrupted.

“Dude! Riot Fest!

“What about Riot Fest?” Jojo wrenched her attention out of her dancer’s ass and pushed herself up on an elbow.

Camille gave an annoyed groan. “If you guys’re gonna have a board meeting in here, you’re all gonna pay for fucking lap dances,” she told him, snapping her fingers at Kilroy and Tombstone’s empty laps. The floor host crammed another clutch of dancers into the booth. A redhead. An Asian girl. A pair of girls who looked like they styled themselves as twins but didn’t look much alike. The booth suddenly abounded with a carnival of flesh. We were one hard-boiled egg away from a Marx Brothers routine.

Even through the forest of legs I could see Tombstone’s fingers forming an unmistakable sign that somehow managed to express rock, riot, and riches at the same time. Riot Fest!

“We’re not playing Riot Fest,” I said again.

Tombstone’s expression slammed closed with anger. WTF?! Kilroy seemed to agree.

“We don’t exactly have a ton of options, dude.” Kilroy’s bloodshot eyes were serious. He’d taken over our bookkeeping and knew better than any of us just how many inches of debt dildo we had shoved up our asses. “We need this gig. I’m telling Judge we’ll take it.”

“Wait—” I said. I caught the hem of his t-shirt as he got to his feet and dragged him back into the booth before he could make promises we couldn’t keep. He staggered back and landed beside me.

“The fuck is your problem, dude? You can’t keep making these fucking decisions on your own,” he snapped. “First Lolla, now this? What, you’re not even gonna give TJ a say this time?”

“It’s not that I don’t want it. We can’t take it. Legally.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Kilroy demanded.

I sighed, staring at Camille’s tits without seeing them. Fuck.

“The Lolla contract has a radius clause.”

“A what?”

“A radius clause.”

Kilroy looked blank. On my lap, Camille started to laugh.

“Oh, honey, you’re fucked,” she said.

Tombstone made a questioning gesture.

“It means we can’t play any shows within 90 miles of Grant Park for a year,” I muttered in a hurried undertone, embarrassed to even have to speak the words.

Kilroy’s face went blank for a moment while he processed this.

“What’d he say?” Jojo could read the trouble on Kilroy’s face, even if the words hadn’t carried across the booth. Kilroy didn’t answer.

“We Can’t Take Any Gigs In Chicago For A Year,” I enunciated loudly, to a firing squad of angry stares.

“When the hell were you planning on telling us?!” Kilroy asked, finding his voice at last.

“It was in the contract. It wasn’t exactly a secret.”

“Like we had any fucking say in that!”

“Well, there’s nothing I can fucking to do about it now, is there?” I snapped, the thunder of blood in my ears was drowning my thoughts in static. “We either signed the contract or we didn’t play. So, we signed it, and we played the show, and we got our fee. You’d have done the same thing. Any of us would have. So, don’t fucking put this on me.”

Across the booth, Tombstone made an obscene gesture in my direction and I saw red. I shoved Camille off my lap and lunged at him. Tombstone’s face flushed with anger as he launched to his feet, slapping his chest.

Come at me, bro!

“Jesus, what is your fucking defect, man?” Kilroy struggled to get between the two of us before things could escalate, but I elbowed him out of the way to face off with Tombstone. The not-twins shrieked and fled out of the booth in a panic, but I ignored them.

“You wanna fight? C’mon; hit me.” I shouted at him. I knocked my forehead against his and Tombstone reeled back in shock, but before he could react with a punch, I was yanked backward by the force of a strong arm wrapping around my neck.

“That’s enough, fucker! Break it up!” The floor host, Rocco, trapped me in a headlock as another thick-necked gentleman pulled Tombstone in the opposite direction.

I held up my hands in surrender. “We’re cool; I’m fine. We’re cool!” I shouted to Rocco over the music, but he didn’t let me go. He hauled me out of the booth and down the short flight of steps onto the club floor before releasing me. I reeled away, nearly colliding with Camille who followed me down the stairs. She caught my arm to steady me.

“Fine! I’m fine!” I shrugged her off. I wasn’t fine. My hands were shaking. My mouth tasted like copper. I needed to punch something. Rocco started forward again but Camille put up a hand on my arm and held him back.

“I got him, Rocco. I got him.” She waited until Rocco nodded before turning back to me. “Heyyyy,” she soothed. “C’mon, you don’t wanna be fighting in here. Don’t let him be the reason I don’t get to see you anymore…” Her voice managed to make it through my rage to speak to my rational mind.

“I gotta get outta here.”

“Okay, okay, c’mon outside—I’ll have Ralph bring your car around. I’ll keep you company while you wait. Deep breath.”

I forced myself to take a deep breath and got a grip. Every fiber of me still wanted to punch Tombstone’s face in: to shatter his nose and send the cartilage up into his brain until he fell down dead. Dead as a Tombstone. But Camille was already looping her arm through my elbow and tugging me toward the exit.

Across the room, Tombstone seethed and made an angry series of gestures.

This isn’t over!

The feeling was fucking mutual.

“Any time, any place,” I told him. Then I gave him the finger with both hands and walked out of the club.

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 17: THE GOOD SISTER will go live Monday, October 18th, 2021

Don’t want to wait? Purchase a copy of the full book here: www.amazon.com

CHAPTER 15: GHOSTED

One thing was for certain, I couldn’t take her to my place. One look at the comfortable bachelor filth of the Cursèd Place and I’d be blue-balling it for sure. And with Lolla in town, the chances of finding a vacant hotel room were vanishingly small. We spilled out of the Hilton onto the rain-washed sidewalks of the South Loop and made our way to where the GTO was parked beneath the L tracks. The worst of the storm was past, and the night was settling in clear and cool. All the lights of the neighborhood had halos around them. Melody did too.

I reached into my pocket for my key ring and Quetzalez’s key caught my eye.

No sex, no drugs, no rock n roll.

Better to ask for forgiveness, I decided.

The GTO’s roar echoed up the canyon of the skyscrapers as we charged down Roosevelt Avenue toward Pilsen. Melody rolled down her window to let in the wild wind and crowed with delight. I risked a glance at her out of the corner of my eye. Her hair rippled in dark waves, and I caught a whiff of her perfume: dark and powerful. Not sweet. We crossed the river and hooked a left to head south on Damen Avenue.

“We’re on Damen!” Melody shouted gripping the dashboard as we took the corner on two wheels.

“Yeah.”

“Your name is Damen.”

“I was named after the street,” I said. “I was born on an L train and right after I came out it pulled into the station and the voice said ‘This is Damen’ so that’s what my Mom named me.”

Melody threw her head back and laughed and my heart leaped at the sound. I struggled to concentrate on the road. The intersections were numbered now instead of named. I crossed 18th and wondered if I’d gone too far. I could never remember the name of Quetzalez’s street, but the flashing blue light of a police camera told me where to turn. I slowed to a crawl, the GTO’s pre-catalytic engine chugging through the thick August air as I cruised for a parking spot and wondered if I had the wits to parallel park.

I found a spot down the block from Quetzalez’s place and eased the GTO in, managing to bumper-kiss the car in front, the car in back, and a discarded bicycle chained to the telephone pole on the passenger side. The latter shrieked and gouged a deep scar in the paint. Edward was going to hate that.

Melody didn’t wait for me to turn the engine off—she pounced across the seat and pressed her lips to mine. I fumbled with the keys, silencing the engine and the radio and then wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her onto my lap. She pressed against me and devoured my mouth like she wanted to eat me alive. I had to pull away to breathe. My heart raced faster and harder than I’d ever felt it go. I wondered if I was having a heart attack.

 “Let’s go.” Melody levered open the driver’s side door and climbed out over me, leaving me to struggle with the keys and seatbelt. I made my clumsy escape and gestured up the street.

“This way.” My voice was loud in the quiet street. Quetzalez’s place was a two-story bungalow built sometime during the 1940s in a row of other, identical bungalows. The vinyl siding had once been white but was now flaked with blue paint and the front yard was verging on overgrown around a series of flaking plaster Madonnas and faded Halloween decorations. I tried the gate, but it was locked. The lock was new and I didn’t have the key. The chain-link fence was only about chest height, so I hauled myself over it and opened the gate for Melody.

“This isn’t your house, is it?”

“It’s a friend’s place.” I held up my key ring. “It’s okay, I have a key.”

I led her down the narrow sidewalk between Quetzalez’s house and his neighbor’s. The backyard consisted of a concrete slab where Quetzalez’s Toyota was parked beside the house’s single car garage where he kept the Town car. A short series of steps lead down to a garden-level door for a mother-in-law apartment below the main house. A motion sensor light burst on at full flood, sending a cascade of bright shards across my vision.

I unlocked the door and together we staggered into the darkened apartment. I flipped on a light in time to trip over a heavy 1970’s end table and crash to the floor. Melody laughed and I rolled on my back and pulled her down on top of me.

I couldn’t wait any longer. I tore at her dress, desperate to get it over her head. She wasn’t wearing a bra, just a wisp of lace around her hips for panties. Her breasts were heavy and hot in my hands. Her nipples grew hard at my touch. Her skin was golden, and I could see a flush of color spread from her cheeks to her neck and chest.

With equal urgency, Melody clawed at my t-shirt. I helped her pull it over my head and pitched it away while she undid my belt. She tugged on the waistband. I raised my hips and pushed them down. Melody climbed off me long enough to shed her panties leaving her fully, gloriously nude, haloed by the yellow glass of a knock-off Tiffany lamp. Kneeling beside me, she freed my cock and bent forward to take it in her mouth.

“Oh, God…” I saw stars. I was dead. Surely, I was dead. Please let this be heaven. I raised a hand to stroke her back but hesitated.

No hands!

Melody seemed to sense my hesitation and raised her head.

“I want you now,” she said, her voice thick.

I lay her down beside me on the carpet and 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, 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 pulled away and propped myself up on my knees. Melody lay back on the carpet, legs splayed, her glistening sex fully exposed. With shaking hands, I reached over to the end table—the same one I’d tripped over—and searched the drawer for a condom. Quetzalez kept a stash of them there—forever hopeful. I fished one out but couldn’t tear it open. My hands were clumsy and slippery with sweat.

“Fuck! Shit!” The more I struggled the more frustrated I got and the more frustrated I got the more I struggled.

“Gimme.” Melody took the packet from me and tore it open with her teeth. She sat up and rolled it on me herself. Her touch sent shudders of electricity through my body—up my spine, down my legs—little sparks of it rattled around the inside of my skull. I let out a groan and shoved her back down to the floor and climbed on top of her.

Melody drew her legs up and wrapped them around my back, and suddenly I was inside her. I began to thrust into her with my hips—her own hips rushing to meet mine. The sharp points of her fingernails dug into my back and scratched down across my shoulder. She pressed her mouth to mine. Her tongue invaded my mouth, and her teeth dug into my lips around the deep, rich animal sounds she made in her throat.

“Cum for me,” she growled. “Do it now.”

And I did. Her words pushed me over the edge. I came so hard I blacked out; I didn’t pass out exactly, but I was suddenly plunged into darkness and silence. I could feel my body shuddering and the tremors of pleasure running through Melody’s magnificent form still pressed beneath me, but all I could hear was music—beautiful and complex—clear, ringing notes like no instrument I’d ever heard before.

Gradually, my vision cleared, and I found I was now on my back with Melody on top of me, riding hard, teeth bared and ferocious, eyes wild and dark. The dense cloud of her dark hair billowed with each thrust until she threw her head back, her hands and arms spasming in ecstasy. She arched so far back that all I could see was the crest of her breasts pointed toward the ceiling. Her hair brushed my knees. I put my hands on her hips to steady her while she rode it out. It was like fucking someone possessed. I felt her pussy clench around me. Hard. It should have hurt. Maybe it did.

My body felt like it was glowing. My hearing came filtering back a little bit at a time until I could hear the sounds of the room, the sound of my breathing. Melody was making a choking sound. I was gripped by a sudden fear that she was having some kind of seizure.

“Melody?” I sat up suddenly—heart pounding. I put an arm around her waist and the other behind her head to see her face. Her eyes were closed to slits. All I could see were the whites. Her mouth was open wide, a slack, gasping O. I shook her gently.

“Melody! Say something! Tell me you’re okay.”

Suddenly she gasped deeply, and her eyelids fluttered open and she let out a low noise of deep satisfaction before raising her head. I cautiously allowed myself to breathe again. Melody looked at me through heavy-lidded eyes. A half-smile played across her lips. Deep inside, her muscles gave a final spasm and she slumped forward against my chest to rest her head against my shoulder.

“Are you okay?”

“Ummmhmmm,” she mumbled against my neck and nodded.

A laugh escaped me, or maybe a sob. I hugged her against my chest, weak with relief, and lay back down on the floor with Melody on top of me. My whole body felt numb, empty. My feet tingled and so did my fingers. I was warm and floating even in the cool air of the basement. My chest and stomach—anywhere that our skin touched—was slippery with sweat, but neither of us wanted to move so we just lay together in silence.

I was drifting, half asleep when I felt myself slip out of her. Melody stirred, reluctant to move, but she rolled off me. She climbed to her feet and peeled off the condom.

“Bathroom?” she mumbled. I pointed to a doorway between a grandissimo Mexican flag and a faded Sex Pistols poster. She headed toward it on wobbly legs and flipped on the light.

With extreme difficulty I hauled myself onto the couch and laid my head on the armrest. It was a ratty old hide-a-bed upholstered in a thick tweedy plaid that was threadbare at the seams. It was probably older than I was. Now that I’d blown my load, I could feel exhaustion setting in. The nervous, unspent sexual energy was gone. My jeans were still bunched around my ankles—it was too hot to pull them up and my boots were laced too tight for me to take them off. Why did I even bother with boots? It was fucking August. I resolved to buy flip-flops.

It was all I could do to keep my eyelids open while I waited for Melody to come back. I heard her pee and the sound of water running. I was drifting again. I realized that I’d fallen asleep only when I jerked awake at the sound of the bathroom light clicking off. Melody emerged and picked up my dangling feet by the bootlaces to lift them onto the couch. Then she stretched out on my chest with her legs entwined with mine.

I took a deep breath of the smell of her hair and before I let it out, I was asleep.

*          *          *          *

When I opened my eyes again, Quetzalez stood over me in a terrycloth bathrobe staring at me through squinted eyes. He had a mug of coffee in one hand and a squirming white rat in the other. My heart lurched with adrenaline. The only thing keeping me from leaping to my feet was Melody’s naked body; asleep face down on my chest.

“’Zalez…”

“Don’t get up, man,” Quetzalez said in a low voice. “I haven’t had my coffee yet and I don’t need to see… whatever this is.”

“I can explain…” I began, but I couldn’t. My pants were bunched around the tops of my boots. I tried to pretend this was no big deal.

“Don’t bother. Imma go in the kitchen now. Wake her up. Get her dressed. Take her to breakfast. Don’t bring her back.” He shuffled toward the stairs, pausing long enough to raise the lid on a large terrarium housing a sleeping ball python. He dropped the rat inside and let the lid slam shut then stumped into the kitchen muttering swears. I prodded Melody’s shoulder.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Hey—wake up, sweetheart. We gotta go.”

Melody smeared her face across my chest and lifted her head. Her eye makeup from the night before was smudged and her lips were swollen with sleep. Her expression suggested I should go to hell. I felt my heart in my throat again, trying to not get turned on.

“…time is it?” she yawned.

“Early.”

“’S too early.” She nuzzled my neck. Her hair smelled like sweet corn. It was a smell I thought I could get to like. With a little sigh she rolled her head to face me. Her eyes were still closed but her lips pressed against my shoulder and reached down between us to wrap her fingers around my brand-new raging hard-on.

“No, no, sweetheart—” I whispered, fighting for control. It was taking every ounce of my self-restraint to not roll on top of her and fuck her like I was never going to see her again. I reminded myself Quetzalez was just upstairs. “We can’t—we gotta go.”

“’S okay…”

Melody began to stroke. Her grip was firm. I thought about baseball.

“No, it’s…we can’t stay here.”

She rolled on a condom while I tried to picture the Supreme Court justices. Anthony Kennedy. Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Clarence Thomas. My self-restraint drained away by the second. Melody arched her hips forward and slid onto me. Any control I’d had broke.

“Fuck.”

I was going to hell. Quetzalez was going to kill me. He was going to peel my skin off and wear it around the house like a jumpsuit. I stifled a groan against her breasts as she started to move against me in lazy, sleepy strokes. It only took me a few minutes to cum. Anxiety and shame exploded in my head. I was a shitty lover. She’d probably never want to see me again.

But Melody was in her own world of ecstasy. Her body pulsed around me and I felt the warm wind of her breath as she sighed in my ear before raising her head to kiss me.

That’s how you wake a girl up,” she mumbled against my face.

“We gotta go,” I gasped, winded like I’d just run a mile. “C’mon—we’ll go get breakfast.”

Melody made no move to get up, so I snagged my t-shirt from the floor and pulled it over her head. She was so small it covered her like a dress. Reluctantly, she dismounted and retrieved her panties from the floor nearby. I swung my legs over the side of the couch and pulled up my shorts and jeans before snagging a t-shirt from Quetzalez’s laundry pile. Melody was pulling on the short, jersey skirt that I vaguely recognized from the night before. She slid on her sandals without buckling them.

“Where’re we going?” She moved forward to stand chest to chest with me. The disheveled morning-after look made me stop and stare. She was so fucking hot. Her breasts made twin peaks beneath my t-shirt punctuated by the sharp points of her nipples.

“Umm, I dunno, IHOP or something. Whaddya want?”

She rose up on her tiptoes to kiss me.

“I want coffee. And a smoke. And something with chocolate in it.”

I would’ve given her my liver if she’d asked for it.

Game. Set. Match.

Worth it.

*          *          *          *

We went to a Greek restaurant that served breakfast all day. Melody had coffee, sweet. And eggs, runny. And steak, rare. And something chocolate. I wasn’t sure what I ate—or if I ate anything at all.

“You smoke?” she asked.

“When I’m on fire.”

“Come with me.”

We abandoned our plates and stood outside in the warm bathwater of an August morning. Melody rolled a cigarette with no filter and held it out to me to light it for her. I put it between my lips and got it started before handing it back to her.

“You were good last night,” she said.

“Thanks.”

“On stage, I mean,” she clarified. “In bed too, but I meant on stage.”

“I’m glad you came,” I said and I meant it. “To the show, I mean. In the sack too, but I meant to the show.” Melody smiled as I twisted her words back to her. She was still wearing my shirt from the night before. I resigned myself to the fact it wasn’t my shirt anymore with no regrets. It made her look hot as hell. I tugged at the hem of it to pull her close to me. “Can I see you again?” I asked.

“You can see me at the club.”

“No, I mean—” I wasn’t sure what I meant.

“I don’t got time to date every lovesick loser who gets a crush on me,” she said matter-of-factly. I wondered sickly how manyother lovesick losers she’d left dangling before me.

“Fine. Whatever. Nevermind.” I shoved my hands in my pockets trying to hold back my crushing sense of disappointment. Melody sized me up and seemed to soften. She put her arms around my waist and looked up at me through her eyelashes.

“C’mon, don’ be like that. I just…gotta keep it casual, y’know? I do like you.”

My laugh came out more bitter than I meant it to. “Well, that makes one of us.”

“When’s your next show?” she asked.

“I don’t know, why?”

“Get me a pass and I’ll come to your next show,” she said. “I promise.”

A beater of a Cadillac pulled up to the curb and honked its horn at her. I couldn’t see the driver. She glanced at her phone for the time.

“That’s my ride.”

“I could’ve given you a ride.”

“You’re sweet.”

“I’ll save you a dance.” She stuck the cigarette between my lips and kissed my cheek. My cheek I noticed, and went around the car and climbed in the passenger door.

“Hey, what’s your name, sweetheart?” I called after her.

“Melody.”

 “No, I mean your real name.”

“Melody,” she said again and blew me a smoky kiss. “See you around.”

And she was gone.

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 16: THE EVIL SISTER will go live Monday, October 11th , 2021

Don’t want to wait? Purchase a copy of the full book here: www.amazon.com

CHAPTER 14: LOLLAPALOOZA

“Hello Chicago.” -ago…-ago…-ago…

Over the sound of my own panicked breathing, I heard my voice echo out over the park and decay into the distance. I froze for a moment. I was on a vast plain of a stage—as wide and flat as a Midwest prairie. Lollapalooza.

Was this a dream?

 I took a moment to get my bearings. A pre-show recording reverberated across the park, pitch-shifting and distorting as the sound engineer adjusted the levels. The faces in the front row were distorted and bored—long with apathy. The collective voice was a long low howl of disdain. They were groaning—booing. They weren’t here for us. They wanted The Temper Trap. I gripped the mic stand; afraid the growing riptide of disapproval would pull me over the monitors and into the sea of neon plastic sunglasses and boxed water.

I was naked, wasn’t I?

I glanced down at myself to check: fully dressed. Really here. Not a dream.

I was pretty sure.

I looked back out over the crowd; their eyes obscured by the flat lenses of cheap sunglasses that reflected the blue lights of the stage’s LEDs back to me like I was staring into the abyss. The abyss was staring back, challenging me to scream into the void, and reminding me that even my bottomless rage would never make the smallest difference to the infinity of space.

This is all there is. This is all there will ever be.

I closed my eyes. Beyond the crowd, I could hear the roar of the city and the ever-present ringing in my ears like the drone of a tuning fork in an off-key world. The air was dense with blistering heat and so thick with humidity it hurt to breathe. A faint shift in the atmosphere raised the hairs on my arms. My monkey brain screamed find cover. A storm was coming.

I opened my eyes.

“Storm’s comin’, Chicago!” –ago –ago—ago

I pointed to the west and the eyes of the crowd turned toward where the sky was blackening with storm clouds: an ugly bruise spreading over the skyline like a plague. “You see that sky? You see that storm on the horizon? It’s the beginning of the end. Just you wait, Chicago.”

There was a ripple of scornful laughter as I waxed bombastic, but I could feel the electricity in the air. The crowd could feel it too. A wind had picked up off the lake, the only cool breeze in the sweltering summer stillness.

“Simon says: ‘Upon the wicked shall rain a horrible tempest, thus shall be the portion of their cup’,” I proclaimed, conjuring the fire-and-brimstone preaching of Reverend Simon out of my memory.

Last chance…

“But I say bring it on! If this is the end of days, then here I am! And here you are! And we will not back down!”

From somewhere across the galaxy, I could hear Tombstone start up the intro to ‘GoatRodeo;’our mainstream hit. There was a surge of recognition that spread backward from the stage like water coming to a boil. A few distant cheers rang out.

“Here I am, Chicago. Are you with me? Do you hear the call? Lemme hear you say, ‘Here I am’!”

I pointed to the crowd.

Here I am!

“Here I am!”

Here I am!

“HERE I AM!” I bellowed, and cheers erupted as we launched into the song.

I could barely hear the music through the monitors. Tombstone and the others were miles behind me, and the voices of their instruments were sucked out into open space. But it didn’t matter. A howl rose up from deepest parts of me. My voice was gritty around the edges from a month of too much booze and not enough rehearsal, but it didn’t matter. I was alive again for the first time in weeks.

For just a single moment I broke free of the burden of my own mortality. All the blackened, filthy rage I kept coiled deep in my guts woke up and flexed its muscles. My whole body jangled with energy, exploding out of my fingertips, and spreading outward over the crowd.

The faces that had been dull with boredom only minutes before came to life with the same wild spark. The same kids who had come for the hashtags and the Likes and the sugary summer pop hits now surged forward, pressing against the security barriers, a mass of fists and bared teeth. The heat and the oncoming storm had stretched everyone’s nerves to the breaking point, and thread by thread they were beginning to snap.

In the middle of the mob, a fight broke out. The kids grabbed hair and threw punches as the music dragged them right down to their caveman roots. They were loving it. They clawed over one another like the animals they were deep down. Another fight broke out. Security struggled to push through the press of bodies. A third fight. Rain began to fall on the crowd in fat drops soaking the lithe bodies and drenching t-shirts. The steaming park churned into mud and the fights grew into brawls, wet and slipping, wild in their fury.

Overhead, thunder cracked, sending a squeal of feedback through the speakers. The tech cut off the guitar amps leaving only my amplified voice sailing out over the park. I hit the final, reverberating note and held it until the mic cut out. My voice disappeared into nothingness.

That was it. One song was all we were going to get.

The heavens opened with a vengeance and I stood on the stage staring out into the deluge. Lightning cracked overhead—huge purple bolts of it struck the antennas on the top of the Sears Tower.

Act of fucking God.

“This is a severe thunderstorm warning. Please proceed to the nearest exit,” a voice over a megaphone garbled out over the haunting moan of a choir of tornado sirens. Emergency vehicles lined the perimeter of the park to guide the exodus. Stage techs were already covering the monitors and bringing the mics in under cover. The stage’s LED screen powered down and went blank.

Tombstone unplugged his guitar and gestured to me with a jerk of his head, but still I stood on the edge of the stage watching the crowd drain away. Feelings of disappointment filled the space they left behind.

“Get off the stage, idiot.” Jojo’s voice spoke directly into my ear through the talkback mic beside her drum kit. In the charged air, a brilliant spark of static arced toward me from the mic stand, snapping me on the wrist.

I took the hint. I got off the stage.

“Sorry guys, that’s all she wrote.” If the coordinator was disappointed that we’d only played a single song, he didn’t let it show. “You’ll get your fee, but your set’s over.”

A passenger van waited beside the stage with the side door open. A burly teamster in a rain poncho struggled to separate Tombstone from his guitars until Kilroy intervened.

“Tedrick’s a beast, dude,” Kilroy assured him. He nodded toward the guitar tech, Tedrick, who was huddled beneath the shelter of the metal stage wiping down Tombstone’s signature Jackson seven-string, ‘the Blackjack’, with a microfiber cloth. “He’ll take good care of her.”

Tedrick was indeed a beast: the kind of stage-dog roadie more willing to risk standing under a giant lightning rod in an open field during an electrical storm than to put a guitar away wet.

Idiot.

We loved him.

Tedrick chose that moment to glance up and saw Tombstone’s worried face.

“I got this, bro,” he shouted over the sheeting rain. “I’ll load ‘em out when they get an all-clear. Trailer’s out back. You can get them in the morning.”

Tombstone reluctantly allowed himself to be dragged backward into the van and landed heavily on the bench seat trying to keep his eyes on the guitars until the very last minute, while the others climbed over him, wet and shivering in spite of the summer heat.

I moved to climb aboard and felt a meaty hand press against my chest.

“Where d’you think you’re goin’?”

I gestured to the van. “You evacuating or what?”

The teamster wedged himself between me and the door of the van.

“VIPs only. Talent and brass.”

I turned and looked backward at the stage. What the hell did he think I was doing five minutes ago on the stage?

“I was literally just on stage.”

“Yeah? You got a tag?” He held up a laminate.

Fuck.

I glanced over his shoulder and saw the rest of the band watching me with poorly suppressed amusement. Kilroy was biting his fist. Tombstone reached up to flick his own nametag on the front of his hat with a savage grin. They’d put him up to this.

“Yeah, dude, where’s your tag?” Gorey managed, already cracking into falsetto as his laughter seeped in around the edges. The four of them dissolved into screaming hysterics. I was never going to live down the fact I gave away my Lolla pass for a lap dance.

“Alright, alright. I’m a dumbass. It’s raining like the end of the world, you gonna worry about a nametag?” I wanted to be angry, but for the moment I was calm. Calmer than I’d been in weeks. I felt stoned. The stage-high was as good as any drug.

“Make him walk!” Jojo shouted from the back seat.

“Make him walk!” the others chanted. “Make him walk! Make him walk! Make him walk!”

Fucking savages.

Grinning, Tombstone pulled out a hundred-dollar bill, creased it in half the long way, and flicked it so it made a snapping sound. The teamster took it and slid the van door closed. Tombstone gave me the finger as the teamster thumped the side of the van and it pulled out leaving me behind.

The teamster turned to me, holding up Tombstone’s hundred-dollar bill. “You wanna make me an offer for the next van?”

“Fuck you, humbucker.”

The teamster just grinned and gestured to two of his buddies wearing t-shirts that read SECURITY through the plastic of their ponchos. “No tags,” he told them.

One of the two looked at me and I saw recognition. He looked back at his teamster buddy with his mouth open as a question.

“No tags,” the teamster reiterated. He waved the cash at them. “Drinks later?”

I wasn’t going to get any help.

            “I’m going,” I said.

I snagged a plastic poncho from a production assistant who was distributing them to the festival crew and pulled it over my head like a caul. At least no one would recognize me while I did my walk of shame.

I lurched out of the tent and into a crowd of mud-beings, already diagonal on festival booze, stumbling their way toward the city. The festival-goers were finding refuge wherever they could. I followed the crowd to the broad-shouldered bulk of the Chicago Hilton where emergency workers were heaving people into shelter as fast as they could. The ground floor lobbies were packed; the dripping mob was fouling the carpets with mud and rain, and the air in the lobby was tropical with the breath of hundreds of cramped bodies. Peeling off the gauzy plastic of the poncho, I fought my way toward the bar. The high from the performance was wearing off. I needed a drink.

I wondered if Melody was somewhere in the crowd. I didn’t want to admit to myself how much I’d thought about her seeing me perform. I wanted her to see me as something other than another drunk loser from her club.

You’re not special.

You’re wrong about me!

Am I?

No doubt she’d taken my pass and fucked off to go to see Alabama Shakes or fucking Chairlift. Maybe she hadn’t even come at all. I was stupid to think I’d ever see her again outside the club, much less in the teeming hordes of Lollapalooza. I didn’t even know her real name. She was right. I was a nobody. I stood, anonymous in the crowd, wondering if anyone would ever notice me again.

“That’s him.”

“Yeah, I got eyes on him.”

I turned to find a pair of rent-a-cops standing in the doorway that divided the bar from the hotel’s lobby.

Shit. So much for anonymity. I flinched, guiltily, wondering what I’d done wrong.

Ducking behind the bar, I slipped through the swinging door leading a service hallway. Every hotel had a backstage labyrinth of corridors that allowed the labor of hotel hospitality to take place unseen. I was familiar with the territory. It was one of life’s ironies that the more famous you got, the more often you trekked through hotel kitchens and loading docks. I scuttled upstream through the flow of hotel staff, avoiding eye contact with anybody with a walkie or a clipboard.

“Stop him!”

I heard footsteps behind me and staggered around a corner, hoping for a fire exit or another door back into the lobby, but instead found myself in a dead-end full of room service carts, loaded with grimy trays waiting to be bussed. No way forward. No way back.

“Mr. Warner—”

Fuck. It was bad. It was ‘Mister Warner’ bad. I winced and came to a halt before it could escalate to ‘Sir’. The two security drones walled me off from the crowd with broad shoulders and the crackling static of their tandem radios. I held up my hands.

“Damen Warner?” One of them asked.

“I deny everything.” I groped reflexively for my phone in case I needed to call Sam.

“We understand you’ve been missing your badge?”

Goddamnit. I was just never going to live that down, was I?

“Please come with us.”

I followed my Dishonor Guard through a series of complicated turns and jogs until we emerged into a small but plush ballroom designed by someone who listened to too much Johan Sebastian Ludwig Von Strauss. At the moment, it was closed off from the public to form a makeshift command center. A harried-looking security coordinator sat behind a folding table listening to a radio squawking out a stream of continuous updates about the ongoing chaos in the park.

“Oh good, you found him,” she said. She held out my laminate to me. “I believe you’ve been missing this?”

“Yeah, it’s mine. Where’d you find it?”

The security coordinator gave a jerk of her head toward the far corner of the room where Melody reclined on a hotel couch looking belligerent. My heart jumped in my chest. For a minute, I couldn’t breathe.

“She said you gave it to her,” the coordinator said. “Don’t know where she really got it. Stolen, probably. You want to press charges?”

“No, s’all good. You mind if I talk to her?” I gestured in Melody’s direction and the coordinator nodded, her eyes already going distant as the squawking radio once again absorbed her attention.

Melody watched me approach with a level gaze. A hint of a smile played around the corner of her mouth. Everything about her was small and dark and burning hot.

“Hey.”

“Hey, yourself.”

“You came.”

She shrugged noncommittally and the collar of her cutoff t-shirt slid off her shoulder. I stared, transfixed, at the smooth curve of her shoulder, struggling to concentrate on anything besides the urge to sink my teeth into it.

“I didn’t see you in the crowd,” I said, embarrassed to admit that I’d been looking. “Did you catch the show?”

“Did I see your one single song?” she arched an eyebrow and showed her teeth.

So, she had! I felt a surge of elation and struggled to hold it down. I couldn’t believe she was real. I couldn’t believe she was really here. I held up the laminate and dangled it in front of her face.

“What am I going to do with you?” I asked, rhetorically. “I give you an all-access badge and you still manage to get in trouble.”

Melody didn’t reach for it.

“They evacuated the park. How else was I supposed to find you?”

I glanced back at the command center and the hissing radio. She’d called and I’d come.

Game. Set. Match.

Worth it.

Reaching down, I pulled her to her feet. She stood and stared up at me through mile-long eyelashes. Even in heels, she barely came up to my chest. The warmth of her body so close to mine lit up my senses with electricity. She slid her hands around my waist like she was staking a claim. I hung my badge around her neck.

“You wanna get out of here?” I asked.

“Your place or yours?”

“Well, when you put it like that, I guess we should go to mine.”

“Good,” she said. “Let’s ghost.”

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 15: GHOSTED will go live Monday, October 4th, 2021

Don’t want to wait? Purchase a copy of the full book here: www.amazon.com

%d bloggers like this: