CHAPTER 13: MELODY

I awoke to find myself staring up at a shadowy silhouette—a patch of woman-shaped darkness that was rimmed with a knife-edge of brilliance as the moving beams of the club’s lighting system strobed over her back.

“You awake?” she asked.

“I dunno…you real?” My face felt like putty and reality was still warped around the edges, but I’d regained some executive function. I pulled myself upright, feeling like I was trying to haul myself out of a dream. I was on a couch in the farthest, darkest corner of the lounge. I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten there. The other couches were empty, and down below, so was the stage. I got the feeling it was nearly dawn.

“I’m Melody.”

The dark woman standing over me held out a hand, palm down. I took it, unsure if I was supposed to shake it or kiss it but used it to pull her toward me. The dim glow off the stage resolved her face into the features of a Latina woman: twenty years old if she was a day, five feet tall if she was an inch. Her expression was impassive, but her eyes glittered with interest.

 “You look like trouble,” I managed. The words seemed to take forever to come into focus, but at least I wasn’t slurring.

“Baby, I’m your worst nightmare.” Melody smiled showing all of her teeth and sank sideways onto my lap, knees together, ankles crossing primly. She drew a finger along my jaw line and trailed it down my throat, the hard edge of her press-on nail scraping my windpipe. My mouth went dry.

“So, you’re the great Damen Warner.” It wasn’t a compliment, but I still liked the shape her lips made around my name.

“’S me.”

“Oh.”

“That’s it? Just ‘oh’?”

“They say don’t ever meet your idols. Now I know why.”

I winced. “You’re pretty judgy for a cock-polisher.”

Melody sighed as if I’d disappointed her. “Why you gotta be like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like everybody else.” Her disdain was breathtaking. “I thought you’d be different. Special. But you’re not. You’re nothing.” She got to her feet and the sudden vacuum of her absence felt like a physical pain.

“Heyy, c’mon, don’t go.” I reached for her, but she slipped back out of my reach.

“I gotta get back to work,” she said. “As a cock-polisher.”

“I’m sorry. C’mon, Imma asshole.”

“Yeah you are.”

“I’m still pretty fucked up…”

“Oh, you fucked up, alright.”

“Lemme make it up to you—gimme a chance to pull my head outta my ass.” I hated begging, but I didn’t want to be alone.

Melody stared me down, unblinking while she weighed her options. I stared back, falling into the pits of her eyes, helpless as a spider’s prey.

“Please, stay,” I said.

“You gonna make it worth my while?”

I fumbled in my pockets feeling for something to offer her but came up empty. Kilroy had all my cash. My hand closed on the festival laminate. I pulled it out and held it up to her.

“What’s that.”

“My pass for Lollapalooza.”

Melody took it out of my hand to inspect it. “This for real?”

I nodded.

“Don’t you need it?”

“What’re they gonna do? Not lemme on stage?” Yes, actually. It was an amateur move. There was a solid chance I’d get my teeth kicked in like Jaco Pastorius, but I wasn’t going to think about that right now.

“You gonna give this to me just to make me stay?” she asked. I could see her fingers tightening on the plastic like she didn’t want to let it go. I nodded.

“One dance.”

“Okay.”

Worth it.

Melody tucked the laminate in her purse and perched on the armrest beside me, waiting for the song to end. I put an arm around her hips and slipped the tips of my fingers under the hem of her dress. She slapped the back of my hand. Hard.

“You wait,” she commanded. I was suddenly so turned on that waiting was torture.

“It’s just going to come off in a minute,” I slipped my fingers up under the hem again. Melody grabbed my thumb and bent it backward.

“Wait,” she said again. I held up my free hand in surrender.

“Yes, ma’am.” She let go of my thumb and watched as I diligently laid it on the armrest beside her. Not touching. Melody gave a curt nod.

She took a mirror and a lipstick out of her purse and reapplied it, propping one foot on my knee and resting her elbow on it for support. I stared at the curve of her ankle and the oily sleekness of the long, tapered heel where it pressed against the inside of my leg. Melody flexed her foot so that her heel dug into my thigh, but she didn’t look at me. I could see up her skirt to where her panties peeked out from shadow. Her lips were like blood. I could feel heat pouring off of her body. My heart pounded in my chest like it was trying to escape.

Hrightledeesngenlemen lastchancetgetcherdance.” The DJ mumbled his way through a last call and the brash chords of Yankee Rose reverberated through the club. Melody snapped the mirror-case closed and took her foot off my knee to stand up. She stripped off her dress revealing a matching bra-and-panties set, but her face was cold and distant. Detached. Professional. Businesslike.

Turning her back, she sank into my lap and leaned back across my chest. Her head settled on my shoulder and she raised an arm to tangle her fingers in my hair. From this angle I could see down the length of her torso—the ripe curves of her breasts filling my vision. My hand slid toward her stomach.

“Touch me and I’ll hit you,” she growled. “I’ll have you thrown out.”

“Throw me out tonight and I’ll be back tomorrow.” But my hand stopped and hovered mid-air. Melody placed her fingertips on my wrist and pushed my hand away; gently at first then firmly when I resisted.

“You don’t get to do whatever you want.” She pulled away and stood up, pressing her foot into my crotch to keep me at arm’s length. The more she pushed me away the more I wanted her.

“Imma red-blooded man, I can’t help it.”

“You’re not special—you’re pathetic,” she said. “All washed up.”

It wasn’t true. Was it? I felt a plunging sense of freefall as a vast maw of doubt opened in my mind.

“You’re wrong about me.” I tried to protest, but my voice broke in the middle.

“Am I?”

“I’m playing Lolla, aren’t I?”

“Yeah, so…?”

“I’m the frontman for a fucking chart-topping band—“

Yeah, so…?”

“I’ve got a gold record, I’ve been profiled in Rolling Stone—“

Yeah. So…?!”

My spongy, sludgy mind flooded with emotion that I couldn’t name much less control. I could feel it welling up in my throat, choking me.

“Who the hell are you to judge me?” I croaked, almost voiceless. My hands were balled into fists so hard my fingernails dug into my palms. “I don’t need you. I can always find some pretty, young thing looking to make a bad decision.”

Melody took her foot off my dick and shrugged. “Okay, then.” She turned away and retrieved her dress from the floor.

I realized with dizzying clarity that she didn’t care. Actually didn’t care. No amount of fame would impress her. No amount of money would buy her affection. None of it mattered. I didn’t matter.

Wait!” It came out as a sob and took me by surprise. “Don’t go—” My face crumpled and to my deepest shame I began to cry. Scalding tears ran down my face and my breath came in strangled hitches. “Please…”

Melody watched me with an expression of clinical interest, unmoved.

I managed to catch my breath and forced the rage and the sobs down deep into my chest and guts like a molten knot of tar. My heart felt like it was going to explode. I held my breath until I got lightheaded and then let it out. Carefully. Smoothly.

Melody rested her knuckles on one hip. “You done?” she asked.

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. Melody tossed away her crumpled dress and approached once more. She shed her bra, shed her panties, and stood before me completely, defiantly exposed, but I couldn’t look at her. She was the one who was naked, but it somehow seemed that I was the one who had something to be ashamed of.

“Look at me,” she commanded. I forced myself to meet her gaze. She raised a leg and rested it on my shoulder.

 “Is this what you wanted?” she asked.

“Yes,” I whispered, with my face and neck burning with shame. But it was true. I ached for her in a way I’d never felt before about anyone.

“Then keep your fucking hands to yourself.”

I tucked my hands under my thighs and Melody pressed her lips to my forehead, leaving the mark of her lipstick behind.

She danced until the song ended, and then put on her dress and abandoned me to square her accounts with the floor host. I managed to make it to my feet, clinging to the wall for support and retreated to the bar like the abject wretch that I was. It was almost dawn. The club was nearly empty by now. A few straggling dancers dawdled near the DJ booth, pointedly ignoring the few lonely patrons scattered among the round-top tables who weren’t paying anymore.

Judge emerged from the office and made himself comfortable at the bar beside me.

“I see you’ve met our Melody,” he jabbed me in the forehead with a stubby finger. I nodded again, remembering the mark of lipstick she’d left on my face. I rubbed it away with the tips of my fingers and tried to gather my thoughts.

“Shit. I gave her my Lolla badge.” I groaned and put my head down on the bar. It was just now sinking in just what a bitch move that had been.

“Yeahh, you’re not getting it back.” Judge looked at me and sighed. “Melody had you alone for all of five minutes and already she’s got your dick in a vise. Game. Set. Match. You are fucked, my friend.”

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

CHAPTER 14: LOLLAPALOOZA will go live Monday, September 27th, 2021

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

CHAPTER 12: LAST CHANCE

When the sinner plunges into the darkness, who among us may call him back from damnation.”

A voice bubbled up from the darkest parts of my mind, and I found myself standing at the dusty crossroads of dream and memory in a place I recognized as Last Chance: a wide spot in the road in Colorado where we’d stopped on our way back to Chicago for gas and repairs. The distant horizon was illuminated with the faint glow of wildfires bearing down on me from every direction.

“Do you believe in God, stranger?” The voice floated to me out of the darkness again. The speaker emerged into the light revealing a man who called himself Reverend Walter Simon. A preacher with cold, moist hands and a smile like a mouth full of diamonds.

I turned to face him, guiltily aware that Gorey was stealing the brakes off the Reverend’s church van on the far side of the lot where we stood.

“Does it matter?” I asked.

It didn’t. The Reverend continued as if I hadn’t spoken: “I believe our paths have crossed for a reason. God has brought you to me so that I can save you from His Judgment.”

“You’re wasting your time, Preacher Man,” I told him. “No heaven in the damn universe is going to take me.”

“Come to our revival—perhaps you’ll feel the call.” The Reverend gestured to the far side of the road where a Fourth of July barbecue was underway, redolent with the smell of roasting pig and illegal fireworks. Half the crowd was dressed in white: devotees of the Reverend’s church that styled themselves as Sweet Believers.

“I’d rather fuck a rusty cheese grater.”

The Reverend gestured expansively as if to say ‘do what you will,’ and light glinted off an object in his hand. A pocket-watch. An antique mechanical pocket-watch in a silver case. My pocket-watch.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked, trying to sound casual.     

“Purchased it from your silent friend. He needed the money,” the Reverend said, dangling it in front of me like a fishing lure. It was the one thing in the world that I couldn’t live without, and Tombstone knew it. “Always happy to help a friend in need.”

“That’s mine,” I said. “He shouldn’t have sold it. It was my grandfather’s. Family heirloom—” I reached for it, but my hand closed on empty air. The Reverend tucked it into his pocket. He didn’t bother to hide the dark pleasure on his smug face.

“C’mon, I’ll buy it back. How much d’you pay for it?”

“The path to redemption does not lie in the pursuit of material things,” the Reverend said. I reached for it again, but again the Reverend backed away.

“Says the man refusing to sell me my own watch.”

The Reverend just shrugged and retreated to the edge of the light. “Store up your treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Then he stepped out of the light letting the darkness swallow him up.

*          *          *          *

“That was my grandfather’s fucking watch!”

Tombstone was holding court on the far side of his RV in the midst of an impromptu yard sale. Our personal belongings were laid out in a heap on a ragged tarp; for sale to the highest bidder. Tombstone himself was seated in his folding lawn chair beside the RV’s door with middle-aged woman counting twenties into his hand in exchange for a handful of pills from an Altoids tin. He leaped to his feet and stood his ground as I stormed across the asphalt toward him.

“Calm down!” A girl’s voice floated out to me from the doorway of RV. Sweet Evangeline; a wild, wayward local so keen to get out of town she was willing to do anything, or anyone, to get a ride. Up until an hour ago, that someone had been me. Now it was Tombstone, the ginger fuck.

“It was my idea. You needed money, now you got it.” She reached into Tombstone’s pocket and pulled out a fist-sized roll of cash, flipping through the bills for my benefit. “You’re gonna need it to get out of town, and now you can take me with you.”

“And you went along with this fuckwittery? What the actual fuck, Tombstone?” I demanded. Tombstone shrugged sheepishly and put his arm around Evangeline’s waist. Could I blame him? I forced myself to take a deep breath, but it didn’t do much to cool my rage.

I surveyed the remainder of our collective personal effects, now sheened over with dust from the dirt lot. Everything of any value had already been sold. Most of it was junk anyway—sentimental, but not valuable. Out here on the ass end of nowhere, it was a miracle that he’d gotten any money for it at all.

“Gorey!” I shouted. “Get the fuck over here!”

Gorey emerged from beneath the Bandwagon with an annoyed groan and approached, wiping his hands on a rag. “What’s up?”

“Tombstone fucking sold our stuff.”

“Shit, dude, that sucks,” Gorey said. “You wanna know what else sucks? Getting busted in the middle of Bu-Fu Egypt for grand theft auto. Which is what is gonna happen if I don’t finish those brakes. Quit buggin’ me and let me work.” He pointed to the remains of the yard sale. “Pack it up, Honkey. Be ready to skip town.”

 Tombstone folded his battered lawn chair and stuffed the heap of belongings into the side door of the RV before holding the door for Evangeline with the gallantry of an antebellum gentleman. She tripped inside, giggling. Tombstone kicked off his snakeskin boots, tipped his hat at me and Gorey in turn, then followed her inside, slamming the door behind him. After a minute, I could hear the strumming of his guitar.

There was only one way that was going to end.

Under ordinary circumstances, there was no force in the universe that would have compelled me to get within a thousand miles of a church revival, but there was no way I was leaving town without my watch. I was prepared to endure any trial, up to and including snake handling and speaking in tongues if that’s what it took to get it back.

Hidden in the shadows, I skulked around the edges of the gathering to get my bearings. The Reverend had taken up residence on the cement stoop in front of some kind of community barn and was proselytizing to a crowd of faithful and skeptics alike. His Sweet Believers swayed, with hands raised, punctuating each statement with whoops of praise and amens.

“The Lord knows the hearts of all sinners!”

“Yes, he does!”

“All those who do not obey the gospel of God shall have their place in the lake burning with fire and brimstone, which is the second death!”

Overhead, an exploding firework punctuated his words, casting a pall of sulphur-scented smoke over the crowd.

“Hallelujah! Praise Jesus!”

Around me, even the most salt-of-the-earth ranchers shifted uncertainly: aware, perhaps, of the burning pit barrel, the decimated pig’s carcass, the flowing moonshine, the exploding fireworks…I had to admit the Reverend knew how to turn a crowd. That was showmanship.

            “The time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God,” the Reverend held up the pocket-watch to the crowd like a talisman. “What power can save us, brothers and sisters? When the sinner plunges into the darkness, who among us may call him back from Damnation? None but God!”

His voice had become low and sonorous, and the gathered crowd drew in close as if it were their only beacon of hope.

“Who will step forth to be saved?” His eyes scanned the crowd and settled on me. He held up the watch to the light. “Who will be called back from your path of darkness to return to the loving embrace of Jesus Christ the Savior?” With a gesture he singled me out, and the locals nearest to me backed away until I stood alone. “Let him who has heard the call say ‘Here I am, Lord!’”

This was his show. I could play along or I could go to Hell.

“Here I am,” I said.

“Say it, brother!”

“Here I am!”

“Louder! Proclaim it!”

HERE I AM!” I bellowed with the full force of my voice.

The Reverend descended from the stage and approached holding out his hands as if telling a storm to subside. There was an unearthly quiet.

“Kneel, sinner,” he compelled me. “Kneel and be saved.”

I sank down to one knee, and then the other on the dry grass.

“The Lord has sent us a wicked sinner!” He pronounced. “A wayward and prodigal son! He has filled his cup with the devil’s promises living a carnal, venal, decadent life of sin and corruption.” The watch glittered in front of my eyes just out of my reach.

“You’re a sonofabitch,” I muttered, smiling through gritted teeth.

“Confess your sins, brother. Lay yourself bare to the Almighty Lord!” He laid a hand on my chest over my heart, raising the other hand heavenward waiting for me to bare my soul for the sake of his fucking teachable moment.

 “Bet you wish it was Evangeline’s laying herself bare, don’t you?” I muttered so quietly only he could hear me. His eyes flickered at her name. I’d hit a nerve. “That’s right, where’s your Sweet Evangeline? She’s the one you want to fill with the Holy Spirit, isn’t she, Preacher Man?”

His victorious smile faltered.

 “Oohhh, God!” I moaned in falsetto, low and breathy, just loud enough for him to hear.

“What are you doing?” He hissed through clenched teeth.

“I feel the call, Reverend!” I shouted. “God, yes! Ohh, God…”

The Reverend struggled to save face and raised his arms. He feels the call, brothers and sisters!” he thundered to a breathless tide of hosannas from the Sweet Believers.

            “Bet Evangeline’s feeling it too,” I said. “I bet she’s down on her knees right now, calling the Lord’s name.” I grabbed him by the belt and pulled him close, closing my fingers around the watch chain. I threw my head back and rolled my eyes back. “God, yes!” I squealed in falsetto, louder, breathless, gasping. I writhed against him in apparent ecstasy, grinding my face against his crotch. “Ohhh, God, yess! Yess!”

The Reverend recoiled; his fingers tangled in my hair as he tried to peel me off his groin. There was a ripple of scandalized gasps in the congregation, and a few barks of nervous laughter.

Get off me!” he hissed.

“Save me, Reverend! My flesh is weak in the face of temptation!” I tightened my grip on his belt, holding the Reverend. My scalp was on fire, but I let him yank my head back.

“Bet you know something about the temptations of the flesh, don’t you, Preacher Man?” I slid the watch out of his pocket and palmed it. “Oohhh, Lord, Oh, God, come in me! I want to feel you inside me!” I howled, letting go of his belt and falling to the grass, writhing in the dust as I built to a climax. I worked up a rabid froth in my mouth and spewed it at him, digging my heels into the dirt and arching my back as if possessed by unclean spirits. “Oh, God; Oh, God! Oh, ohhh, ohhhh, OHHH!”

I reached an apparent climax and fell silent; sprawled on the ground, breathing hard. For a moment there was appalled silence while the crowd tried to figure out what they’d just witnessed. The Reverend just stared at me, dumbfounded. No one had ever upstaged him before.

Oh! Oh, God! Oh, ohhh! God, yes!

The sound of moaning still echoed in the dense, warm air, but it wasn’t coming from me anymore. It was a woman’s voice now, and it was coming from the direction of the RV which was creaking and rocking on its shocks. One by one the onlookers turned toward the sound.

“Holy smokes!” someone joked. “It’s contagious!”

There was a titter of laughter in the crowd. The Reverend’s spell collapsed.

“I’ll have what she’s having!”

“Go girl!”

The Reverend looked stricken as he listened for sounds that he didn’t want to be hearing. Across the street, I heard the unhealthy cough of the Bandwagon’s engine struggling to turn over and got to my feet. Looming over the Reverend’s shoulder, I spoke directly into his ear:

“Sounds like someone’s filling her devil’s cup right now. Sounds like she’s enjoying it too.” The Reverend whirled on me with hatred in his eyes: no longer bothering to try to hide it under righteousness.

“You goddamn bastard…” he whispered.

I wiped the dust and spit off my face and spread my arms wide.

“Hate the sin not the sinner,” I said as the Bandwagon’s engine finally caught. “After all, the road to redemption doesn’t lie in material things, does it, Reverend?” I opened my hand to dangle the pocket-watch in front of his shocked eyes with a savage grin and then sprinted across the road to where the van was idling.

“Drivedrivedrivedrive!” I shouted to Gorey as I vaulted into the passenger side window like Bo Duke. Gorey didn’t need to be told twice. Laying on the horn, he revved the engine to the point of flooding before throwing it in gear. Gravel sprayed behind us as the van dug for traction. Caught it. Lurched forward. He pulled the van in a wide, skidding donut across the dirt lot.

“What about Tombstone?” Gorey shouted over the roar.

“Fuck Tombstone!” I said. We lurched out onto the road in a squeal of rubber and roared off toward the burning horizon.

I didn’t look back.

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

CHAPTER 13: MELODY will go live Monday, September 20th , 2021

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

CHAPTER 11: CLUB LURE

Muffled strains of Jagged Little Pill punctured my sleep and dragged me into the land of the living. I cracked open my eyelids through a pounding headache to see Kilroy sitting on the corner of the mattress beside me.

“Turn off your fucking phone,” I mumbled.

Kilroy silenced his phone with a swipe of his thumb and extracted a pill bottle from his pocket. He had contracted HIV sometime during his needle days and had to take a retroviral pill every day at the same time. This was not the world’s easiest task for someone on the road changing time-zones every few days, so he had programmed an alarm into his phone to go off every twenty-four hours: day or night, interrupting meals, sleep, rehearsals, and, at present, my self-absorbed pity party.

“You should really get out of the house.” Kilroy tipped a tablet into the palm of his hand, tossed it into his mouth, and washed it down with the last swig from a nearby water bottle.

“Fuck off,” I buried my face in the pillow again. It stank. I stank. Ever since the trip to the Big House I’d slipped back into the funk of depression. The bedroom of the Cursèd Place was airless and hot, and it was all I could do just to lie still on the damp mattress and drink myself back to sleep. I didn’t have the energy for anything else.

“C’mon, we’re going to the club for Gorey. You’re coming with, and you are ripe, man,” Kilroy insisted. I gave him the finger and cut the hugest fart I could.

“Fuck you too.” He scooted up until his ass was next to my ear and farted back.

“Jesus, fuck, dude.”

“Just take a goddamn shower,” he told me. “We leave in an hour.”

*          *          *          *

“Drink up.” Jojo shoved a bottle of something I presumed was Not Water into my hand and nudged it toward my face. “The club’s full nude.”

Which meant no booze.

I sighed. “It’s going to be a long fucking night.”

“We’re here for Gorey,” Jojo jabbed a fingernail into my arm. “I’m not putting up with Thackery’s pawing all evening just so you can shit in the punchbowl.” She tossed a glance toward the front of the limo’s cabin where Khaki Thackery was sandwiched between Tombstone and Kilroy as soft and white and vanilla as a slice of sponge cake. Jojo had her feet on his lap, and he was kneading her instep devotedly.

That explained who was bankrolling this boondoggle.

I gulped down an eye-watering shot of something homemade and about a million proof. The liquor burned going down. The fumes burned coming back up. I was pretty sure I was going to need to stay away from open flames.

“Holy hell, what is this stuff?”

“Just what the doctor ordered.”

I wiped my streaming eyes on a sleeve then tossed back the bottle again; gulping and gulping and gulping as much as I could before my stomach could protest.

“Omigod, stahp!” Jojo yanked the bottle out of my hand before I could finish it off. “Sonovabitch, leave some for the rest of us why don’t you?” She shook the dregs meaningfully in my face as the limo pulled into the parking lot belonging to a strip club and came to a stop. A color-changing LED display spelled out CLUB LURE in shifting rainbow letters.

On the outside, the club was an asymmetrical, modern building embedded into the industrial blight of Stone Park like a faceted pink jewel on a pornstar’s asshole. On the inside, it was a cavernous space made up of smoked glass, mirrors, and theatrical haze. Brass poles rose at intervals from stages around the room where nubile figures writhed and twisted in the murky semi-darkness. The floor host ushered us to a booth near the main stage where we could see and be seen, signifying to the girls we were pockets of some expected depth. They were circling before our asses even hit the seats.

I folded myself into the darkest corner of the booth to wait for the alcohol to take effect. On the stage, a blonde climbed to the top of the pole and flipped upside down, rotating in a lazy circle to survey the room. Locking eyes with me, she grinned and licked her teeth.

It was fair to say I’d seen more than my fair share of strippers in my life. As a species, they fell into two breeds: the ones who danced because they had to and the ones who danced because they wanted to. The bottom-line was the same though: they were there for the money and were prepared to take you for every cent you had. As long as you were throwing money around, they would sit on your lap. They would laugh at your jokes. They would listen to your sob story if you wanted to talk and make inane small talk if you didn’t. If they got you into a lounge, they would take off every stitch of their clothing and grind whatever part of their body against whatever part of yours that made you open your wallet the widest; but they didn’t like you and never would. All the cheap perfume in the world wouldn’t cover the whiff of apathy permeating the room. It was as much a part of the job as the neon G-string and the Lucite heels.

None of the other guys seemed to mind. Tombstone and Kilroy were already bellied up to the tip rail with a stack of singles between them and a coterie of dancers fluttering for their attention. Gorey had a dancer on each knee and was entertaining them with a sleight of hand making a gold coin appear and disappear in front of their wondering eyes. Jojo, the self-nominated party planner, had cornered the floor host and was whispering something conspiratorially. I glimpsed a roll of cash change hands. She returned to the table looking pleased with herself.

“Hrrrmmmgthkay ladiesngerrmen, whreeengdgberder bachelor!” the DJ made a garbled pronouncement over the PA and the two dancers on Gorey’s lap stood. They hauled him up and escorted him onto the stage to enthrone him in a folding chair where he sat grinning with his hands clasped in his lap like a schoolboy trying to behave himself.

“Hurrgbennnnngg durrrammmmmmbbberrr!”

The blonde slid down from her perch and raked up her tips from the stage floor as an enormous Black girl emerged from the curtains at the back of the stage and ran her hands over Gorey’s shoulders. She strutted around in front of him and bent in half, twerking the mighty cheeks of her ass to Foxy Shazam’s I Like It.

Gorey liked it, alright. He was grinning so widely the corners of his mouth threatened to reach his ears. If he died right now in that exact moment, he’d die a happy man.

The blonde descended from the stage with a wad of singles in her hand. She paused for a minute to put a foot on my knee and tuck the bundle through her ankle garter.

“Hey now.”

“Hey yourself,” she said through her eyelashes. “Why so serious?”

I let my eyes follow the contours of her leg up into the promising darkness beneath the fabric of her dress. The Lycra hugged her body in a way that made me suddenly painfully aware of how long it had been since I’d last gotten laid. Almost a month. Back before we’d gotten kicked off the tour. Another life.

“I’m Camille,” she said, sinking onto my lap. “What’s your name?”

“Damen.”

“Damien?”

“Damen. There’s no ‘i’ in it.” It was a conversation I’d had a million times before.

“That’s what I said.”

“Day-men.”

“Damien,” she stuck her tongue behind her teeth and laughed. I couldn’t tell if she was an idiot or if she was doing it on purpose to troll me. “The things I would do to you…” she murmured to herself, leaning in close to take a deep inhale of my hair. “You smell like someone I’d like to fuck. You ever notice how some people just smell fuckable?”

“Where have you been all my life?” The stain of reality was receding, leaving only a luminous fantasy in its wake. I felt myself coming awake for the first time in days.

The blonde threw her head back and laughed. “You’re not afraid of me, are you?” She settled against my chest, making herself comfortable. “Most guys are. Give them a woman who knows what she wants and poof! Suddenly their big, swinging dicks disappear.”

“Not me. I’m average-sized at best, but I make up for it with stamina and cunnilingus.” I licked the tip of her nose with a flick of my tongue.

Camille laughed and slipped a hand down between us to size me up through my jeans. “You’re a rotten liar,” she said.

“I never lie. It terrifies people.” My eye was drawn to the stage where the Black girl sat on the folding chair while Gorey lap danced her. Kilroy and Tombstone were enthusiastically making it rain.

“Friend of yours?” she asked.

“Bandmate.”

“Oh, you’re in a band?” she tugged gently at my lip ring with a half-smile on her face. “I never would have guessed.” Even through the increasing haze of alcoholic stupor I could hear the sarcasm. She wasn’t as dumb as she looked. She stood up languidly. Towering over me like a luminous Venus she held out a hand. “Come with me. There’s someone you should meet.”

“Lead me astray.”

I got to my feet and followed her across the dance floor and through a doorway marked Private to the business side of the club. A cluster of girls were taking a break in the half-lit backstage hallway, exchanging gossip in the vulgar, over-loud tones of women who did not give a single shit about gratifying the male gaze. I was on their turf now. Camille led the way up a short flight of stairs and ushered me into an office that overlooked the dance floor through a wall of darkly tinted windows.

“Look who I found!” Camille enthused, presenting me to the room’s occupant: a hefty dude wearing a Man of Snakes t-shirt who sat enthroned like an elder statesman behind a large wooden desk. He looked like a side of bacon: pink and porcine with a soul patch and nappy white-boy dreadlocks. He gave me a perfunctory glance over the top of a pair of black plastic reading glasses.

“Baphomet on a bicycle, not another one of your strays,” he muttered, clearing the room with a wave of his hand. A power move that said I’m the boss here, which was evidently for my benefit because Camille flopped down onto a couch with an easy familiarity.

“Strong words from a fucking Snakes fan,” I said.

The big dude narrowed his eyes. “You can shut your blaspheming face-hole right now, pal,” he said, resting an elbow on the desk to point at me with his pen. “Man of Snakes is a national fucking treasure. Anybody who says otherwise can suck my gnarled troll dick.”

“They’re a pack of self-important assholes with the cultural relevance of a rat turd,” I persisted. “Kester couldn’t play his way out of a paper bag, and Kelle sings like someone’s tonguing his balls.” I imitated the lead singer’s signature, limp-wristed affect to demonstrate and hit a falsetto high-note that featured prominently in their best-known hit.

Camille laughed. The big guy didn’t. The deliveryman deposited his stack of boxes and beat a hasty retreat out the door.

“Who the hell do you think you are, you shit-spackled fuckwhistle?”

“Judge, gawd! Don’t be lame. This is Damien.”

Damen,” I said, automatically. “D-A-M-E-N. Like the street.”

“D-A-M-E-N, like the blue-haired faggot that fronts OBNXS?” Judge said. I got the feeling it was a question he already knew the answer to.

“That’s me.”

“Prove it, motherfucker.”

I reached into my pocket and fished out the laminate for Lollapalooza and showed it to him. Damen Warner. OBNXS.

“Ha!” Camille pointed to the laminate, victorious. “I told you it was him. Pay up.”

Not an idiot.

“Aw, fuck.” Judge’s face split into a grin and he slapped a folded bill into Camille’s outstretched hand, now all good humor. He turned to me: “Well, you’re a shithead, but I grudgingly admit your music don’t suck.”

Truce.

He extended a paddle-like hand in my direction. I shook it. “So, it’s true you’re playin’ Lolla, then. I heard a rumor.”

“Yeah, it’s true.”

“D’you get free tickets?” Camille wanted to know, pressing her body against mine.

“Ain’t nothin’ in this life that’s free,” I told her. Now that my anger was cooling, I could feel my inhibitions slipping away into a warm haze. I inhaled the smell of her hair and sweat and perfume. She was right—some people did smell fuckable.

“I’ll make it worth your while,” she said, reaching behind her back to cup my hard-on with one hand. She squeezed gently through the denim, lighting up every nerve in my skin. I grabbed a handful of hair at the back of her neck and peeled her head back to expose her throat.

“Alright, that’s enough you two.” Judge didn’t need to be looking at us to know how we were carrying on. “Some of us are tryin’ to work.”

Camille rolled her eyes. “Laaaame,” she proclaimed, taking my hand. “C’mon, let’s go have some fun.”

“When you’re done fooling around, come find me and we’ll talk music.” Judge made a five-pointed gesture by way of dismissal and turned back to his laptop.

I tripped along behind Camille as she led the way back out into the thunderous reverie of the club. The booze was hitting me hard now. The world warped and twisted around me as we made our way to a champagne booth overlooking the room from a mezzanine level. Brushing aside a curtain of beads, Camille escorted me into the velveteen darkness and shoved me down on an overstuffed couch.

Jojo was already there with Khaki Thackery and a temptation of dancers in various states of sobriety and undress. Jojo herself was topless, her legs flung across Thackery’s lap while she did a line of something off the missile-shaped tits of a Suicide Girl with candy colored hair. She glanced up at me, rubbing her nose self-consciously before running her tongue across the dancer’s skin where the powder had been.

“Someone’s feeling better,” she said, grinning as Camille melted into my lap, every inch of her soft and warm and supple. “Aren’t you glad you came out now?”

“Yeah,” I had to admit it was true: life did seem to suck a whole lot less.

“You like to party?” she asked. Camille pinched her nose between her finger and her thumb with a sniffle and a wink.

“I didn’t come here for the food.”

“I’ll be back—don’t go anywhere.” She stood up, dragging her body across mine as she did. The sensation of her flesh sent shivers through my body.

Jojo nudged my shoulder. “You should probably pace yourself,” she said. Her expression was casual, but her tone pierced my unraveling thoughts. Temperance was not known to be one of her core values.

“Why?”

“No reason. Just, maybe, plan to drink a bunch of water later.”

Why,” I asked again, struggling to pull my mind together. “D’you slip me something?”

Jojo just stuck her tongue in her cheek and said nothing, which said everything.

“Did you fucking roofie me?!”

“I was sick of hearing you whine, okay?” Jojo admitted at last. “Just a little something to take the edge off. C’mon—enjoy the ride. It’s designer. The lab’s legit. Totally mellow high.”

“What the hell d’you give me?!”

“Just the tiniest bit of Liquid G.” She pinched her fingers together: just the tiniest bit.

“Fuck…”

Jojo seemed to consider, then made the pinch bigger. A big little bit.

“Fuuuuuck…”

She thought about it again. Made the pinch bigger. A big bit. I was going to get hammered.

“Jojo, what the fuck?!”

“You weren’t s’posed to drink the whole fucking bottle, Bogart.”

I remembered the bottle of engine de-greaser I’d practically chugged in the back of the limo. The drugs were hitting me like an avalanche now: building speed, gaining momentum, burying me alive. My body weighed a million pounds. I sank into the cushions like quicksand.

Don’t struggle, it’ll make you sink faster. A completely useless survival instinct murmured listlessly in the back of my mind as I stared at the dancing lights and let my mind dissolve.

“Just relaaaaaxxxxx,” Jojo told me. Like I had much choice. Whatever she’d given me, she’d clearly had some too and was rolling hard. “It feels amaaaaazzzzzing. Doesn’t it feel amaaaazzzzzinnnngggg…”

Lay back and try to float.

But I was already sinking into a deep well of muffled darkness. Camille returned to find me staring, wasted, into the middle distance like a drooling idiot.

“Heyyyy, rockstarrrr?” Her voice seemed to take forever find its way down to me. “You alrighhhhhtttt?”

I couldn’t tell if I responded. She grabbed me by the hair to pull my head up and inspected my pupils.

Hey.” Somebody snapped their fingers close to my face, but I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do about it.

“He’s not dead, is he?”

“No, he’s just fucked up.”

“We’re gonna have to call the cops again.”

“No, no cops. He’ll be fine, just let him sleep it off.”

The music throbbed through my body. Time passed as a blur of motion across my mind. I was aware of voices and flesh, the touch of hands, the flash of photographs that I was almost certainly going to regret. One by one my senses burned out, first feeling, then sight, then sound.

And then I passed out, and there wasn’t anything else.

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CHAPTER 10: ROYAL CUPS

I waited until Edward left and then went outside in search of my grandmother. I found her in the garden draped in a veil of netting; luminous in the soft light of morning, tending to her bees. She was studying a tray of comb too intently to notice me, droning something soft and tuneless under her breath. She was the only person I’d ever seen who handled the hives with her bare hands. They seemed to recognize her touch, crawling over her fingers and wrists as if she too were a part of the colony.

“Got your hand in the honeypot, I see,” I said.

“Good heavens—Damen?” Dearie looked up, startled. “I wasn’t expecting to see you.”

“Yeah, well, surprise.”

It was stupid of me to have come. I was stupid. I didn’t belong here. But Grandma Dearie raised her veil to beam up at me with a smile like dawn breaking.

“It’s so good to see you! You should have told me you were coming—you’ve caught me quite out of countenance.”

“How are the bees?”

Dearie looked down at the tray of comb in her hands. “The queen is in decline. It’s to be expected—she’s quite old, after all.” She pointed to something too small for me to see from the distance. “These three little bumps? They’re called royal cups. The hive is growing virgin queens. When the old queen dies, they’ll hatch a new one to take over; it’s called supersedure.” She carefully slid the tray of comb back into the hive. “What brings you to town?”

“We—my band—got a call about Lollapalooza.”

“Whosapawhatnow?”

“Lolla—” I realized the name meant nothing to her. “It’s a big music festival downtown.”

“Sounds like quite a feather in your cap.”

“I hope so.”

Dearie shed her veil to reveal a plume of silver-white hair. She was smaller than I remembered: thinner too, but she still looked pretty spry for a woman in her eighties. She waved away my hand when I reached out to help her up the steps and nodded toward the door instead.

“Would you? I’m quite sticky.”

I held the door open for her as she made her way up the steps taking them one at a time. I struggled to decide how to bring up the topic of Sam and Michael and her health. “How have you been?” I ventured, doing my best to sound casual.

“Oh, much the same as ever,” she rolled the question off her shoulders. “When you get to be as old as I am, it all rather runs together.” She made it to the top of the steps and smiled up at me with bright eyes. She smacked me in the stomach, very gently, with the back of one wrist. “You should have told me you were coming. I would have had the piano tuned. Will you play something for me?”

Dearie’s piano was a thing of beauty—a Steinway baby grand made out of gleaming, wine-dark wood and keys of real ivory: an heirloom, like everything else in the house. I coveted it more than I coveted anything else in the world.

“I haven’t played in months…” I mumbled, but suddenly the only thing I could think about was laying my fingers along the keys and bringing its voice to life. I caught myself cracking my knuckles.

Dearie was not prepared to take ‘no’ for an answer: “I insist,” she said. “You play so beautifully, and you’ve been away for so long. Please.”

Who was I to say no?

“As you wish.”

“Go on then,” Dearie nodded me toward the living room even as she turned toward the kitchen with her hands held high like a doctor headed into surgery. “I’ll catch you up.”

The living room was a dim mausoleum of antique furniture and Persian rugs. Dearie’s favorite wingback chair was drawn up to the window overlooking her garden with a dog-eared book of Yeats poetry resting on the cushion.

A framed family photo hung over the mantle: posed and formal. Grandma Dearie seated on a chair in the garden with Michael at her shoulder and Mom, Edward and Evelyn all arranged around her. Everyone was smiling. The chosen and golden.

I wasn’t in the picture.

But Dearie hadn’t forgotten me. My face stared back at me from a smaller frame standing on the mantelpiece below. The picture had been snapped for a magazine profile; neatly clipped and arranged alongside a formal portrait of my late grandfather, Enoch. Near to the family but not part of it. Me and the other departed.

The piano waited demurely in the far corner of the room beneath a quilted cover, which I swept off in a cloud of dust motes. It was exactly how I remembered it—warm and dark in graceful curving lines. I slid onto the polished bench and raised the heavy, satiny lid over the keys. It slid into the piano casing with a resonant thunk. The piano wires thrummed in sympathy.

I pulled my rings off, one by one, and lined them up on the music stand. The stones in the eyes of a silver skull ring gleamed at me as I stretched my fingers wide and laid my hands on the keys savoring the moment. Then I ran a few scales, picking out chords with my left hand until the voice of piano filled the room.

“What do you want to hear?” I asked Dearie as she entered and placed a plate of bread with honey and a glass of milk on the table beside me.

 “Whatever you’d like to play,” she said. “I trust you.”

“Foolish mortal,” I winked at her and she laughed.

My hands took on the shape of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata—the first movement, famous and slow. The piano sang out in a rich alto—only slightly flat except for the middle G which was nearly on its way to an F.

“Damnit.”

I hadn’t played anything classical in ages. My fingers were stupid and slow and struggled to remember the motions. I fumbled through the first few bars until the music tangled and I had to stop playing. I resolved to find a piano to practice on as soon as possible.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. I tried to pick up where I’d left off but couldn’t find the tune. I floundered for a moment, aware of Dearie’s eyes on me, and then gave up.

“Never mind, then,” Dearie hugged my head to her chest and kissed the top of my forehead. “How I’ve missed you, Blue.”

Blue. Little Boy Blue: the detested childhood nickname. Coming from Dearie it managed to sound affectionate.

“I’ve missed you too,” I said, remembering why I’d come to the Big House in the first place and realizing with a jolt that the mere mention of the piano had been enough to put it out of my mind. “I went to see Sam.”

“Oh? How is he?”

“You should know, you went to see him not that long ago, didn’t you?” I noodled around on the keyboard trying my best to sound casual. Dearie tensed, but her expression stayed bland.

“Did he tell you that?” she asked, mildly surprised.

“No, I…overheard it.”

“Ahh. Michael.” Dearie leaned back in her chair, somehow intuiting the truth from the spaces between my words. “I didn’t realize the two of you were in touch.”

“We’re not,” I pounded a chord with more force than I’d intended and winced.

“Oh, Blue. I wish the two of you would work out your differences,” Dearie sighed. “It hurts me to see the two of you so at odds.”

“Yeah, well, that’s not my fault.” My mind flashed back to the look of revulsion that had crossed Michael’s face when he saw me in Sam’s office. I glanced toward the portrait over the fireplace; one big happy family. “I don’t belong here. Michael doesn’t want me.”

“That is absolute nonsense.” Dearie smacked her hand down on the piano and the force of it made me jump.

“God, fine…” I managed warily. I’d never seen Dearie snap at anybody, ever. “Something on your mind?”

Dearie softened and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m rather out of sorts these days.”

“Estate planning go you down?”

Dearie looked surprised. “Whatever would give you that idea?” she asked. “Did Sam imply that I was…? Oh, I must have a word with him…”

“Sam didn’t say anything,” I said. “And you haven’t answered the question.”

“No, I haven’t.”

I smoothed my hand over the wood of the piano where Dearie had struck it. A nick in the wood caught at my thumbnail and I worried it in silence. “And you’re not going to, are you?”

Dearie rested her hand on mine, forcing me into stillness, and curled her fingers into my palm with a gentle squeeze. “When the time is right, you will know everything you need to know. I promise.”

I felt my ears get hot. Of course she wasn’t going to tell me anything.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Outside the living room window, the familiar grumble of the Goat wafted up from the street below, and I got to my feet.

“I should go.”

“Oh, Blue,” Dearie stopped me before I could make my escape and folded me into an embrace. I breathed in her scent of Shalimar and cedar, feeling the ridges of her back and ribs beneath my fingers as delicate as china. I felt certain I would break her if I held on too hard. “Please, don’t let this keep you away. You’re always welcome here; you know that, right?”

“Fine, sure. Whatever.” I extracted myself at last and slunk toward the front door. Welcome or not, I didn’t belong here, and I never would.

Down in the street, Edward stood beside the Goat with the keys in his hand. He looked like he hated the idea of letting them go. I yanked the rabbit’s foot out of his with a surge of vicious spite and climbed into the driver’s seat without acknowledging him,

“I filled the gas,” he said. “Also, the oil. And I topped up the windshield fluid—”

I flooded the engine with a roar of gasoline to drown out the sound of his voice.

“The tires oughtta be rotated!” he shouted—or tried to. I revved the engine again.

“I can’t hear you!”

Edward pulled the passenger side door open and leaned inside before I could put it in gear. “The tires ought to be rotated,” he said. “I mean unless you had it up on blocks?”

“I know how to store a car, Ed.”
            “I know, I mean, just I could rotate them for you—”

“Not today, Edebevic,” I said. “Things to go, places to do.”

“Where?” Edward wanted to know.

“Anywhere that’s not here. Shut the fucking door.”

Edward’s shoulders sagged and he pulled his hand back from his beloved car, clicking the door shut with a nudge. I gunned the engine and roared out onto the neighborhood streets leaving him alone and haloed in the low morning light.

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CHAPTER 9 : THE GOLDEN BOY

The hot core of my family’s personal universe consisted a massive four-story brick house on the near north side. Under normal circumstances I avoided it like Chernobyl, but Sam’s evasiveness had piqued my curiosity, and I found myself on the tree-lined street outside the front gate before hesitation got the better of me. Up until now I’d been able to avoid family scrutiny by flying under the radar. But marching up to the monolithic door and banging on it until it opened was going to put an end to that.

Then again, Michael already knew I was in town, and so did Mom, so there wasn’t much point in keeping a low-profile anymore.

The Big House was old. It had been built sometime during the 1890s after the Adomnan family made its fortune rebuilding the city out of the ashes of the Chicago fire. Now, it served as both the family home and the cornerstone of the family business: Metron Corporation, which dealt in real estate development and neighborhood gentrification.

I climbed the front steps and knocked.

The door opened to reveal my brother, Edward, looking like he’d just rolled out of bed; unshaven and with his hair standing on end. But that was how he always looked: always unshaven, hair always on end—the kind of tousled that gave women cozy fantasies about Sunday mornings in bed. He was good-looking in every way I wasn’t, broad-shouldered, fair-haired, and symmetrical. He reeked of good health and clean living. His only apparent flaw was a jagged scar cutting across his forehead from hairline to eyebrow as a reminder to the rest of us mortals that Only God Is Perfect. I might’ve been the oldest, but Edward was the favorite. The sweet, stupid, golden boy.

“Did you miss me?” I demanded. I slung an arm around his neck and dug my rings into his scalp in a good, old-fashioned noogie.

“Damen? Oww—what the hell?” He twisted in my grasp and bent his knees to pull me to the ground. He caught my leg in some kind of wrestler hold and flipped me on my back with a thump that nearly knocked the air out of me. Fuck. I’d forgotten that he knew how to wrestle. We grappled for a moment until he caught my arm in a twist and pinned me to the floor by straddling my chest.

“Jesus, fuck you,” I kicked my legs uselessly under his weight.

“C’mon—we’re not kids anymore,” he said with a smile that was somehow genuinely happy. Happy to see me. Happy he’d gotten the upper hand. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to see Dearie.” I squirmed, still trying to break free. Edward pressed a finger to his lips and then pressed the kiss to my forehead, finally and effectively pinning me to the floor.

“Edward? You coming back?” A woman’s voice floated to us from the direction of the kitchen and Edward froze.

“What? Yeah, sorry. I got…distracted.”

“We’re in the middle of a conversation—”

“I know, I know. Sorry. Sorry…” Edward scrambled to his feet, blushing like he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t as a dark-haired woman appeared in the kitchen doorway, peering at us with an expression of annoyance.

“Is that—” my memory coughed up the name of one of our sister’s friends. “Gracie?!”

Edward looked cornered.

“Daaaamn!”

The Gracie I remembered had been a prim, Jewish twelve-year-old with an affinity for books above her reading level. She sure as hell wasn’t a twelve-year-old now; grown up and filled out in ways that couldn’t be disguised even beneath shapeless blue medical scrubs and sensible shoes.

“Hellooo nurse,” I got to my feet.

“It’s doctor, actually,” Gracie crossed her arms and gave me a once-over. I wondered how I looked to her; blue-haired and dressed in all black with a dozen metal objects perforating my face.

“Of course it is,” I said. “You were always the smart one.”

“I’m sorry, do I know you?”

“Gracie, you remember Damen,” Edward sighed.

“Edward’s brother.”

“Half-brother.”

A stab in the back.

“Sorry to interrupt, I just came by to see my grandmother—didn’t realize I’d be busting in.” I offered her my hand. Gracie took it hesitantly, like she was worried about something rubbing off.

“Okay, well…it’s fine. I should get going anyway.”

Gracie slipped her hand out of my fingers to retrieve her purse off the back of a chair and turned to find Edward standing in her path.

“You’re going? Already?”

“I’ve got a shift in half an hour, and I think we’ve…probably said everything that needs to be said.” She stepped around him in a businesslike way. I wasn’t sure what I’d interrupted, but it sounded juicy.

“But…we’re not…c’mon—” Edward stumbled over the words, dogging her steps like a sad, hopeful pound puppy pleading for a forever home. “At least can I give you a ride? Please?” He managed to get between Gracie and the front door, effectively blocking her attempted escape. Gracie puffed out a resigned sigh and stopped in her tracks.

“Fine.”

Edward turned to me. “Give me the keys.”

“What keys?”

“The keys to the GTO. I saw it out front. I’m taking Gracie to work.”

“Fuck no—you’re not driving my fucking car.”

“It’s my car,” Edward’s voice was low but steady. There was a steely look in his eye that I’d seen before but not often. The look that said I’d gone too far. “Give me the keys.”

I retrieved the keyring from my pocket and dangled it in front of Edward’s face by the rabbit’s foot. He swiped for it and I jerked it away.

“Ah ah ah—what do we say?”

“You’re a sonovabitch.”

“Don’t talk about Mom that way.”

“You know what? I’m going to wait outside,” Gracie said, cutting between us to get to the door. “Come on out once you’re done knocking your heads together.” She cast a backward look at Edward to tell him he was being childish, and then slammed the door behind her.

I punched Edward in the shoulder. “Gracie Weiss? You’re fucking Gracie Weiss?”

“I’m not ff—” Edward stumbled over the curse and blushed. “It’s not like that.”

“Is she your girlfriend?”

“No…It’s complicated. She’s doing her residency. She doesn’t have time for a relationship.”

“Is that what she tells you?”

“Yes?” Edward curled in on himself defensively and looked confused. “It’s true…?” He said it as a statement, but every fiber of his body was turning it into a question. In his distress, his left hand reached up to twist in his hair in an unconscious, self-comforting gesture, and his right hand reached up to pull it down.

I knew it was cruel to tease him: he’d been in a car accident as a kid and a traumatic brain injury had scrambled his egg pretty good. The two halves of his brain were no longer on speaking terms. He could take apart an engine and put it back together, but he was so dyslexic he couldn’t read. Kind people described him as ‘high functioning’, but his left hand literally did not know what his right hand was doing.

“Sure, whatever,” I shrugged it off like it was no big deal. “Whatever, you’re happy right now, right? Who cares if it doesn’t last?”

Edward took another swipe for the keys, this time catching the rabbit’s foot in his fist, but I held on, pulling him in close.

Manners. What do we say?”

Edward focused on the key ring in his hand and seemed to center himself.

“I almost have enough to make the…numbers…” he said in an apparent non-sequitur. He seemed to be staring at a point in the middle distance like an oracle receiving a prophecy.

“Cool story, bruh.”

“To buy it, I mean. The GTO.”

“Yeah?”

His left hand made a grabbing gesture in the air, moving an invisible object from one place to another. He seemed to survey his work. “Dearie could help…”

“Where is Dearie, anyway?” I asked, annoyed that I no longer commanded his full attention.

“In the garden. Telling the bees.”

“Clear as blue mud, Edebevic.”

Edward just shrugged like it wasn’t his job to make me understand. He had more important things on his mind. “Can I, you know, mostly buy it? Pay you the rest when I get it?”

“Talk to me when you get the full amount,” I told him, knowing I was being cruel, and he didn’t know why or what he’d done to deserve it. He nodded, shoulders sagging the tiniest bit. No matter what I did he still wouldn’t hate me. I dangled the keys in front of him again.

“Say the magic word.”

“Please?”

“Bring it back full,” I said and dropped them into his hand.

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CHAPTER 10: ROYAL CUPS will go live Monday, August 30th, 2021

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