CHAPTER 20: SEPARATING

On the night of Mom’s family dinner, I arrived at the Big House late, as usual, but I still got there before Michael or Edward. As if she had sensed my arrival, Mom opened the front door while I was still climbing the steps, saving me from the dilemma of deciding whether to knock or to just walk in.

“You’re late.”

“I’m Damen.”

“Don’t be smart,” Mom said. She stepped aside to let me pass, but her eyes flickered over my shoulders to scan the street. “I want you on your best behavior tonight. This is important.”

“What’s this all about, anyway?”

“You will see.” Mom deposited me in the front room where Evelyn sat with Dearie. The two of them looked up when I came in. Mom disappeared into the kitchen.

“Damen!” Evelyn jumped up as if she hadn’t seen me in years and wrapped her arms around my neck in a hug. I staggered back in surprise. “I haven’t seen you in months.” She glanced in Dearie’s direction with pleading eyes that said don’t fuck this up for me.

 “Oh, hey, what’s new?”

“Evelyn was telling me about the wedding planning,” Dearie said. “Will you join us?”

“That sounds like Hell on Earth.” I went to the piano and slid onto the bench. Safe.

“You’re not wrong,” Evelyn muttered, sinking back onto the couch beside Dearie.

“You pick a date?”

“June sixteenth. We’re having it at the Gardens—of course.”

“How lovely,” Dearie murmured. “Don’t register for china. I’ll be giving you mine. Both the Wedgewood and the Limoges—”

“Dearie! That’s too much!”

“Please, I insist. I don’t use it. What good is heirloom china if it’s not passed on?”

China patterns and wedding plans: my brain was going numb by the second. “Where’s Edward?” I asked to change the subject.

“On his way with Dad,” Evelyn said. “He got a job at Metron—did you hear?”

“Some kind of engineering?”

“Physical engineering.”

“In other words, a janitor.”

“Don’t be unkind,” Dearie scolded.

“Excuse me, custodian.”

“Blue…”

“Yeah, don’t be a Blue-Meanie,” Evelyn sided with Dearie. “They put him in charge of maintaining all their worksites. Apparently, he’s really good at it. But I mean, it’s Edward, so…”

“It’s Edward what?” Edward appeared in the doorway at the sound of his name. He was wearing a work jacket with the Metron logo stitched on the breast pocket over his heart and an ID tag pinned to the lapel. Somehow, he even made a janitor’s uniform look good.

“You made it!” Dearie turned in her seat without standing up. “Is your father with you?”

Edward bobbed his head in a nod. “He’s finishing a phone call. He’ll be in in a minute.”

“Mom’s pissed,” Evelyn told him.

“Cuz why?”

“Well, you’re forty minutes late, for starters.”

“We are?” He took out his phone and stared at it in consternation, struggling to read the time, which was written in large numbers on a digital display. I could read it from across the room, but to Edward it might as well have been Sanskrit. He gave up and tapped a button:

“Six Forty-Two Pee Em.”

“Dangit.” He looked embarrassed. “We were looking at the new site down south. Something about zoning?” His eyes went distant and his head tilted slightly, angling toward the back of the house. “Ahh—he’s coming.”

We all listened. Nothing.

“I don’t hear—”

Edward held up a finger. Wait. He pointed toward the back of the house. Now. From the depths of the house came the sound of a door opening and Michael’s heavy, even footsteps on a wooden floor—punctuated by the loud poc of his cane.

“I’m here,” he announced. The door closed behind him. The house suddenly felt a lot smaller now with Michael in it. I forced myself to take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Would you help me to the table?” Grandma Dearie held out a hand to me from where she sat. I looked at her, surprised.

“I can—” Edward started to cross to her. Dearie waved him away.

“Don’t trouble yourself: Damen will help me.”

 Chosen.

I felt a vicious surge of satisfaction as Edward stepped back with blatant confusion showing on his face. Getting to my feet, I helped Dearie up. She hooked her hand in my elbow and patted my arm and together we walked to the dining room at a measured pace. Mom was already there, bringing in a basket of bread rolls and a pitcher of water.

“Do you want wine?” she asked Dearie.

“Water is fine, thank you.”

Mom poured water into Dearie’s glass and then filled mine without asking. Her sharp look said everything: Keep your wits about you. Keep your mouth shut.

I pulled out Dearie’s chair for her and helped her to settle in at the head of the table as everybody else filtered in. Edward sat by her right hand and I took the chair by her left. Evelyn and Mom sat on either side of Michael, who seemed distracted.

“Do you know what this is about?” Evelyn murmured to me in an undertone.

I shrugged. “Mom’s got something to say.”

I felt Dearie take my hand on one side and Evelyn held out her hand to me on the other: family prayer. I’d forgotten about this. Squirming in my seat, I glanced at Mom and then at Michael and saw his face darken. Evelyn made the decision for me. She took my hand and closed the circle, giving my fingers a squeeze: just sit tight.

Be present at our table, Lord, be here and everywhere adored…

The family chorused the words in unison. I stayed silent. Across from me, Edward had his eyes closed. He said every word like he meant it. Evelyn’s eyes were downcast. Mom’s eyes were on me.

“Amen,” Michael said, The Final Word.

“Amen,” everyone else responded.

Dearie and Evelyn released my hands and there was a general clatter of utensils as napkins were extracted and serving dishes passed around the table. I shoved a dinner roll in my mouth—the only way I could think to keep silent.

“So, uh, what’s the big…announcement?” Evelyn ventured once everyone had been served and small talk had danced around the elephant in the room.

Mom glanced at Michael whose face tightened. He put down his fork, wiped his mouth with his napkin and threw it down on the table beside his plate like he’d lost his appetite. Bad news, then. Something I’d done? I felt a twinge of paranoia—he hadn’t spoken to me all evening, but Mom had been pretty damn insistent I come. Her gaze brushed over me and I tensed, but it didn’t settle. She rested a hand on Michael’s wrist, but Michael curled his fingers into a fist and tucked it away in his lap.

“Your father and I,” she said, addressing the room as a whole, “are getting separated.”

Time ground to a halt as the words sank in. I stopped mid-chew as something dark and gleeful woke up inside me.

“Good,” I said, “it’s about damn time.”

“Damen.” Evelyn tried to catch my wrist but I pulled away.

“No—good.” I looked around the table, daring any one of them to stop me. Edward was still in shock, mouth working as he struggled to grind the thought down into Edward-sized pieces. Evelyn looked stricken and was holding back tears. Dearie just looked…disappointed. “They’re not happy. They haven’t been happy in years—at least, Mom hasn’t.”

Mom raised her eyebrow at me. “That’s enough, Damen.”

“No, it’s not enough,” I snapped. “It’s been this one, long play-pretend sham for years: ‘let’s all pretend we’re one big happy fucking family.’”

“Language, please,” Dearie admonished. “We know you’re upset. We’re all upset—”

“I’m not upset,” I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Dad, why?” Edward finally caught up with the conversation.

Michael pressed his lips together and for the tiniest glimmer of a moment his eyes went deep with feeling. I wanted to leap out of my seat and shake him and scream in his face: Say something! Show some real fucking emotion for a change! Don’t let her go! But then his face went smooth again, closing all of us out from any meaningful inner self, and my sympathy evaporated.

“I don’t have a good answer for that.”

A laugh escaped me before I could stop it. I locked my jaws together and held up my hands, not saying anything, as Mom’s glance knifed over me again.

“Have you really not been happy? Is Damen right?” Edward turned to Mom now, still stringing ideas together with excruciating slowness. Next, he would take us all down to our pieces and lay us out on his workbench until he could figure out how to put us together again.

“There comes a time when things just need to change. I recently…gained some perspective I need to consider the implications of.”

“And you have to get separated from Dad to do that?” Evelyn was only barely holding back her anger with tears and a red face: as much of a Daddy’s Girl as I was a Mama’s Boy.

“I need space. I will not be my best self for a while.”

Michael’s phone vibrated in his pocket, interrupting her. I saw Mom’s jaw lock as he took it out and glanced at the caller. He silenced it with a swipe and set it down on the table face down. His eyes flickered back to the conversation, glancing furtively at the portrait of Grandpa Enoch hanging over Dearie’s shoulder.

“I think it’s safe to say we have…different priorities at the moment,” Mom said, her tone struggling to disguise bitter annoyance.

The phone rang again. The tension in the room hardened into concrete. Michael looked at the phone without moving and Mom’s glower dared him to answer it: to just try it. We all sat in silence, waiting to see what he’d do. At last, he stood and picked it up.

“Excuse me.”

Mom sprang to her feet, teeth bared. “Michael, don’t you dare!”

But Michael was already walking away, answering the call as he crossed out of the room. I saw Mom reach for his plate. The gesture stirred up a half-forgotten memory from my childhood: Mom throwing a dinner plate at the kitchen wall in a fit of anger. I couldn’t remember what had upset her or why, only the explosion of noodles and tomato sauce and Evelyn as a baby, screaming, and Edward as a toddler, crying, and me as a five-year-old picking up my own plate to join in, laughing with glee. Snapping back to reality, I suddenly realized where I got my tendency toward explosive outbursts from. But this explosive outburst was going to involve one of Grandma Dearie’s good plates—one she’d promised to Evelyn. One that couldn’t be replaced.

I leaped to my feet, knocking over my chair.

“Good!” I screamed after Michael. “Fuck you, Michael! Fuck you and the horse you fucking rode in on!”

I felt, more than saw, Mom’s attention turn to me.

“You watch your language,” she hissed. She let go of the plate, letting it drop on the tabletop with a thud and closed her hand around my arm instead. I tried to shake her off, but not too hard—just hard enough to make her hold on.

“I’m fine,” I insisted. If I was going to make a scene, I might as well make it a showstopper.

“Come with me,” she commanded in a low, tight voice, dragging me toward the kitchen. She waited until the dining room door had swung shut behind us before releasing me.

“I thought I told you to be on your best behavior,” she snapped when we were alone. “I’m very disappointed in you.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did you think the fallout from that little bombshell was going to be pretty?” I paced around the kitchen, incapable of staying still. “What took you so long—we could’ve been free of him years ago.”

Mom crossed her arms, “What makes you think I want to be free of him?” she challenged, catching me up short.

“Don’t you?”

“I love Michael very much.”

“That doesn’t answer the question.”

“I need space to consider my identity,” Mom said. Consider her identity. Not to ‘find herself’.

“Uh-huh. People don’t get separated after thirty years of marriage just because they’re feeling a little existential.”

“Twenty-eight years. And yes, it is actually quite common.”

“Whatever—my whole life.”

Mom absorbed this—her mind going back somewhere in her memory where I couldn’t follow.

“You could be free,” I pressed. “You could be happy again.”

“Who says I’m not happy?”

“Puh-leez. Living this… life under glass? Watching the world go by without touching it? Everything’s straight lines and hard edges here.” I was getting worked up again. All my memories of her laughing were from when I was a kid—soft and yellow. There were the stormy moments of plate throwing, but there had been sun too: not this faceless, overcast gray she’d become. I remembered seeing her after Grandpa Enoch died—numb and flat-faced. I remembered her arms around me at the funeral: she’d been trying to comfort me but her hug was so cold it made me ache. I never saw her laugh after that. It was like she’d transformed into some kind of mechanical animal: relentless and efficient and unfeeling. I’d done everything I could think of to break free until the only thing left to do was to leave or be crushed.

Mom’s eyes were bright—were those tears? A flush rose up on her neck from beneath her collar, and she swallowed hard. The unfamiliar rawness on her face twisted in my guts until it hurt too much to look at her. I pushed through the servant door at the back of the kitchen and fled up the service stairs in search of something familiar in a world turned upside-down.

I took the steps two at a time until I reached the dim, elegant hallway on the second level, but I didn’t stop. The staircase to the third-floor was hidden in a closet. I wrenched the door open and kept climbing. The third-floor hallway was plain—the wooden floor was dull and unpolished. The same threadbare floor runner curled up around my foot, tripping me the way it always had. I kicked it flat. My old room was at the far end, under a sloping eve. The door was still plastered with DO NOT ENTER stickers and police tape and band posters from the nineties: Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Smashing Pumpkins.

Inside, the room was undisturbed except for an accumulation of filing boxes occupying the bed, a bin of Christmas decorations, and a collection of bags earmarked for AmVets: the detritus of ordinary life.

In one corner stood a battered upright piano that had belonged to Mom’s mom, Grandma Rose. Mom had inherited it after she died; an heirloom too broken to play and too sentimental to get rid of. I couldn’t imagine the machinations it had taken to get it up to the third-floor, but now it was there, and that was where it was going to stay; along with all the other broken memories too heavy to carry around.

The lid was furred with dust. I wiped a hand across it, brushing away a handful of linty fluff before lifting the lid and reaching inside. The soundboard was cracked right down middle C, and I felt around for the narrow gap where I stashed the things I wanted to keep secret: a baggie of decrepit weed, now mostly dust, Edward’s favorite collectible baseball card, and a narrow strip of photo booth photographs from Great America. I pulled this out and took it into the light to look at it: me and Mom, smiling and goofing off.

Suddenly I was twelve again, thrown backward in time to middle school. It was the third or fourth day of standardized testing, and I’d already finished bubbling in mind-numbing answers on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. My name was called over the PA system and I went to the principal’s office to find Mom there, signing me out for the rest of the day.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Anywhere that’s not here.”

We drove north to Gurnee and went to Great America for Fright Fest. We rode on the Shockwave and ate hot dogs and junk food. I remembered squeezing into the photo booth with her, waiting for the flash of the camera, trying to think of faces to pull.

Afterwards, as the sun was setting, we got food at a diner called The Phoenix just over the Wisconsin border. Then something happened: Sam appeared like he knew where to find us and Mom went outside to meet him. I watched them talk through the diner’s grimy windows. I couldn’t hear what they said, but I thought they might be talking about me. Sam kept looking in my direction and every time he did Mom got a little quieter and more distant. I realized something wasn’t right.

“Can we go home now?” I asked when she came back inside.

“C’mon, aren’t we having fun?” She ordered a coffee and filled it with liquor—filling it more and more every time the mug started to get empty until I could smell it through her skin.

“Yeah, but…”

We could leave this place,” she’d said. “Would you come with me if I left? I packed a bag for you. We could go right now: to the airport in Milwaukee and then just—fly, fly away…”

“Where would we go?”

“Someplace warm. California maybe?”

“What about Edward and Evie? What about Dad?”

“What about them?!” Mom banged her hand down on the table making the silverware rattle and I jumped. “Damnit! That’s all there is. That’s is all there will ever be. Husband. Kids. Husband. Kids. God-damnit. Fuck.” It was the first and last time I ever heard her curse. She was laughing and crying at the same time. And then she got up to go to the bathroom and I begged the diner owner to let me use their phone.

“Where are you, son?” Michael asked when he answered.

I told him about Great America and about the diner and about Sam. I told him about the airport and California and the liquor.

“Sit tight,” he said.

“Sit tight,” said sheriff who appeared fifteen minutes later like magic. He took away Mom’s keys and locked the two of us up in the back seat of his car but didn’t take us anywhere. Instead, he went inside the diner and ordered a coffee.

Mom was drunk now. She leaned her head against the fogged glass of the window and stared out into the darkness. Her anger sat between us, filling the cabin of the car.

“You called Michael, didn’t you,” she said.

I nodded.

“You don’t know what you’ve done.” Tears rolled down her cheeks but I didn’t know why. “You don’t know what you’ve done.”

I never did figure out what she meant. Michael came to pick us up, still dressed in his police uniform. He brought us home and I could hear him and Mom talking late into the night in low urgent voices as their footsteps circled and circled and circled below my bedroom.

Everything changed after that: Mom disappeared for a month and the rest of us went to live at the Big House while she was gone. Then the car accident happened, killing Grandpa Enoch and putting Dearie and Edward in the hospital, and when Mom came back, she was like a ghost haunting her own life.

What had I done?

I snapped back to the present and stowed the photos in my wallet, hiding the memory in my pocket. Casting a final glance around the old room, I slipped out and closed the door behind me. Then I crept down the back stairs and left the house without saying goodbye.

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CHAPTER 19: MONEY, PEOPLE, DIRT

“Sooner or later you and Tombstone are gonna have to work out your differences.”

Camille’s words rang in my ears and although I hated to admit it, even to myself, I knew she was right. If I wanted to keep the band together, I was going to have to find some way to square things with Tombstone.

I waited until dawn then swallowed my pride and went looking for him. The RV stood dark and silent in the back lot behind the CursèdPlace and no one answered when I knocked on the warped fiberglass door. I picked the lock and stuck my head inside.

“Hullo?” I called. “Tombstone?”

There was no response, not even a groan of annoyance from someone hungover and trying to sleep. I climbed aboard and poked around. His bunk was neatly made. The kitchen was bare of clutter. There was no sign that the bathroom had been used any time recently. I was just about to go snooping in his fridge when my phone rang. I answered it with a distracted swipe of my thumb.

“H’lo?”

“You’re up early. Did I wake you?” It was Mom.

“Haven’t gone to bed yet,” I said. “What about you? Isn’t it early in your world too?”

“I don’t sleep much these days,” Mom said. “I had a procedure. It changed things.”

“Yeah, Evelyn told me,” I said, realizing belatedly the only reason I’d seen Evelyn was because I’d caught her working at the club. “Good to know someone in this family keeps me in the loop.”

“Don’t be a brat,” Mom said. “You’ll have plenty of time to catch up on family news when you come to Dearie’s for dinner.”

“Yeah? When?”

“Sunday. Six o clock.”

“Everybody going to be there?” It was a statement not a question.

“Yes,” Mom said. “Just like a real family. Imagine that.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“I insist,” Mom said. Thou shalt.

I tried to think what might be so important as to command my presence and wondered if it had to do with Dearie.

“I’ll be there,” I promised.

“That’s my boy.”

I ended the call and settled in to wait for Tombstone, stretching out on the couch with the intention to doze, but by the time I opened my eyes again the sun streamed in from the west and the whole day was gone. Still no sign of Tombstone.

It was fair to assume that he’d gone out to the suburbs to be with his girls now that he’d come into some money. And it was fair to assume that when the money ran out he’d be back. And it was fair to assume it was just a matter of time before the money ran out. I figured that by the time September rolled around I’d find him camped out on the front porch like a landlord expecting the rent. Until then I wasn’t going to beg.

*          *          *          *

I called Camille’s regular and agreed to hear his pitch. He turned out to be a Middle Eastern guy made up of equal parts enthusiasm and caffeine, and who looked like he summered at the Jersey shore. I couldn’t remember his name. He looked like a ‘Chad’.

“Damen?” he asked as if I wasn’t the only other person in the bar at that ungodly daylight hour.

“That’s me.”

Chad stuck out his hand. “We spoke on the phone?”

“Yeah, I remember.” I drained the remainder of the beer in my glass. It wasn’t my first and, based on Chad’s knife-edge keenness, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be my last. I held it up to him. “You buyin’?”

“Yeah—totally, totally!” He waved over the bartender. “Old Fashioned. Brandy, not bourbon—top shelf—and use the Peychaud’s bitters. Light on the sugar, heavy on the orange peel. And whatever he’s having.” He gestured to me with a toss of his head. The bartender and I exchanged a glance of mutual exasperation and she put a fresh beer on the bar in front of me before turning away to create Chad’s Micromanagement Special.

“Damn—I can’t believe it’s really you! You’re taller in person.” Chad was still grinning up at me star-struck. It was just a matter of time before he tried to tell me he was my Biggest Fan and asked for an autograph.

“So, you’re in advertising or something?”

“Right! Totally, totally.” Chad produced a card with a logo for SDB Extravaganza! which meant nothing to me. “We’re courting Firestone. You know, the tires? And…I mean…your Lolla performance…that was somethin’ else. You’re viral, man!”

“There’s Truvada for that.”

Chad looked blank.

“Viral?” I prompted. Chad realized it was a joke but still didn’t get it.

 “Oh, haha, totally, totally, good one!”

If he said ‘totally, totally’ one more time I was going to punch him in the throat. Chad produced an iPhone and cued up a video before holding it out to me.

“Hello Chicago…-ago…-ago!”

I recognized the sounds of Lollapalooza, even over the music in the bar. The footage was the work of an amateur hand with a good eye and an expensive phone. It had been shot from the crowd close to the side of the stage. I towered overhead, a dark shape silhouetted against the skyline and roiling storm clouds; buffeted by the winds as lightning cracked overhead. I had to admit, it looked badass. Even as I watched, I could see the electric spark leap from the mic stand to my wrist—the angle made it look like it was leaping into my hand.

Chad froze the video. “The sound is shit, of course. A five-megapixel camera and MP3 sound, so it’s crushed as hell, but you get the idea. We’ve already acquired the footage, but we’ll need a release from you for the likeness. And we want to license the song, of course.”

“You want to use GoatRodeo to sell car parts?”

“Tires,” he corrected me. “Firestone all-weather radials. It’s perfect.” He held up his hands, prepared to pitch the concept to me then and there: “The rage of the weather—the visceral fury of nature, tamed by—”

“I get the picture,” I cut him off. “You know it’s a song about addiction, right?”

Chad didn’t care. “It’s got a good beat. Some good riffs…” He said ‘riffs’ like it was a word he’d just learned and he planned to use it a lot. “No one cares what it’s about.”

I sat back and crossed my arms. “You’re a terrible salesman.”

“We’re offering a buyout: one-year, unlimited, national television. Flat rate.”

It was Greek to me, but I couldn’t pretend we didn’t need the money.

“I’ll have to talk it over with the guys,” I said, although there was only one opinion I planned to listen to: Sam’s. Money or no money, I didn’t dare sign anything else without his blessing.

Chad consulted his calendar. “I can give you until tomorrow, end of day. We pitch to the clients on Monday. Think on it, lemme know what you decide.”

*          *          *          *

“The money’s not great,” was Sam’s assessment. “It’s a token fee for the kind of exposure he’s describing.”

“So ‘no’, then?” I couldn’t tell if I was disappointed or relieved. The fee from Lolla was already being wicked away by debts, and without any more prospects for shows I was ready to take whatever chump change I could get.

“I leave that to your discretion.”

“That’s as helpful as a fart in space.”

“I’ve reached out to C3,” Sam continued, ignoring me. “They are unwilling to waive the radius clause in its entirety—”

I groaned. “We didn’t even play!

“Let me finish.” Sam held up a finger to silence me and stared me down over the top of his glasses. “Since you performed only one song, I’ve convinced them the clause should apply only to the song performed. You can play the rest of your material without restriction.”

“So, we can do shows in Chicago, but we can’t perform GoatRodeo at any of the shows.”

This was a mixed blessing if ever I’d heard one. GoatRodeo was the only song we had that had approached the status of a hit. It had peaked at seven on the Billboard charts and stayed there for about sixteen weeks. It got some solid radio play on the contemporary hard rock formats. Nobody in the mainstream knew us for anything else.

On the other hand…

“We just can’t play it live?” I said, not quite a question. I saw a twitch of a smile begin at the corner of Sam’s mouth.

“Not in the Chicagoland area.”

“But we can, say, license it to an advertising agency for a national television ad…?”

“Indeed.” Sam slid the documents across his desk toward me and laid a pen on top of them. I signed.

“Make it so.”

*          *          *          *

“Were you serious about Riot Fest?” I asked Judge who was holding court in his office in the back of the club. By the light of day, the club was little more than a squalid cave of smudged mirrors and stained carpet. A steady stream of deliverymen came and went with clipboards and hand trucks; trading in stacks of banker’s boxes in exchange for Judge’s signature. Whatever business Judge was in, business was good; and it sure as hell had nothing to do with the business of exotic dancing.

“I thought you had a radius clause?” he said.

“We did. We don’t anymore. Is Riot still a thing?”

“It can be.” Judge waved away a skinny kid who was starting to approach and turned to give me his full attention. He looked up at me over his glasses. “What’s it worth to you?”

“Make me an offer,” I said. “My soul and my first-born child are already spoken for.”

“Your next album.”

It wasn’t what I expected to hear. I stared at him for a minute while my brain tried to catch up. “What about it?”

“I wanna produce it.”

“You.”

“Yeah, me.”

“D’you know the first thing about music producing?” I asked.

“No, but I know money and I know people and I know goddamn dirt. I fucking dare you to tell me I need anything else.”

I had to admit he had a point.

“I done my research,” he continued. “I know about your boy Hex. I know about your agent’s wife. I know about the label.” Judge leaned forward and rested his elbows on his desk. “I know they offered you a contract if you cut Tombstone and the others loose.”

I felt a chill run up my spine. He really had done his research. The recession had hit everyone hard and smaller labels were drying up like everything else. One of the major media conglomerates bought up our label for the express purpose of stripping them for parts. They didn’t need another middle-level metalcore act. Metal was dead. Rock was dying. But I was still valuable as a frontman: I could legitimize one of their mainstream Star Machine bands. The number they had quoted me had been generous to the point of extravagance—all I had to do was cut the deadweight loose.

“I know you told them to shove it up their ass sideways,” Judge said.

“Who the fuck have you been talking to?” I hadn’t told anybody about that offer—not Sam, not Hex, not Chase, not Tombstone. And I was never going to.

“I told you, I know people. You got the stage magic; I got the connections to get you on stage. I’ll get you Riot Fest if you give me an album. Cut me in as a producer.”

“You gonna want creative control?”

“Fuck no, I’m a money guy. Write whatever you want. Hire whoever you want to engineer it. Record a concept album on banjo and sitar for all I care just put your face on it.”

“Seriously, dude, you really wanna be putting money on us?” I asked. “We’re radioactive right now.”

“I’m aware.”

“What’s in it for you?” I asked, but I was pretty sure I already knew and I didn’t really want an answer. I eyed the deliverymen not-quite-casually perusing the dancers’ headshots while they waited for Judge’s attention.

“I run your books. No one handles the money but me. You want something, I’ll get it for you. I’m your golden fucking goose.”

“Eggs.”

“What?”

“The eggs were golden, not the goose,” I said. “That’s the whole point of the story—they cut the bird open to see where the eggs come from and find out it’s just a normal goose.”

“You want the deal or not, cockwomble?”

Of course I wanted the deal, but it was too good to be true. It had to be. My instincts were standing on a mountaintop waving the biggest reddest flag they could find.

On the other hand…it wasn’t like we could get any more broke.

“I gotta talk it over with the guys.”

“Already did. They’re on board, but they wouldn’t do it without you, the loyal fucks. You all deserve one another. Talked to your lawyer too—Aiello? He’ll draw up all the paperwork, so you can bet he’ll cover your asses.”

“You talked to Sam?”

Who the hell was this guy?

“Think it over, do what you gotta do, but you’re gonna say yes.”

“You seem pretty sure of that.”

“What other choice do you have?”

He had a point.

“Oh, and one more thing. You gotta stay in the city. The money doesn’t leave Chicago.”

“Don’t want to do business across state lines, or something?” I joked.

“Or something,” Judge said. He wasn’t laughing. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what he was leaving unsaid. He held out a hand. “We got a deal?”

Money. People. Dirt.

I shook it. “Welcome to the family.”

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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.

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

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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.”

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

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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.

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