Courtney Maguire © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Hiding in our dingy dressing room toilet, back pressed against the wall between the sink and the urinal, I read wall graffiti to take my mind off my sore joints. Black Sharpie marker slander tucked between worn band stickers. Jake is a pussy. For a good time, call. Someone had scrawled SUX over a Wounded Martyr sticker in the corner. An old one. Apparently, we’d played here before. I couldn’t remember.
House music vibrated through the wall, and I pressed my shoulder blades into it. I gave a no-smoking sign the finger and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of my pocket. This used to be my favorite part, the anticipation in the moments before we hit the stage. Now, I shook with a mix of adrenaline and dread that made me queasy.
“Ice!” A familiar voice cut through the din followed by a rapid knock on the door. “Dude, you in there?”
I popped a cigarette between my lips. “Fuck off, I’m taking a shit.”
The door opened anyway, and in slipped Ashton. Ash. Hair in his face and dark liner around his eyes. Deep lines framed his mouth, but his too-long limbs made him appear perpetually boyish. The way I would always see him. The sixteen-year-old kid playing bass in his garage.
“You can’t smoke in here.”
I scowled and shoved the cig back in the pack.
“Dante is going to lose his shit if you don’t get out there,” he said, closing the door behind him. Dante, our self-appointed fearless leader. If he wasn’t such a goddamned great guitarist, I’d kick him in the teeth.
“Dante can suck my cock.”
“Pretty sure he’s not into that.” We shared a laugh before his eyes pinched in concern. “How’s the voice?”
“Tired,” I answered on the tail end of an exhale.
“You can make it, man.” He stepped toward me. “Just three more shows, and we’re home.”
“Have you seen the house?”
“Is it full?”
He pressed his lips together, and those lines around his mouth deepened.
“Don’t sweat it.” He squeezed my arm. “It’s a big house. It would be hard for anyone to fill. Besides, we’ve played smaller.”
I nodded, but my stomach dropped into my toes. Sure, we’d played smaller. I remembered playing crowds of twenty people, ten of whom hated us. But we were eighteen with nowhere to go but up, and nothing to lose. It felt different now.
Ash’s expression softened. “What do you need?”
“A blow job from John Stamos.”
“You and me both.” He hooked his hand around the back of my neck and pressed our foreheads together. “You’ll be great,” he said. “You are great. Just another day at the office, man, you got this.”
I leaned into him and released a long breath. Just another day. Another day I got to play rock and roll. Living the dream, most would say. But even dreams didn’t last forever.
“What the fuck are you two doing in there? Put your dicks away, and let’s go,” Dante’s gruff voice shouted from the other side of the door. Ash shot me a mischievous grin and dropped to his knees just as the door swung open. “What the fu—”
“Be right out, Boss,” I said, but he’d already stomped off, spitting and cursing the whole way back to the dressing room, his bright copper skin dark with an angry flush. I gave Ash a kick with my heel, and he rolled over backward, tangled in his own legs and howling.
“Homophobes are fun,” he said between gasps.
“You’re a prick,” I said, but I was smiling, my earlier dread carried away in the stream of his laughter. Dante had left the door open, and the house music pounded through me, ringing the tuning fork inside. It was still there, thank God. I offered Ash a hand and hauled him up.
“Ready to go?” he asked, his hand still wrapped in mine.
“Let’s get to work.”
Two hours later, I stumbled off the stage, aching and sweaty and completely empty. Barely a half-full house, but Ash was right. It didn’t matter. They seethed and roared and filled the space with an energy that ignited my soul. For two hours, my exhaustion disappeared. I was a god and they worshipped me. In return for their love, I gave them everything, singing until my voice splintered, and in the end, I had to be carried off the stage.
Someone handed me a bottle of water, and I collapsed against the wall, slumped between a couple of equipment crates. The adrenaline fled fast, leaving my whole body screaming. I gulped down the water, and fire slid down my throat with every swallow. I tasted blood. Fuck.
Ash stumbled into my field of vision, equally destroyed, but he carried it differently. Like he welcomed it, was made for it. He peeled off his shirt, and his lean body gleamed in the dimness. Eyeliner ran in thick black streaks down his cheeks and left a dirty smudge on the towel he used to wipe his face. He threw his head back and laughed as our rhythm guitarist, Dai, ran up and slapped him on the back. It rang like bells through the hiss in my ears.
He spotted me in the dark and winked, sending a tendril of warmth through my sore muscles. Twenty years I’d known him, and I was still in awe of him.
He crouched down in front of me. “Told you you’d be great.”
“Monitors were fucked,” I grumbled. “I couldn’t hear shit.”
“I don’t think anyone noticed.”
He laughed and shook his head, brushing off my foulness. “Ready to face the gauntlet?”
I groaned. “What if we slept here?”
“God, when did you turn into such a grouch?”
“Somewhere around thirty-five, I think.”
“Well, come on, Oscar.” He stood and pulled me up with him. I wobbled a little, and he tucked me close against his side, arm looped around my waist. “Let’s get out of here.”
After gathering up our personal belongings—the gear was someone else’s job—we met the rest of our bandmates at the club’s back door. Our drummer, Nate, the gentle giant, his hulking stature contradicted by a meek personality, eased the door open a crack. A high-pitched squeal cut through the air, and he snapped it shut again.
“I say we send Dai out first as a distraction,” he said, his soft voice tremulous. Dai flashed a Cheshire cat grin and puffed out his chest.
“I offer myself as tribute.” He ran a hand through his fire-engine red mane.
Dante rolled his eyes. “I’ll get security.”
“For fuck sake, can we just get this over with?” I barked.
“The van just pulled up,” Nate said after another peek. “We can make it if we run.”
We lined up in front of the door, faces grim like paratroopers preparing to drop into a warzone. Dai pushed through the door first. As predicted, the ladies in the crowd flocked to him, giving us an opening to run past and into the waiting passenger van. We tumbled over one another as we fought our way into the bench seats, and I landed squarely in Ash’s lap.
“Daisuke!” Dante shouted out of the open door, but Dai had been swallowed by a sea of autograph seekers and cell phone cameras. Security finally appeared, herding the crowd with shouts and whistles and allowing Dai to back his way into the van.
“Shit, did you see that?” he said. “Those girls were on my dick like it was chocolate flavored.”
“Not as many as the last time,” Nate pointed out.
“Smaller crowd.” The dark feeling snuck in again, making my voice thick. Ash laced his fingers through mine and squeezed.
Dante gave the order and the van pulled away, weaving through the throng. A short drive and another back entrance later, we were back at the hotel. It could have been a Four Seasons. It could have been a Holiday Inn. I couldn’t tell anymore.
Dead on our feet, we snuck through the halls to the elevators.
“The bar’s still open,” Dai whooped, startling us awake. “Shots on me. Who wants ’em?”
Dante scowled. Nate mumbled something about sleep apnea and averted his eyes. I stiffened as his gaze landed on us.
“I can always count on you, Ash,” he said with a beckoning wave. Ash sucked in a breath and glanced at me.
“What, do you need permission?” I snapped. “Just go.”
His mouth twitched into a smile that set my teeth on edge before he loped off to join Dai. I wanted to join them, so bad I had to twist my muscles into knots to keep them still. I imagined the first shot going down like fire, the following like water. Felt the dreamy softness as they pushed the world a little further away.
This was not a good day for temptation.
Weariness hit hard when I finally made it to my room. The door clicked shut behind me, the particular click of a magnetic lock like a jail cell, and I leaned back against it. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and the dry air clawed at my lungs. The air of a place not really lived in, unwarmed by human presence. My ears still throbbed with the echoes of the show, and I pressed my fingers against them, but it only made it worse. There was nothing louder than the silence of an empty room.
A dark pit opened up inside me, and I grit my teeth against the vertigo. Soon, Ash would be in here with me. Maybe then it wouldn’t feel so cold.
I dropped my knapsack in the entryway and stumbled into the room without bothering to turn on the lights. I curled up in my hard hotel bed and tried not to think about everything that had gone wrong. About a tour of half-filled venues and spitting blood. I buried my nose in my pillow and filled my head with technical things. Mics and speakers and amps. Chord progression and phrasing and the thump thump thump of a six-string bass.
It could have been seconds later. It could have been hours. I snapped awake to a weight in my bed and a long body pressed up against mine. Ash. Finally.
“What are you doing?” I growled as he slipped his arms around me.
“I’m tired.” He smelled of stale cigarettes and cheap booze.
I wiggled in his grip and poked my elbow into his ribs. “Go to your own bed.”
“My bed is too big for me,” he whined, pressing his nose in the back of my neck.
“What are you, twelve?” I asked.
“Please please please let me stay.” He hugged my waist as if the world itself might tip and throw him out of bed, and my resolve crumbled fast. I slid my hands over his forearms and held them. How long had it been since I’d had someone’s arms around me?
“God, you’re a clingy drunk.”
“Better than a mean one.” He gasped, and his body went rigid. “Shit. That wasn’t—I didn’t mean—”
Heat rushed to my face. My grip on his arms changed, and I flung them off me. “I’m mean sober too. Now, get out of my bed, and go the fuck to sleep.”
He cursed under his breath, rolled away from me, and hit the ground with a heavy thud. I curled into a tight ball and pulled the covers up to my nose. Ash’s unintentional dig stuck like an arrow in my back. He’d been there through it all. Watched me disintegrate into a seething pile of awfulness. Watched me struggle to piece the scraps back together. Two years sober and I was still struggling. Part of me wondered if he resented it. If he held onto some secret hope I would get better.
The scariest part about getting sober is finding out who you really are. Turned out I wasn’t much different.
A panicked squeak pierced the dark followed by a crash. “What is going on over there?” I growled, flopping onto my back and stabbing on the light. When my eyes adjusted, I found Ash tangled up in his own shirt, arms straight up over his head and the fabric pulled tight over his face. He tossed himself around the room, bumping into furniture, knocking over lamps, and kicking over my suitcase as he struggled against it. I’d have been pissed if it wasn’t so goddamn funny.
“For fuck sake,” I said, pulling myself out of bed and grabbing hold of his shoulders.
“I see that. Hold still.” I grabbed the wad of fabric bunched up under his chin. I worked it upward, revealing his pouting lips, his scrunched-up nose, and nostalgia rushed through me for the snaggle-toothed kid I used to know. His crooked smile had been replaced by an uncanny valley of veneers. One of the first big purchases he’d made once we started making money. He should have bought a car.
“Why did you do that…to your teeth?”
“What, get them fixed?” he asked, shaking his hair as his head popped free, his arms still tangled in the air overhead.
“There was nothing wrong with them.”
“I looked like a sewer rat.” He tucked his bottom lip behind his upper teeth in a buck-toothed grimace.
I forced his elbows straight and worked his arms free. “I thought you were cute before.”
“You don’t think I’m cute now?” he asked with a cheeky grin.
“Sure, I do. It made me sad is all.” I gave the shirt one final yank, and it came free. “Like you were listening to all those people.”
“What people?” he asked, dropping his arms to his sides and rolling his shoulders in relief.
“All the ones telling you you weren’t good enough.” A rush of heat flooded my cheeks. He went very quiet, a strange, almost sad expression settling over his face.
“Who were you listening to?”
“When you drank your first paycheck.”
“Probably the same people,” I conceded. “Speaking of drinking too much, can you get out of your pants without killing yourself, or do you need help with that too?”
He frowned and yanked at his belt buckle, every ounce of attention on his fumbling fingers as he struggled with the latch. I sighed and batted them away. He rested his hands on my shoulders, and another wave of heat splashed over me as I eased his pants over his hips.
“I’m sorry,” he said as I pushed him down on the edge of the bed, “for what I said before.”
“I’m sorry too.” I ducked my head and went down on my knees in front of him, cupping his calf in my hand as I guided his pants down his long legs. “For being mean.”
He slid his hands up my neck, and my heart skittered as he curled his fingers in my short hair. The room wasn’t cold anymore but superheated with his presence and a million unsaid things. He traced the shell of my ear and the line of my jaw, and I was too tired to bat him away. He whispered something that could have been my name, and when I lifted my face, his lips latched to mine, soft and whiskey-flavored. In twenty years, we’d shared hundreds of kisses. Quick, chaste things full of comfort and affection, but none like this.
I pulled away for half a second as logic tried to intervene, but like a magnet he drew me back again. His lips parted, pulling me in deeper, and I fell into him. He pulled me into the bed with him, and I had no choice but to follow, climbing his body until I covered it.
“Wait, Ash—” I tried to pull away again, making it less than a hair’s breadth. “Fuck, you taste like whiskey.”
He smiled against my lips. “You want to drink me?”
I groaned as he pushed his tongue against mine. “Stop. You’re drunk.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
“We can’t. I mean…we shouldn’t…”
“I know. Fuck, I know,” he said breathlessly. “But I really want to. Don’t you want to?”
He pulled our hips together, lighting a fire under my skin. I tried to push him away. I tried, but it was as if our skin had melted together. No going back, no point in resisting. Forcing ourselves apart would only cause injury.