Fear and Laundry Excerpt
When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time hanging out at a Laundromat. I know that sounds weird, but hear me out. It wasn’t just any Laundromat. It was called Lynch’s and the old guy who owned it, Roy Connor, had bought the coffee shop next door to it, cut a door between the two spaces, and turned the place into one giant, Laundromat-slash-coffee-shop hybrid. Then he’d installed some video games, put in a couple of pool tables, and built a stage in the back so all the local punk bands could play there on the weekends.
Roy had done all this because his youngest son, Scott, had been in a bunch of those local bands, himself—until he’d been killed by a drunk driver on his way home from his job at the Maribel Movie Palace one night. Roy had opened Lynch’s in Scott’s honor, and it hadn’t taken long for all of Scott’s old friends (and some of us who’d barely even known him) to start hanging out there all the time. Roy’s granddaughter, April, made the best grilled cheese sandwiches in the world. I heard Roy’s coffee was great, too, but I wouldn’t know. I was hooked on caffeine but was more of a diet soda addict…
“Vee?” My best friend, Lia, was snapping her fingers in front of my face. “Hello? Vee? Are you awake or what? I’ve been asking you for another flier for about the last five minutes.”
My best friend and I were standing by the light pole at the corner of Main Street and Carreen College Avenue. The wind was whipping Lia’s auburn hair all around her head and she was frowning at me with her arms crossed.
“Sorry,” I said, holding out a flier, “I was just thinking about Lynch’s. How lame it’ll be if all this doesn’t work and Roy has to shut the place down…”
Two weeks ago we’d learned that although Roy owned the building, a new owner had raised rent on the land Lynch’s occupied. Roy’d been falling behind on the payments for a while. If he couldn’t come up with the money to cover what he owed, the place would close in a matter of months, maybe sooner. Lia’d rushed to organize the “Save Lynch’s” benefit show we were hanging the fliers for, but I was worried it was too little too late.
“That is not going to happen,” said Lia, snatching the flier away from me, “This is going to work. It has to. Now hand me the stapler.”
I dug the stapler out of my backpack and handed it over. Lia went to town on the flier, putting about ten staples in it to make sure the wind didn’t rip it off the light pole. Then she turned and marched up the sidewalk toward Lynch’s. I struggled after her, dripping with sweat because the afternoon sun was beating down on us, and because my backpack was stuffed with paper. Along with the fliers, I was also hauling around what felt like fifty pounds of pages for the latest issue of Lia’s zine, The Blank Slate.
“Now remember,” Lia told me when we reached Lynch’s grimy glass door, “none of this gloom-and-doom talk in front of Roy, okay? He’s old. His heart can’t take the stress.”
I swept my sweaty hair back from my forehead. “He’s not that old. And his heart’s perfectly fine.”
“Just watch your mouth, okay?”
A bell jingled as Lia pushed open the door. A blessedly cool, air-conditioned breeze wafted by us, carrying along the mingled scents of fried food and detergent, and we were met by a host of familiar sights: two lumpy, mismatched couches pushed against the wall beneath the front picture window, two billiard tables sitting side by side in front of them, and a gumball machine and Mortal Kombat cabinet flanking either side of the door leading into the coffee shop. Beyond the pool tables sat a bank of yellow, coin-operated clothes dryers and two rows of matching washing machines, lined up back to back. A thin old man in thick glasses waited next to one for his laundry. Apart from the thunder of his washing machine entering the spin cycle, the place was quiet. I wondered if Lia was right, and we’d actually be able to save all of this. Or if the bizarre jumble of objects crowding Lynch’s would soon get carted off to the flea market they’d most likely come from in the first place.
“Hey girls.” Roy waddled up to the coffee shop’s order window, wiping his stout fingers on a dishrag. “What’re you up to?”
“Wallpapering College Avenue with fliers for the benefit,” Lia said as we neared him. “Everyone in town’s going to show up and throw money at you, Roy, you just wait and see.”
April appeared beside Roy, her hot pink hair knotted into two buns that stuck out on either side of her head like Mickey Mouse ears. “Ooh, lemme see one,” she said, poking her horn-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose.
Lia took another flier out of my bag and handed it to her. While the Connors looked it over, she craned her neck to look into the coffee shop. “Great,” she whispered to me, “check out who’s here.”
I looked and saw a curvy blonde in a t-shirt and denim cut-offs standing inside, in the corner. She was surrounded by a cluster of guys who all seemed to have lost the ability to keep their tongues in their mouths. The girl’s back was to us, but I knew exactly who she was. Paige Foster. The new girl. The one every guy from school was suddenly gaga over, and also the person Lia had just talked into joining our new band. If everything went as planned, the three of us—and whoever we found to play guitar—would be playing the Lynch’s benefit together in just over a month.
“Maybe she won’t see us,” I said, rubbing and stretching my tired shoulder.
“We should be so lucky,” said Lia.
“This artwork looks awesome, Veronica,” April declared, smiling with approval at the flier.
“Nice work, darlin’,” Roy agreed.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I’m starved,” Lia said to me. “You want anything?”
I shook my head, shifting the backpack around on my shoulders. “This is really heavy,” I complained to Lia. “I really just want to go sit down.”
“Then go sit down,” she said.
I peeked into the coffee shop again, where I saw Paige flipping her long, blond hair over her shoulder. She said something that was obviously hilarious, making the guys standing around her all crack up in unison.
“Don’t be scared,” Lia told me.
“I’m not scared.”
“She seems pretty absorbed. She probably won’t even see you, like you said. And I’ll be right behind you as soon as I get my food.”
I stepped into the coffee shop, trying to find a seat as far away from Paige and her gaggle of admirers as possible. I chose a salvaged picnic table carved up with graffiti pushed up against the wall. It was situated right under the Wild at Heart section of the David Lynch movie mural Roy had had his artist son, Brendan—April’s father—paint along the walls because Scott had been a huge fan.
With a sigh of relief, I let the backpack slide down my arm and land on the table with a thump. I collapsed on the bench and took all the fliers and zine pages out of the bag, arranging them in neat little piles on the picnic table. “SAVE LYNCH’S!” shouted this month’s photocopied cover of The Blank Slate. We were charging two dollars, double our usual price, for this issue because one hundred percent of the proceeds would go directly to benefit Roy and his restaurant. “Sure hope it helps,” I muttered under my breath. Then I got to work assembling the zine.
“You know, Montez, if you guys really wanted to help Roy save this dump, you’d focus on the band.”
I’d been working for about five minutes when I looked up to see Paige putting one tan, shapely leg at a time over the bench across from mine. “The show’ll pull in way more money than that crappy zine ever will.” She plunked a coffee mug down on the table, eyeing the photocopies spread out between us with contempt.
“Okay,” I said, folding a photocopy in half. I didn’t want to argue with her, but it was a stretch at this point for Paige, Lia, and I to even call ourselves a band. We’d only written four songs and hadn’t come up with a name yet, much less played any gigs.
“I’ll grant you we don’t sound so good yet,” she said. “Mostly because you can’t play for shit.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said.
“But Lia’s decent,” she went on, “And with a lot of practice, you could probably get up to speed. It’s just too bad we lost Sierra.”
I had to agree with her on that last part. The most recent fight she’d gotten into had prompted our guitarist, Sierra’s, parents to send her away for a while. For now they weren’t letting her out of the house and when the new semester started in a week, she’d be shipped off to some rebellious-teen boot camp up in Arkansas. Finding a replacement for her would probably take time. Time we didn’t have.
I glanced toward the lunch counter, hoping to see Lia on her way to the table so I wouldn’t have to deal with Paige all on my own, but she didn’t seem to be in any hurry to come help me. She was settled comfortably on one of the duct taped vinyl barstools, swinging her Doc Martens against the chrome rungs and chattering away to Roy and April while they cooked her order. I turned back to my folding.
“Have you talked to anyone?” I asked Paige. “I mean anyone who might be able to take Sierra’s place?” But she wasn’t paying attention to me anymore.
“Hey Dustin!” she called past me, waving.
I tucked my hair behind my ears and sat up straighter just as Dustin Tran strode up and stopped beside the table. “What’s up?” he asked, jutting his chin at us. The wind had whipped his black, stick-straight hair into a snarled mess. He worked his fingers through it, trying to disentangle it.
“We were just discussing the zine’s crapitude,” I said dryly. “Wanna help me put together the new issue?”
His dark eyes glanced over the zine pages. He worried his lip ring with his tongue. Then he slid in beside me, resting his knee against mine under the table. “What’s so bad about the zine?” he asked, squeezing my thigh once before picking up my stapler.
“Every issue’s the same,” answered Paige before I could say anything. “Blank Fiction this, Blank Fiction that. ‘Blank Fiction is the best band in the whole wooorld.’”
I pushed folded pages in Dustin’s direction. “Not every issue,” I said, even though she was right. Blank Fiction was Lia’s favorite band and favorite topic to write about. Even the zine’s title referred to them.
“Who even cares about Blank Fiction anymore?” She looked up at the wall where a framed seven inch vinyl copy of Blank Fiction’s first single hung between “Lula” and “Sailor” from Wild at Heart. “Sure, they were hot shit for a while. But they haven’t put an album out in what, three years?”
“And the last two kinda sucked,” added Dustin, stapling.
I stopped in mid-fold to give him a Look.
“Well, they did,” he said.
“Maybe you guys should branch out a little with your material?” said Paige, “cover something relevant for a change?”
I was about to point out that, for her information, most of the stories in the latest issue weren’t about Blank Fiction at all, but about Lynch’s—including a very up-to-the-minute piece on the place’s current financial woes—when Paige knocked over her mug. It rolled across the table and coffee dregs spewed out of it, spattering the zine pages.
“Hey, watch it!” I shouted, half-standing and lunging across the table to whisk the pages out of the way.
“Oops,” said Paige, covering her mouth with her hand. “Looks like I need a refill. Be right back!”
As she got up and swished away, I sat back, hugging the salvaged pages to my chest. Dustin reached across me to pluck a handful of napkins from the dispenser at the end of the table. “That was close.”
“I’ll bet she did that on purpose,” I said. “She’s such a jerk.”
Dustin mopped halfheartedly at the spill, straining his neck to watch Paige go. “I dunno. I kinda like her. She’s feisty.”
“That what you call that?” I squinted at him, not liking the way his eyes lingered on Paige’s retreating figure.
Lia finally headed back over to the table, a soda cup in one hand and a red plastic basket overflowing with grilled cheese and French fries in the other.
“Man, that wind’s really picking up,” she said, putting the basket down. She sipped the soda through a straw just as a violent gust rattled the window behind the lunch counter. I pictured the fliers we’d put up earlier hurtling away down the street.
“What happened here?” Lia picked up a zine cover speckled with light brown stains. The coffee had puckered the paper and smeared the photo copy ink.
“Paige happened,” I huffed.
“It’s just a little coffee,” Dustin smiled at Lia, “It was an accident. Don’t worry, the stains just make it look more punk rock.”
Lia wasn’t having it. When Paige reappeared with her refilled mug, Lia waved the damaged sheet of paper in her face.“You’ll have to pay for this, you know.”
Paige didn’t answer. She snatched a fry from Lia’s basket and popped it into her mouth.
“I mean it,” said Lia. “We’re out two bucks for this.” She tossed the sheet back to me. “And you know Roy needs every cent he can get.”
Paige leisurely licked salt from her fingertips and then sat down and blew into her coffee. “So bill me,” she smirked.
Lia didn’t reply. My best friend usually didn’t back down from anyone, but I knew Paige scared her a little. We’d heard she’d stabbed someone back in Dallas and done a stint in juvie. All Paige had told us was her parents had moved her here a couple of months ago, hoping she wouldn’t get into as much trouble in her mother’s hometown as she had in the city, so we didn’t know if the stabbing story was true. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn it was, though. There was just something creepy about her; a weird, wicked gleam she got in her green eyes sometimes.
The guys Paige had been talking to earlier had cleared out, leaving the room empty except for us. As our table fell silent, every other sound seemed too loud to me: the wind whipping faster and faster past the windows; Roy and April cleaning up the kitchen; Dustin stapling another zine together. “Um, what were you talking to Roy about just now?” I asked Lia, desperate to break the quiet.
Like the front room, Lynch’s dining room was entirely outfitted from flea market and garage sale leftovers, so nothing matched. Lia took one of a variety of chairs away from another table, dragged it up beside mine and Dustin’s picnic bench and sat in it backwards. “Clyde,” she said, taking a bite of her sandwich. “He wanted to know if my mom’s heard anything about him.”
“Has she?” I asked.
Lia paused, chewing. “I dunno. I haven’t asked her in a while. She’s been really high strung lately, saying she’s so busy with the party and everything…she sort of flipped out the last time I bugged her about it, so I decided to give it a rest. For now.”
Clyde Kameron sang for Blank Fiction. He wasn’t the biggest name in rock music or anything, but he was Carreen, Texas’s principal claim to fame. Eight years ago, he’d gone to Carreen High, like we did now. He’d dropped out in tenth grade, when his band had gotten signed. He’d left town, and although he’d dumped the other two original members of Blank Fiction pretty soon after that, the band’s new incarnation had earned Clyde two gold records—forcing my mom to stop telling me high school drop outs never amounted to anything. His brush with national fame might’ve fizzled out a few years back, but most everyone in Carreen under age thirty still loved Clyde at least a little because of what he represented: the hometown kid made good. Looking at him made people think they could do what he’d done. It gave them hope.
Lia, though, was completely crazy about him.
Late last year, the Carreen College Museum had announced a planned exhibit honoring area musicians and Lia’d led an aggressive campaign to get Clyde in. The museum hadn’t wanted to feature anyone “contemporary” (read: cool) but, due to a considerable show of public support, had grudgingly agreed to include Clyde and invited him to appear at the exhibit’s dedication. So far he hadn’t accepted. Lia’d been hounding her mother, who was on one of the museum’s fundraising committees, for news about his possible appearance for months. There’d been no word.
“I figure the museum’s gotta hear from him really soon, though,” Lia continued. “I mean, the dedication’s set for September fourth.”
“That’s the day of the benefit,” Dustin remarked.
“Duh,” said Lia. “Why do you think I scheduled the show for then?” When Dustin just stared at her blankly, she elaborated slowly, as though talking to a four year old: “If Clyde’s gonna be in town for the dedication anyway, there’s no reason he can’t stop by the benefit, too; maybe play a song or two to help us out?”
Paige snorted with laughter.
Lia turned to her. “Something funny?”
Paige’s wide mouth spread in a condescending smile. “Please,” she said, “You’re deluded if you think Clyde Kameron is ever coming back to Carreen, much less playing here.”
“This is his hometown,” said Lia.
Paige ran a fingertip around the rim of her mug. “Yeah, and he doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass what goes on here anymore.”
She had a point. Clyde hadn’t been back once since he’d left, and had never so much as mentioned his hometown in any interview I’d seen. It was as if he’d forgotten all about Carreen the minute he’d gotten out. Not that I could say I blamed him. I mean, Carreen was my home and I liked it well enough, but I knew most people couldn’t wait to get out of here.
“And why should he?” Paige continued, voicing my thought. “I won’t either, once I get the hell out of this shit-hole and escape back to civilization.”
Lia’s grey eyes flashed in anger. I could tell she wanted to kick Paige’s ass all the way back to Dallas right then and there, but she stayed in her seat. Instead of ripping into Paige, she tore into a French fry, ripping it up into greasy little bits and squashing them to a pulp between her fingers. I caught her eye and gave her a weak smile, trying to be supportive. I’d never had the heart to tell her even I didn’t think it was likely Clyde would ever be back, no matter how many awards the town offered him.
Paige ignored the drop-dead look Lia was giving her and turned her attention to Dustin. “So, Tran,” she said, playing with a lock of her hair, “What’s going on with you?”
Dustin wiggled his lip ring with his tongue again. “Nothin’.”
“I hear you’re the local pool champ,” she said, “The man to beat.”
“I do alright,” he shrugged.
Paige stood up and came around to our side of the table. She stood right next to Dustin, the crotch of her too-tight shorts just inches from his face. “Prove it,” she told him.
“What, you mean like, now?” he said, staring up at her.
“No, next Tuesday,” she said. “Yeah, now.”
April had emerged from behind the counter to refill sugar containers and was standing at the table right beside ours. “Use the back pool table,” she instructed Paige, popping her bubble gum. “The front one’s jammed. It keeps taking everyone’s money.”
Dustin dropped the stapler without even glancing at me. He jumped to his feet, splaying his fingers against Paige’s lower back, just above the curve of her ample behind. “You’re on,” he said and steered her into the game room.
“No way,” said Lia as they left. “You don’t think they’re gonna, you know, hook up-?” Of course I did. A girl playing pool with Dustin Tran only ever led to one thing. I should know.
“Whatever,” I said, a knot forming in my stomach.
I glanced over to where April stood with a sugar shaker in her hand, looking pityingly at me. Even “Henry” from Eraserhead, peering wide eyed over her shoulder, seemed to say he’d told me so. I looked away again.
“See the way she looked at you when you told her she’d have to pay for that zine?” I asked Lia, scratching the side of my nose.
“I know. She’s such a psycho. If she weren’t, like, the only decent bass player we could get on such short notice…” She bit another fry in half and gestured at the zine pages. “You know what? Forget her. Let’s just finish this and get out of here before that dirt storm gets any worse.”
Half an hour later, Lia and I dropped a stack of fliers and twenty-four copies of the zine at the lunch counter. As usual, we kept the twenty-fifth issue of the Slate to mail off to Clyde Kameron himself, along with a handwritten fan letter from Lia taped to the inside cover. Borrowing a felt tip pen from April, Lia scratched Clyde’s address, care of his management company, onto the back of the zine and stuck a few stamps in the corner.
We said goodbye to the Connors and went into the game room, where Dustin and Paige stood together beside the back pool table. Their game, if they’d ever started one, had been abandoned. Smoke snaked away from the end of a lit cigarette in Dustin’s hand and I focused on the patterns it made as it drifted to the ceiling. So I wouldn’t have to watch him put his tongue in Paige’s mouth.
Outside, the storm was dying down but hadn’t completely abated. We crossed the street so Lia could drop Clyde’s copy of The Blank Slate into the battered mailbox on the corner. As we hurried back to Lynch’s parking lot, I shielded my face against the wind. It didn’t help; I wound up with stinging eyes and a mouthful of grit anyway.
“You going to be okay?” Lia asked me when we were safely in her front seat. The wind howled and buffeted the car. Knowing what she wanted to hear, I said I was fine and pretended my eyes were just watering because of the dirt in them.
My mother was at work and I was home alone when Lia called me the next day. I told her I didn’t feel like hanging out. When she insisted on coming over anyway, I told her I’d leave the front door unlocked so she could let herself in.
I was lying in bed watching Friday the 13th when she showed up.
“The fetal position? Seriously?” she said when she saw me lying on my side with my knees drawn up. Her car didn’t have air conditioning and her face was all red, the neck of her tank top dark with sweat. She had a black and white composition book tucked under one arm. When I didn’t answer her, she closed the door behind her so hard she sent one of my stuffed penguins tumbling off a shelf.
“C’mon,” she said as the penguin disappeared into a heap of dirty laundry, “What’re you even going to miss about Dustin Tran?”
I muted the television and tossed the remote aside. “Gotta admit he’s pretty.”
“Pretty dumb,” she countered, picking her way across the cluttered floor to my bed.
I had to give her that.
“And you hated that he smokes,” she reminded me, shoving my feet out of her way so she could sit down.
“You’re better off.”
“You’re probably right,” I admitted. Lia was usually right about things.
“Course I am. You need a boyfriend, Vee. A real one. Dustin likes to mess around, but he’s not exactly a relationship type of guy, you know?”
“Believe me, I know.” I rolled onto my back and stared up at the Nightmare on Elm Street 3 poster tacked to my ceiling. It was a blown up copy of one of my favorite promotional stills from the movie. In it, Freddy Krueger stood behind Nancy Thompson with his claw practically at her throat. He was wearing a tuxedo and she was in a dark blue evening gown, looking up at him with her teeth bared in a terrified grimace. It was like some sort of prom picture from hell.
“So, what?” Lia asked me. “You just gonna lie here all day, sucking your thumb, you big baby?”
I stuck my thumb in my mouth. “Yeth.”
“Get up.” She grabbed my hand away from my face. “We’ve got stuff to do.” I tried to wipe my wet thumb on her arm, but she just knocked my hand away without even flinching. “We need to find a fill-in guitarist,” she reminded me. “We can’t let Sierra’s stint in rehab camp sideline us. The show must go on and all that.”
“Can we get a new bassist while we’re at it?” I asked, “I don’t think I can be in a band with a boyfriend stealer. It creates a hostile work environment.”
“Didn’t we just settle this? Dustin wasn’t your boyfriend. He was just the latest example of your very poor judgment and crappy taste in men.”
I frowned at her. “Anyone ever tell you you suck at cheering people up?”
“Look, I hate Paige, too,” she said, “but we’re kind of on a time crunch here. So I’m gonna need you to, you know, suck it up. Get with the program. Roy needs us. And I need you to help me help him.”
“Okay, but I don’t know just who you think we’re going to get to play with us,” I said. “Every decent, non-psycho musician we know is already in another band. Or have you forgotten how we ended up with Paige in the first place?”
Lia opened her composition book and held it up to show me a list of names she’d scribbled in it. “What about Lana Philbin?” she asked, pointing at the page.
I gave her a thumb down.
“What is this? Your inventory of the crappiest musicians in Carreen?”
Lia snapped her notebook shut. “Well, excuuuse me. I didn’t realize your two weeks of playing drums had transformed you into some kind of musical expert…”
“Can we please do this later?” I groaned. “I’ve got… plans for today.”
Lia glanced at the muted television screen, where Kevin Bacon was getting it in the neck with a harpoon. She made a face. “Plans? To do what? Lie here and sulk, watching all the Amityville movies back to back?”
“This is Friday the 13th,” I informed her, “and I’d like to be left alone to watch it in peace if you don’t mind.”
She shuddered as fake blood spurted out of Kevin’s ruptured esophagus. “You’ve sure got a messed up way of comforting yourself,” she said. “Why don’t you watch Pretty in Pink? Suck down a vat of ice cream? Like a normal person. That’s what I’d do. Not that I’d bother being upset in the first place. Not over Dustin Tran. Because you couldn’t have paid me a million dollars to touch his nasty self to begin with…”
I pulled a pillow over my face. “Go away!”
She ripped the pillow from my hands and tossed it aside. “You can’t brood forever, Vee. It’s unhealthy and I forbid it.”
“Forever?” I said. “It’s been twenty-four hours!”
“Well, can’t you at least come over to my house and mope there for a while, instead?”
Something about the way she asked made me suspicious. “Why?” I asked, propping myself up on my elbows. “What’s going on over there?”
“Drama,” she sighed. “My idiot brother showed up out of nowhere last night, raving like a madman. Now everyone’s up in arms.”
I paused, staring at her in surprise. “Jake? What’s he doing here?” Other than briefly at Christmas breaks, I hadn’t seen Lia’s brother in almost two years. Hardly an “idiot,” he’d graduated early and left for college the year Lia and I were sophomores. He was pre-med at UT Austin, about to start his junior year. I couldn’t imagine why he’d suddenly come back to town.
She shrugged like she couldn’t care less. “He’s decided to ‘take some time off’ from school…or something. I wasn’t really paying attention…” She gazed around the room. “Honestly, Vee, I don’t know how you can sleep in here. It’s a nightmare. And I don’t just mean because of all your scary-ass posters.” She hopped up, scratching both arms like my bed had given her cooties. “Just being in here for five minutes makes me itch.”
I ignored her attempt to change the subject. “Time off?” I repeated, sitting up. “You mean he’s dropping out?”
Lia exhaled. “I don’t know details. All I know is my parents were pretty pissed this morning. Something about ‘flushing away a full scholarship.’” She made air quotes with her fingers. “Or maybe they said it was his future he was pissing away? I dunno. Something, somewhere was definitely going down a toilet, though. And I’ve never heard Jake yell and cry so much in my life. You’d think he was having some kind of nervous breakdown.”
I stared at her, eyes wide. That didn’t sound like Jake at all. Sure, he could get pretty worked up when he was arguing with Lia, but the rest of the time he was always so calm. So cool.
“That sounds serious, Lia. Didn’t you at least ask him what’s going on?”
“Pffft,” she said, “Why would I exchange two words with that jerk if I didn’t have to?”
“Come on,” I said. “He’s not so bad.”
She gave me a skeptical look.
“Well, he’s nice to me,” I said, patting the bed clothes in search of the remote.
“So I’ve noticed. He behaves around you. Which is why you have to come over. Run interference before he lands me in prison for strangling him to death.”
I stopped the movie and switched off the television. “So you think he’s back for a while?” I swung my legs over the side of the bed, kicking aside books and papers and other detritus in an effort to find my shoes.
“With my luck? Probably for good,” she said miserably. “Why?”
I slipped my striped-socked feet into a beat up pair of Cons I’d uncovered. “I was just thinking,” I said as I tightened my laces. “Maybe we could convince him to play with us?” Even as I said it I knew Lia’d never go for it. Which was too bad because before he’d moved away, Jake had played guitar in one of my all-time favorite local bands, Burro Bruto. I knew he could really shred.
Sure enough, Lia’s lip curled in distaste. “As if. It’s bad enough I have to live with him again. No way am I letting him infiltrate my band, too.”
Lia lived in a nicer part of town than I did, although not as nice as her family could’ve afforded. That’s because John and Elyse Mlinarich had first moved into their house when Jake was only two years old and Lia had just been born. Back then, John still worked for someone else, managing one of the less popular grocery stores in town. By the time he’d bought the store, changed the name to Paper or Plastic, and expanded it into a prosperous chain a few years later, the Mlinarichs were too settled in their neighborhood to want to leave. So despite the money they now had, they still lived in a modest, three bedroom house with a small yard and a two car garage.
“Are your parents home?” I shouted at Lia as she turned onto her street.
“What?!” she shouted back.
We were riding in the green, 1977 Dodge Dart she’d gotten for her sixteenth birthday last year. The windows were rolled down and between the wind whipping past our faces and the Blank Fiction song screaming full blast out of Lia’s tape deck, it was no wonder she couldn’t hear me.
I turned the volume down on her stereo and tried again. “I said, are your parents home?” I sort of hoped they were. I loved Lia’s parents. They were cute and funny and didn’t act at all like they’d been married for almost twenty years. They reminded me more of some of the couples from school, always hugging and kissing and teasing one another.
“They’d better not be,” she said. “I told them they have to park in the driveway from now on because we need the garage to rehearse. And I don’t see any cars out there.”
She was right; the driveway was empty when we pulled up. Jake’s blue van, however, sat against the curb, the roughly 400 miles from Austin showing all over its bug-splattered windshield and dirty tires.
As soon as we stepped into the house, Lia’s black cat, Clyde 2, came shooting down the hallway straight toward us. The bell on his studded leather collar jingled as he tried to dash past Lia’s legs and out the open front door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked, scooping him up as I let the door slam shut behind me. “Huh? Huh? Did that mean old Jake scare you? Is that who you’re on the run from?”
The cat yowled miserably in response, collar jingling again as his furry legs cycled in vain.
“Well let’s just go see about that.” Lia tucked the cat under her arm like a football and led me down the hall to what’d been her brother’s bedroom before he’d moved away.
The door was closed partway but Lia pushed it open. “Jesus, will you look at all this crap?” she said. I followed her in and saw what she was talking about:the flowered comforter and sheets had been ripped from the brass bed against the wall. The matching curtains had been pulled down, too, and sunlight streamed in the windows, illuminating an overwhelming mess. Boxes stood piled just about everywhere. A few cartons lay on their sides amid stacks of CDs, vinyl records, VHS tapes and a tangled heap of ratty old band t-shirts. A television and VCR with the cord wrapped around it sat on the dresser and two beat up guitar cases lay out on the bed.
“It’s almost as bad as your room,” Lia clucked at me.
“Get outta there!” I heard Jake bellow from the hall.
Lia and I both turned as he came storming into the room. “Now,” he said.
He was thinner than the last time I’d seen him. His rust-colored hair looked dirty and he hadn’t shaved in a while. He wore a wrinkled Alice in Chains t-shirt with a hole in it and jeans that looked as though they hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine in weeks.
“Good God, you look awful,” Lia told him.
“Get out,” he said, pointing at the door.
“Is that any way to treat a guest?” Lia asked him, nodding toward me. “You’re being rude.”
Jake turned to me. Our eyes met and his expression softened. “Hey Nic,” he said, lowering his arm.
Nic. He was the only person who’d ever called me that. I introduced and thought of myself as Veronica. Aside from Lia’s use of “Vee,” when people tried a nickname out on me, they usually went with “Ronnie,” which I didn’t care for.
“Hi,” I said, lifting my hand.
He looked at my chest. “Nice shirt.”
“Oh,” I glanced down at my Night of the Living Dead t-shirt. “Thanks.”
Jake lifted his eyes back up to mine. His were the same color as Lia’s, light grey. But they looked tired and bloodshot, the skin beneath them shadowy. Lia was right. He looked pretty awful. Although the facial hair suited him. It accentuated his high cheekbones and strong jaw, and took attention away from the fact that his nose was a bit too big for his face. I had the strangest urge to touch all that stubble, to find out if it was as soft as it looked.
“Um,” I said, lowering my eyes, “sorry if we invaded your space…”
“You can stay if you want,” he told me. Then he turned to Lia, “But you have to go. And take that monster with you.” He jabbed his finger at Clyde 2.
The cat’s ears flattened against his head. His lip curled, revealing his fangs.
“Monster?” said Lia, stroking the cat’s head as he started to growl. “As if. What’s Clyde 2 ever done to you?”
“He’s been getting underfoot all day.”
“While you did what that was so important?” Lia wondered.
“Unpacked,” he said. “What’s it look like?”
“It looks like an unholy mess,” Lia told him. Just then Clyde 2 wriggled out of her grasp and tore across the room. His paws slipped on the wooden floorboards and he crashed sideways into a stack of CDs.
“Freaking cat!” Jake yelled as Clyde 2 regained his footing. The cat raced out the door, leaving an avalanche of spilled CDs in his wake.
Lia threw her head back, giggling.
“Yeah, real funny,” Jake said. “Now how many times do I have to tell you? Get the hell out of my room!”
“Make me,” Lia dared him.
He took a menacing step toward her, his hand clenched into a fist by his side. She hopped up on his bed and started bouncing up and down.
“For God’s sake, Lia, stop being such a pain in my ass! Get down!” He tried to grab her arm. She whisked it out of the way, bouncing higher and out of his reach.
“Make me,” she repeated.
He swiped at her again and missed.
“Ha!” she said and bounced away, over the opposite side of the bed.
He lunged after her but his shoe got tangled in the mass of sheets piled beside the bed. He lost his balance and flopped across the mattress.
“Smooth move, Ex-Lax,” Lia taunted him, skipping exaggeratedly across the room. “Have a nice trip! See you next fall!”
Before Jake could recover, she’d pulled back the flaps of one of his cardboard boxes and started rifling through the contents. She held up a raggedy teddy bear she’d found, waving its paw at me. “Aw, look, Vee, Mr. Buttons went away to college, too!”
Jake sprang up from the bed to pluck the bear out of her hands. He shoved her roughly away from the stack of boxes. “This is not the stuff I brought back with me,” he assured me.
I pressed my lips together, trying not to laugh. I knew Lia was only trying to embarrass him. After Jake had moved out, his mom had redecorated his bedroom, intending to convert it into a guest room. She’d wound up just using it as a storage space, dumping the family’s old junk into it little by little. The hideous floral linen set and easily two thirds of the boxes were hers.
“I know that,” I said.
He scratched his head. “Anyway, sorry about the mess…”
“Don’t feel bad, my room’s worse,” I admitted.
He almost smiled, one corner of his mouth lifting higher than the other. He stuffed Mr. Buttons back into his box, closed it up and rested his elbow on top of it, trying to look casual. “So, uh, Lia tells me that’s your drum kit out in the garage,” he said. “What happened? Thought you swore you’d never play?”
Lia and Jake had always made music. They hopped continually from one band to another, sometimes playing with more than one at a time. Despite Lia’s repeated offers to teach me to play something—and assurances it’d be “so fun” if we were in a band together—I’d remained content to sit on the sidelines and write about shows for her zine. I didn’t exactly love the idea of being out on stage, the center of attention. I’d only agreed to play now because Lia’d begged me to, and because I would’ve felt bad if I hadn’t at least tried to help Roy save his restaurant.
“It’s Sierra’s kit,” I demurred. “Our guitarist? She plays pretty much every instrument. Anyway, I’m just borrowing it because Lia talked me into joining her band to help Roy. We’re playing this benefit Lia put together to try and raise money for him…”
“You know Lynch’s is about to cave?” Lia interrupted me to ask her brother. “Roy’s way behind on the rent.”
Jake nodded. “I heard. So, you any good?” he asked me.
“No,” I said.
Lia sat down, cross-legged, on Jake’s bed. “She’s getting there, though.”
“I am not,” I assured him.
“Well are you guys playing any time before this benefit thing?” he asked. “Someplace I can come check you out?”
I’d always liked the way Jake talked. His voice was deep, his slow Texan drawl making it seem like whatever he said was important enough to wait to hear. I wished I could talk like that. My voice was thin and nervous-sounding, every word coming out in a rush.
“Um, probably not,” I told him. “Our guitarist just got sent away to some sort of juvie camp. We’ll be lucky to find someone to replace her and be halfway ready to play by the benefit, much less before then.”
“Chill out, Vee,” Lia said. “It’s rock n’ roll. Doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Jake crossed his arms. “Anything I can do to help you guys out?”
I stared at him, hardly able to believe it: he’d just given me the perfect opening to ask him to join our band!
“Well, actually…” I began. Lia shook her head furiously at me. She pulled her finger across her throat, but I ignored her. “We were thinking of asking you if you’d be interested in taking Sierra’s place. If you’d, you know, play guitar with us.”
“Oh, yeah?” he asked.
Lia dropped her face into her hand.
“Yeah. I mean, if you’re going to stick around for a while.”
He looked me in the eyes for a second. “I’ll be home for a while. I can do it.”
“Really?” I said. I hadn’t expected him to just say yes like that.
Jake shrugged. “Roy’s a good guy. I’ve always liked him. And it’d be a shame if Lynch’s folded.”
“Oh, gosh,” I said. “That’s so great! I mean, thank you…”
“Okay, time out,” Lia interrupted me again, holding her hands up in the shape of a ‘T.’
“What’s the matter?” I asked her.
“I’m already working on getting someone lined up for the gig. We talked about it earlier. Remember?” She gave me a hard look.
“I remember you saying you weren’t sure who we were going to get yet…”
She jumped up and stalked straight toward me. “Yeah, well, I’m sure Jake’s got a lot of other things to do besides hang around with us. Like look for a job before Dad kicks his lazy ass out of the house.” She grabbed my arm and started pulling me toward the door.
“It doesn’t matter to me one way or another if you don’t want my help,” said Jake. “Just figured I’d offer.”
“Well, thanks,” Lia told him over her shoulder, “but no thanks. Let’s go, Vee.”
“Let’s go.” She pushed me out into the hall. “We’ve got a lot of stuff to do.” I looked back through the open door at Jake. He held two fingers to his forehead and then brought them back down in mock salute. I wanted to stay behind and ask him what he was doing back, if it was true he’d dropped out of school and if so, why. But Lia dragged me down the hall to her bedroom.