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You And Everyone Else - Frank

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The seats are either a dirty brown or a bottle green, and the ceiling is yellowed from smoke. All together, the colors clash in a comfortably mismatched way. I know where there’s a small crevice on the horizontal flat of the oakwood bar that my elbow fits nicely into. It’s lined up with the third green stool from the front door, and it’s my favorite seat. The beer taps are just to my left, which means I can often talk to Jamia even when she’s moving around. She’ll always hover around the taps, and if she needs to serve someone she returns to them to fetch their order. There’s always something sketchy going on in the far left corner, but that doesn’t matter. It’s safe. Or safe enough, considering this is New Jersey we’re talking about.

There’s a new bartender; she slides my pint onto the table for me, and I nod in thanks. I’m not in the mood for much talking, although usually I’d be trying to hit on her. She’s hot, no one’s denying that, and the way her leather skirt hugs her hips shows off her ass nicely. But I’m not in the mood.

“Goggling the newbie already?”

I only roll my eyes in response to Jamia, not even flinching when she saunters up to me and lays her arms on the counter. “Yeah, sure. But I’m not taking anyone home tonight.”

She laughs, barely even acknowledging my abruptness. “Really? Then get your eyes off her butt, big guy.” Damn, that girl’s got balls. If she was saying that to any other guy, she’d be in for it.

“Lay it off. I’m serious,” I warn bluntly, but honestly I don’t mind her pestering. It’s just that I’m not in the mood.

From where she’s standing behind the counter, she looks small. It’s funny how wearing an apron can degrade your appearance so well. People who don’t know the area think they can pick her up and fling her out a window, easy-peasy. Rookie mistake – she could knock you flat if she wanted to. It’s all too easy to fall for the sweet doll-face illusion. I guess it’s the same with me. I seem to know what I’m doing. Cocky and confident. All the time, cocky and confident. Not right now. I’m tired and stressed and dreading the coming weeks. I still keep up the cocky and confident act, because frankly it’s the only thing I know how to do well. Except for maybe guitar. But that’s about it.

“So, you’re off tomorrow? On the midwest leg?”

“Yeah, three weeks,” I hiss, trying to hold back the slight note of disappointment. I’m going off for three weeks in a place I don’t know with a band that’s falling apart. Fucking great.

“You packed?” she asks, flicking her black hair over her shoulder and leaning her head on her hand.

“Yep.” I brace myself for a fuss over nothing.

“Underwear?”

“Yep.”

“Deodorant?”

“Yep.”

“Food?”

“For God’s sake, you’re not my fucking mom.” I pause. “But now that you mention it, I should probably get some more. Neil’s gonna eat all my cereal again, I bet.”

She raises an eyebrow and points a playfully accusing finger at me. “See? I am helpful sometimes.”

Yeah, though I wish you could help me with this bad feeling I have in my gut about tomorrow.

We chat on and off as she serves other customers filing in. It’s 10pm now, and I’m on my second pint. Usually I stay until about midnight, and then I go home with some girl and we fuck and then I leave her by the next morning. Not tonight. Tonight, I’m heading home alone and going straight to sleep. I’m tired. Fuck it.

I’ve noticed the new bartender girl that served me earlier has a tattoo down her arm. It’s clearly in progress, but so far there’s a rooster head at the top of her shoulder, some octopus tentacles running further downward, and a skull on the inside of her bicep that’s only visible when she stretches out to hand someone a drink. It suits her, actually. She’s got these startling brown eyes and sharp cheekbones, and her red lipstick makes her look borderline goth. But, all put together, it suits her. And she seems nice enough, from what I’ve seen. I’d fuck her. If I was in the mood.

It’s about quarter past midnight when I decide to head off. Jamia notices me leaving, and dashes over to catch my arm. She’s got a tight grip, and even semi-drunk I can feel through her strong fingers that she’s genuinely sympathetic.

“Hey. Good luck. Text me if you need it, okay?”

I turn to face her, leaning a little into her hand. “Yeah, sure.”

“Also, are you gonna shave before you go? And I’m still not sure about those dreadlocks on you. Make you look a decade older.”

“That’s the point,” I shrug, and turn to leave. No one questions me when I go to buy a beer, because I look at least 25 with dreads. Not that Jamia would question me, though. She knows I’m underaged. But I’ve been a regular at this bar since I was 18, and now I’m almost 21. She doesn’t let me go stupid on alcohol. And I’ve got a fake ID as backup if need be, so I’m safe.

“Seriously, Frank. Take care of yourself. I know what you’re like. And don’t kill any of your bandmates either.”

“I’ll try not to,” I reply, and I turn to leave, waving over my shoulder, shoving the front door open to step out onto a gloomy street. I turn left and walk quickly down the pathway, head down, hands in pockets. The evening air’s got a bite, and I make haste when I feel the frost starting to get in my hair. I’ve trodden on a million cigarette butts by the time I reach the door of my apartment block.

I nearly trip on the second flight of stairs up to my place, and I fumble around with my keys before getting the lock undone. Once I’m inside the room I throw myself on the couch. A cloud of dust rises up when I collapse on the cushions. I feel the lethargy creeping up on me as I kick my shoes off and roll onto my side. I just wanna sleep. My cell phone makes a noise telling me I’ve received a text. I’m not in the mood.

Chapter Text

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know I need to get up. But my eyes can’t seem to open, and my joints are too heavy to function, and my brain isn’t working properly. I don’t want to get up. Not just yet.

The alarm clock on the coffee table goes off again. It beeps and beeps obnoxiously, and it’s surprising that someone let that sound pass quality control when they decided to sell this thing. It could drive any man crazy. Guess that’s what it did to me. Tempted to put it on snooze for the fourth time, I go against my will and turn it off, letting my legs fall off the side of the couch and land on the floorboards. I can’t bring myself to sit up just yet, because that means I’ll have to walk out my front door with three weeks’ worth of luggage and take it all to hell and back with me. Three weeks with people who are almost ready to pull each other’s heads off. Jesus fucking Christ, I’d much rather stay in this shithole than go with them. But it’s only three weeks. It could be worse. It’ll be over soon. It’s only three weeks.

My bags are already packed and are sitting next to the door. I don’t need to worry about emptying the fridge – there was nothing in there anyways, apart from beer. I still need to go out and get extra cereal sometime today, for Neil’s sake. Yeah, I might be feeling a little generous now. Anything to shut him up. Suppose my generosity always comes with a catch.

When this band started, I didn’t expect it to go too far. I wasn’t wrong, but I still didn’t see it going this far. A couple years in, we got signed by a record label – and now we’ve gone from playing locally to actually going off on tour. Leaving our hometown and going to another state for people to jump around and scream our lyrics back at us, the lyrics we wrote and recorded at 3am in our underwear. It was insane at first, but the novelty’s wearing off. Not just for us as the band, either. Our fanbase is nothing like it was at our peak. Nowadays, our performances are half-assed and always backed by some sort of tension, and only a fraction of the crowd know the lyrics we sing. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but I feel like this is our descent into disrepair.

No, wait. I know this is our descent into disrepair.

But it’s not like I care.

Because without them, I can carry on. I could become a soloist, or start a new band. There’s plenty of talented and willing Jersey kids around. Just need to know the right places to look. And, thankfully, I know all those places – because that’s where I came from.

Some maniac is blasting their car horn right outside my window. Still half-asleep, I finally roll myself off the couch and will myself to stand. I shuffle to the window, trying to rub the sleep out of my eyes whilst pulling the curtain aside so I can flip off whoever’s in the vehicle making the racket. But it’s Shaun behind the wheel of the band’s minivan, so I refrain from doing so.

Gotta keep in the good books. After all, three weeks can be hell if there’s beef between one another.

I reluctantly pull the curtain back closed after rolling my eyes at them, and go to my dresser to find a new change of clothes. There’s a mirror on the wall, and when I walk past, I check to see if I’m still intact. Head, shoulders, arms, legs, torso, dick. With additional lip ring, gauged ears, dreadlocks, a couple of tattoos scattered on vaguely tanned skin. Good enough.

Slipping out of my t-shirt is like sticking skewers in my eyes – because I know that it’s inevitable now. Pencey Prep is gonna drive from New Jersey to Iowa and back again within the next three weeks, and along the way they’re gonna get so pissed at each other that they’ll be throwing beer bottles at each other’s heads. And I’ll start telling them they’re being immature and then they’ll turn on me, telling me to butt out or they’ll swing at me, and so I sit back and let it happen, I sit back and let this band fall apart. It’s what I’ve dreamed of since I was a little kid; going on tour with a band that hates each other’s guts and is perfectly willing to murder someone because of it.

I settle for a very faded shirt that once depicted a band, jeans and a hoodie. By the time I’ve slipped on a pair of converses, fished out a cigarette, got my shit out the door and trudged onto the street, Shaun’s honking madly again. I take my time nevertheless. Reaching into my back pocket to grab my lighter, with the cig on my lip, using a hand to shield a newly-sparked flame from a cool spring breeze. Only once it’s lit do I bother to pick up my rucksack and get in the van.

I don’t say anything when I fling open the door and squeeze my way into the middle row. I bump into John – or Hambone, should I say – when I clumsily sit myself down, but he doesn’t complain. He just pushes his glasses up his nose and smiles at me in greeting. Neil, who’s on the other side, slaps my knee with a bony hand and says, “Whaddup, bro!” I cringe away from him. In shotgun is the blonde, permanently beanie-clad head of Tim, and he doesn’t react to my presence, which doesn’t worry me. He’s usually like that – quiet, unless speech is necessary. And then there’s Shaun. I can almost feel the annoyance radiating off of him.

There’s another row of seats behind us, but it’s full with the disassembled pieces of drum kit going on our journey with us. My guitar is already in the trunk from our practise yesterday evening, just before I went to the bar. Their constant bickering is what put me in a foul mood for the rest of the night. So, my hypothesis is that for the next three weeks that foul mood’s gonna be permanent.

“Good morning to you, too,” I respond indifferently to the snarky remark. Shaun doesn’t look at all impressed. Well, fuck him. He can be a bitch all he likes, but that doesn’t mean we all have to be pissy just like him. Someone’s gotta be the mediator, especially in this band.

“Let’s go get breakfast,” Neil urges Shaun, who’s glaring at me through the rear-view mirror. When Shaun doesn’t reciprocate, Neil prompts again. “C’mon, dude. I’m starving!”

With that, Shaun knocks the van into gear and swerves onto the road.

Chapter Text

It’s fifteen minutes into our trip when Neil makes his first declaration of hunger. Shaun scowls. Tim scoffs. Hammy asks sarcastically if he skipped breakfast or something, to which Neil says (in a very confused tone) that he didn’t, because we just ate together. He just forgot to pack snacks for himself. So, being the incredibly kind and courteous person I always am, I dig out some granola bars from my bag and give them to him. He shuts up for another half hour, but straight after that is his second declaration of hunger – and I satisfy it by producing a bag of chips. I’m really gonna have to find some spare time to buy that extra cereal.

The next conflict happens when Shaun disapproves of the music Hammy starts to play on the stereo. Shaun tells him it’s ‘too soppy’, and tells him to skip to something decent. Hammy sighs, and skips to the next song on the CD. No one dares to touch the CD player for the rest of the trip, in fear that their music tastes will be criticized by Shaun. And in all honesty we’ve got no complaints against the Metallica playing now.

When we finally arrive in Philadelphia, no one can agree on what to have for lunch. Neil wants Del Taco, Tim wants Pizza Hut, Shaun wants McDonald’s, Hammy wants Starbucks, and I couldn’t care less as long as it doesn’t contain meat. Or lactose. After a brief heated argument, we all part ways to have our separate lunches. We can make a fight out of anything – and that requires a shitton of talent. I eat at a nearby Subway, sitting with a table to myself, picking at a sandwich, while the hoards of people around me are happily in their own world. Good for them.

We’d agreed to meet up again at 4 to unload the van for our set later tonight to get that over and done with. I’ve finished eating, and I’ve got another hour and a half to kill. I leave the shop to check out the streets. There's a gas station just across the road, so I drop by to buy a red bull and a couple more packs of smokes, since I’ve only got two left in the box I’ve got now. Once I’m out of the gas station, I use up those last two cigs and decide on spending the rest of my hour on the curb, slowly sipping at my red bull, not really enjoying it but not minding it either.

It’s not until we regroup and start to unpack the van that the day actually becomes interesting. I’m carrying the floor tom into the venue when a man with bright red hair catches my attention. He’s buff, with vibrant ink covering the entirety of his right arm and a tight grey Rancid t-shirt hugging his torso. He looks a little lost, fiddling nervously with the hem of his shirt. It's intriguing that someone with the potential to look quite foreboding is instead acting really anxious. I ignore him though, and proceed to get the drum I’m still holding inside. But when I come back out again to fetch the amps, he’s chatting to Shaun. I go over to see what they’re up to.

Shaun glances briefly at me when he sees I’m approaching. “Oh, and this is Frank. He’s our screamer and guitarist,” he says, and I can tell he’s trying not to sound agitated as I approach.

Red-hair turns around, smiling when his eyes find my face. “Hey! I’m Josh.” He extends a hand to me. I shake it.

“Frank,” I respond, and we awkwardly retreat out of the handshake. I’ve never been too good with new people. Clearly he isn’t either.

Shaun clears his throat. “So, Josh is our new roadie. He’s gonna travel with us – separately, of course, since there’s no more room in the van – but he’s got our shit sorted.”

I frown. “No one told me we had a roadie for this leg.”

Josh stretches a hand up to scratch the back of his neck. His thumbs are blunt at the ends. He looks like a drummer. “Well, now you know. What am I setting up today?”

***

We’re set at the front of the room, on a small scaffold that serves as a makeshift stage. People are already starting to mill around us. It’s easy to spot the handful of fans that are purposely here to see us out of the people who just happened to see there was a live show on tonight. Barely anyone knows our name these days.

Shaun’s complaining to Tim about the balance of one of his keyboards – “Dude, turn down the mid – no, not that much!” Neil’s tuning his guitar, Hammy’s tuning his bass. I’ve been assigned the dodgy mic stand that keeps falling to the left and doesn’t stay put. Josh and I both tried to tighten it, but it won’t stop swinging around. So I just lower it so it's pointing straight up and down, mic looking up at the ceiling. It’ll have to do. I test my guitar, I test the pedals, I test the mic. The rest of the band do the same. People are starting to take a bit more notice now that we’re making some noise. Hammy nods his head at me. Let’s go.

“Hey, we’re Pencey Prep,” I start, grinning at the group of about five people who start to cheer when I introduce us. “Let’s just dive straight in and get this shit started. This first song’s called Yesterday .”

It’s only after we’ve gotten through the first verse that I notice Josh’s bright red hair at the back of the room. Momentarily during the short break I have from singing, I’m distracted – he leans against the wall, facing us, rocking a heel gently to the pulse of our rhythm. We’re into the chorus, and I’m preoccupied with shouting lyrics to focus on Josh. The bunch of kids are screaming along with me, and some others are watching us intently as we play.

There’s a beat break straight after the chorus. My hands switch to temporary autopilot over the guitar while I take a second to glance at Josh again. Except it’s not just Josh – there’s another guy, and he’s talking to him. I observe him. Dark hair, tanned skin, taller than Josh. Sharp nose, a little lanky, skinny jeans and a floral button-up.

And then the second verse comes along, and I almost forget where I’m up to in the lyrics. Once I’ve recomposed myself, the words come on their own accord. Josh and the other man are standing close together. The kids are jumping up and down in front of us, and my line of vision to the back wall is obscured. The song ends as quickly as it started. The kids are cheering for us, but they’ve stopped jumping since the music’s stopped. Josh’s arm is wrapped around the taller man’s waist.

“Next up we’re playing 8th Grade .”

Chapter Text

Tim’s gone out to get beers, which means Josh is pitching in to pack up the drum kit for him. His brunette companion is sitting cross-legged atop one of the amps that hasn’t been carried out yet, a small brown leather booklet resting on his lap. He’s totally in his own realm, scribbling something on the page, sitting back to read it over with his pen stuck in his mouth and his brows knitted together, and then he crosses out what he wrote down and replaces it with something else. I’m caught for a moment observing him, how delicate and peaceful he looks while the rest of the band is busy banging shit together and being completely raucous. It only takes that one moment for Josh to approach me from behind and tap me on the shoulder unexpectedly.

I flinch, whipping my head around when I feel the sudden contact. I don’t exactly know what to say. ‘Uh, hey, just checking out your buddy over there.’ Yeah, not the best choice of words. So I decide to just gawk at him.

“You need any help?” Josh offers, and he knows I was staring at the brunette. The person in question, however, is too absorbed in his booklet to notice my gaze.

“Um, no, I’m fine,” I reply a little too hastily. I go back to shoving a mic in a case with its stand, and I can hear Josh chuckling gently as he pulls a cymbal off its stand. The brunette is still writing. The curiosity is starting to get to me. “Who’s your friend?” I ask after a brief period of silence.

“My friend? He’s Tyler.” Josh pauses to zip up a cymbal case. “He’s my boyfriend.”

Oh. Well, that explains why Josh had his arm around him the whole show.

“So… you’re gay?”

“Yup. I’m gay,” Josh confirms, half-smiling. He glances around at Shaun and Neil and Hammy, who are casing up their own instruments. They definitely heard us, because Shaun turns around briefly to double-take Josh, Hammy frowns a little but doesn’t face us, and Neil suddenly tenses up.

“That’s sweet.” I mean it. “Mind me asking what he’s writing?”

“Lyrics,” Josh says promptly, turning to look over at Tyler. “He’s in a band. They’re called Twenty One Pilots, and he writes all the songs. He never shows anyone the lyrics until they’re done… not even me.” He laughs. I bite my lip, refraining from giving away the fact that I find the way he stares at his boyfriend adorable. I don’t even know too much about them, but they seem like a cute couple.

“D’you do music yourself? I mean, I thought you looked like a drummer earlier.”

Josh broke his gaze from Tyler to unscrew a tom drum. “You guessed right,” he smiles, and he seems genuinely surprised. “I play for a band called House Of Heroes as a fill-in. It’s fun, but I also wanted a job where I get, like, a consistent income… y’know?” His top lip retreats under his teeth, his gaze trails down. “And I haven’t really found my niche among all these musos yet. Tyler, on the other hand… his new band is going great. Just released their debut album. Already got a decent fanbase going. I hope they make it big someday.”

We discuss all things music from then on. The stuff I’m writing currently, the places I want to take music. The uncertainty Josh has with taking up band life full-time. What his hometown music scene is like – he’s from Ohio. How he found this job. How he met Tyler. How I got into a band. What other bands I like. He’s softly-spoken, and he grins a lot when he talks about Tyler. When we’ve finished loading up the truck, we keep talking. Tyler’s leaning against the van. He’s still writing. Josh tells me he’s gonna sneak up on him, and to shut up so I don't ruin the surprise. I watch from a distance as he crouches behind him, and then springs up and grabs him round the waist. Tyler gasps, dropping his booklet and pen.

“Oh my gosh! You’re such a jerk!” He picks up the book and bats Josh over the head with it, and both Josh and I are giggling like idiots.

“Hey! It was his idea!” He points at me, and I gape and throw up my hands.

“Was not!” I yell back at him. I swear to God, we are children.

***

Tyler and Josh left in their shared Chevy, going back to the hotel they already booked. Hammy’s the allocated driver to get the rest of the band to our motel in Harrisburg. It took us until 11pm to get there. We wake the old receptionist when we pull up to collect our key to our room, and she looks at us warily when she sees the cans that all of us, with the exception of Hammy, are holding. She shouldn’t worry. None of us are in the mood to brawl too violently.

Due to a total lack of funds, we’re all sharing a room. Five (mostly) grown men in one small, barely-furnished room would be a problem if we weren’t just using said room to sleep in for a night. I think we’re all determined to get out of here as quickly as possible tomorrow morning so nobody gets strangled. When Neil takes too long to unlock the door, Shaun snatches the keys out of his hand and shoves it in the lock himself.

As soon as I walk in the doorway, I’m hit by an ugly, peeling, grimy lime-green feature wall at the back of the room, straight out of the 90s. Not the best first impression. I manage to toss my rucksack on the couch before anyone else can claim it. Shaun takes the only double bed in the room – the bed being covered by a patchy grey comforter and a layer of dust. Tim uses some of the faded navy-blue couch cushions on the floor as a makeshift bed. Hammy and Neil are on the bunk bed on the opposite side of the room to the double. All of the colours bombard each other, but not in a good way. Not like the bar.

There’s a small counter with a mirror, a kettle, a sink and two power points. Neil argues with Tim and Shaun that he should be able charge his cell phone first because it’s low on battery – and then Tim and Shaun get mad because they want to charge their phones too. I don’t care. My phone can last another day. Hammy’s sitting on the bottom bunk, watching the bickering with a look of disappointment and exhaustion. I feel a small pang of empathy for him. He doesn’t deserve this shit. He’s a good guy. Shaun’s an asshole, Tim’s stubborn as hell, Neil never knows when to fuck off and mind his own business. But Hambone? He’s… he’s somewhat normal. I take a deep breath. Two weeks and six days more. It’s only two weeks and six days more.

Neil’s persistent, and when Shaun gives up and storms away from the point of conflict, he glares as he leaves and jams his phone charger in the socket somewhat triumphantly. Shaun’s sulking on his big soft quilted double bed like he’s been hard done by. Everything he does – passive-aggressive comments, nit-picking over small things, stealing a whole fucking bed without saying a word to us about it – everything he does is just a small act of defiance. The whole band knows, quietly, that he’s got his head stuck up his ass. He thinks he deserves more recognition than he gets. He wants his spot in the hall of fame, he wants his time in the limelight. He’s not in it for the music. And since we’re not getting nearly as much fame as he hoped for, he takes it out on us. Pssh. Fame.

It’s been deathly silent since the argument is settled. Shaun won’t even look at us. He reaches over to grab another beer, since nobody wants to approach the case sitting on his bedside table. He’s claimed the entire 12-pack. Hammy’s rolled over to lie on his bed now, facing the wall. Neil’s sitting a little uncomfortably on the top bunk, and I can almost tell for certain that he wants to say something. Tim’s tossing a blanket over the cushions on the floor. It’s silent. Until Neil – as predicted – speaks.

“Uh, so I didn’t know we were gonna have our tour run by a fag.”

It’s so, so silent.

“You mean Josh?” I say, a little defensively. I’m not sure where he’s going with this.

“Wait – when did this happen?” Tim’s shocked.

Neil, who’s clearly eager to start a debate on the subject, hops off his bunk. “You were out getting the beers when this happened. But you all heard him. He’s gay. His boyfriend’s gonna be travelling with us. Like… is that alright?”

Shaun’s quick to butt in. “I think we should reassess this whole thing. I mean, I didn’t really like him from the beginning. He seemed off. I don’t know how we’re gonna put up with him the whole tour if he’s like that!”

And Tim’s still trying to wrap his head around it. “So, he’s like fully gay?”

I actually can’t believe what’s unfolding. I think Hammy’s noticed the look of incredulity plastered on my face, but he doesn’t say a word. He looks like he’s suppressing a similar expression, but I’m not gonna hide it. If he’s gonna be a pussy, then so be it. But this – this whole discussion – this isn’t right.

“Yeah – and he was flirting with his boyfriend the whole time.” Neil says it like it’s a crime. “I’ve always wondered who the man in a gay relationship is. As in, who puts it in?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Shaun shakes his head, “it’s disgusting. It’s just disgusting.”

Nope. This isn’t right.

“What’s disgusting?” I speak up. “What’s disgusting about a guy liking a guy? What the fuck’s it got to do with you?”

Shaun’s glaring at me as soon as my voice reaches his ears. “It’s got everything to do with me. This guy’s running our band!”

“Yeah, and how’s his personal life gonna affect his profession?” Shaun opens his mouth to speak, but I don’t let him talk. “You’re just scared shitless that he’ll do something to you, because he’s a big scary fag. You’re making all these excuses not to like him, rather than just growing a pair and saying ‘I don’t like him because he’s fucking gay’.”

“I never made excuses–”

“Bullshit!”

“Guys, I think we should just cool it–”

Shaun’s clenched his fists, and he’s striding over to where I sit on the couch. I stand instinctively, ready for defense if need be. His proximity narrows, he doesn’t slow. His palms slam against my chest, and I’m pushed backward a little, but I don’t fall. We don’t break eye contact as we make a 180 around each other. He’s got a glint in his eye – he’s angry. He’s fucking angry.

“Fuck you, Iero.” he spits.

I grunt, and since I’m now nearest to his bed, I walk over and smugly snatch up the case of beers for myself. Shaun, thankfully, says nothing about it.

Chapter Text

There’s no fucking shower in this motel room.

There’s a small ensuite off the main room, but it’s only got a basin, a mirror and a toilet in it. Not even a fucking shower. And we all absolutely stink from last night.

Shaun’s hogging the bathroom. The door’s locked shut, and no one else can use it. He’s been in there for a good half hour, and we’re pissed. And we’ve gotta check out soon if we wanna get to Cleveland on time.

It’s a fairly long stretch, but Josh’s given us directions and a pitstop point in Pittsburg to meet up at. Today, I’m driving. I use this position of power to hurry up the other band members – in particular Shaun – by threatening to drive off and leave them behind if they don’t pick up the pace. My method’s effective. We’re out the door by 10am.

Three hours of driving is so much easier when you don’t have to interact with everyone else in the vehicle. Being driver has its perks. I have one thing to concentrate on, and that’s not rolling the van. It’s a great excuse to exclude yourself from conversations. ‘Dude, I’m gonna crash, don’t talk to me!’ Easy.

We reunite with Tyler and Josh’s Chevy, and refuel at the nearest gas station. Tyler’s got a six-pack of red bull, and he offers me one. I politely decline. Josh steals a sip out of Tyler’s can, and Tyler slaps him on the arm in return.

“Hey! What was that for?”

“Being a douche! Get your own red bull!”

“Fine…”

Hammy’s gone to pay for the gas. I don’t know where Tim, Neil and Shaun are, and I don’t really care either. I’m cool with that. Hammy’s company is better than any of theirs, anyway.

Tyler sits on the bonnet of the Chevy. “You guys did great last night,” he chirps. Every single time I hear his voice, it catches me off guard – I expect it to be much deeper, but it’s soft and high pitched. Although, it does suit him. He’s got an oddly whimsical air about him.

“Thanks,” I shove both hands in the pockets of my jeans. “Josh told me you did music too. What’s that like?”

Tyler let out a breathy laugh. “Oh, my band? Twenty One Pilots?” I nod. “Yeah, it’s pretty amazing, actually. I love being with the band, honestly. It’s a shame Chris is leaving at the end of the year for other things.”

Josh’s brow creased. “You didn’t tell me Chris was leaving.”

“He only texted me last night,” Tyler sighed. “But you know how much he’s got to juggle at the moment. The band was more like a hobby for him. He had to make a sacrifice to keep up his real ambitions, you know?”

“That sucks,” I say, not exactly knowing how to respond to this. Tyler looks up at me and tilts his head, looking disappointed but not hopeless.

“It’s alright, though,” he gives a sad smile. “Nick and I can still make music. We’ll be a two man band – it’s not unheard of.”

Two man band? Like, they only have three members at the moment? That exists?

“Jeez, wouldn't that be a bit of a strain though?” Josh thinks out loud, clearly mimicking my train of thought.

“Well, when House Of Heroes doesn't need you, you can join us!” Tyler gets excited at the prospect. And, admittedly, it's really sweet, especially when Josh beams and pulls him into a hug.

“I'd love to,” Josh hums against Tyler's hair. “I really would.”

***

Yeah, being driver has its perks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t equally devastating cons. Like, I can’t control any of the music we’re playing. In this band, you have to use force to get your preferred songs played, and I can’t do that with two hands on a steering wheel and one foot on a pedal. We go through Marilyn Manson, Black Flag, Rolling Stones, David Bowie – but all I want is some Joan Jett. I bet Shaun hasn’t even got Joan Jett in our CD stack, which eliminates the possibility of it even being played on accident. This would have all been solved if someone had a fucking iPod – I mean, it's two thousand and fucking two. This shouldn't be an issue. But we're all too poor to do anything but suffer, I guess.

On top of that, I can’t drink. When Neil, Tim and Shaun disappeared from the gas station, they were stocking up on beer. Now I can’t have any until we get to Cleveland, even though the rest of the band’s gone through two cans each already. But thankfully Cleveland isn’t too far away now. We’ve only got about half an hour left, but even that seems like an eternity when you can’t enjoy yourself even the slightest bit.

And it's especially painful when the only conversation we have on the journey is about 'Who do you think tops out of Josh or Tyler?’ or ‘What makes you want a dick up your ass? Like, is it something you're born with?’ Shaun, being the control freak he is, keeps trying to shut that notion down, but Neil being Neil doesn't catch on to his hate for homosexuality.

We book into our hotels, move our luggage into our rooms. It's a bomby hotel, but it was cheap, so between the band we've got two rooms. Josh and Tyler are staying across the hall from us. Hammy and I are in one room, and Tim, Neil and Shaun are in the other. The gig happens. It just comes and goes. I don't remember anything past the first number. We pack up, go to the pub for dinner, eat in silence.

Maybe I'm yearning, just slightly, for some normalcy. I've spent two days putting up with the shit from this band, and I think I deserve a break of sorts. I've ordered my fourth pint, I'm sitting alone at the bar. The others have gone back to their rooms. There's a bunch of girls near me, and they're all in skimpy outfits and stilettos. Normalcy: defined by me as fucking a girl or two and then kicking them out. So I think these girls can help me out.

I'm tipsy, just drunk enough not to remember how I got this girl back to my hotel room. Hammy's asleep on the couch – he left me the bedroom. I'm quietly grateful. He sleeps like a log, so he won't hear anything. She's taking my shirt off as soon as the door shuts behind us. We haven't kissed once, which tells me she's only in it for the sex. They're only ever in it for the sex. She guides my hand under her skirt; I feel lace under my fingers. She’s definitely only in it for the sex. Her skirt and underwear are off. My pants are off. There's no passion, there's no eloquence. We know what we want, and that's it. This sort of intimacy isn't really intimate.

She presses my lower back into her. I don't hold back, and neither does she. She's loud, and I can't tell if she's faking it or not. Her dark hair sprawls out across the sheets. My head rolls back. We pick up the pace. Her nails dig into my shoulder, my nails dig into her thighs. And then it's done, and she picks up her clothes and leaves.

I sit on the bed, which is totally askew now. Hammy's snoring is audible from the next room. Apart from that, the air is deathly still. The sex was mediocre. My intoxicated mind is swimming. Part of me refuses to feel anything, and the other part is already feeling too much. I don't know if normalcy is what I actually wanted, because this didn't satisfy anything. On top of that, I feel disgusting. A shower sounds pretty good right now. Just anything to get my mind off how empty I’m feeling.

At least this hotel actually has a shower.

Chapter Text

Neil notices me yawning, and he glances at me slyly. “What's up, Frankie?” he asks, and I hear Shaun snicker at the sickly sweet tone he puts on.

“Nothing,” I deadpan.

He giggles. “Late night?”

Fucking hell. I send him a glare screaming 'shut the fuck up or your nose will be flattened’. But he doesn't seem to process it right.

“We heard you through the wall last night. At first we thought it was Josh and Tyler or something… but then we figured it was you. How was it? Was she–”

“Back off, cunt,” I murmur harshly. I should know better – with Neil, you've got to be blatant.

“Okay, okay!” He throws his hands up in surrender. “Jesus Christ!”

I huff, returning to my not-so-comfortable position with my knees up against the seat in front of me and my forehead pressed onto the window. Still no Joan Jett's been played, and I've given up on it. Two weeks and four days to go, Jett-less. This is gonna suck ass.

It's moments like this that I really want someone to talk to. I miss Jamia. She'd know what to talk about. She could make me feel a little better. She's good at that. She said I could text her, but I wanna save my texts. That shit's expensive, even on the cheaper plans, and after all I only get 35 a month. We've got a pitstop coming up at Columbus, so I can talk to Josh and Tyler. They seem to be the only decent people around these days. Hammy's always an option too, but I don't really feel like talking to him. He's not the sort of person for consultation. He's nice, but not the sort of nice I need. All I want is someone to help me sort out my feelings, if that's not too much to ask. Only issue is I'm dead scared that I'm gonna spill my guts to the wrong person.

Why’s it so hard to find someone to talk to these days?

***

Josh is all smiley, which makes me pissed. He keeps going on about Columbus, his hometown, and how it’s good to be back after so long, and Tyler laughs and remind him it’s just a pitstop. I wish I could borrow some of their optimism – I wish I could bottle it and keep a stash for times like this when I need it. I don’t know how long I’m gonna last on tour at this rate. I decide against my need to preserve my calls (and my bank account) and call Jamia. But she doesn’t answer the phone, so I give up after that. I go to light a cigarette, but it falls on the ground when Hammy goes to tell me they’re about to head off but instead scares me shitless. So I give up on the smokes too. Yeah, you could say I’m having a bad day. But I’d say that’s a slight understatement.

We’re back in the van for another few hours to get to Indianapolis, and I spend it in total silence. At one point, Neil’s waving his hand around in my face to try and get me to respond. I don’t respond. I refuse to respond. I’m not in the mood.

I’m mute all through setup and soundcheck too, except for when I need to test the mic. We’re up on a proper stage this time, but it’s still quite small. Shaun’s taken advantage of my foul mood by playing the good guy, insisting he’s got everything covered, offering to help everyone. What a fucking two-faced prick.

It’s about ten minutes till the show starts when Shaun pulls me aside. “What’s your problem, Iero?” he half-whispers in my ear.

I scoff. “Nothing you’re actually concerned about. What’s your problem? You’re all of a sudden a motherfucking saint.”

“I’m just trying to support my fellow bandmates.” Sure you are. “So I don’t want you getting in the way of what I’m doing. Got it?”

“Whatever, asshole,” I respond, and turn my back on him. I don’t care about keeping in the good books anymore. I’ve made up my mind. I don’t wanna be here, and I’m gonna make that clear.

From my mic in front-center stage, I can feel Shaun’s glower on me. He’s so pissed, and all he can do is watch from behind his pathetic little keyboard as I scream my head off in front of all these people. It’s my face that they see, it’s my voice that they hear. They don’t think much of the sad little Shaun in the corner, plucking away at his little plastic keys. He must think he’s so much more deserving than I am, that he’s been the bigger man so the sun and stars should revolve around him now. His enormous act of kindness and sacrifice was holier than Jesus’ fucking crucifixion, so he should be resurrected too. Fuck him. Fuck him and his sky-high ego. He deserves nothing.

Chapter Text

Y’know what? I’m sick of this minivan.

Sure, we’ve been practically living in it since the band started. I know how every shit stain on every seat was made. I know where every scratch and dent is, every rust patch where the white paint's chipped off. And there’s been some good times in it – like when we were all secretly planning to get Tim a bunch of dildos for his birthday as a joke, but we had to buy it behind his back so he didn’t notice. We ended up buying them in Atlantic City, and we gave them to him in the van the same night, and we all serenaded him and we were cracking up for the next hour about it. The countless nights when we all just sat in the stationary vehicle, with one window slightly ajar, smoking weed until past midnight and then sleeping out in that carpark, all collapsed on one another, stoned out of our minds. And that time when Neil and Hammy and I decided to glue my hair in clumps as we drove to Trenton. That was the start of my dreadlocks. Good times, good memories. But also some bad ones.

Like Shaun and my first run-in. It seemed like such a big deal at the time, but in hindsight it was a stupid, petty thing to argue about. He wanted me to move my mic to the right so he could shift his keyboards forward, but I wanted it to stay put so I wasn’t too close to Neil. And although the argument was short and we made up ten minutes after it happened, it still stung a little. I’d never seen his malicious side until then – and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Without the jealousy and the manipulation, he was a nice guy. Funny, witty, always up for a dare. We were all pranksters and idiots in the beginning. We had the time of our lives as pranksters and idiots. I wish we could go back to being that naive, that clueless. It was so easy like that. Just make music, muck around, have fun. Maybe come home with some cash, maybe spend it all on beer as soon as you got to a bar. And then wake up the next day and do it all again.

But it’s not that easy anymore. There’s a new tension – an underlying notion that it’s not just about making music and mucking around and having fun. That there’s pressure to be known, and there’s pressure to make money that lasts, and there’s pressure to go on stage even when you don’t want to, because this is our profession now. The hidden message, the note in between the lines saying ‘grow the fuck up’. And I think we’re all trying to grow the fuck up, but it’s not working. Because we’re trying to go in opposite directions, and now we’re playing tug-of-war with our separate intentions. Shaun wants something so different to me that it makes me sick. I can’t stand it. All I want is to be true to the music, the art. All he wants is fame.

And sometimes I wonder if the other members can see through his bullshit like I do. They’re arguing with him just as much as I am, but yet they still forgive him as soon as the day’s up. They’re disgruntled when I still hold a grudge against him the next morning. But I’ve got a perfectly good reason to hold a grudge. I can’t forgive someone who keeps trying to push me off the same cliff, over and over and over.

I hate being stuck with them. The people that used to be friends, but now I’m not sure if they really are. I hate being inside this cramped van with them. I don’t know why I’ve held onto this for so long. Maybe it’s because I don’t know life without it. Maybe it’s because I’m hopeful that things will clear up. Either way, I’m still stupid for not doing something sooner. But what would I do? Let Shaun be lead singer, and I’ll recede to the back row? Bite back hard, and tell him to back off? Quit the fucking band? I don’t know. And I don’t really care either.

Neil’s driving, Shaun’s shotgun, I’m to the right of Hammy and Tim. The entire van is silent, except for the rumbling motor and the stereo's shitty music. There’s still no Joan Jett. Nobody wants to initiate a conversation. So I go against all my gut instincts, all the dread and fear telling me this won’t end well (which it won’t anyway), and initiate a conversation.

“Well, we’re a mess, aren’t we?”

My voice was quieter than I expected it to be, and carried an accidentally sad tone with it. I intended to sound nonchalant, but instead I sound defeated. I’m too worn down for self-control anymore, and I hate that.

No one responds for a solid fifteen minutes, but I feel the mood change from bored to almost completely dispirited. Everyone agrees with me, but no one wants to do anything about it. No one. Except Shaun apparently, because after the long silence he says: “Well, that’s not my fault.”

What a bastard.

“It is your fault!” I’ve snapped. I’ve lost it. “If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t have to put up with your shit all the time!”

“If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now–”

“Guys! Please! Would you take a breather?”

“Shut up, Neil, you don’t know nothing–”

“Woah, this isn’t my problem!”

“You’re one to talk...”

“D'you wanna know why this band's a mess? Huh? Maybe check the fucking mirror.”

“Maybe if we could talk like rational people and get along, maybe we could function,” says Hammy, and Neil's already trying to verbally bulldoze him when he yells, adamantly, “and that's why I hate being here!”

The volume drops like a small, white, beaten-up minivan off a cliff. Hammy pales.

“You heard me.” His voice breaks, but his eyes are fully alert. “I’m sick of doing something that’s just a chore. I don’t love music anymore. Or performing, or the band or anything about it. Everything we are is chaos. I want out.”

The air stops moving. It's unearthly serene, I can feel my own pulse in my head. I know what's coming. And I'm scared.

“What the fuck do you mean you want out?”

“You heard. I quit.”

Shaun's livid. Murderous. “So, all of this? This is just bullshit to you?”

“I never said–”

“You're cowards! The both of you!”

“This is all on you, Iero…”

“What the fuck are you on about–”

There's no comprehension of what's being said, or why. Words are tossed around, aimed straight for each others’ heads. But Hammy is silent, his lip quivering, his forehead beaded with sweat. He looks petrified, nearly dead. I can't be here anymore. I can't stand to be here.

“Pull over!” I scream over everyone else. They don’t hear. “Pull the fuck over!” I repeat, louder. They all shut their mouths this time, and Neil frowns. “You fucking heard me,” I hiss. “Pull over!”

We abruptly veer off the highway into an exit lane and come to a halt at a red-lighted intersection, and before the traffic lights can turn green again I’m out the door, flinging my rucksack and guitar out of the trunk, and storming down the sidewalk. I don’t look back. I don’t think of where I’m going, or what I’m doing. Because I don’t know. And I don’t really care either.

Chapter Text

I’m trying to breathe enough to keep the oxygen in my blood, but not so much that I choke on the smoke. My emotions are clearing up a little, but how I’m gonna get myself home isn’t as straightforward as just lighting a cigarette to fix it. I’m so lost. I’ve never been in St. Louis before. This place is totally foreign to me. But I can’t give in now. There’s no way I can. I need to get home, or I’ll be stuck here for a very long time.

I’m planning a way out in my head. Get to a phone directory. Call around. Find a way home from there. Shouldn’t be too hard. And, considering my circumstances, I can risk a few minutes on my cell phone so I can know where I’m headed.

And, as if the damn thing was reading my mind, my cell phone buzzes. I barely even take it out of my pocket before I see the name flash up on the screen – Neil. I’m not wasting 30 fucking cents just to pick up his call, so the phone drops back in my pocket and is ignored until it rings out. I need that 30 cents to get home, bitch.

I don’t know where to start. It’s only midday, so I’m not too desperate. Just a little anxious. I heave myself up from the bench I was on, look around, find my bearings. The sun’s got a vicious glare, but through it I can spot a gas station. Yep. That’s our first stop.

Stocking up on food seems like a good idea. Also maybe asking for a phone directory. Maybe I can book a coach or hire a car or something. I need to find an ATM too. So I go to pay for an armful of snacks (including a box of Freakies and another of Count Choculas, which are not to share) and some energy drinks, and ask the cashier if she knows where the nearest ATM is. And if she’s got a phone book I can borrow. And for two packs of Marlboro Reds. She raises an eyebrow at the amount of shit I’m buying, briefly explains that there’s an ATM on the corner of Market Street where it intersects Clark Avenue, and slides a phone book onto the counter. I thank her, and flick straight to the yellow pages. Something transport. I just need long-distance transport. Nothing too unaffordable. My index finger runs down the page, and when something catches my eye it stops. Greyhound coach service. Perfect.

I dial the number in my cell phone as I pay for the food, drinks and smokes, and hastily pack them all in my rucksack. The guy on the other end sounds agitated, and so far he’s only asked how he could be of service. I just want to get as close to New Jersey as possible from St. Louis. Yeah, there’s an overnight coach to Harrisburg leaving at 2pm this afternoon. Great. That’s great. Debit card number, expiry date, CVC – and the payment’s gone through. Thank you, have a nice day. His gruff voice cuts out. I pocket my phone, and march straight out the door. I know what I’m doing. I think.

It takes about ten minutes to walk to the ATM, and another twenty to ask around for directions until I end up at the bus station. I’ve still got an hour to kill, though. There’s a nearby Wendy’s. Sure.

I take my time to settle down in a booth, order something to eat and then stick french fries in my frosty. I’ve got nothing better to do. I’m sorta like a hyper kid with nowhere to exert themselves. I feel like I need to do something. I really wanna do something. I check my watch. It’s only been seven minutes. I need to fucking do something.

So I’m back outside, sitting under a small veranda to the side of the station building, chain smoking. I know I should probably save my cigs, but fuck it. Everyone walks by without a care. I act like I don’t care either. I’m so fucking good at it. Cocky and confident. Sometimes I think I just do it for the enjoyment. I don’t want to be so lax. Somewhere inside my mind, I know that there’s doubts and fears that just want to burst out of the cage I put them in. I don’t like the thought of bottling that shit up, but I don’t like the thought of letting them out even more. I keep them captive with chemicals, breathing in the smoke, cigarette after cigarette, hoping I don’t choke. And that’s how I be cocky and confident.

My phone vibrates five, maybe six more times before I get on the coach. I ignore it. And when they guy sitting next to me asks if I’m feeling alright because he thinks I’m looking ‘a little down’, I ignore it. And when it’s 11pm and there’s still one person who hasn’t turned off their overhead light even though the rest of the bus is tired, I ignore it. And when my head starts to hurt from all the churning thoughts that disrupt my otherwise peaceful attempt at sleeping, I ignore it. My head is drooping against the window as it shudders. I feel myself losing consciousness, and instead of gently drifting asleep, I practically pass out – quietly, quickly. Painlessly.

Chapter Text

I’m running purely off of caffeine. Two red bulls, a double shot Starbucks latte. This sort of breakfast is definitely far from ideal, but it’s the best I’ve got since I have zero appetite. Off the coach, on a bus, off that bus, on a light rail. Tripping on the curb when I go to step off the tram, and I’m this close to collapsing on the pathway. Maybe the red bulls were a bad idea.

But instead I only stumble, my feet not even leaving the pavement. People look at me like I’m drunk. I’m not drunk. Just dead tired.

My apartment’s only a five-minute walk from the light rail stop. I would be fine with that if my arms would stop throbbing. And if my head would stop hurting. And if my legs would stop aching. So I shuffle on, ignoring the throbbing and hurting and aching because my urge to just get home is stronger than all the pain. I get myself and my bag and my guitar through the door frame, drop everything. Go straight to the CD player, scrabbling for the Joan Jett disk that’s hiding somewhere under the shitpile on my shelf. The rhythm of it goes straight to my head, straight in my body, and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. And, fuck, I’ve never been so thankful to lie down on that ugly, dusty, faded-beyond-recognition couch in all my life. For a solid three hours, I’m dead to the world.

***

The ceiling fan has a cobweb on it that I’ve never noticed before. It droops low, like it’s trying to reach down and catch me. I’m not sure if the spider that made it still lives nearby. I hope not. I hate spiders.

The fan it’s clinging to is yellowy-beige, like the ceiling, stained from my smoke. It’s minuscule in proportion to the room, and makes a creaking sound when it’s on full speed. I never put it on full speed for that very reason. I hate it. It’s the sort of high-pitched screeching you hear in horror movies, when the bloodthirsty psycho killer comes around the corner. It’s exactly like that. Screech, screech, screech. Every time it spins around. It’s unbearable. That’s why I never turn it on in the summertime. Besides, even when it’s on it doesn’t do anything to cool the room down, so it’s totally useless. Which is why it’s collecting cobwebs.

And despite my fear of the creepy bastards, I like the aesthetic of the low-hanging web and its accompanying arachnid. It’s something I’d want to take a photo of. I haven’t done any photography for ages. Or maybe I'd get it inked somewhere on my body. I haven't gotten a tattoo in ages. Last one I got was my wrist band. I trace it with my forefinger, the cursive letters stained in blood red on my skin. I wish I were a ghost, it reads – grimly, hopelessly. Sometimes I agree with it.

And then, resting between my skin and the inside of my shirt, the jack o'lantern smiling as I squirm restlessly underneath the cobweb. My first tattoo. I remember when I first sat in a parlor, and I felt the nerves for the first time. Shooting up my spine, through my veins, electrocuting my skin. And the first contact of the needle, after they’d traced the image between my shoulderblades. I relished the pain. My first pain.

And there were many more times I went back for more. I seeked out the parlors I hadn’t been to yet, and I revisited ones I knew. The pain’s addictive. I’m hooked on it, like I am with cigarettes and booze. I’m far too dependent on it for my own good, I know that, but I’m like that with a lot of things. It’s not an unusual personality trait for me.

Because with me, everything’s obsessive. If I start on a project, I refuse to stop until I’m satisfied it’s perfect – even if it means destroying and restarting countless times. Work myself to death. That’s how it’ll end. I’ll work myself to death.

I don’t have anything to work on now. I’m not going back to Pencey Prep. Never. And I’ve got minimal motivation to start anything on my own, let alone the equipment and the finances. A job could help, but I don’t know where I want to work. I don’t wanna go back to college – I’ve tried that. I feel caged in that place. Maybe a new band? But with who? I shut my eyes, let my chest expand and then sink back down to earth. I’m so sick of dilemmas.

***

I drank all the beers out of my fridge beforehand, so I was dizzy when I set foot inside the bar. I drag a hand over stubble that’s getting quite long, I lean against the bench. Looking for Jamia. Where the fuck is she? I’m certain my eyes are playing tricks on me until I’ve looked up and down the counter three, four times. Jamia’s not there. Only that goth girl from last time. What day is it? Might not be her shift tonight. Huh.

And I start to hobble over to my seat, except my seat’s disappeared, because some other fucker’s taken it. Doesn’t she know that’s my seat? Raven black hair to the shoulder, leather jacket, slumped forward over a pint. Could be cute, could be up for a quickie. I go over to approach the girl in my seat. She needs to know that’s my seat. I tell her it’s my seat. And then she turns around, and looks at me with big hazel eyes, and – oh – it’s not a girl at all. It’s a guy. Still cute though, I decide, and sit down next to him instead.

He’s real jittery, like there’s something irritating him. He shifts on his seat – my fucking seat – he glances around like he’s paranoid. His face is a little flushed, so he’s drunk at least a couple of beers. He traces the dent in the bench with his index finger, and his hand’s really fucking small. I giggle a little. It doesn’t look right on him. Guys don’t have small hands.

Noticing me snickering, he flinches. “What do you want?” His voice is more nasally than I expected, and it’s all airy and light. Nothing like a man at all.

“Well, I did want my seat,” I say, and I feel my words blending together, “but I thought I’d let you have it. For a price, though.”

His whole body tenses, and I narrow my eyes. The whole room darkens around the edges like a vignetted photo when I do this, and I find it amusing. “What’s your price?” he asks, tentative. “I – I need to meet someone, so it better not take too long, or–”

“Don’t worry, babe,” I attempt to be sly, but it’s hard in a drunken body. “We won’t take too long, will we?”

And he leans right away from me, murmurs something I can’t really here, scurries off. I watch him, dazed, confused, wondering where he’s headed. And when he disappears through a door at the back of the room, it clicks. Restroom.

I follow him in, and I see him staring nervously into a basin, tiny fingers tinged white from gripping the edge of the bowl. He sees me in the mirror, inhales sharply, turns to go to a stall and I bet he’s gonna lock himself in. “Don’t… don’t go,” I call, and the ceiling reverberation makes it sound like a desperate wail. I’m not as desperate as it sounds. Well, actually, I can’t say that for sure.

He turns around, and looks at me hard, assessing the situation, assessing me. He takes a moment, takes his time. And in that moment, I take the opportunity.

I shove him, slam him against the stalls, pin him there, and press my lips to his. I don’t wait for my rationale to decide – I want him, I want him in the most primal way. He doesn't respond. I pry his teeth open with my tongue, feel him. He's slimy, he tastes bitter, laced with tobacco and alcohol. I like it.

And then he wakes up and his hands are trying to force me away, and I don't wanna back up, our lips separate, he looks so shocked, but I don't wanna stop, I put my hands wherever they fit – across his chest, up his leg, right by his crotch but not quite reaching, and he gets ahold of my wrists and yanks them up to stop them moving.

“What the fuck?” he stammers breathlessly. “What the – what the fuck!”

I frown, pleading for him not to go, don't go, but he goes, backwards, into the stall behind him and locks the door, yells at me to leave. And I do.

Chapter Text

The air moves ever so slightly next to my shoulder, and then stills. And then moves again, and then stills. I arch my back, roll sideways. My leg bumps something gently – another leg. The air moves near my ear this time. I rub my eyes. There's a girl lying half-naked next to me on the bed. The comforter's on the floor. I've only got one sock on. Shit.

Her breath hits my ear again, and I struggle to sit up. My head is killing me. I had way too much to drink last night, that's for sure. She stirs, eyes fluttering open when she notices my weight's no longer on the mattress. I tug my boxers out from underneath the discarded sheets on the floor and pull them up my legs hastily. I hear her roll over, probably to find her bra.

“You need to leave,” I say, opening a drawer to fish out a shirt.

She shimmies into a dress that's three sizes too small for her, checks her watch. “Yeah, I do need to leave,” she replies quietly. She tries to get her blonde curls to unknot but to no avail, and instead picks up her pumps, leaves the bedroom, leaves the apartment. After the door slams shut behind her, it's silent.

My headache pulses at my temples, and I feel sick. All my limbs are leaden. I doubt I can make it to the kitchen to get some water without falling flat on my face, but I walk anyway. Halfway through my trek, I make a rushed detour to the bathroom, hitting my knees hard on ceramic tiles and retching into the toilet. Even when my stomach’s empty, I keep gagging for several minutes. It's like my abdomen's gonna tear itself in half when I can finally stop dry-heaving. I sit back on my heels, wipe my mouth. Well, good morning, Frank.

Or at least I think it's still morning. My watch is absent from its wrist, so I can't tell. I'm up off the floor, flushing the toilet, washing my hands, my face, rinsing my mouth out. The mirror looks back at me, its face pale and dripping, dreadlocks framing a face of chapped lips, red eyes, half a beard. You look disgusting, Frank. You really do. Time for a change.

I spend about ten minutes shaving my face alone, and I'm still not satisfied. You still look hideous, Frank. Can't believe you even got into this state in the first place. The hair atop my head sits in a scrappy heap, looking more like a dirty mop than anything. I remember the countless times Jamia suggested I cut it off – that's right, Jamia wasn't at the bar last night, was she? The only detail I can remember of last night is Jamia not being there, and the rest is clouded. She might be there today though. Maybe I should surprise her.

And by 'surprise her’, I mean pull out the scissors from the cupboard under the sink and get it all off me. I don't even think until I've put the blades against a lock of matted hair, it doesn't even cross my mind that once I've done this, I'm not going back. Not going back to Pencey Prep, not going back to letting myself go for something so futile. I'm moving on from all that shit.

The blades click shut. My hair falls on the floor. No going back.

***

“I can barely recognize you, Jesus Christ!” Jamia's still gaping, even though we've been talking for a while already. “You look like a new-”

“A new man? You just said that a few minutes ago.” I swipe a loose strand away from my face, brush it off me.

“I mean, for self-cut, it's looking pretty damn good,” she laughs, reaching over and curling a tuft of dark brown around her finger, stretching it down so it sits on my forehead right between my eyes. I see a spot of auburn in my peripherals. “I didn't know your hair could be so smooth.”

I push the hair she flattened back up with the rest of it. “Now you know. Glad you like it,” I shoot her a half-smile, and it's my typical flirty self that makes her roll her eyes.

“Piss off,” she warns.

“Now, that's not very…” I raise my eyebrows, quirk my shoulder, “... lady-like .”

“I don’t need to be fucking lady-like, I live in Jersey.” She shoves me from over the counter with a flattened palm. I grunt on impact, clutch my chest, pretend to be hurt. She only laughs at me.

“Jamia Nestor, I want an apology!”

“Sorry, I don’t hand out apologies to losers.”

I throw up my hands. “What the fuck do you mean? I even cut my hair for you!”

“Frank,” she sighs, holding back her snickers. “I think you’re going insane.”

I watch as her expression softens, and feel my own face do the same. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”

Because there's a guy at a table a few feet behind my chair, and he's definitely familiar but I can't for the life of me know where I've seen him. He sits, hunched over empty shot glasses and a beer bottle, staring at another guy from under his lashes. Skin like it's never seen sunlight, hair like it's never been washed. And those hands…

They both tease each other drunkenly. The other guy – the lanky one with a squared jaw, greasy hair down his face, a Queen t-shirt – leans over, tucks some hair behind the other's ear to whisper something. He bites his lip at whatever he was just told, he smiles – and even his teeth are small.

Jamia coughs beside me. I jolt back to attention, blinking to refocus on her face. “You know, it's rude to stare,” she shakes her head.

“I didn't mean to,” I rushed to defend myself. “It's just… I know that guy. I know him from somewhere.” I point, and her eyes follow my finger. She clicks her tongue.

“And it's rude to point, too.”

“Shut up.”

She picks up another cocktail glass from the sink and dries the rim, looking me in the face as she does so. Brown iris, gold flecks surrounding a gaping pupil. She’s got stunning eyes, and it’s hard to look away from them. But not even her eyes can drag my attention away from the (seemingly gay) couple behind me.

“So,” she frowns, and her voice is low, “what are you going to do now the band's broken up?”

I try to delay having to answer by taking a long swig of beer, but the imposing question still hovers over my head when I've swallowed my mouthful. I slouch forward, suck in a breath, let it back out. “Honestly, I have no idea.”

Yeah, I'm well and truly fucked. Jamia's look of concern only proves my point. I don't have the foggiest idea what's next. My fingers thread themselves into the hair at the nape of my neck. Lost. That's how I've been feeling since I bailed on the band in St. Louis; lost.

Her lips are pursed when she sets down the clean glass. “Well, it can't be all doom and gloom. What about a part-time job?” She obviously notices my look of disdain at her words, and picks up a tall wine glass. “Just for the meantime,” she reassures me.

“But where?”

“Anywhere,” she responds, almost flinging the glass over her shoulder in a wide gesture. “There's gotta be something in the newspaper. You checked lately?”

“I… I don't read the newspaper.” I know him. I know him from somewhere. Fuck, but where? Last night? Quite possibly, seeing as I've got no recollection whatsoever. Anything could have happened.

“Maybe you should keep an eye out,” Jamia says, but she's noticed what I'm fixated on. “What did I tell you about staring, Frank?”

The frustration of not knowing him is eating me up. I just want to know. He's situated his face – small, round – right next to the other dude's. Noses almost touching. An impulsive giggle, a hand on a cheek. Their lips brush together. I hate when my gut twists, when my pulse spikes in tempo, because I don't know why. I just want to know. My headache is starting to flare up again, and racking my brain isn't helping it. I puff defeatedly.

“Sorry, mom,” I mumble as a retort, and she gives me the finger.

Chapter Text

Message received on May 15 at 10:47am:

Hi Frankie, it’s mom. I… uh… I know you’ve probably left for the tour now. I thought I could call before you left, but I got held up with things and… I’m sorry. I still don’t have your cell phone number, so… tell me how it went when you get this. I’m thinking about you. Um, bye. Love you.

She called. Fuck, she called. I bury my head in my palms, which are clammy from hearing her voice. She had the guts to fucking call. My internal monologue continues cussing. I continue shaking.

I don’t really know what got me so worked up about her calling. I forgot she even had my landline number. It’s been years since I moved out – maybe it’s just the shock of it. I don’t know. But this isn’t what I expected. Or wanted.

I’m not calling her back.

***

She slams it on the table; a thin piece of paper, frayed around the edges, with a hastily scribbled blue biro circle around one particular advertisement.

“The comic book shop?”

“Yup.”

“The comic book shop ?”

“Do you understand English?”

“Nope,” I shake my head stubbornly. “I'm not doing that. I'm not working in the fucking comic book shop.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” I flick at the corner of the paper, “I'm not into comics.”

Jamia's eyes narrow. “And?”

“Doesn't it make more sense to work in something you enjoy? Like… I don't know… a music shop?”

“Frank…” She's looking at me like she's trying to negotiate with a bratty child. “It's just for the money. Just try it, put your resume in or something, talk to the manager at the very least, and if you don't like it in – let's say – two weeks, then you can quit. Just do it for me, please?”

I suck on my lip ring. “For you?”

“For me?” She pouts, and those eyes shine up at me. Those eyes .

“Fine.”

As soon as I say it, she grins, slaps me on the shoulder. “I knew I could do it! Bending the will of Mr. Stubborn himself!”

“Don't make me regret it already,” I growl, and she only beams harder.

***

The weather certainly hasn’t held up today. It spits on the pavement, goes straight through my hood as I walk. I can feel droplets seeping into my scalp, and it irritates me. So much for that hair gel.

Jamia said it would be just around the corner. So I head around the corner. In the rain, the pouring rain, in jeans and a hoodie. I don't wanna do this. I really don't wanna do this. Short hair doesn't keep out the rain like long hair does. I might just be regretting cutting it all off. But then, as I approach the street intersection, I see it: a mangled sign, bleached from sunlight, rusted at its hinges, reading ‘ Bryar’s Comics ’ in bold, white cursive. Found it.

I didn't think past here. I don't even have a resume to hand in (that is, if I'm really applying for this job). Suppose I'll just ask around for the manager and have a chat with them. That's cool. I'll see if I'd hate working there or not.

The bell above the door jingles when I push the door open. As it closes, the volume of the rain against concrete is turned down. The shop smells of mildew, and there's barely any natural light inside. The warm yellow globes hanging bare from the ceiling gives just enough light to navigate through the aisles of shelves, some of which are crooked from being packed full with new and used comics. It's strangely cozy.

“Can I help you there?”

A head pokes out from behind a shelf, and I have to twist around to find it. The head in question has dirty blonde hair in his eyes and a black stud below his bottom lip. He doesn't smile, just gives me a blank stare.

“I – hi, I'm Frank Iero, I saw your ad in the paper… you needed a–”

“A counter clerk? You've come to the right place.” He looks me up and down, finally emerging completely from behind the bookshelf, carrying a box of comics. And then he checks his watch. “Well, Frank. I'm Bob, and I'm the manager at this store. Your trial starts now. Stack these on the shelf round the corner, alphabetical order according to the author's surname. Good luck.”

He thrusts the cardboard box into my arms before I can prepare to catch it, so it slams hard into my chest. I nearly fall backwards from the impact, and by the time I've steadied myself, he's disappeared behind the shelves again. I go to call out, but words come out as mumbled noise.

“Don't worry. I'll pay you by the hour today,” comes Bob's voice from some other corner of the shop. Almost as if he was reading my mind.

Alright then.

Chapter Text

Bob's a nice guy, even if he is very forward. He doesn't talk too much, but the stereo system he’s got in the back room plays music through the doorway and out to where I’m organizing reservations behind the desk. He comes out every once and awhile, tapping a rhythm with pen against the edge of a green plastic clipboard. He hums the guitar lines occasionally, too – not so tunefully, but still. It’s an effort.

A clicking sound comes from behind me, and out comes Bob with the beat of his pen trailing behind him. “You finished doing that?” he asks, nodding towards a stack of books hidden under the desk.

“Yup,” I say, and he smiles.

“Good. Scan and stack the returns now.”

I groan ‘fuck’, and he chuckles, disappearing into the back room. It’s only been a couple of weeks, and I’ve already made it clear; I don’t like doing the returns. The sadist little shit knows fully well.

And yet here I am, dragging the tub of books that have been dumped through the slot in the front window over to the desk to sort through them. Pick up a book, scan the book, put the book down. Pick up, scan, put it down. Gross.

The bell rings as the front door opens. I don’t look up from scanning. Feet shuffle along the carpet, but their direction is obscured by the bookshelves. But they’re getting louder. They stop, and a small cough jolts me out of the monotonous production line.

“Uh, hi… I’m just looking for the Vertigo comics?”

His eyes avoid my face, fall towards the floor. His hands are buried in his jacket pockets, and his hair’s just managing to stay pushed behind his ears, with the exception of a few strands by his cheek. He slouches almost unhealthily, and his skin’s so white it’s not hard to believe he’s probably never seen the sun. Looking at him up close… it’s so baffling. I feel a pang in my chest. I definitely know him from somewhere.

“Just around the corner there,” I stretch out a hand to point, and it’s basically the first time his eyes have set upon me, even if it’s just to see my finger. His mouth shapes into an ‘oh’.

“Thanks… Frank.”

I frown (how does he know my name? I don’t even know his), but then I remember the name badge pinned on my chest.

“No problem.”

He turns around, threads his fingers in his hair – and it hits me.

I was smashed, wasn’t I?

Oh, fuck.

I don’t even give a thought about what I’m doing – I’m out from behind the counter, rushing towards the aisle I pointed that guy to. I round the corner, and nearly run into him, stepping backwards, apologizing breathlessly. He stares at me like I’ve got rabies.

“I… look, I’m so sorry about the other night, I was more shitfaced than I’ve ever been – not that that’s an excuse at all, but it’s just–”

“Hey, hey, slow down. It’s alright.” He’s got a hand up, so close it almost touches me. Both our breathing is audible in the narrow aisle. His eyes, while wide, are honest. My bottom lip loosens and falls open.

“S-sorry,” I murmur once more, and he smiles.

“Don’t worry. I’ve done so much worse when I’ve gotten drunk.” His lower lip quirks sideways, like he’s trying to concoct the next sentence. He settles for, “It’s cool.”

My lungs give in to a breath I was holding. I’m still not sure if I heard what I thought I heard. “Um… Okay. Rad. Uh.”

He gives a lopsided grin again, returns to browsing shelves. I stand there, temporarily forgetting how to move.

“My name’s Gerard, by the way.” He doesn’t look away from the rows of books baring their worn spines. “I haven’t seen you here before.”

Gerard. It runs through my head, connecting the dots. Gerard. Okay. Got it. Now I know. Now I remember.

“Nice to finally meet you properly, Gerard,” I say, not sure if I should offer a hand to shake or not, but I hold one out just in case. He takes it, but instead of shaking it he simply clasps it, fingers wound around my skin.

“Nice to meet you, too.”

***

At 2am, I pick up my SG. It hasn't left its case since I brought it home from tour. The scratch plate is worn, the red paint on the body's coming off on the edge where my arm rests. The frets are familiar to the calluses on my fingers. The shape, the feel of it makes me want to play AC/DC, or Frank Zappa. It's a good feel.

I don't use the amp in case the neighbors are bitchy about it. I strum some bar chords, switch to power chords, make up a riff. I like how it comes out, but it's pretty plain. It sounds like it's already been used. It feels like someone else's fingers.

I stop for a while, drooping my arm over the neck of the guitar, uninspired.