The sound of ten feet slapping their way over the creaky floors of the Hobbs’s railroad apartment is nearly deafening. Typically he’d be in a lot of trouble for running in the house, but Russel is pleased to find that he and his four friends are off the hook since it’s his birthday.
“Red Power Ranger go!” he shouts, whipping around the corner, hurtling himself down the basement steps into the den, which is family reverently refers to as the ‘Music Room’ due to the keyboard, the several guitars hung up on the wall, and his father’s beloved collection of vinyl, complete with his 1967 Pioneer that still plays as smoothly as it did when his father was a boy.
“Green Power Ranger, go!”
“Blue Power Ranger, go!”
“Black Power Ranger, go!”
“Silver Power Ranger, go!”
His friends traipse down the stairs after him, and Russel sets his juice box down on the coffee table to assess the room for any bad guys, any imminent danger that they’ll have to fight using their powers, just like in the show.
“Russel,” his mother’s voice comes downstairs. “Daddy doesn’t want you down there with your friends. Come upstairs and we can do cake!”
His friends look at him, torn between the desire to stay in the cool basement, to admire the vintage band posters and shiny instruments, and the desire to go upstairs and imbibe more sugar.
Not one to disrespect his mother, Russel nods. “Okay, guys, we can go back upstairs. But later we have to check the backyard to make sure there aren’t any bad guys.”
Again the apartment is filled with the cacophony of tiny feet on wooden stairs, and as he makes his way up, Russel glances over his shoulder at the Hi-C juice box sitting on the table without a coaster.
His lone act of defiance, he thinks, filling a thrill. Five is going to be a good year.
“Okay, big boy, I need you to keep those eyes shut tight and take a bite of this and tell me what you taste.” The excitement in Del’s smooth voice is palpable, and it brushes up against the underside of Russel’s nerves in the most delicious way.
He obeys his friend’s orders, keeping his eyes closed as he takes a forkful of whatever Del has placed in front of him. They’re in a diner, so, vast though the menu may be, he’s fairly certain that whatever he’s about to taste is in fact food, and not some sick trick that his prankster of a friend has concocted.
He always gives Del the benefit of the doubt.
Even though they’re currently all the way under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, somewhere in south Williamsburg where there seem to be more bars than streetlamps and more drunken, stumbling college students than bars. Every few minutes the sound of a taxi can be heard blaring as someone stumbles out into the crosswalk without looking both ways.
It’s bustling and messy and not at all Russel’s scene. But hey, this diner is playing some Curtis Mayfield, so it’s not all bad. The fries were nothing great, sure, but he enjoyed his turkey club and Del shared his fried shrimp basket. And Del has laughed—not chuckled, but full-body, shoulders back, head heavenfacing, knees wobbling apart as he shakes with mirth laughed—three whole times in the course of the meal.
So he’ll do whatever Del wants to keep the night rolling.
He opens his mouth and it’s soft and sweet and creamy.
“You taste that, Russ?”
“Yeah,” he says around a tongueful of icing.
“You know what that is?”
“No shit, Sherlock, really taste it.”
“Mm. Oh! This is,” Russel opens his eyes, just a tad surprised to find Del’s eyes immediately locking on his own, intense and somehow feeling closer than a plastic table apart.
“Real buttercream icing!” he practically shouts. Del has a tendency to shout in diners. He has a tendency to shout most of the time. “It’s not that Crisco shit you get at most places, baby! My buddy works at a print shop in Williamsburg, and he comes around here sometimes after hitting up the bars on weekends. He told me the owner’s wife, she makes these cakes herself every day. That’s homemade, only diner left in Brooklyn that can still claim that!”
Russel is having a hard time swallowing while laughing, but he finally manages. “You’re unbelievable. I can’t believe you dragged me all the way out here for this.”
Del raises a brow. “You saying it’s not delicious?”
Something about the way he tilts his head to look at Russel through his eyelashes, at the way he brushes his dreads back off his broad shoulders as he speaks, something about the way Del’s personality radiates from their cramped booth into every crevice of the sleepy diner makes Russel’s chest constrict slightly in that moment.
“It’s the best cake I’ve ever had,” he says earnestly.
And Del is smiling again, drumming his fists on the table in glee. “Should I order some milk, birthday boy?”
When Murdoc passes him the blunt, he takes a hit without hesitation, only to find his eyes watering and his lungs burning as though he just inhaled a mouthful of acetone.
“The fuck is that?” he coughs and his head swims, oh, does his head swim.
Murdoc cackles. “Mate, I don’t ask questions, I just tell my guy to give me whatever the kids are smoking these days. Y’know, when I was a lad, weed was weed. They didn’t mix any synthetic shit in there, and it mellowed you out good.”
“When you were a lad?” Paula scoffs, plopping down into 2D’s lap, a beer in each hand, “when was that, the 1920s?”
“You should talk, Cracker,” he snaps, leering at her. “Your tits are sagging like you’ve already nursed a few tykes.”
“Hey, hey,” 2D wraps a protective arm around Paula’s waist, taking the beer she offers him and knocking back half the bottle in a gulp. “Eyes off my girlfriend, Murdoc. Paula, don’t pick on Muds, okay?”
She snorts and Murdoc grunts, putting his boots up on the coffee table, legs crossed daintily at the ankle.
“So you’re not going to get high with me, Russ. Well, what can we do then to make it a good day for you?”
Despite Murdoc’s less than enthusiastic tone, Russel is secretly touched that all three of his bandmates have made such a fuss about him today. He’s never been good at running the show though, and he doesn’t really have any wild expectations. England still doesn’t feel like home to him, and compared to the proximity of Brooklyn and Manhattan, getting to the bustle of London from Essex feels like a voyage that his friends’ attention spans simply couldn’t hold up to.
Clubbing! Del’s voice suggests somewhere in the back of his mind. See what kind of dance music these tea-drinking limeys like so we can toss it into the album!
“Honestly, just having drinks with you all is enough for me,” he answers demurely, and he can feel Del deflate in his brain. It’s fine; as soon as the conversation shifts, his ghostly friend’s voice will be there again. Del can never stay silent for long. “Okay, actually, here’s my birthday wish: I think we should play ‘It’s Coming On’” at the gig we have this Friday.”
“Absolutely not,” Murdoc snaps. “Can’t you just ask to go to a club or something instead?”
“Why not?” Paula challenges the bassist instantly, and 2D’s brows furrow together and he reaches over his girlfriend’s lap for the painkillers he always keeps nearby. “It’s a good song, it’s not too hard to play. We’ve got most of the lyrics ironed out.”
“Because a major component of the song is Russel’s haunted head! We don’t know how to control when he pops out: what if we go to play and he doesn’t show up? That’s two minutes faceache’ll have to improvise, and the kid can’t even tie his shoe laces.”
“Your fault,” the singer mumbles around a few pills, though he doesn’t look Murdoc in the eye when he says it.
“Del will come out,” Russel says firmly. He can feel rather than hear the excitement bubbling in the corners of his mind. Del is pleased. “He pops out at random sometimes, sure, but he’s never not come up during rehearsal when we need him. We go out on a stage, I guarantee he’ll be there to drop bars so hot your ears’ll burn.”
“Not sure that sounds the least bit pleasant,” Murdoc replies. “Gotta work on your pitch, big boy.”
“Here’s a thought though,” Paula cuts in, “what if Ghost Man pops out and we can’t get him to er, go back in? We’ll have no drummer for the rest of the show.”
“We could end with the song.”
“That’s still banking on him coming out when we need him to,” Murdoc insists. “If he doesn’t show, our grand finally looks rubbish. Russel, you’re great, and your spiritual possession makes you a bloody amazing musician, mate. Plus, I love the aesthetic of having a haunted bloke in my band, really. But it’s my band. I’m not jeopardizing our first gig that isn’t pure shit to satisfy your ego trip.”
“What if we can learn to control Del before the gig?” 2D asks.
“Del,” Russel repeats. “It’s his name. I’ve told you this, Murdoc. And 2D’s got a point. What if we can figure out to how control his comings and goings before the gig, would you give it a shot then? I really think ‘Coming On’ is one of the strongest songs we’ve got right now.”
Murdoc takes another hit, and, having tasted and felt what he’s smoking, it distresses Russel just slightly how his eyes don’t water the least bit, how completely unaffected he seems by the powerful stuff. “Might be worth a shot…”
“Then I can play the melodica!” 2D pipes up happily, jostling Paula slightly.
She slides off his lap to sit beside him. “One week for the four of us to tame a ghost. Brill.”
Beaming, Russel reaches for another beer. Trying to hack his own mysterious possession can wait until he’s a little more tipsy.
“Oi, a toast to the birthday boy!” 2D says, leaning forward and holding up his bottle.
“To Russel!” Paula agrees cheerfully.
“To the bloody best drummer in all of Essex!” Murdoc croaks, holding up his half-drunk bottle of whiskey.
“And hey, to the band,” Russel says, clinking his bottle against three more. “The future is coming on!”
“Ha! Good one Russ,” 2D beams.
Murdoc finds the joke so hilarious that he collapses back into his chair in a fit of giggles. Maybe he’s feeling the effects of all that weed after all.
Pacific Ocean, 2010
He doesn’t think much anymore. It’s not a sharp pain like when his hand split open on glass after Del was shot to death in his car. It’s more of a prickly presence, like sunburn.
Burning. His skin is probably burning in the sun. He could go underwater to hide from the sun; the water is cool and inviting as he floats along on his back. Then he won’t burn.
But it’s so dark below the surface, and if he can’t see, and if sound is muffled by water in his ears, and if every inch of his skin is covered in the same film of saltwater carrying him somewhere south of Argentina, somewhere light pollution ceases to be a concern, somewhere land ceases to be, then what will he feel?
And if he can’t feel, he might have to think.
No, today he will not die. Because a seagull found him where he was hiding in the United States, rotting himself from the inside out on sleepers, and the bird told him that Noodle was alive, that he just had to jump into the ocean, and he could save her.
No sign of Noodle, but that doesn’t mean he won’t run into her. Perhaps she’ll be floating along, sunburned and sleepy too.
He doesn’t think much, so he tries to focus on feeling. In the past day or so, he has begun to go numb save for the sensation of heat on his skin and water on his back. Instead of swallowing saltwater until he sinks to the bottom, he decides to focus on how he feels inside rather than outside, and comes up blank.
He is not sad. Noodle is alive, the seagull told him so, so the grief he’d felt in his body for months and months is pointless. He is not happy. That’s nothing new. He can’t remember what that feels like and it is far too much effort to search for that memory. He is not angry.
Anger could be a word to describe what he feels about Murdoc disappearing, only to pop up on Twitter talking about making a new album without him. That’s a sting, sure, something blackish red behind his eyes when he closes them, but since anger, and none of these feelings, have any outlets, so he tries to let them go. So much for passing the time.
Something rumbles, and his white eyes scan the sky for clouds, finding none.
Ah. He is hungry. That’s his stomach.
It’s been a lot of days since he’s eaten. It was just before Memorial Day when he jumped into the water, and back in the good old US of A, millions of families have no doubt already had their barbeques. He tries to remember the smell of charcoal, of boiled corn and hamburgers.
It makes his stomach hurt.
His birthday has probably passed, he realizes. Not that it matters. It just would have been nice to have had some company to acknowledge it to. He used to enjoy this time of year, the beginning of summer, the greenification of the earth as bushes and trees and flowers all turned verdant. It had once made him feel hopeful, alive.
But that’s right: he’s already estimated that he’s way down the southern hemisphere. It’s winter here, not summer. He smiles bitterly, and something akin to a laugh shoots out of this throat. It’s an ugly, horrible sound, and with only the slosh of the waves, it reverberates in his head for hours.
“Sit down here, Russel,” Noodle instructs, pointing to the plush recliner in the Spirit House. She’s practically skipping with excitement, one of those ridiculous pointed birthday hats on her head. “We’re going to do presents soon!”
Cigar in mouth, Russel obeys, chuckling as she almost slams into Ace as he makes his way out of the kitchen, sporting a matching hat and a pair of pink oven mitts. “What happened to the candles I bought?” he asks, looking panicked. “We gotta do cake before we do presents, and I can’t find the candles anywhere! I left them right on the counter in the kitchen next to Dee’s Buddha statue and now they’re gone—”
“Don’t get you knickers in a twist,” Murdoc cuts him off, striding into the room in his hole-filled striped sweater and grey skinny jeans. He places a small packet in one of Ace’s mitted hands. “Here you go. Found them by the stovetop; someone must’ve moved them.”
“Thanks boss,” the taller man responds, sounding relieved.
Russel puts his feet up on the ottoman, catches Noodle giving Murdoc a suspicious look before snatching the packet from Ace. “These are prank candles, Murdoc. The kind that won’t go out.”
“Actually they’re essentially sparklers,” the bassist replies with a guilty shrug. “Thought it’d be funny.”
Noodle smacks Murdoc’s arm and storms off with her confiscated candles, muttering to herself in Japanese. Russel puffs at his cigar and tries to hide his smile: with the addition of Ace, their home has become even more chaotic, but it’s highly entertaining. Before he can catch whether or not Murdoc is going to reveal what he did with the candles Ace bought, 2D enters the living room with a large purple bag and plops down on the couch nearest to the recliner.
“Proper Cuban, that?” he asks, pointing to the smoke.
“You know it, Dee. Nothing but the finest. Want a puff?”
“No thanks. Trying to stick to the vape as often as possible. It’s easier on the lungs than cigarettes and such.”
“Well technically you’re not supposed to hold the cigar smoke in your lungs, Dee.”
“I understand that,” he replies, fiddling with the ribbons on the gift bag, “but I don’t trust myself not to do that. So Russ, really, is there anything else that we can do to make this birthday perfect for you? I feel like this is so…simple.”
The drummer smiles, crosses his legs at the ankles. “I’ve seen the way rockstars party. It isn’t for me. I’m being completely sincere when I tell you that all I want, truly, all I want, is to spend time with my family. Some drinks, some good food, that’s it.”
He doesn’t bother telling 2D that this is the first birthday in years that he didn’t wake up in bed feeling paralyzed with anxiety. Or that he has dreamt of windmills falling out of skies and green ocean waves and tasted saltwater so many times that the sound of Murdoc and Ace arguing is welcome relief. It seems pointless to tell 2D that he’s had a Bob Marley song stuck in his head all morning. Or that he plugged in his old iPod today, the one he hasn’t touched since 2005, to remember some of the jams he used to work out to in the mornings when Kong was still his home.
“Russ, as long as that’s what you want, we’re all happy to celebrate like this with you,” the singer promises with a smile, placing a hand on Russel’s shoulder and squeezing lightly.
“Thanks. Forty-four, man, big year. I got big plans ahead.”
“Oh really? You thinking music-wise, or something else?”
Russel’s smile widens and he leans in a little closer. 2D will be the first person to hear him confide his newest and most ambitious goal yet. “I’m thinking a foundation,” he admits. “Starting one myself. A non-profit to bring music to disadvantaged youth. I’ve got some friends who’ve worked for non-profits before who said they can help me get if off the ground.”
“Russ that’s huge!” 2D gasps, slapping the arm of the couch in excitement. “We’ll help too! With funding, with travel, Muds can probably help connect us to some producers who might know others who can help out!”
“I was planning on asking you all for help today. That’s my big birthday request, my next goal in life.”
The singer smiled and pointed to the bag on his lap. “You’ll still want the dress I got you too though, right? Very pretty, my mum helped me pick it out.”
He eyes the bag eagerly, suddenly wanting very much to start presents soon even though he had told himself earlier that day that he didn’t need anything more material in this world. “I’ll…I’ll still take the dress, yeah. Thanks buddy.”
“Cake time!” Ace crows, making his way out, carrying a very large, impressive cake on a try, candles alight on top. True to Ace’s perfectionist nature, the cake is one of the most beautiful things Russel has ever seen that wasn’t commissioned by a professional baker. Blue and purple icing create cloudlike flowers, and the top of the cake looks like a bass drum with Russel’s name etched across it in script. “Hey boss, get your ass inside, you can smoke later! Time for happy birthday!”
“Wait till you try this,” Noodle says, leaning in to hug Russel tight as Ace sets the cake down on the coffee table and Murdoc rushes in from his smoke break in the backyard. “Ace is a great baker. Real buttercream icing. Like nothing you’ve ever tasted!”
She goes to pull back, but he pulls her into one last hug, hearing 2D “awww” beside him.
“Thanks for gathering the troops,” he tells her.
“Russel, we’re family,” she replies. “It’s our pleasure to be here with you today. To celebrate.”
“Well then,” the drummer sets his cigar down in an ashtray and leans in to blow out the candles. “Let’s celebrate.”