Life on the road was, for a lot of musicians, the point where the dream cocked a leg and rattled out a sulphurous death fart before breathing it’s last. The road was essential and yet corrosive. Like Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune, there to test the faithful.
Angry Rocket Collective, though, loved it.
The road knew when to keep it’s mouth shut.
On it’s twenty year anniversary tour, all of them otherwise semi-respectable men now, families and careers but still piled into a van and touring the few clubs that took live bands anymore. Thickening waistlines and haircuts that looked slightly desperate, spikes of hair fighting in vain against receding hairlines, two chord screams of feedback and leather jackets that looked suspiciously clean.
Rikki, the singer, was A and R for a record company, twice divorced and without any children. Drove a Prius and had a computer that he could never take in for repair. He doubled up on bass when Twig had decided that he liked heroin more than life, and he compensated for a lack of innate talent with either by volume and an intensity of character that the naive mistook for charisma. It had been his idea to get the guys back together.
He was tired of having to hide on his own. Seth, still at his mom’s place, having had to leave San Ysidro for reasons that he would take to his grave, had not thought about refusing and Drag had been fiendishly eager. None of them had ever been able to recapture those glory days.
If you had asked any of them, they would have told you that it was about the music. Never mind that Angry Rocket Collective couldn’t have filled a wardrobe with their audience, but they could play, after a fashion and they promised a kind of danger that drew vulnerable kids to them. There had some stories that had come out of their time together.
A few victims, too.
What people forget when they become outraged over the excesses of rock stars, is that we want them to live self-destructive, outrageous lives. When they settle down, make solo albums with covers that have them staring thoughtfully into the middle distance, have tablas and dulcimers instead of Fender Stratocasters and Marshall amplifiers, they’re always reminded of their own mortality, how mundane their own lives are.
Even the worst of them still have fans.
R Kelly was seducing fifteen year olds with pairs of sneakers and trips to his studio, and Ignition remained on high rotation. Ian Watkins’ girlfriend was begging the police to investigate him and he probably only drew interest because the band were on a downward slide.
People supported them.
Some still do.
ARC were careful now. They were a tweet and a cultural shift away from the things that they used to get away with. So this tour, they were more careful than ever. Fortunately, the trend of shitty, narcissistic parents and angry, confused teenagers had endured longer than their shitty, narcissistic music’s appeal so when they played Gritty City, and booked into a roadside motel, they had a group of young kids, eager to party with a rock band. That it was the closest some of these kids would come to rock stars outside of the internet or television would have caused a reasonable person sadness.
Alas, the reasonable member of ARC had long since left the band. And life.
So during the trip for cigarettes, liquor and two hours in a Denny’s parking lot, waiting for what was supposedly hydroponic weed but turned out to have slightly more THC than lawn clippings, none of them noticed the stocky, unshaven guy in his pick up, the slight hitch in his step and the way that he studied the decal on the van. Saw the kid who was no older than fifteen, nervously brushing the lank blonde hair from his bloodshot eyes.
Same age as his brother had been.
Avery forgot nothing.
He had plans to finish reading the new Stephen King paperback, drink some water and get some sleep but all that went out of the window when he saw them, first in the lot of the motel then here at the Denny’s where he had seen the decal on the van.
They wouldn’t do anything at the motel. Harlan had recalled them driving out, because towns put a ‘lock on their spirit’. Although, to Avery that was straight up predator talk. If you’re going to rape a kid, privacy is kind of given. Harlan had never told him all of it, but Avery had gauged the depths of it over the years.
Now, whatever had come for him in the forest, had allowed him to see far more than he could have wished to. The faint, ammoniac smell of spilled semen, the thick, coppery scent of blood, the tang of fermented alcohol, cigarettes, stale sweat and fear processed in olfactory bulbs that moved with the speed of artificial intelligence and filtered through a layer of sensory material in his nostrils equivalent to retinal tissue, evolved in canines for the processing of olfactory information. Avery’s gums began to bleed where his teeth elongated and he pressed his lips together, breathing through the change as he drove after them. His nail beds stung where they began to grow past the tips of his fingers.
He switched the headlights off, not needing them for what was to come. Wondering about the kid, hoping that he could stop it this time. He reached into the glove compartment for a bottle of ibuprofen, dry swallowed two without taking his eyes from the road. When they pulled off to the left, he wound down the window. No houses for miles and he stopped the car. Getting out, pulling off the t shirt and unbuttoning the cargo pants, then slipping off the prosthetic with some measure of discomfort, but lessened by the prison riot of his transformation.
The change’s effect on his physiology made the most brutal crossfit workout feel like a game of pinochet in a retirement home, the most brutal BDSM session feel like a Meg Ryan romantic comedy. Avery breathed through it all like a hatha yogi, until he was moving on all fours. On a run with the dogs, Avery gauged he would compress to about 170lbs and around five feet in length.
Anger, though, was like viagra. So what hurtled towards the van, it’s passengers now working on getting Dyan Jensen drunk enough not to mind the middle aged hands pawing his denim clad crotch, was more akin to a ton of fur, claw, teeth and fury. Six feet tall at the shoulder on all fours. Rage like a forest fire.
Rikki was talking the kid into taking his shirt off, Seth holding the bottle of Stoli in front of him, telling not to puss out and Drag sat there, blowing on the end of his cigarette to a glowing point. The moment before things would go full nightmare.
Drag was savouring the moment when the shriek of the door getting ripped off reached through his tinnitus and he turned his head to look over his shoulder.
The last thing he thought was that it’s breath smelled of almonds before it roared. Roared big like you imagined God’s dog would roar before it swiped at him with a paw like a catcher’s mitt, tearing his head from his shoulders as the arterial spray hosed the three of them down like the winner at a NASCAR race. Seth went to swing the bottle around before a maw full of teeth sheared his right arm off at the elbow and his eyes rolled up in his head. Then it took him by the shoulders and flung him out of the van.
Rikki pushed the kid in front of him, pressing himself against the side of the van, wishing he’d stayed home. It’s eyes were brown, a fog of oddly sweet breath warm against his skin as it let Dylan scrabble past, half naked and jeans dark with urine.
He went to take one last look at him but whatever this thing was, it blocked his view. He hoped that this would be over quickly.
He was wrong.
First, it grabbed him and threw him against the seats, his shoulder dislocating with a sickening pop and something shifting in his skull that made him bite his tongue fat and dislodge one of his molars. It dragged him towards it, pink tongue flicking against it’s muzzle as he pleaded for his life.
When it had purchase on his legs, it tossed him out of the van with no more effort than folding laundry. The landing made something twist in his back, his legs were numb and yet he tried to raise himself to crawl away. Seth laid on his side, whimpering with eyes gone blank with fear, looking past him to whatever had come for them.
Rikki was pinned to the ground beneath a paw when it’s breath coated the back of his head, roaring like judgement and bringing it’s jaws down either side of his hair sprayed, dogshit evil brain squirting with the pressure of the bite and twisting as it brought his head up, along with a foot of gleaming spinal column.
Seth had passed out, but he came to and found it looking at him with a contempt so powerful that it was alien in it’s intensity.
It did not swallow any part of them. It knew what tainted meat was, and yet it tore them apart with relish, until there was nothing but blood slicked bone and gobbets of meat. Left to the wildlife.
Avery hopped back to the pick up, Dylan in a ball by the truck, whimpering and stinking but unseeing as Avery picked up his prosthesis and began to strap it to his stump with trembling hands. He dressed in silence, found a bottle of water and poured it onto his hands.
‘You’ll forget, kid.’
The kid stared at him, eyes white like marbles, scared beyond sober but high on panic.
‘Did they hurt you?’
The kid managed a shake of his head and Avery smiled.
‘Good. Now there’s an outlet place, get you some clothes and then I’ll take you wherever you need to go.’
Dennis gave a small sob before he nodded.
‘What are you, man?’
Avery gave a grim smile.
‘A good brother.’
He extended his hand and Dylan took it. Forty dollars, a burger and a milkshake, a quiet talking to and no real explanation later, Avery was on his way.
Dylan never spoke of what happened that night. He wrote about it though, heavily changed and edited, as much to protect himself as to sift through the hazy recollections of his night.
Avery never spoke of what happened.
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