Chapter 6 | Slave to the Rhythm
I stepped over scattered pizza boxes and crushed cigarette cartons, thick blankets and stacked beer cans. The house was still and dark except for the morning light that poured through the kitchen. I was headed back through the hall, to River’s room, when I heard the muffled sound of music from above. I backtracked, listening to it for a moment longer.
A narrow staircase in the hall led up to my haven in the attic—where Jerry was staying. I tossed my cardigan to the floor and slipped my boots off, padding quietly up the steps. Along the edge of this staircase ceiling, River had strung Christmas lights to liven up the tight space. Sometimes we’d just lay on those steps, bathing in the green and red glow.
“—That grinning skull takes on your skin,” he sang. “I should run, girl, I should run.”
I took another step and the floorboard creaked beneath me. I winced and the music ceased.
“Mike?” Jerry spoke, moving around within.
“Jerry?” I took another step, my hand on the door, waiting.
“Jules? Come in.”
I pushed it open, leaning against the doorframe. “Hey.”
“Morning.” He grinned.
He sat on the edge of an old chest, dressed in blue flannel pajama bottoms, his bare chest hiding behind his guitar. I walked further into the room, familiar with it all. Missing it all. It smelled of Dragons Blood, and that’s when I noticed he’d been using my leftover incense. No one ever smoked in here. It made me smile knowing he was observant enough to realize that.
I could feel his eyes on my back. I looked over my shoulder.
“You spying on me?” He asked, motioning toward the door.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I quipped, looking to the guitar. “Was that for Alice?”
“Probably not,” he replied with a quick smile. “Can you play, Jules?”
“No. I never learned how.” I shook my head, lazily running my fingertips along an old desk. His bags rested upon it, and alongside them something caught my eye. Without thinking, I reached for it.
“Who is this?” I picked up a photo of a woman in her twenties, and she was timeless. In the black and white portrait her light eyes looked away from the camera. She reminded me of silk.
“That’s my mother,” he said softly, setting the guitar down. “Gloria.”
“She was, yeah.” He stood behind me, and I thought maybe he would take the photo from me, but he didn’t.
“We should put her up.” I thought aloud.
His eyes caught mine and he nodded slowly, not sure. I looked to the slanted ceiling, at the polaroids of my scarred tummy and the photos of Arlyn and Joaquin. I grabbed two thumbtacks from the desk and Jerry followed me to the opposite wall. Empty and sunlit, this surface begged for more.
“Here?” I pointed.
He nodded once more, taking a step back. I carefully pinned her photo up.
“Do you like it? I can take her down if you don’t. I didn’t mean to—”
“No, I like it. I like it.” He finally smiled, running a hand through his hair.
“Okay.” I smiled. Suddenly nervous, I fidgeted with my fingers.
He watched me curiously, so I made my great escape and vanished down the stairs.
Sean was staying in the den with his drums. He wasn’t awake yet, because the drumming was at bay. I wandered into the kitchen and poured myself some orange juice, hearing movement from River’s room. Jerry slipped into the bathroom, but left the door open.
“Jules!” He called.
“Come here real quick.”
River’s door was still closed, so I crept up to the bathroom door and peered in. Jerry sat on the counter with shaving cream on his face. I let out a short laugh, and watched him wipe a dot of cream from his shoulder. He licked it off his finger.
“Yum,” I murmured, walking in.
“It taste like mint. Here,” he said, handing me the razor.
“What do you expect me to do with that?”
“Shave me like you shave your—”
“Jerry, shut up.” I took the razor and moved closer. He pursed his lips, trying to hold a straight face.
Don’t cut him, I repeated over and over again. The sound of the razor against his skin made me cringe, but I went with it.
He hummed and closed his eyes, but thought better of it and kept them open instead.
“What is that?” He asked. He touched the back of my left arm, knocking my concentration.
“It’s a tattoo.”
“Well, no shit.” He smirked, trying to get a good look, trying not to move.
I bit back a smile, rinsing the razor. “It’s the Ouroboros.”
“I’ve heard of that before. The snake?”
“Serpent. Eating its tail, yeah.”
“And what does that symbolize, Jules?”
“The eternal return.” I shaved down his neck, and still, he moved. He was fearless. “Like how a phoenix rises from the ashes after disaster and destruction. Renewal.”
There was a lull he must have been thinking through. “You and River have that same tattoo?”
“Oh, hey guys.” Mike mumbled, rubbing his eyes as he walked in. He lifted the toilet seat and pulled down his shorts. I rinsed vigorously.
“Hi,” I murmured, concentrating.
“Where the hell did you sleep last night?” Jerry laughed.
“I… don’t know.” Mike shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut. “The trampoline,” he said, flushing and walking out.
And then it happened. It fucking happened. I tossed the razor in the sink.
“Ouch,” he whispered evenly.
“Sorry.” I swiped my thumb across the dot of blood, but it kept flowing. Shit. I fucking knew it. I looked around for a towel but couldn’t find one. On instinct I grabbed the hem of my tank top and pulled it up to press it against his jaw.
Jerry remained still, smiling at my momentary panic. I saw his eyes flick briefly down my body, but I didn’t even care. He was going to bleed to death in River’s bathroom and I was going to have an anxiety attack about it.
“Does that even hurt?!”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Yeah, pretty fucking much.”
When the bleeding finally stopped, I swiped my thumb across the blood trailing down his neck. Jerry reached for my hand and pulled my thumb into his mouth. Just took my thumb and sucked it. Sucked. It.
I inhaled sharply, my eyelids fluttering. My brain was trying to process what was happening, and his tongue was warm.
“You can give that back now. And you should probably put something on that…” I tugged my hand away, trying to breathe again.
He grinned shamelessly.
“Jules?” River’s voice startled me.
“Yeah?” I looked over my shoulder.
“Chris is on the phone.” He moved the phone around airily and walked away.
“What about my stache?” Jerry picked up the razor, still grinning.
“I’d just try and kill you again.”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
I rolled my eyes, walking away. “Go home, Jerry.”
He laughed, his voice trailing behind, “I don’t—I don’t have one.”
River nearly ran me down. I grabbed his arm, pulling him back.
“I’m gonna be late,” he said. “I’ll see you later, okay?”
“Where are you going? I thought we were going to breakfast?”
“What happened to you?” He looked me up and down, his eyes on the blood.
I waved it off. “Nothing.”
“I’ve gotta go,” he said, remembering. “We’ve got a meeting with Susan on the other side of town, and then we’re going straight to the Slam House—we have that performance on the… the freakin’ show tomorrow night. I don’t know.” He grabbed his keys off the counter.
“The Tonight Show.”
“Yeah.” He nodded, slipping on his boots. “Our flight is at five or something tomorrow morning and Keanu wants to do Poker tonight, so fuck him.”
“Okay. Yeah, go.”
He pressed a chaste kiss to my lips. “Don’t clean up after us, and don’t let Mike talk you into making him breakfast—he’s around here somewhere. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“PHOENIX!” Mike popped up out of nowhere.
“Starr!” River mocked, his pitch high. “Don’t talk Jules into making you breakfast, all right?”
“Yeah, all right.”
“Phone!” River called back.
Chris was on the other end, asking me to meet him at the Slam House in twenty. He wanted to show me something, he’d said. Told me to bring my camera.
So this black Lego of a gymnasium stands alone on the back roads of Seattle. Behind it, off in the distance, is part of the Salish Sea. Puget Sound. And if you look farther, you see inner Seattle: the Space Needle and glassy buildings galore.
I’d pulled into the old parking lot and turned off the engine. Tyler’s new Dodge had a few hundred miles on it, but he barely used it. He liked to walk places, not really one to rely on anyone or anything unless he had to. I pulled my tank top up and over my head, but it was already too late, Jerry’s blood had soaked into the fabric; moistened my stomach. I reached for one of Tyler’s spare tees—Duran Duran on soft cotton.
The stiff leather of my boots pinched at my heels. I jumped out of the truck and hopped from foot to foot, alleviating the ache.
I’d been reading a book the first time I came here, so there’s this quote I think of when I see the Slam House, when I see those waters and think of these guys… Someone had underlined the words before me, but I’d read them aloud while standing on a piece of broken pavement in front of the blaring headlights of Stone’s Toyota Corolla: “I once knew a writer who, after saying beautiful things about the sea, passed through a Pacific hurricane, and he became a changed man.”
Ever since then, that quote applies to me and me only, because as far as I’d been concerned, all these men were Pacific hurricanes and I would be changed—but decades from then, I would realize I was that Pacific hurricane. Remember that. I am the hurricane. I am.
I looked up, the heavy doors opening from afar.
I grinned, shielding my eyes from the sun. “Hola, Thayil.”
The guys stumbled along, saying hi, saying bye, escaping their music for the day. I watched Chris lock up the building before he walked up with a guitar strapped to his back. His deeply tanned feet were in sandals and his dark curls fell into his face. He smiled with his teeth, excited about something.
“So you’re Jules. You’re Jules DeHaan! The girl River says he feels the music in.”
I tilted my head. “Chris, why are you—what are you talking about?”
“You’re the girl!” He chuckled, pulling on the guitar strap.
My eyes widened. I didn’t know what to say. He just kept smiling, and I couldn’t decide if he was high or fucking with me.
“Chris, we’ve already met… I was literally just on the phone with you.”
“I know, but if I was just now meeting you, that’s what I would say,” he said simply.
Sometimes, Chris Cornell acted like he was an eight-year-old trapped in a giant’s body. Outlandish. I looked at him and puzzled over how he and Susan worked. She seemed so serious, so mature at all times. But then again, I didn’t know the woman.
“Okay, Chris.” I nodded, patting him on the arm.
“Helluva greeting, right?”
I smiled, swallowing a laugh, and he led us down to another abandoned building, one closer to the water and overgrown with weeds. He came here sometimes, but never with anyone else, just to play music and ponder life. He described it as awe-inspiring—the view at the top.
“Do you know what an admiral is? Not the Navy commander.” He asked, trekking through the weeds.
“It’s a butterfly.”
“Yeah, but it’s a butterfly with dark wings and colorful markings. I like that, that they’re visibly dark but they have these incredible, beautiful markings, you know? And their wings have jagged edges. I’m just fascinated by them. They’re some of the only butterflies with the ability to survive the winter months as adults. Isn’t that wild?” He stopped at the ladder, looking back at me.
I looked up at him, taking it all in. “I’d never really thought about the ones that had to die before.”
“Well, they do.” He said with slight sadness. “But just the thought of not surviving the coldness and darkness as an adult—that sounds familiar, right? Like we’re all butterflies waiting to see which ones are the lucky jagged-edged ones, which ones will survive the winter.”
I wondered if that sentiment made him think of Andy Wood, or Stefanie Sargent, or any of the other friends he’d lost in his youth, because a lot of them didn’t make it this far. I thought about all of this and more, climbing up the side of an abandoned building on a rusty iron ladder as Chris sang a made-up song above me.
When we reached the top, he hoisted himself up, so I handed him my backpack and followed him across the sturdy rooftop. It was cooler up here, and indeed awe-inspiring. I could smell the tanginess of the salty water, a different kind of home. It was the kind of place you’d want to be if you needed to be alone with your thoughts, if you wanted the peace.
“How goes the magazine dealio?” He interrupted my thoughts, booming my anxiety with that word. Magazine.
“I saw Cameron and a friend of his from New York this morning, and I just… it’s a lot to process. He’s talking about investors and business partners, and I have no idea what any of that fine print means. I was an art major. This is just way over my head,” I breathed, trying not to drown in it all.
He smiled, tossing small rocks over the rooftop. “You’ll learn. Ask questions. It’s like learning to play an instrument; it’s going to be hard but rewarding, you know. You’re smarter than the rest of us, you’ll catch on.”
He pulled a box of raisins from his pant pocket and tossed a few back, offering me the box. I obliged, hungrily.
“I thought this was just going to be a small project—”
“Nothing Cameron dreams up is small,” he interjected.
“I’m starting to realize that now.”
“I heard him talking about it the other day.” Chris tucked a dark lock behind his ear, dragging his fingertips across his lip—disgustingly beautiful.
“Yeah?” I reached into my backpack, pulling out my camera.
“He’s really excited about you. I know you don’t know him well enough yet, but he’s a good guy. And when he says this thing will be something great, he means it. I know I’d rather tell you my deepest darkest secrets than some greedy journalist.”
“You’re pretty good at this pep talk-motivational speaking thing.” I snapped a photo of his face. He tossed back the box of raisins, giving me crazy-eyes and a tongue covered in only the best California Sun-Maid.
Chris grabbed his guitar and began to play, staring up at the sky. I walked cautiously around the rooftop, snapping photos of the nature, of the Seattle skyline from this secret place. We had a secret together now. I loved secrets.
“River says he feels in the music in you.” He strummed lightly. I sat crisscross in front of him, setting my camera in my lap.
“That’s just…” I shook my head, feeling absurd. “Something he says sometimes.”
“I don’t know,” he sang with a knowing smile, like he knew something I didn’t.
I smiled and propped my elbows above my knees, resting my chin in my hand. He wanted to play me a song. He kept saying he wanted to feel what River felt. But I didn’t know what he meant, there was nothing to feel, but I went along with it anyway. He played a few melodies, laughing when I begged him to give it a rest.
“What am I, your audio slave?” I picked up a random raisin and tossed it at his fingers.
“She’s a slave to the rhythm!” he sang joyously. “My audio slave, yes.” He laughed, letting it roll off his tongue. “Audio slave, audio slave, audio slave.”
I was charmed.
Chris liked time, the actual notion of time. He was as nostalgic as me. And he was loyal to the end. He’d swallow that bitter pill for you. That’s what I learned about Chris Cornell. That and he had a mouth made of cinnamon. If I could describe his singing voice, it was that. Cinnamon.
“Yeah, you’ll see us on TV tomorrow night if I don’t kill this motherfucker first,” River said, kicking Keanu in the back of the knee. Keanu buckled, jerking forward, but smiled anyway.
River waved his beer airily. “Wish me… whatever.”
“Whatever,” I wished, squeezing between him and Tyler. He smiled wide, pulling me in to his chest.
It would be a full house tonight. Alice had shown up first, and then a few other people Keanu knew. We all crowded around in the kitchen, chugging beers and taking shots, heating up food and getting down with marijuana-laced tobacco. I stuck to Tyler’s Marlboros, and River took part, but in moderation. He knew his limits. It was weird, because poker nights were never this large, but 1992 was shaping out to be a good year—musically.
Running Knees was locked into their contract: a single right off the bat and then two full-length albums. When “What a Shame” dropped, they recorded the album and went on tour with Pearl Jam. With the tour over, the guys were enjoying the freedom, writing and playing for future greatness. I kept track of all of this. Alice In Chains had an album and a tour coming up soon, and the music video for “Jeremy” came out on the first of this month. I saw it on television nearly everyday. Eddie was so intense, especially with his eyes. Stone called them his ‘crazy eyes’ but I thought they were passionate. Passion eyes.
There was a leggy blonde Keanu was messing around with, Eliza. She was attached to his hip for about an hour until they disappeared into his room for a bit. When they came back out, she tossed that blonde mane into a ponytail and left.
Keanu caught me staring and shot me a wink and his cockiest smile.
“Don’t use that smile on me.” I tossed back a shot.
He laughed, draping his arms around my neck. “What? It’s a mark of respect. You know you’re the only beauty queen allowed at poker night.”
I untangled myself from his embrace and hid behind Sean and Tyler. Above me, an inflated sex doll was glued to the ceiling, her beady blue eyes watching us all.
Keanu and Tyler’s duplex was what it was: small and outdated. Low-ceilinged rooms, patched and peeling wallpaper, and Penthouse magazines scattered around side tables like candy bowls.
There was a loud bang on the front door before it flew open and hollering ensued. Mike McCready had arrived in a drunken stupor.
Stone flew by me, tugging on the ends of my hair. I was beginning to realize he had some sort of obsession with hair. I touched his arm and he spun around, his big eyes found me in the madness, they reminded me of some kind of wonderful.
“He’ll be here soon, his plane should have landed an hour or so ago. He’ll be here.”
He parted his lips, scratching the back of his head. “Uh, he went to California for a couple days.”
This weird feeling hit me, but I quickly blinked it away. Stone shrugged.
“Jules, I found this rock this morning.” Jeff popped up beside Stone. He pulled something out of his pocket and dropped it in the palm of my hand. “Do you know what it is?”
“That’s wood, Jeff,” Stone deadpanned.
“Shut up, Stone.”
“It’s wood,” he went on. “It’s a chunk of wood.”
“It actually is petrified wood,” I said carefully.
Stone laughed, and Jeff’s smile dropped.
“No, no, it’s good,” I assured, rolling it around my palm. “It’s grounding. Some people say it relieves stress. It’s good for the bones. Mental balance.”
“How do you know that?” Stone muttered.
“Well, I am pretty bad to the bone.” Jeff grabbed the wood and ran off.
“Jeff, stop saying that.” Stone yelled over his shoulder.
“Hey, Jules,” Keanu lay on his side on the kitchen counter. “Can you give me a foot massage?” He stuck his foot out, wiggling his toes.
“Hey, Keanu, can you kiss my ass?”
All the guys were drunk and puffing on cigars, everyone but Layne. He was high and didn’t really seem to care about anything, never really in the same room as us.
I was two shots deep and manhandling the camcorder. I was the lightweight extraordinaire, I deserved a medal. Until recently, I never, never, never drank the hard stuff. As long as I stuck to light beer or wine, I was fine. But shots were quicker. Yeah, shots were grand. My belly was on fire and my henna was fading, but it would all wear off within the next hour anyway.
I held the camera up as Sean snuck up on me. He wore a pair of Keanu’s glasses, his hair tied back in a rough ponytail.
“Sean, show us your moves,” I yelled. “Excellent. Sean Kinney, everyone,” I laughed.
Jerry cranked the stereo up, slamming his hands with the tempo against the wall. AC/DC blared through the kitchen, and hollering vibrated through the floorboards, tipsy men thrived below.
Mike dropped his dishes in the sink and danced in front of the camera.
He took the camera and turned it on the both of us, pecking me on the cheek as he filmed us. “What song am I? What song reminds you of Mike Starr?”
“Of you?” I thought. “I don’t—Oh! You Shook Me All Night Long!”
“Oh?” Mike smirked. Sean laughed and grabbed another beer.
I sat down at the table beside Jerry, and he slid his beer my way. I felt so bad, looking at that cut on his face. Nearly killed him.
“What about Jerry? What song?” Mike turned the camera on Jerry and me.
“Make it good.” Jerry belched, smiling in the process.
“Cherry Pie,” I sighed. “Definitely Cherry Pie.”
Jerry laughed. “Make a grown man cry.”
“Glam Metal Jerry will rise again,” Mike shouted toward the ceiling, toward the metal gods.
“I’ve seen those photos,” I added.
“Wait,” Sean laughed. “Wait, I have something.” He reached into his wallet and pulled out a photo of Jerry with blown out bleach blond hair.
“Oh my God, give that to me!” I reached over, snatching it from Sean’s fingers. “Holy shit, this is gold. Can I keep this?”
“Why do you still have that?” Jerry yelled.
“That would be perfect on the third issue of the magazine. Don’t you agree?” Sean slapped Jerry on the back.
“It looks like Malibu Barbie and Sebastian Bach threw up all over you.” I set the photo on the table.
“Watch your mouth, sunshine.” Jerry smirked, finishing off his beer. He kept trying to tear the photo apart. But I saved it from the blazing Cantrell inferno.
All the guys were rotating in and out of the poker games, breaking to piss and eat more food. I already lost twenty bucks and my favorite ring to Stone. Bastard.
I felt him before I ever saw him. River stood near the basement steps, raising his brows in greeting. Mike had disappeared with the camera, and Jerry and Sean grabbed more food, running their hands through River’s hair before vanishing down the steps.
“Here.” He handed me his mug of hot tea. “Drink up, drunky.”
“I’m really not too drunk,” I said, accepting the tea.
“Nope.” I held the mug between my palms, sipping, swirling the faint jasmine and green tea brew around my tongue. I knew that look. He was going to lay into me about something.
“What are you doing, Jules?” His tone was calm, curiously calm.
“Hm?” I raised a brow, blowing over the steam.
“Come on, don’t go messing with them like that.”
“Mess with who like what?”
“What? Maybe I’m having fun, River. Maybe you should try it.”
“Well don’t have fun with Mike Starr. Or Jerry Cantrell.”
I breathed out, processing his words as I ran my tongue along my teeth. He didn’t budge. “You’re serious.”
“Very.” He took the mug from my hands, glancing briefly down the steps.
“I hate it when you do this. I’m older than you, you know that?”
“By four months. Why does that matter?”
“I don’t know!” I threw my hands up, suddenly wishing I’d stayed home.
River cleared his throat, piecing his thoughts together.
“You worry me, you know that? You’ve got an obsessive personality—don’t look at me like that. You know it’s true. You feed off people too much, and it’s not always a bad thing. But I don’t know if being around them so much is such a good idea.”
“You don’t trust that I know how to handle myself?”
“That’s not what I said—”
“That’s actually exactly what you said.”
“I—” River took a deep breath and when he spoke again, his voice had lowered. “I trust you. But from where I stand, I have little trust in Jerry, and less in Mike.”
“So, you have a problem with them?”
“No. And I’d like it to stay that way. Don’t get me wrong, I love those guys, all of them, I really do. But I love you more, and they’re not in the greatest place in their lives right now. I know you see that. And that rock star bravado they try so hard to personify? You don’t need that. They spend half their time blowing money on sex and drugs—”
“That’s funny because that sounds exactly like Keanu,” I said harshly. He didn’t flinch.
“And I wouldn’t let him near you either.” An immediate response.
That was the first time I truly saw him in a different light. 1991 River wouldn’t have said that to me, but 1992 River had different views. He saw his world differently because his world had changed and so had the poison. I saw what he saw, but as always, he was a few steps ahead of me. I just loathed being told what was best for me.
“Hey.” His expression softened. “I don’t mean to be a hard-ass, I just… I don’t want you going anywhere.” He smiled apologetically and headed back down.
I walked into the living room, picking up trash and half-empty bottles of beer, avoiding the basement at all costs. That’s when the front door opened.
Eddie walked in, rubbing at his eyes. He almost didn’t see me. “Hey, Jules.”
I smiled, relieved at his presence. “Hey, Chief.”
He stopped mid-step and pursed his lips. “Hey now, that’s my line.”
“You look exhausted.”
“I’ve never been so tired in my life.” He said the last word in a higher tone, breathing out heavily.
He followed me into the kitchen, picking up trash along the way.
“Jules!” Keanu’s voice came as a shout from the basement. My turn.
“Hey, man,” Eddie greeted from behind.
“Hey, Ed.” A voice greeted.
“Give me a second!“ I turned, bumping right into that arresting blond soul.
“Hey.” Layne smiled, eyebrows raised in amusement.
“Hi.” I smiled. “Can I get you something?”
“I’m just looking for the bathroom?”
I pointed toward the dark hallway. “Down the hall, first door on the left.”
By the time I turned back, Eddie had disappeared.
Layne didn’t come out for almost an hour. I’m sure everyone knew what he was doing, but I seemed to be the only one that saw it with any clarity.
I don’t know if I’d intentionally waited for him, but I sat in Tyler’s fuzzy green recliner until he did. I sat there writing the most random sobering shit thoughts and doodles that came to mind, and at the end, I ended up with a sketch of his eyes. Layne’s eyes were like the matrix to me. He had something I didn’t understand.
I heard the bathroom door open, and then the sound of his footfalls. He lingered in the kitchen for a bit. He was moving slowly and slid down against the fridge. He doesn’t have his sunglasses on, I thought. He always had those on. I watched him sit there for a few moments. He had his knees drawn up, the black leather of his jacket scrunched at his elbows as he spaced out. I hesitated before shutting my journal and standing up.
“Layne?” I walked into the dark kitchen and flipped on the light. He winced. It was incandescent, that ugly yellow light I loathed. “Layne?” I said again.
He rubbed at his bottom lip, staring at the linoleum. “Why aren’t you downstairs?”
“Keeping up with you guys is pretty draining.” I leaned my hip against the counter. “Can I get you something?”
“No, I’m fine,” he said quietly, blinking up to me and then back to the floor.
“How about some water?”
“That’d be nice.” He smiled into an oncoming yawn and stayed silent.
He didn’t look like he wanted to talk anymore, but I asked anyway. “With ice?”
I think he was confused, because the clink of the empty glass against another got his attention. He looked to me, his eyes fixed on my hands as I leaned over him, careful not to touch him, as I grabbed ice from the freezer.
“You’re very motherly,” he said, moments later while cool water overflowed the glass.
“Sorry,” I replied quickly, drying off my hands.
“No, it’s nice.” He laughed softly. “It’s a nice change… When’s your birthday?”
“Aries sun.” I could hear the smile in his voice.
“Yeah.” I smiled.
“I’m a Leo.”
“I like Leos.” I crouched down in front of him and he took the cup from my hand. “River’s a Leo,” I added.
“You’re welcome.” I stood up.
“You don’t have to keep up with us. We’re up to no good,” he mumbled.
And then a silence fell over us, fell over the entire house. It was kind of a random moment for that to happen, but we reveled in that lull until he followed me back downstairs.
“My mom asked him to watch us one night. Me and my brother. And I was eleven? Keanu was seventeen.” River told his story as I stood at the bottom of the basement steps, close enough to hear it all, far enough to not be seen until I finally crept in.
Keanu laughed so hard, choking down his beer. “I showed up fucking lit on this shitty laxative cocaine.”
“I have a story like that.” Jerry’s shoulders shook with laughter. Everyone moaned. “No, no, I’m serious. I was stuck downtown Tacoma—”
“Jerry, don’t tell that story. Don’t inspire the Asian.” McCready wrapped his arms around Keanu, kissing him on the cheek, soothing the burn.
Sean found a broken drumstick somewhere. He sat on an old amplifier, beating on an old lampshade.
I sat beside Stone with a tipsy River on my lap. I drank ice water, watching Layne from across the room. He’d leaned against the basement door, flipping through an old book. I remember when I’d met him; there was something about him, his air was like that of Eddie’s, but darker, maybe sadder. Like having a strange shiver of a premonition when you know some people will have a certain impact on your life—Layne was someone you wanted, in any way possible, to leave a mark. And maybe he knew that. Maybe that’s why he seemed so elusive. Built-in defense mechanism.
“How’d you and Jules become friends?”
River smiled, and took a long drag, considering the tobacco and the question all at once.
I dragged my hand along the nape of my neck, setting my chin on his shoulder. Stone was drunk and running his fingers through my hair.
“I can see the colors when my mother speaks.” He waved his hand airily. “She has a really nice voice, very soothing. It wasn’t like that with anyone else. I just thought it was because she was my mom. But one day—I think we were eight or nine?”
“I was nine,” I whispered, biting down on his shoulder. He shrugged away, unfazed as he sipped at his water.
“I saw this string of gold just floating through the air. I’d never seen that before. And it was Jules. So I’d just hang around her ‘cause I liked the gold. And then she fell in love with me and I couldn’t shake her.”
“So you can see people’s voices?” Sean asked.
The phone rang from above and Keanu ran up the basement steps.
“Depends. Some people have really pleasant voices. Sometimes I see colors when Eddie speaks.”
“Awe, Riv.” Eddie blushed, those cheekbones popping. “You know, I love you, man.”
“No, man, I love you. I love you.”
“Stop it. I love you.”
“Ed?” Keanu peeked his head out the door. “It’s a phone call… from Beth?”
I watched Eddie’s face tense, but I looked away before he noticed. The rest of the guys pretended they didn’t notice and went about the game, letting Eddie out of the booth. He disappeared up those steps, and I didn’t see him for the rest of the night.
I woke up in the recliner, my legs tucked in, an old quilt draped over me. Sleeping bodies lay on the floor near me. I marveled at all these tiny gods at my feet. River was nowhere in sight.
I walked around Sean. He’d fallen asleep in his boxers with a belt wrapped tightly around his ankles, black marker doodles all over his back. Stepping over McCready’s snoring body, the hall was dark. I could see the faint light on under the door of Keanu’s room.
I wandered around, half-looking for Layne, half-not. I just wanted to check on him. I pushed the door open a bit, and Mike and Tyler sat on the floor, shooting up. I’d never seen him do this, but I always knew he did. I leaned against the doorframe, watching them exchange hushed words.
Tyler was an anomaly who didn’t like to be touched. There was a lot of pain there, so I understood his habits. His drug of choice was cocaine, but heroin was the All-Father.
“Jules,” Keanu whispered, startling me. He appeared out of thin air, slipping something into his pocket. “I thought you were sleeping.”
“Where’s Layne?” I whispered.
“He left a few hours ago.” And with that, he closed the door and left me in the dark.
I grabbed the blanket off Dave’s back, “Sorry,” I whispered, and walked out onto the back porch.
His back was to me, so I sat down beside him as he stared up at the sky.
“Hey, bright eyes.” River scooted closer, looping his arm through mine.
“Hi,” I yawned, laying my head against his shoulder. I almost fell back to sleep, but his voice kept me awake.
“You smell like kettle corn.”
“Oh, yeah?” I felt a mum chuckle bubble up my throat.
“What is that?” He sniffed.
“Stone spilt beer on me earlier. He stole my ring and spilt beer on me.”
“Beer-drunk dreamer, that Stone.”
“Yeah.” I smiled, sitting up. The moon made a shadow on one side of his face. He looked angelic.
“You still mad at me?” He brushed his hair out of his eyes, tilting his head toward me.
He smiled and took my hand in his, flipping it over so that he could read my palm. But he didn’t read it, he just stared into it and then up into my eyes.
“It’ll never be like this again, you know… this era. Our children and our children’s children, they’ll never experience this. They’ll never know.”
I looked back at the house, beginning to understand. “That’s sad. That makes me sad.”
“No, Jules!” He smiled incredulously, standing to his feet. And in a voice of wonderment and discovery he declared, “That makes us different. We’ll all speak the same language—that’s special.”
There was a kind of mystery to knowing that, to believing that. A kind that never left me.