NOTES: This is the most recent incarnation of the story formerly known as "Between Vermin." Contains swearing, gay things and pretentious screamo artists. Enjoy!
Now I've heard there was a secret
That David played, and it pleased the Lord,
But you don't really care for music, do you?
Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah
Before he leaves I'm going to hold a single note forever. I'll sing it right into his ear so my note's in him. When I run out of air from my own lungs I'm going to use his, and when that's done my lungs will come out my mouth, then my guts, loops of shriveled intestine like unraveled red brains. Then a spew of semen, because a note like that you've got to sing from lower than your chest or guts: you sing it straight from the nuts.
I spend my lunch hours and free periods in the Art wing stairwell. Under the first flight of stairs there's a triangular alcove big enough for me and a cedar cabinet full of paint jugs. It's only a month and a half into the school year and already even the ninth grade art kids know better than to come down here. Everyone knows: go into the Rat's Nest and you'll get eaten. Or sodomized.
My ass is numb from the cold floor, and like usual I have more arm and leg than space to put them in. After the bell for fourth period I ran out of shit to write on the wall beside me, and now I'm pinching the edges of my tuna sandwich together. A sludge of mayo and tuna flakes oozes between the bread and plastic wrap, squishes under my fingers.
The door to the outside bangs open with a ch-CHUNK and rattles against the metal stopper set into the floor. A gym class spills in, guys with glossy shorts to their knees and mud drying on their shins. One set of legs under slick blue cloth slows and falls behind the rest of the pack. Halfway to the hall doors the sneakers stop.
"Ellis," Hugo says. He always puts that prissy chink hiss on the "s". When we were kids I'd would pull out the corners of my eyes and go, Erriss! Erriss! at him. Then he'd shove my face in the dirt.
"What?" I leave one edge of the sandwich unpinched, press the sides so it opens up into a pocket and poke the tip of my finger into the tuna. Hu won't ask what I'm doing.
He chuckles, two curt pops from the top of his throat. "You skipped both classes? Why didn't you just leave?"
I shrug. "I was gonna go to last block."
I shove my whole finger into the sandwich and wiggle it around to make a hole; chunks of fish catch and wad under my nail. Hu's sneakers shuffle to the doors and he slaps the metal bar with a ting that rings up through the stairwell. Maybe he'll leave me alone. The mud on his legs is starting to flake onto the floor, like his body couldn't even wait until the showers to shed the dirt. Naked, Hugo looks squashed, like they took a normal-sized guy and put an anvil on his head for a year.
"Is that permanent?" And his voice never changes volume.
For a second I have no clue what he's talking about. His eyes flick at the lyrics scrawled on the wall. Oh yeah.
"Yup." I kick the red marker by my foot and it rolls out across the tiles at him. Ask me if it's a new song. Ask me if it's finished, if it's gonna be good, if it's fifteen goddamn verses long like the last one. Hu brushes a hand through his mussed black hair.
"You gonna help me work out the music tonight?" I ask.
I grind my finger into the sandwich. Whatever, I'll get stoned tonight and do the music myself, and at our next show he'll play it like always, bland and flawless and bored out of his skull. It's our last year here; the bastard only has to pluck strings for me for the rest of the school year, then he can fuck off out East like he wants to. I pull my finger out of the tuna, peer into the pink-grey hole so close my hair drags on the breadcrust, then shove two fingers back in. Squish squish.
Hu toes the red marker. "You know they're going to suspend you again. They recognize your handwriting."
I take my fingers out of the sandwich and hold the hole out at him. "Think I should stick my dick in here?"
Hu's face pinches around the nose. He climbs the half-stairs and disappears through the door to the hallway, and it's quiet in the Rat's Nest again. Me: 1. Hu: 0. I wrap the sandwich back up and chuck it at the far wall. Out in the hallway, past the doors' criss-crossed safety glass, some meathead and his bitch are talking. The girl's voice pings like a xylophone – no, like bagpipe trills, and under it the guy's baritone is that low bagpipe hur-r-r-r-r-r-r-r.
I fill my lungs and try it: "Hur-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r!"
It buzzes up the stairwell. Not quite the note I'm going to show Hu, but good enough practice. The last bell rings and kids clog the hallways. In fifteen minutes Hu'll be showered and changed and unless he's got student council or grad committee he'll be back here to drag me down to the bus stop.
Last weekend our drummer Josh and his cuntwipe girlfriend bribed me down to their Thanksgivings beach party with a six-pack and a promise that shit would be set on fire. It was just driftwood burning, that was a gyp, and they lied about the six-pack, but that was okay because I showed up half-cut on rye anyway.
Five of us climbed down a cliff to this cove, nothing but a horseshoe of sand, and sat on logs around a stack of blazing sticks and summer school notebooks. My legs stuck too far into the circle and started to get crispy at the knees. Out across the water the moon lay a stretched white thumbprint, cut off at the tip by a lump of rock just offshore. When the tide dropped, a path of smaller rocks stuck out of the water, and everyone decided to go out to the island, but by then Hu had got his little Chinaman buzz on and he said to give him a few minutes, he'd catch up. We stayed back. The black water surged with a sound like exhaling.
Hugo tried to take my whiskey away, fumbled it and wasted a good half-inch in the sand. So I shoved him and called him cocksucker, and that's how it always starts. He socked my shoulder and I went for the throat; our arms grappled and knotted. I got my nose mashed and a fist in the gut. Always like this. Get a few beers in Hu and he turns mean – but no, not really, he just gets easier to bait; if he hadn't hit me I would have kept calling him chink and asshole and faggot until he did. We fell off the log into the sand and Hu got the wind knocked out of him, and for a second the hitting stopped.
He hiccupped and swallowed in that way that said he wasn't really going to yarf but the fall made his stomach think about it. The ground's chill seeped through my sweatshirt and skin. If Hugo wasn't going to fight any more I wanted to move it along – and this is also like-always, or it had been for the last couple months: I climbed on him, sat on his hips, bent and stuck my tongue in his mouth.
That's where he's supposed to sock me in the face and dump me in the ocean, but he never does. He did pinch my shoulder and pitch me sideways but it was just so I wasn't on top of him. He didn't kiss me or let me pull him down or anything but just kind of pinned me there with our hips together – I didn't want him to fuck him so much as I wanted to graft him there like we were Siamese twins, six-foot skeleton and chink midget. I couldn't see his face in the dark, just heard the toes of his sneakers scrabble in the sand when he moved, smelled his hair gel like antiseptic. I got my hands up his shirt, down the back of his pants; whenever he breathed out his hips settled on mine and I wanted to squirm on him so I did, and I swear to fucking God he did it back at me until he suddenly stood up, climbed over the log and stumbled down to the water.
Hu comes back to the stairwell and hovers on the landing, pointing out shit I've left on the floor while I pack everything into my bag. We leave the school and cut through a townhouse complex to the bus stop on Shelbourne, its shelter already crowded with students. We cram onto the twenty-eight bus and find a pair of seats at the back.
I dig my battered, sticker-plastered discman out of my bag, pop the top open and show Hu the CD inside: second-rate grunge-art graphics clearly stamped on with a home labeler. Hu's busy watching the clump of kids still lined up to pack the bus, and I have to nudge his knee with mine.
"Hachadura," I tell him, "Coquitlam band. Lee said they sucked and pawned the demo disc off on me."
"Yeah?" Hu's attention is back out the window. He lifts off his seat, pokes his chin up and tips his head side to side like someone stuck behind the Pope in a movie theatre.
"Lee's a pussy emo-fag," I say. "This stuff's fucking genius. Like Saetia knocked up Peter Krpan and bought the bastard kid a keyboard."
Hu takes the earbud I hold out for him and pops it in. At least he doesn't ask, Peter who? even though I know he has no idea. I stick the other bud in my own ear and thumb the long oval button with the "play" symbol worn off. The bus lurches, and the discman whirrs in my hand. The first track's the best: fast, heavy guitar, sawing and clunking over practically inaudible vocals. The recording quality's shit but it's not much of a stretch to picture them in person, arms pumping over the strings and arching at the keyboard, the singer's mouth stretched tall like his jaw's detached. He screams alright, a half-assed or three-quarters-assed shriek, the kind that sounds like duct tape being ripped off a live microphone, feeding back. I've heard better.
My head lolls against the bar on the back of the seat and I let the music uncoil into my ear. The track's building to its peak – they stop everything except the bass when the singer pulls his final scream and it's the best thing on the whole CD, sounds like he's getting his nuts boiled. The headphones' chewed cord loops between my head and Hu's. Is he getting all this? His temple is pressed to the window and his hand's splayed on his chest. That's a Hu thing: sometimes when he's talking he'll lean back in his seat to laugh, splay his hand like that right around nipple-level and drag it down, smoothing t-shirt folds.
For one genius second it's like he's actually into it this time, he's listening and he'll say that the keyboardist is a god but the second guitarist sounds like they ripped two of his strings off and made him play with his thumbs taped down (even Hu could play it better than that!). I roll the volume up.
Before the song's even done he pulls the earbud out and chucks it on my lap. "It's okay. They sound like the guys who played before us last month."
"She Were Failer? Those fuckwits?" The whole right side of my face cramps into a sneer. "Sure. Except Hachadura plays music."
Hu huffs. "Well I don't know."
I slump in my seat and stuff the other earbud in. The second song's not as good but that guitarist gets his shit together at least, and he keeps in time with the first guitar and keyboards as they climb up octaves then skitter back down. Hu does play it better, technically, but at least this guy puts some fuckin' feeling in it. My fingers twitch out cords on my thigh. Hu's back to staring out the window and the tendon of his neck stands out; I want it pressed into the web of skin between my thumb and forefinger. I have a list of ways to make him stop breathing.
"I want band practice tomorrow night."
I can't hear the answer over the music but it's too long to be anything but an excuse. Soccer practice, probably. My hair falls down over half of my face, greasy and cold on my cheek, and I close my eyes. "Friday night then."
A murmur from Hu, and that prissy hissed "s" on the end. Sure, I guess.
A couple years ago, the summer after grade ten, we were down at Willow Pond, which was actually just a cul-de-sac at the end of Beam street where a bigass willow tree stretched its limbs right to the centre of the circle. In the fall the drain backed up with leaves and it flooded; in the summer the pavement miraged like water. So we called it a pond. In elementary we spent whole summers there. That afternoon Hugo perched on a block of concrete that looked like it'd been taken from a highway median, and I was up the willow tree, on a branch overhanging the pavement.
Behind Hu an empty, grassy lot stretched between Willow Pond and the road. At the far end of the lot stood a pile of concrete rubble that used to be the old overpass. They said they were building a new one, but it'd been weeks and they hadn't even cleared the old crap away yet.
"I'm going to run for mayor," said Hu. "And fix things so it doesn't take ten freaking years to get an overpass up."
I balanced on the tree branch on my stomach, like a cat, arms and knees hugging the wood. "Ha ha, I wouldn't vote for you," I said. "You just almost flunked grade ten." Everything except gym class, of course.
"Hey, I could do well if I wanted to."
"Then why do you suck?"
Hu tipped his head back and watched something over our heads. "Class is boring."
I tried to picture a Hugo Pang election campaign – posters of his stupid squint-eyed face; Hugo CARES.
"You don't learn anything useful, anyway," Hu said.
He had that right, at least. Like, in science class they tell you the centre of the Earth is made of molten rock. That's bullshit. Under the dirt and grass and pavement and tectonic plates there's muscle – wet, spongy and beating. Even I know that.
"Then quit," I said. "Let's start a band. School is bullshit; we could be touring with Moneen."
Hu snorted. "My parents would disown me."
"Fuck you, I'm serious."
He groaned. "My mom and dad finally said I could stop guitar lessons. I'm gonna sell the thing. Find someone else!"
Around me the wind shushed through the willow; the limb under me creaked. I peered around the branch at the pavement below, all patched and re-patched with glossy black lines. "I'll bet if I fell out of here I'd break my head."
Hu stared out across the field again, his hand splayed on his chest around nipple-level. He opened his mouth but didn't say anything, just let out a breath that started like pressure releasing, like it had built up in his throat then finally popped and hissed out – the same sound he makes in class, if someone asks him a question he can't answer.
The asphalt wasn't hot enough to mirage that day but I figured if I jumped I'd dive right through anyway, and just keep going until I hit muscle. I leaned farther off the branch.
"Quit it, Ellis," Hu said, louder than usual.
I get my Friday night practice, and Hu shows up but Josh ditches out at the last minute, and that bearded dumbfuck we got as a temp bass player doesn't see the point in sticking around without percussion. Me and Hu play Halo in my basement bedroom until he gets bored, turns the X-box off and says he wants to go somewhere outside. He grabs a soccer ball from the garage – my brother's – and announces he's taking it to the elementary school field down the street.
He says to me, "You can do what you want." He knows I'll go along. A couple times I didn't, not right away, and when I did go half an hour later Hu had left already. When we're both there we spend a good hour. What's Hu going to do when he wants to play out East?
It's grey out, and my arms are frozen by the time we get to the field. Hu takes the ball to the baseball diamond and kicks it against the backstop, scrambling back and forth to block it when it pinballs back. I lie back along one of the bleacher benches and suck at my flask.
Ching! Thump. The ball bounces off the chainlink. "I saw that," says Hu. "It's not even three o'clock."
"I give a shit?" I screw the flask shut and put it back in my pocket. "It's done anyway." Two inches of whiskey still slosh inside, but I don't feel like drinking it anymore.
The bleacher bench is too narrow – I have to hook my fingers together on my chest or let my arms flop down on either side. There's probably bird shit all over my back. I climb back down the bleachers to the backstop, hook my fingers in the chainlink and hang off it.
"Hugo!" I call. "Can you get knocked up through the ass?"
The ball rolls past him.
"I just wanna know." I sag against the fence. "One of these times we're going to go ahead and fuck, and I think it's something we should know."
Hu huffs a laugh and shakes his head. He jogs away to get the ball with his head down. He keeps kicking the ball to himself (Ching! Thump), but harder than before, and the front chunks of his hair droop and stick to his forehead. This time of year Hu could be playing basketball, but he hasn't made the school team since junior high. They decided his fast didn't make up for his short. So what did he do? He played more soccer. Now he doesn't ever touch a basketball. He can just brush off a thing like that, like he never wanted it.
The ball smacks the backstop a foot away from my hand. "Hey, watch it. If you break my fingers I can't jerk you off next time."
"Shut up." He watches the ball, punts it at the fence. "This is screwed up. Can we drop it? It won't happen again."
"Yeah it will." My shoulders hurt from hanging off the fence. I let go and slumps to my knees, my front still pressed against the chainlink. It'll happen again. We'll keep on until Hu leaves. Then when he goes out East he'll just play more soccer.
Our next gig's in two weeks. To practice holding a note forever I go out and find a spot on the rocks down by the water, somewhere under the high-tide line stained on the cliffs. I plant myself at the edge of the surf and stick my head as far forward as I can without falling in, and let off notes and screams into the big empty space between the water and grey sky. The idea is to cough up enough voice to fill the whole thing. If I have enough for that, filling a room or Hugo should be easy.
I go there during the day, and never to the cove where we had the beach party. That'd been at night, and we make damn fucking sure we don't mix day and night, right Hu? But that's his rule, not mine.
Our show's on the first Saturday in November. I show up at the gravel lot behind Fairburn Elementary around dusk, just as the openers finish. Hu, Josh and the bearded bass player are already hauling stands and amps through the back door and Hu reams me out for showing up late.
Josh pulls his dyed-black hair into a ponytail. "Man, at least help us set up this time?"
I cough. "Fuckyou."
"Good, yeah, thanks."
The three of them crunch off out of our pool of orange-yellow light to grab more junk from the van. I follow them and pick through equipment for something light to carry. They know I can't do amps and shit – Hu's our big athlete, let him deal with that. I'd break my arms. I snatch a microphone stand and the ribbed doormat for Josh's drum kit, and bring them in through the back door to the Garry Oak Room. It's a tiny friggin' place, maybe the size of three classrooms, but high-ceilinged like a church, and with wicked acoustics. The heat and smell hit me right inside the door, something like engine exhaust, pasta, nine hundred bottles of hair gel.
I climb onto the makeshift stage – nine low wooden boxes in mismatched paint – prop up the mic stand, roll out the mat and start plugging in amp cords. Portable lights shine up into my face from the front of the stage, so I can't see the crowd but I can hear them, scuffling feet and chittering mouths like paper crumpling next to my ear. I move to the front of the stage, out of the glare. The room's half-full, with more still trickling in the door and latching on to the idiot mass. In the front there's this one kid with a foot-high bleached mohawk and pupils as big and black as a dog's – looks like he's maybe twelve. Who lets the friggin' toddlers into these things? I go back to sorting wires and yell for the set list.
Once we're set up I slot the mic into its stand and do the usual check. "Erection," I say. The monitor at my feet bounces it back. "Erec-! Erec-tion. Erection!" The crowd titters. Hah, and Hu said it wasn't funny any more.
The bass guy pulls a green ranger cap onto his head and plucks at his strings, fingers barely contacting then snapping up into his palm. Josh rolls out some generic bitch-punk warmup beat. Once everything's tuned and checked I squint at the crowd: a field of heads like carpet nubs. Josh counts them in: tak tak tak tak—!
We play two songs, newish ones. On either side of me Hu and the bass bitch turn their spines to whiplashes. Hu rocks back, straight like a raised finger and slides his hand up and down his guitar's neck like he's jerking it off. He moves just how you'd expect a guitarist to, because that's how Hu does anything, whether he chose it or not: plays the part, does it well, moves the fuck on. The lights on the stage project his ten-foot silhouette onto the side wall.
Two songs in and the idiot mass is barely swaying – I want them to bend back like grass blades. I want to sink my voice into them and jerk them around like roadkill in a dog's mouth; instead they give me scene-sluts with their striped-sleeve arms crossed over their chests, and fifty pairs of eyes ringed with black crayon. Anyone who does move, they make sure it's in that one-foot-in-any-direction radius that lets them seem "into" the set without making total retards of themselves. They slump forward every four beats, with stiff-necked flicks of the head.
The kid up front with the mohawk, though, his lips are parted enough to stick a pencil in, his eyelids are halfway closed, his neck cranes forward. He tics and lurches just like the mass behind him but his eyes are on the drummer's sticks and his body tries to match the lift and fall. His face says: where is it?
The song ends. Hu's the last one playing and he drags it out into some twinkly improv shit and his face is three-lines blank: two flat eyes and pen-line mouth. He could be listening to a math lecture. I could pry his mouth open and stuff my microphone down his throat. Instead I grab a water bottle off the stage and knock back a quarter of it.
The next song starts like a hatchet to the face, a full-on blare of noise. I dig up a scream one step up from ripping duct tape, but nothing that'll tear up my throat this early on. Around me rolls the heavy rumble of bass, sharp drumclack and the nayner-nayner-nayner Hu coaxes out of his strings. I cling to the microphone with both hands, up on my toes, then knees collapsing. Loose my body to boneless spasms like electrocution.
The mass finally stirs at its centre. Some kid goes barreling into his friend and the core of the crowd churns up like retarded bees. I fucking love moshers. They act like someone found something cool in the middle of the room and all shove each other trying to get a look at it. They come from all sides of the hole they've made in the crowd and fight over that middle spot. For a second it's like they're all fighting to get in line with my voice, jostling for an earful, but then the song hits an instrumental stretch and they're still churning.
In the front the mohawk kid's face is slick with sweat and his bleached spikes have gone limp-dick and plastered to the side of his head. His lips part further because his face has lost all its muscle. He flails seizure-style, every few bars bares the underside of his chin; slower sections he doubles over and his curved back heaves up and down. When he looks up at the stage his face says, yeah, and? Yeah, AND? It's the face that's squirming the hips, trying to find the quickest way to come. He digs a fingertip into the groove beside his neck tendon and scrapes it down through the sweat.
By the end of the song the crowd's fogged up the windows along one side wall, and the elbow-dented mirrors along the other. The band melts into the next song, the last one. It winds up slow and plodding, heavy bass, almost no guitar, vocals murmuring louder until it hiccups and breaks – then it thunders, it stomps, like a head beating against a wall. We've been playing this song for more than a year now; the lyrics shape in my mouth before I've even thought them. Beside me Hu's t-shirt flickers white in the spotlight. The guitar screeches and saws in perfect order, mechanical. Hu and the bass bitch surge to the front of the stage, pump their fists in the air and a hundred pale arms sprout from the mass. During a lull the bass guy spreads both arms like Christ at supper and bounces on his toes. Jump. The crowd quits knocking the shit out of each other for a second and complies. They rise in a wave, front to back and humped in the centre: something pushing up, bulging them from underneath.
The mohawk kid doesn't jump; he tilts his face up and moves his mouth, fuck yes, gapes and clutches it in perfect time with mine. There's idiots at every show who mouth the words to songs to show off, but this one, he does it like he's sucking in, not spitting out, like my voice is spilling straight out of my mouth into his. I scream and he follows, stretches his face so long the corners of his mouth draw in toward each other and his lips fish out like poppy petals.
I yank the mic out of its clip and kick the stand over, and I turn on Hu. He's looking down at his hands on his guitar but his head snaps up when I grab his shirt at the collar, and he gives me that look with the top lip pulled off his teeth, eyes slivered. He stops playing, Josh and the bass guy thunder on. I suck the room into my lungs.
It starts like pressure releasing, a click from my throat, then a rusted siren shriek, high and whistling at the corners like terror. I scream it right in Hu's face, spray spit and voice, but his face pinches around the nose, closes off, how long does he think he can fist his face shut? I can hold this note for longer. My eyes bug and flicker at the edges, pulse in time with the bass. I think I've tapped into the air between my brain and skull now; a buzzing's started at the peak of my forehead and the screaming's coming from somewhere six inches in front of my mouth. The pitch climbs and stretches thin like springs pulled uncoiled, shrills like a hacksaw on violin strings. All my breath is outside my body. The muscles all the way out to my fingers and toes shrink away from the skin, shrivel inward to my chest, prickle up my throat dry like smoke, heat my neck up to the bottom corners of my jaw bone.
Hu's lips peel apart, finally. I'm all voice; there's nothing left of me lower than my mouth, except the hollows under my arms where Hu's hands hook, except my chest where Hu's knees jab as he crouches, tries to let me down easy, guitar swinging around to his side and clunking on the stage. Hu's lungs panic-hitch and push air up his throat, not a hiss for once, more like a bleat. He says, hah?
He says, "Holy shit, Ellis."