Author's Note: I managed to get another one of my ideas out in writing. Yay! This one was especially persistent and wouldn't leave me alone until I got it written.

And, here it is...

(Insert rest of speech here)

The day began like any other. A breakfast of lukewarm Spaghettios and black coffee and skimming the newspaper for wanted ads.

I fiddled my lip ring with my tongue and turned the page.

And like every other day, more discouragement. Today's ads were a slew of job openings at convenience stores and even one for a dog sitter. ("Looking for a kind, caring individual who isn't afraid of a little drool").

Nothing for bands—unless you counted a last second wedding, where Mr. and Mrs. Bride and Groom were ridiculously cheap and didn't want to spend even more on entertainment. We were about as low-cost as a band could get—beggars couldn't be choosers—but somehow I didn't think the bride was a metal fan.

I sighed and turned the page. How hard could it be to get a gig in this damn city? We just needed one gig—just one—and then we'd be set.

Other bands had done it, coming from even less than we did. Made it huge. Even guys like us seemed to do it effortlessly. We weren't that much different from them.

Just a group of average kids who decided one day to go out and take the music world by storm. Or rather, I was sick of the cramped small town lifestyle and packed up my things.

That life wasn't for me. Probably a grand total of 5,000 people in my hometown. It was one of those places where everybody's existence was so boring that they made their neighbors' their business—either that or watched the cows graze.

Everybody knew your name, but it was usually just to rat you out to your parents should you dare to do something wrong. Which I tended to do a lot. Or at least by my hometown's ridiculous standards, I was as big of a rebel as there was.

Starved for excitement, I decided on early on that desperate times called for desperate measures. It's not like I was trying to be a rebel, okay maybe I was. Anything to stand out from the boring community I was forcibly born into.

I was one of few kids at my school to have a tattoo and—gasp!—a lip ring. And these factors made me into the notorious "bad boy". My new (and unfitting) status made girls want me, guys fear and respect me, and every adult in town hate my guts.

My family's name was an old one and consequently we were among the most gossiped about. Or really I was.

It was always the same things: how I was a trouble-maker and how they would never want their kids associating with or acting like me and how could my parents deal with such an unruly child right down to how my hair was so long that I looked like a woman and there was constant scorn about the "hideous thing jabbed into my bottom lip".

Mikey and Dean were able to overlook the many odds working against me. They weren't small town material either, but desperately bored guys who were looking for a way of escaping the monotony of everyday life.

To them, I was the ticket out of the boring lives they had been leading.

We didn't get along great at first—Dean was on the football team; so not my type of person!—and they always wanted in on my crazy plan, which I found a little annoying. They were my ideas, intended solely for my amusement. Although I let them in on them. Less blame fell on me should it blow up in our faces.

Sometimes things even went more smoothly if there were people to help me execute them.

After several rare successes and a bond that tied us all together—a love of music—we went on to become friends and they became as infamous as I was.

Over time, we went on to achieve one of my craziest ideas to date: start a band. It was always a dream to be a famous musician and then everyone in town would feel sorry for making my life hell.

We played what we liked—and played in the all public places we could. To get as much attention as we could. I considered it a courtesy. They were getting to see us in concert for free. Once we became famous, you would have to pay tons of money to even look at us.

Like always, the adults didn't get or appreciate our creative genius.

They yelled for us to stop and called our music 'noise'. We all thought it fit, so we adopted the name Noyzz. But other than having a really awesome name, the band was a wreck. We had a guitarist—Mikey—a bass guitarist—Dean—and a singer—yours truly—but somehow were always fell off beat. We needed something or someone to keep us on key.

The dream of running away couldn't become a reality into the band was as good as it could get.

We listened to enough different CDs to realize that we needed a drummer.

Which created a panic. Where the hell were we supposed to find a drummer? Admittedly, every guy wanted to be like us, but no one had enough balls to actually be like us. It came with a lot of contempt and criticism and we needed someone who wasn't afraid of it.

The guys and I hosted a few on the down-low auditions to see if we had drummer material lurking unnoticed in our school. We sure had a bunch of posers.

Mikey and Dean were willing to inaugurate anyone who could bang on a set of drums, but my standards were a little higher.

This guy would be coming with us when we broke out of the small town 'prison' and continue on our journey to stardom. He couldn't drag us down. He needed to have that special something.

Which was why Mikey laughed and Dean furrowed his brow questioningly and asked "Who?" when I suggested Reggie.

Reggie was probably the last person you would expect us to hang out with. He was as quiet as a person could get without being a corpse. He had that classic all-American look about him; he would look incredibly out of place in a metal band.

And he was young—too young the guys figured to bring him into our corrupt world. At eighteen (yes, I was an old senior!), almost seventeen, and sixteen, we were regular veterans of life. He was about a year younger than Mikey, who was the youngest of the three.

Consequently he was about three years my junior.

But put a set of drums in front of him and you wouldn't believe the power he had. Enough to win even the skeptical guitarists' votes. Exactly what we needed for the band. With our newest addition, our music only continued to improve.

We actually managed to book a couple gigs in a nearby and thankfully less judgmental city and the response was positive. Shows at local clubs (and even maybe a few hours away) kept us in business for the next couple years and our (my) hopes alive. The only thing holding us (me) back was age (of my band mates).

They were the only reason why I stuck around when I could've easily left and moved on to greater things. How big of an asshole would I have been if I was like "Fuck you guys and everyone else in this gay ass town. I'm off to be famous while you all rot"?

I couldn't do that. They put an unusual amount of faith in me and willingly went along with even my stupidest ideas.

It was just one more year. I could last that long. As soon as Reggie passed the eighteen mark, we could be off. He would legally be allowed to quit school and we could go off to pursue something more important. I had my goodbye speech planned for years.

And it involved cussing out quite a few people.

But it got progressively harder. Since I was saving my money, I lived down my parents' basement. I had to constantly put up with lectures of "Ian, you really should be going to college" or maybe "Get that stupid idea of being a musician out of your head and go get a job."

Long story short, my parents gave up on all their dreams so they didn't want me to have any either. They expected me to settle in to the boring routine they had become accustomed to.

And the neighbors needed to have a say of course.

Because it was their business to tell me what I should be doing with my life.

"Living in your parents' basement? It's a shame. You're in your prime; you should be out making the most of it."

"Ian, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. You're twenty years old and yet you continue to act like a child and let your parents support you."

"At the very least get a job and pay them rent. They've supported and put up with you for years."

And then they would share their kids' successes with me.

By the time my twenty-first birthday rolled around—and what seemed like an infinite stretch of time remained before I would be granted my freedom—I was desperate to get away.

As time began to painfully slowly wear down, my impatience grew.

My longing fueled serious thought, horrendously elaborate plans (my specialty) but I couldn't pull it together to make something somewhat normal. (What were the odds of gypsies coming into town?)

… "How many drinks have you had exactly?" Mikey mouthed to me as we ambled off stage at the end of the show. "You're really out of it tonight."

Tonight's concert hadn't been our greatest success so far. I stumbled through my songs and missed a few of my cues. The fact that I was drinking for one of the first times helped in the numbing of my brain, but it wasn't fully there to begin with tonight.

My mind was already out on the open road waiting for me to catch up with it. Tonight I was leaving, with or without the guys. Definitely short notice, but I couldn't take it any longer. I cleaned out my bank account and every penny to my name was stuffed in my pocket.

To further enhance my drunken appearance, for the sake of my plan, I pretended to stagger towards the wrong end of the stage and hovered one foot out in thin air. "Whoa," I slurred, "where'd the stairs go?"

Eye-rolling from the guys. When they guided me off the stage, I immediately snapped out of it the drunken stupor. "Okay, let's go," I said, my words perfectly clear-cut and my voice steady. "Out the back, jump in my car, nobody will see us leave."

As a nervous fidget, I fiddled with my lip ring.

Judging by the blank expression on the guys' faces, they didn't get it. Even if I told them, in excruciating detail, they wouldn't get it. They wouldn't go through with it. This was a radical idea, even for me.

I sighed.

I loved the guys like brothers, but I couldn't take it any longer. This life, the people in my life, were steadily breaking me down, crushing my spirit and attempting to make me one of them.

I was going off on my own. Starting a life on my own. The band would crumble within the next year as it was. Reggie's parents, in spite of my influence, or maybe because of my influence on him were looking into sending him to a prestigious college—halfway across the state.

As proven before, a band was nothing without a drummer and Reggie wasn't exactly replaceable. In the few years I knew him, I privately felt closer to him than Mikey or Dean.

Why stick around and watch my closest friend leave, my band die before it ever had a chance to begin, and my dream fall to pieces before my eyes? What was left for me here?

The guys, sure. But they'd do okay in life. I was the one who was selfishly dragging them down with me.

"Don't tell them where I went," I said in a heavy voice.

Dean laughed. "Trust me, Ian, not too many fans are gonna be wanting us tonight. In case you were too drunk to notice, we kinda sucked."

Reggie looked at me seriously. "You're not talking about fans, are you?" he asked in his quiet, deliberate voice. His eyes bore steadily into mine, searching for an answer.

Having addressed the issue, he faded back into the background where he was most comfortable and allowed Dean and Mikey to take the floor.

"What's going on?" Dean asked suspiciously. He glanced from Reggie to me, like we might be conspiring behind his and Mikey's backs.

I chewed nervously at my lip ring. How could I explain myself without sounding like a selfish jerk?

"I know we said we were going to wait 'til Reg graduated," I said, "but I can't wait anymore, guys I have to get out of here." Pleadingly. They had to understand how much my freedom meant to me.

Aside from Reggie, who wore an understanding, almost pitying look, Dean and Mikey looked betrayed and outraged.

"Look," I added hurriedly, before any accusations could be unleashed, "I'm twenty-one years old. I need to be out doing something with my life and I'll never accomplish anything if I stay here. Whether I become a vocalist or not, I don't belong here. I never have."

"So what about us?" Dean asked. "We just stay here and rot while you go on to an exciting life? Thanks, Ian. Thanks for nothing."

That remark stung. How dare he question my loyalty? He, Mikey, and Reggie were my best friends, the only reason I was still here. Otherwise I would've left on the eve of my eighteenth birthday.

"You're uninviting yourself," I told him more heatedly than I planned, pissed that Dean was attacking me. "I never said anything like that. I want you guys to come with me. All I'm trying to do is speed up the plan."

"Speed up the plan?" Dean repeated warily. "But we had everything already worked out. This'll…this'll fuck everything up." Now that the moment we talked endlessly about for years was approaching, he was starting to get cold feet. "Ian, this is suicide."

Oh, good. He got it. Now we were on the same page.

I was intending to fake my own death to severe any ties I had left to this place. I grinned at Dean. "That may be what it has to come down to. They'll never find our bodies because they won't be at the scene of the accident."

I enjoyed seeing his eyes widen in fear and face blanch slightly. Find our bodies? Scene of the accident?

"Let's go," I said cheerfully, absently tracing over my lip ring with my tongue.

Mikey too was staring at me like I had lost my mind. He and Dean began pounding me with questions.

What the fuck was wrong with me?

What were they supposed to do for money? If they 'died' in a car accident, how could they sneak back into town and get their money? How were we supposed to even get away? The car would in a mangled heap. What about their families? They'd be devastated to receive the news of our 'death'.

"We could get arrested," Mikey pointed out, intent on one last desperate attempt to change my mind, "for kidnapping." He looked meaningfully at Reggie who stood thoughtfully taking this all in. I wasn't expecting him to take it so well. But he accepted it the most gracefully of the three guys.

I caught Reggie in a headlock. "He's not putting up much of a fight," I said jovially, shaking my captive around a little bit. I faced them, Reggie's head still in my hold. "Look, I know this is a huge step, but the first step is always the hardest, right?"

"It'll be worth it," I promised them.

Dragging my hostage along with me, I pushed the door; it swung open and a beckoning scene awaited us. Outside the club, pitch black, only the stars lighting the way. Miles and miles of dirt road, extending indefinitely into the pitch black night, leading us into civilization.

…We crept along, the narrow, dark, pothole-strewn road. Away from the club, away from everything we knew. There was no conversation. The guys all sat tensely in their seats, occasionally wincing if we drove through a particularly treacherous pothole.

I was as nervous as all the rest of them, but I didn't give any outward sign. For the guys' sake, I had to act like I knew exactly what I was doing.

Hopefully this wouldn't turn out like many a previous scheme of mine. If that was the case, we would be stranded in the expansive country, left to wander until another person or the crows found us.

I kept my eyes locked straight ahead, on the beams cast by my brights and manning the stick shift. Trying to keep up with the constantly changing road.

I traveled this road many times on my own, often contemplating never turning around, so I knew it well. But it was another story navigating it in the dark.

For several hours we drove in uneasy silence.

The reassuring thing was that the distance markers were winding down in our favor.

When I slammed on the brakes to keep from hitting a deer that bounded across the road, I knew this was we (my car and I) had to go our separate ways. I watched the white tail of the deer float across the road and finally disappeared down the hill.

Judging by the sound of a couple rocks sliding down the hill, the deer had lost its footing. Which meant the hill was steep. Perfect.

"Everybody out of the car," I instructed. Dean hopped out of the passenger side and I had to wait for him to move the seat (the passenger doors in the back were rusted shut) so Mikey and Reggie could crawl out.

I turned the wheel and gingerly tapped the gas pedal so my car went inching towards the hill after the deer. I didn't stop until the front and back tire on the driver's side hung over the edge of the hill, suspended uselessly in midair.

I swallowed as I looked down into the blackness teetering before me. A long, steep, rocky way down. No way was I stupid enough to escort it all the way down. As carefully as I could, I crawled from my seat and over the gearshift.

I threw myself against the passenger side, which was still safely on the road, trying to give it the nudge it needed to fall off.

"Help me," I grunted, again slamming my shoulder into the immobile car. The wheels had lodged themselves in place. "This thing is kind of heavy."

It was definitely a team effort moving the thing. But finally all four of managed to muscle it over the edge.

We watched somberly as my car teetered for a moment and then toppled over and down. One side slammed against the unforgiving rocky terrain—the mirror snapped off. Beginning to gained momentum, it rolled over and the other side hit. Shards of glass from the windows. A symphony of crunching metal and then a dull thud.

In the hazy starlight, we could make out the remains of my faithful car lying tires-up on the ground.

"I hope your car insurance covers that," Mikey joked weakly. No one laughed.

"And now we walk," I said. One by one, we turned away from the sorry sight and plodded off slowly down the road. I hung back, taking in my car for one last time it.

Amazingly, it was a painful thing to do—not only was the car an extremely reliable source of transportation for years, but I felt like it was part of the band's history and totaling it could be interpreted as a bad omen. Noyzz could just as easily be next—damaged beyond repair.

Was I a terrible person for saying that losing my car mattered more to me than leading my parents to believe I was dead? Not that that didn't matter to me.

I slid my hand into my pants pocket, fingers skimming over the fat wad of cash nestled in there. Searching. Was it still there? Yes. I felt the paper crackle beneath my fingertips and dragged it from my pocket.

With trembling hands, I unfolded and smoothed the notebook paper, and looked down at it. The already illegible handwriting was smeared, but I could've recited it verbatim.

My goodbye note.

I had intended to leave it in the car so my parents would find it.

Lyrics.

I reread them and my insides churned like I was going to be sick.

Instead of sadness coming, I willed anger to. I wasn't going to feel bad, I had no reason to. I was losing nothing, gaining everything. I crumpled the paper, but stuffed it back in my pocket.

It was a good thing that I didn't put it in the car. They never appreciated my music—or me for that matter. I was doing them a favor by (temporarily) disappearing off the face of the earth.

The paper would serve to remind me what I was 'missing' and how good I would have it with my new life.

Then I ran to join the guys.

The rest of my plan fell into place like a dream. By dawn, we were on the road that transitioned smoothly into a highway.

Clayton, the club's manager, was waiting by the billboard that announced in big, bold letters, "Always Use Protection" like I asked him to.

"Ian," he greeted brightly, "about time you showed up."

"Do you have our instruments?" I cut him off.

Clayton headed over the van hooked onto his tow truck and motioned for me to follow. He threw open the doors so I see could for myself that he had all our instruments loaded. I carefully looked over them.

"Happy?" Clayton asked crossly. "Or did you want me to tune each guitar string by hand?"

"It's fine."

I fished my money out of my pocket, undid the rubber band and laid a wad of cash in his hand. He flipped through it, making sure I gave him the correct amount. He grinned ("Pleasure doing business with you.") and handed me the keys to the van.

I headed over to it. Something felt right as I wedged the key in the lock and opened the door. No tricks so far. The key vanished into the ignition and turned. The engine groaned agonizingly but it started.

I definitely got what I paid for. It was over ten years old—which was an extremely long life for a vehicle like that—and clocked in at one hundred and fifty thousand miles.

I looked over the dashboard at Clayton and nodded curtly.

Who beamed back at me. "Listen to that engine purr."

I went to honk the horn at Reggie, Mikey, and Dean, but no sound came out. I rolled down the window—it stuck about halfway and would neither go back up nor down the rest of the way—and called, "Guys, come on!"

I didn't have to force enthusiasm; it was positively gushing from me. Years of patience and perseverance finally paid off.

I shifted gears—this was so much easier than driving stick—and we pulled onto the main road. In the rearview mirror, I saw Clayton giving a two fingered salute and heard him call "Good luck".

Not particularly caring how subtle he was about it, he again thumbed through his money. "I almost feel bad sending those kids off like that," he mumbled to himself, "the real world is going to eat them alive. But, damn. That was the easiest thousand bucks I'll ever make."

We cruised down the road, radio blasting to drown out the rattling engine, windows all opened and the wind tearing through our hair, confident that fame was just around the corner.

We had no way of knowing that the next few months would be filled with rude city slickers, many doors slammed in our faces, and dozens of painful rejections.

Our optimism kept us from seeing that we would have to pawn off our talents to make a quick buck for food, learn to make due without, and find the most comfortable way to curl up in a rickety old van.

And there came a lot of responsibility. As the oldest, I had to play the role of the parent and manager, keeping them in check and searching tirelessly for jobs so we could make next month's rent.

Ugh. Rent.

We probably were about two months overdue and our landlady kept hounding me for it.

In spite of being the unanimously-elected leader, I was the least profitable of us all.

I was the singer/manager, the front man, but half the time, unless you were a hardcore metal fan, you couldn't understand a word I said. Dean and Mikey, more versatile than I was, could play their guitars out on the street and, depending on how generous the masses felt like being, could rake in some nice tips.

As for Reggie, he was seventeen. Still a kid. I wouldn't let him pay for anything.

He needed to save his money.

"Anything today, Ian?" Dean asked listlessly. They all looked towards me, though the once-hopeful expressions were gone.

I folded up the paper. "Yeah," I answered brightly. "There was an ad for a very nice couch. Real steal: only five hundred bucks."

Dean and Mikey laughed, finding humor in this otherwise hopeless situation. "I'm sure it'll look great on the front yard!" Mikey said.

I smiled weakly. Not only did we not have enough money to make the rent combined, we didn't have a lawn either—just a cramped apartment on the top floor in a building with no air, a broken elevator, and a leaky roof.

Home sweet home now.

And what complimented a fine home better than a superior ride? We all depended on my beat-up old van as a storage locker where we kept the equipment, transportation to our "jobs" and even a home at one point.

I crumpled up the paper and shot it expertly into the trashcan. "I got nothing."

"Nothing?" Dean and Mikey asked in incredulous unison.

"Nothing," I repeated, feeling disgusted with another failure to add to my succession, and sick with guilt. It was my fault we were living like this: dead-broke musicians battling their way through the big city and living in abysmal conditions.

Hell, thanks to my brilliance we didn't even have families to turn to anymore. They assumed us dead.

"Maybe tomorrow?"

They grinned, but it couldn't hide the disappointment clouding their faces. "Yeah," Dean said, trying for my sake and ours to sound hopeful, "a producer will come to town tomorrow, find us and sweep us off to Hollywood."

It was possible; very recently a big-time Hollywood producer came through and snatched up an up-and-coming band which could have easily been us (were I not trying to score a gig at a school dance) and whisked them away to stardom.

I spent many (more) hours awake at night kicking myself for taking the guys to the wrong place at the worst possible time.

Dean rolled his eyes and scoffed to Mikey under his breath, "At this rate, we'll be stuck out on that corner for the rest of our lives."

Talking among themselves, presumably about how I was such a failure, they left our quaint little apartment and headed out to the van.

I heaved a sigh as I watched them go and pulled my hand through my hair.

"I really fucked up everyone's lives, didn't I, Reg?" I asked.

The drummer was the only one who I could genuinely talk to. In spite of being as loud and obnoxious as I was, Dean and Mikey couldn't see far enough past their own selfish desires to even contemplate intellectually stimulating conversation.

Even though we were a group, we all had obvious choices with who we preferred to associate with.

Again, I felt guilty about letting Reggie down. He was brilliant and before we kidnapped him, he was showing signs of limitless potential. I had deprived the world of a brilliant mind that could have done so much good but I harnessed instead for musical purposes.

"We got as far as we did because of you," he reminded me quietly. "If not for you, we wouldn't be here—and the band wouldn't even exist."

"Look where we are," I told him, disgustedly gesturing around the kitchen. "All my doing." I was a shitty manager who couldn't book a decent gig if it killed me and this apartment was all we could show for it—all we could afford.

Now add into the equation the fact that I was tired as hell and beginning to doubt and question my abilities in anything.

Reggie looked at me seriously. "This," he said, motioning similarly around the kitchen, "was a group effort. We're failing as a whole because we're expecting you to do all the work and pave the way. You can't do it all, Ian."

But nobody else was going to, so if I didn't do it, nothing would get done. This was what the leader had to do: he could take all the credit, if he wished, when things were good, but he had to bust his ass to get there.

Before I had a chance to stop him, Reggie's hand plunged into his pocket. He took out his money and extended the wad of cash to me. "Take it," he coaxed. "Rent money. It's one less thing you'll have to worry about."

This was about the third time he tried to push his money on me. I pushed it away. "You're not paying," I told Reggie sternly. With a note of finality in my voice. He wasn't paying.

Why? Because I said so.

"Why not? I live here, don't I? I'm a member of the band, aren't I? You all aren't supposed to be supporting me. I've saved up enough money now to pay almost three months' worth of rent."

How Reggie held onto to his small town values—chivalry, integrity, courtesy—was a mystery to me. Dean, Mikey, and I had been drained of such values a long time ago. These were replaced by less redeeming qualities.

"Keep saving it," I repeated for what felt like the millionth time, "you're going to need it. When we get kicked out of here, which should be any day now, you can be our meal ticket. Okay?"

I grinned winningly at him and he returned this with a rueful smile of his own.

Outside, Dean blasted the van horn, which after a little tinkering, worked selectively.

We swapped an "Oh-my-God-why-do-we-put-up-with-them" look but decided against keeping them waiting. Time was money. Money was a roof over our heads and food in the pantry.

And speaking of money, I couldn't help but notice that Reggie left his on the counter.

As did I.

I didn't need Reggie's money to find a way to get Mrs. Russo (Debbie, as she insisted I call her) off my ass for a few days. At least I hoped I could. Lately she had been building up an immunity to my charm. I used to have her eating out of the palm of my hand and she would forget all about collecting the rent.

Sucking-up was a talent of mine.

Compliments that I didn't actually mean came effortlessly to my tongue. I would engage her in conversation—all the while leading her towards the van so I could run for it—solely about herself. On particularly desperate times, I'd even be reduced to flirting a little.

Or paying off the money we owed in a different way. By doting on her beloved daughter Chelsea. Chelsea was a sophomore at the community college and a little older than Reggie.

She supposedly had "thing" for guys in bands. Namely the singer.

Lucky me.

While she wasn't horrible-looking, could even be pretty if she shed some weight, she was one of those confused girls who wore jeans that were so tight they threatened to burst with every movement and midriff-hugging tops that clung to every roll.

And damn, was she pesky! She had me on speed dial and called very often. Usually when I was nodding off after a long, unsuccessful day, or when I was expecting a call. In addition to being a stalker, she was needy. Clingy. Exasperatingly whiny. Possessive.

Everything that made a chick as anti-rock star-girlfriend as possible.

But I could put up with her in small doses—usually when there were bills looming overhead. And then I'd get some ideas from Reggie and romance her. Dinners, letting her tag along to one of our rare concerts, even a serenade when she accused me of using her.

And she would go home happy, and Mrs. Russo would let the bills slide, warning me not to let it happen again. It always did.

According to Mikey, who helped lead Chelsea on, it was only a matter of time before Mrs. Russo waved off rent altogether in exchange for me marrying Chelsea.

And speak of the devil; seconds after I closed the apartment door behind me, there was Mrs. Russo.

"Ian. Just the man I wanted to see. I trust you know what day it is?"

Naturally. The second of every month was Doomsday.

But, of course have nothing in my pockets but the insides, I played stupid. I hit myself in the forehead. "It's your birthday!" I exclaimed, trying to sound as if I had almost forgotten. "What is it? Your twenty-fifth? Twenty-sixth?"

Mrs. Russo giggled with pleasure. "Oh, you're sweet." I braced myself for what was coming; by now I had learned. Mrs. Russo's chunky fingers closed on my cheek and she gave it an affection little pinch.

And then her giggling school girl manner disappeared and she transitioned into business mode, her expression hungry. "Ian, do you have the rent money?" I had been massaging my cheek, but snapped to attention at once.

Looking guiltily down at her, I pulled my hand through my hair. "Err…" I managed oh-so-cleverly. "Not exactly."

"Well, when can I expect you have it?"

"Soon," I assured her, deliberately being as vague as possible. 'Soon', by my definition, could mean anything from a couple weeks to another month. "How's Chelsea doing?" I added quickly. "I've been wanting to see her."

I'm so good at this, it should be illegal, I thought smugly.

Mrs. Russo was unsmiling. She thoroughly tuned me out, no doubt pissed after Chelsea's latest repot. The girl had come onto me, I swear. I was entitled to be a jerk when some strange girl was trying to handle my merchandise.

"I want my rent—the two months' worth you owe me—by the end of the week. Otherwise, I'll have no choice but to evict you."

"Evi-evict us?" I spluttered. "But…"

Though I didn't say it out loud, I was thinking, But I put up with your daughter. You should be paying me for it.

"You're a nice young man, Ian, and very charming, but you are about as unreliable as anyone can get. You live with three other guys and yet you can never find money to pay the bills. Come to think of it, you haven't paid a single bill since you moved in. I need you to pay me, or I'm going to have to lease your apartment to more competent tenants.

And as for Chelsea," Mrs. Russo continued since I had gotten her going, "she told me that you were extremely rude and disrespect…"

One of the guys saved me by pounding on the honk, which gave a birdlike squawk. I smiled weakly. "I've got to go. Nice talking to you, as always, Mrs. Russo," I interrupted, not daring to try that "Debbie" business.

She meant business and I was at the end of my leash.

"End of the week," she repeated warningly.

"End of the week," I echoed. "No problem." I called this confidently back over my shoulder and then muttered to myself, "We're screwed…"

"So where you are taking Chelsea tonight?" Dean asked me, grinning, when I pulled the driver's door open and made Mikey get out of my seat. I wouldn't let anybody drive the broken-down hunk of rusted metal, as the van affectionately became known.

"I was thinking a soup kitchen," I said airily, inserting the keys in the ignition and starting up the van.

When they looked on worriedly, I confirmed their suspicions. "We're getting kicked out at the end of the week."

"What the hell?" Dean seethed. "Her fat-ass daughter tried to feel you up."

"She's kicking us out because we're incompetent, not because I'm a perverted creep who tries to prey on unsuspecting women," I replied. In the rear-view mirror, I could tell Reggie was giving me a look.

If you would just get over yourself and let me pay, we'd be fine, his narrowed green eyes seemed to be saying.

"Shut up, Reg," I said aloud, though this was a strange thing to say to our drummer.

I forced the gear to reverse and cruised out of the parking space, venting silently to myself. Then I jerked the gear to drive, forced the wheel around and stomped on the gas pedal.

I drove how I felt, and right now, I was pissed off. In a matter of days, we'd be back on the street, looking so shabby that no one would even speak to us. And the guys would somehow find a way to make it all my fault, like usual.

"How about some music?" Mikey suggested to break the uncomfortable silence. He switched on the radio.

Music didn't help.

A woman was singing on one of the few stations that got reception, a pop singer, her voice heavily redone by her producers.

"Not her again," Mikey groaned. I obligingly turned the radio dial. The last thing I needed to hear right now was a ballad by some poor little rich girl singing about how hard life was. Or was that country? Static…static…more static.

Finally a song I liked. But the reception was horrible and we kept picking up the signal from another station. You guessed it: the station with the whiny pop singer.

"Let's not listen to music," I said, switching it off. But the song kept playing. "What the hell?" I slapped my palm down on the dashboard.

Mikey reached over and turned my head in the direction where it was coming. Two incredibly cute girls in the convertible next to us were listening to the same song cranked up at full volume.

They were so into the song that they didn't hear when I gave a wheezy squeak of the horn in acknowledgement. As soon as the light turned green, they cruised off down the street, singing at the top of their voices, hair billowing out behind them in the breeze.

Okay, what were we doing wrong? I wondered. We had talent, whereas Miss Pop Star didn't, and yet she was the famous one. Her popularity had to be just because she was famous; her music sucked.

She most likely was born to mega-star parents, probably dating the most eligible bachelor in Hollywood…

"My God," Mikey said heatedly, "every time you turn on the radio, there she is. It's like the world can't get enough of her." The way he said this got the wheels in my head turning.

"Who is she?" I asked interestedly.

Mikey's jaw dropped. "Who is she?!" he repeated incredulously. "Do you live in a hole or something?" Not exactly a hole, but it wasn't much of an improvement.

"I don't make it a point to read the news," I said jokingly. Not a day went by where you wouldn't see a newspaper in my hands, or under my head, depending on how tired I was.

"That's Cassidy Collins," Mikey explained, still shocked by my ignorance. "She's like the biggest thing in the music world right now."

Good to know. I would store that away in my file of useless information. Not like that did us any good.

"She's performing here tonight," added Dean.

Okay, forget what I just said. This could do us a lot of good.

Simultaneously, an idea hit me and my foot crushed on the break. The van came to such a violent, jerky stop that there was sure to be permanent damage done. "Guys," I announced, oblivious to their ruffled expressions, "I think I just found our gig."

"Yeah, because some mega pop star is going to feel sorry for us and adopt us," Dean scoffed, rubbing where the seatbelt cut into him. "They support charities and all, but we have a better chance of getting welfare…"

"Fuck the pop star," I snapped. "We're going to use her concert to promote ourselves. It's a great way to start: there will be millions of fans there, a stage to perform on, a manager who can represent us when he hears who good we were…"

"…bouncers, security guards…" Mikey continued, adopting the excited voice I was using. "…which means getting thrown out, or arrested, going to jail… I swear hunger is affecting your brain, man. This is never going to work."

"Sure it will," I said, deaf to everything but the sound of my own voice. I shifted gears and executed a quick u-turn, making the drivers in the other lane slam on their breaks and honk at me.

"Maniac!"
"Asshole!"

"How?" Mikey and Dean asked, glad to see that someone else thought I was nuts.

"We're not going to do anything stupid, are we?" Reggie pleaded.

"You bet," I declared. "Gentlemen, we're going to need sparkles. Lots and lots of sparkles…"