Just What I Needed

by Minty F


1


I'd tried every trick in the book—feigned sickness, fabricated a dentist appointment, offered something of value. But she was my persistent best friend, and even if I did have a stomach virus, a scheduled root canal, or a pack of King Size Twizzlers, she still wouldn't have let me off the hook. I knew this now as I knelt beneath a row of blouses in my closet, my heart thumping with each audible step she took up the staircase.

"Hallie?" She burst into my room, not bothering to knock, of course. I heard her fling the comforter off my bed and poke around my curtains. Then her shadow was right there in the crack beneath the door. I tried to sink behind a stack of boxes, but only succeeded in knocking them over.

Smooth, I chided myself as the closet door slid open. And there she was, wearing a red bikini and flip flops, a thin coverup tied around her waist.

"What are you, five?" She grabbed my arm and tugged me to my feet. "Come on!"

So I tried my final tactic. The one I'd saved as a last-ditch effort. The one I really hadn't wanted to break down and use, but needed to now as it was my only chance, my only hope of salvation.

Begging.

"Please, Kate! I don't want to go!" I wailed as she dragged me down the stairs. "Please don't make me!"

She stopped and turned to me, eyes narrowed. "Quit it. I'm taking you to a concert, not dragging you to Hell."

"Little difference," I muttered. Kate sighed so violently I felt her breath on my neck like a gust of wind.

"Nothing bad is going to happen, Hal! You might even enjoy it."

"Impossible," I said as she continued down the stairs, pulling me along behind her. "There is nothing remotely appealing about it. I don't like rock music, especially when it's loud. And I don't like being around people, especially when we're standing so close together and it's hot and sweaty. Just the thought makes me want to wash my hands."

My protests continued as she shoved me into the passenger seat of her car, drove twelve miles to the beach, parked in the busy lot, and even as she pulled me out and led me over the sand toward the stage. She remained silent the whole time, unrelenting, like a firm mother hauling her child to the doctor for a shot. Eventually I wore myself out and quietly accepted the fact that I was stuck there for the next eight hours.

I should have faked my own death, I thought ruefully. Maybe then I could have gotten out of this. Maybe.

We stopped twenty feet from the stage. It was gigantic, its black backdrop hanging down like a giant cape, stirring with the breezes that came off the ocean. Metal beams framed the entire thing, holding light fixtures and large speakers that blared out some disjointed racket from a band on stage. I winced. Suddenly, death—fake or otherwise—didn't seem like such a bad idea.

As I degenerated, Kate brightened back to her usual self.

"See? It's not that bad!" she yelled over all the noise, pulling a tube of sunscreen from her tote.

"All this just to see one band perform two songs," I said. "You're mental."

She squeezed a huge dollop of the sunscreen into her palm and started rubbing it over her opposite arm. "You're the mental one for waiting this long to see them live. Have you even listened to the CDs I gave you last Christmas? They're amazing. True artists. That's so rare to find these days, you know? Well, all you listen to is Beethoven or whatever, so you probably don't. But trust me on this. The Thorns are going to be huge."

"Yep," I replied, hardly listening. Whenever Kate mentioned The Thorns—her absolute favorite local rock band—I found myself tuning out. See, I was an astute listener, the kind of person always labelled quiet or observant, unable to ignore anyone no matter how annoying they were. Kate, however, was a different story. I couldn't help but zone out whenever that silly band crept into conversation. She had a tendency to go on and on about them, blabbering about their music, their potential, and their supposedly hot lead singer.

"I'm telling you, though," she continued. "Their artistry is... God, there isn't even a word in the English language for it. You'll see what I mean when they go on in a few hours. You're going to fall in love with them, Hallie. Seriously."

"Yep."

"Especially Shea. He really pulls it all together with his writing and his singing. Some people say he's a jerk and he doesn't care, but I don't think so. I mean, yeah, he might be a jerk, but he's so devoted to the music it's incredible. Doesn't hurt that he's gorgeous, too."

"Yep."

"Are you listening to me?"

"Yep."

She punched me lightly in the shoulder and I smiled. "You'll see," was all she said, rubbing sunscreen onto her other arm.

We stood through several more sets by mostly unknown bands. They had odd names, like Electric Zebra and Smelly Jelly. But the names couldn't compare to the music. It was pretty bad. Although I wasn't a connoisseur of rock, I could still appreciate the efforts of Pink Floyd, The Doors, and Queen. This, though, I could barely tolerate. Halfway through some song with a heavy synthesizer and a male singer who sounded like a twelve-year-old girl, I decided I needed a break.

"I'm going to get some water," I told Kate. "Be right back."

"If you take longer than ten minutes I'm going to murder you," she replied.

"That would be merciful at this point."

She just looked at me, unamused.

The line to the concession stand stretched and curled like a long row of dominoes down the boardwalk. Not surprising considering it was eighty-nine degrees outside, but heat was hardly a novelty here in Florida. It was like the beach and the sunshine and the summer storms—just something that came with the territory. Thankfully, so did air conditioning. Having spent most of my life in comfortable, artificially-controlled temperatures, I couldn't say I was used to this feeling of sweat frosting my armpits and salty beach air destroying my carefully cultivated ponytail.

I ran a hand over my scalp, pushing back loose strands of dark blonde hair. It had the texture of fried straw. Probably the appearance of it, too. I made a mental note to avoid reflective surfaces.

The line moved up one step. I was at the tail end of it, no one behind me, about three dozen people ahead of me. I didn't mind, though. It was better than being in front of that stage, especially now with the current singer whining like a dying wildebeest.

Another step forward. For a fleeting moment I wondered if I could cull a story from this whole experience, make my torture here worthwhile. Almost immediately, I dismissed the thought. There was nothing to say other than, "It was awful," which would make a short and rather inarticulate article. Two characteristics that, as an amateur college journalist, I certainly did not possess.

Another step forward. Truth be told, I wasn't even working on my university's newspaper at the moment. Summer was always our slowest season with the school on break. As a result, we only published on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Kind of ironic considering we were called Solena Daily, but then we were never an organization to quibble over semantics.

I guess I thought about the paper so much because I was at a crucial point in my college career. I'd had some good pieces, a few that caught my editor's eye, but nothing quite big enough. No hard-hitting interviews, no shocking exposès. Nothing strong enough to throw me on the map. With my senior year only months away, time was running out. So I was constantly on the lookout, watching carefully, listening closely, because a great story could be anywhere.

Gradually, I made it to the front of the line where a guy with a buzz cut asked me what I wanted.

"I'd like a bottled water, please," I said, taking out my wallet.

He grabbed one from below. It was kind of small, but obviously ice cold as it dripped condensation. And that, in eighty-nine degree weather, was like the Holy Grail itself.

He placed it on the counter between us. "That'll be four-fifty."

I honestly thought I'd misheard him. "Pardon?"

"Four-fifty."

"Four bucks for this tiny thing?"

"And fifty cents," he added.

"Are you kidding me? What does this retail for before your ridiculous markup?"

The guy sighed. "Look, lady, you want the water or not?"

"No thank you." I stuffed my wallet back into my purse. "I won't support an operation that so egregiously takes advantage of the dehydrated."

He shrugged. "Suit yourself."

I trudged back to Kate, thoroughly annoyed. It wasn't just the over-priced water, either. The heat, the air, the sand, the crowd, the subpar genre of music—it was a hideous medley of everything I despised. All I needed now was a bowl of peas and some clowns to descend into utter madness.

That would make a good story. 'Girl Goes Off At Rock Concert, Drowns Everyone in Vegetable Soup.'

"Twenty-three minutes," Kate said as soon as I was within earshot, tapping the face of her phone. "I'll kill you later. It's too hot to move right now."

I sighed in agreement, pulling the collar of my top away from my neck. It was then that I took notice of how badly dressed I was for the occasion. The people around me were in swimsuits, shorts, flip flops. The kind of attire one normally wears to the beach. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, highly aware of my long-sleeve blouse, pencil skirt, and kitten heels.

Well, at least I'm not wearing pantyhose. There's one silver lining. I shuddered at the thought, reaching up to re-do my ponytail.

Horrible bands came and went as the hours dragged by, the temperature only continuing to climb, nearing the ungodly threshold of one-hundred degrees. Exacerbating matters, I had nothing to sit down on, nothing to shield myself from the sun's ruthless rays, and—worst of all—nothing to drink. My throat was heavy, lips chapped, tongue a dried up, lifeless lump of taste receptors in my mouth. Despite it all, I tried to soldier on, to come out of this horrific event victorious, triumphant, all-conquering.

Five hours in and I was almost certain I was dying.

"Kate," I rasped, so lost in my sun-baked delirium that I could barely hear the music anymore. "Kate, I'm burning up. And my legs ache."

"Oh, you're fine," she said, nodding her head to the beat.

"Seriously. I think I'm decomposing."

"Go get another bottle of water."

"No. I refuse to pay for grossly inflated goods."

"Tough shit, then."

"Kate!"

She blew out another violent sigh. "Well, what do you expect me to do? Wave my magic wand around and make everything better?"

I mustered a halfhearted glare in her direction. "We've been standing here for five hours. How are you not exhausted? Are you some hardy subspecies of human?"

"That's the thing about concerts," she said. "There's a lot of standing. I've got something that might help, though. Here." She rummaged through her bag and pulled out a bottle of my liquid nemesis: Pompous Weasel, a beer notorious for its obscenely high alcohol content and—according to Kate—"robust smokey flavor with gentle notes of vanilla." She carried bottles of the stuff around in her purse like one would carry a wallet or a set of keys.

"Since when do I drink?" I asked.

"Come on, Hal." She pulled out another one. "You turned twenty-one a month ago. What are you waiting for?"

Admittedly, seeing a potable liquid stirred temptation within me. But I never drank. Never had a sip of alcohol in my life, not even champagne on New Year's or wine with dinner. To humor Kate, or maybe to satisfy my own curiosity, I asked her how the beer was supposed to help.

"Because it makes you feel good," she said, putting so much weight on the good I came close to believing her. Still, I shook my head.

She put one bottle back and popped the top off the other one. "Well. Don't say I didn't offer."

My face must have said it all, because she furrowed her brow. "Look, I only want a buzz. I won't overdo it again."

She would. I knew her. I'd known her since we were five. And out of those sixteen years of friendship, she'd spent half of them wasted. I wasn't naïve enough to believe tonight would be any exception, or that I could do anything to stop it. So when she raised the bottle to her lips and guzzled it down, gulp after gulp, all I could do was stand by and hope she wouldn't get too carried away, otherwise I would literally have to carry her away. Which wasn't all that fun. Kate was two inches taller than me and weighed slightly more. When I'd had to move her around in the past, I'd mostly dragged her since I severely lacked any upper body strength.

But that exact scenario seemed to be in the cards tonight as she never stopped. She finished off her bottle, wobbled a bit, and got out another one.

The last few hours passed by quicker than the ones before, as if time finally decided I'd suffered enough and started moving normally again. The sun was almost completely buried in the horizon, the sky navy blue and getting darker by the minute.

I kept checking my watch, eager to leave. And it wasn't because of the humidity clinging to my skin and hair, or the swarms of people joining the already huge audience, or the music pounding away ninety decibels too loud. Worse. It was Kate.

"Dance with me, Hallie! Come on!"

She whipped off her coverup and wiggled her bikini-clad bottom from side to side, not even in rhythm with the song playing. Guys around us stared, hypnotized, as though her derrière were a swinging pocket watch.

Here we go again, I thought with a sigh, edging away from her. She finished off her third and final bottle of Pompous Weasel, burped, and dropped it onto the sand at her feet.

"Why aren't you dancing?" she asked, her voice sagging into a slur. "It's fun!"

"Kate. Please."

"Come on, Hallie."

"I'll dance with you," some guy behind us said. Several snickers followed. Kate didn't notice, though. She'd stopped moving, her eyes on the stage where the host of the event was walking toward the mic. He'd appeared after each act, introducing the next band to play. But this time, as the sun disappeared and the sky darkened to a bottomless black, there was something more in the air and on his face. Excitement. I could almost feel it, as tangible as the moisture in the air around us, warm and stifling.

"Our next performers recently finished a tour around the southeast with Seven Seven, Louise Emerson, and The Photogenics," the bearded host said, standing in a single spot of light. "Now they're back home and ready to rock!" The crowd screamed in response. "Without further ado, here are The Thorns!"

The light switched off.

"Oh my God. Oh my God." Kate's eyes were wide and bright—almost sober. I followed their track and peered with her up above, where a group of five guys entered stage left.

Although I couldn't make them out clearly, I could see the attitude in their steps, plain as day. Haughty and quick, they strode across the stage as if they owned it.

"Oh my God."

Kate looked ready to pass out.

"Do you need some air?" I asked, partly because I was concerned, but mostly because it was a good excuse to leave. She shook her head wildly, batting someone nearby with her brown hair, never taking her eyes off the band.

I turned back to the front. The singer was just a dark figure behind his mic stand, slathered in shadows. A guitar whined out of nowhere and the crowd went crazy—all in one breath—and just like that the show began.

Lights popped on from above and illuminated everything: the keyboardist with bowl-shaped hair and huge glasses; the drummer in the center, his head bald and shiny; two guitarists standing on either side of the stage like bookends, one tall and thin, the other sporting long black hair drawn up into a high ponytail. And in front of it all, at the very edge of the stage where hands extended toward him, wanting to touch, to feel, was the singer.

He too had a guitar strapped on, his eyes on its strings as he plucked notes. Then he looked up at the crowd, shaking messy blond hair from his face.

A group of girls nearby squealed like newborn piglets.

"I take it he's the popular one, huh?" I yelled into Kate's ear. She barely heard me.

"Who, him?" She pointed straight ahead of us at the blond boy playing his guitar and staring off into the distance, appearing rather bored.

"Yeah."

"That's him. Shea O'Leary. Lead singer and bassist." I think she sighed, but I couldn't have heard it for the life of me. "He's hot."

I turned my attention back to the guy. His face was so blank you'd think he was sitting in a waiting room, not playing for a crowd of hundreds of people. But Kate was right about one thing: He was an attractive man, even in just a dark tank and jeans. Not that he needed the flamboyance of studs and leather. Not at all. His face was enough. With his strong jaw and heavy brows, he was a paradigm of masculinity, the kind that detonated women's ovaries. But there was still softness there, something quiet and almost angelic in his features, his movements. Under the lights his wild hair shone as brilliantly as a halo—a stark contrast to the dark circles beneath his eyes. But those eyes… pale, shiny pieces of sky. They were half open as they stared coolly ahead, seemingly oblivious to the audience.

"We love you, Shea!" several girls shouted. I watched his face for something—a bit of expression, maybe some sort of recognition—but nope. Nothing. He remained stoic as the drums kicked in. Then, he stepped forward and opened his mouth.

"Red, red world, worms crawling inside," he sang in a deep and, unsurprisingly, unaffected voice. "Pixelated, congregated, how much longer can I survive."

"Whoo!" The people around me waved their arms and yelled, clearly more enthusiastic about this performance than I was. Maybe it was the unreasonably high expectations Kate had built up in my head. Maybe it was my own chronic finickiness. Or maybe they really weren't very good. Either way, I wasn't impressed. I crossed my arms over my chest and waited for their set to end.

That's when Shea O'Leary's eyes drifted down to lock onto mine. At first I didn't think anything of it. I was just one tiny face in a sea of many. Nothing remarkable enough to stand out, to warrant any special attention. But as the band strummed and pressed and beat their way through the song, two things became apparent. First, he was staring at me. And second, he wouldn't stop staring at me.

I tried to tear my gaze away, even as Kate nudged my arm, but I couldn't. I couldn't move any part of my body, so I stood there, frozen, as he sang to me.

"I'd rather dig, I'd rather know." He broke eye contact to glance down at his guitar, but in a flash the icy eyes were back on mine. "The uncut hair of graves stand up and grow."

Then, an explosion. Of noise, of emotion. I felt it around me and within me, a breathless anxiety. The good kind. The kind that made me pulse with life. As the band shifted into the chorus the audience completely lost whatever restraint they'd had left, jumping and screaming and singing along.

"Come with me. Keep up, keep up. We're in a race with time," Shea sang with his bandmates. "Come with me. Hurry up, hurry up. We're leaving this place behind."

"So." Kate sloppily leaned an arm on my shoulder and grinned. "Enjoying yourself now?"

I watched as Shea O'Leary's intense eyes looked down at his guitar, then back up at me. Only me. Like I was the only person out there beyond the stage on the sand, the only person in the entire world. The only thing that mattered.

"Yeah," I said, staring back at him. "I am."

We should have gathered our belongings, moved with the flow of the dispersing crowd, climbed into the car and went home. That is, after all, what one usually does at the close of a concert. Instead, I found myself hurrying after a stumbling Kate in the darkness behind the stage.

"Kate," I hissed, "what are you doing?"

She only laughed.

"We're going to get caught."

She ducked down as we reached a small subdivision of white tents. Each had a paper taped to the front with a band's name on it. The last one, far off on the right with the entrance flaps tightly closed, belonged to The Thorns. That was all Kate needed.

She crawled on her hands and knees—unsteady even on all fours—behind the row of tents leading to her destination. I stooped down and followed her with our bags hidden behind my back in a lame attempt to keep a low profile.

"Are you insane? We shouldn't be doing this!"

She kept going, moving like a drunk, slow motion ninja.

"Come on. Let's go home," I said.

No response.

"Kate, please. They're going to throw us out."

She stopped. At first I thought I'd finally gotten through to her, but then, as she angled her head down and her body tensed, I realized what was happening. I threw our bags down and scooped her hair out of her face, right before she vomited on a patch of beach grass.

"All right," I said, patting her back as she coughed and groaned. "We're leaving now."

She groaned again. Whether it was in agreement or in protest, I wasn't sure, but it didn't matter. I pulled her to her feet, draped one of her arms around my shoulders, fastened one of my own around her torso, and started to half-lead, half-drag her out of the restricted area. We were halfway through when two low voices surfaced ahead, moving, drawing nearer.

"You're kidding."

"Nope. We've got our own place out in the sticks. Off Avalon Road if you want to check it out."

A flash of yellow. I wasn't sure what it was, exactly, but I was hardly in a position to care. The moment I saw it bob into view only yards away, I dove to hide us behind the side of a tent.

"Wut…" Kate blinked her bloodshot eyes. "Halleh?"

"Shh," I said. The two men were close. Way too close. I could hear their quiet conversation very clearly.

"Wow. You're serious?"

"Yeah, man."

"How much you selling for?"

"Twenty bucks a gram."

In the pause that followed, I peeked out from behind the tent. Nothing was strange or noteworthy in appearance about one of the men. White T-shirt, jeans, short brown hair. I'd seen a hundred guys on campus just like him. The other one, however, was far from ordinary. He had on a perfectly fitted gray suit, aviator sunglasses, a tie the shade of cheddar and about fifty gallons of hair gel.

"That's a little pricey," the first man said.

"Not for what you get," Yellow Tie replied, slipping his hands into his pockets. "Me and the boys—we only grow the best seeds. Custom soil, too."

The first man still looked doubtful.

As if Yellow Tie knew this would happen in advance, he pulled out his left hand. Several gold rings caught the moonlight, glittering on his fingers, but it wasn't the jewelry that captured my attention. No. It was the tiny bag in his palm, filled with what looked to be catnip or dried basil.

I knew it was neither.

The first man peered at it, intrigued. "You said you're off Avalon, right?"

"Yeah. Way out past the water tower."

"Huh." Another pause. "I'll think about it."

Yellow Tie tucked it back into his pocket. "Business is booming. I'd get in on this if I were you. But hey, if you need time to think it over, that's fine. Give me a call by the end of the month. My cell, not my home phone."

"All right. See you next week, man." The first guy started walking off.

"Oh, and Craig?" Yellow Tie called, causing him to stop and turn.

"Yeah?"

"This stays between us."

"Of course."

Twenty bucks a gram. I stood motionless with Kate still latched to my side, thinking in bursts. Place in the sticks. Best seeds. Twenty bucks a gram. Stays between us.

Meanwhile, Yellow Tie took a slightly different direction back into the main lighted area. A woman with a clipboard walked up to him.

"Are you Bernie? The Thorns' manager?" she asked.

"Yeah. What can I do for you?"

"We have some VIPs waiting in the lounge for—"

I started to run. Or, well, tried. The extra body on my right side made any kind of swift movement impossible, but I pushed us forward anyway, out of the backstage area and across the beach to the parking lot.

"Keys, keys," I mumbled to myself. I propped Kate against her white Honda and dug through her tote. As a mobile hoarder she always carried way too much stuff around in her purse. Pens, empty boxes of Tic Tacs, papers, nail polish, tissues, Twizzlers, a half-eaten sandwich—I sifted through it all before finally finding her keys at the bottom.

"Get in," I said, pushing her half-asleep form into the passenger seat.

"Wur we goin'?"

"Home." Eventually. I strapped her in. "Feel free to doze off if you want."

She nodded, eyes closed, head lolling back. In seconds she was gone.

I closed her door as quietly as I could, my mind working out the quickest way to Avalon Road.