We were standing on the corner of Grant and 23rd when this guy came sidling up to us. He had on a long skeezy coat and was talking out of the corner of his mouth in that mumble where you can’t tell if he wants to beg a ride or a dollar or sell you drugs or what. His had a lumpy scarf wrapped around most of his face and under it, he could have been twenty-eight or thirty-five or sixty.
My brother Jack said, “Is it sold out?” and after he said that, I could kind of backtrack the guy’s mumble and break it into words.
Tickets. The guy was holding a pair of show tickets. They glowed paper-white under the streetlights. You boys need tickets?
I shook my head, but Jack was already digging around in his pockets, searching for his wallet.
“No!” I said, and I said it fast and loud, grabbing for his elbow like that might actually stop him from doing whatever the hell he wanted.
Jack only laughed and pulled his arm out of my hand. “Hey, what’s the problem? You love Giantkiller, right? And you’ve been yowling all day about your stupid guitar, so this makes us square.”
I just looked at him. Square would be my Fender back.
Square would be if I could have a new brother.
He looked right at me, smiling in the way that when we were little always meant he was about to hold me down in the swimming pool or take my candy bar or lock me in the basement. “Acting like a whiny little bitch isn’t going to get your guitar back.”
There was an empty Schlitz can lying in the middle of the sidewalk and I kicked it hard so it went bouncing along the gutter and down into the storm drain. “If you’d have just stuck to pawning your own shit, I wouldn’t need to get it back. And yeah, I liked Giantkiller in the eighth grade. ”
Jack shrugged and smiled like none of that even made a difference. He handed the guy a couple of twenties and punched me on the arm. “Stop moaning about the guitar. We’ll get you another one.”
He passed me a ticket. It was crumpled and worn soft from being held in the guy’s gloved hand all night.
Also, Jack is an asshole.
Inside the club, the crowd was packed in all the way to the back bar. The whole place was dim and smelled like stale sweat and old beer and drying blood from the mosh pit.
Jack pushed straight through the swarms of people like they weren’t even there, and everyone just let him, even though two feet away, I saw a guy get punched in the face just for trying not to get crushed against the wall.
When Mason Tyler came onstage, the crowd screamed like they were being eaten alive.
I remembered how when I was fourteen, all I wanted was to be him, with the torn T-shirts and the dyed hair and everything. Now though, purple guyliner and leather pants just seemed kind of embarrassing.
Around us, the crowd was shrieking and jumping, slamming into each other. They were covered in tattoos, with facial piercings and dyed-black hair. It was hard to tell who was in makeup and who was just pale and who might be something not quite human. In the dark, it all started to look real.
The band was all girls, except for Mason. They came on in single file, marching across the stage. The keyboard player was this tiny, spritely creature, with a high little ponytail and a short little skirt, but the kind of boots that could kick your ass all by themselves. Her arms were stacked to the elbows with studded bracelets and leather cuffs. When she came up to the keyboard stand, her ponytail bobbed like it was counting off the beat.
The drummer waved her sticks above her head and for one electric second, everyone went dead-quiet. Her hair was bleached ash-white, streaked purple with lipstick to match, but under the flashing lights, her mouth looked black. Then the sticks came down and the screaming was back and louder than ever. Her nails were long and sticky-looking, like a wicked queen in a story—like she’d been digging around in a carved silver box for someone’s heart.
At the very edge of the stage, the bassist was staring off into the floodlights like she wasn’t quite sure she was in the right place or if this was an accident or if she even knew the object she was holding was for making noise. Her hair was piled high in a candy-yellow beehive, stuck full of so many cheap plastic toys and cocktail umbrellas and fake flowers it was impossible to tell whether it was a wig or not. It looked like it might just have sprung up like a mushroom or been built by hand like a wedding cake. She picked out the baseline with vague, uncertain fingers, like it was always two seconds from getting away from her.
Then Mason hit the first chord and the whole place shook like autumn leaves, howled like the gates of hell.
“My God,” I said, even though a second ago, I’d been ready to spend the whole night being pissed off and totally unimpressed.
The guitar was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen, though. It looked like it was made out of magic and blood, like a sacred object. It looked like it was made out of dying stars or dragon tears.
Jack leaned over to shout into my ear. “Pretty cool, huh. You want it?”
I shook my head, but I shook it clumsy and slow, like I was floating around underwater. My mouth wouldn’t close.
“I’ll get it for you,” he said, and right when he said it, I was so, so scared that he would.
I turned and stared at him, and this time when I shook my head, I did it fast and certain. “You can’t just take something because you decide you want it. You can’t take people’s things!” Which was a pointless thing to say, because taking people’s things was kind of what Jack did in life. “That guitar does not belong to you!”
“So what? They make what, like millions of dollars? They can afford to replace one stupid guitar.”
I turned my back on him and stared off into the thrashing crowd. “That is not a reason.”
Backstage, there were girls everywhere, but mostly draped across Mason Tyler.
Jack walked straight into the middle of the party like he belonged there. He’d barely glanced at security when they’d tried to stop him. He’d said, “Do you know who I am?” and they’d backed right off, because any time Jack said that, people stammered and fell all over themselves trying to figure out where they were supposed to know him from.
At the back of the room, the drummer was standing by a long table covered with huge catering trays of little frosted cakes and elaborately cut fruit. Up close, her fingernails were so long they looked poisonous. Her eye makeup was wine-purple and bone-white to match her hair.
“And now we’ve reached the portion of the evening reserved for party crashers,” she said when I came up next to her, but she smiled when she said it. She didn’t tell me to leave. All the food was shaped like human organs.
Over in the corner, the bassist was sitting on the edge of a metal folding chair with her tower of hair wobbling above her and her ankles crossed. She was holding a tiny china plate with a glistening red-frosted cake in the middle. When she cut into it with her fork, the filling spilled out over the plate in a deep, oozing puddle. She licked it off her fingers and smiled when she saw me watching.
Jack was across the room now, talking to Mason Tyler like they were best friends and there wasn’t a random girl sitting in Mason’s lap.
I stayed exactly where I was, flat against the wall, trying to look invisible.
“Your friend must be brave,” said a voice beside me. “Or anyway, I prefer to think he’s brave, because otherwise he’s just stupid.”
The keyboard player was standing right by my elbow. She had bright, wicked eyes and freckles on her nose. Her stare made me think of all the stories I’d ever heard about pixies or leprechauns. I tried to remember if there were any where the leprechauns ate people.
“He’s not my friend,” I said. “He’s my brother.”
“Well, either way,” said the keyboard player, “he’s about to reach the extent of our hospitality.”
I looked where she was pointing. The groupies were crowding together now. Their faces had hardened, lengthened into the sharp beaky features of reptiles or birds, but at first, Jack didn’t seem to notice. They moved closer, reaching for him, catching hold, and when they put their mouths against his skin, for a second I thought that they were kissing him.
But it was more predatory than that. Not devouring, but exploring. Tasting.
The drummer rolled her eyes. “And there they go. Vicious little cannibals.” She might have sounded amused if she didn’t sound so bored. “Just stay quiet and don’t make any sudden movements. They’re sort of like dinosaurs that way.”
Her smile was wide and ferocious and I couldn’t tell whether or not she was joking.
I was trying to decide if I should make a move anyway, go plunging across to Jack, try to drag him out—if that would even be possible—when the bassist came drifting over to me, carrying Mason’s guitar. There was blood splashed across the fretboard.
“You can have it,” she said, holding it in her arms like she was holding a huge, unwieldy baby.
I shook my head.
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. It’s what you came for, isn’t it?”
I stared back at crowd of hands and mouths, where Jack was buried deep in the hive of bodies, somewhere at the center. “Do you mean it’s like a bargain? Like a trade or something? I take the guitar but I have to give you my brother?”
The bassist shook her head and the flock of plastic toys shook too. “Oh no,” she said. “He’s made a meal of himself either way, so you might as well get something out of it. He’ll entertain them for awhile and then they’ll be done with him and send him home, and maybe he’ll even still be a little like himself. Or maybe not. It’s hard to say.”
I watched as Mason’s groupies crowded around my brother, but by now, I could hardly even see him anymore. The bassist stood in front of me, blinking up expectantly.
I took the guitar.
On the corner of Grant and 23rd, I stood alone under the streetlight. There was no one lounging against any of the buildings now, and no one scalping tickets. I held the guitar by the neck, feeling unsteady, like the ground I was standing on might not be real ground.
Even here, in the still, icy night, the guitar seemed to be humming.
It wasn’t what I came for, but maybe fairytales weren’t the kind of thing you knew the moral to ahead of time.
It wasn’t what I came for, but it was close enough.
Our common prompt for April is the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk. Also, I took many liberties. Which surprises approximately no one.
Photo by leonelponce