At the hotel, Mal and I had watched movies and taken it easy. It’d been great. Lori had invited me down to the lobby bar for a drink before dinner. She seemed more concerned about the media attention than I was. Though I’d managed to pretty successfully hide from it so far. I assured her that her son and I were doing fine. Real fine.
It had, all in all, been a great day. And this dive bar was cool and relaxed and all that it should be. We’d spread out around a table against the far wall. With a nod to one of the bartenders, Ben had ordered pitchers of beer (water for Jimmy and Lena).
“Owner’s a friend. We come here to play pool sometimes during the day,” Mal said, pulling my chair closer to his. He seemed wired, beating out a rhythm on the tabletop with the palm of his hand. The mood was infectious, keeping me on edge too.
I don’t think I’d understood how tight-knit the band and their families were. During the dinner, David and Jimmy had doted on Lori. They pretty much treated her as if she were their own mother out for a visit. Even Ben had demonstrated a subdued sort of affection. And they all seemed to respect the mostly silent Neil, Mal’s dad. Father and son had kept a close eye on Lori again throughout the evening. They practically hovered at her side. Lori had gotten tired again and Neil had taken her back to the hotel.
Yes, I had suspicions aplenty about what was stressing Mal out and keeping him up at night. But we were getting along so well. He’d asked me not to question him. Not yet. And I wasn’t ready to provide him with answers on my issues either. So I kept my concerns to myself for the time being. But judgment day was coming for both of us. I could feel it.
Only a few days out from the start of the tour, everyone seemed too restless to call it a night once Lori and Neil left. It was too early, only just past nine.
Strange looks were being passed between David and Jimmy. They’d give Mal curious glances and then talk amongst themselves. I had a feeling Mal was very much aware of it, the way he was turned away, giving the pair the cold shoulder.
“Hey,” Mal said, his smile twitchy. “Let’s go back to the apartment and break the bed some more.”
“We just got here.”
“Yeah, I changed my mind. I wanna be alone with you.” His foot started tapping out a hyper beat against the ground. “What do you say? We’ll just get na**d and see what happens after that.”
“Sounds like a great experiment. Can I just finish this drink and then we’ll go? Be rude to take off right away.”
“Pfft. How often do Davie and Ev disappear at things?”
“I’ll drink fast,” I promised, before proceeding to gulp half of my glass of beer. Only a little dribbled down my chin and wet my tight green sweater. Rushing might not have been ladylike, it’s true. But with Mal wanting to get na**d and dirty, can you blame me?
With all the whispering of wicked things stirring up my hormones, I hadn’t noticed the Ferris brother’s heated conversation. Down the other end of the table, they were all but growling at each other.
Jimmy thumped the table, making the beer glasses shake and drawing the attention of surrounding patrons. “Fuck’s sake, Dave. Just ask him.”
“I said leave it for now,” his brother answered.
Ben sat back in his chair and crossed his thick arms, saying nothing, watching everything. A new song came on, the opening chords ear-shatteringly loud.
“Yeah!” yelled one of the long-haired, heavily tattooed men behind the bar. Glad someone was having a good time. The atmosphere around the table had turned decidedly dark.
A muscle started ticking in Mal’s neck. He looked back at the Ferris brothers, his face like thunder. “What?”
“You know what,” said Jimmy, yelling to be heard over the music.
Mal spread his hands expansively. “Jimbo, I’m a man of many, many talents, but reading your f**king mind ain’t one of them.”
“What’s going on with Lori?”
Ev’s gaze darted to mine. I didn’t know any more than she did. Still.
“You on something, Jimbo?” asked Mal, sitting forward in his seat. “Tell the truth now.”
“Don’t be an ass**le.” David leaned his elbows on the table, staring furiously at Mal. “We care about her. She’s lost a shitload of weight. Looks like a breeze could blow her away. You and Neil never take your eyes off her. You know exactly what Jimmy’s talking about.”
I could almost hear Mal grinding his teeth.
“We have a right to know,” said Jimmy.
David sucked in his cheeks. “C’mon, man. Just tell us.”
Shit. Mal went rigid in his seat beside me and then he started rocking. We needed to leave.
I placed my hand on his arm. He vibrated with tension. I didn’t know how to comfort him, but I had to try. “Mal?”
He shook me off without so much as a glance.
“She had a flu or something,” said Mal. “That’s all. Don’t make a big deal out of it.”
Jimmy shot forward in his seat. “It’s more than that. Don’t you f**king lie.”
“This is what’s been messing with your head, isn’t it?” asked David. “Lori’s sick. Real sick.”
“I don’t know what you two are talking about.” Mal’s laughter was a horrible thing. “This is ridiculous. Jimmy here’s probably back to f**king freebasing, but what’s your excuse, Davie?”
Lena pushed out of her seat. She grabbed the remaining half-full pitcher of beer and threw it in Mal’s face. Foamy cold liquid splashed me, and Mal snapped back in surprise.
“What the f**k?” he roared, rising quickly out of the chair.
Across from him, Jimmy shot to his feet as well, shoving a belligerent Lena behind him. Everyone stopped, all conversation in the bar falling silent. The few quiet drinks plan had clearly fallen to shit.
“Don’t you yell at her,” said Jimmy, hands curled into fists.
Mal’s shoulders heaved. The two men faced off across the table, both clearly furious. Slowly, Ben and David got to their feet. This was all going to hell in a handbasket.
“Mal, let’s go,” I said. “Give everyone a chance to cool off.”
Again, he ignored me.
“Walk away, bro,” said Ben, voice eerily calm.
Beer dripped from Mal’s hair. The front of his shirt was soaked. From behind us came a flash of light. A guy stood with his phone, taking pictures. Asshole.
Without another word, Mal turned and bolted for the stairs, almost sending a girl carrying a bottle of something flying. I just stood there stunned for a moment, useless and stinking of beer. Ben and Sam took off after him.
“Anne, let us handle it,” said David.
David and Jimmy both left too, jogging up the small, dark stairwell. Like hell I was doing as I was told.
Mal had left his jacket over the back of his seat. He’d freeze out there. I picked it up and a hand grabbed my wrist. Ev’s hand.
“Please, give them a chance to talk,” she said, getting in my face. “Those guys have been together a long time.”
I picked up my purse and held his jacket to my chest. “No.”
I didn’t have time for this shit. What I needed to do was to find Mal and see if he was all right.
I rushed up the stairs, past the ground-floor bar and out the door. The cold night air chilled me, courtesy of the wet patches on my sweater and jeans. My heart beat double-time. Shit. There was no sign of any of them in either direction. His black Jeep was gone from across the street. They could be f**king anywhere by now.
What to do? Where to go? Maybe he’d headed back to the hotel. Yes, of course. A cab cruised by and I held out my arm. Far too damn slowly, it pulled to a stop.
I threw open the back door and climbed in. “The Benson, please.”
I’d find him.
The text from Ev came at quarter to eleven. I’d been wide awake, staring at the ceiling because staring at the walls had gotten old. He hadn’t come back to the hotel. I’d been waiting for over half an hour.
Ev: Lauren gave me your number. The guys talked things out with Mal then he took off again. They don’t know where to.
Ev: Do you know where he might be?
Anne: If I find him I’ll let you know
He might have been driving around town. But far more likely, if he was still worked up, he’d want to take it out on his drum kit.
I took a cab. Money might be tight, but I wouldn’t be waiting for him to come to me any longer. Hopefully David and co. had talked him down, calmed him. Now it was time to play my part, whatever that might be. I sat in the backseat, trying to think up speeches. All in all, I was out of wise words.
A hazy drizzle began to fall from the sky as I arrived at the practice hall. My breath misted in the cold. Ah, Portland. It never disappointed. Best weather ever. Mal’s Jeep sat parked next to the building. Thank god, he was here.
The frenetic beat of drums hammered through the building’s walls, shaking it to its foundation. A few brave bugs circled the dim light above the metal door. He’d left the door unlocked, thankfully. I stepped inside, bracing myself for the noise. Up on the stage, Mal, sitting in a pool of light, was creating an almighty storm of noise.
Closer to him, broken drum sticks littered the area. Mal had snapped an impressive amount in such a short time.
I climbed up onto the stage, making my way around to him. He sat, poised at the drum kit with eyes closed, hands moving so fast they were almost a blur. Sweat shone, already covering his upper body. Blond hair stuck to the sides of his face. A quarter-empty bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label sat beside him on the floor. The lines of his muscles and the angles of his cheekbones were stark beneath the harsh lighting.
He seemed lost in his own world, totally unaware. I hesitated for a moment then sank down, sitting cross-legged. I covered my ears but it made little difference to the deafening thunder of the drums. No matter. The clash of the cymbals cut through me. The heavy thud of the bass hit my heart. He played on and on, moving between rhythms but never slowing down. Not even to drink. He’d pick up the bottle and just hold it, one-handed, his other hand and both feet never missing a beat.
After the second slug of scotch, though, he didn’t get the bottle all the way to the floor before letting go. It tipped over, liquid pouring out. I slid over and set it upright, replacing it in its spot beside him. For the first time he seemed to register my presence, tilting his chin in greeting or appreciation or I don’t know what. Maybe I just imagined it. Then he was back to the music, powering on.
I pulled out my phone then hesitated. Ev had pissed me off, holding me up, but these people were also his family. They deserved to know he was still in one piece.
Anne: He’s at the practice hall
Ev: Thank you
David Ferris strode in not fifteen minutes later. He nodded to me, then picked up a guitar and plugged it in. As the first strains of noise rang out Mal opened one eye and saw David standing opposite him. Nothing was said. Time moved by, both sluggish and swift at once. The two of them played for hours. I fell into some sort of daze. It took me a moment to realize when they finally stopped.
“Hey,” he croaked, the words muted as if we were underwater. The noise might have broken my ears.
He put the almost empty bottle of scotch to his lips and tossed some back. His gaze stayed on me. Carefully, he screwed the lid back on. It took him a couple of tries. “I’m a little bit f**ked-up, pumpkin.”
“That’s okay. I’ll help get you back to the hotel.”
He nodded, sniffed his armpits. “And I stink.”
“I’ll help you shower too.” I walked over and knelt between his legs. “Not a problem.”