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The Void Series

Sherry Wood

















Whatsoever I’ve feared has come to life

-Fell On Black Days, Soundgarden




They’ll talk about us, and discover

How we kissed and killed each other

-Sober II, Lorde








Part 1

Place of Worship



Part 2

The Nice Drawer



Part 3

I Wanna Be Your Dog







Part 1



Place of Worship












Future Channel: Police in Lightning Pond, North Carolina are scrambling for clues tonight after a gruesome discovery along Highway 21. The remains of a female were found along the highway not far from Pink Seashell Motel, where a maid stumbled upon blood and a dog collar in the bathroom of one of the motel rooms. Police believe both discoveries are related but have no suspects at this time.




1

Shady Rock, North Carolina is full of dark secrets. The church up the road with the sign out front that reads “Bringing life to dead places” is where five kids were molested by the church pastor two summers ago. The church shut down for the next two years, the vast parking lot consisting of nothing but a white cross. It recently reopened its doors ever so quietly. On Sundays you might see a truck or two parked there. Then there’s the bar on the dead end road about ten minutes from the church that’s apparently a front for a prostitution ring.

Shady Rock is quiet during the day and even quieter at night, when the sky is starry and interrupted only by tall trees and it looks like that scene in E.T. when all the kids take off flying on their bicycles screaming in glee over their newfound superpower. I want that power. Sometimes I feel it in the palm of my hand but then I get into someone’s car and feel the burn of the leather seat against my skin and that feeling of power disappears.

There’s usually a passing thunderstorm around dinner time in this town. It rolls up around four in the afternoon and explodes around five. It passes just in time to see the sky clear before the sun is completely devoured by night.

Shady Rock is a place of quiet streets where people keep to themselves. There’s one hair salon in the entire town, some chain restaurants, and a thrift store called Pennywise, named after the killer clown in It.

There’s a public pool, one high school, and a few strip clubs. Most of the

streets are shady with trees that threaten to knock down power lines when big storms roll up, which is often. Shady Rock makes a killing on flashlights and batteries and candles because of the constant power outages caused by these storms. Lightning here is a mass murderer. One kid was killed by lightning a few years ago at the public pool. A dog was struck by lightning just last week.

Big trees and crooked mailboxes line the roads. Brownan Road is one of these streets. There is a community of houses on Brownan Road called Pinecove Lane. It is a sleepy community. The houses here are so similar that if they weren’t numbered on the mailboxes, I’m not sure if anyone could tell them apart. They are small, quaint, with sun decks in the back. Some sundecks have picnic tables and beer coolers. Some have giant inflatable pools. Others have gazebos, dog houses and George Foreman grills. Backyards provide a bit of character while front yards are plain and simple.

I take a cab to Pinecove Lane from the bus station. I can see the blue dots in the backyards of the pools. Dad says take advantage of the quiet southern town to think about my future. Don’t spend it tanning and doing drugs.

I’m twenty-one. I should already be in college. The pressure is on for me to not end up a bum.

And I will, I’ll think about my future together with Bartley Soda, the singer of my favorite band. Because after every concert, I meet him and we get closer and closer. I’m not delusional, I’m hopeful. I’m a dreamer – what else is there to do here? His band Rusty Cage has a show here Friday night. Nothing will stop me from being there.

The Shady Rock cab driver passes the occasional shopping center with a Buckhorn Steakhouse, a movie theatre and a Family Dollar store. It’s not Chicago, that’s for sure. No skyscrapers interrupt the cloudless blue sky here. There are just a bunch of huddled trees and power lines, especially on the side of the house where I’m staying.

The cab driver pulls up to a black mailbox with the number 406 and a bluebird on it. I see the huddled trees and weeds that have grown so tall they nearly touch the powerlines just on the other side of the picket fence. When my dad rented the room for me on Airbnb, the owner, Edie, told him not to worry about No Man’s Land – the overgrown weeds and trees that bunch together. The snakes don’t come over here – the red picket fence she built keeps them out. She’s only ever found one spider in the house and it was a recluse and it was last summer.

I think No Man’s Land looks kind of pretty in its rebellious nature – like something you’d see in the deep bowels of Louisiana by the swamps.

Edie greets me at the door. She seems nice enough, but a little on edge. She’s smoking a cigarette and her red hair’s a bit of a mess. She has that sort of helmet hairdo moms get.

We shake hands and she says I look younger than twenty-one. I walk into her house – it’s very charming. The wooden floor is nice and smooth and terribly clean. The whole house is immaculate.

“You sure you’re twenty-one?” she makes a fuss while a very pretty girl with black curly hair stands in the corner of the kitchen under a sign that reads CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS. She is barefoot and has on a The Used concert t-shirt on and pink yoga shorts.

“Yes,” I say, smiling and being friendly like Dad said to. Just act normal, Dad likes to say. I know what he means by this: Don’t act like your mom.

“She looks twenty-one,” the girl in the corner says. I think she says it to get her mom to shut up.

“No she doesn’t!” Edie has a wicked laugh. “You have a baby face and such fair skin. I’d guess fifteen!”

I don’t know what to say. I end up saying thanks, although I’m not sure if I want to look that young. Maybe it’s my blonde hair and innocent blue eyes.

I’m shy and feel put on the spot. I look at the girl. She has black eyes like a snake, but they have a certain warmth about them. Her skin is a warm caramel tone.

“I’m Jessie Poloni,” she introduces herself. She is extremely softspoken.

“She knows our last name,” Edie sort of snaps. But then she smiles, and she doesn’t seem so testy. She’s already smoking another cigarette. She has a bottle of whiskey in her hand. It’s 4 pm.

I look back at Jessie.

“Well Jessie Poloni, show her the room,” Edie says.

There’s something docile about Jessie. She turns and heads down the hallway, stopping sharply for a second like a robot, or military just given orders. It’s cute and sardonic and I try not to laugh. There are butterflies in my stomach for some reason.

She moves slowly in her tight clothes as I follow her down the hall. While there is something docile about her, there’s also something serpentine.

Our travel is quite brief. My room is the first down the hall. It’s a cozy little room. It’s impersonal like a motel room, but it offers a type of charm. I like motel rooms. And I’m used to them. I’m also used to staying in strangers houses through Airbnb. I’ve been doing this for a while, ever since Dad met her, and starting dating her. Her stupid yoga and squats she does in front of me, not caring that I lost my mom. I hate her.

It certainly didn’t take Dad long to get over Mom. I feel hatred fill me up inside. I must do something quickly to dissolve it. I think of him – Bartley Soda. I rent rooms through Airbnb to follow them around. I did it in a couple of other cities, telling Dad I needed to go visit colleges there.

“This is cute,” I say of the room. “Charming.” I unzip my overnight bag and suddenly realize I left my favorite movie Red Eye at home.

Jessie looks around. “Yeah.” She doesn’t sound that impress. I like people that are hard to impress. It keeps the blood warm.

There’s a vase of freshly picked sunflowers by the small flatscreen TV. There’s a giant banana plant right outside my window that blocks most of the view. The wall is a nice mint green. The bed is small, but I’m used to small beds.

“Thanks Jessie, I like your shirt,” I say.

“Thanks, I like yours too.” She says this like it’s just a casual thing, but she just remarked on my religion. Oh my God. Bartley Soda is a God. Every day it hits me like the sweetest slap. I look down at my Rusty Cage shirt, which I wear every day. I do wash it, but the hour I spend without it as it tumbles in the wash and dries to a hot soft shirt again, is the loneliest hour. It’s quite worn and faded, the words on the back Gonna break my rusty cage and run, are barely even legible anymore.

“You know them?” I say, a bit breathless.

“Sure, the Soundgarden cover band, right?” she looks at me with her shy, marvelous black eyes.

“Yes, oh my god I love them.”

She giggles, but not in an insulting way.

“You listen to Bloodless?” she asks of the death metal band.

“Sometimes,” we’re talking so fast, music has broken the ice. It’s now a nice river or words rushing between us. Bloodless is a very controversial band from Hammerland, Norway. They recently moved to The States and played a controversial show in New York and brought a dead cat on stage and flung it into the crowd.

Bloodless is a little hardcore for me. I’m surprised someone as softspoken as Jessie likes them.

“They’re my favorite band,” she says, her black eyes sparkling.

Suddenly Edie appears. Her cigarette smoke rises from her hand and enters my room.

“What you two doing, having a slumber party?” she looks at Jessie and Jessie quickly walks out of my room like she’s not supposed to be there, and goes down the hallway where a giant set of keys hangs out of a lock on her door. She shuts the door and I hear the screaming of Bloodless singer Gary Barstad. It’s quite scary, it sounds like she’s watching a horror movie.

Edie seems immune to it. “You like your room?” she asks.

“I do, thank you.” The death metal band pours through the wall, so I know Jessie’s room is right next to mine.

Edie walks around and shows me where everything is. There’s a bunch of extra very white towels in drawers under the bed. She shows me the closet and on her way back to the door, a big clump of ash falls from her cigarette and stains the carpet. She doesn’t notice.

“Oh,” she bends down just when I think she’s leaving and pulls another drawer open. At first I think there’s a wild animal in there, but it’s just a fur throw.

“Now this is very expensive but you can use it is you get cold at night – and the thermostat is in the hallway.”

“Wow thanks.” I pick up the throw. It’s real fur and I’m in love with it. I will certainly use it during my ritual.


2

Edie and Jessie make dinner. I’m grateful for the food because my dad hasn’t sent me any money and I haven’t found a job here yet. Getting a summer job was supposed to be another part of my plan. But all I want is him. I can be his groupie, his slave. I’d live in his back pocket if I could.

At dinner, Jessie shows up with her eyes painted black. But it doesn’t matter how goth the dark Hot Topic stuff is, they still can’t match the darkness of her beautiful eyes. She’s also in a black leather skirt, a tight Bloodless t-shirt and faded grey converse. Me with my blonde hair and innocent blue eyes sitting next to her – we’re quite opposites. But I feel strangely comfortable around her.

“What the heck?” Edie comments on her daughter’s appearance. “You ain’t goin’ out tonight,” she makes clear.

“I know,” Jessie says, slightly defensive.

“Why you dressed like that then?”

She smirks. “I was takin’ seflies.”

“I wish you wouldn’t wear that shirt,” Edie fusses, stabbing the heck out of some pieces of broccoli.

“I wish you wouldn’t wear that shirt,” Jessie sasses. The shirt Eddie has on is a red and white checkered tank top. “It looks like something you’d have a picnic on,” Jessie further comments.

“Jessie, that’s enough,” Edie says, before returning her rusty brown eyes on me. I smile and try and act polite.

But I’m being too quiet and I know that makes people nervous and suspicious. Why so mysterious?

“Now what’s your shirt? What’s Rusty Cage?” she pokes.

My god, my religion, what I fall to my knees for.

“This band I love,” I just sum up. I’m going to marry the singer one day. Not even marry. We’ll go on the road together, rob banks, commit murder, wear each other’s blood on our shirts.

“Oh jeez,” she says, but in this weary, amusing way. “You two and band dudes. I mean what they ever done for you?”

I want to scream. I want to tell her everything that has happened in my life over the last two years – every painful detail that has impaled my heart so it’s this black and blue state that it’s in now, and how Rusty Cage has gotten me through the darkest of moments, but I just sit there and watch her smoke and drink her whiskey.

Then I just can’t help myself…

“Bartley Soda is from Texas. He has pretty blue eyes and wild blonde hair and swears Soundgarden saved his life, so he’s devoted his life to covering their songs. And Chris Cornell just died, which is crazy and he’s like maybe we should cancel the tour – is this a good time or a bad time? Because like we are just a cover band, you know? Is it disrespectful? We should just cancel. And I’m like nooooo, dude!! Are you serious? You must do the tour – we need you more than ever!”

I finish my rant and Jessie and Edie are both staring at me.

“Who’s Chris Cornell?” Edie asks.

“Oh god mom,” Jessie moans. “He was a singer…”

“He’s not a singer anymore.”

“He died.”

“He hung himself,” Jessie adds.

No one speaks for the moment.

“So what’s that mean?” Edie says. “Is the singer of Rusty Cage gonna die soon too? Since he does everything the other singer did right?”

“He will never die – he’s immortal,” I clearly state. I grin and Jessie grins too. With that black makeup she has on, Jessie’s eyes are like two giant holes. Two giant voids. I wouldn’t mind jumping into one and getting lost forever.

I go outside when I’m done with dinner to be closer to No Man’s Land. No Man’s Land belongs to no one, no one mows the grass or cuts the trees. Residents of Pinecove Lane build fences around their own yards and pretend it’s not there. There are snakes and ticks back there, and who knows what else. People ignore it because they are afraid of what lurks in the weeds that are taller than some of the trees. And because they are afraid, it grows even more unruly and wild, and becomes even scarier. More snakes, more insects. Monsters even. I’m as attracted to it as I am scared.

At night, I like to stare out at it. I imagine myself just walking off into it and returning as something – some creature no one can hurt. I don’t have a mom that died. I don’t know my mom. I’m just a creature, she left me when the egg dropped in the grass; it doesn’t matter. I eat I survive, and I hide in the shady No Man’s Land. Don’t step on me and I won’t bite you.

All kinds of sounds come from No Man’s Land at nighttime – dozens of insects doing their mating calls. It kind of sounds like a bunch of alarm clocks going off at the same time. I hear crickets and frogs and cicadas mostly. Inside my wicked heart that’s like some caged bug light, is a mating call for him…

Edie comes out with a bottle of wine and her pack of cigarettes and sits down at the picnic table with me.

“You lookin’ at No Man’s Land, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Now you might see something come over here,” she nods at No Man’s Land, and if you do, Clyde will get it.”

Clyde is Jessie’s big goofy dog. I don’t usually get along with dogs, but I’ve been quite fond of him. He seems to like me too.

Edie says she saw something that “may have been a possum” come out of the tower-tall bushes and weeds of No Man’s Land. It was big and crawling along the yard, but it was too dark to see anything but its funny shadow. It crept along, she says, afraid of nothing, on the hunt for anything.

It’s way too dark on Brownan Road at night to see anything for what it is. It’s the rich sound of the southern night that comes out of No Man’s Land. If you listen hard enough, if you’re tired of feeling safe, you might hear something else you don’t recognize. Something scary that could save you. Edie leaves me alone out here, and I finally feel at peace.

It is completely different on the sun deck at night than it is during the day, and I’m obsessed with the difference. I’m obsessed with what I can’t see on the other sided of the fence in No Man’s Land, and I want to see whatever Edie saw – that creepy crawly thing. But so far, all I’ve seen are mad moths and thirsty misquotes and spiders because spiders weave their webs at night I’ve learned, because they can be left alone to do so and catch their prey and feed.

It’s very quiet here. Brownan Road is even quiet during the day, with the occasional car wandering down the road every twenty minutes. But at night, it’s ridiculously stone quiet. That is why – if anything is rustling about over there in No Man’s Land, I know I can hear it. And I try, gluing my best ear to the darkness over there.

Maybe one night something crazy will happen, siren lights will hit the inkiest spot in No Man’s Land. Maybe someone will scream. Someone will come running out of the woods behind the cemetery by the train tracks. Something will happen. But for now – with the exception of the occasional cop pulling someone over in a gas station to write them a ticket, nothing seems to happen in Shady Rock.

 

3

It is my second week here.

Everything seems peaceful. I occasionally emerge and mingle with Edie and Jessie even though I get the feeling Edie doesn’t want me to be friends with her daughter. Every time we’re around each other, Edie seems to tense up.

In the morning, I try and keep to myself, but Edie comes into the kitchen, ranting about Friday.

“Jessie turns eighteen,” Edie tells me, as she opens the fridge. On the fridge is an adorable picture of Jessie when she was only six. Next to it is a post-it with the phone number for Angel House, a local shelter for battered women.

“She wants to do something, have a party or something,” Edie rolls her eyes.

“Eighteen’s a big deal,” I say.

“Is it? I can’t remember mine. No one threw me a party, I know that. She ain’t goin’ to a party – she’ll make out with everyone there. Guys and girls.”

I tend to my coffee, not saying anything.

“So what are your plans anyway?” Edie asks. I’m not the best conversationalist before coffee. “You’re just here for the summer and then what? School?” Edie is a professional smoker – she can talk very clearly even with a cigarette hanging between her lips. I can’t really recall a time I’ve seen her without either a pack of smokes in her hand, or a smoke in her mouth.

“I’m thinking about going to Sea Manning University in the fall, I’m very interested in marine biology.” This is BS. It’s something I say when I’m nervous. I try and carry on small talk. I don’t know what I want to do. Sea Manning is in Orlando, Florida.

“My dad’s…having our house renovated,” I tell her. “It’ll be done in the fall.” I make it sound like we’re moving back in but we’re not, not after what happened to my mom.

I miss her so much that there is a void in me. A void that grows bigger every day. They say things get better with time, but I’m not so sure. Sometimes I feel like time is a big wave that sweeps things away. Just things – more and more – until there’s nothing left.

“Where is your mom?” Edie asks.

I don’t know what to say. It’s too early for personal questions.

“She’s just…gone.”

I look at Jessie and I think she knows what I mean by that. I see the smile on her face start to fade. If her black eyes can get any darker, they do right then.

“Mom?” she says to Eddie, turning the attention off of me and I am more than grateful. I want to run off to my room but my feet don’t seem to work. So I just look at the stripes on the floor the sun makes through the blinds, and pretend everything is okay.

“Mom, I could have a houseparty here.” Jessie says. “Out on the deck, we could order pizza and watch movies.” This is a perfectly normal request for someone about to turn eighteen, but Edie just shakes her head.

“Oh jeez,” Edie says. I can tell she doesn’t want to talk about it. “I got to do something about work – money’s disappearing from the drawer.” Edie works at a jewelry store huddled between a laundromat and an Applebees.

           “You know anything about installing video cameras?” Edie asks me. “Like security cameras?”

           I shake my head. “No, I’ve never really done anything like that.”

           “Well,” she grimaces. “Someone’s been taking money from the register at work, Jessie. We should put in a security camera. The trick is to not let anyone know.”

Edie walks out of the room after this, saying nothing about Jessie’s eighteenth birthday.

I look at Jessie and make a promise. “We’ll do something cool.”

Jessie smiles a little and takes a popsicle out of the freezer. She takes one out for me too. They are banana-flavored. We take them and go out to the sun deck, where a fresh batch of morning sun completely warms everything in sight. It’s another cloudless sky over No Man’s Land kind of day. I pull the sticky paper down from the frozen pop. It sticks to it, with little webby lines of banana sugary stuff. Jessie and I put our popsicles in our mouths at the same exact second.

Jessie sits with her long legs fitted on the picnic table and starts laughing. Her laugh has a snort to it. Mine does too, and I always thought it was embarrassing but now that I hear hers, I laugh too, and she doesn’t make fun of me.

“What?” I ask why she’s laughing.

“Why can’t I eat popsicles without being perverted?!”

I laugh some more. “I know, right? I guess because they’re like frozen dicks.”

She starts laughing harder. Her curly black hair is an adorable just-rolled- out-of- bed mess. Jessie is beautiful, even with black makeup still smeared on her face from the night before. It’s barely noticeable – but right under the eager morning sun bursting of night’s secrets, it’s very noticeable. She catches me staring at her and I look away.

“What’s it like to be twenty-one?” she wonders, as if its worlds apart from being seventeen. I guess maybe it is.

“It’s fun.”

“You can drink,” she smiles. “My mom’s terrified of me turning twenty-one.”

“Yeah…my mom used to…say she was nervous about that.”

Jessie looks right at me. “She’s not around anymore is she?”

I shake my head.

“I’m sorry, Bailey.”

“Thanks.” Jessie’s very sweet, but I get that lump in my throat. I just don’t want to think about that night.

But then she asks me about Rusty Cage instead, and I’m both relieved and elated.

“Oh my god,” I smile at the sky like the sky is Bartley. “I don’t know what I’d do without that band. Music is the best, like, coping mechanism.”

“Yeah, shit,” she agrees intensely.

“How many times have you seen them live?”

“Seven.”

“No,” she says. “No way!”

“Yup,” I say. “I met Bartley every time too, and we always talk after his show.”

“Do you do anything else?” Jessie chuckles.

“Yes,” I wink and suck extra hard on my banana popsicle.

“No! Are you serious?”

“No, I wish I was. I would have sex with him. I would so anything he wanted. I have…crazy fantasies.” The Future Channel is where they will come true. I want to tell her about the Future Channel. Does she believe in it? Does she watch it?

“Wow…”

“Would you have sex with the singer of Bloodless?”

“The guitarist,” she immediately says, pointing at me with the popsicle and her eyes harden with seriousness. “He’s cuter. And how he plays guitar in the song Reckless? Like, have you seen the video?”

“No.”

She gets her phone ready and tells me to hang on, and returns a few minutes later with a speaker to attach to her phone. It looks like a cute little robot, and she starts dancing on the deck, laughing at herself.

“Come on, Bailey!” she cheers. I don’t know how you dance to Norwegian death metal, but we figure it out, and I watch Jessie’s cute little bare feet hit the red wooden planks, skipping the ones that are already too hot.

“Dance!” she urges.

I’m not the best dancer, but I start not to care and then I play around and swing my hips the way an old granny would and Jessie falls down laughing.

We sit on the steps for a while and listen to the ice cream truck.

“Ooooh, ice cream,” I say.

“Girl, you just had a popsicle!” Jessie laughs. Then she points to the ice cream truck as it pulls into the driveway of one of the houses here in Pinecove Lane.

“She lives there, the ice cream lady.”

“Aww, that’s nice, so you hear it every day?”
“Yup.”

“Do you ever just knock on her door and ask for ice cream?” I joke and we both laugh again.

Bloodless is still playing through her robot speaker, but at a tender volume that even makes Gary not sound so murderous. The sun is slipping in and out of grey clouds.

“So what’s your favorite Rusty Cage song?” Jessie asks all the right questions.

“Well, my favorite Soundgarden song has always been Slaves and Bulldozers, but there’s something so haunting about the way Bartley sings Black Hole Sun…I don’t know, that man, I’m so in love. And my friends are all like, dude, he’ll never date you.”

“Your friends are assholes, he’s just a regular guy that got lucky in life – doesn’t mean he wouldn’t want to date you. I’d date you.” I look at her and she’s completely serious. “Anyway…it doesn’t mean you can’t date him, just ‘cos he’s famous.” Jessie stands up and takes her robot speaker and holds her other hand out for mine.

“Come on, let’s go to the store.”


4

The house is nice and cold after being outside and it’s hard to adjust my eyes for a minute and everything’s dark. My skin is warm from the sun. I follow the sound of Jessie’s cute 6 and a half size bare feet down the hall. I don’t even see Edie standing right there and I nearly jump from her quiet but big presence in the house.

“What you guys doin’?” she asks, her voice raspy from smoking.

“Walking down the hallway.” Jessie has a bit of a smart mouth, and I’m careful not to laugh because I know it’s important to stay on Edie’s good side. I start to feel a divide, and I realize this might get trickier.

I follow Jessie into her room. She has posters of bands like Blink 182, an emo band my Chicago friends picked apart but I’ve always secretly liked called Left Alone In The Dark. There are really cool dream catchers hanging on the wall above her bed. Jessie’s room feels safe, like loving arms, like a warm electric blanket, or a cozy diner when everything else has closed for the night.

You can always come here, we’ll take care of you.

“The lock on my door is because of the guy that rented the room before you,” she explains. “Don’t take offense.”

“Oh, I don’t,” I let her know. I sit on her bed and watch her pull her drawer out. She eyes the door suspiciously. She goes over and locks it and hands me a joint. “I like to get stoned before I go grocery shopping.”

I laugh. “Cool, we’ll have the munchies then.”

“Exactly,” she laughs along with me.

I take a hit. Oh man. I haven’t smoked pot in so long. Me and my friend Margaret used to smoke before Rusty Cage’s shows back in the city.

“You gotta miss Chicago,” Jessie says, “This town’s just so boring.”

“Yeah, you live here your whole life?”

“Yes.” She says, quite quickly. “We moved here…with my dad but he’s an asshole. Now it’s just me and here and well…you.” She takes the joint from me and places it in her mouth. She takes a tote and passes it back. I take the joint from her, the tip is wet from our mouths and the room is full of sweet smoke. I lie down on her bed. I think it’s okay…she’ll be eighteen on Friday. I don’t like girls though, do I? I look at her and find she’s looking at me and then her mom knocks on her door and ruins everything the way an alarm clock disrupts a perfect dream.

“Shit,” Jessie whispers and quickly takes the joint from me, places it inside her panty drawer and grabs a bottle of Chanel perfume.

“Act normal,” she says. My dad says this all the time, and I know how to do it. I put on my poker face, I don’t stare at anything in particular for too long, I think about his face to calm me down.

“Yo!” Jessie yells and we both try not to laugh.

“You better not be smokin’ pot,” Edie warns.
“How do you smoke a pot?” Jessie jokes and I laugh into her wolf pillow.

“Mom, can we go to the store?”

“Yeah, come on.”


5

Some clouds are like a lampshade over a bulb losing its light.

It rains in Shady Rock every afternoon. It’s like the little sleepy town is on some kind of strict weather schedule. Gorgeous sunny mornings, dangerous stormy evenings. I’m kind of in love with it. The storms make No Man’s Land look even more sinister.

As we pull into the giant Food Lion parking lot, which has a Good Will trailer for clothes donations, the sky is made up of grey clouds that dip in and out of each other, offering little lines of pink and yellow because the sun is not quite done with us yet. But there’s a battle taking place and no matter how pretty things are now, darker clouds are rolling in. I can’t wait to hear the thunder in my chest. When the lightning strikes straight down into the moist ground, I think of Bartley and what it would be like to have sex with him.

I scratch my palm as we park. Right before I left Chicago, I cut my hand really bad on the edge of the coffee table where the glass was chipped. I refused to get stitches and had a nasty infection and had to take meds that gave me insomnia. The cut is finally healing, but it’s a long slow process, and the pink looks like the pink in the sky right now.

The grocery store is nice and relaxing. The aisles are wide. There’s no sense of urgency here. There’s hardly anyone here. There’s only one cashier working. There’s an old man in a faded Dale Earnhardt t-shirt buying beer. There’s a woman slowly picking out watermelon. Taylor Swift plays on the radio.

It’s a love story baby just say yes.

Jessie grabs a giant cart and starts to push it towards the frozen section. I start to grab a basket for myself.

“What are you doing?” Jessie asks.

“Getting a basket for my stuff.”

“We can share,” she says with a smile.

“Oh…” I put the basket down.

“Dad and I…never shared a cart.”

“Really?” Jessie says. “Why?”

“I don’t know. I guess when my mom…” I swallow, pushing a drop of spit over that hard lump that’s back. “Then it was just me and my dad and we bought, like, separate baskets of groceries.”

“Well that’s not how we do it,” Jessie smiles at me. “You put your stuff in here with mine.”

Jessie and I strut down the aisles together.

“Look at you strut.”

“Do I?” I never knew how I walked until then.

“You sway your hips,” Jessie giggles. “It’s cute.”

“Oh jeez,” Edie says, in that comical overwhelmed kind of way. We all laugh.

Jessie’s face is nice and clean and dewy looking. Her hair is down tonight, and she’s asking me which I prefer for dinner: chicken cutlet or meatballs and spaghetti.

“You guys don’t have to cook for me all the time.”

“We love to cook, it’s fine,” she assures me. “So which one?”

“Spaghetti and meatballs?”

“Cool.” She throws her arm around me, a move that shocks me, but I act like I’m not surprised.

“You’re taller than me,” she says.

“I know.”

Then she looks down at my platform shoes. “It’s the shoes, girl, don’t front!” she laughs and her arm falls from around me and the moment of affection is over. I’m not used to affection. I crave it, but I never know how to respond to it. Dad is not an affectionate guy. Gemini. Always working. Mom was affectionate until she got “sick,” as Dad puts it.

I grab a six-pack of beer called Blonde Bombshell. It’s a pale ale brewed somewhere in South Carolina. The label is a sloppy drawing of a blonde girl in front of a river.

“Do you drink every night?” Jessie wonders as we stroll on.

“Three beers a night, but I read on football dot com that’s totally normal,” I say.

“Football dot com?” she’s laughing again and it makes me laugh. “Well okay but now you have to start playing football.”

“Oh you play?” I’m joking.

“Yup,” she says, not joking. “I play soccer too.”

I kind of thought so because she has muscular legs and she’s not the cheerleader type.

We continue walking around. I don’t really know what to buy and she doesn’t either. So far I have picked out beer, peanut butter and sunscreen.

She picks up a bag of frozen meatballs and studies the back of it.

“This has weird ingredients in it. Pepper grass?” she makes a face. “What’s that?”

“I have no idea,” I say.

“I’m gonna make my balls from scratch,” she looks at me.

“Your balls need to be scratched?” I say and she bends over laughing so hard and an elderly lady – the one that was obsessing over the watermelons – gives us a funny look.

“You guys,” Edie warns. I’m laughing so hard my stomach hurts.

“You like spices?” Jessie keeps going. “You like spicy balls? Or salty balls?”

“Salty, I want Bartley’s salty balls,” I say. She laughs some more.

“I’m leavin ya’ll,” Edie says. “Ya’ll embarrassing.” But Edie’s laughing a little, I can see a slight snicker on her face. She secretly thinks we’re a hoot.

Jessie picks things up and tosses them in the bag rather carelessly. Pringles, more popsicles and a copy of Metal Tears, the heavy metal music magazine.

“We’ll watch a movie tonight,” Jessie decides, just like she decides I’ll sit shotgun in her mom’s car and she’ll sit in the back.

“If we were a couple, I’d make all the decisions in the relationship,” she says to me once we’re outside walking across the parking lot. Her mom is too far ahead to hear us. I lean my head so it rests on her shoulder and she kisses the top of my head. Affection is best when it works both ways, I realize.

When I get back in the car, my healing pink cut stings against the leather seat. I think of Bartley and all the things I want him to do to me.



6

I start wondering on the way back if our periods will be in sync – mine and Jessie’s. I know that can happen when girls start living together. She got her monthly essentials at the store too, reminding me that my time is soon. This is the thought running through my head when Edie suddenly slams on the breaks. We’re about ten seconds from her driveway on dark Brownan Road. All of our groceries go flying in the car, sliding over the edge of the seats. Soda pop is shaken up and my beer bottles clank together.

“Mom, what the hell?” Jessie says, but she’s always impressively calm. I look down at her arm, which she through in front of me to keep me from fying through the windshield.

“It’s a rattlesnake,” Edie is calm too – but on the cold side of calm, not on the side of reason.

It sounds like she’s happy there’s a snake too, so she can prove to me how sinister No Man’s Land is.

I don’t believe right away that it’s a Rattle, but I do see something dark and thick curled up in the middle of the road, lying fearlessly still. Only snakes are that fearless.

I realize that it’s a rattlesnake when I open the door and hear it actually rattle.

“Oh my god.” Jessie shines the flashlight on her keychain at it before shutting the door.

“I’m gonna kill it,” Edie says, without a shred of hesitancy in her tone.

“Mom, no,” Jessie pleads. “Just go around it.”

“Hell no, what if it gets in the house? It can kill us, it can kill Clyde.”

Clyde is Jessie’s dog, so Jessie gets quiet and lets her mom make the decision. Edie lights a smoke before stepping on the gas. We both shut our eyes as the car flies forward, going over the sleeping lump of a snake. This isn’t good enough for Edie. She puts the car in reverse and goes backwards over it. Then forwards and backwards again, until the snake’s insides are on the outsides and look like the raw ground beef that’s fallen out of the grocery bag.



7

I feel a bit sick as we enter the house, and retreat to my room to listen to his voice.

“Whatsoever I fear has…come to life,” Bartely sings, in that broken, brooding voice that breaks my heart but gets me aroused all at the same time. His blonde hair hides his gorgeous face in the YouTube video of him singing somewhere in Portland. There’s smoke from a fog machine on stage. Besides that, and the glow of a few cell phones in the crowd, it’s very dark. I can see he has stubble on his face though, when his curly blonde hair moves out of the way enough to show.

“Whatsoever I fought off…became my life…” he sings slow, dark, his mouth very close to the microphone. A girl screams, and I feel her yearning, her wanting to touch him, to sit down and have a conversation with him. To smell his skin and get to know his heart.

I stare at Bartley’s body, at his muscular arms, the way he has his flannel shirt tied around his waist. What would it be like to have sex with him? It would be a religious experience. I would faint if he even touched me. I wouldn’t be able to take it. I sigh in my dark, quiet room.

The music in the song tapers off but Bartley’s lyrics are thunderous with doom. “I’m a search light soul they say, but I can’t see it in the night…”

The smell of Jessie’s spices starts to travel down the hallway as her dinner gets underway. I’m still not hungry. I don’t want to think about the snake guts in the road. I look back down at the video.



After worship, I go into the kitchen. Jessie is as upset as I am about the snake.

“If someone would just mow over there, there wouldn’t be snakes and they wouldn’t have to die.”

She is calm though, as she delivers her point.

“It’s a fucking snake, Jessie, it could kill us, it could kill your dog.” Edie is remorseless. She lights a cigarette and pours a glass of whiskey as Jessie places food on three plates.

“Clyde’s in the house though.”

It happens quick – way too quick to even grasp any second of the violent altercation. I hear the fork drop first and then the slap across Jessie’s face, though that might not have been the exact order of things.

Jessie is still trying to stay calm, but tears come when they want to. She holds the plate of spaghetti she just cooked out to me as if nothing has happened. Once I have my plate in my hand, she coolly walks down the hall to her room. I have the instinct to follow her, but I just stay where I am. Her door slams. Bloodless pours from both speakers in her tiny room with the wolves and the dream catchers.



I start to wonder if that lock on her door isn’t just from whatever creep stayed here before, but her mom as well. I feel so bad for Jessie, and so forlorn, that I don’t even realize the plate is burning my hands. I drop it on the table and Edie picks the fork up from the floor and flings it in the sink.

“Don’t put hot plates on the counter they’ll burn it!!” she shouts. I want to run and hide into No Man’s Land. Or into his mouth.

“Sorry.” I take the plate and walk with it, still having no idea where to go. Am I supposed to sit and have dinner with her after that?

I’m practically trembling. Bloodless continues to play loud from Jessie’s room. I sit down at the table, one foot on the chair and the other dangling above the floor. This is how I sit when I’m nervous. When I need strong arms around me and a voice to tell me “it will be okay, sweet girl,” like Bartley did once.

I don’t have an appetite. I don’t look up at Edie. I just stare at the food that Jessie took the time to cook very thoroughly. I want to say so much to Edie, just yell at her for treating Jessie that way, and words run rapid in my head.

I take a deep breath. It’s the only thing I digest that night. I just want to go to bed and start my ritual.



8

I text Dad again before brushing my teeth.

I miss Chicago, I write. How are you?

I don’t know why I think a text right back will happen. It doesn’t.

Jessie is still listening to Bloodless. The song is very manic and then it suddenly ends and I hear her talking on the phone in a completely calm voice. There’s something docile about Jessie, but also something sneaky – deadly. I’m infatuated. I look up the year she was born and in Chinese astrology, she is a snake.

I check my own phone to see if my dad texted back. Nope. I should just go to sleep and call it a day, but I don’t. I have to see his face one last time today. Maybe hear his voice too. There is a ritual I follow every night, once I’m in bed, after I’ve brushed my teeth, washed up, and have done whatever I do before I climb into bed. There in the dark, safely tucked away, I feel safe. I can hear the subtle rattle of the train rolling down the tracks by the cemetery. People buried there used to live in Pinecove Lane. They just did whatever, paid bills, let the sun rise and fall on them and their problems, until they got whichever cancer and were buried there.

There’s a fire in me. There’s quite an obsession. It’s called Bartley Soda. Bartley keeps me alive. I feel he might forever.

You have to be a hell of a man to match Chris Cornell’s vocals, and Bartley has that domineering Texan bravado thing, and his range stuns even the most hardcore Soundgarden fans. The ones that have been there since Badmotorfinger. Bartley tends to hold a grudge with the people who know Superunknown but have never heard of Badmotorfinger, and with the exception of a few, he mostly sticks to songs off of Badmotorfinger when Rusty Cage performs live. Bartley said in an interview once, “You have to start with the artist’s early shit, when they were raw and their grittiest stuff came out, the semen without the condom, it’s just out there. Record labels fuckin’ try and put rubbers on everything.”

Bartley is brooding and yet he has a certain vulnerability about him, and that’s what makes him so charismatic. He has a darkness about him, he’s haunted by something in his childhood he won’t speak of. Any time an interviewer tries to press him on it, he warns them to ask him something else or the interview will be over.

Bartley recently graced the cover of Metal Tears, his long blonde hair tumbling over his sexy, broad shoulders. On the cover, he wears his snakeskin boots and tight black jeans, and his signature blue and grey flannel shirt tied around his waist. He doesn’t bother with a shirt. He has a great body, with some chest hair and a patch of blonde hair on his stomach too. I have s many fantasies of touching him there. Is the hair there soft or coarse? I want to know. I bite my lip and let it slowly curl out from my tooth.

There’s a tattoo of a rusty dog cage on his left upper bicep. He is sexy as hell. I can hardly take it. My heart is in my throat every time I look at him, or hear his sad but foreboding vocals. He’s a man on the edge. I want him to kiss my lips off. I have the coveted issue of the Metal Tears magazine right next to my bed. It’s the thing I’ll grab if I wake up in the middle of the night and the house is on fire. I won’t bother with anything else.

I am so in love with him. We can save each other from the void.

I turn the light off so my room is completely dark – dark as Brownan Road itself. No one will bother me now, this is my time. I pretend I’m asleep because people think that’s the only time they shouldn’t disturb you.

I safely tuck myself in and turn my phone on. My cell phone becomes the only light in the dark room. The light is made up of his face. His hair is blonde and his eyes are blue like Kurt Cobain’s. His jaw is so masculine and square, like Channing Tatum’s. In some pictures he’s clean shaven, and in others he has sideburns and a healthy array of blonde stubble around his mouth.

I first saw Rusty Cage five years ago in a small venue in Chicago. To be honest with you, I went with a bunch of friends with the intention of making fun of the band. We thought there was no way in heck anyone could handle those songs – their massive power, the vocal range.

Rusty Cage had the audacity to come on late, already acting like rock royalty. By this point, there were enough haters in the club to fill it to capacity.

By the time Bartley walked out on stage, his golden locks tumbling over his blue eyes and flannel shirt wrapped around his waist, he looked more like Kurt Cobain than Chris Cornell, and people started pelting him with beer bottles and chanting, “ONLY ONE SOUNDGARDEN!!!” and “POSER!!”

None of it bothered Bartley – not even when a glass bottle hit him square in the nose. He just started singing and wiped the blood from his nose onto his white wifebeater. He may have looked a bit like Kurt Cobain, but he had the temperament of a psychopath and the audience quickly backed down.

I was standing in front of the stage as he gripped the microphone and delivered a slow, passionate version of Black Hole Sun (Black Hole Son). He placed his blue eyes on me for three seconds, and his raspy voice flooded out of the speakers and I felt it vibrate in my chest. Blood ran from his nose into his mouth. It was the grossest, prettiest thing ever. It was easy to tell he wasn’t a poser – he wasn’t just some guy wanting to get famous off of someone else’s songs – he was a fan of Soundgarden. And he was also a broken boy with no choice but to become a man in a world he didn’t quite understand.

“Black Hole Son, Black Hole Son, won’t you come? And wash away the painnnn…” he changed the lyrics, but no one seemed to mind.

Then they erupted into a blistering version of Slaves and Bulldozers and a manic moshpit broke out. Bartley took his bloody wifebeater off and hurled it in the crowd. I managed to catch it. I still have it; I keep it in my closet. I never washed it, it’s still spotted with his blood. The bloody shirt I still have. I never washed. It’s crusty with his blood on it.

“THIS IS MY FAVORITE FUCKING SONG!” I said to a friend before we joined in on the jumping and stage diving.

By the time Rusty Cage was done, people were lining up to tell them how great they were, and ask if they had any t-shirts. Bartley had turned his haters into faithful worshippers just like that.

“Not yet,” Bartley said, with a subtle grin on his face. He knew he was going places.

I went up to him too, and he looked right at me. Bartley Soda doesn’t shy away from direct eye contact.

For a minute I couldn’t speak, so he spoke first.

“Hey, what’s up?” he was awfully laid back.

“Hey – I really liked your show…I love Soundgarden.”

“They fuckin’ saved my life,” he said, running his hand through his abundance of blonde curls. I’d never seen a cuter boy.

The night was amazing. And my mom was still alive then, too, and the air was sweet and soft from a recent rain, and I ran home, lost in a magic world, lost in a snowglobe of fun. I ran through the house and over to her. She was sitting at the kitchen table, a glass of wine and one of her favorite mystery novels in her hands.

“Oh my god…” I said with impossible energy.

“Your father’s sleeping,” she reminded. I didn’t care. How could you sleep on a night like this? Your daughter just fell in love. “Did you have fun?”

“I found my favorite new band!”

“Well that’s good.” She hugged me before taking a sip of her wine.


I stare into my phone, and the smile over that memory of my mom starts to fade. She is not here anymore. She’s just some ashes in a box in a cemetery in North Carolina, one I can’t bring myself to visit.

I quickly look up images of Bartley. It carries me to a safe place again, and I don’t have the manic episode I know I will someday in the future.

Bartley Soda is 6’1. He’s skinny but something about him makes him seem brawny. Maybe it’s just the fact that he’s a Texan. You don’t mess with Texas, and Bartley Soda exudes such a remainder with a strong back and mystifying look in his sky-blue eyes.

I find an interview with him. He’s wearing a black baseball cap turned backwards, a faded Soundgarden shirt from 1992, and tight black jeans and black combat boots. He sits with his long legs spread so he’s kind of slouching, and always seems somewhat bored with the interviewer’s questions. His blonde hair looks like it has just been washed. It’s soft and thick and angelic-looking. His eyes are a brighter blue than the Carolina sky at noon. He’s talking about the time when he was twelve and had a nervous breakdown and ran out to a cornfield in Sage, Texas (where he’s from) and cried for the rest of the day.

“What caused the meltdown when you were twelve, the one where you ran into that cornfield and cried until the sun went down?” the interviewer boldly asks the question many others have, only to get an icy response from Bartley. It’s the million dollar question. Every interviewers thinks if he or she is the one that can finally get Bartley to open up, they’ll get their fifteen minutes of fame. It’s very clear though by the way Bartley stares back at her with vacant blue eyes, that she won’t be the one.

I picture Bartley as a twelve year-old boy, blonde curls hanging in his face, sitting in tall maize, crying. It breaks my heart. I read somewhere that inside of all of us is still the twelve year old version of ourselves.

Bartley stares back at the interviewer without speaking. It is very chilling. He doesn’t blink once. His eyes seem as empty as they are pretty. He has simply checked out until she moves on.

“We’ll just move on then,” she says, glancing down at her cards with the questions on them. She clears her throat. He is making her nervous.

“What’s the Sound…the first Soundgarden song you ever heard?” she asks, somewhat recovering from the awkward silence.

“Black Hole Sun, but I changed the word so it spells s-o-n in our version. But I asked my mom, who is the one that gave me their cassette tapes, to play their earlier stuff. We’d sit on the floor of our ranch house and she’d go through her 90s mix tapes and play songs for me.” He has a subtle smile on his face. Where’s his mom now? Is she dead like mine? Oh, Bartley.

Bartley seems fine now in the interview, as if someone pushed his ON button again.

“Your cover of that is great.”

He offers her a smile, and I can actually feel her relief.

“Thanks,” he says.

So the interview ends on a nice note. But I wonder, and so do the rest of his fans, what happened that day that had him running for miles into that field, that had him crying so hard under the hot Texas sun until night took over and the buzzards came out and he still didn’t budge. What happened that had him swear he’d never go back home. What he does talk about in the interview is how the first time he heard Soundgarden, it saved his life. I feel the same why about Bartley’s voice. It has gotten me through some terribly dark times. Times I’m not supposed to mention in this house. When my mom died, Rusty Cage came out with their cover of Fell on Black Days. The first lyric, whatsoever I feared has come to life, is my absolute favorite lyric of any song. It hit me dead in the heart. Yes, I know that lyric. Yes, I am that lyric.

Another train is roaring down the tracks. I can hear it – it’s the perfect kind of subtle sound. Something about it makes me feel safe.

It’s Slaves and Bulldozers that offers a swift kick in the ass. I love all their songs, and I dream of the day I can sit at a bar with Bartley and discuss and dissect each and other song over drinks.

           I stare at Bartley and study his body language. He’s so dominant, moody.

           I can hear my friends back in Chicago already, telling me I have a problem, telling me that I’m obsessed with him and laugh at me when I say how badly I want to date him. But then I hear Jessie’s voice – it’s new and hopeful and understanding: “Your friends are assholes.”

She gets it. And we have hung out – Bartley and I. I’ve met Bartley plenty of times. I was there the night no one took him seriously – at Third Rail – and he proved them all wrong. I was there when his soundgarden grew. And when I told him how much his band meant to me, his face softened, and whatever caused his meltdown when he was twelve seemed to leave him alone, and he put his arm around me and I put my face into his neck. He was sweaty but I didn’t mind. In fact I liked it.

I’m a loner. He can tell. His music is my religion. He can tell that too. He has saved my life.

“You’re a sweet girl,” he said to me the third night I met him. He remembered me from the last two shows. He traced his thumb along my cheek. We gazed into each other’s eyes and I swear something was about to happen when his fat, bearded, scary manager busted in and took him away from me. Left behind were five shot glasses of whiskey Bartley had downed, his liquor breath on my soft cheek, and some lyrics he wrote on a napkin before I went over to him. I took it. No one knows I have the napkin. The lyrics he scribbled on the napkin read I got lost on my way home, I guess it was meant to be. He must have been trying to write his own song.


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