We were in the last two weeks of the tour. Most of the band had contracted bed bugs, probably ushered in by one of Mitch’s girls. The thing about bed bugs is they don’t stay in beds. They cling. Itches would crop up mid-chorus, nearly throwing us off beat. Soon, our arms and upper legs became mountain ranges of white pustule hills and red gorges. We burned our sheets and boiled our clothes but nothing worked.
The band we opened for did not have bed bugs. They rode a separate bus, one with a dark interior and tinted windows. Ours puttered behind, with a big star splashed across the side and windows so tiny you had to stand on chairs to catch glimpses of what flew by outside.
“I think Chantie’s into me,” Mitch said. “She was all over me after last night.”
Chantie was the other band’s manager. She wore heels in the morning and had long hair that she parted in the middle of her head, dividing her face perfectly in half. It was thin and flippable, something she showed off when reporters were around. At first, I was happy to have another girl on the road with us, but Chantie made it clear that she had no interest in forming a relationship with a person she couldn’t use. Her voice jumped a few octaves when she tried to cajole the lead singer out of his dressing room, and then sank silkily back when there were no egos left to stroke. The safer she felt, the lower it dropped.
“She’s pretty,” I said. “Sure, why not?”
Mitch was the lead singer. He was lanky and unpolished, as lead singers always seem to be. He wore his shirts loose and his pants ripped, enjoyed dragging his fingers through his hair, and ate peanut M&Ms like they were about to stop production. Now, he sat pulling on a strand that had somehow grown faster than the rest of his sometimes blond, always greasy locks. I tossed him a hat, which he ignored.
“Come on, Nance. She’s more than just…pretty. She’s got a washboard body. And she has the best stories. That one about scoring with Julian Casablancas? Do you think that’s true? Have you seen the way she gets people to notice her group? She’s like…a hypnotist or something.”
I was distracted by yet another bump forming on my hand. I dug into it, hoping to eradicate the culprit taking refuge under my skin. All I got was a bubble of blood that boiled up between my fingers before angrily popping.
“Go for it. Be hypnotized,” I said.
“That’s gonna scar,” said Mitch.
Things were not perfect. The other band fought a lot. The drummer and bassist wanted a name change. The lead singer did not. Not surprising, as the group was named after him. Melvin Drake & the Lugubrious Sunshines. I supported the name change. The lights guy could never get the beams to sway in unison. Mitch accidentally hit on the other bassist’s girlfriend, and their keyboardist purposefully hit on me. The tour manager didn’t know a major highway in the Midwest was closed and we almost missed our show in Memphis. Chantie slept with a guy from Rolling Stone and chain-smoked for three days when he still wrote a lukewarm review. Walker would get quiet, following a darkness inward that made me wonder what needed destroying beneath his skin. The bugs made Isaac prickly. The other drummer didn’t like being compared to a girl. I didn’t know I’d created a competition.
We were about to leave Pittsburgh. Isaac had returned from an unsuccessful search for the perfect cheese steak, and was now enduring Walker’s cackles as he explained that not every city in Pennsylvania sold Philadelphia’s signature sandwich. Mitch was missing, almost an hour late. I stretched my arms behind my head, diagnosing the popping noise my right elbow made when I moved it too quickly.
My phone rang, displaying my mother’s name on the caller ID. I ducked into the bus’s back room.
“You’ve got some nerve,” the phone said.
“Dylan’s not coming,” the phone continued, monotone.
“It was cruel to invite him in the first place,” it finished before the beeping of a signal lost.
The back room was always poorly lit, turning the two sets of bunk beds into gaping mouths with floppy teeth. My bottom bed was a mess of unmade sheets, so I perched on Walker’s instead. His wasn’t much cleaner, but at least the blankets were soft. I stayed there until I couldn’t distinguish between the dead line’s buzzing and the little beat inside my head.
I returned to find Mitch finally returned, pelting Isaac with M&Ms. Walker sat out of range, thumbing through the yellow pages. “Who uses these anymore?” he muttered to himself before thumping the heavy book shut. When he spotted me watching him, he flashed a hollow smile. I threw an M&M at him. Instead of lobbing it back, he caught and held it for a while, perched between his thumb and middle finger. Finally, he tossed it behind his head. It escaped out one of the tiny windows and I imagined it falling to the ground and bouncing along for a bit, only to be smashed by the next mass of rubber and steel that drove by.
“We’re finally gonna meet your little brother tomorrow, huh Nance?” he said.
I sent Dylan tickets after I found out our last show would be in Manhattan, only a few hours from our mother’s home in Albany. We’re only the opening act, I reminded him. It’s okay if you don’t want to come. He wrote me an email a few days later, composed mostly of exclamation points and capital letters. To actually say that his sister had made a name for herself was enough; he didn’t care if it was listed in smaller print. Walker printed it out and taped the message to the bus’s refrigerator.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
Although we had known each other for nearly six years, the boys had never met my family. The four of us met at a small arts college in Oregon, where everyone thought they were musicians and wore jeans expensive enough to look cheap. Albany was farther away than the 2,300 miles suggested. Still, Dylan had become an ironic legend among my friends. A drummer with a deaf brother—well at least he couldn’t complain about the noise, they offered. How do you know if he even likes your stuff? Walker teased.
I thought of Dylan sitting with his back to my bass drum, saying he liked how the vibrations felt along his spine. I would play a sixteen count and he would close his eyes. We stayed in the attic for hours, me playing until my arms went numb and Dylan feeling the noise they offered.
He knows his sister wouldn’t steer him wrong, I’d answer, before rapping Walker on the head with a drumstick.
Now, Walker watched me, absentmindedly running his fingers along the spine of the yellow pages. Up and down they went, grazing over the rips and wrinkles, forgiving every one of them.
“Why haven’t we left yet?” I barked.
Chantie appeared, lolling toward us from the dark bus parked a few feet away. Her chilly grin spoke of problems to come.
“Shall we?” she purred.
After she glided away, Mitch turned to us, palms raised.
“Can I get a fuckin’ five? I banged Chantie. Yeah. Just now. No, just now. Nothing? Really? All right, then.”
Mitch turned to salute the gray sky.
“It’s been real, Pitts. Onward, New Yahrk.”
The bus shuddered awake and lurched forward, knocking Mitch into a plush chair. Isaac grumbled about being hungry. I pulled the letter off the refrigerator before turning off my phone. Dylan wasn’t calling anyway.
In college, Isaac declared that we were the Anti-Rock Stars, and that there would never be a band as relaxed, fun, or in sync as we were together. These were adjectives he’s string together after finishing a box of wine or taking one too many hits from Mitch’s bong.
“Never been better friends than the four, the four, of us,” he would say before flopping onto his bed or into his boyfriend’s arms. “I lub ewe guise.”
There had been a safeness we all understood. It was an ease that made us more comfortable waking up on each other’s couches than we did in our own beds. We knew every inch of each other and plotted the ones we didn’t, filling each other’s flaws and burying the things that hurt. There had been nights that promised and mornings that reaffirmed. And regardless of what was said—as things were both screamed and unspoken—there was always the promise of our four.
But now, I worried. I worried that Isaac had been right, that we had reached the peak of our friendship as drunken undergraduates. A stiffness had descended. Now, Isaac rolled his eyes when Walker buried himself in bed sheets and booze or when Mitch came in yelling about the other bassist spitting on his shoes the night before.
“Grow up,” he muttered, clicking his tongue and sticking his headphones deep into his ear canal.
We sounded, tragically, normal.
Whenever they got like this—Isaac with no feeling, Walker with too much, and Mitch only driven by the one in his pants—I would play.
This was how I’d gotten into music as a kid. Before my mother threw him out, my dad kept a collection of old records in the garage. I realized that playing them loudly enough would drown out any argument. After particularly bad ones, my dad would crawl under the pillow fort I’d built and we would share a cup of silence while John Bonham or Keith Moon drummed the anger away.
I decided I was going to be a drummer in the fourth grade, when Tommy Margolis told me that girls couldn’t keep a beat. My mother refused to get me a set, but that didn’t stop me from taking sticks to tabletops and couch cushions—anything I could smack. While the racket must have infuriated her, what I chose to love stung even more. How can you dedicate so much to something your little brother can’t even enjoy? she screamed when I brought my first drum set home, paid for by overtime hours at the grocery store. But I couldn’t explain why I loved music any more than she could explain why Dylan couldn’t hear it. Falling for the wrong things was the only thing I did well.
Our bus didn’t have a drum set on board. So I sat next to a table near the back, tapping out a tune I didn’t recognize, ten years old again.
“Goddamn!” I looked over to see Isaac scratching furiously at his arm. After a bit, he stood up to grab some vodka and poured a bit onto the glaring lump.
“That work?” I called to him.
But Isaac just sat back down. I watched his caterpillar brows inch closer as they studied a tattered black notebook. Probably some new song of Mitch’s about a girl in tight pants with long hair that had no room for a drum solo. Mitch wrote stupid lyrics, but Isaac fixed them with his melodies. He strived for sentiment, while Mitch went for Top 40. What came out was a mix between indie pop and folky rock. For now, it would do.
“We’re alright, aren’t we?” I asked the air.
Isaac removed his left headphone.
“Did you say something?”
We crossed the New York state line around five in the morning, painfully awake. Walker and I had been steadily drinking since midnight, kept from sleep by a paralyzing sort of boredom. Mitch hunched over his black notebook again and Isaac watched him work, smoking a joint. The sky was a navy blanket stitched with streaks of white gold and the occasional office building. Soon skyscrapers would block it out, but just before sunrise the sky was unbounded.
“Welcome home, Nancy Drew,” Isaac lifted the joint my way in a skunky, pseudo cheers.
But we were still a long way from Albany. The show wasn’t for hours, and yet I could already see Dylan, eyes glued to the window, counting down to a show he wouldn’t see. He got his license last month. My mother hated driving, I remembered as a white Nissan zoomed by. I wondered who taught him how.
“Mitch!” Walker said suddenly. “Hey, hey Mitch. Let me see what you’re working on.”
“It’s not done.”
“Let me see. Come on. I can help. I wanna see.”
“How drunk are you?”
Walker’s smile spread slowly. He hopped onto a chair and opened the tiny rectangular window. It was so small that only his head fit through.
“I do my best thinking piss drunk!” he yelled to the sky.
The wind commended him, or maybe it just laughed. It whipped through his thick hair and pulled his already stretched cheeks away from his gums. This was when I loved him best. When he could fly along with his feelings, rather than get crushed by them. Although it didn’t matter, really.
Isaac plopped down next to me.
“He’s gonna kill himself doing that.”
I snorted in response.
“Can you imagine? Bassist dies in freak decapitation by tour bus window. That would get us on the cover of something.” Isaac had a laugh that ballooned out. We shared an apartment in college and his laughter shook the walls. Now, it blended into the bus’s bouncing.
“What would we say?” said Isaac, eyes twinkling. “We would have to write something. What would we call it?”
“Jesus. Are you really trying to title Walker’s hypothetical eulogy?”
“Well, haven’t you ever thought about it?” Isaac said, picking at the nonexistent dirt beneath his fingernails. “Or at least, your memoirs? Oh, I think about it all the time. Is that strange? Well, I find it fascinating. Let’s see. Mitch’s would be…oh I don’t know, something cheesy like, The Art of Leaving. Yes, that’s fantastic. He would catalog his life by the women he’s slept with. Can’t you see it?”
We watched Mitch pore over his notebook, yanking at that long lock of hair. Out of all of us, he was the only one who looked truly tired.
“Helplessly adorable,” Isaac said, sighing. “Not that mine would be much better. I’d probably call mine something equally as tragic, like Boys I Should Have Loved.”
I snorted again.
“Ugh. Stop. You sound like a pig.”
“What would mine be called?” I asked.
Isaac pursed his lips together.
“Well, that all depends on what story you want to tell, darlin’.”
I thought back to winters in upstate New York, angry parents and borrowed cars used to sneak into the city. There were teenage nights spent gathered around plastic cups, with plans that wrapped us up and carried us all the way to this wobbly, town-hopping bus. I saw my spot in the back of the stage behind three bobbing heads. I heard the tiny crowd, whispering and settling in when they recognized their favorite song. Some bounced up and down, while others dug their heels in and waited for it to wash over them, their faces glowing in purples and golds. I felt dark eyes, burning black, asking me to wait. Finally, I was in the old attic, Dylan’s head peeking over the top of my bass drum. I had no idea what I would title my memoirs.
“How is Mitch’s new song?” I asked.
“Oh it’s shit. Completely. But that’s not what’s important.”
Walker pulled his head back inside the bus, black eyes full of the peekaboo sun. He clambered off the chair and sat next to me, grinning still. I thought about the things he’d taught me: how to shotgun a beer, to always carry my drink in my left hand, that someday can be a poisonous word.
“Don’t look that way, Nance.”
He tapped my cheek, pulling the right side of my mouth into a half-smile up with an insistent finger. He acted like he didn’t know the taste of the perfume I sprayed behind my ear, and I pretended that the world kept spinning whenever he grabbed my hand in the dark. Something bit down on my upper arm, and I slapped at the inevitable lump. My elbow popped in and out.
“Look,” said Walker, holding a bumpy arm next to mine. “We match.”
We hit the city soon after.
We were playing The Rockwood, a venue built of brick and red velvet where everyone was in each other’s way. It was the new “it” place. Chantie’s eyes grew more pointed with every band she listed off who had recently performed there.
“The sound is just incredible. You can hear the music’s soul in a place like that,” she crooned.
Isaac shot soda out his nose in response.
It was a big deal. But a small part of me had hoped to play a place like the ones I snuck into when I was sixteen, and lay down something that would shake the block in gratitude. I used to live for the venues that you had to crawl up fire escapes to find and always smelled faintly of Chinese takeout. People talked about New York and its glorious bigness, but the city I knew was packed into tight spaces and smelled of sharp things that made my newly teenaged heart sing. It seemed strange to be back and not drum a love letter to my version of New York.
“I’m going to need some coffee,” I said.
“When is Dylan getting here?” asked Walker.
“Don’t be late,” said Isaac.
It was drizzling. Mist dyed gold by street lamps floated down, while stoplights spilled onto the road, forming small puddles of red and green that taxis churned into a murky gray. I cinched my jacket over my head and tried to remember what it was like to feel home.
Coffee shops were littered down every block, but I didn’t stop until I found one with a fireplace. Inside, I found a spot by a window and watched people run from the rain. After a while, the barista offered me a refill and I accepted just to have something warm to hold onto.
Outside, a blind man began to cross the street, tapping his way through traffic. Impatient cars wiggled around him but he moved forward methodically. Flyaway droplets greeted his face when his cane hit puddles. I wondered if he could still hear the tapping, with the water and the traffic’s drone. His hands were slender and pale, nothing like the calloused mitts I knew. I thought about leading him back to my little table, buying him a coffee, and telling him how high the buildings stretched above his head, or that the color green looks different in the rain. I wanted to tell him that I knew how hard it was to miss something, or that I had tried to find out. A black sedan screeched past him and I let out an inadvertent gasp.
I’ll play you a song, I thought. Something with a sixteen count.
“He’s fine,” said the barista.
He stood over the table next to mine, wiping it down with a brown-stained rag.
“Hank,” he said, nodding out the window. “He comes in here all the time. Guy’s like a bat—he hears everything.”
The door to the café creaked open, and Hank greeted the empty space at the counter.
“I’m waiting,” he announced. The barista chuckled.
“Sometimes, I don’t think he needs that stick. Old man makes enough noise on his own.”
The barista returned to the counter, beginning Hank’s drink.
“You using me to start conversations with concerned ladies again, son?” asked Hank. “You’ve got to get some new material.”
“They’re going to worry about you anyway, Hankie,” said the barista, his goofy smile matching Hank’s feigned crankiness. “I might as well be there to comfort them.”
Hank shook his head, tapping his cane twice.
“People should do a bit more worrying about themselves, don’t you think?”
I caught a glimpse of the clock above the counter. With a leaden feeling, I turned my cell phone on. Three angry voicemails greeted me.
“I told you not to be late,” the recording accused.
I bolted, nearly tripping over Hank’s cane as I rushed out the door. I’m sure his head turned, but we did not see each other before I ran into the rain.
The boys had already left when I got to the dressing room. “What the fuck, Nance?” read a note on the table. “On NOW!!!” Walker’s block lettering screamed.
As I ran to the stage, blinking hard and breathing quickly, I could hear Mitch lulling the crowd into waiting just a few more minutes. Frantically searching for the entrance, I tripped over a cord and fell through a slice in a dark curtain to my left. Brightness blinded me. Three pairs of eyes were all that existed, each with varying degrees of annoyance and concern.
“There she is! Since I’ve introduced everyone else, this is Nance, our sassy leading lady, or Miss Nancy Drew, as we like to call her. Looks like we solved the mystery of the missing drummer, haven’t we?”
I tapped the cymbals in that way wedding bands do after a particularly bad joke.
“Well, I think we’ve kept you waiting long enough. Here’s a fun one for ya.”
We were going to play a song off our EP—some jaunty unrequited love number that even Isaac couldn’t save. I was meant to start us out by crossing my sticks above my head, as silver-screen drummers tend to do. And a one-two, a one-two-three-four! But as I raised my arms up, all I heard was grating metal and exploding hearts.
I sat, frozen, looking out over the tiny, crowded venue. Soon every eyeball was trained on me, waiting for my arms to fall. I could see all the boys from my spot in the back. Mitch’s floppy hair was perfectly poised—I could almost see his expectant smile burning through his skull as he clutched the microphone. Walker waited, holding his bass low, ready to start whenever I let him. Isaac, the only one who could see me without completely turning around, moved his hands along the keyboard but didn’t hit any notes. He traced a finger along the G note in a circular motion, eyes trained on my face. I didn’t look, just watched his fingers move round and round.
“Play me something fast,” a tiny Dylan requested.
G. Isaac’s fingers moved in a circle. G. Circle. G-O. Go. Bright eyes and forefingers pleaded. My arms stayed pinned above my head, held by an invisible rope, like someone ready to be burned at the stake. I would let them, I realized.
If warmth was what they needed, I’d smile as they set me on fire.
Walker turned, swinging his heavy guitar around with him and causing an electric twang.
“Nance!” Isaac hissed.
My arms crashed down. Then sprung back up. Fell back again. They struck the drumhead and reared back. They began their attack. I cracked down on cymbals, let my sticks attack on the hanging toms. I smashed the snare with my bare left hand and slammed both sticks into the drum’s taut surface with the other. That ugly beat—the one normally locked inside my head—poured through my fingers, thrilled to have finally been let out.
Walker may have yelled something, but it could have just been the bass’s thump. The beat kept screaming and I knew the right sound lived somewhere within. But I could not find it—was not ready to hear it—so I played, hoping the hurricane of noise would wash away what I could not surrender to. I pounded, praying I’d never missed a beat; I’d never play it wrong. For a second, I might have believed it. Until the inevitable crack.
The front end of my drumstick went flying, followed by a collective gasp from the poorly lit crowd. What was left looked sharp enough to kill a man, or at least puncture an eardrum.
“Nance?” I heard, different this time.
And I became aware of the air escaping my desperate lungs, the sharp pinching in my right elbow, the growing numbness of my small, small hands.
Every eyeball, wide and white, watched me. The boys faced me too, their faces smooth. People usually focused on Mitch and I didn’t know what to do with the attention. So I stayed still, the fourth point of our rhombus, waiting for something to descend. The broken stick shook slightly in my fist.
Then surely, a clap. Followed by another. They gathered speed, and a few whoops emerged in between. They came raining down.
I went to the bus after we left the stage. I didn’t stay to hear Melvin Drake’s sad sunshine. The door clattered; I shut it solidly behind me. And I knew that soon my boys would come, pressing urgent palms against a door made of plastic and tin, and I would have to answer when they did. My ankles began itching and I let them burn. I buried myself in blankets and pillows, pretending that I couldn’t feel one single thing.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of turning wheels. The bed across from me was empty, its pile of soft blankets unused. For a long time, I laid still, wondering if the heat at my back was really there. Low mumbles occasionally slipped under the door, mixed with an occasional out-of-tune strum. Finally, a sneeze got the best of me. When it escaped, the arm draped across my waist tensed up. It was not out of fear, and it wasn’t offering protection I didn’t need. It felt like home, warm and heavy.
“Where now?” I asked without turning around.
“Albany,” said Walker into the pillow we shared. The air that escaped his mouth danced on my neck for a while, waiting.
“Nance?” came his steady voice, in a way that sounded full.
Leah Christianson‘s work has appeared in Sliver of Stone Magazine, Storm Cellar Quarterly, River & South Review, Westwind Literary Journal, and she received the Ruth Brill Scholarship for short fiction. After graduating from UCLA in 2013, Christianson began working in healthcare consulting. She currently resides in Los Angeles and various airports.