Boy plays in a three-piece punk band to quell the fire of a reflection’s tale and stitch the wounds of youth. Girl watches from the sweat-filled Midwestern basement of a long-haired and defiantly faded man named Dirty Joseph, cigarette smoke burning holes through ravaged lungs, connected to the shrieking treble and blast beats of bygone days, tripod-balanced camcorder documenting withering sets. Tidal currents of warm beer, tsunamis of slosh in her stomach. Boy, unhappy with tomorrow’s outlook, unplugs mid-song and points at Girl who watches with the longing of land-starved sailors. Girl takes a drag, drowned bodies in motion. Introductions through a kiss exchanging smoke until their bodies fill with the vampiric, cancerous love of after-youth.

*

Boy drills holes in thin metal. Unionized work for tradesman, pushing and pulling levers, chowing down in the tinnitus silence of a small kitchen after the foreman barks with stale breath that unweaves with life’s regret. Lions roar, machines alive with teeth and dread. One slip and a hand sleeps on ice. Guitar palms, fingers pushing frets, chords ringing louder than metal machines. Time; an impossible trickster stealing days and replacing dreams with dollars. Thick hair thinning, hints of gray, a body in rebellion. Boy’s knees and neck knotted with aches, no longer the spry bounce of indestructibility. Recalibrate the foreman wails, showy flails, the sailing sheet metal like a crash cymbal on concrete. Simple tasks—a singular job—botched again. Boy squints, lines blurred, life’s edges fading into unclear horizons. Another batch gone to the wind. Forced break to shake the webs. While breathing smoke, a call from Dirty Joseph. Shows booked, Saturday’s video tipping the scales. Summer sprawl across rural interstates with lonely farm teens looking to catch a case, bars and basements alive with the furious angst of blossoming youth. The cigarette tastes like Girl’s tongue, and defined lines emerge against the horizon. The fame beast poisons the future with promises of meaningful immortality.

*

Girl lets the ink-digger play out a vision as she daydreams away the sleep-sting of tap-dancing needles. The ceiling becomes the basement, becomes the drunken memory of Boy shouting into the static mic offering anger in validation of existence. Daddy rings and rips a trail about the credit card suits requesting authorization to push through the month’s pending charges. Always angry, she thinks. He tells her to lace up and earn a wage, to enroll in a four-year institution and then he’ll tally the assist. Then the landlord rings and carves a path about overdue rent, a notice, and newly installed locks. Girl isn’t afraid. She lets the mosquito buzz of the inker’s gun push pain across her arm into shapes that express a deeper longing for permanence. Anything important can be carried, she thinks, like tales inscribed on flesh. All done the digger says. Light catches his flopping lobes like gaping bullet holes and Girl tells him she’ll hit up the cash machine. She admires the shaded work in the mirror, the bird in flight frozen in time against her shoulder. Always in transition, never here, never there. Instead of pulling cash, she thinks about where to sleep and steps into golden rays to call Boy and see if he remembers the weekend’s reverie. He brings good news.

*

Boy squints at the guitar to diagnose the source of the fractured hum that comes when the mid-set riffs threaten to blow the amp. Small cracks in the wood, frayed wires, nothing new, but the sound has been approaching like looming thunderheads at the edge of an open field. Girl posts on the corner of the frame-less floor-bound mattress furiously answering texts. An ex she says and rolls her eyes, then asks for a charge. Boy points to the corner outlet dangling with electric tentacles. Girl stems the juice, grabs Boy’s cheeks and presses promises against his lips until their boiling flesh cools beneath the half-lit overhead. Boy offers up his favorite shirt, the one from the show when the singer clashed with the bassist and they both bled into the eager front, and Girl slides in filling out both past and future. Long hair curls like smoke against soft illustrated shoulders, both an omen and a warning. The hum returns, this time against the face of a vibrating phone.

*

Dirty Joseph dispatches an email with times, dates, and locations for the three-piece punk band plus one. Girl reads aloud. No hotels, DIY meals. Boy loads the trunk of his inherited beater with amp and axe and book he’s promised to read. Girl waits in the front seat angry at the way the wounds of her ex’s claws won’t stitch. An older woman in a faded floral muumuu stands in the old farmhouse’s doorframe watching, asking Boy when he’ll be back, wanting to know where the pills are kept. Girl snaps a picture with her phone and notices Boy squatting down, palm to face, inner monologue in full soliloquy. Don’t leave the house he finally says, and the woman dissolves into shadow. Then, behind the wheel, the car sucks pavement as the world shrinks behind but never fully vanishes along the abandoned stretch of road waving with golden wheat.

*

Touring falls victim to a numbing and endless routine of gas stations, deep fried sodium meals pre-packaged with preservative freshness. It’s chips and soda and candy and cheap piss-water beer to stave off the hunger pangs of unsatisfying meals. One highway is another highway, somehow the same road, always dipping forward into exhaustion thick enough to break anger into desperation. The band travels alone in cars, together in pack, forever bonded by the fading embers of teenage fire. Bassist recently chopped once-flowing hair into a buzzed concession, while Drummer spends off-stage time in reading glasses scrolling through pictures of his newborn. They don’t speak outside of music, less and less to say as time remolds the clay of happiness. Still, they are sonically aligned as the first two shows tear holes through barn doors, leave ringing in the ears of hopped-up drunks with cattle hands, and earn enough money to pay for gas, and soda, and chips until the next show the next day. Girl hasn’t changed out of Boy’s tee shirt. She smokes with the windows up while Boy drives, head slumped against the driver’s side glass, eyes fixed on the unwinding horizon. They blow through a stop sign and Girl throws up the horns screaming fuck yeah. Boy doesn’t understand why, but doesn’t ask because somewhere deep in his soul is the ache of truth he can’t bring himself to face. This tour, it’s his last shot. Of what, he is not certain. Punk rock doesn’t ask questions. Punk rock doesn’t slow down. Punk is a lifestyle that eats its young with the remorseless savagery of the feral packs sprung from its womb.

*

Girl isn’t fond of the two dolled up biddies standing front row in homemade fishnets and tight tanks making eyes at her man. She knows they’re not here for the shredded octaves or double-time tempo or screeching vocals, but to be taken from the basement of the dilapidated field house into dark upstairs rooms lined with old printed photographs gone yellow in broken frames so they can be spit out into the greater echelon of fireside tales. They still have it, that fleeting blush of puppy-eyed innocence even with dirty deeds pursing their lips, and Girl wants to hit them for being alive with something she herself hasn’t felt in years. So she does, and fists fly, and blood spills, and Boy and his band play on until flashing blues scramble the soirée. Drummer waves the white flag first unwilling to take a pinch. Bassist chats with the boys in blue about requirements for the entry exam and they all compare tattoos. Boy sits cuffed to a wooden chair frothing, spewing venom. He isn’t sure of its recipient.

*

Boy watches Girl sleep in the passenger seat, his favorite shirt stained with blood and coffee and the flavor dust of the red-bagged corn chips. 5-0 tails them to the county lines after Girl’s ex posted bail. Dirty Joseph’s wife said it was too late to be calling with news and hung up, everyone driving through the night to make it to the next show on time. Ex will be there, terms of the tradeoff. Cornstalks glow blue under the moon and ripple like water against the summer night’s piano melody breeze. Boy wants to sleep but pushes forward dodging potholes that line the road like calibrated drills pushed from sky to earth. When all is quiet, the humming returns.

*

Girl sits on the hood of the beater pulled to the side of an empty stretch. She tears into 2-for-1 gas station hotdogs loaded with free mustard and relish. Her ears still ring with the after-show buzz that sometimes sounds like mother crying before the suicide. It’s close to dawn and the horizon glows. Do you love me she asks. Boy pisses into the dry dust of the pull-off and stares at the stars blinking out of existence. He parries and asks Girl to read an email that just came through, that his eyes can’t focus, and lays the phone next to her hip. It’s angry Girl says, chewing. Your Dad wants to know why you left Nana by herself and when you’re coming home. He says she hasn’t eaten in days. Boy palms his eyes and fires off an unbroken string of deep seeded venom until his chest heaves. He waxes poetic about his father, the mean drunk who only shows up to stir trouble. It’s not even his mother. It’s my mother’s mother. My mother was hospice, Stage-4 until… he says. Hold still Girl tells him and pulls a safety pin from the car’s interior. She fires up the lighter and holds the sharp tip to the flame until it glows. Boy doesn’t move as the fiery point shoves through the soft of his nose. Girl pinches the pin shut. Boy’s favorite shirt hangs loose off her body. A moment later, the sun bleeds daylight over the unchangeable horizon.

*

The show is at a proper venue. Elevated stage, lights, PA. Unlicensed bar in the back selling dollar cans from a dripping cooler. The bald-headed athletic owner stands outside, introducing himself as such while sucking down a smoke. A v-neck shirt shows the edges of a chest tattoo. Death-grip handshakes. Message sent. Got my own studio, too, he says and winks. Local talent migrates. The owner shines beat red, head tilted, chewing air. Eyes scan Girl. Ex arrives in too-small leather jacket and too-tight pants shaking dead-fish handshakes with the band. Can we talk he asks of Girl, and Girl hocks a wad of phlegm on his dusty combats. Ex grabs Girl’s wrist, and Owner grabs Ex’s neck. Save it for the pit he growls, and shoves them into the stage room where youths ogle the long-haired metal-band opener running thrashing scaled jud-jugs to double-kick bass. The set expires. The moody metal-heads strike while Boy’s punk ensemble sets up. The crowd dissolves. Boy plays to an empty room save for Ex arguing with Girl against the wood panels in back near the cheap-beer coolers. By the last song, they’re swapping tongue stories, hands clawing and pawing, grab-groping bodies like molding clay. Boy tears the pin from his nose and throws the guitar against the wall. A tuning knob dislocates and is lost to the open room. Loaded car, next venue hours away, Boy reverses and collides with the parked bumper of Owner’s ride as the man tumble-jogs across the lot hollering revenge plots. Miles down the road, the humming rises like angelic choirs filling empty promises with hope.

*

Crusted purple blood binding the nose’s soft flesh streaked green. Fire gnatted beneath the skin inflating sinuses like balloons. Acid burns passages connecting throat and lungs. As Band sound checks, both Bassist and Drummer tired and hopped up on aspirin and antihistamines, Boy chokes on air unable to scream, unable to shriek, unable to unleash pent up fury to willing ears. Lights out and songs alive, Boy stumbles over round syllables inviting simple harmonies in lieu of the harpy’s wail of disappointed adulthood. Strings de-tune, unable to adjust to proper pitch. The small crowd chooses conversation over pits, over spin-kicks and two-steps, checking phones for more important tenure. The set ends to the bullying applause of moving forward instead of the appreciative sound of shared-talent gratitude. A hardcore band headlines with heavy breakdowns and disharmonic riffs. The pit resurrects under this new messiah.

*

Is this enough? Boy asks. The cashier snarls at the crumpled twenty and slides the whiskey bottle and protein bar into a plastic bag. He gives no change and Boy doesn’t protest. The next venue is a house, the basement already filled with cheap tobacco smoke from long-haired street scholars in plaid arguing about literature. Through the side load-in, one asks what do you think, relic? Was Ayn Rand right? Boy throws up the horns and flops his tongue. Dude, the other whispers, I don’t know if he can read. Boy drops his amp and lashes with the closed-fist fury lingering since the broken teenage years, since hospice care stole the soul from behind fragile eyes. The two scatter un-punctured shouting punk is dead. A car crunches into the gravel parking lot as Boy descends into the bulkhead. Dirty Joseph stands propped against the far wall, axe in hand, talking to Band. Pack it up, I’m tagging you out he says, and Boy’s road warrior future ends in a hail of un-ceremonial softness. Band gazes at the ground and the ground gazes back. Songs of violent loyalty and devoted friendship lodge themselves firmly into yesteryear’s promise. Boy leaves. Loaded trunk, glancing at an unread book and thinking of his mother, the promise to her, a fist slams against his ear knocking him horizontal. Owner shouts I found you and lays a beating so fierce that Boy prays for a death that does not come. The guitar is ripped from the case and Owner backs over it with his expensive, repaired car and then peels off. When the dust settles, Boy rolls into the front seat, fires up the engine and sucks in pavement as his old life shrinks behind but never fully disappears.

*

Girl texts Boy from the edge of Ex’s bed, old patterns re-emerged and settling in like unchanged traditions. I miss you she says. The phone comes alive and Boy speaks through crippled lungs to say he’ll pick her up, that he’s headed by anyways. In an hour, his rumbling beater idles outside the house found by GPS. She doesn’t kiss Ex goodbye and wraps the three-lined cutting wounds with gauze. The scratch runs the face of the bird. Distorted messages. Always here, always there, never really gone. She jumps into the passenger and takes Boy into her palm. She still wears his shirt. Where’s your nosering? She asks, and boy spits a cracked molar onto the dash. They drive the days-long stretch home cosmically bound by something greater than words, something closer to music.

*

Nana is happy for the return. Dad says he wants a union job, but doesn’t show up for the interview. Within a week, he’s gone with Nana’s pills. Girl sleeps on Boy’s mattress all day and stays up at night studying for the GED. Boy drills holes in thin metal, his face healed to small purple bruising. The past circles back making knots of time pulling taut the pain of almost-escape. Foreman tugs Boy’s shoulder and points to the tinnitus silent break room and signals his eyes. Boy lifts a lever and doesn’t protest. He enters to an optometrist running glass-eyed tests on the unionized tradesmen. Sit he tells Boy, and Boy sits. Mechanical goggles swing to his face and click the wall into focus. Read the bottom line the optometrist says, and Boy’s insides hug the spine pushing out empty sweat. I can’t Boy says, and the man clicks the machine until the wall is blurred. Better he asks, and Boy says no. The machine clicks the wall back into focus. How about now he asks and Boy raises a thumbs salute, but explains he doesn’t know how to read. Against the waiting wall, co-workers chuckle like status-hungry chicks while the fox creeps silent to pick off their slow brethren. Boy breaks free of the chair and returns to work drilling holes into thin metal. The unveiled secret sits heavy in his chest, his head lighter with all the books he’s never read. The room tilts and he palms the thin metal until the machine comes down and his left hand comes loose to sleep on ice.

*

Girl visits the beeping hospital room glowing sterilized white. She brings Nana, and the two swing chairs to the edge of the bed and take turns reading from the book from the trunk, a Dickens classic about a boy named Pip, a promise kept. The shirt is gone, strands unwoven by dryer’s heat. Instead, Girl wears a sweater. The surgeon couldn’t re-attach the severed hand, and Boy has accepted it, that some things cannot be repaired once unraveled, that even if they could, he’d only be living a lie told through pain, not progress. He thinks of his mother, and the tour that should have allowed him to re-live the sick years as a youth again, but forced adulthood like a trash compactor. One broken dream for the next. The hum has disappeared. A chapter ends and Girl rises to unweave the tension of the day. She bends over and kisses Boy on the lips, their bodies filling with the cleansing mint of definitive endings and teeth scraped clean. Nana, happy for the company, tells a story about the mother and Girl listens. Then, she flips the book back open and the three of them start a new chapter.

© W. T. Paterson
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read W. T.’s interview]