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Track 8

"Haven't We Been Here Before?"

Part Two

The Big Show

"Who do you love?" Jeff asked.

I don't know! Please, let me out! At least let Erich out! He didn't do anything!




The drumming came then. It didn't belong, but it was there.

The fire was gone, the smoke was gone, the heat was gone.

There was pain, though. My back and my head hurt, but it was nothing compared to what I had just felt.

What's going on?

I opened my eyes.

It was light. I was looking at something beige and fuzzy. I touched it. I blinked.

The drumming was obviously coming from somewhere nearby. It was "Wipeout."

I rolled over and saw that I was in the television and game room at the twins' house.

Oh, shit. Right. Saturday morning. That's the twins on the drums. Fuck! That dream is gonna make me go crazy. Maybe having it means I already am? Seems so hard to think, maybe I am already.

Nah. Only sane people worry about being insane. Right?

I sat up with difficulty. The clock said it was almost eleven. I had missed Doctor Who. Underworld wasn't a favorite, and all the Saturday morning episodes were older ones. Sunday nights were the newer episodes, and they mattered. Soon, Logopolis would air, and after that, by the blessed Time Lords, new episodes.

I sighed, ran my hands over my face, then sat up with another groan and the popping of many joints.

Oh, God. I feel like hell. Thought there wouldn't be any nightmare, but that was wrong. Shit. At least I didn't get seen having it. David was on the other couch, though, and could have...

I noticed that he was gone.

Whew. Must be in with the twins. Have to use the bathroom!

I almost ran to the bathroom. After relieving myself, I washed my face and neck, and tried to wake up. It was a losing battle. I was too tired and worn out to wake up. I wished I could go back to sleep, but I knew that wasn't going to happen, so I did two lines. The rush and energy was welcome - very much so. I went to Ryan's room and used the phone to call home.

Mom answered quickly. I told her that I was going to stay at the twins' for the day and overnight again, and would be home sometime tomorrow. She was reluctant. I reminded her it was a three-day weekend, and my last chance to spend some time away from home until Easter break. I told her not to worry, that I had been fed a good breakfast and a large lunch was certainly about to be served. She agreed, and reminded me that there were chores needing done at home, and that I should plan on being home tomorrow at a decent enough hour to complete a few. I sighed, and agreed.

My pack was next to Ryan's bed, so I picked it up and took a shower. Once I was done, I was ready to join the three of them, and for the rest of the band to arrive. On the way to the music room, I noticed that it was quiet. When I walked in, they were eating off trays, and another was on the table.

"Was told you had to eat, too, Alex. And we could have it up here," Brent answered before I could ask.

I groaned in disgust, "I don't eat in the mornings."

Ryan insisted, and threatened to inform my parents. I relented and stabbed at the omelet. I mostly redistributed it, trying to make it look as if I had eaten some of it. My stomach roiled at the aroma and the very sight of it. They asked if I wanted something else. I said no. I ate the muffin and drank the juice.

After breakfast, the twins played the drums, David played the keyboard, and I slunk away to do lines in the bathroom. By noon, all of the guys had arrived and were setting up.

After a little bit of talk, joints were passed around. I was nearly rabid for a buzz and hit them deeply, holding the smoke for as long as I could.

"We need another paying gig. I'm gonna run out soon," Wil said.

"Me too," Bill agreed.

"Use your allowance," Kevin said.

"And use what for gas?"

"Okay, fine. There's the Willowbrook. They pay two hundred a night, but we have to play slow stuff the old geezers can dance to."

It was agreed that that wasn't going to work.

"The Flame pays three hundred a night, but only for the same stuff and requests."

It was agreed that we had to learn some old, slow, soft dancing music for the older crowds.

"Other than that girl's birthday next month, there ain't much to get paid for."

"There's no rule about asking for tickets for a show at the student union," I said.

"What?" most of them asked at the same time.

"I said, you can ask to charge for tickets at the student union. But you have to do a free show earlier, like normal. Pay to stay after nine or ten."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. I used to work there, remember? I attended the staff meetings. If you charge, and you're a school band, you have to do at least two hours free, first, then charge to stay after. Up to ten bucks a person after nine or ten."

"You fucking sure?"

"No, I'm making it up to tease you," I said sarcastically.

"Ten bucks a person?"

"Up to. Only ones that charged to stay was usually five bucks."

"How many?"

"Like, one or two a year while I was there."

"I mean, how many people?"

"Oh, duh, sorry. Capacity is two hundred and fifty."

"Times five bucks."

"Three-fifty. One-fifty per head goes to the student union. No matter what you charge."

"Three-fifty, times two-fifty."

I saw him trying.

"Eight hundred and seventy-five."

"Holy shit!"

"That's, like, uh... "


"Just under eighty bucks each. If everybody plays."

"If we only charge five bucks," Wil said.

"Charge more, and less will stay."


"We're not exactly a hit band. I say five bucks."

"And only if you pack the house," I reminded them.


"Did we last night?"

"Way over a hundred, for sure."

"So, forty bucks each, more or less."

"How do we set it up?"

"Talk to the staff. Soon as possible," I answered.

"How soon can we get hold of them?"

"Some are there now. Doing stocking and prep and hanging out."

"Let's go!" Kevin said. "I can drop by Sean's."

The guys complained that the buzz from the smoke was wearing off too quickly, that Kevin needed to find a better dealer.

"I'll see if he's got anything different."

"Ya want me to score ya some red-bud on the way?" I asked.

Kevin blinked.

"You can't get no red-bud, it's outta season."

Ryan laughed.

"What?" Kevin wondered.

"Alex can get it," Ryan answered.


"Is that a dare?" I asked, shades of a Circle meeting creeping out from the shadows.

"Dare? It's a fact," Kevin said firmly.

"I score some red, ya owe me."

Out of habit, I left just what he owed me open for negotiation, as was standard in the Circle. I wondered what his reaction would be.

"O-o-o-o-o-o," from Wil.

"Uh-oh," from Terry.

"Careful, Kev, you might... choke, on those words," Bill said, snickering.

Most of us laughed.

Kevin looked challenged.

"Yeah, that's one bet that might come around to get you in the ass!" Adam said, looking at me to make sure he hadn't gone too far.

I snickered. Everyone laughed.

"Real red-bud?" Kevin asked.

I nodded. We did the stare-down.

"No bet," Kevin said. "Knowing you, you'd show up with a dump truck of it."

Laughter. I joined, wishing he had taken the bet. I had an idea for his end of it when I produced the goods.

"I'll keep my brown cherry," he added.

More laughter.

He was wrong about my idea, but I didn't correct him. I shrugged.

"Where we gotta go?" he asked.

"My place," I answered plainly.

"Oh, shit. We're gonna be waitin' on 'em all day," Brent said.

"Why's that?" Bill had to ask.

Seeing Brent's grin, I cringed.

"Once Alex gets him alone at his place ..." he ended with a rim-shot and a wide grin.

More laughter.

"O-o-o-o-o," Wil said lewdly.

"Shove it," Kevin said.

"Yeah, that's about right," Terry said, grinning.

"You guys are ass-hats," I said firmly, trying not to laugh. "Besides, I don't wanna ruin him for girls forever."

That got a huge laugh from everyone, and another rim-shot from Brent.

"Assholes," Kevin said just louder than a mutter, grinning. "C'mon, Alex. We'd better hurry. If we're gone one minute longer than they think it would take to go past your place and talk to the people at the union, we'll come back to a party and balloons, and wedding cake."

"Bring your tu-u-u-x," Terry teased as I grabbed up my coat.

Kevin and I both flipped him off as we walked out, Kevin using the crutch again.

"They're already thinking alike!" Adam said with glee.

I could have sworn that I had just walked away from the Circle.

Kevin looked over at me and grinned. He pushed me on the shoulder.

"They're just kiddin' around," he said.

"Oh, I know. Wait until the twins feel like really throwing around a few. Then you'll see what I'm used to."

We talked about music and the show for tonight. It was nice. I wasn't sure what I was going to tell my folks when I got home, but it turned out that I didn't have to worry about it. I asked Kevin to wait for me in the car. I called out when I opened the door, but no one called back. I went out into the garage, the car was gone. I opened the freezer and dug out a brown paper bag from the bottom. The larger bag was also intact and seemingly unmoved. I had written on them both, "Freezer experiment - bacterial survival of subfreezing temps - spoiled beef and veg. - January 29th - bacterial colony present - measurements inside - do not open." I covered it again. I knew my folks would leave it alone.

I tore the smaller bag open and pulled out the stuffed baggie. I threw it on a plate, removed the plastic, and heated it in the microwave for one minute on lowest power. I opened a Mason's and drank most of it as the timer counted down. After thirty seconds, the weed wasn't warm, but it wasn't frozen anymore. I put it all back in the baggie and tried to pocket it, but it was too large, I needed something to carry it in.

I was wondering if there was anything else I wanted from home as I passed Toby's picture and sent him the usual mental hug and an additional hope that he would be around a lot for tonight. I went upstairs and got the overnight bag and stuffed the pot into it with another change of clothes; something worth wearing on stage while playing Styx. The Paradise Theater album-art t-shirt was still new.

"Well," Kevin asked as I closed the car door.

I grinned, opened the maroon Nike bag, and lifted the shirt on top of the clothes.

His eyes grew wide.

"Is that an ounce?"


"Holy shit! You are fuckin' full of surprises!"

Something about what he said, or how he said it, seemed to set off some alarm bell. I saw nothing, heard nothing, but something did. I ignored it.

"Wait 'till ya smoke it!" I said with a bounce of my eyebrows.

I re-covered the weed and put the pack on the back floor. I suddenly wished we had gone to my house after the student union. I knew that much weed would put us in jail without immediate bond even being possible. And we both had plenty of cocaine on us.

I was nervous as we drove, but Kevin obviously was taking extreme care not to call any attention to us. I was immensely grateful. Once at the student union, I knew who to talk to, and she agreed readily. The student union could always use more income, and she knew we were good enough that quite a few would pay five bucks to hear us do Paradise Theater all the way through.

Kevin asked how soon she could have signs up. She and I were both surprised that he meant so soon. I didn't think he had been serious about playing it so soon, but here he was making a commitment for tonight. It made the whole fact seem even more real and heavy. She said she would have signs up tonight.

The matter taken care of, we returned to his car. As he started it, he gave me a smirking grin.

"What?" I asked suspiciously.

"How about a joint before we get back?"

I shrugged, grinned, and grabbed my pack. I asked if he had a paper, then if he had a rolling machine. He did, he didn't. I cleaned a tight bud, noticing that the webbing had begun. I smelled the strong odor of the weed and the merta, even though I hadn't put the baggie to my face to inhale it. Kevin sniffed, grinned, then picked up the baggie from my lap. He placed the opening over his mouth and nose, then inhaled.

"Oh, wow! Dude! Do you know what you got?"

I grinned, nodded, and said, "Not all the way done, but it's started."

He examined the baggie closely, then several buds one at a time.

"This is gonna knock the guys on their asses," he said with glee. "You are amazing."

Again, something about the way he said something perked up my defenses. It didn't seem a threat of any kind, more a nagging concern.

He started talking music, and the plans for the big show. I nodded. I rolled the joint using a dollar bill. We smoked almost half of it before he held up his hand and refused it.

"Man, I'm so toasted! Any more and we'll end up parked on an off-ramp, like Cheech and Chong."

We laughed, far more than the joke called for. It was fun, sitting there in his car with him, very high, laughing at anything and everything. It had me thinking in the old Circle way. I asked Kevin if he would be willing to prank the guys when we got back. He thought about it, grinning, then asked what I had in mind. He listened as I laid out my idea, then agreed. Then he even added a twist. I thought how Kevin would make an excellent Circle associate, and wondered if he would consider it.

We were back at the twins' place before an hour had passed. We walked in, looking guilty.

"Looks like they're both up to something," Wil said with a grin.

"Yeah, but what?" Adam asked.

"Or, what did they get up to?" Brian asked with a smirk.

They all laughed.

"Don't worry, he still likes girls," I said, as if it were a sad thing.

"And he's really flexible!" Kevin said just as plainly. "Was never that easy with Carrie in the back seat."

He sat down as if exhausted. I did the same.

They were all quiet, and obviously surprised. Except the twins, who were familiar with Circle pranks, and with me. Ryan was hiding his grin, Brent pretending shock, emulating the others, both of them watching the others.

"Uhhh," Wil verbalized, looking as if he was watching a jumbo jet towing someone on an inner-tube down Niagara Falls.

"I call bullshit," Adam said, not looking terribly confident, but enough to do so.

Kevin couldn't continue and gave it up with a guffaw.

"Yeah, bullshit," I admitted. "Besides, if we really stopped for sex, we wouldn't be halfway through yet."


"And we'd still have to go to the student union," Kevin added.

More laughter.

"So, would Kev have lost his bet?" Terry asked.

"He'd still be paying it off," I said, tossing the bag onto the table in front of the original band members.

"Holy hell!" Wil said, first to grab the bag.

"Is it really red-bud?" Terry asked.

Adam walked up behind Wil and examined the bag closely as well. Wil opened it and inhaled. He grinned.


"And I think Kevin still has to pay his bet," I said, feeling like teasing him some more. I paused, waiting for the tension to build up. "He did almost make it. So I think he has to roll all day."

"Fine, I'll roll all day. Pass me that ganja."

Practice went well. We were mellow and relaxed, and in great moods. The weed turned out to be very conducive to the enjoyment of music, and didn't interfere with our ability to play. In fact, being so relaxed, we seemed to play a little better. Or the weed only made it seem that way.

We started with Paradise Theater. Again, it was a shock to start with, but I felt that I did well. The emotional impact was manageable, though still clear and strong.

After working on the few problems with the album, then a break, Kevin said, "After we left last night, we worked on something. This morning, too. Wanna try this out. Twins, give us that groovy Wipeout, with the different drums each time, up and down."

"Ventures," Ryan said with a nod.

"Dammit, yeah, that version," Kevin said, apparently forgetting the group's name.

Kevin, Terry, Wil, and Brian readied, looking as if they were about to pull a Circle prank. Kevin nodded at Brian, who nodded at the twins as he began a count. Brian shouted the word in his own way, and the twins began playing. Wil and Terry played a low bass line, Kevin began on the rhythm guitar. As they made the swaps between drummers, Kevin and Brian swapped on guitars. The two of them played alternately during the longer sections. It sounded far better than even the Ventures' recording. It was full, crisp, mean. Brian did the hardest guitar sections, wailing it tight and high. Kevin took the middle sections, which were slower, but barely. Each pair of guitars pointed at each drummer for the swaps. When each rhythm guitarist was playing solo, the other waited, aiming his guitar at the one playing. Terry and Wil swapped on bass, also highlighting the one playing, and when they joined, they made for a deep, full bass line traveling under the other duo along with the drums. All six of them swapping and pointing made for a very interesting visual effect. Adam was pushed to keep making changes, working the board hard.

I felt left out. Except for the stabs, there was nothing for the keyboard to do. As I watched, the twins mouthed, "Come on in," repeatedly, each time I looked at them. They hadn't learned the song on their own, but at my urging. It had always been a favorite, and I had literally bribed them to learn to play it. Once they had heard it, though, they needed no other inducements; the difficult drumming had been incitement enough. I had mimicked the guitar lines with the Oberheim as they learned the song, and before long, we had it down pat. I remembered much of it, and my hands wanted to do it.

Before the song was half over, I had jumped up and moved to stand behind David at his Sony, and began showing him the keys. There wasn't a lot, and I only showed him the main bass lines and the stabs for between the drum sections. He caught on quickly.

I was hard. And enjoying more than just the physical closeness. My body hummed, and I had a desire to share that vibration with his body. And touching him so frequently seemed to feed that desire.

I had to move away, though, as he was going well along, and any more touching would have seemed gay. I stood up and motioned for Adam not to turn his keyboard up; he shrugged and complied, keeping the volume off. David and I could barely hear his keyboard over the headphones, but we managed, and by the end of the song, he was doing well.

Kevin walked over and waved his hand between the keyboard and our faces to get our attentions.

"What?" we asked in tandem.

"Exactly. What are you guys up to?" he asked, looking pleased.

I shrugged, said, "Go through it again, and we'll show ya."

He looked more pleased, nodded, and motioned for a second playing. David had done well with the simple mimicry through the song, I knew he would play it fine. He was grinning at me as I took my seat at my Oberheim and nodded at Kevin to start.

The twins were red-faced and their hair was sweaty, but they looked more than ready for another go. Kevin gave the count, Terry yelled, "Wipeout," and we were all off. Adam turned most of them down, and David and I up, so that what we were doing was more easily heard. Kevin nodded and grinned as he heard our keyboards' matching notes. David was hitting the stabs and the simple bass line, I was hitting the stabs and the rhythm lines. After the second swap set, Kevin motioned for Adam to turn everyone back up, and our very own rendition of The Ventures' "Wipeout" shook the room from floor to ceiling.

"Ye-e-e-e-e-e-s!" Adam wailed from the mixing board as soon as the last beat ended. "That was fucking fantastic! Wooooo!"

"Got it?" Kevin asked, grinning widely.

"Fuck, yeah!" he said, removing the cassette and brandishing it as if it were a winning lottery ticket.

"Let's sit 'n spliff!" Kevin said, taking off his guitar, almost laughing.

We moved to the couches and Adam handed the tape to Brent, who played it on the stereo system, blasting the volume almost as loud as the actual practice has sounded. Joints were passed as our song played. It began with the keyboards up loud, the other instruments in the background. David and I blushed until the second set of swaps were over and the rest of the instruments came up to volume. An incredibly rich, full, rounded version of the song literally wiped us all out.

"That's what happens when you get the very best together!" Kevin said enthusiastically as the last note died. "We're gonna fuckin' kill with that! Those keyboards sounded great, like they belonged!"

"It was the two drummers that made it so good," I commented.

"Too bad we can't get all those drums on the stage," Adam said.

"We gotta do it," Kevin said, almost to himself.

An idea was mentioned. It was considered. It was voted on. It passed.

But we had to move fast. Everything was packed up, except the twins' drum sets, which they remained behind to break down. We took the usual gear to the student union and removed the drum set. We set up everything, leaving a large empty space at both rear corners. Lights were arranged.

"I'm not so sure about where we'll be," David said as we were getting ready to head back to the twins' place for their drums.

"Just be like me and don't worry about it," I lied with a shrug.

We laughed. We both had preferred being unseen, but now, with the new arrangement, we would have to be completely off the stage to be invisible. I liked the idea. I said as much. We laughed. It didn't seem to help much, though.

"I kinda mean, on opposite sides," he said. "Now I can't watch you and pick up anything new."

I thought much the same, but not exactly.

It took another two hours, but we made two more runs to the twins' house and back to the student union. Again I thought how great that big old Plymouth would be to move that stuff around. And how great the van would have been. We paused at the twins' house each time to refresh our highs and buzzes, or we could have had it done much sooner.

When we arrived at the student union with the last load, the posters were up at all the usual places around the student union.


Rolled Thunder


Styx's Paradise Theater

Free admission until 10p.m.

for general music

$5 per person after 10p.m.


Styx's Paradise Theater live

They were printed on the usual psychedelic, multi-colored, poster-paper with black ink, and looked pretty good.

Inside another hour, both drum sets were set up on the back corners of the stage, wired into their own amps, and ready. The twins tested. A few of the students standing around at the pinball and arcade games at the far end of the building came walking up, curious.

Kevin quietly said something to the twins that the rest of us couldn't hear. The twins nodded and grinned. They started playing the drums, strong, powerful beats that almost didn't need any accompaniment at all. With the building being so empty, there was a strong echo, and that only made it sound that much better as the twins warmed up. And it made the band name all the more appropriate.

"Candy!" I yelled when they hit a lull.

They nodded, then suddenly filled the building with the pounding beat. The watchers were amazed. They grinned and clapped.

"Wipeout!" Kevin said when they finished.

The watchers stood motionless, not speaking as the twins amazed them. When the twins were done, some of the watchers used the payphone at the far end of the building. Kevin grinned. I leaned against the railing along the edge of the dance floor as Kevin went to talk with the twins.

"Hey, Alex."

I whipped around to see Thomas standing next to me. I was horrified.

"Uh, hi, dude. What're you doin' here?"

He shrugged, then said, "Just wondering if the same band is playing tonight. They did very well last night."

"You like music?" I asked stupidly.

He looked offended.


"Dumb question, I guess," I said, feeling incredibly stupid. "Uh, I heard you and Patricia were here last night. How'd it go?"

Damn, that was stupid, too! You dumb-ass!

He shrugged.

"Goin' out tonight, too?"

"No. We don't get along that well for another date."

He shrugged again, still studying his shoes.

"Oh. Too bad, I guess. At least you tried."

"Yeah. Wish I had tried with who I want to go out with."

"Why don't you?"

He didn't move a muscle, and I couldn't see his face at all, so I had no clue what he might be thinking or feeling.

"Too hard to ask?"

"You have no idea! It's madness!" he said dramatically, then seemed to catch himself and sober himself. He returned with his normal, even tone of voice. "Uh, I mean... "

He trailed off, lost for words for the first time I had ever seen. Well, heard. He kept his eyes on his shoes, so I only caught the side of his face from my greater height. Still, I was amazed.

"Thomas, don't pass up on a chance. Trust me. Okay?"

He nodded, but I wasn't sure he really understood.


He looked up at me. He was so very cute, even looking worried as he did. I wished he wanted to ask me out. Even more, I wished he would ask out this girl he liked so much.

"Even if she says no, you got to at least ask. If you do and it don't matter, at least you tried. If you do try, and it matters, then it matters. A lot."

His worried brow lifted a little, and the corner of his mouth tipped up a bit. He nodded, and his eyes sparkled a bit. He looked much better. Again, I wished I was the one he wanted to ask out, but I never held any illusions that he was gay.

"You comin' tonight?" I asked, hoping he would say no.

He nodded, "Yes, probably."

Aw, fuck.

"Going to play a few games for a while. Want to?"

I shook my head, replied, "Naw. Just gonna hang a bit."

"Cool. Maybe see you later, then."

I knew that he would see me tonight. I wondered if he had last night.

"Uh, so, how late did you stay last night?"


"So, you missed the last round of songs?"

"Guess. She and I were ready to leave during the first dance songs. We don't dance."


We were silent for a few seconds.

"Thomas? Can I ask you a huge favor?"

"Sure, anything," he said, finally looking at me.

"Uh, if you see me here, tonight, um, no matter what, or what I'm doing, uh, can you promise not to tell anybody?"

He looked curious.

"Sure. If you want. Why?"

"Uh, just, uh, you'll see. Okay?"

I tried not sound like I was begging, but I was, and I sounded it.

I saw what I knew was his light bulb illuminating. I had no idea what he was thinking, but he was thinking it, and how. And he seemed pleased at the thought, too. I almost asked what idea he had suddenly gotten.

"Well, sure. Okay," He said quickly, beaming, then wiped most of the smile from his face and shrugged. "Maybe see you then. Later, Alex."

"Later, dude."

He looked happy as he turned away, and I couldn't help but wonder why. It bothered me, but I couldn't figure it out, and had no chance to figure it out without further questioning of Thomas. Secretive, quiet, mellow Thomas. I wondered just how far back our past went, how many lives. I didn't doubt that they did, not any longer. I was looking forward to that long talk with him about that subject. And I wondered if I had just missed some chance at talking to him about it. Music seemed important to that moment. And darkness. The place was well lit at the moment, so that sure hadn't fit.

I sighed in relief once he was far enough away not to hear me do so. I felt bad that he and Patricia hadn't gotten along better. I wondered which girl he had wanted to ask out that had gotten him so excited momentarily.

The twins began making noise again. I retreated to the backstage room, not liking the feeling of the floor and the open space anymore. The twins took turns over the next hour playing brief bouts of heavy drum solos. The crowd grew, and I could hear them from the backstage room. I joined them for many joints in the bathroom, and did lines when David wasn't there.

By five, the place was half full, long before it was usually occupied by more than a dozen. The canteen opened early.

As six o'clock grew close, the twins joined the rest of us in the backstage room. Songs were rearranged so that Bill started the show, so that the twins got rest. But Kevin wanted them on their drums to start off with, "Wipeout." He wasn't sure that he was going to, as we hadn't practiced it yet, but we agreed that it might be a good idea. We all had heard the recording, and we all knew our own parts.

The guys' girls arrived. Large joints of red-bud were passed around. The girls became giddy and giggly. Frisky, too.

I was, too. The red-bud seemed to poke and prod at my genitals, awakening my libido. I did my very best not to look at David, or Ryan, or Riley, or anyone else.

Pizza arrived.

"Some guy in a funny black suit paid for it," the canteen worker said, carrying in three large Casciani's pizzas.

I grinned at the twins. They didn't say anything. Everyone wondered who would pay for pizza for the band.

"Hey, funny black suit," Kevin said, a light bulb almost visible over his head. "Your driver," he said at the twins.

They nodded.

"Tell him thanks."

They nodded.

I knew he was just doing his job, but not only.

I managed to nibble the edges of a piece before Kevin said, "Ten minutes," kissed his girl, and then walked out onto the stage.

So much for the pizza. I took controlled breaths, remembering that I was in charge of my body.

It worked, more or less. I thought of the coke in my pocket. I ran to the bathroom and snorted two lines. I worked up the courage, staring at myself in the mirror.

No problem, Raymond, come on. You've played all the songs from the first two hours before. No problem. Then Paradise Theater. You've played it a thousand times. No problem. It's just in front of a lot of people this time. No... yeah, problem. Don't worry about Thomas. He won't say anything, even if he sees you up there. Oh, cripes!

Just do it! Don't be such a fucking pussy. You wanna make changes in yourself, right? I want to change myself, so, this is a good thing to change. Don't be such a pussy.

I returned to the backstage room and waited with the others. My foot bounced. I bit my nails. I tried to remain calm, in charge. The guys started filing out to the stage, girls in tow.

I started worrying myself with thoughts of what I was about to do. Again. This time, playing Paradise Theater.

And people can see me, this time. Oh, God! What if I break into tears? What if I start crying in front of all those people? Oh, come on! You'd have done that before. The whole album would have made you do that before now. Stop it.

Ryan clapped me on the shoulder, said, "Relax, man, you can do this. Take some deep breaths and come on out."

He left. Brent was next.

"You own this, dude. Go show 'em."

"Yeah, thanks," I said nervously.

David and I were alone. I wondered if he was going to grope me the way Ryan had, kiss me the way Ryan had. I hoped so, for more than one reason.

"Alex, don't be like this. You can do it. You already did it. You played in practice. You played out there. It's all the same."

He put his hand on my shoulder.

"Just come have fun."

He squeezed my shoulder, then stood up and pulled me up by my arm. We were almost face to face. Though the same age, he was built smaller and was shorter than me.

"You got this. Come prove it. Okay?"

I really wished that he would kiss me, like Ryan had. I wished that he were at least bisexual, like Ryan. I wanted to kiss him. I wished I that had the guts to do so.

"Just come and have fun with us."

I nodded. He grinned so adorably, then turned me and then gently pushed me toward the door to the stage.

Oh my gawd, crap, and I know Thomas'll be out there sometime. Damn it. Be cool. It's just like practice, only a few more people. And Thomas. Jeff? Nah, his buddies did their weekend penance party for the coaches' benefit last night. But, gawd. So much! Paradise Theater!

Somehow I made it out there and sat at my keyboard. David was on the other side of the stage. I had fully understood his words earlier about our separation; it wasn't about seeing each other to watch styles and learn tricks, it was for support.

The place was nearly packed. Jocks and cheerleaders, others in normal clothes. Almost every table full. People milling about in the background. The canteen lights lowered. I swallowed. The stage lights shone down on them, leaving me and David mostly in darkness in the back corners.

Kevin did his thing with the crowd. I swallowed even harder. I tried not to shake.

"Welcome to the student union!" he said enthusiastically. He got some applause. "We have something very special for you tonight. We put together the best guitarists, drummers, engineers, saxophonist, and keyboardists in school, to bring you, Paradise Theater, by Styx."

There was applause.

"In order to pay the bills, though, we will have to charge five dollars to stick around for that later."

There were some boos.

"I'm sorry, but we owe money to pay for the equipment and all that. So, five bucks to hear Paradise Theater live, played by the best musicians in school!"

I heard, "Yeah, right!" more than once.

"I know, you might not believe that, but you get over two hours of music between now and then to decide."

Cat-calls and cries of, "Rip off!"

"I hear you," he said to the crowd. "I hear you, but, hear us!"

He pointed to Brian's wooden axe and then at Brian. Then at both of the twins. He clearly mouthed, "Wipeout."

Brian donned his wooden guitar, the twins sat up straighter. He pointed at me and wiggled his fingers, looked curious. I nodded. I changed settings and nodded again. He nodded back, grinning wolfishly. He repeated the gesture and the grin at David.

Brian took center stage. He tapped his foot, pointed at the twins. They rolled a soft beat on cymbals, then the two of them laughed insanely, and then yelled, "Wipeout!"

The place exploded. It was the only way to describe it. In a fraction of a second it went from a softly mumbling crowd to two amplified voices and two sets of amplified drums beating through the air and the floor.

It only took one second, perhaps less, before the crowd was quiet, stunned or simply drowned out by the drums. Then we all joined in, and any sound the crowd made would have been in vain; the double drums, four guitars, and two keyboards were deafening.

They all made a show of swapping drummers and guitarists, pointing from one to the other. Brian leaned over his guitar, eyes tightly closed, a huge grimace on his face, rocking side to side during the main sections, obviously in bliss.

I could see the crowd. They were eating it up. The twins were, too. The stage vibrated under my shoes. The air thrummed through my chest. The crowd roared. The twins, the rhythm guitars, and the bassists, all swapped back and forth, dueled. As we came to the last of the song, Kevin turned to face us, held up an arm, then dropped it. The twins killed the amps and Adam cut everyone else. Only the cymbals remained again, ringing in the air alone.

I saw Kevin mouth, "I love you guys," as he smiled at all of us, his fist against his chest.

I felt myself go a deep red and a warm blush bloom inside of me. It had been fun!

The crowd was cheering and clapping so loudly that Kevin couldn't be heard yet. He waited after turning to face the crowd. I knew that he was grinning that quiet grin.

Finally, "Okay, so, you ready to rock?" his voice full of victory.

The crowd exploded. He had to wait to speak again. The rest of us looked at each other, grinning, laughing, excited. The twins were nearly rabid with joy, panting, their faces almost glowing. "Fucking awesome!" they mouthed at me as they headed in back and Bill took over. I nodded back at them, grinning too. I wished I could see David's face.

"A taste of what to expect if you stay after nine," Kevin said.

He turned to us.

"Let's do some rockin' of the student union."

We knew what he meant. I set up, nodded. The others set up, nodded.

Kevin dropped his arm, and everyone hit the cold start dead-on. Starting that way, Kevin remained silent. I thought it sounded practiced and perfect when Kevin dropped in. I heard Adam make adjustments to the mixer, lowering the drums, increasing the guitars and microphones. I heard him make more changes later, my keyboard almost leading the mix. He kept changing our levels, creating a practiced, professional sound. I found myself pounding the keys, grinning like an insane musician. All that was missing was the trussed-up starlet in a dark corner.

All their voices came in on the last chorus, filling the entire building. Adam knew what he was doing, and was proving it.

We brought, "Rockin' The Paradise" to a close, clean and crisp.

Applause and cheers. My nerves were settled, and I was able to enjoy the scene. I could hardly believe it, but I was on the stage at the student union, in an actual band. And I was comfortable, ready to play more. Looking forward to it. Grinning.

"Okay! Now you know what to expect if you want to stay later!"

The applause told even me that there would be a large crowd staying later. He took us through the discussed, expected routine for the first set. The only change was the last song.

"Okay, we're almost ready for a break, but one more song to take us into the break, and we can all get something to drink, as... cold, as, ice."

Nice pun, there, I thought.

Cold As Ice?

Oh, shit!

I changed settings and saw that he was waiting for me. I nodded. The rest were ready.

He nodded. I heard David playing the opening. I joined. Kevin and Bill fell in. Their voices filled in. My keyboard and David's became louder. I saw Adam grinning. I hit the notes smoothly, David doing so strongly. Wil played those wailing notes powerfully. We sounded pretty good.

The song faded down and out to good applause.

"Thank you! We'll be back in thirty minutes for some dancing and romancing! Gals, get ready!"

I was nearest to the backstage door, so I was first into the room. They filed in, full of victory. Kevin couldn't stop talking about, "Wipeout," and made the twins, David, and I blush with his endless praises.

"The guys and me were up almost all last night getting that right. Bill's arms were falling off!" he said with a laugh. "I thought we had it good, but then with the twins, it was so much better. No offense, Bill, man."

"Oh, hell, no way. I bow to my mentors' skills," he said, grinning, bowing to them as he sat across from them, making them blush further. "I could only do about half of it, or I would've had both arms in slings today."

"But then, man, Alex, you pulled another fucking musical miracle on us. I never thought of what a keyboard could add to it. Then you go and show David that, and you both sounded like it belonged there!"

"No shit! And with no practice!" Wil said. "Fucking-a!"

"Hey, I practiced that with the twins for, what, almost three years?" I asked them.

"At least two," Brent said.

"You did?" David asked.

"How'd you think I knew it?" I asked him simply. "And you picked it up like you knew it already. Fucking nice!"

"You showed me the easy part. It was so easy!"

"We can practice the whole thing, start swapping, like the rest of 'em," I suddenly thought.

"Oh, shit! Yes! Get going on that right away!" Kevin said enthusiastically.

I felt as if I were a more integral part of them than before. We were a team, and we did good things together. I wasn't just the gay guy filling in behind the scenes, I was the new guy who played synthesizer and even sang.

I wasn't sure if it was the pot or the reality of that, but thinking it caused a wave of unreality to wash through me. Again, things spun and swapped location around me, and I was in a completely different place without having moved at all. It couldn't be real. This was some dream. Hallucination. Insanely backwards.

It was the student union. I belonged in the canteen, or used to. Not back here with the band. Part of the band. In the band.

But I was.

We talked, laughed, smoked in the bathroom. I sneaked lines alone.

The break was quick, and we were back out on the stage in what felt like only ten minutes. I had little to do again, just filling in effects and other sounds, doing faint background backing in a few songs. I couldn't see any faces out past the stage, but I could see figures dancing on the floor.

The break came up quickly, or so it seemed. We smoked, talked, laughed, I did lines alone in the little bathroom. The place was packed. There was talk that almost everybody was going to stay for the ticketed part of the night.

Worries that Jeff was there intruded more than once, but I pushed them back. I didn't want to think about him and ruin what I was beginning to really enjoy. I knew that he had seen me last night, that he couldn't have missed me. I no longer cared. In fact, I almost hoped that he was there again tonight. I wanted him to know what he could have been part of. I hoped to make him sorry that he couldn't be part of it. I wanted him to suffer. Or to at least know that I wasn't hiding away, too hurt by him to do anything. I wanted him to see me having fun, being with other friends.

Thomas wasn't much of a concern. At the most, he would know a secret. I was sure he would keep it.

Toward the end of the break, I took a walk outside to the back of the building, where the stoners would go to get high and listen for free. I had to keep several from walking in the door as soon as I opened it. I made sure it was closed behind me. I wasn't recognized, not as a band member, though Josh Cassidy and Tyler Parker knew me and smoked a joint with me. I had seen them at Tim's van and around the student union when I worked there many times. Both were jocks, and on the baseball team, but I tried not to hold that against them. They couldn't stop talking about how good the band was. I kept nodding. They laughed at how they could hear the show from out there, anyway. I knew the music could be heard from out there, but it was slightly muffled and unclear.

The cold winter air felt good, and the fact that I could breathe it and smoke a joint wasn't missed by me. I smiled, and not only for that fact. Thrills kept running through me at the thought that I was smoking a joint behind the student union, and was a member of the band this time. When the joint was gone, and I needed a drink, I told Josh and Tyler that I would see them around, and then went to the back door. It was still closed. I hadn't forgotten that it locked and could only be opened from inside, I hadn't thought of it being any problem. But I no longer had a key to it. I pounded on it, but no one answered it.

I sighed, not worried, just aggravated at myself, and walked around to the front of the building, trying not to be noticed. When I got to the front doors, I realized I had another problem. There was a small crowd milling around, talking in groups, and there was two guys at the doors, not letting anyone in. I walked to the doors.

"Hey, I walked out the back door, forgot it locks. Gotta get back in."

"Yeah, right," one of them said with a smirk.

"Serious," I tried.

"Just wait in the line, geek. I doubt you'll get in, though."

"Dude, I... "

I almost told them, but I doubted they would believe me. They were both younger than me, but much taller and wider, picked for their size, I knew. Probably third-string football players.

Geeze, now I'm living a bad teen movie. At least I'm not bored at home, watching it.

I grinned.

"Look. Go backstage, tell Kevin that Alex is outside, can't get back in. Okay?"

"Whatever," he said, not moving.

I sighed.

"Okay, get Mrs. Menger or Mr. Chastain."

He looked surprised.

"Get one of 'em, or I'll call the office and talk to 'em myself."

That worked.

I waited in the cold, facing the doors so that my face couldn't be seen by anyone waiting to get in. After a minute or so, he returned with Kevin.

"Dude! We can't play without him!" Kevin said angrily. "You ever keep him outside again and you'll be in the kitchen doing dishes instead! Dick-wad!"

He turned from the hapless sophomore and pulled me in by my shoulder.

"Sorry for the trouble," I said as we walked through the side aisle toward the back of the building.

"Nah, always wanted to use that line!" he said with a smile. "Now I feel like a professional!"

We laughed as we marched along the side of the main floor. I felt exposed out there, but there was nothing I could do. I kept my head down and walked quickly, Kevin having to keep up. The crowd was mostly in seats at the tables, a few at the arcade games, and a long line was at the canteen. I looked through the huge open window into the kitchen, feeling a little nostalgic. I knew how busy they were right then.

We rejoined the guys in the backstage room, laughed, had a good time.

We returned to the stage and did the usual set. I took a break from the stage when I wasn't needed and smoked a joint with Bill and Terry. Most of the songs in this set were Riley's specialties, so Terry was on a much-deserved extended break. I congratulated him on his ability to pick up on "Wipeout" so quickly. He said it was easy, taking it little parts at a time, swapping in the way the twins had taught them was not only possible, but practical and smart. He thanked me for bringing the twins into the band. Bill joined him.

I returned for "I Want To Know What Love Is." It was slow and simple, and a perfect slow-dance song. David played the largest part, I did the soft effects. I liked the song a lot, and it had no heavy emotional load, other than what the song itself created; it was simply a good song, and I enjoyed playing it.

I wondered if anyone I knew was out there beside Thomas. I wasn't worried about him seeing me on the stage, as I knew he would maintain his promise, and I could maintain my privacy.

My horrible nerves of earlier were almost nowhere to be seen - or felt. Almost. While I was feeling good, there was a nervous edge just under the surface. It was manageable, though.

I used the next break in my duties to go backstage and roll and smoke another joint in the bathroom. This time, both of the twins were there and joined me, as Bill was playing the next few songs leading into the break. I wouldn't be needed until the last song before the break. The twins were wired and excited, almost unable to sit still. I couldn't blame them. I was having more fun than I ever thought I would, especially after Friday night.

I went out and did my part during the last dance song, and Kevin thanked those who wouldn't be staying for coming and being a great audience. He thanked those who would be staying, and told them that they were in for a real treat.

We went backstage and a staff member made the announcement over the speakers that it was time to buy a ticket, present your ticket, or leave.

I was in a good mood. We laughed and joked, smoked grass in the bathroom, and I did a couple of lines. They kept saying that they were glad I was playing in the group, and glad I had brought the twins in. They complimented my playing, and told me I should I be proud of my abilities, even my singing. I scoffed at the idea of me singing again, but thanked them for their words about my playing.

We wondered how many were going to stay. We took turns looking out the little window that overlooked the stage and the crowd. From that little window, it seemed as if no one had left.

I began getting nervous again. It was as if I hadn't been there for the previous part of the performance, and was only then arriving, nervous, jittery, uneasy. I began to sweat.

I went back to the rear door to get some air, and had to contend with those who wanted inside. I was even propositioned in a way, by two girls who wanted inside badly. They were angry, but turned away. Tyler and Josh were still back there, and I called out to them. They joined me at the door. I had several joints that Kevin had been rolling all night with me, and I smoked one with them.

The pot did nothing to relieve my nervousness. Neither did the talk about how good the band sounded. They asked me if I could sneak them some pizza from the kitchen.

"I'm not working in there," I said before I thought.

"Thought you did," Tyler said. "What you doing, then? Security?"

"Uh, yeah. Just making sure there's no evil pot smokin' goin' on, ya know?"

We laughed. I laughed mostly at how they not only still talked to me now that I was known about, but they didn't hesitate to smoke a joint with me, either.

"You guys know what's coming up next?" I asked.

"Paradise Theater? You kiddin'? Best album ever. Gonna be great!" Josh said enthusiastically.

That cemented their coolness in my mind. I nodded and grinned.

"Want to see something?"

They both asked what and leaned in closer.

"When I say now, hop in here, quick."

They both nodded. I said, "Now," and stepped back, pushing the door open a bit. They shot in and I pulled the door closed quickly.

"Dude!" they said in unison, smiling hugely.

"Do me a favor, and don't tell anyone."

They put their hands up and nodded.

"You guys never told anyone I smoked, did you?"

They shook their heads. I already knew they hadn't, or I would have known that they had long ago.

"Cool. Then do the same with what you'll see. Don't tell anyone. Okay?"

They nodded, looking curious and confused. I put a finger to my lips and waved them to follow me. No one was at the door to the backstage area, so I pushed it open and waved them through with me. I led them to the side of the stage less than five feet from where my Oberheim sat in the shadows. I wasn't sure why I was doing it, but it felt right. They had kept a secret for me for a long time, and they still talked to me and treated me decently. They obviously kept what had happened at the student union over a year ago secret, too. I wanted to pay them back a little, and letting them in for the show was a perfect opportunity. I wished I had them in classes.

"Gotta go. Enjoy the show."

They threw me two thumbs-up and huge grins.

Back in the break room, I took another look out the little window high in the wall overlooking the stage and the rest of the building. The crowd was settled into their seats. Hardly anyone seemed to have left. The crowd looked just as large as before the break and the announcement.

I don't know why, it would only make me more nervous, but I did it - I walked out the backstage room and down the little hall to the door, opened it, and scanned the rows, looking for anyone familiar.

I found Jeff and his jock friends. And even worse, Tom. I couldn't believe he was there, too! With Jeff and the jocks. My two best friends with a bunch of jocks. It hurt to see them together, and without me. I began shaking.

I crept back to the backstage room and sat down on the couch, feeling like I could throw up.

Why does it make any difference if they're here? I kept asking myself.

I grew angry with myself. I grew angry at them. I poked and prodded the caged beast, cruelly.

Kevin and Wil headed to the bathroom. I followed. I knew it made David angry at me every time I did, but I never gave it a thought this time. I tried to act normal as we did the lines. They laughed and were having a great time. I had been, but now I was almost miserable. I was shaking, sweating, my mouth was dry, my stomach roiled.

I was numb as we rejoined the rest of the band. David tried not to be angry with me, I could tell.

Kevin and the guys were ecstatic. They were about to live out a dream of they'd had for months, maybe years. I was, too. I knew that I should be as happy and joyous as they were, but I wasn't. I wasn't even close to as happy as I had been just minutes ago. I was a nervous, scared, worried wreck, with anger prowling the landscape.

Kevin made the five minute announcement. I hurried to the bathroom and threw up. It only made me more angry. And it only seemed to make the shakes even worse. And the sweats. I thought about staying in there, letting them do it without me.

Fucking pussy! I growled at myself. Come on. You a cop-out? You gonna let them down? You need someone to come coddle you like a baby? Need someone to kiss you, grab your junk, bribe you with sex? It'd be nice...

Ah, fuck! Come on!

I stood up, flushed the toilet, washed my face, stared at myself in the mirror. I glared at myself. I hated myself. I almost punched the mirror.

Calm. Breathe. Steady. You can do this. You've done this. A thousand times. And you don't need someone to promise sex to do it. Come on.

Calm. Breathe. Do it.

Push down the emotions. They just get in the way. Concentrate.

I opened the door and walked in measured strides back to the little backstage room. David and Ryan were watching for me, and saw me as soon as I entered. I threw them a small smile and joined them on the usual couch.

"You doin' okay?" Ryan asked.

"Yeah. I'm good," I said, not fooling him.

He was glad I was doing as well as I seemed to be, though. It showed in his calm, wide smile.

Cripes, you're cute! I thought. Fucking adorable. You're gonna break some serious hearts.

I felt myself blush, thinking that, then admonished myself for the thought.

"He'll be fine," David said from my other side.

I looked to him, and saw his reassuring smile. I grinned back.

Oh, man. You're fucking hot. Just, plain, hot.

No, now stop it. Don't turn them into sex objects. They're your friends.

"I'll be okay. Just jitters," I said, my voice shaking only a small amount.

The good mood of the rest of the guys rubbed off on me, but not enough to actually make me happy. I was nearly numb as we went back to the stage. I knew that Jeff and Tom could see me, if they looked. I wondered if they had or not. As I headed toward my keyboard, I tried not to look up.

I knew they were both sitting with the jocks and some girls, just out there where the lights kept them hidden from my eyes. I tried not to hate them. Not just the jocks, but Tom and Jeff, too.

Oh my God. Oh my God. I can do this. Forget about them. I've played it a thousand times. Forget about them. On this very keyboard. Forget about them. With the twins. Just this time, we got guitars, too. And a sax. And amps. And a... crowd. Shit! And them! Both of them! Shit! Forget about them!

"So," Kevin was saying, "we've been getting this ready for a while, but with a different drummer, and a different synthesizer player. But we've all been working on it, and we think we're about as ready as we can be to do a tribute to one of the greatest albums of the last few years, Paradise Theater, by Styx."

No sweat, shit. Calm. Breathe. Slow, in, hold, out. Relax. This is Paradise Theater. This is it. Don't fuck it up. Don't mess up the best album by the best band ever. Just don't. Do it the honor it deserves. Just do it. Calm. Breathe. In. Hold. Out.

I concentrated on my mantra, my breath, my body. My body. My incubator. Mine. Me.

It narrowed down to myself and the keys. Then Kevin as he tapped time with his good foot. I played "A.D. 1928" as he sang about how tonight we were gonna make history. I played as if I had been doing so for years without pause, without thinking. It was almost mechanical. I played like I had never paused playing. The beautiful melody came out strong and clear. I missed the synthesizer singing its notes and words. Kevin's clear, strong voice.

I would love to tie back the hands of time, to stay with him. Not just tonight, but forever. But he won't. He can't.

Then the soft, easy melody went rabid. We filled the space with "Rockin' The Paradise." It throbbed through the floor, shook the very air. I pounded the keys, wanting to enjoy what I was finally doing, after years of pretending to, years of wanting to, years of talking of doing. But it was dampened by who sat in the audience.

The song required strong keying, and the anger was helpful. I used it. I brandished the pointed stick and beat at anger, and at the keys like they threatened my life. Kevin sang incredibly, and Terry played wonderfully. The twins played the drums as if they had grown up playing the song. I knew they had, I had played it with them. I pounded the keys as if Dennis had coached me as well. As if I had learned to play the Oberheim with the song. I had. But I had learned to play the song first on a J. C. Penny single-row keyboard. With Toby.

But this isn't the same Paradise Theater. This is the one you've practiced with the guys. This is the one on the Oberheim, with the twins. That one.

The anger that Jeff and Tom were together, and with jocks, hanging out at the student union, burned hot. And that they were there at the same time when I was trying something new, and that I had started to like doing.

I toyed with that pointed stick, watching anger work on the bars of its cage.

Yeah, I've heard the world's gone crazy. I've seen what I never thought I'd see, and I've heard what I never thought I'd hear. My world's gone crazy. I'm not far behind it.

The song came to its pounding end. I was breathing hard, growing angry that I couldn't enjoy what I was doing. I had only one target for that anger. Two. And they were invisible beyond the glare of the lights.

The applause was terrific. In level, not in how it made me feel. I almost didn't care. I wanted to enjoy this, enjoy what I was finally doing, but that was impossible.

I saw anger pawing at the bars, finding a loose one. I repeatedly slapped the pointed stick into my other hand.

"Too Much Time On My Hands." I changed settings and started playing those swooping notes. A lot to do, it was filled with synthesizer. I concentrated. I tried to enjoy myself. I couldn't.

Is it any wonder I'm not crazy? Is it any wonder I'm sane at all?

The anger worked on that loose bar of its cage.

I rolled the bells down in pitch to end the song.

More applause. More anger.

"Nothing Ever Goes As Planned." The words had new meaning. I felt them differently for the first time. I played, wanting to be happy at doing so at the student union. I wasn't.

Nothing ever goes as planned. I'm feelin' like I'm gonna lose, alright. Why can't he just get past it and be with me, no matter what our friends know?

Adam's sax wailed out the closing, sweet and smooth.

Anger had the bar banging loosely in its framing.

"The Best Of Times." It wasn't. It should have been. I wanted it to be. It just wasn't. They were ruining it. The wonderful synthesized sounds were easy to do, but I didn't enjoy them as I once had.

Why couldn't he just be with me? I'd take any risk to turn back the hands of time. I know my world has turned upside down. I thought that I knew you'd always be around. The best of times were when I was alone with you. Our memories of yesterday will last a lifetime, but that lifetime has already ended.

Anger pushed against the loose bar, it fell outward. Anger growled in satisfaction.

Kevin called for a short break. I plodded off the stage with the rest of them, applause following us. They laughed. We smoked, did lines. They laughed more. We smoked more. We drank a lot of sodas. I pretended it was going great and tried to fool myself, as well. It was over too soon. Back to the stage.

"Lonely People." I made it rain, I made it thunder softly. Adam's sax played so softly, not using a mic. Terry knocked with his foot and complained about needing sleep. He couldn't wait until they tore that damned old theater down.

They all jumped in, filling the silence with music again. Kevin sang gently. I wanted to enjoy it, even the little amount I had done in practice. It wasn't to be. I was empty. We were, Paradise and me. I was so empty, except for the anger, and the loss.

I guess I've said my last goodbyes. Both so empty, him and me. He smiles and says he's fine, but behind his eyes he just don't care. So close and yet so far, we shared the secrets of desire.

Even Adam's sax did nothing to lighten my mood. I played those odd, wavering notes almost perfectly. More strong, clear notes played off my keys. I wasn't happy. I knew that I should be. The song wound down.

More applause. Anger began working on another bar of its cage.

"She Cares." I tried to be the perfect keyboard player. My hands were steady, my timing was true. But I just couldn't shoot to kill. The notes came out clean. My hands made the music, but my heart wasn't in it. I heard them all, playing well, singing well. I wanted to feel joy. At least some happiness. I couldn't. Their voices ranged up and down in harmony.

Did I go too far? Did I assume too much? Oh, what a fool I've been. But he doesn't treat me like a human. Or too fair. Or even care. I guess that's the way it goes. And when the world has turned its back on me, I will have to feel alone, 'cause I know he doesn't care.

The song faded down and ended. Applause. Anger had the second bar wobbling loosely.

"Snowblind." Those nice, wavering, almost eerie tones rolled out from my fingers. Just me and soft drums and bells, and Kevin singing. Then the rise and everyone joined. My will was stolen without a fight. I was blinded, tricked with visions of paradise. I can't get away. I could pound the keys, though, so I did.

Then the power lyrics, so deep and throbbing, Wil building tempo and volume, then rising high through the body, then low again, back to power and bass through the ending.

I took the song out with those hollow notes. Applause. Anger pushed, but the other bar held. Barely. The tears threatened, but the anger was growling loudly, keeping them at bay.

"Half-Penny Two-Penny." A lot to do. Several adjustments to be done while I played with the other hand more than once. The song built steadily. The crowd loved it. I almost hated it.

Sad story, old story, bring out the band. Oh I wish I could shake myself loose, go somewhere I could be free. That worked, once. Can it again? No, it didn't work. I'm not free. Trey found me. He's here. What if he's... here? In the student union? Now. Too. No!

Anger worked that second bar loose, and it fell. Anger growled, began on another, the last it would need to be free.

I just can't take this amazing pace.

Kevin sang smoothly and strongly. I played almost perfectly, using a hand on both rows of keys. Wil's guitar screamed through the bridge in near solo along with me. Terry took the rousing, echoing section, sounding incredible. I played the piano portion as if I had been doing it for years. Then more synthesized sounds that the crowd responded to. Then again, all of them singing together, loudly, clearly, wonderfully. Kevin screaming, "We all wanna be free!" Then the slowing ending, winding down, Adam's sax filling it beautifully. One hand playing the piano, one the synthesizer. Then the piano, loudly and clearly, Adam turning my output well up. It ended, and I immediately segued into, "A. D. 1958." Kevin singing so smoothly, only me on piano and synthesizer. I knew I could do it, and I didn't care if anyone else knew, or cared, or liked it. I was going to do it.

I did it.

The place was filled with applause.

I changed settings and started playing, "State Street Sadie." I didn't care if they heard it or not. I didn't care if anyone heard it or not.

When it was over, I was empty. Only the anger and loss remained inside of me. The anger tried the bar, but found it held. I almost wished it would escape, but I had no use for it. Now. I only had to wait for the applause to slow down so that Kevin could talk, eventually shut up, and I could get up and leave the stage with the rest of them.

The applause went on until Kevin thanked them, and told them we would be back for a couple more songs in fifteen minutes.

Great. Another set. Better not be anything I need to do.

"Thank you! I want to thank the guys of Rolled Thunder for working so hard to make this happen. I'm Kevin Corless, lead guitar and vocals."

There was applause.

"Also on lead guitar and vocals, Wil Hammersmith."

More applause.

"Terry Cooper on rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and vocals."

More applause.

"Brian May, rhythm guitar, acoustic, vocals."

More applause.

"Riley Kensington, vocals and harmonica, and often on our technical team."

More applause.

"Bill Dandree on percussion."

More applause.

"Adam Singleton on sax, and our technical guru."

More applause.

"David Martin on piano."

More applause.

"The Thompson brothers on the heavy drums."

Massive applause.

"And Paradise Theater wouldn't have been doable without our new synthesizer and keyboard player, Alex Raymond."

I jumped in my seat. The entire time I sat there, waiting for Kevin to shut up so that we could get off the stage, I never considered that he would use my name.

Anger shook that last bar vigorously. It only held because I willed it to, because I didn't know what it would do if I let it free right then.

I looked up for the first time since sitting down to play Paradise Theater. He had pointed his mic at me, too. I felt like I was on display at the zoo. Furious thoughts of dismembering Kevin occupied me for a moment.

I no longer cared if the anger got loose. I was ready to point the stick at Kevin and tell anger to charge.

"We'll be back for a rousing ending in a few minutes. Thank you!"

As we headed into the backstage room, I wondered what songs they would play. We had played nearly every song we knew, or that I knew they knew. All that was left was some of the slow dancing songs, and Kevin had said we would be back for a rousing ending. I was in no way going to sing any of the Thorogood songs. Not with both of them out there.

They were all delirious as we sat on the couches, waiting to take turns in the bathroom for smoke and lines. They all laced the joints with cocaine, as it was nearly the end of the night and were celebrating having played Paradise Theater. I did lines without looking to make sure David had left first. When I sat down on the couch, sniffing, he glared at me with those beautiful gray eyes.

"What's the matter?" I asked him, his anger easy to see.

"Feckin' hell!" he said angrily. "You keep doing the coke like that and you'll be burned out, you feckin' idiot! You're better than that! What the hell're ya doing?"

I sniffed, the coke burning and numbing my nose and the back of my throat, the laced joint numbing my lips and tongue. I stared at him. He seemed to grow uncomfortable under my steady gaze.

"You feckin' spacin' out now?" he asked, slightly less angrily.

"No. I think I just got slapped down," I said flatly.

He looked surprised.

I was surprised. His words and the situation collided, and I was left feeling sober and angry.

What hell am I doing? I asked myself, looking around me at the guys getting ready for the last set. I'm doing coke. Smoking it. Taking speed. My grades probably suck. Lying to my folks. And I lost my two best friends. And Eric. And now I got no one. And I'm burning my brain cells out as fast as I can. What the hell am I doing?

I got up and walked out the door to the little hall. I heard Kevin calling my name, but I didn't give a damn. I needed some space, some time, some air. I walked to the back door as quickly as I could, threw it open, and walked into the cold night air with no protection but my damp t-shirt. It felt good.

What the hell am I doing? I wondered as I walked around to the back of the building. There were the usual smokers and dopers there in the usual places, but I ignored them and walked past them to where the bushes grew next to the bricks. I arrived at the corner of the building near the front parking lot, just around the corner from where Tom and I would stand and talk to get some air when I worked in the kitchen, and sat down with my back to the wall. People were coming and going through the main doors, but they couldn't see me in the dark under the bushes and around the corner.

I had sat in that same place twice before, once when I had struggled so deeply with what I had felt for Jeff that freshman year. I was already the canteen manager by then, and even signing for shipments and doing the inventory. And so deeply into Jeff that I didn't look at anyone else. And Tom was always there, with me, even though he didn't work there. He helped all the time, and did half my physical labor, leaving us free more often than not while hanging around the student union.

But tonight, two years later, I was hiding in the same little hole, nearly crying. And Jeff and Tom were still involved, but for very different reasons. It was an obvious and painful circle.

I tried to figure out what I was, indeed, doing. I knew David was right, that I was heading down a path that I had always made fun of. I knew it would lead to more drugs, more trouble, more pain. Worse grades, worse health, worse problems. But I was growing to like playing the music again. I had always liked it. Now, it was even more important to me, almost the only thing I had. And I was possibly a decent singer, too.

Tom's words from so long ago, and from so many times, came into my head.

"You're gonna be one of the most popular guys in class when you graduate. Trust me."

Is he right about this too? But is this how? Would I become some kind of rock star? Do I have to end up a burned-out doper? Or would I end up overdosing before then?

No. I'm out. The band can go on without me. I can go on without the band. I don't think I can go on like this. No double life for me.

"I know," I heard Tom say.

My head came up in shock and surprise. I didn't see him coming through the bushes toward me, as I expected. Then I heard Jeff.

"The knuckle-busting is done, at least."

They were in the other direction, around the corner of the building, out in front, and just barely.

"And it'll all be over tomorrow. I'm sick of working so hard. Damn," Tom said, sounding a little angry and very exasperated.

I wondered what he was working so hard doing, and he obviously wasn't working at Burger King, no matter what he had tried to tell me.

"No shit. I thought it was over the day he almost caught me going into the auto shop!"

"No shit!"

"Glad we could get around him by using the other doors."

He was intentionally hiding from me! I thought, my guts sinking.

"Man, this has been a tough couple weeks."

"No shit."

"Yeah, it'll be over soon, now. And I won't be taking him to school in the morning anymore."

Tom's gonna make me ride the bus again? With Jeff on it? Why? I know we ain't as close anymore, but-

"And I gotta start working for real, soon. Gotta get some money coming in. Gas is a buck and a quarter, ya know."

I knew he wasn't working! Damn! He's been avoiding me, too!

I sat there, numb, and not from the cold or the drugs.

"You gonna tell him?" Jeff asked.

After a pause, "No. Easier this way. He'll get all absorbed in the band and shit, and we won't see each other hardly at all, then maybe a quick hi when we see each other in the halls at school, then ..."

I could see his shrug from his words.

"You sure?" Jeff asked.

"Yeah. Better he don't know. You promised."

"Yeah. I won't say anything."

"It'll be nice having a normal life," Tom said wistfully.

There was a long pause, during which I wondered if they had left. And during which, I died a little inside. More than a little.

"Hey, they're gonna start the last part soon," one said sadly.

"Okay, let's go see this happen," the other said dejectedly.

I heard them walk away then, taking the parts of me I had loved the most. Two huge, important, loved pieces of my life became gaping chasms. What was left wasn't me.

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The Circle parts I and 2 are now available as EPUB/Kindle/PDF at my website here.
The Circle 3 will be available around January 2014.
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