She sat in the dark corner on top of the broken speaker case. The neon light beamed onto her face against the black abyss that surrounded her. She tapped the heels of her combat boots together; they were at least one size too big. The black, scuffed leather covered her skinny legs, which were concealed by torn lime green leggings and sporadically placed safety pins.
“What am I doing?” she asked herself while picking a hangnail that resides next to her purple nail polish.
The bass vibrated the floor, causing her heart to beat even faster. They started. Her hands started to shake. She was next. In forty-five minutes, she would be on the other side of that curtain, out of the black, into the blinding lights. She was not ready.
“Hey, loser. How are your in-ears?” The words slid out of Jake’s mouth like snakes. Holding his bass guitar, he looked much more like a misshapen gourd than he probably wanted to.
Katy’s in-ears had never failed her before. She snuck the clunky, black box onto the back of her sheer, voluminous black skirt with black ribbon trimming. Lacing the cords underneath her cartoon monster sweatshirt, she hoped for a feeling of any kind. Noise erupted in her ears as she checked the volume. She wanted anything except for the anxiety and confusion she was feeling. She had always loved this. She loved sound check and getting ready; she loved listening to the opening acts backstage. She remembered bouncing off the walls, running back and forth like a tiger in a cage. She needed to be out on that stage.
But tonight, she felt nothing. She felt none of the excitement that once resonated so deep within her. She longed for it, but it was gone. She no longer believed in this life. Her hair, with its brand-new blue streak on the left side that cut through the bleach monotony now seemed so utterly stupid. Even the hot pink octopi painted on her in-ears now just looked like a blobs of splattered paint.
Sneaking to the side of the stage, she saw Kyle. He was there; he was always there. He jumped and pounded his fist in the air to the music. Kyle was always the one that made the crowd excited for music they had never heard of. He was the secret weapon, and he was doing his job well. The crowd around him smiled and lost themselves in music they knew nothing about. The opening act was good.
Katy smiled weakly at Kyle; he did not see her. She leaned back against the wall behind her. She looked at the crowd, silently thanking every star in the sky that she was not a part of it. They were a group of wild boars, thrashing about and hitting into each other. They fought for no reason and called it a celebration. Blood and spit poured out as the lead singer sweated on them from the stage.
Jake joined her. He slapped her shoulder like the big brother he was replacing. She stood stiff.
“What’s up with you tonight?”
“Have you ever realized how unsanitary this all is?”
“Unsanitary? Get out your Lysol, Mom.” Jake’s sarcasm normally would have amused her, but tonight it chilled the blood in her veins.
She looked back across the crowd. She saw what he did: people having fun, enjoying themselves. They did not care what the lead singer was screaming, or what the guy next to them smelled like, or how they were getting home tonight. They were absorbed into the guitar thrashing. She used to be like that. She used to have the ability to lose every thought in her head.
“What are we doing, Jake?” He stared at her blankly.
“I know that, jerk. But what are we actually doing? We get up in front of these small crowds in these small bars and play these songs about our failed relationships and problems for an hour. No one cares. No one is listening.”
“Katy, I care! What the hell? Isn’t this what you’ve always wanted? Come on!” Anger and pain filled Jake’s eyes; Katy could not look at them.
“Yeah, I guess.” She could not look at his face anymore. She clunked past him and started to warm her voice.
She pulled out her black acoustic guitar. It was covered in smudges and worn like her favorite pair of Converse. She started to play and sing. The world around her grew quiet. Peace filled her body and she breathed deep. This was right. She kicked off her chunky boots and curled her feet underneath her. She pounded the strings while her left hand strangled her guitar’s neck, working their way across its entire surface. Her voice warbled and scratched against the background noise. Nothing mattered anymore.
“KATY!!!” Jake screamed at her. He had been trying to get her attention for a while.
“I want to go acoustic tonight.”
He stared at her. His mouth struggled to find the words as it opened and closed inconsistently.
“What? Katy, we’re all here. This isn’t the time.”
It was true. She could not let the others down. Jake had worked too hard on his solo to give it up. Sam’s drumming was coming along so well, and Chris was always amazing. She saw the cold facts lying in front of her. But she wanted so badly to ignore them.
“Yeah, I get it. Let’s go.”
She set down her guitar carefully and pulled on her boots. Trudging through the cords and cases that littered the ground, she grabbed her microphone. She looked at the crowd once again from the side of the stage. Their piercings and unnaturally-dyed hair hurt her eyes. They were anxious, waiting for her to step on stage. The boys filed past her and took their places. The crowd shook in excitement as sporadic cries came from them. Kyle smiled at her; she did not return it. Jake looked over, waiting for her to count down until he could start his bass line.
She nodded her head. The burst of noise flew over and into the crowd. They cheered. She ran out, her boots holding her back as they practically melted to the stage. The crowd whooped and jumped, Kyle leading the way. Katy started the lyrics, getting back into her routine. She leaned into the crowd from the stage and pulled the microphone closer to her face. She tried to glean some of the energy she felt all around her, but none of it would penetrate her cynical body. The lyrics she once felt captured her life so perfectly were now false, meaningless words. She tried to make eye contact with the people in the crowd, tried to draw them into her music the way she always could in the past. Tonight, she could not; it felt too much like a lie. Instead, she turned and jumped on stage, emulating the energy of which she once had in endless supply.
The first song was over, as was four minutes of her torture. She knew she had to speak to the crowd, get them amped up, and ultimately, convince them to buy merchandise. She turned to the crowd and tried to smile. The connection between them was broken. Katy took a deep breath.
“How are you guys doing tonight?”
The crowd thundered. Katy barely heard them. She could feel Jake, Sam and Chris staring at her as the crowd settled. Katy had nothing else to say. She stared ahead, hoping something would snap in her head, but nothing was coming to her.
“Hey, you guys! We’ve got a bit of surprise!” Jake’s voice cut through the air. Katy turned to him, her eyes wide. The air in the room changed; the crowd was just as confused.
Jake continued, “Tonight we’re going to change things up a bit.” He winked at Chris, who left the stage for a moment and returned with Katy’s acoustic guitar.
“Katy? You’ve got two songs. Decide well.” Chris handed her the guitar, stepping back.
Sam stood, and the three boys left the stage. Katy was shocked. Throwing the strap behind her, she gasped for air.
“Alright, you guys. Can you handle me acoustic for a bit?” Katy looked out at the crowd, hopeful. They were quieter than she had hoped, but Kyle started clapping.
“Okay. Let’s do this then!”
Katy started playing. The crowd melted away, as she sang out her real emotions. Each lyric was the absolute truth. She knew these were different from what she had done before, but it was time for the change. The thrashing no longer described who she was and what she felt, this did. The crowd was silent and still. Even Kyle stood motionless. The confused air had not changed. Katy finished the first song. A few erratic claps sounded out, as did a few jeers.
“Alright, guys. Let’s get back to it!” Katy screamed into the microphone. The crowd yelled. “Come on, boys get back here.”
Sam ran back on stage. Chris unsuccessfully tried to moonwalk with his guitar and almost fell. Jake laughed and sauntered out. Katy quickly set down the acoustic back stage and scurried back out. She picked up her microphone again. It was cold in her hand.
Chris started a riff. He pointed his guitar up to the ceiling, striking a pose. Sam started in with the beat, smiling like a kindergartener at the zoo. Jake nodded his head, shaking his dark curls in front of his eyes. Katy turned and looked at each of them. They were all so close to her, she knew everything about them. Jake hates Cool Ranch Doritos, Sam loves neck rubs, and Chris was on an unending quest to find the world’s largest rocking chair. A film of nostalgia came over her eyes. She knew in that moment that this was the end of it all. She would never again share the stage with them.
She turned to face the audience, kissed the microphone, and started to scream out the lyrics of their oldest song, the first one they wrote together. It was the perfect goodbye.