After a long, long while, I say, “Joel . . . why’d you tell me all that?”
When he doesn’t answer, I think he must be asleep, but then his quiet voice says, “Because I want you to know.” His arms hug me closer, and he adds, “And I’m starting to think that maybe having nothing isn’t such a good thing to get used to.”
WITHOUT ALL THE people in it, Mayhem looks strangely smaller. The ceiling seems a little higher but the walls appear a whole lot closer, like they’ve recovered from stretching to fit the flood of bodies that pours between them each and every weekend. We’re here on a Saturday, but it’s early afternoon—the line outside won’t start forming for at least a few hours, when this husk of a building is brought back to life with the magic of too-bright lights and too-loud music.
The screech of a floor-cleaner echoes from somewhere behind me.
“Next!” I shout, and Leti leaves the cavernous room to bring in the next auditioner. So far, most of them have been airheaded groupies here for pictures or autographs. I may or may not have lost my temper on one of them and threatened to shove her Sharpie somewhere no one would find it.
There are six of us sitting at a long foldout table facing the stage. Joel is on the left, next to me, Shawn, Adam, Rowan, and Mike. Before the festival, I wouldn’t have felt like I belonged at this table. Now, I can almost believe that I do.
Last Sunday morning, after spending the night wrapped in Joel’s arms, I woke up early, hopped into my shorts, and went downstairs to make a pot of coffee. Shawn was already standing in the kitchen with mussed hair and a steaming mug in his hands.
“You’re up early,” he noted as I poured myself a cup and shoveled into the sugar.
“Couldn’t sleep.” It was a total lie—I could have slept all day. A big part of me wanted to, as long as Joel stayed with me in bed. When he holds me, he doesn’t snore, and I sleep better than I do alone.
“Looked like you were sleeping just fine to me,” Shawn said with a smirk I deftly ignored.
I leaned back against the kitchen counter and blew tendrils of steam away from the lip of my mug. “So how did that conversation about the ‘psycho groupie’ go last night?” I asked. I said it like it didn’t bother me, like nothing could bother me, but Shawn’s grin slipped away.
“Honestly?” he asked, and the steam stopped wafting away from my cup. I held my breath, and Shawn said, “Mike and I told everyone about the time Cody slept with his cousin.”
My jaw nearly dropped. “He did that?”
“No, but if he wants to spread bullshit lies, so can we.” Shawn’s grin came back ten times cockier, and when I laughed, he laughed too.
With his chin now resting heavily on the heel of his palm beside me, he says, “This is a disaster.”
I can’t argue. We all got our hopes up when the last person Leti brought in actually had a guitar with him, but those hopes were soon dashed when the guy revealed he had no idea how to play it and only wanted it signed.
“I’m screening everyone beforehand from now on,” I say, casting a glance over my shoulder at the unmanned bar. The guys made an arrangement with the owner of Mayhem so we could hold auditions here—I wonder how mad he’d be if I deemed this an emergency situation and raided his liquor supply.
“Driver?” Rowan says, stealing my focus from the bottles behind the bar. At the right end of the table, she’s been buried in a textbook and homework, but now all of her attention is on the lanky guy Leti just brought in. His hair is a curly burnt-orange mess; he has something-I-don’t-think-is-a-cigarette tucked behind his ear; and . . . is that a freaking banjo?
“Is that a freaking banjo?” Rowan asks, and Mike groans and lets his forehead thump against the table. Adam and Joel both break into guy giggles, and Shawn lets out a heavy sigh.
“We’re not looking for a banjo player, Driver,” he says, and Joel leans in to tell me that Driver is one of their roadies and that he drives the bus when the band goes on tour.
“Hear me out, man,” Driver says to Shawn. “This shit is gonna help your sound.”
“What’s wrong with our sound?”
Driver cocks his head to the side like he’s thoroughly confused. “It doesn’t have a banjo . . .”
Adam giggles harder, and Joel buries his face in the back of my shoulder to muffle his own laughter.
Shawn keeps a straight face for a moment before he can’t help releasing a little laugh too. He waves his hand toward the stage. “Whatever, man. Do your thing.”
The frayed bottoms of Driver’s jeans drag over the dance floor as he walks toward the stage. He hops up to sit on the edge and removes the definitely-not-a-cigarette from behind his ear, fishing a lighter from his pocket and lighting up. He takes a long drag, holds it, and releases it in a thick cloud of smoke. He smiles at us, then takes another long drag.
“Driver?” Shawn asks.
“You wanna play?”
“Oh, shit,” Driver says with the joint between his lips. He positions the banjo on his lap and says, “Yeah. You ready?”
Another bout of tiny giggles sound against my shoulder and echo from Adam’s direction. Rowan smacks him on the arm and says to Driver, “Come on, Driver. We’re hungry.”
“Shit, me too. I’m starving,” he says, and Adam howls with laughter. Joel rests his arm on my shoulder and buries his eyes in his forearm, his entire body shaking with giggles. I bite my lip to keep from joining him.