His guitar strings’ achingly beloved buzz clung to Miki’s fingers, the notes clinging to his palms. The air in the cramped space ran hot and thick, a humid cloak of a Louisiana afternoon woven into countless years of grubby musicians crammed elbow to elbow against its tight walls. If the stained brick and faded shiplap could talk, they would rasp and murmur of fallen dreams, arching angelic riffs and spilled whiskey.
And probably whisper under their breath about the spilled blood on its floor as well.
As a studio space, it was shit. The equipment was old and there was a rattling brrrz noise came out of one of the rented speakers if someone drifted too close to it. A niche built into the wall out of an old storage closet gave room for a drum kit if the drummer kept it simple and didn’t mind ducking their head to avoid the bare light bulb dangling from a cloth-covered cable coming out of the ceiling.
This time, they had no drummer. No bass player. On this particular road trip, Damie packed up his two oldest guitars, a duffel bag of worn clothes, and his brother-in-all-but-blood and hit the asphalt with no destination in mind other than finding a few places to play and letting the music soak into their bones.
San Francisco was a hazy fourteen days behind them, fogged up in the GTO’s rear view mirror by endless ribbons of black and stretches of land with nothing on it but scrub, crops, and livestock. There’d been phone calls back to home where a pair of Irish men gritted their teeth and lied about it being okay for Miki and Damie to be out on the road with no plans on where they were going or when they were coming home but the lies were easily swallowed by the oily stain of worry and concern floating on the surface of Kane and Sionn’s carefully chosen words.
The brothers needed something… something they would only find on a nomadic wandering with only each other for company. Sionn said he understood but Kane knew better. Neither one of them had a clue about what drove Damie to the road and why Miki simply nodded and packed when his brother got itchy feet.
It was something Miki couldn’t explain. For every word he had for the scars on his soul and heart, he couldn’t pull something together to tell Kane about the need for their rambling. It seemed to hit them both at the same time, a skin tightening and the drive to find the end of a road with hopefully a place to play a set before moving on. Shedding the chains they’d forged themselves, it was a freedom of sorts, a much needed balance of simply being alone with each other before heading back into the comforting arms of a loud, noisy family neither one of them expected to share their lives with.
“You boys play something sweet,” the growling voice of the small studio’s owner broke through the booth. “You should get yourselves a band or something. Hit some of the local places and make some cash. Plenty of people’ll pay to come here you.”
“Might sometime,” Damie drawled, lifting his chin up and returning Miki’s slow grin with a wink. “For right now, it’s just all about laying a few things down.”
They were both probably as grubby as the recording space. Life on the road meant long stretches of scraping a shower at a truck stop and smelling a shirt to see if it was clean enough for one more wear. Damien’s hair stuck out in long waves from under his cowboy hat and his jaw was nearly lost behind a scruff almost long enough to be called a beard. Miki didn’t figure he fared much better. Tying his hair back from his face got some strange looks at some of the diners they’d stopped at, a few murmurs about pretty, city boys and hard eyes got his back up a few times but they’d come out of it okay whenever things got past sneers and mumbled insults. For the most part, they stuck to themselves, playing at open mike nights whenever they ran across a blues or rock club, running through old classics and even older whiskey.
One night bled into the next, the road seemingly unraveling further with each stretch and bend, Damien’s constant chatter keeping a beat Miki could follow as he scribbled through notebook after notebook of lyrics and song snippets as they drove. Finding a place to record meant getting some of the kinks of out Miki’s compositions and bottles of beer and sour mash in a cramped hotel room smoothed things out even further while Damie hammered at the still rough edges of each piece, fighting with Miki about rhythms and flow.
“You’ve run over, boys,” the man said again, his reflection blurred behind the filthy glass separating the booth from the mixing room. “Gonna cost you another fifty if you go much longer and I’ve got another fellow coming in soon.”
“Nah, we’re good,” Miki grunted, unplugging his Gibson then stepping over the coiled cable.
“Give us a few to pack up and we’ll be clear.” Damie pushed his hat back, tilting it away from his face. “How much for two of the CDs?”
“Just another five bucks but don’t really know what you guys want to keep all of that for.” A loud sniff broke over the crackle of the broken speaker, the equipment offended by Miki’s encroaching presence. “Mostly bits and pieces. Can’t sell anything off of it. Not even a full song or nothing.”
Miki straightened up, torn between telling the guy to fuck off or keep tugging at the cables until they got loose. He knew he’d gotten to the wrong side of feral on the trip. With no one but Damie to talk to, he’d fallen into old social habits, not needing to pretty up his language or explain what he meant or wanted to people who didn’t know him. He missed Kane and the road was getting harder to roll over with each passing day. Still, something in his soul itched and he hadn’t found what it was going to take to scratch it.
There’d be no going back until he did.
“Souvenir.” Damie lifted his foot up when Miki tugged at the cord wrapped around one of his boots. “Just something to keep. We like knowing where we’ve been. Helps us see where we’re going.”
Citronella torches kept the mosquitos at bay but the light smoky haze did nothing to ward off the shack’s two fat cats from working the outside tables for scraps and scritches. Miki sat hunched over his battered pie plate, his long fingers carefully working a crawfish’s tender flesh from its shocking red carapace. He’d already made a mound of the dead he’d conquered, their shells sucked clean of every scrap of meat and tomalley he could find. The bowl of butter he’d coaxed out of the server foamed over with lemon juice and hot sauce, tiny specks of crawfish floating at the edges.
Damien reached over to stack another detached head from his plate onto the pile he’d begun on Miki’s, chuckling under his breath when his brother’s gaze flicked up with a hot warning. Lightly kicking Miki beneath the table, he scolded, “Chill, Sinjun. No one’s taking your food, least of all me. I need my fingers.”
“What for?” Miki growled back, picking up a small round of spiced corn from the tray between them. “You keep fucking up the transition on that third part. Maybe missing a finger will help.”
“If you wouldn’t write for speed-head cuttlefish, I might have a better chance of hitting them,” he groused back. “Show me you can play that shit and I’ll buy what you’re selling. For right now, looking at it on paper, I think you sneezed Dr Pepper on your notebook and now you’re trying to pass it off as music so slow your roll there, brother.”
Miki leaned back, using his forearm to shove his hair out of his face. Slathered with butter and lemon, his hands were useless for anything other than eating and it made no sense to clean them off when he was just going to dive back in.
The night was fairly cool, or at least as cool as it was going to get on the right side of a New Orleans spring. Only a few scattered lights illuminated the shack’s cement slab, enough brightness to see if anything hungry crawled up out of the black waters a few yards away. The cats seemed like old veterans of those kinds of wars, scars marking their faces and ear tips missing in places so Miki figured he’d have plenty of time to get his legs out from under the picnic table if something toothy and reptilian came looking for a bit of dinner.
No one else at the other tables seemed to worried about anything other than getting another beer and more napkins.
The shack didn’t have a name. They’d found it a long time ago, back when Sinners was scrambling and hustling to make a name for themselves and it appeared out of the marshy backwater roads whenever they’d gone looking for it. Hot food and cold beer was all the place had, served up by an odd array of family members with carrot red hair and barking laughs. Twenty bucks got them a mess of crawfish, corn and potatoes and a place to sit behind the shack where sometimes the gators rolled up onto the shore to grunt their displeasure at having human company.
If the glint in Damie’s eye didn’t give Miki enough warning there was going to be trouble, his brother’s slow lean forward after pushing his not-quite-empty plate aside was a harbinger of doom. D had the look of a man who was going to dig in deep and since Miki was the only one around Damie knew, even the gators understood Miki was now a target.
“What?” Thinking he could throw Damien off kilter, Miki went on attack, stretching over to pluck a crab leg out of the second heap of boil they’d ordered. “Don’t give me shit. We’re sitting down to eat for a change instead of shoving microwave burgers into our mouths while you drive. I don’t want to get indigestion because you’ve got a hair up your ass.”
“No hairs. My ass is slick and hair-free.” Damien smiled through his lie. “I’m just resting.”
“You never just rest,” he countered, waving the now empty crab leg at Damie. “If you’re bored, we can head back home. Get someone to rack the GTO up on a transport and we fly home. No picking at me just because…”
“Not picking at you,” D argued back. “Just making sure you’re okay. Talking things through out here helps, doesn’t it? Miles away from everything. From everyone. Just you, me, the cats, some gators and a lot of dead insects and butter.”
“Yep.” The beer left in his bottle was slightly warm but Miki drained it down, setting it aside for a pickup. Damie already cut himself off, two being his limit when he drove but Miki didn’t feel like having another longneck would be good for his emotional health. Defending himself against Damien’s prodding and prying was easier if he wasn’t buzzed. “Look, if I wanted someone to shrink my head, I’d have stayed back in SF and let Brigid have at me. I’ve got a therapist, D. I don’t need another one.”
“I’m not your therapist—”
“Fucking damned right you’re not. I like her.”
“But I am your brother, Sinjun,” Damie asserted, ignoring Miki. “And you’ve been chewing on something sharp for the past month now. Time to spit it out and then yeah, we can go home if you want. Or head on deeper into New Orleans and play some more. Whatever you want. But I know you, dude, and I’m going to keep dragging you around until you shake off what you’re carrying. Make no mistake about that, brother.”
“Great. Still… fuck you,” he growled back, peering into Damie’s plate. “You gonna eat that corn?”
Miki hit the wall a week later. Head down and nursing a hotel bathroom glass full of ice-cold dark rum, he sat under the overhang of their room’s balcony, watching yet another angry storm roll in off the ocean. He wasn’t sure where they were. Someplace in Florida or maybe even Georgia. The sky was roiling, soot-coloured clouds flashing briefly with strikes before going black once again. They hadn’t seen the sun in two—maybe three—days. He wasn’t sure. Hard weather chased them out of Louisiana and it hadn’t gotten much better by the time they swung down around the coast. The air stank of burnt metal, like an old guitar string gone too hot and bent out to shit.
The sound of the sliding glass door opening behind him made him wince. The vintage chaise was big enough for both of them so Miki was surprised to find himself being pulled up by his wrists and led back inside.
“Hey, watch the glass,” he protested, lifting his wrist up in a none-too-successful attempt at keeping his rum contained. “I got this from the mini-bar. Shit’s expensive.”
“Get in here before you grow mold,” Damie scolded. “I’ve got better than plain wrap rum to keep us company.”
Lightning peeled the dark back from the sky and Miki closed his eyes, counting the seconds until the rumble hit them, a clattering boom of bricks and steel bouncing through the open sliding glass door. Damien reached for the door handle but Miki stopped him, tugging at Damie’s shirt.
“Leave it.” His voice cracked, a peppery whisper he didn’t recognize. Something nested in his chest, a burbling familiar taint he’d shoved aside so many times, he was certain he stank of its oily desperation. “Leave the door open, D. I want to… hear the storm.”
“Tell you what, Sinjun, go take a shower and I’ll order us in something to eat.” Damie placed his hands on Miki’s shoulders. Even through Miki’s t-shirt, his palms were hot on Miki’s cold skin. “I’ll see what we’ve got that’s clean and toss it into the bathroom. Just don’t drown in there.”
Miki stood under the shower head until he couldn’t feel his shoulders and back anymore. The lukewarm water felt good on his bare skin, a soft caress almost like Kane’s, its gentle touch flowing down his spine and over his ass. The bathroom door opened and closed while he stood with his forehead against the tile wall beneath one of the shower’s jets. Damie didn’t say anything but the brief intrusion pulled a gust of cold, air-conditioned air into the slightly muggy bathroom, stealing away some of Miki’s warmth.
The grey sweat pants Damie left him definitely didn’t come out of Miki’s duffel. They hung low on his hips despite every attempt he made to tighten their drawstrings. Putting his dirty clothes back on was out of the question. Damie stole those when he’d dropped the sweats onto the bathroom floor, leaving Miki to go naked beneath the thin fleece. The multi-looped bow he’d finally made to hold the sweat pants in place looked more like a faded grey chrysanthemum from a funeral display than anything else but it did its job, basically keeping Miki’s ass and crotch covered as he padded back into the room’s sleeping area.
Damie was talking to someone in the main room, the smell of something fried teasing Miki’s nose before disappearing beneath the heavy perfume of rain wafting in from the still open sliding glass door. After flopping down on the room’s king sized bed, Miki growled when the rumpled sheets grabbed at his sweats, tugging them down. Swearing under his breath, he lifted his ass, pulling at the waistband until the bow rode his belly again. Letting his body go limp, pillows catching his shoulders and back, Miki lay against the bed’s tufted headboard.
“Gave everything we brought with us to the hotel laundry.” Damie came in from the outer room, clenching two large paper bags in his hands. “So, don’t get anything on those. Besides what I’m wearing, that’s the last clean clothes we have for the next few hours.”
“You can have them back. I’m naked as fuck but if you’re that hard up—” Miki grunted, lifting his hips so he could worry at the knotted bow he’d tied.
“Fuck you, Sinjun. Like I want to see any more of your scrawny ass than I have to,” Damie said, elbowing Miki with a quick jab. “Move over. I got us some food. Kitchen’s running kind of lean. City’s shutting down shit because of the storm. You’d think they’d be used to this kind of crap.”
“Green River.” Miki’s mouth watered at the sight of the glistening bottle Damien pulled out of one bag. “Shit, remember the first time we had this?”
“Yeah, that piece of shit bar in Chicago with that asshole who wouldn’t serve you a beer because you looked fourteen,” he snorted, shaking his head. “You were what? Fifteen? Sixteen? Clearly old enough to drink tequila. Don’t know what the fuck that guy was thinking.”
The soda was cold and the grilled cheese sandwiches Damie pulled out of the other bag were nearly burnt to a crisp, just the way Miki liked them. The cheap white bread and even cheaper kind-of-cheese let off a wave of hot steam when torn apart and Miki bit into a corner, careful to catch any falling crumbs on the towel Damie spread out over his lap.
They ate in silence, the room quiet except for the storm and after two sandwiches, Miki sat back, burping up cheese and soda. His brother continued for a few more bites then wrapped up their garbage, tying everything up in a plastic bag they’d gotten from a Wawa at some point. Balling the towels up, Damie tossed them towards a coffee table, missing by a foot or so then shrugged when Miki laughed.
“Look, we’ve only got the one bed,” Damie shot back. “And I don’t want to sleep in our food. Move over. Swear to God, your legs get everywhere.”
In a lot of ways, the room was a snapshot of their lives, mired in the light funk of unwashed musicians, fried foods and guitars left out of their cases, cables strung from a couple of mini-amps turned down low so as not to shake the walls between the hotel suites. Even with just the two of them, it was a slice of a tour, another stop in a long and winding snake of gigs hitting corners of cities Miki never knew existed. In a lot of ways, going out on the road was like coming home —
Even though he had a damned good home to go back to.
Sitting up against the headboard, Damie hooked his arm over Miki’s shoulders, drawing him close. Leaning against his brother, Miki shuffled around a bit on the bed, turning so he could still see outside, tracking the spurts of light crashing across the clouds. The rain began to pound at the shore, demanding its due from the land and a rumble of thunder rattled the glass door in its track, echoing its fury then dissipated, leaving only the torrent’s whisper behind.
“You hear from Kane?” Damie murmured.
“Yeah, for like a second.” He gave a little shrug, holding onto the briefest of touches he’d had with his husband. “He and Kel pulled a double homicide. You know how that is.”
“Yeah.” He nodded then rested his chin on Miki’s head. “They got a suspect?”
“Too many. Told me everyone who knew the couple hated them.” Sighing, Miki frowned. “That’s some kind of fucked up, you know? Like, someone murders you and people are literally dancing ‘cause of it. Sure as hell now how I’d want it to be for me.”
“People love you.”
“I’m an asshole,” Miki reminded him. “And I don’t like people that much.”
“I don’t think you hate people. I just think they confuse you,” Damie offered, stroking Miki’s collarbone until he was settled in. “You like people to come at you slowly. Take their time. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just who you are. Me? I like going full in. All pedal down. All gas. Having you around puts the brakes on me and Sinjun, that’s been a lifesaver for me more times than I can count.”
They’d shared a bed too many times to count. Sometimes for warmth. Sometimes for comfort. As upside down as his thoughts were, Miki knew in his guts Damien was someone he could bleed on, even if it was just words. Because now, more than ever, he needed someone to catch the gush of ichor and pain he held inside of him, its poisonous whispers spreading black tendrils through his life.
“What’s that head of yours cooking there, Sinjun?’ Damien asked after a lightning spear stole the colour from the room, its boom following so close stars still clouded their vision by the time the sound rolled away.
“Ever have a nightmare you can’t shake?” Miki rolled his eyes when Damien snorted into his hair. “I don’t mean shit like them telling me you’re dead or you being locked up with the boiled peanuts. More like, you keep having the same dream over and over again and nothing you do can make it go away.”
“Yeah but in my case, it was…” Damie trailed off for a moment, shifting under Miki’s shoulders. “Back in the fake crazy jail, I kept dreaming about this guy — you actually — but I didn’t know who you were. Some were memories, I get that now. But other things were shitty like you closing me up behind a brick wall until it was totally dark and I couldn’t breathe.”
“Do you still have them?”
“Nope. But then, I also didn’t know who the fuck I was back then,” he reminded Miki. “I had a bunch of people telling me who I was and there was this guy in my dreams telling me something else. It made no sense. Well, up until it did.”
“I keep having this stupid dream. Of being old and I’m sitting in the alley, up on the fire escape by Dino’s but nothing… like my life didn’t happen. None of it. I didn’t meet you. Didn’t play music. Didn’t meet Kane. None of it.” It felt good to peel out the pain, laying it before Damien in strips of words and choked out sobs. “It fucking scares the shit out of me because it feels so damned real. Like I don’t know it’s not my reality until Kane wakes me up and then I’m all… maybe I’m stoned and this isn’t the real part. It seriously feels like that. Like I’m empty and alone.
“Then I get to thinking about everyone around me. Kane. You. Shit, Brigid and Donal,” he murmured, tightening down on the emotions brewing in his soul. “I fucking lost it when you were taken from me. How the fuck am I going to survive anyone else? How the hell am I going to deal with that shit again? Because it was the worse fucking pain in my life. Worse than anything Vega and Shin did to me. And I don’t think I’m strong enough to go through it again.”
Damien let the storm roll over them for a few moments, simply holding Miki tight in a warm embrace. The chilled air cooled the hot tears on Miki’s face and he sniffed, wiping at his cheeks when Damien began to speak in his low, British rumble.
“You will never, ever be alone again, SinJun,” Damien whispered, kissing Miki’s temple. “I promise you that. You are so loved. And I know you don’t always feel that way because inside, you’re scared. Scared of being tossed aside and left to pain but not now. Not ever. There are too many of us around you. Holding you safe. You don’t have to fight the world anymore. Not unless you want to because as much as I love you, my brother, I know you and there’s nothing you love more than a good fight, strong whiskey, and music.”
“Maybe Kane,” Miki murmured back. “Maybe you.”
“I’ll give you that then,” his brother laughed. “Promise me when you wake up from that dream the next time, you’ll call me or wake Kane up. One of us will come grab you and hold on, tight enough so you can feel this is real. Or as real as it’s going to get. You make me want to chase my dreams, Sin. You give me the fire to grab at everything life has to offer, and no matter where I am, I know you’re right there next to me. If that’s not God and the Universe telling me you’re someone special, someone to love, then it’s all just Chaos and we’re a bunch of fucking idiots chasing our tails.”
“God, huh?” Miki tilted his head back. “Going Catholic now? Too many Sundays at the Morgans?”
“Sinjun, if any thing’s shown me God, it’s the music we have between us,” Damien teased back. “Well, and other things with Sionn but—”
“Nope. Don’t want to hear it. I’ve gotta look at him in the mornings,” he protested, squirming a bit. “Stupid, silly look on his face. Might as well wear a t-shirt or something.”
“Yeah, so you know what? Let’s spend the night eating really shitty food and when they give us back our clothes, we pack up and head back to SF.” Damien tightened his hold, nearly enveloping Miki in his arms. “Road’s come to an end, yeah? So, it’s time to go back to our family, Sinjun. Time to go home.”