This is the first chapter of my latest book, Ratcatcher. (Warnings: Language, references to drug use. As always, minors should consult a parent before reading anything.)
Sweat ran down Shane Adams’ forehead. He gasped mid-lyric as it slid into his eye—stinging, but he couldn’t wipe it away, not while he scrambled to make the next chord change on his guitar. He blinked hard and kept singing, “Doesn’t matter. You are empty inside.”
In front of him, a mass of bodies twisted and writhed to the sounds of his minor chord dirge. They were sweaty too. In their baggy ripped corduroys and tattered t-shirts, they gave it back to him as hard as he put it out. He sang. Half of them were singing along as they danced in this tiny bar, barely the size of a living room, where one wrong step could send him tumbling off the postage-stamp-sized stage he played on. The energy of the crowd rose with the cigarette smoke into the lights. Shane breathed it, and it was ecstasy.
He finished the song, ripping out the last few chords, and stood breathless in front of them, soaking up their cheers. Shane loved it. He lived for it.
“One more song,” yelled the crowd. “One more.”
Shane fitted his fingers to the strings on the neck of his guitar, ready to oblige them, when he saw the owner of the bar, Ray Giulio, shaking his head. Shane’s hand fell limply to his side. He really needed to stop playing. After all, that song had been his third “last song.” He just couldn’t stop. He couldn’t say no when the audience begged him for it. Begged for him to play more. Begged for more of him. How could he say no to that? But it was after midnight on a Thursday night, and the city had a noise ordinance in effect on weeknights. Due to Shane’s music, Ray had already paid four fines. Ray had told him straight—if Shane got him slapped with another fine, Shane couldn’t play at Giulio’s anymore. Shane’s music was a draw. The kids loved him. But they didn’t buy enough drinks for it to be worth another fine to Ray.
Shane got it. He didn’t want to fuck up his gigs at Giulio’s. He sometimes got offers to play elsewhere, but he only had a following in his hometown. It just wasn’t the same playing for bars full of strangers, where no one took notice of him, where people sat and talked over his music. Shane needed this. He needed the crowd screaming at him, dancing until their heels bled. The crowd at Giulio’s was what kept him alive.
So he slid the guitar off his body and spoke into the microphone. “Gotta stop, guys. It’s late.”
The crowd booed. From the back, someone yelled, “Fuck you, Adams.”
Shane shot a pleading look in the direction of Ray, but the bar owner had already brought up the canned music on the sound system. It was over.
Shane unplugged his guitar and turned around to face the other guys in his band. They were packing up too. He felt good. Exhilarated. But he could have kept playing. Half of him still wanted to. He could hear the audience at his back, pleading and cursing for more music. He wanted to turn around, plug the guitar back in, and give them one more song.
“You still want in on the shrooms?” asked his bassist, Chris Dearborn.
Shane grinned. There was nothing like the prospect of hallucinogens to improve his mood.
* * *
A few hours later, Shane decided to go outside for a minute to get some air and smoke a cigarette. He and the guys from the band were hanging out at Chris’ house, all tripping. He stood on the porch, reeling from the effects of the mushrooms.
He blinked hard, trying to keep everything he looked at from twirling and interweaving. Didn’t help much. Mushrooms weren’t like acid. A good blink could sometimes banish an acid hallucination. But on mushrooms, he was stuck with the fact that little turtles squirmed their way across the front steps. That arms unfurled from the air, reaching for him. It was cool, he kept telling himself. He liked it.
Shane threw down his cigarette—it was burned down to its filter—and tapped another one out of his pack. He lit it.
And the glow from his lighter began to spread, forming an ever-extending ball of orange light. Shane blinked hard. He knew it was useless, but he needed to try to see normally anyway.
The globe detached itself from his lighter and floated into the air above his head, all the while growing larger and larger.
Shane looked at his cigarette, considering putting it out and going back inside. He looked back at the ball of fiery light, which was starting to bulge in certain places, like a balloon with too much air in it.
A tendril of fear wrapped itself around Shane’s spine, but he didn’t move. He just gazed wide mouthed at the balloon of light.
One of the bulges was beginning to look less as if too much air caused it and more as if something inside the ball was pushing on the fire-colored membrane. A hand maybe. As if something was trapped inside, like—
The ball burst open. Smoke poured out, acrid, burning the back of Shane’s throat. Beams of light emitted from inside the ball, illuminating the smoke like a smoke machine at a rock show.
Shane tried to move then. He tried to back up. To go back inside. Maybe make himself vomit. Maybe he hadn’t digested all of the shrooms. Maybe he could get himself out of this crazy world of hallucination. Maybe—
Shane stumbled instead. Fell hard backward. He tried to untangle his limbs, but the fireball was approaching him now, and there was an opening in it, ragged at the edges from its bursting. It was like a mouth.
A scream built in his throat, but it was on him then. Tasting him.
He plays. They follow. They die.