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Iris showed up at Martino's, the bar she played at on Fridays, around eight to set up. It was early, so the bar wasn't yet crowded. Stragglers from happy hour were paying up for their last drinks, and a few diehard alcoholics were just getting started. Conversation hovered with smoke in the dark air of the bar. The owner, Kelly Martino, met her at the door. "What do you do on Wednesday nights?" Kelly asked. Kelly had a heavy urban Italian accent and wore her black hair curled and teased high above her head.
Iris shrugged. "Can I get my guitar to the stage and put it down first?" She started walking towards the stage, a raised area the size of a dinner table that was tucked into a dark corner.
Kelly followed. "Well sure," she said. "But it's a simple question. What do you do?"
"I don't know," Iris said. "Sometimes I go out and sometimes I stay in."
"But you don't play anywhere else?"
They were at the stage. Iris set down her guitar. "No."
"People keep talking about you. We don't have music on Wednesdays, and I thought maybe if you were free, you might wanna play here on Wednesdays?"
"Um . . ."
"Think about it," said Kelly and walked away.
Iris felt an initial jolt of excitement. People liked her! On the other hand, it meant people noticed her. Too much exposure was dangerous. Not only could she not play an extra day here, she probably shouldn't play at Martino's anymore at all. Which was too bad. It was her only steady gig. Damn.
She busied herself with getting set up and tried not to think about it. She'd only run through the songs she was going to play once that evening, so she tried to think through them now. She'd wasted the entire day doing absolutely nothing. And to punish herself for her little late-night feast, she hadn't eaten yet today. She felt a little shaky. She'd promised herself half a bag when she got home. She really had to conserve what little food she had. The stuff she'd gotten last night wouldn't be edible until tomorrow and, even then, only barely. The longer it sat, the better.
Iris did the best she could distracting herself with setting up. For the most part, it worked. Then she was at the microphone, her guitar strapped on, gazing out at the people in Martino's bar. Conversation was loud, because people had been arriving in droves since she'd arrived. Most people seemed far more interested in getting a drink or talking to their friends than in listening to the girl with oceans of blonde hair play guitar. Iris did something she wasn't supposed to do. She couldn't help it. It was probably her last night at Martino's; she wanted it to be a good one. She sent a subtle tendril of magic out to each person in the audience, making them want to listen to her.
A hush came over the bar. Every head in the place snapped up to look at her. Iris couldn't help a tiny, satisfied smile as she introduced herself and her first song. As she began strumming the opening chords, recognition rippled through the crowd and so did scattered applause. She dropped the desire illusion at the beginning of the next song. It didn't matter anymore. She had them now. She loved this. She loved watching people singing along with her, people dancing to the more upbeat songs, and especially people erupting into applause and cheers at the end of each song. She never felt more at home and safe than she did while performing. Inside, she was certain that this was her destiny. She was supposed to be playing sold-out stadiums. If only there were a way. But there wasn't. Even if it weren't for the pixie police, how could she eat on the road?
No, this was it. This was all she got. It was better than nothing. She was nearing the end of her first set. She'd take a twenty-minute break after this last song, have a drink on the house, and then be back on. It was going well tonight. The audience was shouting out requests between songs. Usually, she didn't deviate from her set list, but tonight she did a few times, just for fun.
She was getting ready to start her last song, and requests were ringing out left and right. She'd planned to end with an original, but she listened to see if anyone requested anything that might be more fun. She hadn't heard anything good, and was laughingly deflecting ridiculous requests like Culture Club songs, when a voice rang out from the back of the room. "'Livin' in Sin!' Play 'Livin' in Sin!'"
Shocked, she followed the sound of the voice to its source. It was him. Long, dark hair, dark eyes, a strong jaw line. The guy from the alley. Her heart started to pound and she stopped cold, unable to move. Except for the fact that her traitorous fingers began moving on their own, like they always did when she played alone in her room. Against her will, she began playing the song. To her horror, she heard her voice begin to sing it. She wanted to stop. She knew she had to stop. But she couldn't. Besides, it felt so right. It had been so long since she'd played the song for an audience. It tore out of her, raw and unchecked. The way she played it sounded better than the track on the album. It was maybe the best the song had ever sounded.
When she finished, the applause was deafening. She shook. "Um," she said into the microphone, struggling to keep her voice steady, "I'm going to take a break." She backed into the rear of the stage. Canned music came up on the speakers. She slid her guitar off. Knelt. Tried to make her trembling hands set it gently in its case.
Kelly came up to the stage. "There's a guy that wants to meet you," she said.
Behind Kelly, Iris could see the man with the dark hair. Iris shook her head. "I-I'm sorry. I can't."
"You're a shy one, aintcha?" said Kelly. "You sounded just like the girl on the radio. That last song. Just like her."
Iris snapped the lid of her guitar case shut, fastening the clasps. "I can't. I can't play here. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry." She picked up her guitar and the rest of her stuff and went for the exit, willing everyone she went past not to notice her.
Outside, the air was cooler. The moon was fuller than last night. She ran, but it was tough carrying the guitar case, and she slowed to a brisk walk. She was walking the wrong way—away from her apartment. She should turn around, but she felt possessed to keep moving, as if she could just walk away from it all. Far enough, and her life would just be a bad dream. Any minute now, she'd wake up in Rhett's arms, her temples pounding from the previous night's drinking. She'd tell Rhett about her dream, and he'd laugh. He'd tell her that even if she did become a ghoul, he'd never leave her . . .
This couldn't be her. She wasn't this pathetic waif, afraid of her own shadow, sneaking through alleys for food—
Her body wailed in longing. She was so hungry.
Iris started to cry. She hadn't done that in months. Crying was pointless. After she first found out that she was a ghoul, she'd done a lot of crying. She'd cried because she'd lost the band, lost her boyfriend, lost her life. But lately, there had been no tears. Tears were a waste.
She was crying now, however. She was sobbing. She couldn't see; her tears blinded her. So she halted. Leaned against the nearest building and let the sobs turn her inside out. It seemed as if they'd never stop. Then . . .
She smelled something. The stench of deadness. The fragrance took her tears away. There was food, and it was somewhere close. Iris moved away from the building. She sniffed. This way. She followed the smell around the corner and into an alleyway. Alleys. She must spend half of her life in alleys. The alley was narrow, closed in by concrete walls. Garbage bags were piled against one wall. Underneath them, she could see a human hand reaching out onto the pavement. Moving forward, she began heaving the garbage bags off. She couldn't believe her luck! It was a whole body. A whole dead body that apparently no one wanted. Dead for days, maybe even a week. The scent was intoxicating.
She always kept a knife and some plastic bags in her satchel for a lucky find like this. Quickly, she sliced off a nice chunk and put it in her mouth. She couldn't help herself. It tasted so good. She was so hungry. She cut off a little more, then a little more. She needed to eat!
A sound. Footsteps maybe.
Iris tossed a quick illusion up. She wasn't here. Whoever it was wouldn't see her. She took another bite, and then forced herself to look around.
A figure stepped into the alley. Shit. It was him. Mr. Dark Lurking Man. He must have followed her. She was so stupid. The man was looking around the alley. He didn’t seem to be able to see her. Unable to resist, she took another bite. His eyes shot to the movement she'd made. Goddamn, how could he see through her magic like that?
For a moment, she did nothing. She crouched, flesh in her mouth, rotted bits of it clinging to her fingers, and looked at him.
The man pushed a lock of hair out of his face and looked back.
Iris chewed. Swallowed. But didn't take her eyes off the stranger. What was he thinking? He could see what she was doing. He must know what she was. What was he going to do?
The man took a hesitant step forward. Iris couldn't let him do that. She concentrated, gathering every shred of power she possessed. She hurled the magic at the man. "Go way," she whispered fiercely. "You want to go away."
He didn't move.
Shit. It didn't work on him. What was he? What did he want?
The man opened his mouth, as if he was about to say something, then closed it again. He held up both of his hands, palms up, in a hands-off gesture, and backed away, shaking his head. Iris held her breath until he was out of sight. What had happened? Was he coming back? She didn't move for an eternity. He didn't reappear. She stood up, threw some garbage bags back on the body, picked up her satchel and guitar, and left the alley. She went out the opposite way she'd come in, the opposite way than the man had just left.
There was no sign of him on the street. Iris debated. She needed that food. Needed it, since she didn't know if she could ever go back to the city. But was the man gone? Did she care? If he were going to report her, wouldn't he have done it by now? She guessed she could go to Scott's house. He lived close to here, in a dilapidated apartment, which he sold drugs out of. He'd probably just try to push some pills on her, and god knew Iris didn't need that. Drugs had gotten her into this mess in the first place. No, she couldn't go to Scott. She could handle this on her own. She had to, didn't she? After all, she was all she had. The only person she could count on. But if the stranger were still there, would she just be betraying herself? She didn't know what to do. Agonized, Iris went back into the alley and began carving up the body.
Iris woke up early, when it was still A.M. single digits. She had a house to clean that day, so she was happy to have the time to get ready. She ate a leisurely breakfast, glad she'd chanced it in the alley the night before. Put on tight jeans with holes in the knees and a t-shirt with the collar cut out. She only wore clothes like that when she was cleaning. Her usual layered getup just got in the way. But as utilitarian as the cleaning outfit was, it still made her feel self-conscious. She was a small girl; she guessed petite was the nice word for it. Mostly, Iris felt miniature. Or like a little girl. Big hair, big clothes, big jewelry—all those things made her feel a little bigger. She was a shrunk woman. Perfectly proportioned, except a foot too short.
Before leaving, she grabbed her satchel, loaded with cleaning supplies instead of human flesh, and went to catch the bus. Cleaning jobs had been easier when she had a car, but . . . well.
Selling the car had been worth it. It had paid rent for months. It had been good to get rid of it, since she'd bought the car from Rhett. Holding onto it was like holding onto Rhett. And Rhett was gone. He was on tour, opening for Mischief. He probably had groupies. Or maybe he was fucking Rosalyn. She didn't care. Rhett didn't matter. Not anymore. When he had mattered, he'd mattered too much. She hadn't so much loved Rhett as much as she'd obsessed over him. But it had been okay to do that when he was obsessing over her too. It had been mutual. It had been rock n' roll—Sid and Nancy, John and Yoko, Lindsey and Stevie. Of course, none of those relationships had turned out so great or brought much good to their surroundings. She didn't know what she'd been expecting. Truth was, when it all started, she hadn't expected anything. She'd certainly wanted something. She'd wanted Rhett, but she didn't actually believe she'd ever get him.
She remembered the first time she'd seen Rhett. She was sixteen, a junior in high school, and at a party one of her friends had invited her to. It was a college party, and tons of people were jammed into a small house located near the university. Iris didn't necessarily consider herself shy, but older kids she'd never seen before surrounded her. It was intimidating. She spent most of the party sitting on the floor in the living room smoking cigarettes. She didn't even have a drink.
She would have been content to sit there, running her fingers through the brown shag carpet until her friend decided she wanted to leave and found her again. After a few hours, however, her friend hadn't materialized, and she had to go to the bathroom. She worked up the courage to ask a few people where the bathroom was, but they didn't know, so she went off in search of it herself. She found it surprisingly easily, but on the way back to the living room, she got confused and ended up outside in the back yard, where a band was playing.
It was Rhett's band. That was the first time she saw him. He was singing on a makeshift stage, and he was heart-stoppingly beautiful. He had pale blue eyes and curly sandy hair. He wore a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, and she could see the muscles in his arms rippling as he strummed his guitar. But what made him so especially alluring were his eyes. They were so blue. They were too blue to be real.
She never made it back to the living room. Instead, she stood outside watching the band until they stopped playing. By this time, she'd managed to snag a few beers, and emboldened by alcohol and her incredible desire for Rhett, she marched directly up to the gorgeous lead singer and introduced herself.
"I'm Iris, and I think you're awesome," she said. "You've got such a presence on stage."
"Well, Iris-who-thinks-I'm-awesome," he said, "I'm Rhett, and if you like me, I like you. You look like a chick that needs another beer. Yeah?"
In fact, Iris was feeling a tad woozy. "Yeah," she said. "Thanks." Her friend was driving anyway.
Rhett got her a bottled beer instead of the stuff from the keg that she had been drinking. It was infinitely better, possibly because he had touched it. He chatted with her for a while. He was nice, but he was older, and she was just a kid. Nothing happened that night except the fact that she developed an enormous crush on him. She started to follow his band to gigs they played around town. The band was just called Blades then, and Blades became her life.
Prior to that evening, Iris had flirted with playing guitar, but never seriously pursued it. Now, she was inspired. She practiced every day on a finger-bleeder acoustic she got at a yard sale, teaching herself to play the cover tunes Blades did. Weekends, and the occasional weeknight, were reserved for going to watch Blades play. Her mother, a career waitress, would sometimes lecture her if she came in too late or played the guitar too early (before noon), but it was in the half-hearted way her mother told her not to smoke and to eat breakfast because it was the most important meal of the day. Her mother smoked two packs a day, was always out late, and never ate breakfast. It was if her mother knew lecturing Iris wouldn't do any good, but felt some sort of obligation to fulfill a minimal parental role anyway.
When Iris was able to talk with Rhett at or after the shows, which wasn't every time, but was fairly often, he was always super sweet. He remembered her name and liked hearing about her guitar playing. This only heightened her crush. She thought Rhett Stevens was the most perfect being on the planet, and she wanted him even more.
At that point, Lucian wasn't in the band. Max, the drummer, was. He and Rhett had been friends since grade school. The other guitarist in the band was named Jeremy, and a guy named Rick rounded the group out on bass. Rick eventually left the band when he transferred to a different college, and that was when Lucian took over bass. Jeremy might have stuck with the band if things had been different, but in the end, it all worked out for the best. Besides, he wasn't that good. His chord changes were sloppy, and he was only capable of one strum, which tended to make all of Blades' songs sound alike.
Iris only really admitted this imperfection to herself in retrospect. At the time, she worshipped the band. They could do no wrong, and every song they played was amazing. At the same time, she was trying variations on the songs they played. She didn't admit to herself that some of them sounded better than Jeremy's renderings. She did, however, sometimes think that they sounded just as good. She had a couple of bootleg tapes of live performances, and she could play along with every song.
It was the spring of her senior year of high school. The last time she'd seen Rhett, she'd shyly admitted to playing along with a recording of the band. He'd responded, "Awesome, keep it up," and gotten a bottled beer for "Our Fan Club," which was what the guys in the band teasingly called her. "Maybe sometime I'll hear you play," Rhett had said, grinning.
She was remembering this sublime moment one afternoon while working on a new song. She hadn't told anyone, not even Rhett, that she wrote her own stuff. She was sure it was crap anyway. The phone rang. Her mother yelled for her to answer it. Her mother was sleeping off a hangover in her bedroom. Iris picked up the phone.
"Hello," she said, hoping it wasn't her mother's manager, demanding to know why her mother wasn't there for her scheduled shift. That happened a lot.
"Hey, uh, is Iris there?"
"This is Iris."
"Finally," said the voice on the other end. It was male and vaguely familiar. "This is the seventh Tanner I've called."
"Who is this?"
"It's Rhett. Um, Rhett Stevens?"
As if she knew any one else named Rhett. "Hi," she said, hoping her voice didn't sound tinny from excitement. "Um. Wow." She paused, trying to let it sink in. Rhett was calling her! "It's, um, good to hear from you." There, that was casual, right? Although, she did sound a little breathless.
"Yeah, I've been trying to find you. Going through the phone book. How are you?"
"Great. Good. I'm good."
"Cool," he said. She could tell he was grinning. "Look, remember when I said I wanted to hear you play?"
"Yeah." She figured he'd just been being nice.
"Well, I want to."
"Yeah. Actually, see, Jeremy got hit by a car."
"What?! Is he okay?"
"Yeah, he's okay. Well, sort of. I mean, it wasn't going really fast. His arm got broken."
"Oh God. That's horrible." She wasn't putting it together.
"Yeah, it's rough. And, um, like we don't have a rhythm guitarist now."
"Oh, wow, I guess you don't." She still wasn't getting it.
"But you said you knew all the songs, and so I thought, maybe, if you, you know—"
"What?!" It all came crashing into place. "You want me to sub for Jeremy?!"
"I mean, we need to hear you first, but if you can do what you say you can, then yeah. Is that, I mean, is that something you might want to do?"
"Are you shitting me? I would love to do that. Oh my God, Rhett, you're fucking shitting me."
He laughed. "Like I said, we have to hear you play."
The guys loved her.
"She's better than Jeremy, dude," Max said.
And that was how it started. By the time Jeremy was out of his cast, they were Satin Blades, they were doing her songs in addition to covers, and they were starting to get gigs in the city. Iris hadn't meant to take over the band. She hadn't really thought that she had taken over the band. But that was what Rhett had said she'd done when he kicked her out.
It wasn't true. Not really. Rhett had encouraged her. He'd wanted to hear her songs. He'd told her they were good. Everyone had wanted to play them. True, of all the band members, she was the only one who had wanted to be famous. Originally. But Iris infected the rest of them with her dream. Her drive to be better, to be recognized, spurred the whole band on. She was nearly as good at inspiring people as she was at writing songs. Well, as she used to be at writing songs. Currently, she didn't write shit. And while she missed writing songs, and while she wished she could, she wasn't driven to do it anymore. That was the biggest difference between the way she was now and the way she was then. Now, she didn't have a drive, except for human flesh.
What had happened to her? What had taken her from those innocent times of subsiding on seemingly hopeless desires to the shell of a girl she was now? Drugs? Magic? Rotted flesh? All of it, she guessed. She'd just gotten . . . hollow inside.
That Friday night Iris went out. She didn't have a gig or anything. She was just bored. Just a few drinks, she thought. She went to Finnegan's, an Irish-themed bar, which was usually pretty low-key. She didn't want to be anywhere too crazy or too loud. True to form, Finnegan's was next to dead when she arrived, somewhere around 9:30. The "L"-shaped bar was well lit and empty. A few couples sat at tables on the floor. Iris liked it like that. No one would bother her. She sat down at the bar and ordered a drink. The bartender brought it back, but when she tried to pay, he shook his head. "Compliments of the gentleman in the corner." He jerked his thumb behind his head in the general direction of the corner.
Iris leaned around the bartender to look. It was him.