It was hard to believe that he was standing there, guitar in hand, strumming the opening chords of ‘Ice Box Woman’ for sound check, trying to ignore the guy behind him who was fiddling with the wires that connected the transmitters to the monitors lodged in both of his ears. He’d never played with dual IEMs before – none of them had – but the sound techs had insisted upon it, given how loud their music would have to be in order to reach the diehards in the nosebleeds.
He smiled to himself. He remembered when he could count Mystik Spiral’s diehard fans on one hand. Now they had enough to propel them into this moment, into headlining a show at the biggest arena in the country. It was even going to be televised. Fans had already started lining up outside the auditorium; Janey was already out there with them, recording their collective excitement with her trusty handheld camera. If not for her and her compulsive desire to film their escapades, he’d swear that this whole thing had been a dream.
A weird, but cool, dream.
“You got any reverb?” the tech behind him grumbled, tugging on the pack attached to his guitar strap.
“No,” Trent replied, striking another chord. It was kinda cool, the dissonance between the sound in his ears and the way it felt in his hands. It would definitely help their sound – Nick was half-deaf already, and Jesse was fast getting there. Anything that enhanced their ability to sing together on key and in tune was a definite plus in Trent’s book.
“All right, guys,” intoned the lead audio tech from his spot behind the mixing board in the back of the auditorium, “give me something heavy and we can call it a day.”
“Finally,” Jesse muttered under his breath, causing Trent to smirk a little. It had been a rather trying session, and Jesse had been cranky all day – he hadn’t gotten his ten hours of beauty rest in. Good thing they had a couple of hours before the actual show; Jesse was a whole different person when he was able to get through his entire pre-performance routine.
Half a verse of ‘Paingasm’ was enough to satisfy the sound techs; five minutes later, the band members were out of their gear and heading backstage. They’d long ago learned that they needed to go their separate ways before a show in order to keep the peace, and that suited Trent just fine. He could do without Nick’s obsessive exercising, Max’s video games, and Jesse’s scented candles.
He bid his bandmates farewell before pulling out his headphones and putting them on, a mindless mix of house music filling his ears as he traversed the long and winding corridors deep into the building. He took out his phone, sent Jane a quick text requesting burritos for dinner, and walked into the tiny dressing room that had been cordoned off for him.
It was industrial beige in color and sparsely furnished, but it was enough for him, even if most lead singers would’ve balked. He didn’t require much – peace and quiet mostly; a comfortable chair and a place to put his feet up were a bonus. He slumped into the overstuffed chair positioned in front of an old vanity table and kicked up his heels, leaning back and drowning himself in his music while he waited for his sister, and the biggest performance of his life.
To the outside world, Mystik Spiral had shot to the top practically overnight, riding the wave of an infectious single off the hottest rock-metal-hardcore fusion album released this side of the last decade. Fans flocked to their music like bees to honey, and even the critics were starting to come around – there had been some talk of Grammy nominations for their current, self-titled album, which was actually their fifth studio recording and fourth full release.
Mystik Spiral had in fact existed, in some form or fashion, for almost half of Trent’s life. It had formed shortly after he met Jesse Moreno in summer school during seventh grade – Jesse was the only other kid in his class who was clever enough to cut algebra (their last, most useless class of the day). They preferred to hang out in the park adjacent to the elementary school, smoking pot and shooting the breeze. When they discovered their shared taste in music, they decided to put together a band. The hardest part had been coming up with a decent name. They went through several before deciding on their current moniker, and even that had been a struggle.
For ten years, Spiral existed in near-complete inertia. Sporadic bursts of activity brought drummer Max Tyler on board in high school; a couple of years later, when they decided to add a bass player, Nick Campbell answered an ad the trio had placed in the local alt weekly. They managed to get their shit together long enough to put out an EP and release a single on the local indie label, which led to a semi-regular gig at various grunge clubs and brew pubs around Lawndale. It wasn’t much of a life, but it was better than working a dead-end job at a toll booth on the interstate, like some of their classmates.
It wasn’t until Janey went off to Boston Fine Arts College that Trent began to realize just how much the band were deluding themselves. They wanted success, but not enough to actually work at it – each believed they were already at the top of their musical game, so what was the point of practicing regularly? They were artists, man, and each new song was just another jewel of their collective genius. Janey had felt the same way about her artwork…until she finally admitted to herself that maybe she didn’t know everything there was to know about art. The threat of losing her was what finally snapped Trent out of his lethargy.
Even with multiple reassurances that he wasn’t going to lose her, it wasn’t enough for him. Jane was the only member of his family who’d ever stuck around or given a damn about him, and now she was leaving Lawndale in search of a better life. It made him realize that he wanted more out of life, too, and that he wanted more out of Spiral. They had the talent to make it, just not necessarily the will – but he was determined to change that, and to stick close to his sister.
It had been ugly, trying to whip the band into shape. They fought, and swore, and broke up a couple of times. Nick had started doing harder and harder drugs, even though he was the one with a kid to support. Finding him unconscious three days into a bender had been the ultimate wakeup call for all of them. It was during a somber meeting in his hospital room that they all vowed to put their shit aside and really give it a go.
The friction of that era came out in their music. They sat down together a couple of weeks after Nick’s release, all four of them stone cold sober for the first time in their lives, and starting laying it all on the line. The resultant music was dark and heavy and full of pain, but it was also incredibly cathartic and fun to play. They recorded and released their first LP on Plush Records, winning a couple of gigs up in Boston, near BFAC, on the back of its modest success. Janey had designed their album cover art for her sophomore visual design class, and had earned an A. Shit finally started falling into place.
Mystik Spiral graduated to Plush Records’ parent label after their Boston success, and released two more albums of heavy metal angst, as Jane had so lovingly termed it. Their underground following was growing; Jesse’s brother Danny was ecstatic to finally have a real fan club to manage, and he put together a street team to spread the word and to help move their merch at shows and festivals.
Each of them dealt with their hard-won success in a different way. Max, secretly an introvert under his bravado, hunkered deeper into his fandoms – Star Trek and video games, respectively. He studied Klingon and got into fights on internet message boards. Jesse wholeheartedly embraced his spiritual side, dabbling in everything from Buddhism to mysticism. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also attracted the majority of their female fans, who loved to coo over his gentle nature and long, lustrous hair. Trent had taken to chronicling their musical journey on his arms. It started with cover ups of the ridiculous tribal bands he’d copied out of Tattoo World magazine in high school, and then sort of took on a life of its own. He integrated pieces of Janey’s album art in the designs, as well as other, more personally meaningful symbols; he was well on his way to full sleeves.
Nick married his longtime girlfriend, had another kid, and secretly fell off the wagon. When he showed up to their recording sessions for album #4 looking strung out and exhausted, they all just assumed it was due to his newfound domesticity. It wasn’t until Jesse discovered him on the floor of the studio’s bathroom with a needle in his arm that the truth came pouring out. Mystik Spiral took a forced hiatus while Nick went to rehab and then dealt with the fallout of his crumbling marriage.
They finally finished that album, only to learn that they’d been dropped by their label. Then they were back in Lawndale, on their own.
For Trent, it was just as well; he was tired of playing the same heavy, sad, exhausting music. His life had stabilized, both musically and personally, and he was ready for his work to reflect that. He was no longer angry and insecure – he and Jane had only grown closer during her stint at BFAC; his parents had slowed their nonstop world travel, and were home for long, uninterrupted stretches of time now, for the first time in his life. He’d put a permanent end to a drawn out on-and-off romantic relationship that probably should’ve ended at least three years earlier.
He was happy, dammit, and had been itching to create music to reflect that.
The band was initially resistant to the idea, not wanting to mess with their winning formula. The stress of it all was enough to drive them apart again, albeit only temporarily. A couple of months in ‘normal’ jobs was all it took for the others to agree to give Trent’s new direction a chance.
They released their fourth album themselves, without fanfare or a supporting tour, and went straight to work on number five.
It was almost ironic, really, that this was the album that launched them into the stratosphere. There were a couple of hard-rocking tunes reminiscent of their original sound, but there was also a substantial mix of slower, simple, poignant songs, including their breakout hit. ‘In Between’ was an atmospheric masterpiece, with lush orchestration and simple, powerful lyrics. It had been dubbed the “Power Ballad Apology,” and speculation was rampant in the mainstream music media as to its meaning. It was that mystique, as much as anything else, which had propelled them to stardom. Nearly every interview they were tapped for these days had at least one question about the origin of the song, but neither Trent nor Jesse (who, it was decided, would handle the media, given Nick’s shady past and Max’s neuroticism) would bite.
Everyone who needed to know already did.
God knows Janey had yet to let him hear the end of it.
Speaking of whom…
“Yo, Trent,” Jane drawled, barging into his dressing room without even bothering to knock. “Will you please explain to Doubting Thomas here that this” – she thrust a laminated backstage pass into his line of vision – “is not a joke?”
Trent pushed his headphones back, glancing at the heavily personalized pass before sliding his gaze to the person Janey was practically holding in a death grip at her side. “Hey, Daria,” he greeted her softly, leaning back in his seat.
“Hey,” she mumbled, her eyes locked onto the concrete floor as if it was the most fascinating thing on the planet.
Jane smirked, dropping the pass in Trent’s lap before brandishing a white paper bag. “Dinner is served,” she quipped, setting the bag on the edge of the vanity with a flourish. “You wanna eat alone, or should I leave you with some company?”
Daria flushed, the picture of abject misery as she drew her lower lip between her teeth and averted her eyes to gaze longingly back at the door.
So she’s still giving her shit, too, Trent surmised, picking up the discarded pass. He sat up in his seat, turning his attention to his sister. “Can you give us a minute, Janey?” he murmured.
“Of course,” she replied grandly, dragging Daria further into the room and earning a murderous look for her trouble. She hurried back to the door, giving them both a knowing, triumphant smile. “Later,” she added, pulling it closed behind her.
A patch of awkward silence descended over them as he sat, and she stood, anxiously shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Trent took the opportunity to look at her – really look at her – because it was the first time he’d seen her since kissing her on the night of her twenty-first birthday.
She was wearing a variation on what Janey had informed him was her usual ensemble these days: dark wash jeans, black t-shirt, that luscious black cardigan, and her ever-present combat boots. Her hair was pulled into a low ponytail at the nape of her neck; her tortoise-shell glasses slid down the slope of her nose and she absently pushed them back into place as she directed her gaze around the room, studying anything and everything – except him.
He wondered if she still thought about that kiss as much as he did. Probably not, considering she’d resisted every gesture he’d made towards her ever since.
“Listen,” he finally said, “I’m sorry about all this.” He motioned to the backstage pass. “I guess Janey still doesn’t know when to let up.”
She folded her arms over her chest. “You mean – it isn’t true?” she replied, sounding crestfallen, looking as if it was taking every ounce of her strength to hold herself in place.
Trent glanced at the pass again. Jane had taken the standard-issue badge and modified it, drawing a border of hearts and nails around the edge. She’d also crossed out the original title of ‘Band Guest,’ replacing it with ‘Band Muse’ in swirly script under Daria’s picture. He smirked as he imagined Daria’s reaction to being given such a thing, and wondered if that moment had been captured for posterity in Jane’s film.
Knowing Janey? Probably.
Before he had a chance to respond, Daria spoke again. “Actually, it wouldn’t matter if it was,” she sighed, slumping into a nearby seat. “Wearing that thing would basically brand me as ‘Head Groupie,’ which we all know I’m not.” She shuddered at the very idea.
“No,” he mused, “you’re definitely not that…”
She offered him a watery smile, but still didn’t meet his gaze.
He turned his attention to the bag of food that Jane had left for them. “You want some dinner?” he asked, pulling the bag over and unloading its contents.
“No thanks,” she returned, studying her fingernails with intense concentration.
“Oh, come on,” he cajoled, waving his hands over the spread. “There’s way more than I can eat. Looks like Janey ordered enough to feed a small army.”
She furrowed her brow. “What about the others?” she inquired, referring to his bandmates.
Trent shook his head. “Nick and Jesse won’t touch the stuff, and Max subsists on Mountain Dew and shortbread cookies.” He smiled when Daria stifled a surprised snort. “Yeah, I don’t even know, but it seems to work for him. Different strokes, and all that. So… Will you join me?”
Daria considered his offer. “Okay,” she finally acquiesced, standing up and dragging her folding chair over to the vanity before sliding down into it again. The two helped themselves to the burritos, splitting the order of Spanish rice and queso dip that came with them.
“New tattoo?” Daria asked between bites, nodding to his left arm, which was heavily bandaged just above his wrist.
“Yeah,” Trent replied, hastily wiping his hands on a napkin. He was pleased that she’d even noticed it, half-hidden beneath his long-sleeved shirt. “You wanna see it?”
She shrugged. “Sure,” she agreed, lifting a forkful of rice to her mouth.
Trent carefully peeled away the paper tape holding the gauze in place, revealing his latest piece of artwork for her perusal. He watched her as she gazed at it, her expression clouding over before becoming completely unreadable.
He frowned. “You like it?” he asked, turning his arm up slightly to flood it in the light from the vanity. It was a heart, the outline bold and black, the inside a deep, rich crimson. The visible veins in his wrist trailed out from its pointed end.
His question seemed to shake her from her reverie. “Huh? Oh, um – yeah, it’s cool,” she finally managed. “Very graphic… And, um, meaningful.”
His lips curved up into a smile. “Yeah, it makes a statement. You know what it is?”
“You’re wearing your heart on your sleeve?” she guessed, half-jokingly, though the levity in her tone fell flat.
“Close,” he said softly, brushing his fingers over the crest of her cheek. He felt the heat bloom beneath his touch before he saw the blush coloring her face, and he trailed his fingers down, tracing the line of her jaw before coming to rest just under her chin.
She looked up at him then, and he realized that she hadn’t forgotten about that kiss – nope, he’d wager that it was, at that very moment, in the forefront of her mind. Her eyes were large and round and filmy, filled with equal parts fear and hope as they met his. Now that she was looking at him, she couldn’t tear her gaze away, and he drank in the beautiful depths of her eyes, the way the color shifted from brown to green as he stroked the underside of her chin with his thumb.
“I know Janey’s been giving you a lot of shit lately,” he said gently, “because she’s been giving me a lot of shit, too. About this” – he lifted his left wrist – “but also about other things.”
“Like the kiss,” she surmised, sounding a little breathless as her eyes shifted down, latching onto his newest tattoo.
“Yeah,” he affirmed, tilting her chin so that her eyes met his again. “She was wrong to tease you with the pass, but she wasn’t wrong in the sentiment. You are my muse, Daria.”
He felt her starting to tremble, and saw the tears forming behind her eyes. “Don’t lie to me, Trent,” she pleaded softly. “Let me keep my memory of that kiss…”
Her eyes closed, and her brow furrowed, as if she was concentrating on sealing that moment in her memory, free and pure and unblemished by anything he was trying to say. His heart skipped a beat as he gazed at her, but he felt strangely calm at the same time. He’d had the last six months to come to terms with what that kiss had meant for him, for how much it’d touched every corner of his life and changed every fiber of his being. He’d had the last six months to channel those feelings into songs – melodies and words – music and lyrics – that had helped launch Mystik Spiral into the mainstream after fifteen years of existence, and five years of arduous, painstaking – and, at times, painful – work.
He shook his head. “I thought you knew,” he murmured, feeling foolish for a fleeting moment. “I thought it was obvious.”
“No,” she replied, opening her eyes again, reaching up to push the bridge of her glasses up the slope of her nose. “The only thing that was obvious was how much you’ve changed. You seem so…calm, now. Almost serene.” She shrugged. “But I’ve never known the inner workings of your mind. Jane just told me that you were happy, and that this record was a reflection of that.”
Trent smiled. Given how sensitive she’d always been, it never ceased to amaze him how oblivious she could be at the same time. She’d never been able to tell when a guy was interested in her – and maybe part of that was because she’d been telling herself she wasn’t worth being interested in, romantically at least.
How he relished the chance to prove her wrong.
“I wrote ‘In Between’ the day after I kissed you,” he told her, earning a sharp look of surprise in response. “Not because I regretted it,” he continued, cutting off the question that he sensed was forming in her mind, “but because I didn’t know how to tell you – what it did it me. How it made me feel.”
“How did it make you feel?” she asked directly, bluntly.
He considered her words for a long moment. “Whole,” he finally replied.
“Whole?” she echoed, confusion ripe in her tone.
“Yeah.” He let her go, reluctantly, reaching instead to trace the outline of the heart etched inside his left wrist. “Like I’d finally come full circle. You’re the one who inspired Janey to go for BFAC, and she’s the one who got us up off our asses and forced the band to basically do or die.” He looked at her. “So, in a roundabout way, you’re the reason we’re even here. And – in a very direct way – you’re the reason why we’re here, at Madison Square fucking Garden.
“This album was inspired by and written for you, Daria,” he admitted with a soft smile. “And this tattoo is my reminder of that, because this album is me, wearing my heart on my sleeve.”
She gaped at him. “I – I don’t know what to say,” she sputtered, looking just as flustered as she sounded.
“You don’t have to say anything,” he assured her. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, Daria.”
Tears trickled from her eyes, even as the corners of her mouth curved up into a smile. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to hear you say that,” she whispered, curling her hands around his neck and pulling him close. She pressed her lips to his, her kiss sure and firm and full of shy confidence.
He closed his arms around her, drawing her out of her seat and into his lap, but she didn’t even seem to notice, so intent was she on making this kiss even better than their first. He felt the last vestiges of her resistance crumbling as her body melted into his, her arms looping around his shoulders as she held his lips between her own for a long, sweet moment, before finally releasing with a needy little sigh.
He chuckled, smoothing his hands up the planes of her back, savoring the sensation of her cable-knit sweater against his palms. “Know what our next single’s gonna be?” he mused.
She shook her head before leaning forward, resting her forehead against his.
He swept one hand through her hair. “Breathing you in when I want you out,” he sang softly, “hiding our truth in a hope of doubt / lying inside our quiet drama…”
He felt her smile.
“Wearing your heart like a stolen dream / opening skies with your broken keys,” he continued, lifting her up so that he could look into her eyes. “No one can blind us any longer….”
Her fingers drifted into his hair. “That’s my favorite song on the whole album,” she admitted sheepishly.
“Mine, too,” he said, kissing the corner of her mouth. “Know why I decided to put the heart on my wrist?”
She leaned into him, resting her cheek against his. “No,” she breathed, her words soft as they rushed past the shell of his ear.
“So that it would be visible every time I played,” he returned, just as softly.
She pulled away from him abruptly, separating herself neatly from him, as if their heady moment had never even happened. Her expression was somber as she retook her seat and picked up her fork, pushing it through what was left of the Spanish rice on her plate.
“Daria?” he ventured, trying to push away the sudden shock of losing her closeness so suddenly.
“It’s only going to invite even more speculation, you know,” she said tersely, nodding to his arm.
“So?” he contended, pushing his own plate away. “Let ’em talk. What does it matter?”
“It matters to me,” she said stubbornly. “How much longer do you think you can keep this under wraps? Talk about a tabloid reporter’s dream – ”
“So just don’t tell your sister,” he interjected smoothly, “or figure out some way to swear her to secrecy.”
“You say that like its easy,” she huffed, crossing her arms in her lap. “Your sister certainly can’t keep a secret.”
“Janey’s not a gossip columnist, either,” Trent felt compelled to remind her. “Look, Daria, Jesse and I made a deal a long time ago to never discuss the origins of Spiral’s work in public. What it means to us is our business and nobody else’s.”
He reached for her hands, cupping them in his own. “How I feel about you is my business, and nobody else’s,” he reiterated.
She gave him a skeptical look. “Not even Jane’s?” she pressed suspiciously.
He shook his head, giving her hands a squeeze. “Not even Jane’s,” he promised. He paused. “Not that that’ll stop her from giving us shit, though.”
Daria rolled her eyes. “That is her way,” she mused in agreement. She smiled, a hint of color flushing into her cheeks. “She used to tease me mercilessly in high school for my crush.”
Before Trent could respond, the door to his dressing room eased open. The pair turned to see Jesse leaning in from the doorway.
“Hey, Trent,” he started, before noticing the other person in the room. His lips quirked into a smile. “Hey, Daria,” he added, before turning his attention back to his bandmate. “We’re on in five, man.”
“Right.” Trent nodded to Jesse as the latter disappeared again, undoubtedly to finish his elaborate pre-show preparations.
Trent stood, tugging Daria up beside him, and leaned in for another warm, satisfying kiss. “I have something for you,” he mumbled against her mouth.
“Oh?” she breathed dazedly, the rush of her breath warm against his lips. “What?”
He grinned as he dug into the pocket of his jeans, pulling out a pristine backstage pass. “This,” he said, looping it around her neck.
She looked at the badge, her cheeks suddenly flaming when she realized that it was a copy of the original one that Jane had vandalized and then insisted she wear. “You had this the whole time?!” she cried, sending an accusatory stare in his direction. “But – why – ?”
“Because I know my sister,” he replied ruefully, holding his hands up to stop her from barreling on in righteous indignation. “And even if she hadn’t dragged you in here to make a big deal out of it, I was going to find you backstage and give it to you, so that no one else would bother you.”
He circled his arm around her shoulders. “I know how sensitive you are, Daria,” he said softly. “It’s one of the things I like most about you.”
She touched the heart tattoo adorning his left wrist. “Yeah?” she murmured, her expression a cross between embarrassment and pleasure.
“Yeah,” he assured her with a smile, leaning in for another kiss.