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The Shadow Over Tacoma

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With time and adjustment of expectations, the experts say, the human animal can get used to just about anything; since he began his stint with Dethklok, Inc., John basically ran a double-blind peer-reviewed ninety-nine variable research study on that shit 24/7, and was actually pretty pleased with the results.

The job, in a lot of ways, was just a job: same ride to work, same hurry-up-and-wait first hour, trying to figure out what needed to be done next. There was the same kind of bloated bureaucracy hovering just overhead that he imagined ruled other big companies.

He was assigned, as he’d hoped, to the boat-building squad, a huge operation spread out along the coast of the Sound, hundreds of stooped figures knitting together lumber and rope into fierce-looking —and historically accurate, he was pleased to note— vessels that lined the beaches. Disappointingly, when they were handing out tools on his second day, John couldn’t wrap his busted fist around a hammer’s handle and had to accept a planer instead.

But damn if he didn’t find a visceral pleasure, something sensuous and joyful, in running his fingers over the gently curved, splinterless boards he’d shaped from raw barked trunks. It was tough, physical work, sure, and the pace was demanding, but he felt stretched to the comfortable edge of his endurance at the end of the day, happily worn out.

He’d really only just gotten the hang of it, getting really good at knowing the right angles and pressure, when they made him switch to riveting the thin steel sheets to the hulls. That was a way different experience: jolts in his arms and back, his knees creaking from the up and down glide over lines of bolts. Even so, it only took a day, about, until the stiff vibration that he felt in all his bones at once each time he pulled the trigger on the pneumatic gun felt pretty ok, too. Better than ok, actually, it felt like a deep-scratched and carnal emblem of shit he’d accomplished.

Lunch breaks were pretty much standard work-a-day stuff, too, and John made some acquaintances with the dudes (and that huge woman who almost clocked him on the first day, Varla, she was nice!) who worked close to him. They...were still really weird, all basically completely crazy: excitable and fannish and not all that bright on average. Decent enough to chat with over a cup of coffee, but John was glad that he hadn’t given anyone his full name and no one cared to ask it.

Dumb, he could deal with; into a different kind of “lifestyle” than his own, no problem. What actually bugged John, made him stand a few feet away from clumps of loud-talking quintets and trios until someone motioned him over, was the universal focus on "brutality". It was like a freaking camp-out sleepover, flashlights on faces and gruesome ghost stories. And, worst of all, it cast an uncomfortable light on the still-black box he’d shoved the events of that first initiation brawl, making a shadow-monster of himself against his own conscience.

That first taste of murder they all shared was pretty much all John had in common with the lot of them. Most had seen Dethklok live, or had friends of friends who’d visited Mordhaus or were casualties of band one way or another, and their conversations monotonously gory and gross. Some had families and even recounting banal life shit was tinted with domestic brutality— one guy, about his age and living with his pregnant girlfriend, showed off a fresh knife wound. “She fucking cut me,” he elaborated proudly, “’cause I left the seat up. Chicks get pretty metal when they’re knocked up, dude!”

That guy was pretty funny, probably closest to a legitimate work friend he’d made, and John was pretty sad when he cut his arm off above the elbow with a circular saw, bled out, and was set adrift. Didn’t even make it to payday.

89% mortality the business man claimed actually seemed pretty conservative, as more and more cadavers were pushed unceremoniously into the salty tide. He couldn’t tell if those alleged ecologists ever showed up: all those lovely trees felled and turned to lumber, constant overhead flock of carrion birds and the bay itself, Jesus. Every morning, schools of fish sped alongside the ferries, a Pavlovian swarm; pods of Orca were showing up for the floating buffet, though they didn’t much like scavenging and started picking off easy live prey, unwary workers who tumbled off the ships and straight into waiting jaws.

It was unsettling as hell, but John learned from the departed to pay fucking attention at all times. There were just too many possible fatal mistakes, and even that, the constant watchfulness, toeing a line between an uneventful day at the jobsite and permanent game over, came like second nature.

Jade blustered at him every night when he came home, afraid the stress of such vigilance would eventually wear him down and make him more vulnerable than ever. Like clockwork, she checked in on him, by turns sympathetic and shouting, and it became clear that they were all talking about him. There was probably an “Egbert is Doomed” troll-style memo somewhere. But mostly, he was glad to hear from her more often, and tried patiently to explain that no, it wasn’t just about the money and yes, he was being more than careful, and of course, he knew his luck could run out and he could step wrong or breathe wrong even and end up doing the dead-man’s float out past Vancouver.

She, more than Rose and certainly more than Dave (who still maintained that he was a fucking moron and aggressively reminded him so), wanted to understand, wanted to know what exactly his reasons and feelings and all his whys were though this whole ordeal. He could never really put it into words, the way he lapsed easily into this new cycle, how it made him feel to give his hands purpose again. How most mornings he hummed and smiled, the dawn bright and full of promise while the briny breeze whipped around him as he settled in to work.

Early on, John was grateful that Dethklok was so damn prolific; it meant that he only had to hear each song maybe twice a day, not that he could really tell them apart. It was all wall of sound and crazy beats, a driving rhythm that pulsed through the wood and woven steel-wool sails that hung from the completed masts. He could hardly handle the deep reverberations climbing up his fingers and crawling through his ears to meet in his ribcage and do weird things to his pulse, a constant war between his cardiovascular system and the heavy throb of bass and drums.

This must be how Dave felt, maybe still feels, he thought, the knock of time battling against your own natural tempo. When he asked though, his friend answered with scorn and John could imagine the tight-lipped disgust on his face as he said “Fuck no, Egbert, time is a strict 4/4 deal all day long and it’s organic as hell, matches perfectly and just flows right through. This is another reason metal is bullshit and you should get the fuck out.” Every conversation the same, always ended in open threats or veiled concern and all sorts of angry coolkid crap, giving him the business and trying to get him to quit his job.

That was not happening. John was never going to just quit. Fuck, he’d come so far, had done...things already that made cutting out, just not going in one day sound so cowardly and lame. And maybe it was stupid, and it was going to kill him, but he wouldn’t go down that road, where he’d always know that he was needled into defeat by a collapse of courage. So, instead, he had to find a way around it, a way to flow with the weirdness and the maimings and the heightened senses that kept his body safe, but his soul vulnerable to that punishing beat.

His musical tastes had always been kind of all over the place— he still loved the Gershwin that his dad taught him piano on, broadened into pop-punk and ska and alternative bands. A little classic rock, when he was in the mood. None of it really gave him a handle on the audio assault he felt like waves crashing on rocks. Skimming away rough wood and drowning in all this goddamn metal, tasting it on his tongue like that first day’s sanguine flow, he decided to surrender.

First thing he could grab onto was the soaring lead guitar, the lightness of it, wind whipping rain upwards and sideways and in infinite spirals. The solos were interesting and accessible —could he play them on his shitty Yamaha? probably— and after getting his bearings, doggy paddling through the top notes, he switched frequencies, trying to decipher the singing. Well, growling. Sometimes it was easier than others, but wouldn’t strain to understand; it was just another texture, scratchy-wool over the guitar’s silk. Though:

“You've conquered pain/ You've conquered fear/ You fear not your mortality...”

Yeah, there was something to get there, its meaning a dark leviathan slipping along the uglier face of truth. From the clipped and hoarse vocals, John tuned into the hard strum of the second guitar. (Which guy played what? The blond did the high notes, maybe? God, no wonder people looked at him like an asshole when they talked about the band.) The downtuned hum of chords mimicked the bass line, sometimes hardly there, and then those drums. Those fucking drums.

When John finally got his check, the first thing he did —even before paying his rent— was to go to iTunes and drop $250 on the whole Dethklok discography. Since he first really heard the music, savoring the vibrations in his tools and smiling at familiar phrases, the quiet of his house had been a cruel reversal. He laid in bed, sometimes still jumpy in the dark, and he felt mournful, something missing, like reaching out for a lover and finding only warm, fragrant and vacant sheets.

He had resentfully suffered the silence for too many fitful nights, confused and at a loss. (But what was he going to do, pirate the shit? Now that would be a stupid move.) When he could finally put on a short playlist, let those drums he’d been in withdrawal for since the speakers clicked off at quitting time wind around him, he found he would drop off quickly and sleep deeply, wrapped in the comfort of a rhythm he’d started to call home.