The night before they ride out, Frank draws the spider on Gerard's hip, using a black sharpie he picked up at a shitswap two weeks ago in exchange for a handful of AAAs. He presses his face to the drawing, smelling the sharp fumes against Gerard's skin, the mixed smells of solvent and sweat and dust and come.
Gerard rolls over toward him, and Frank lifts his head and falls back with a grin. He holds onto the pen for just a moment, making Gerard tug it from his fingers before he'll let it go. Gerard straddles him, kneeling, and looks down at his own hip, the spider upside down from his point of view, before he looks at Frank. When he does, his look is appraising, thoughtful. He pushes his hair out of his eyes and tucks it behind his ear. There's a crease of concentration between his eyebrows as he uncaps the marker.
Frank has tattoos all over his body, ink scattered here and there in no particular order. Gerard remembers when it was all unknown, back before any of this started. Now he knows every piece of it, from the Halloween pumpkin on Frank's back to the spider on his hand, Frank's life charted out on his skin.
It's easier than a blank sheet, Gerard thinks — he doesn't have to draw out something new from the void, but just fill in the spaces, finish the story.
He draws the dome of the city and the highway and the diner and the Joshua trees. He draws the crash queens and the zonerunners and the radio waves arcing between everything. He draws the crowd at The Pit, with their hands raised up, screaming. And on Frank's back, avatars for each of the gang, Party Poison and Kobra Kid and Jet Star and Show Pony and Max, all surrounding Frank's pumpkin, crowded close together so there's no bare skin at all between them.
The marker leaves firm black lines, sharp-edged, definite. Frank giggles when Gerard draws down his side.
"I'll tickle you," Gerard threatens, but he shifts and starts drawing on Frank's lower back, lines and whorls alongside the base of his spine, curling down over his flank. A draculoid rises out of the ink, masked and fanged; Gerard draws Gabe in his furry dog mask shooting it down. Frank twists around to see what he's doing.
"Is that Gabe?" he asks
"I guess so."
"You drew Gabe on my ass?"
"It's your thigh."
"You drew Gabe on my thigh?"
"Shut up," Gerard says. It's easier to draw than to talk about it. The draculoids are going down, dead dead dead. He draws a pile of drac corpses with Korse on top with a smoking hole in his chest, then he feels bad for putting Korse on Frank's skin at all. To make up for it, Gerard draws the Trans Am on Frank's other thigh, then surrounds it with an army of zombies.
* * *
The only place to smoke is the alleyway behind the building, with the door of the emergency stairwell propped open and the security camera broken.
Gerard remembers back before they moved to Battery City, when everyone used to smoke out front on the pavement, huddled into their coats against the New York winter. The sidewalk had been littered with butts despite the sand-filled can the management provided, and anyone who'd visited had had to run the smokers' gauntlet before they could get in through the front door. There are fewer of them now: a handful of holdouts from the old days who'd come west after the Better Living Industries merger, a few others who'd been around almost as long and somehow managed to avoid CorpHealth's anti-smoking campaigns and keep the habit.
These days there's just a sparse cluster of regulars who come out on their breaks, three times a day, to stand around aimlessly sucking in nicotine and shooting the shit before they have to hit their desks again. Aiden and Josh and Maia and Vivian and Frank. Gerard doesn't even like any of them except Frank. He really likes Frank, though, even if they're just smoking buddies, even if Gerard doesn't really know anything about him. He doesn't even know what department Frank works in. Not the art department, and definitely nothing customer-facing. He wishes Frank worked in the art department. That might make it suck less.
Gerard comes out for a smoke on Wednesday afternoon and finds Frank already down there. He's sitting against the wall, knees drawn up, drawing on his hand while a cigarette hangs from his lip.
"Hey," says Gerard. "Got a light?" He drops and sits cross-legged on the ground next to Frank. Frank pulls his knees in to give him room, and hands him a lighter from the pocket of his hoodie. Gerard likes that Frank never wears the regulation clothes. Gerard doesn't either.
They smoke in silence, Gerard picking at the cracked rubber around the edge of his sneakers with one hand, cigarette in the other. He's wearing black nail polish that's chipping away. Frank stubs out his butt and examines the artwork on his hand. Gerard watches out of the corner of his eye.
"What are you drawing?" Gerard asks.
Frank holds it up so Gerard can see that it's a spider, all long angular legs from wrist to knuckles and a segmented body. "A spider," he says.
"Cool," Gerard says, leaning in to look closer. "Is it, like... a metaphor or something?"
Frank shrugs. "Spiders freak me out. So I figured, face the thing you fear, right?" He twists his hand around and stares at it, as if daring the spider to become three-dimensional and jump out at him.
Gerard nods. "That's great. That's... yeah. Face the thing you fear." He nods again, quickly. "Are you gonna get it as a tattoo?" He can see ink under Frank's cuffs, just peeping out when he moves, but he's never had a chance to check any of it out properly. He wonders what Management thinks of that.
"I don't know," Frank says. "Maybe."
Thursday morning, Aiden and Vivian are in the alley when Gerard comes down. Vivian works in product development and wears a knee-length grey skirt-suit and giggles behind her hand when Aiden makes lame jokes. Gerard tries to ignore them.
Thursday afternoon it's Josh, who tries to greet Gerard with some kind of complicated fist-bump thing, and then has nothing to say, though he looks like he wants to ask why Gerard's wearing a red tie when the corporate dress code specifies monochrome only. Gerard wishes Frank was there. He wants to tell him about the idea he had for a comic book.
Frank's not there Friday either. Gerard's having a shitty day, and all he wants to do is sit on the ground next to Frank and hide behind his sunglasses and not have to say anything.
"Seen Frank?" Gerard asks Josh. He's worried about him.
"Nah, dude," says Josh. "I think he's out sick or something."
Gerard sits down alone and smokes with his eyes closed. Makes sense, he thinks. Frank gets sick sometimes, though usually he spends a week coughing and sniffling before he takes any time off.
He sneaks out again right after lunch, because he doesn't think he can make it through another two hours of fucking packaging design without nicotine, and because he thinks maybe Frank will miraculously be there, and then he'll be able to put aside the knot of anxiety forming in his stomach.
Gerard hates his job so much, and it's just been getting worse. This morning they had a department-wide meeting where he had to sit through fucking Korse giving an hour long presentation about the new creative strategy that looked exactly like the old creative strategy. Creative, ha. Gerard actually knew Korse back when he could use that word without irony, but now Korse is 100% BLI, with his stupid grey suit and his stupid meetings and his minimalist nihilist bullshit. Times fucking change.
There's nobody in the alley when Gerard gets there, and the door almost slams behind him and locks him out. He catches it just in time and smokes leaning against the doorjamb to prop it open, not giving a fuck if his smoke trails inside the building.
If he could find another job he would, but it's not as if there are that many options. BLI's about all there is these days. At least they pay okay, keep him in art supplies, and seem to be letting him get away with the smoking and the dress code violations for now. He's heard it's getting worse outside the city, in the zones. It's better, safer, to have CorpHousing and climate control. At least that's what he keeps telling himself.
He sighs and stubs out his butt on the pavement and heads back up to his desk, skirting past the grey-carpeted cubicles with his head down hoping nobody will comment on him taking a break. They're all hard at work, though, heads down working on BLI product designs and corporate communications and the latest city-wide poster campaign for Secretary Sato's brand awareness initiative.
This afternoon Gerard's meant to be working on the packaging for some kind of educational game. He pulls up the product spec on his screen and skims through it. "Standard high-contrast design" — BLI-speak for "black and white, again". What sort of fucked up toy is packaged in black and white? It doesn't even make sense, the same indistinguishable bland crap for everything from shoes to motor parts to the fucking pills they shove down everyone's throats.
He reads on. Oh, fucking great, they want different packaging for boys and girls, each using the "Better Living Core Symbol Vocabulary" which Gerard knows means "restroom style", stupid blobby girl-shapes and boy-shapes with circular heads and creepy smiling faces. He hates this shit. It makes him want to paint the packaging rainbow colors, or draw the girl-symbol with a dick or something. He stares at the palette. Black and white. Fuck. He reaches for his coffee mug. "Better Living," he mutters as he drains half of it.
A little before 2pm, Korse swans past with his laptop under his arm. "Gerard," he says, with a fake smile that can't quite hide the sneer underneath. "Brenda tells me you're working on the toy packaging project."
Gerard grunts. Brenda's his manager, and Korse is her manager, and there's no reason Korse should even care what Gerard's working on except that he just likes to stop by every so often to remind Gerard that Korse is the Director of Global Brand Conformance and Gerard's just a peon. "I'd love to see how it's going," Korse says, then looks quickly at his phone and says, "I've got a meeting with the Secretary of Culture," he says. "I'll be back around four. Can we review your designs then?"
"Sure," says Gerard, despite the fact that he's still staring at a blank screen. "Have fun."
The minute Korse is gone Gerard opens a new canvas and starts to plot out a vector graphic of Frank's spider. He thinks he's got the body right, but the legs are harder. Something about the angles. He tweaks them, moving the joints around this way and that, but it just looks dead. The one on Frank's hand was better — alive somehow against his skin. That makes no fucking sense, but it's true anyway. He wishes Frank was here now, so he could check out his hand again. Or at least they could go for a smoke.
"Fuck it," he says to the screen, and pushes away from his desk. It's not break time, but Brenda won't notice. He rattles down the emergency stairs to the back alley, thinking that the first drag on a cigarette when he gets there will be the highlight of his shitty afternoon.
The alleyway is empty and he sucks the smoke into his lungs and holds it 'til his head spins, then breathes it out in a rush.
The door opens and he jumps, but it's only Josh. "Hey," Josh says. "Playing hooky?"
Josh lights up. "I found out what happened to Iero," he says.
"Frank?" Gerard feels his stomach drop. "What about him?"
It takes a moment for him to process it, then he says, "Shit. Shit. How come?"
"Like I know. I thought you might." Gerard shakes his head. "Hey, what was with you guys anyway, with the ties and all that?" Josh waves his hand to indicate Gerard's dress code violation, the red tie against the black shirt. Frank had started wearing one too, just a couple of weeks ago, and it had made Gerard grin like an idiot to realize he wasn't the only one making an impotent gesture of fuck you to the company.
Josh is waiting for an answer, but Gerard ignores him. "Shit," he says again.
"You alright, man?" Josh asks. "Hey, you need a pill?" He pulls a black-and-white CorpHealth pill bottle from his pocket and holds it out to him.
"No, fuck no," says Gerard, shaking his head emphatically, and Josh shrugs and takes one himself. Gerard throws his cigarette down and stamps it, then storms inside.
He doesn't have all that much stuff at his desk, so he just shoves it all into his backpack (a notebook full of doodles, a couple of action figures, a pair of earbud headphones, a weird squishy stress ball thing that Mikey gave him) then looks around to see if he's missed anything. He feels like he should make some kind of defiant gesture, but he doesn't know what. The monitor's bolted to its arm, it's not going anywhere... there's not even a fucking off switch, and crawling under the desk to unplug it just seems pathetic. "Fuck it," he says, and kicks his desk, then hops around for a bit because ow.
"Language, Gerard." Gerard spins around, and Korse is there, back from his meeting already and leaning against the corner of Gerard's cube in his stupid grey suit. "Going somewhere?" he asks, looking pointedly at Gerard's backpack.
"I'm going home," says Gerard.
"I thought we were going to meet," Korse says, infuriatingly calm. "I was looking forward to seeing that packaging design. Secretary Sato is very keen to see our efforts to improve children's brand awareness."
"The packaging design is stupid," Gerard says. "It's a game, a toy. You can't just, just —" he waves his hands, looking for the words, ignoring the looks he's getting from the designers in the opposite cube. "It's for kids, you know? Kids? God, I can't believe you even think that's an okay design for a toy."
"Our corporate brand identity won —"
"Oh, fuck your corporate brand identity," Gerard says, realizing he doesn't give a shit anymore, doesn't care that he's making a scene and people are prairie-dogging up over the cubicle walls to see what's going on. "I thought this — it was a joke, you knew it was a joke, and now you won't even fucking admit it. Jesus, Korse, don't you even care what they're using it for? I can't believe I used to —" Korse just stands with his arms folded and raises an eyebrow at him. "I can't believe you used to be an artist," Gerard says, and pushes past him.
"This is not going to look good on your performance review," comes Korse's voice from behind him.
"I quit," Gerard shouts back at him, and keeps moving, out the door.
He takes the back stairs, part habit and part not wanting to go through the reception foyer where people will stare and wonder why he's leaving so early. Just by the service elevator, before the emergency exit, there's a cart full of supplies, recycling bags and paper towels and squeegees and a toolbox, and in amongst all the crap he sees a couple of cans of spraypaint. He grabs a can on the way past — it's a choice of black or white so he chooses black — and shoves it under his jacket.
In the back alley he lets the door slam behind him (he's never going back in there again) and drops his bag against the wall. He stands back for a moment, sizing up the flat white surface, and shakes the can, making it rattle shrilly in the silence.
The spider comes out perfect, six feet high and just how it should be, legs splayed out on either side, facing downward with its forelegs bent protectively in front of it, weird creepy little mandible things on its head, and a lightning bolt of negative space across its abdomen. It's right on the wall where Frank sat, showing Gerard the spider on his hand. Gerard thinks Frank would approve.
"Face the thing you fear," he says under his breath. He doesn't know what he fears, though; it's like he's numb. He throws the paint can down, grabs his bag, and runs.
* * *
Mikey gets home around eight, via the place with the good chow mein. "Hey, Gee, I got Chinese," he calls from the hallway as he dumps his bag, and pushes open the door to Gerard's room. Gerard's cross-legged on the floor, leaning against the end of his bed, surrounded by piles of crap, his backpack beside him spewing action figures. He's got a sketchpad open on his lap, but he puts it aside and looks up when Mikey comes in.
"Whatcha drawing?" Mikey asks.
"Eugh," Mikey says. He hands Gerard one of the cardboard boxes and a pair of disposable chopsticks. "How's work?"
"I quit," Gerard says, and digs his chopsticks into his chow mein like he's stabbing it.
"Huh." Mikey figures he doesn't have to say anything; Gerard will tell him eventually, so he just eats his noodles until Gerard's ready.
"I need a soda," Gerard says, after a while. He pulls himself up off the floor and goes to get some, navigating the shit on his floor with practised ease. He comes back with two cans and hands one to Mikey, then folds down onto the floor again, can in one hand and chopsticks in the other.
"Four fucking years," Gerard says, lifting his can in a toast. Mikey lifts his and they clunk together. "Four fucking years," Gerard says again. "I guess I thought I could make a difference, do something that had some meaning, but it was all..." He sighs and stabs at his chow mein again and leaves the chopsticks standing there. "You remember when I was at school, that end of year show, before... before Korse went to work for BLI?"
Mikey nods, chewing. Like he could forget it. Gerard and Korse had been in art school together, Korse the senior student, a year ahead of Gerard in school and several more in age, with a sort of worldly cynicism that he'd fed into his art. Gerard had pretty much worshipped him, spent days painting with him and night after night staying at his studio, coming home all rumpled and looking like he hadn't slept. They'd worked on a piece together for the end of year show: a savage, satirical jab at corporate America's blandness. Gerard had thrown himself into it, pushing himself day and night, but it was Korse, as senior student, who'd got the credit for it.
"He was always a fucking douche," Gerard says. "Even before that. And he's still just the same. Motherfucker."
Mikey raises his eyebrows. It's the first time he's actually heard Gerard say so in as many words. At first it had been Korse-said-this and Korse-that, Gerard wide-eyed in admiration for his art, and then after Korse had won the student prize and taken a management-track job with Better Living Industries, Gerard had stopped talking about him altogether. Mikey would've been glad, except that Gerard had spent most of the next year withdrawn and uncommunicative, hiding in the basement working on his art, letting dirty laundry and empty vodka bottles and pill containers pile up all over the floor, only collapsing into bed to sleep when Mikey pulled him away from his work and curled up next to him.
Gerard had graduated eventually and got a job in New York, working on cartoons. And then everything had gone to shit and when the dust cleared, New York was in tatters and BLI had bought the company Gerard was working for, lock, stock, and barrel. Gerard and Mikey had transferred out west, Mikey taking a job with BLI Media so they could live in CorpHousing together. And Korse had been there, already a manager in BLI's art department. Gerard went to work every day, came home with bottles of pills from CorpHealth, and Mikey had just tried to make sure his brother mostly passed out in his bed and got out of it again in the morning, 'til Gerard finally managed to get his shit together. Mikey tries not to think too hard about any of that if he can help it.
"Yeah, well, you don't have to deal with him anymore," Mikey says, in case Gerard needs reminding.
"Yeah." He scrubs at his face. "Fuck. You know what he wanted today? Packaging for toys, fucking black and white. And separate designs for boys and girls, like restroom symbols. The girl's a triangle and the boy's a," he waves his hands around, "you know. I don't think he even realizes anymore, like, he's totally blanked out that he ever used to do anything different."
"So he's a sell-out," Mikey says.
"We're all sell-outs," Gerard replies, forlornly. "Fuck, Mikey, I can't believe I lasted so long." Mikey can't believe it either, but Gerard had this weird dogged determination.
Gerard goes quiet again, staring at the carpet. Mikey waits, and eventually Gerard says, "They fired Frank."
"Frank with the tie?"
"Yeah," says Gerard, his voice sounding rough. "I don't even know what he did. He was just, you know. A guy I knew. I just." Mikey waits, while Gerard runs his hands through his already-chaotic hair. "That dude had more integrity in his little fucking finger than Korse ever had in his whole fucking life."
Mikey rolls his eyes at that. "You didn't have to keep working with him," he points out.
"I know. I just... I thought it might get better, if I stuck it out. Or that maybe I'd be able to change things, make it better. I'm an idiot."
"No you're not." Mikey reaches out and puts an arm around his brother's shoulder, leaning in to him. "I can't believe you used to date that asshole."
"Shut up," Gerard groans, and pulls his knees up to his face and buries himself behind his folded arms. "Fuck, Mikey, tell me you brought something good home. Please."
The drive's buried deep in Mikey's pocket so he squirms around to dig it out, then lets go of Gerard long enough to plug it into the TV. This stuff's the only thing that makes his shitty BLI job worth doing. He's not like Gerard, he doesn't need to change the world, but at least ten hours a day pulling content violations off the tubes gets him some kind of under-the-table payment, even if it's only a thumb drive full of remix every couple of days. He loads up the first one, a mashup of a bunch of classic slasher flicks set to Anthrax, and Gerard perks up beside him, muttering, "Cool."
The next one's some kind of anime compilation, and the one after that's a hilariously bad Kirk/Spock vid, all tender glances and soaring violins. Mikey's about to say something snide when he notices Gerard's got tears in his eyes, so he just waits for the next one (Taiwanese political thing, he thinks, though he can't understand a word of it) and the one after that (Canadian beer ad parody) before muting the sound and saying, "So what are you going to do?"
Gerard shrugs elaborately, a whole body shrug. "I don't know. I just wanna... get out of the city, drive out into the desert and... do art or something. Huge, stupid fucking art." He waves his arms around, as if to indicate the hugeness of his artistic ambitions.
"You don't have a car. And you melt in the heat."
Gerard drops his arms. "Fuck." He holds his hand out and makes grabby motions with his fingers. "Gimme another egg roll?"
* * *
The problem with company housing, Frank realizes as soon as he leaves BLI, is that if your ass is fired, then your ass is equally homeless at the same time.
It's a good thing he's got Bob to save his sorry, fired, homeless ass. Bob's a pretty chill sort of guy, and he's got a non-corp apartment just outside the city limits in Zone 1. It's not a bad neighborhood. It's hotter and dirtier than in the city itself, but as long as the windows are closed and the A/C's on it's fine. Bob's hardly ever there, anyway — he works as a contract sound tech, moving between jobs for different parts of BLI, and he's always travelling — so he doesn't mind Frank colonizing his living room and his remote control for a while.
He spends the first week after he's fired sitting on Bob's sofa with an afghan wrapped around him like a cape, watching cartoons. They're so fucking stupid, but Frank can't stop watching, zoned out and red-eyed, hours and hours of stupid animals in pants selling BLI crap. It's like they make them hypnotic on purpose. He can feel his brain rotting, watching endless Mousekat repeats, but it's not as if he's using it for anything, so whatever. Cartoons are cartoons, and they're just the kind of brainlessness he needs right now.
Anyway, cartoons are better than stewing over what a fuck-up he is. He hated his job, sure, but pushing spreadsheets around for the facilities group was better than being unemployed and homeless. He hopes whoever has to take over the spreadsheets fucking hates them too. He doesn't fool himself that they'll miss him for any other reason, though. The people he worked with were all assholes. He kinda misses the smokers though.
Bob's away for a few days on a job, but when he comes back on Friday night and finds Frank still on the sofa surrounded by empty chip packets and used coffee mugs with cigarette butts in them, he frowns.
"Enough cartoons," he says, and hits the off switch on the remote.
Frank blinks and stares at him. "Hey Bob," he says.
"When did you last leave the house, man?"
"Uh," says Frank.
"Get dressed," says Bob, heading for his room and calling back over his shoulder. "I'm taking you out."
"Where are we going?" asks Frank when he's showered and pulled on some jeans and gelled his hair and done his eyeliner. "Because I can't really afford much, you know." He's been trying to avoid doing the calculations, but his savings aren't going to last long, even if Bob's letting him camp out rent-free.
"The Pit," says Bob. "Don't worry, I'll buy you a beer."
"You're a prince, man." Frank grins and hugs him.
The Pit's an off-the-network dive not far from Bob's place, just near one of the border tunnels that leads under the dome and into Bat City proper, and when Bob hands him his beer and Frank takes a sip and listens to the band getting ready, he starts to feel pretty good for the first time since he got fired.
"I'll buy you one when I get another job," he tells Bob, speaking up over the band's soundcheck. "Gotta be plenty of places that want a scrawny asshole who got fired from the shittiest job at BLI, right?"
"Yeah, they'll be beating down the door. Have you applied for anything?"
Frank shrugs. "It'd have to be off the books. I don't think they're gonna give me a reference."
Fucking BLI. He'd done good work, even if it was boring as fuck, and he was reliable, at least when he wasn't off work sick. But he'd come in that last morning to find himself locked out of the system, and Carson had called him into a conference room, and told him he was being let go for Corporate Standards violations, whatever the fuck that meant. Turned out that Frank's dress code abuse was making people uncomfortable. "It's the eyeliner, Frank," Carson had said. "People are gonna think you're a pansy or something." Frank remembers when that sort of discrimination was illegal, but BLI doesn't seem to let that bother them. He grimaces to himself, and takes a swig of his beer.
The band gets going and Frank heads out into the crowd. Before long he's thrashing around and throwing himself at people and shouting along with what lyrics he can make out. Trust Bob to know what Frank needed; he can't believe he wasted a whole week watching cartoons. The band is kicking it, they've got some really solid songs and their drummer is the shit. Frank's sweating like he hasn't in ages. This is awesome.
When the set's over, he dodges through the crowd back to where Bob's sitting at the bar and jumps him from behind, clambering on his back.
"This is the best," he says, ruffling Bob's hair.
Bob reaches up a hand to flatten his hair again, but doesn't shake Frank off, so Frank just hangs on piggy-back style and reaches past him to grab his drink and take a swig from it.
"This is him?" asks the guy behind the bar, and Frank realizes Bob was talking to him before Frank jumped him.
"Yeah," says Bob. "Hey monkey-boy, Brian knows someone who's looking for a dish-washer. You interested?"
Frank clambers down as quickly as he got up, and tries to look more like someone who needs a job and less like an idiot. "Hell yeah," he says. "I mean, yes! Work is good. I like work."
* * *
Mikey sits in a cubicle all day and reviews flagged videos, an endless parade of them picked up by BLI's automated bots and loaded into a queue for him to process. It's boring, but he just zones out and does it on autopilot. Occasionally something cool comes up, and he files away a copy of it to transfer to his encrypted flash drive before he goes home. Sometimes there's a video with a red flag, so he marks it for escalation to the enforcement arm. That's about as exciting as things get at BLI Media, but Mikey doesn't mind too much.
The break room has a vending machine so he grabs himself a soda and sits down at one of the rectangular white tables and pulls out his phone to text Gerard. how u doin want nething? he types and hits send. He drinks half his soda before Gee texts back, candy, and then a second text straight after: those gummy things.
He looks up as Ray comes into the break room. "Hi Mikey," Ray says, cheerfully. Ray's a pretty cheerful guy.
"Hey," Mikey says, and skooches his chair over so Ray can grab the one next to him.
"Working hard? Or hardly working?"
Mikey rolls his eyes. "Was that ever funny?" he says.
"It was in 1953. Hey." He waggles his eyebrows and nudges Mikey with his elbow, and Mikey puts out his hand under the table. Ray slips a drive into his palm. It's possibly the least smooth handoff ever, but there aren't actually any cameras in here, so whatever. Ray's a dork, but that's fine with Mikey. It makes him about ten times more interesting than anyone else in BLI Media.
Mikey pockets the drive. "Thanks," he says.
There are three more hours left 'til he can go home, but Mikey just zones out through most of it. When the clock in the corner of his desktop ticks over to 18:00, he's out of there.
Lately he's got in the habit of taking a side-trip into Zone 1 on the way home, picking up snacks or smokes, or going out of his way to find comics or stupid little plastic toys from Mexico from one of the shops on the other side of the city border where the pristine streets give way to cracked pavements and disorganized jumbles of buildings, and the air gets hotter and starts to tickle the back of his throat. Today he goes way out of his way, hunting through half a dozen bodegas 'til he finds sour gummy skulls, and buys two bags of them and one of dinosaurs.
Gerard's asleep when he gets home, so Mikey just turns on the TV and opens a bag of candy skulls and starts eating them. Pretty soon Gerard wakes up and joins him, hair sticking out crazily. He smells kind of rank. Not that Mikey minds, but it worries him that his brother seems to have completely abandoned what little concept of personal hygiene he ever had. Mikey suspects he's subsisting on cigarettes, caffeine, and condiments.
"What'd you do today," he asks during an ad break.
Gerard shrugs. "Nothing much."
As far as Mikey can tell, Gerard spends most of his time sleeping or reading or watching TV. Mikey wouldn't worry, only Gerard's stopped drawing, and that's not good. Like, he draws, but just frustrated little doodles, jagged black spiders on the corners of the BC Times, nothing else. Mikey remembers the last time that happened, and he wishes he didn't.
"We should go out on the weekend," Mikey says.
"I dunno. Just out."
"Maybe," says Gerard, but he doesn't sound enthusiastic.
They sit there, Gerard in his spaceship pajamas and Mikey still in his work clothes, and flip channels 'til it gets to that time when there's nothing but infomercials and Mikey has to go to sleep if he's going to get up for work again in the morning.
It's the same every day, for weeks.
"Uh, Gee," Mikey says when he comes home from work one night and finds Gerard is watching From Dusk Till Dawn. Judging by his bloodshot eyes and the pile of Tarantino films strewn over the coffee table, he's already gone through all Mikey's favorites.
Gerard doesn't even look away from the cheesefest onscreen. Mikey sighs and flops down on the couch too. Fuck. They watch Salma Hayek do her snake dance, and Mikey wishes he hadn't missed the beginning of the movie, when they were on the road in that fucking cool car. "We should go on a road trip or something, Gee. Out in the desert, like you said, remember?"
"We don't have a car. Plus, there are vampires out there, Mikey. I don't know if I could keep you safe."
Mikey starts to laugh, then stops and glances over at his brother, because Gerard actually sounded kind of serious about that. He doesn't know what the fuck to do. "Gee, after BLI, no fucking vampires can touch you."
* * *
Ray diary's not exactly overflowing with social engagements, so when Mikey Way asks him to come over and watch videos at his house, he says yes straight away. Mikey's weird but cool, and he's got good taste in music, and Ray likes trying to make him laugh. Actually, Mikey's pretty much Ray's only friend at work, and Ray's pretty stoked that Mikey wants to be friends with him outside of work too. BLI is a secure job, but it's fucking lonely.
That's how Ray finds himself hanging out in Mikey's living room, eating pizza with his feet up on the table and watching fansubbed anime and uploading several gigs' worth of telenovelas he'd stumbled upon to their shared server, when Mikey's brother stumbles in.
Mikey had said he lived with his brother, but Ray's never seen him before. He's wearing ratty pajamas and a black hoodie, and he stops in the doorway and looks out from behind the mess of hair hanging in front of his face, his eyes going kind of wide at the pizza boxes and extra person in the room. "Uh, hi?" he says.
"Hey Gee, this is Ray," Mikey says, gesturing with the pizza. Ray worries he'll fling pizza sauce on the couch, but neither of the Way brothers seem particularly concerned.
"Hi," says Gerard.
"Ray works with me," Mikey says, "I mean, in the media group. He does music."
"Nice to meet you," Ray says, and sticks out his hand. Gerard shuffles over to shake it.
"Are you the metal guy?" Gerard asks, "With the Iron Maiden bootlegs?"
Ray takes a moment to worry about how many people Mikey's been telling about their illegal file-sharing. Gerard looks like he's smiling behind his hair, though, and Mikey looks completely unconcerned, so Ray decides to let it go.
"Yeah," he says. "Mikey hooked me up with some server space." He sees Gerard look him over, taking in his Metallica t-shirt.
"Metallica," Gerard says, rubbing blearily at his eyes, "would fucking kill you. I'm gonna get coffee. Coffeeeeee." He stumbles zombie-like towards the kitchen and comes back in a few minutes balancing three mugs precariously between his hands. Ray takes one, even though he doesn't usually drink caffeine this late. Seems like there's no beer in the house, though, so Ray just resigns himself to not sleeping.
By the time Gerard's sucked down a cup and a half of coffee and put away a piece of pizza as well, folded over Jersey-style, he's looking like he can actually string whole sentences together and hold a conversation. "So," he asks Ray, turning to look at him intently, "How do you feel about horror movies?"
Maybe it's the coffee or maybe it's some kind of weird Way brothers mental powers, but after about five hours of Evil Dead movies Ray's feeling more comfortable than he has in ages, giggling like an idiot at Gerard and Mikey's commentary. Gerard's pretty entertaining, and Ray likes the way they all crowd onto the sofa, Mikey's bony elbows sticking into Ray's ribs whenever he shifts around, and Gerard waving his cigarette in Ray's face. Ray likes it here, he thinks. It's much better than his own bare apartment. These guys are weird, but even though he doesn't really know them that well, he wants to. It's been a long time since things felt this loose in his chest.
That's probably why Ray ends up agreeing to a road-trip. He's not sure how the idea came up, but he thinks maybe Mikey suggested it first, then Ray mentioned he had a car, then Gerard started talking about From Dusk Till Dawn, and they took a detour through El Mariachi before coming back to the plan — and how it became a plan he doesn't know — to get out of the city, past the climate control border and the suburban sprawl of the inner zones, and spend a couple of days away from everything, out on the highway.
"How about tomorrow?" Ray suggests. It's a Friday, but fuck it. He's already pulling his phone out to call in sick, and when he's done Mikey calls in too. They watch more movies and argue about comic books until 4 a.m. They catch a couple of hours of sleep, Ray crashing on the couch until sunrise wakes him up and he stumbles home for his car, bleary and happier than he can remember being for years.
He takes a quick shower and packs some food, then heads down to the garage, keys in hand. The Trans Am is right where he left her, looking a little dusty but she purrs to life the first time he tries the ignition. He fills up at the gas station and buy three giant cups of coffee and some donuts.
Gerard croons appreciatively and he and Mikey pile their shit into the backseat. Ray's privately glad he thought to pack some water, because Gerard's idea of necessary provisions for a night camping in the desert seems to consist mostly of junk food and sketchpads. Mikey's got sleeping bags, at least. Ray presses caffeine and sugar on them and they leave, speeding past a BLI shuttle and heading toward the Route 5 Tunnel.
"So where'd you get the car, anyhow? I mean, it's a fucking classic." Gerard says after he's inhaled the mug Ray had given him and part of Mikey's as well.
Ray's staring straight ahead, and his hands are completely still on the wheel, not even tapping along to the Bowie they've got on the radio. It's a fair question, really — why should a practical guy like Ray keep a gas-guzzler around for no apparent reason? — but he's not in the habit of talking about his old life. Still, something about this guy's straightforward curiosity makes him want to tell him.
"Yeah," he says, finally. "It was kind of a thing. My brother and dad used to work on it together when I was really little, and then after... well. My brother showed me all kinds of mechanical shit, after. We did all kinds of restoration on it and converted it to biofuel. I don't need it now that I'm at BLI, but... I would hate to give it up."
Mikey's set aside his phone to listen to Ray's story, leaning up into the console from the backseat, looking solemn. He says, "You shouldn't. Family is fucking important," he says, looking at Gerard. "I mean, without Gee I would never have understood the true genius of ABBA." Ray barks out a surprised little laugh, and Gerard grabs Mikey and pulls him over the console to noogie him to death until they hit the tunnel.
It's at least twenty degrees warmer on the other side of the dome and much brighter in the direct sun. Ray says apologetically, "We never got around to fitting it with A/C, either. Didn't seem that important back in Jersey. The window crank works on that side, at least."
Mikey grins back, already reaching for the knob and opening the window. He sticks his head out the window, letting his dark hair whip in the breeze for a few seconds. Ray grins hugely, watching Mikey's open smile from his driver's side mirror. Ray forgot how fucking great real sun can be, even when it's so bright you can't quite see.
Gerard puts on a pair of aviators and Ray turns up the stereo as they pass through the first few zones. Gerard's got opinions on everything, so they talk about cars and cartoons and music, Mikey contributing from the back seat, right out through the borderzones. As they reach the edge of the desert, Gerard's making expansive gestures with his cigarette and ranting about BLI and everything he thinks is wrong with it.
"All those people in the city, everyone who's working ten hours a day for the company, everything's black and white to them. Fuck, I think it makes your corneas atrophy or your retinas or whatever, 'til you can't even see any more."
Gerard stares out the window, and Ray realizes he's staring at the blue of the sky and the yellow-brown of the dusty earth. "We should make them all come out here. Or just, like, go into their offices and fucking bomb them with art and color and life," he says, punctuating each word with a staccato jerk of his hand. "Just bomb the fuck out of them with, like, balloons full of red and yellow and fucking purple paint. Make them feel something." Ray nods but it's not like Gerard is even paying attention because he's twisting around his seat to look at Mikey. "Hey, Mikey," he says, "We should artbomb your office."
Mikey looks up from his phone but doesn't say anything. He looks pleased, though.
"You know what I did when I quit BLI?" Gerard's saying to Ray again. "I painted a spider on their wall. There was this guy, Frank, right? He was a good guy, we used to smoke together, and he drew this spider on his hand one time, this crazy big spider — here, let me show you."
With another twist he reaches for his bag and fumbles for a notebook, opens it to a blank page and quickly draws a spider on it then holds it up for Ray to see. Ray looks over quickly, not taking his eyes off the road for too long. "It was like, Frank was arachnophobic, right? And he drew this fucking spider on his hand, and he said face the thing you fear. It was right there on his hand. So, you know, when I left I painted this huge spider on their wall, which in retrospect probably didn't mean much to them but I feel like there's a message there, you know? And you guys have your server and your remix and cracked DRM and all that. It's all the same thing, it's all... art for the masses, by the masses, or whatever the fuck you want to call it. It's real."
That night, sitting out around a campfire that's probably going to kill them with toxic fumes, Ray finds himself telling Gerard and Mikey more about his life before he moved to Battery City. He'd been a session guitarist, worked in a music shop, a mechanic, done a bunch of different things, 'til one day he was on the payroll of an independent label at the moment it got sucked up into the gaping maw of Better Living Industries. Everyone at the label had all sworn they were going to keep doing what they were doing, not let themselves get corporate, but it wasn't long before they'd all packed their shit and headed west to live in company apartments and work in cubefarms with grey carpet on the walls and manufacture pop for the masses.
"You know they have huge storage farms full of the good shit," he tells Gerard, "all just sitting there, and they never play it on the radio or on the tubes. So I just figured, it was wrong, you know? And Mikey here hooked me up with Pete Wentz who works in the data center and runs the pirate server, so it's all there now, and we're pushing it out over the peer to peer networks so I guess even when we get busted it'll still be there."
Gerard nods. "Making a difference," he says. Ray feels kinda glowy when Gerard says that, and he doesn't think it's the fire. The guy is just bizarrely sincere. No wonder Mikey will do anything for him, and, Ray admits, between being kind of into Mikey in the first place and Gerard's freakish persuasiveness, he's starting to feel it too.
"I wanted to be in a band," Ray says, poking at the fire. Mikey looks at him, and he realizes he's never told Mikey that. He tries to remember who he has told and can't think of anyone. Huh. "I was going to be the next Randy Rhoads. But, you know."
"Better Living," Mikey says, deadpan.
"Yeah," says Ray, quirking a half-smile back at him.
At dawn, Ray wakes up to find Mikey snoring with his mouth open and Gerard awake, standing staring at the horizon. Gerard turns his head in greeting, but doesn't say anything. It's eerily quiet, and cold. Ray watches the stars disappear and realizes that it'd been years since he'd seen the real night sky, not partly obscured by a climate dome. They both put their hands in their pockets and watch the thin grey light turn into full day.
"Are you really gonna paint bomb BLI?" Ray asks, when it's light.
"Yeah. I dunno. Maybe?"
"Do you need someone to drive?"
* * *
The road's empty in both directions, blacktop and cracked yellow paint reflecting in the moonlight. There's a faint glow seeping out through the blinds from the battery-powered light on the diner counter. It's probably messing with their night vision, but Ray doesn't think it's bad enough to go inside and turn it out. Besides, Max had enough trouble getting to sleep in the first place, and Ray doesn't want her to wake up in the dark without a night light and freak out. If there's a drac patrol coming, they'll spot it on the scanner or hear the bikes in the empty desert before they can see them.
Mikey's a warm presence at Ray's side. Ray leans against him, bumping shoulders, and murmurs, "Time yet?"
"Yeah," says Mikey, and stands up, stretching. They both check their rayguns in their holsters, and start their circuit. Down the highway a couple hundred yards, cut across on the dust-choked service road, back past empty buildings, watching for lights or movement or any kind of noise. Ray's pulled the scanner out of the Trans Am and he's holding it in front of him, watching the screen intently. It stutters static every few minutes, but there's nothing close enough to worry about. Mikey waves his flashlight around, and Ray catches himself thinking they should try and find some night vision goggles at a shitswap. Too late now.
They cover a stretch of highway on the other side, peering off the shoulder into the scrub and the weird shapes of the Joshua trees, then head back to the diner and sit their asses down on the cold cement out front. It's midnight. Two more hours 'til they can trade off and head inside.
* * *
Mikey hears the growl of the Trans Am pulling up outside their building. "Get up, let's go," he mutters at his brother, digging for his keys in the couch cushions just as his phone chirps Ray's ringtone.
It's been four days since they got back from the desert and Gerard's been freaking out a bit, alternating between sitting staring at his feet and biting his nails for hours and rampaging round the apartment, stirring through all his piles of shit on the floor, picking things up and dropping them again. Mikey's not sure what that means, and he has considered staying home to keep Gerard company just in case, but in the end the worst and weirdest thing that happens while Mikey's at work is that Gerard actually does laundry, which is disconcerting but not dangerous. Probably.
The day after the laundry incident, Mikey had come home to find Gerard drawing, sketchbook and pens spread out on the kitchen table. There were bright marks all over his fingers and face, when he'd forgotten to cap the pens before sticking them in his mouth or rubbing at his face, the dork. He'd looked up at Mikey, smiling his crooked smile, and Mikey'd grinned back just a little and got out his phone to dial Ray and Pete.
Gerard sucks at waiting. This morning when Mikey gets up he finds that Gerard's either up before him or, more likely, didn't go to bed at all. He's sitting on the kitchen floor with an empty coffee mug beside him, doodling on his arm in purple Sharpie. Gerard sticks the marker in his pocket after a final flourish and reaches up so Mikey can give him a hand. Mikey keeps hold of Gerard's hand once he's upright and studies the drawing on Gerard's arm, grinning at the sandworms from Tremors eating cupcakes and grenades. "Cool," he says, because it kind of really is. Gerard seems to have a little more bounce in his step today as they leave the apartment and pile into Ray's car.
Mikey always gets a funny feeling leaving the city proper, out of BLI's space and into the zones, where things aren't quite so clean and consistently monochrome. They go through some residential neighborhoods, all mismatched houses painted different colors, and Mikey finds himself staring at them. It's been a long time since he's seen holiday decorations up, and he can't help but stare at the faded plastic reindeer and colored lanterns one family's got on their porch. They're stupid and ugly and they makes him want to buy some fucking Christmas lights for his living room window, the huge garish blinking kind, even though he knows his apartment manager would make him take them down within an hour.
They pull in to a garage beside a boarded up skate shop and jump out, slamming the garage door shut behind them. Mikey waits while Gerard gets out of the car, and sticks close behind him as they follow Ray into the shop. It's pretty dark but there's a tangle of wires hanging out of the meter box by the door, and it only takes a moment to get the fluorescent tubes buzzing overhead.
Pete arrives on a skateboard, comes in through the front door with his own key and lets it slam behind him, and greets Mikey by launching himself at him and clinging to him like a huge yet adorable koala.
"Hey Mikeyway!" he says, one leg wrapped around Mikey's hips and his tongue in Mikey's ear. "I missed you! Hey Ray, I missed you too, only," he adds with a leer, "not in quite the same way." Ray rolls his eyes, but Pete just laughs at him.
When Pete stops humping his leg for a minute, Mikey drapes an arm over his shoulder and says, "Pete, this is my brother, Gerard."
Gerard says, "Hi," and lifts his hand in an awkward little wave.
"All hail our glorious leader! Cool art, man," he says, grabbing Gerard's wrist and holding his tattooed arm up against it for comparison. "You think you can draw one of those to fit in my sleeve? Maybe later, though. Shit, Mikeyway, I've been stockpiling stuff for you. What's the plan?" He dives behind the counter and comes out with boxes full of paint cans. "Please tell me we're hitting BLI Media."
That's all it takes to get Gerard animated, and Mikey's relieved to see him dive into the boxes, appraising what's there, and starting to run through his ideas. It might not seem like a lot, but Gerard's actually dressed in real clothes and out of the house and he's holding up a paint can in each hand and saying something about murals, and Pete's grinning like a maniac, and Mikey thinks maybe Gee's past freaking out for now, he's fucking glowing with purpose, and it's going to be okay.
"So I was thinking like a literal art bomb," Gerard says. "Like, paint bombs made out of water balloons. And we could run in and bomb the fuck out of BLI Media HQ, huge splashes of color all over the walls and the street and the people coming to work, total abstract expressionism. Do it on a Monday morning, start of business —"
He's cut off by a rattle at the door. Everyone freezes for a moment, then Gerard shoves the paint cans back in the box and Pete and Ray both move toward the door.
"Who is it?" Pete calls out.
"Open up, dude," comes a voice from outside, weirdly muffled.
"Shit, Gabe." Pete flings the door open, and there's a guy there, about eight feet tall and wearing a what-the-fuck mask, a giant foam animal head, a dog or something, that makes him even taller. Mikey just stares. "Get the fuck inside," says Pete. "Jesus, I told you this was on the DL. Why are you wearing a fucking Barko mask?"
"Didn't want anyone to recognize me," he says, pulling it off his head, then looks around at everyone staring at him. "Hey. I'm Gabe. Pete said you were going to fuck shit up."
"Gabe, Gerard, Mikey, Ray," says Pete, waving at each of them by way of introduction.
Hi," says Gerard, then steps forward and reaches out to touch Gabe's mask, looking like it's sparking ideas in his head. "Can you get me one of those?"
"Shit yeah," says Gabe, "Compliments of the Park Formerly Known As Disneyland. They're not using them for anything." They grin at each other and then get down to business.
Mikey's job is the remix: he and Pete are going to put together some audio while Ray and Gabe get some wireless speakers to drop all around the BLI Media building. Gerard assigns himself paintbomb duty. Gabe's got a car, and he offers to let Gerard raid the warehouse at his work for anything they need. "They just packed the whole park in mothballs," he says. "It fucking stinks, but they've got everything back there, costumes and animatronics and bits of the old rides and stuff. It's a crime, man." Gerard nods in agreement; Disney had kind of sucked, but at least they'd had some flair back in the day. BLI had ruined every bit of it that was worth anything, and then shut down the amusement park: too far outside the city core, too much of a reminder of the past.
It's dark outside the skate shop by the time they're done planning, so Pete goes out for tacos and brings enough back to feed everyone. They're sitting around on the floor with sketches and plans and notes spread out between them. Gerard has his sketchbook balanced awkwardly on his knee, ignoring the taco juice dripping down his left wrist as he frowns at the spider he's just drawn.
"We need Frank," he says. Mikey nods slowly, and leans towards Gerard, bumping shoulders.
"Who's Frank?" asks Gabe.
"He's one of us," Gerard says. "This is his." He gestures at his sketchpad, and gets taco grease on it. "Shit." A quick wipe with the cuff of his hoodie, then he stands up and starts pacing. "Frank would totally do this. He's, like, the inspiration."
Mikey kind of tunes out while Gerard tells the spider story again, 'til Gerard reaches the part where he paints the spider in the alleyway, then he says, "Here, shit, let me show you." He pushes some boxes away from the wall, stares for a moment at the mess of tags all over it, then grabs a bunch of spray cans and shoves them into everyone's hands.
Ray looks perplexed, and Pete looks at Mikey like Mikey's meant to understand what Gerard's thinking, and Gabe just laughs. Then Gerard's telling them what to do, waving his hands in huge arcs to show what he wants, and pretty soon they're all doing what he tells them, painting bright stripes of color, super-saturated like a television test pattern, all over the wall from floor to ceiling. Mikey's got the blue stripe, and he ends up with blue paint all over his hands, dripping down to his elbows. Ray, next to him, is painting yellow, and keeps swearing at his paint can until Mikey helpfully reaches over and wipes blue all over Ray's sleeve so Ray can have something else to swear about.
It takes a while to get the stripes all even, then they all watch while Gerard steps up with the black can and paints the spider design that he's been drawing all over the place for weeks. He does it freehand, and it's compelling just to watch him, arm sweeping out along the spider's legs, moving in close to mark out the lightning bolt detail on the spider's abdomen. When he's done he pauses for a moment, shaking the can. Then on the left side of the spider he scrawls, in his awkward paint-can writing, ART IS THE WEAPON, and on the other side, FACE WHAT YOU FEAR.
He turns around, and his eyes are wild and he pushes his hair out of his face and grins at them. "Yeah?" he says.
"Yeah!" Pete says, then Ray throws his head back and laughs, and suddenly they're all hugging and back-slapping, and Mikey feels elation bubbling out of him and laughs out loud.
Ten days. They've got ten days to get it together, and then BLI Media is gonna see some fucking art.
* * *
The first thing Gerard does is print up a bunch of spider stickers and put them everywhere. He carries them in his pockets and slaps them on street signs, on walls, on the back of toilet stall doors and above the urinals, under the tables at the coffee place, and on the dashboard of Gabe's car. He sticks one to the back of his hoodie, but it keeps peeling off, so he gets some paint and spreads his hoodie out and paints it on instead, red on the black. It takes three applications before it stops soaking into the fabric and stands out sharply. Some of the paint bleeds through to the front of the hoodie and it kind of looks like he's bleeding. He decides he likes it.
Gabe's the most irresponsible person ever. Supposedly he has a real BLI job — though Gerard has trouble believing it, seeing the way he dresses, all clashing neon colors like an 80s music video vomited on him — at the Park Formerly Known As Disneyland, aka BLI Park #2, aka Better Playing, but when Gerard asks him about it he just says, "Can't cage the cobra, dude," and makes some weird hand signal. Whatever, Gabe's strange. He's seriously useful to have around though, because he's got his own car and he's always up for driving Gerard around and picking up supplies and shit.
One afternoon they head out to Zone 4, through all the sprawling run-down suburbs with boarded up shop windows and pot-holed streets, to the Park itself, to raid one of the warehouses. The whole place is surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire. Gerard squints up at the security cameras dotted along the perimeter, trying to figure out if they're active. They drive across the empty, trash-littered parking lot and down a back road towards a service entrance. Gabe keys them in with his BLI ID; Gerard looks around nervously but Gabe just laughs. "There's nobody here," he says. "Whole place is dead. There's like three guys all sitting on the other side of the Park in an office watching TV right now, getting paid for it, and they don't give a fuck."
"What about the cameras?" Gerard asks.
"Took ‘em out months ago. Nobody gives a fuck, seriously. Here we are," he says, stopping by a big, nondescript building and swiping his card through the reader by the door.
"Huh," says Gerard, following him in and looking around. The bare fluorescent strips overhead flicker on at their movement, and Gerard sees rows and rows of shelves covered in BLI crap, merchandise and props and fuck knows what. Gabe heads straight for the back of the warehouse, where there's a bunch of bigger stuff just piled around haphazardly on the floor. Gerard follows him, pulling a few spider stickers from his pocket to slap on the shelves as he goes.
Gabe rummages in a huge pile of what must be costumes, strange dead-looking things of fake fur and foam, 'til he pulls out a mask, screeching in laughter as he holds it up. "It's you baby," he says.
"Mousekat? Seriously?" Gerard squints at it, then takes it from him and lowers it over his head.
"It's very you." Gabe puts his hands on either side of its huge cheeks and plants a kiss on it. Gerard pulls a face inside the mask, but Gabe can't see.
"Fuck off," Gerard says, frowning. "I don't suppose there's any Mickey stuff left?"
Gabe shakes his head. "Nah, they got rid of all that shit years ago, burned it or something. What, don't you love Mousekat and Barko? Everyone loves Mousekat!" He smiles widely, and starts to sing, "Em oh! You ess! Ee kay ay! Tee!"
"Okay, okay, shut up already," says Gerard over Gabe's singing. "I'm Mousekat. I'm a fucking blue mouse crossed with a cat. Talk about inner conflict." He pulls the mask off again. It has ridiculous tufted blue hair and ears and staring circular eyes. "I guess it's kind of cool, actually... we'll be using their own creation against them, you know? Like, when we hit them, they won't know what to think."
"Yeah, plus, they left it lying around, so fuck ‘em," Gabe says.
They throw it in the back of Gabe's car and head back into Zone 1, looking for a dollar store that's got water balloons, while Gerard enthuses about old Disney cartoons, and promises Gabe that Mikey can hook him up with some if he needs them.
Back at the skate shop, Mikey and Pete are huddled over a laptop, flash drives sticking out of every port, sharing a pair of headphones between them. Gabe throws down the plastic packets of balloons on the table and goes to get the paint. Ray looks up and comes over to Gerard. "Hey, um," he says, "I've got something to show you."
Mikey looks up with an inscrutable expression as Ray opens the door to the garage, and then he and Pete follow them through to where Ray's car's parked.
"Um, shut your eyes," Ray says, and Gerard obediently closes them. Whatever it is had better not be anything disgusting, he thinks. Ray leads him around the car so they're standing in front of it. "You can open them now."
Gerard opens his eyes. "Wow, shit," he says. "Wow."
It's Frank's spider, painted across the hood of Ray's car. Gerard's speechless. He just stands and stares and then covers his mouth with both hands and then turns to Ray and hugs the fuck out of him. "I fucking love you," he says, and means it.
The only other thing left to figure out is the speakers, and Ray and Pete are on it. They've scavenged wireless transmitters and battery packs, and they spend Saturday night wiring them up while Gerard watches. It drives him kind of crazy to just sit there, though, so he ends up pacing around, letting all the ideas about the project come tumbling out of his mouth. He knows he's kind of babbling, but he can't stop himself, he's just so psyched.
"It's like we're a, a culture disruptor, disrupting the status quo, fucking up whatever people think is normal or whatever BLI tells them to think is normal," he says. "Just doing crazy shit to make them realize there's something else out there. It's like Better Living is broadcasting this signal and we're jamming it."
"Literally?" says Ray, looking up from his soldering iron when Gerard stops to take a breath.
"I — can we do that?"
"Yeah, I mean, there's this thing called a killjoy circuit, that's a sort of EMP thing, it'd knock out their transmitters, but it'd take a lot of —"
"Nah," says Gerard, "Later! I mean, one step at a time. Shit, this is going to be awesome. A killjoy circuit." His hand twitches and he grabs a pen and sits down again, scrawling notes in the margins, getting the ideas down before he loses them, so he can focus on this job right now. Balloons. Paint. Art as a weapon against the monotone monotony of BLI life. Yeah.
Monday morning comes too fast and they're all jittering on caffeine as they roll up in two cars to their starting point, a block away from BLI Media. It's 4am. Ray and Pete and Mikey slip away quietly. They know their way around the building and they know the tech. Gerard sits in the passenger seat of Ray's car and smokes cigarette after cigarette. At around 5:30 the guys come back, making stealthy little whoops under their voices and high-fiving each other. The speakers are in place.
Gerard crawls into the back seat with Mikey and now the waiting begins for real. Gerard can hardly stand it. He wants a pill to calm his nerves so bad his skin itches. He grabs Mikey's hand instead and holds on to it with both of his, and he's probably going to break some bones in there or something, but Mikey just covers Gerard's hands with his other one, and they sit there and sit there for hours, fucking seriously, while Ray sits in the front humming softly and tapping his fingers on his thigh and the dirty daylight comes up and the street lights go out.
Then it's almost time and Gerard gets out and starts pacing, starts bouncing around, swinging his arms, stretching out some of the tension. "Is it time yet?" he asks, half a dozen times.
"Shuttle comes at 7:45," Mikey says again. They've been through it, but Gerard can't help himself.
"But Mikey, why aren't we theeeeerrre yet?" Gerard whines. Mikey rolls his eyes.
"T minus five," Ray says at last.
"This is it," Gerard says. He jogs over to Gabe's car and Gabe's just getting out and putting on his Barko mask. Pete's behind the wheel. "We good?" Gerard asks.
"Fuckin A." says Gabe, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
"In and out, move fast," Gerard reminds him. "Keep the motor running," he tells Pete. "Five minutes is all we've got."
"I know, I know," says Pete.
And then Gerard's pulling on the Mousekat mask and Mikey's handing him the bucket of paint balloons and he can hear his own breathing amplified and echoing like Darth Vader. He takes a few deep breaths just because it sounds cool, and it calms him down, even though the lingering mothball fumes make him a little light-headed. Yeah, they're doing this. They're fucking doing it.
They see the white and black shuttle bus full of BLI employees at the end of the block and it's go go go. Gabe's right beside him, and they give each other a high five, and then Gerard whoops and shouts, "Killjoys are go!" and they're off, running, rounding the corner to the front of the BLI building. And just as they're approaching the entrance, the speakers crackle to life, and then da-dada-DAH-da, it's Flight of the Fucking Valkyries, booming from everywhere and nowhere, and all the BLI drones are staring and looking around them like they don't know what's hit them. Gabe's at his side shouting and whooping and they're reaching into their buckets for paintbombs and flinging them against the walls, against the glass entrance, against that stupid fucking white rectangle statue thing out front. The spatter hits the employees and they're shrieking and crowding toward the door and some of them are down on the ground.
Then the music cuts off with a record-scratch and a booming voice intones, "Listen up! Art is the Weapon. We are the revolution!" and some punk-ass shit screams out of the speakers, thrashing guitars and screeching noise, and Gerard's screaming in his mask, kicking and punching at the air, spinning around with his bucket, dropping orange and violet and green all over the fucking place in crazy loud splashes.
Ray starts up the car as Gabe and Gerard come racing back, covered in paint splatters and breathlessly laughing, "Shit, shit, motherfuck!" Gabe runs for his car, and Gerard dives into the Trans Am. Ray puts the pedal to the metal and they screech away with the security goons shouting and waving their arms impotently and the music still ringing out tinnily from the hidden speakers. It's an hour long mix, and if they're lucky it'll take BLI's goons almost that long to find them all and shut them down.
Gerard's laughing like an idiot and his head's all tilted sideways because his stupid mask won't let him sit upright in the car. He's laughing and flailing in the passenger seat, trying to get the mask off his head, but he figures it out eventually and throws the mask in back. Mikey's got the tracker back there too, and he's watching the green LEDs that tell him the speakers are still up. It takes for-fucking-ever for any of them to go out, which is even better than they expected.
"We did it," says Gerard, and leans out the window to shout it again at the passing office buildings, "We fucking did it. We're the fucking Killjoys!"
Ray just keeps on driving, with Pete and Gabe right behind him in the other car, and they convoy out through the climate border and the ex-burbs and the inner zones 'til they hit the desert. It wasn't like they had any kind of a plan other than "get the fuck away", but it seems like the thing to do. Mikey's texting in the back seat and Gerard's giggling and lying bonelessly in the passenger seat and Ray cranks up the tunes and they drive and drive.
They pull up in the middle of nowhere at Mikey's request, and Gabe and Pete pull up behind them. Everyone gets out and pisses, then Ray hands round bottles of water and they suck it down and then just stand there grinning stupidly.
"Aren't you guys late for work?" Pete says. Mikey and Ray look at each other.
"I think we just quit," Ray says, feeling so light and free he could just about float away. "How about you?"
Pete shakes his head. "Second shift. Someone's gotta keep your server running, asshole."
There's an awkward lull, and then Mikey, who's biting at a hangnail, looks at Gerard and says, "So, now what?"