“This is a song about hope in your life.
There is a magnificent Mark Eitzel song title, ‘It Is Important Throughout Life to Proclaim Your Joy.’ It’s also important to admit on occasion to the righteousness of your fury. The justness of your cause in the face of those who would do you wrong, and who would rob you of your youth, and who would ignore what’s good and beautiful in you. And I know this is all corny platitude stuff but I know people who got sent to places. It sucked for them. You can’t even say how bad it was.”
— John Darnielle, introducing “Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” live at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco, CA, Feb 25, 2009 (via archive.org)
March 5, 2001
Dear Cyrus —
Things suck even worse here now. Mr. Carver gives me the hairy eyeball every time I pass him in the hall at school — if only he knew. I hate it here, more than before you were taken away. Sometimes I sit in class and just dream about levelling this place to the ground. Like Morbid Angel: Come with storm and blow the flesh from this earth. Only I don’t think the Ancient Ones are coming to Denton, you know? So I think about how I could do it myself. Maybe a lot of explosions happening all at once, like in an action movie, or maybe going off at different times, in a pattern. Like the opening chords of a song. That would be awesome, starting a song with real explosions like that. Maybe I’ll record it. But the important part is that at the end, it’s just over. Everything, everyone is gone, razed flat in the righteous fire, and it’s like the whole world is over and we get to start again. I think about that a lot, I won’t lie. The fury of the explosion, and the peace of the silence afterwards. I miss band practice.
April 14, 2001
Sapphire Ranch Academy
Dear Mr. & Mrs. McAllester:
I am writing you with some distressing news about your son Jeffrey. As you may know, Cyrus Jones has been a student at our school since early this year. During a room check, we uncovered letters that your son has been writing to Cyrus since his arrival. I have enclosed copies of that correspondence with this letter, and I have sent copies to Cyrus’s parents as well.
I hope you will understand from reading through these letters that we cannot allow further correspondence between Cyrus and your son. I believe this communication has been detrimental to Cyrus’s therapeutic recovery, and I must put my student’s mental health first.
But I am also concerned about the violent ideation in your son’s letters. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to recommend your sending him here to Sapphire Ranch, given the history between Cyrus and him, but I would be happy to recommend other schools with good programs for young men with emotional difficulties, addictions, or other disruptive behaviors. Please feel free to reach out to me at any time.
Sapphire Ranch Academy
April 15, 2001
My brother said to tell you that Mom & Dad say he can’t write to you anymore, but you are still his friend. I hope you are liking Utah.
June 30, 2001
Sapphire Ranch Academy
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Jones:
I am delighted to be able to send you this first quarterly report on your son Cyrus’s progress.
He completed our Orientation program within the expected time period, and with no demerits after the first two weeks. He is showing excellent results in his classwork. Our educational philosophy allows students to self-pace their learning so they can achieve the required 80% or above grades on all tests and exams, but Cyrus is moving ahead quickly, and his teachers have had no complaints. Other than some difficulty detaching from malignant external influences, Cyrus has been doing well with the social aspects of our programs as well. I expect he will be promoted to Level 2 before September.
Please review the enclosed reports carefully, and enjoy the knowledge that your son is thriving here.
Sapphire Ranch Academy
July 9, 2001
Notes by Dr. Geneva Barron, Internist, Denton Medical Center
Patient name: Jeffrey McAllester Age: 17
Arrived in ER yesterday PM having taken 100 aspirin washed down with vodka at home. Discovered in his room by his younger sister, brought in by ambulance. ER administered gastric decontamination via activated charcoal; currently admitted DMC awaiting transfer to Maryhill Center for inpatient psychiatric treatment. Withdrawn and minimally responsive to direct questions. Vitals within expected range for salicylism.
September 15, 2001
3509 Hidden Hill Road
Dear Mr Martins:
We are writing to formally request that you allow our son Cyrus to drop out of Sapphire Ranch Academy. Cyrus has asked us for our permission to sign up for the Army even though he is only 17, and we have said yes. In this time of great national crisis, we are so proud that he wants to do his part.
We do not believe that Cyrus would be a good enough young man to volunteer this way were it not for the education he has received in his few months at Sapphire Ranch, and we will be grateful to you for the rest of our lives for the second chance you have given him.
Very truly yours,
Gerald & Felicia Jones
Jeff checks his email when he wakes up and sees a note from his mom titled, “thought you’d want to see this.” When he opens it, she’s copied in a story from the Record-Chronicle: Local couple killed in backroads hit-and-run. He wonders if it was some of his high-school friends, not used to drinking with little kids at home now, out for the evening and a little too reckless. Then he sees the names.
Gerald Jones, 65, and his wife Felicia, 62, had been residents of Denton for over forty years. Mr. Jones worked for the city records office until his recent retirement, and his wife stayed at home. They had one child, Cyrus, a US Army sergeant currently stationed in Kuwait.
It’s been fifteen years since Jeff has seen Cyrus, almost as long since he’s heard anything about him except second-hand. He writes back to his mother immediately: “Let me know when the funeral’s scheduled and I’ll be there.”
Jeff had to trade shifts with another nurse, and get an extension for a paper from his Child Development class. He’s not sure the professor believed his excuse, but he’s been doing well all semester, which probably helped his cause. He felt compelled to attend the funeral but now, back in the flat hardness of north Texas, he wonders why. He hasn’t even written Cyrus a sympathy note yet.
The church is full for the service, and Cyrus is sitting up front surrounded by aunts and cousins and his parents’ friends. He’s got a buzz cut, and he’s wearing a uniform with lots of medals on the chest. He holds himself tall in a way he never did in high school, and he doesn’t look around the church at all. Jeff skips the reception at the VFW hall.
Later, though, after a beer and some journaling, he curses himself for being a chickenshit, and he heads over to the Jones house. The lights are on inside, but it’s quiet. Jeff rings the doorbell. The familiar chime takes him back to age fifteen, with Mrs Jones pursing her lips at the sight of his long straggly hair. He remembers the way she looked in the coffin this morning, and for the first time her death feels real to him.
Cyrus answers the door. He's still in his uniform, though the jacket is open. He looks at Jeff for a long moment.
“Hey, Cyrus,” Jeff says lamely.
He watches Cyrus taking him in: the short-trimmed beard, the skinny jeans and short-sleeved button-down, the scuff-free Converse hightops. He looks like the San Francisco hipster he kind of is. It’s been a long time since high school.
“Come in,” Cyrus says, and steps back to let him through.
When he walks into the living room, it’s like stepping back in time. Jeff’s mother loves home decor and DIY projects: there’s always something changing in their house. But nothing has changed in the Jones house in fifteen years, except for the photo of Cyrus in uniform on the wall.
“I’m sorry, man,” Jeff finally says. And then, when Cyrus doesn’t respond, he adds, “How’re you holding up?”
“Been better,” Cyrus says. “Been worse. Beer?”
They go into the daffodil-yellow kitchen. An apron still hangs on a hook by the stove. Cyrus reaches into the fridge and pulls out two Shiner Bocks. They sit at the kitchen table where they used to do homework and eat cookies together. Jeff takes a long swig of his beer.
Cyrus is so different than he was as a skinny angry kid, but then again so is Jeff. Jeff recognizes something about him anyway: the skittering energy behind his eyes and the guardedness. He sees that look in the kids in his ward all the time, and the drop-ins at his school’s social work clinic. Someone who isn’t sure it’s okay to talk yet looks like that. So Jeff waits.
He’s halfway through his beer before Cyrus says, “You’re not on Facebook.”
It wasn’t what Jeff was expecting. “Huh?”
“Everybody else from our class friended me like ten minutes after I joined. Even Otto, that asshole. But I couldn’t find you. Or Sally.”
It stops Jeff’s breath a little to think of Cyrus looking for him, even on Facebook. It’s been so long, and when Cyrus never got in touch after he left Sapphire Ranch, Jeff figured that was that. Not every friendship has to last. And after what Cyrus went through, Jeff couldn’t blame him.
“Sally’s there. Sarah Wertham, look for. She mostly posts about her son, I think.” Jeff takes another swallow of beer. “I don’t really use any of that stuff. I work with kids now, so it gets complicated.”
“With kids,” Cyrus echoes.
“Yeah,” Jeff says. “I’m a psychiatric nurse. I work on a ward for teens in San Francisco. Like the one I was on.”
“I didn’t hear about that until later, man.”
“That’s okay,” Jeff says. “You couldn’t have.”
“I guess the hospital helped. If you wanted to go back.”
“It did.” Jeff could tell him about the kids he works with, how funny they are and how naive. How he’s studying for his social-work degree now, trying to figure out how to help them before they ever end up on a psych ward in the first place. But today shouldn’t be about him. “I heard about Sapphire Ranch. When they shut it down.”
Cyrus scoffs and shifts the beer bottle in his hand. “Yeah. Only took them three deaths in one year before anybody noticed the shit that went down there.”
Jeff can only shake his head.
“If it hadn’t been for 9/11... I owe that dead piece of shit Osama a beer for getting me out of there a year ahead of schedule. Boot camp was a breeze after that place. Nobody at Fort Benning was starving you, or — you don’t need to hear all that. It was in the papers.”
“That place was shit, and the people were shit, and my parents were shit for sending me there.” The words echo off the walls of the daffodil-yellow kitchen.
Jeff tries not to look as sorry for Cyrus as he’s feeling. “Did you ever — did they know?”
“Are you kidding? They thought that place was the best thing that ever happened. To them or to me. I tried to tell them, but they didn’t want to hear. I was out of their hair and out of trouble, and that meant the director of the ranch was a goddamned miracle worker.” Cyrus bangs his beer on the kitchen table, a little too hard. “He was a fucking asshole, is what he was.”
“Sounds like it, yeah.”
It’s the wrong thing to say, somehow, because the shutters go down behind Cyrus’s eyes. “The estate sale people are coming tomorrow,” he says, sitting up a bit in his chair. “If there’s something you want, take it, because everything else is gone.”
“Are you keeping anything?” Jeff thinks about Cyrus’s old baseball gloves, his comic books, his ten-speed mountain bike, and somewhere probably still, his guitar, if not the drumkit that caused all the problems.
Cyrus looks him in the eyes, calm and steady. “No.”
Jeff spends the night at his parents’ house reading through r/TroubledTeens and Survivors of Institutional Abuse. At midnight Central time, he finds Steve, one of his classmates, on gchat. They talk for half an hour, going over what they’ve learned in class and throwing around ideas.
Jeff: I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like any of it would be useful. Does it?
Steve: Fuck if I know. What would you have done in high school?
So the next day, after his parents have left for their jobs and he’s left alone with the house creaking softly on its foundations, he calls Cyrus. It turns out he still knows the number by heart.
“You should come over,” he tells Cyrus before Cyrus is even finished saying hello.
“The furniture people are here,” Cyrus says.
“Well, after that.”
“There’s a real-estate agent...”
“After every goddamned professional leaves, Cyrus. My folks are out, they’ve got Netflix and HBO, and I can pick up some nachos. What do you say?”
Cyrus breathes into the phone. In the background, Jeff can hear men’s voices. “Yeah, okay. Give me your cell and I’ll text you.”
Jeff figures it’s about fifty-fifty that Cyrus will get back to him at all, but just when he’s looking through the fridge trying to figure out some lunch, his phone buzzes at him. 2pm ok?
2pm is ninety minutes away, which gives Jeff enough time to grab a shower, get the nachos, and set up his plan, which takes longer than he’d figured. There’s dust everywhere in the attic, and he sneezes so hard he sees stars.
When Cyrus arrives, he’s wearing a plain white t-shirt tucked neatly into his dark blue jeans. He’s got a six-pack of Shiner under his arm. “Can’t get it at the PX,” he says, a little sheepish.
“Won’t see me complaining,” Jeff says. “Come in, man.”
They scarf down the nachos while they watch Daredevil on Netflix. The fight scenes are just as amazing the second time through. Cyrus points out a few mistakes with the guns. Jeff tries not to think too hard about that knowledge, and everything Cyrus must have seen.
They finish their third beers and their second episode. It’s probably time. Jeff wipes his hands on his jeans and stands up. “Come on, I want to show you something.”
Cyrus looks up at him, unconvinced.
“We can watch the next one later. Please.”
Cyrus stands up. “I need to pee anyway.”
“Okay. Come up to my room when you’re done.”
The delay gives Jeff time to get things set up and turn everything on. He slips the guitar strap over his shoulder. It’s a little too narrow now, but it’s familiar all the same. When Cyrus comes through the bedroom door, Jeff plays a G chord, and the amp whines with feedback.
Cyrus just stares.
“What do you think?” Jeff starts in on a riff he remembers. It’s from their song “Death March Apocalypse,” which owed a lot to Slayer. It’s a pretty simple riff, but they’d worked for weeks on getting it fast and loud enough to be really death metal.
“What are you doing, Jeff?”
“I’m playing guitar.” His fingers slip, and he has to start again. “Thought that would be obvious.”
“Is this some sort of weird therapist shit?”
“No.” Jeff thinks about it. “Well, yes, but — I mean, that’s what metal was, for me. Therapy. It feels good, you know?” He remembers the time Hate Eternal played Dallas, and they managed to go by lying to their folks about the name of the band they were seeing. The whole club shook from the music, and Jeff felt transported, one with the crowd and with something bigger, a being made entirely of sound and rage and joy. “I know it’s been a long time, but it’s been a shitty week for you. I thought maybe band practice would be good.”
Cyrus laughs a little at that, almost to himself, and shakes his head. “Band practice. You’re out of your mind, man.”
“Yeah. It’s in my file and everything. Now are you going to play or what?” He tilts his head towards the second electric guitar, lying on the bedroom floor. It had been Sally’s once, and the strap is pink, but it’s a solid instrument.
Cyrus shrugs and walks over to pick it up. “I don’t think I remember how.”
“It’s like riding a bicycle,” Jeff says, like he’s ridden a bicycle anytime recently.
Cyrus fumbles for a longer time than Jeff had expected — starting a couple of beers in isn’t doing either of them any favors. But he keeps going, his face serious and determined, and soon they’re piecing together “Death March Apocalypse” from the parts that each of them remembers.
“So you do that riff five times really fast, and then I come in, and there’s the chords. I sing the first part...”
“Yeah, and I come in at the end of the line.” Cyrus shifts the pink guitar strap on his shoulder. “Just loud as fuck, man.”
“I can do that.” Jeff grins. “One, two, three, go!”
They’re terrible. Their teenaged selves would be appalled. Cyrus is half a beat ahead and Jeff’s voice cracks when goes for the high note. They try again, and again, and again.
At some point, memory and repetition start to click and the song comes together. They make it through the chorus and into the second verse. Jeff looks over at Cyrus and sees him caught up in the music, biting his lip with his eyes half-closed. Jeff had forgotten that look. It makes him happy, and it makes him angry, all at once.
“Death march!” they sing together. “Death march!” They sound loud. They keep going.