The cold air reflected Jonathan’s breath back to him when he sighed. Rubbing his numb fingers together inside the pocket of his hoodie, he wondered why a meeting set to put on his band’s latest and greatest gig – or rather, one and only potentially paid gig – had put all but one of their members out in the cold.
“Fuck this,” muttered Tom, their designated drummer. “It’s been like half an hour. I’m knocking.” He took one step towards the bar’s back door.
“Probably shouldn’t,” Jon murmured in response, despite his frozen fingers. “Remember? Bar owner said they’d be done when they were done.”
“That’s just a glorified way of saying they’re probably threatening Zack. Potentially with knives. Or guns.”
“I doubt there’s weapons involved…” Jon pulled out his phone and checked the time. Tom had gotten it right with his time estimate, but Jon was a little more doubtful that anything shady was going on in the back office. The Devil’s Den might have a seedy reputation, but Jon could see no reason that a few twenty-somethings trying to play some indie rock would need roughing up. Seriously, how threatening could indie rock be?
“Can you prove it?” Tom grumbled, pivoting away from the door and sinking against the wall beside Jon. Clearly, he was unhappy bowing to Jon’s logic.
“In five minutes, if they’re not out here by then, I’m knocking. Fuck, it’s freezing out here! If they’re not skinning Zack alive, I’m almost jealous…” Tom shook his head.
Wryly, Jon agreed, “Yeah. By the time they’ve signed a gig contract, I might not be able to play a guitar anymore.”
“Then what would we do? Just drums and vocals with a baseline would sound like shit.”
“You’d miss me?”
“We’d miss you.”
“Aww,” Jon said, a slight smile on his frozen face. “You two would be nowhere without me.”
“Don’t get a big head about it,” Tom rolled his eyes. But Jon knew that was Tom’s way of quietly admitting it was true; until Tom and Zack had found him, their only – and thus lead – guitarist, they’d barely sounded like they were making music. Sure, they weren’t exactly making it big, but they weren’t stuck in Zack’s family basement anymore, either. The fliers the two had stuck up around the community college and local music shop had been their desperate last-ditch attempt at getting out of that mildewy basement, and lo and behold, they had brought Jon to them.
“Oh, I’m not,” Jon assured Tom. “Just a big heart. Bring it in.”
Tom scoffed at Jon’s opened arms. “It’s not cold enough out her for hugs.”
Jon huffed out a small laugh, hugging himself instead, hands in his armpits. The sound encouraged Tom to fall from scoffing to actual laughter, a good enough reward for Jon.
A creak startled both from their camraderie, and both turned to see the back door finally budging; Zack’s meeting had finally come to a close. There was the man of the hour himself, appearing in the doorway and stepping into the fall night. Jon could feel the heat radiating from the red doorway out into the artificially lit alley.
“How’d it go?” Tom was on Zack immediately, stepping closer to question him, but Jon’s eyes were drawn to the tall man who had manifested over Zack’s shoulder; his impressive ginger hair caught Jon’s eye first, his height only secondary.
Zack was grinning and clapping Tom’s shoulder. “Good!” He tossed a glance behind him, drawing Tom’s attention to the tall man with it.
“I’d say better than good, kids,” the man said, leaning into the door frame. He wore purple suit pants and a rumpled white button-down, which wrinkled further as he crossed his lanky arms over his chest. “You’re booked for the next three weeks.”
“What?” Tom exclaimed. “That’s fucking fantastic!”
“What can I say? Your man Melto doesn’t charge an arm and a leg for a few hours of music!”
Zack laughed bashfully, running a hand through the short dark hair at the back of his head. Jon could only hope he hadn’t undersold them too dangerously.
“As long as we can still pay rent,” Jon said, catching Zack’s eye with a mildly displeased expression, “then yeah, it’s great.”
“Don’t worry,” Zack said, face open, “it’s a fair price.”
“Nothing more, nothing less. I’m a man of business,” commented the owner. “Well, the three of you can bring your equipment in through my office this Friday anytime, and start a set at seven. Just tell the guy at the front to call for Mephistopheles.” He threw a wide grin, “See you kids then.”
He shook Zack’s hand, and Tom attempted to call a thank you as the office door closed, leaving the three band mates outside in the greenish light. Tom was whooping in an instant.
“We’re practically signed, man! Aw fuck, they seriously didn’t waterboard you or anything, did they? We were getting worried.”
They trooped back towards the street, where Zack’s van was parked, Zack regaling them with the details of the negotiation. Jon was slapped in the face by a chilly gust of wind once they left the protection of the alley, and was grateful that the van was stuffy and warm when they climbed inside.
“Really,” Zack was concluding as he turned the keys in the ignition, “it was all really normal, you know? I almost forgot I was dealing with a gang boss.”
Musical electricity hummed from Jon’s amp as he plugged his guitar in. He crouched down to adjust several levels and hook up his pedals. Their first real show wasn’t for four and a half days, but when Zack had insisted on practicing daily until then, Jon had agreed it was a good idea. They may have gotten out of the Melto basement for the next three Friday evenings, but in the interim, their set needs some fine-tuning.
Jon stood, knees cracking as Tom arrived with Zack. They’d just printed off the song list upstairs in the study, and a few lyric sheets for themselves – thankfully, Jon wasn’t obligated to sing. The papers were an unfortunate necessity; long before Jon joined the band, Zack and Tom had found themselves fighting a losing battle with basement wifi just to access lyrics and setlists.
“Seriously, I’m actually really mad they don’t have a drumkit at the bar,” Tom was saying, continuing a conversation that had clearly begun upstairs. “It’s gonna be a bitch moving this shit up and down these stairs for three weeks.” He shook his papers towards the drumset that he’d personally hauled into Zack’s basement over a year prior.
“They want us to bring our own amps and microphones, too,” Jon commented with a glance to his setup. The singular amp and its accompanying pedal board would need to be joined by a guitar mic, he knew; they needed to organize bins of wires, locate extra mic stands, and microphones…not to mention three more amps for the other instruments. In the basement, they only had two. He sighed. “I’m starting to feel we weren’t exactly prepared for this opportunity to come through.”
“We’re totally prepared,” Zack said. “With a few more rounds on the rustier covers, and a few rented amps, we’re fine. I can get a discount on the rental rate with my boss, and we can pile everything into my van…”
“If you’re willing to take two round trips,” Tom deadpanned. “If we asked your van to cart more than a fourth person, it’s going to sputter and die.”
“No way,” the protest sprang immediately from Zack, “I got your whole drum kit here in one go.”
“Sure, but the drums, the amps, all three of us…” Jon chimed in on Tom’s behalf. “I think we’re gonna need two cars.”
“Well, I’d love to see one of you guys behind a wheel,” Zack grumbled, finally tossing his lyric sheets on the loveseat, which they’d long ago shoved against a wall to make room for their equipment, and passing the song list to Jon as he headed over to pick up his bass. Jon glanced down the list.
“Dude,” he said, “you didn’t put any of our original shit on here.”
“Well, it’s our first show. We should play it safe.”
“This feels a little too safe.”
“Does it?” Tom retorted, taking his seat at the drumset and locating his drumsticks on the floor, “I was arguing for a little more rock n’ roll, some oldies or something. That’s the kinda vibe the Den gives me.”
“Indie rock is still rock,” Zack pointed out, “just a subset of it.”
Jon sighed and set the print out on top of his amp. “We haven’t practiced any oldies, that would be terrible. Come on, we know our original shit, easy. You guys don’t need the lyrics.”
“If we actually started this jam session, we wouldn’t need them for these covers much longer, either,” Zack vollied back, brightly. “You guys ready?”
“I’ve been ready,” Jon grumbled.
“You seen my other drumstick?” Tom asked, head hidden behind the bass drum.
“No. Maybe it rolled under the couch.”
Jon leaned back against the wall and played a few idle chords, watching Tom trawl the floor, flopping onto his belly and sticking an arm under the couch. “Have you ever actually been inside the Den, Tom?”
“Yeah. That’s where I went for my twenty-first,” Tom’s voice was muffled by the carpet. “Their twenty-first birthday drinks are like, bottomless.”
“That was a few years ago, though, wasn’t it? Did it seem the same the other night?”
“Sure, sure. From the outside, anyway. But those kinds of places don’t seem to change much. Same management or whatever.”
“I only saw the office,” Zack added, “It was pretty standard, though. But don’t worry. We’ll totally vibe with the place. Mephistopheles said it was a pretty young crowd on Fridays. Our age.”
Jon moved his fingers down the frets, strumming the same chord in different places. Zack hit a chord on the bass to match. Zack crowed with victory and excavated his drumstick.
“Sweet. Let’s start with Pick Your Poison .”
Tom’s preemptive complaints about the difficulties of transporting their gear from the Melto basement to the Devil’s Den were, unfortunately, destined to plague the band after all, and each member found themself responsible for transporting their own gear if they wanted to play. Without the time to wrangle a borrowed car from a relative, Jon hauled his guitar case, alongside his amp, pedals, various electrical cords, a mic, and mic stand, into the trunk of a car belonging to a bemused uberXL driver.
Back when he’d bought the amp – by far the heaviest piece of his personal equipment – Jon hadn’t had a lot of money to blow on hobbies. The sound wasn’t great, but tonight, the amp’s huge perk was that it, itself, was not huge. It was rather portable, in fact, and weighed something around fifty pounds. But no matter how much Jon worked out – which, at this point in his life, was not as often as he’d have hoped – he wasn’t confident he’d have a very easy time not dropping the amp on his toes when he heaved it back out of the trunk. He was already sweating with the guitar case and miscellaneous other pieces.
“Let me help,” the bemused driver offered, and Jon grunted in agreement, figuring the offer only came because Jon was tying up valuable time.
Between the two of them, they got the amp on the ground – everyone’s toes safe – and then Jon was alone, behind the Devil’s Den.
It was just as cold as the first time he’d been here, though the sharp winds had died down; the sky was gray, threatening rain, if not hail – rare for late fall, sure, but not impossible. With the way Jon’s luck had trended over the last few years, hail on the night of his first show wouldn’t come as a huge shock to him.
With a grunt, Jon hoisted his guitar case in one hand, and the bag of microphone related pieces in the other. The amp and box of cords would have to wait for trip two, along with his pedal board, though Jon loathed to leave them unsupervised.
Jon was the last to arrive, he realized upon passing through the small back office – which, as Zack had told them, was boringly office-like. Once in the bar itself, he smelled alcohol and briefly, something that may have been incense. The bar itself was a large room, backed by a kitchen accessible from the hallway the office opened out to; a bar backed the kitchen in the main room, featuring an impressive display of bottles, cups, glasses, and pints. Small lights hung off the ceiling above the bartop, reflecting on its surface, swinging lazily as if disturbed by a breeze. Small round tables with tall chairs lined the other walls; a few comfy booths stood adjacent to the bar; in the corner, a cleared area which Jon assumed was standing in as a stage, judging by Zack and Tom’s work.
It was early in the evening, but Jon wasn’t sure the Devil’s Den ever closed. Several tables already hosted patrons of various ages and appearances. Jon spotted several devil jackets as he headed towards Zack and Tom – not a shock; he’d been exposed to plenty rumours.
“Hey,” Zack greeted him. “You’re not late, after all.”
“Yeah, got here in one piece. Can you come outside and help me with my amp?”
“Yeah, sure. You got this, Tom?” Zack gestured to the extension cords the two had been untangling, and Tom just muttered that he’d keep working on it.
Mephistopheles was in his office as Jon and Zack made the quick trip out back. He was drinking an amber liquid that Jon was certain had to be something strong, dressed the same as the last time Jon had seen him; only now, Jon spotted a purple suit jacket hanging from a peg, answering a very minor question that had occurred to Jon in the interim. He and Zack said hello to one another, and when the boss’s striking yellow eyes caught Jon’s, all he found himself capable of doing was giving a small nod.
“You kids have fun tonight,” he called as they hefted the small amp towards the stage area. “I’ll be watching.”
Once out of earshot, Jon exhaled, “Was that a threat?”
“Who knows,” Zack whispered back. “Maybe he’s just tired of canned tunes. Here, let’s put this there… it should reach that outlet…”
The amp hit the floor with a wheeze from Jon. He and Zack made quick work of their guitar and bass hookups, and then they teamed up with Tom to tackle the mics. They finished as the bar began to fill up with more and more patrons, all who seemed friendly with one another, and mostly wearing the insignia of the devils. The Den’s volume rose in tandem with the number of patrons, covering the ambient music from the overhead speaker system.
The number of jackets would not have put Jon on edge if not for the increasing number of eyes on him, pre-performance. Glancing up as he finished fixing the height of his guitar mic, he caught a few eyes flickering away from him.
“I’m just… gonna go get something to drink,” Jon said to Zack without turning to look at him.
“Alright, but we’re starting in ten, so you should probably piss, too, if the stage fright is that bad,” Zack called after him. Jon shook his head, ignoring him, and going directly to the bar.
Beneath a low-hanging light, Jon leaned on the bartop, its surface far too reflective for the bar’s dim interior. He raised a hand slightly to catch the bartender’s eye, but he was busy passing shots to a group of jacketed men and women a few feet from Jon. The bartender wasn’t wearing a devil jacket, Jon noted; but he didn’t seem to be wearing any sort of bartending outfit or Den uniform, either – if they even had a uniform at this place, beyond the unspoken jacket rule. He wore a patterned button-down shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, and tucked into what Jon initially assumed to be an apron, but resolved into a skirt when he finally caught the bartender’s eye.
He approached Jon, all easy smile and wildly uncombed hair framing his face and defying gravity in ways that inspired thoughts of static in Jon’s mind.
“Hey there,” the bartender said, friendly, as he finally approached Jon, wiping his hands on a small towel and dropping it out of Jon’s view, behind the bartop. “Can I help you?” He settled onto his elbows, leaning right into Jon’s space, eyes bright in the dim lighting. Jon got a slight whiff of his cologne.
“I was just hoping to get some water,” Jon said. “Please.”
“Water fountain’s by the bathrooms,” the bartender replied, jauntily, “but I suppose I can fill a glass for you.”
Jon thought that the bartender threw him a wink as he turned away to pull down a pint glass, and Jon felt his cheeks go warm. He glanced away. When the tall glass, filled with tap water, slid across the bartop to Jon, he took it with a nod and thanks.
“Anything for a famous guitarist like yourself, Mr. Combs.”
“I’m hardly famous,” Jon laughed behind the rim of his glass, the mock-formality inspiring a bit more ease. “This is the first time we’ve had an audience that wasn’t just our singer’s parents.”
“Yeah. And even then, they’re hardly an audience. They just tell us when we’re practicing too loudly and say the neighbors will have a fit.”
“If it makes you feel any better,” the bartender said, leaning in again as if drawn to Jon, the striped pattern of his shirt reflecting on the counter’s shiny surface, “we’ve never been an audience, over here. I’d wager some of these guys will clap as long as they recognize you played some music.”
“That’s our goal, you know. For people to be able to tell we played some music.”
The bartender laughed, a light sound, but genuine enough to be heard over the general clamour of the Den. “They’re all mostly drunk, too,” he went on. “Friday nights are discount nights.”
“Ahh,” Jon said, wry, finally gulping down half his glass of water, and returning it to the bartender, “So that’s why our deal is only to play on Fridays, huh? A more receptive crowd?”
“Honestly, yeah, probably,” the bartender returned, openly, candid. “The boss realizes that outsiders are pretty rare in the Den. So, if you’re gonna have some entertainment, do it when the time’s right, you know?”
“Yeah. For sure. As long as playing the Den doesn’t ruin any of our hopes of future shows,” Jon said, grim. With a glance back to Zack and Tom, their heads bowed over a shared setlist, Jon sighed. “Not that those hopes really existed in the first place.”
The bartender grinned. “That’s fortunate for me.” Before Jon could parse any meaning from that quip, the bartender was gone, off to tend to impatient patrons. He stood for a moment, finishing his water, until somebody squeezed in beside him at the bartop, trying to order something alcoholic and cheap. Jon took it as his cue to leave, laying down a few bills for the bartender, even though his water had been free.
As the band introduced themselves over the noise of the Den not long later, Jonathan caught the cute bartender’s gaze tracking him, from the first chord to the last, one song to the next. He could only hope he was imagining it; the bartender was cute, and had been flirting with him – as far as Jon could tell, anyways, with his rusty socializing skills, exercised primarily on Zack and Tom these days. As they launched into Fly Solo , he began to forget the bartender and his wild hair and inviting grin; he forgot the numerous eyes on him that had made his hands unsteady at first; he forgot the omnipresent devil jackets, and the danger they represented. He centered himself on the music, and the world melted into a buzz at the peripheries of his senses.
Whenever he allowed the world back into his awareness, he felt the eyes of the bartender on him. Even when the set had long since ended, the stage and bar itself lit only by the lights necessary to cleaning and closing, Jon felt sharp eyes pricking at the back of his neck. Amid closing and band-clean up, the gaze manifested into fingers on his upper arm.
Startled, Jon spun, finding the bartender grinning, “Woah, woah, hey. Didn’t mean to startle you.”
Jon muttered, “You walk quietly.”
“I just wanted to offer you some more water. You worked up a sweat. Played hard.” He tilted his head, and Jon noticed that he was holding out a miniature water bottle to him. He resisted the urge to touch his forehead to check how gross he’d gotten while playing, and instead received the water bottle, immediately cracking it open.
“Thank you,” he said, genuinely. He was only now realizing how thirsty he was, opening his mouth. He could imagine how parched Zack and Tom felt, doing vocals and backup over the last few hours.
“No problem.” The bartender lingered near Jon.
The water was cold as Jon tilted his head back for a gulp. He conjured up a mental image of these tiny bottles being kept in a mini fridge underneath Mephistopheles’ desk, rows and rows of them on two or three short shelves. Right next to the safe stuffed full of blood money and guns, of course. The bartender was still there when he surfaced for air, one necessity of life for another, though Jon was sure it wouldn’t be for long. Desperate to keep him engaged, Jon grasped at straws. “Do you have a shift on the eleventh?”
Green eyes snapped to Jonathan’s with a playful laugh. “You asking me out?”
“I – ” Jonathan sputtered at how forward he was. “I was wondering if you’d be at our next show…”
“I’m here most nights,” he said casually, and Jon just nodded mutely, feeling chided and embarrassed. The bartender took pity on him. “Including the eleventh.”
“Cool,” Jon said. A moment ago he’d wanted this conversation to continue. Now he desperately wanted to escape it. “I should probably…” He gestured to the mess of cables decorating the ground.
It was only after the bartender has vanished into the dim back rooms of the Den that Jon realized a small slip of paper was tucked into the label of his water bottle.
hey sock, it’s jon, from the band
i know u said to call u but i hope texting is ok too haha
hope u liked the set the other nite.
Hi jon :3 i’m glad you texted!
The set was good. I didnt kno any of the songs but hey
life is all about trying new things right c:
i mean im not really an adventure guy but i can appreciate adventure
any types of adventure you like up close too?
well if it involves food, yea
food is my comfort zone in the space outside my comfort zone
hbu whats ur adventure of choice
i think it’d be really neat to travel.
Idk. just someplace as different from here as you can get
i can feel that. theres not a lot going for this city
in fact i feel like you could even say it’s got some things
going against it
not to disrespect the den or anything
you guys have been great to us
but on the whole
jon, you don’t have to justify yourself to me or anything!
i really hope ur not just saying that
no, i mean it
the den life isn’t for everybody, I get that
do u just… work there?
sorry if thats a weird question
I just didnt see you like… participating in much
nah dw. but...more or less. well, my situation’s p unusal
that’s a looooooooong story XD
well, I’m listening. as much as you can by reading texts, anyways
The gist of it is that, I help Mephistopheles out on projects, and in return, I’ve got a job. I’m like… an honorary member of the Devils if anything. but mostly I’m part of the den more than the devils and there’s a p big distinction there.
That wasn’t very long.
Yeah, that was the TLDR version
Anyways, it sounds like there’s more give than take for you in that.
I’ll tell you the full story sometime. Meph’s done a lot for me, the least of which is giving me a job :p
that’s fair. Jobs are a pretty hot commodity
you’re telling me XD
Setup for the second show, a week later, went infinitely more smoothly than the first. Borrowed car keys securely in his pocket, Jon made two trips to bring his gear inside, and had Tom’s help, at the cost of also transporting the cymbals and their stands, which had been the last straw on the camel’s back for Zack’s van. They simply couldn’t be crammed in. But with Jonathan’s smooth vehicle-borrowing skills, they’d dodged that issue.
The first half of their set went off without a hitch, closing with 1001 Smashed Hotel Rooms . It received what seemed to be an average amount of attention and applause – based on the prior Friday’s performance – and Mephistopheles came out from the more business-like parts of the Den while they were taking a short break. Jonathan knew the boss had watched their set last week, but he didn’t know the extent of it – he’d been much more preoccupied with Sock. It was Zack who later pointed out to him that the boss had shown up for the pre-show set up this time, before disappearing for a good hour.
“Why don’t you boys take thirty?” Mephistopheles suggested, all business casual and low-lidded eyes while the band gulped water from their bottles. “I can have the kitchen whip you up a few burgers, on the house! How’s that sound?”
“Great,” Tom was saying before either Jon or Zack could respond to the offer, “I’m fuckin starved.”
“Pretty sure a rumbling stomach isn’t an instrument,” Mephistopheles chuckled. “Alright, we’ll pipe some of the old CD’s through the system. Go sit down!”
Almost reluctantly, Jon pulled his guitar strap off over his head and settled his guitar back into its case. Without his guitar, he felt exposed and vulnerable, forced back into the real world – but more than that, Jonathan knew that, unassuming and friendly as he may appear, Mephistopheles was something else entirely on the inside: ruthless and driven. Powerful. He’d learned as much from Sock during their text conversations. Spurred on by a few flippant comments from Sock, and with google as his trusty sidekick, he’d unearthed everything that the local newspaper was willing to share about the Den, its owner, and the gang that enjoyed frequenting its booths and bar in a none-too-subtle way. What he’d learned hadn’t given him a huge amount of faith that Mephistopheles had hired the band purley out of good will.
But a job was a job, Jonathan had reminded himself. He didn’t exactly have a different one at the moment. And it’s not like he feared for his life, really. Just for his health. And only a little bit, at that.
Zack and Tom led the way to a small corner booth, and the three of them squished in. The seats were soft fabric, dark. Hiding stains, Jon thought. He mumbled as much to Zack, across from him.
“Yeah, food stains,” Zack laughed. “Jesus – when did you get so paranoid?”
“When did you get so lax?” Jonathan muttered back. “There’s a lot of shit you can hear about this place, and…these people.”
Tom leaned forward over the table towards Jonathan and Zack, pulling the salt shaker towards himself. “The more you whisper and side glance them, the worse you make it,” he told Jonathan conversationally. “The trick is to be cool .”
“Spoken with all the confidence of a high-school dropout,” muttered Jon.
Tom kicked him. “That was a low dig, and also an irrelevant one.”
Jonathan groaned and reached down to rub at his bruising shin. “Sorry,” he mumbled. In truth, he’d found that getting to know Sock had simultaneously put him on edge about the Den – and why they were even here, really – and given him confidence that, whatever was going on under the waters, it wasn’t going to end with the band’s murders.
A basket of fries appeared on the table, plopped down by a slender hand – before Jon’s eyes could follow the path up to its owner, Sock himself had plopped down on the seat beside Jon, bouncing him slightly.
“Hey,” Sock grinned widely to Jon, and Jon smiled back, automatically. As he extracted a fry from the basket that Tom was already reaching into, Sock introduced himself to the other guys, “I’m Sock.”
“Is that some sort of code name?” Tom asked around his french fry.
Sock laughed. “Nope.”
“I thought gang members all had codenames ‘n shit, though.”
Jon shot Tom a harsh glare, which went unnoticed. Talking about the Devils amongst themselves was one thing; talking about it in front of Sock was another.
“If your first name was Napoleon, you’d choose a nickname, too,” Sock said, dryly amused, but thankfully not seeming offended in the least.
“Like the ice cream?” Zack asked.
“That’s neapolitan, you dumbass,” Jon muttered.
“Oh, shit.” Zack had the grace to blush. “Sorry.”
Sock’s dry amused turned into a genuine laugh. “It’s fine.”
Jon spoke up, “Who said Sock’s part of the Devils, anyway? He doesn’t even have a jacket. You’d know that if you ever used your eyes, Tom.”
Sock shot Jon a sideways glance. “Well, there’s more to it than a jacket.”
That, Jon knew implicitly, but the comment – and its relative defensiveness – threw him for a loop regardless. He locked eyes with Sock for a silent beat. Tom spoke up.
“You’re the only one in here who doesn’t wear one, though. Besides Meph, but I don’t exactly think he counts.”
“Why wouldn’t he count?” Zack asked.
“Well, he’s the boss. Right? Like, does a high school principal have the follow the dress code? Not really.”
“What kind of analogy is that for a gang ?” Zack laughed.
“A descriptive one!”
Tom’s protest is dampened by the arrival of a waiter, balancing four ceramic plates with burgers on them. Jon isn’t sure when Sock ensured a burger for himself, but it definitely happened at some point. The plates are quickly followed by glasses of water, and then their fries were topped off as the band members, and their plus one, dug in. Tom and Zack ate with considerably more gusto than Jon did.
Sock laughed when he noticed Jon’s slight hesitance, and nudged him playfully. “It’s not poisoned,” he said, taking a bite of his own burger, “see?”
“Because I’m definitely suspecting poison if I’m not swallowing my food whole like those two pigs,” Jon snorted, with a nod towards his bandmates.
“I dunno,” Sock said, brightly. “Look at it objectively. I’m a questionable, flirty guy at a bar. You’re a brooding blonde with a perpetually suspicious eye.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t spike my drink. You just put your number in it.”
Zack’s eyebrows furrow from across the table. “How was it legible?”
“Oh, fuck off, I wasn’t being literal.”
“All I’m saying is that you’ve got pretty decent grounds for not being super trusting,” Sock shrugged. “But, you’ve already given us some leeway, so why not go all in?”
Jonathan took a bite of his burger.
The handheld lighter came alive with a pop, the thumbprint sized flame dancing with the power of its ignition. The light preoccupied Jonathan until he had to unclench his jaw when the bong was passed to him. The lighter popped in his hand; he inhaled, exhaled; he passed both the bong and lighter to Zack, and succumbed to the desire to no longer be vertical. The thin carpet was very inviting after their second night at the Den.
The Melto basement was a disaster area; plastic boxes of show goods were strewn about at haphazard angles, Tom’s drums in a pile beside – and somewhat in front of – the stairs. One of the night’s setlists had floated onto one of the worn steps, with another copy having found itself crumbled under Zack’s ass on the tan couch.
Jonathan closed his eyes. Down here, on the ground beneath the ground, he could smell wood, dust, weed, and sweat.
Tom nudged Jonathan’s knee. “Dude.”
“Don’t touch me with your nasty socks.”
“Dude,” Tom repeated, “Listen. What do ants take when they get sick.”
“ Ant -ibodies.”
Jon groaned. Zack choked on smoke.
“That was awful.”
“It wasn’t that bad. Give me another chance.”
“No. I don’t even think you got that one right.”
“What’s a bear with no shoes.”
“I’m not gonna dignify this with a response.”
“ Bear -foot.”
“Why do they put fences around graveyards?”
“Oh, wait, I’ve heard this one,” Zack said. “It’s becau – ”
Tom cut in, “Because people are dying to get in.”
“I totally knew that,” Zack groaned.
“What does – ” Tom began again.
“I have one,” Jon interrupted Tom, suddenly. “What time is it?”
“What?” Tom asked, almost gleeful.
“Time for you to shut the hell up.”
Disappointed, Tom dropped his head backwards against the arm of the couch. “Oh, come on. You’re not even trying to be funny.”
“Arguably, neither were you,” Jon muttered.
“That’s a bold assumption you’ve just made.”
“Yeah? Live with it.”
“Guys,” Zack tried to mediate as he leaned over to give the bong to Tom. Jonathan hadn’t noticed that Zack had held onto it while he had been so enthralled by Tom’s so-called humor, but seeing as it hadn’t made its way back to Jon yet, it made sense. “Guys.”
There was a moment of silence. “Let’s not fight,” Zack finished halfheartedly.
Tom flicked the lighter to life. Jonathan just rolled his eyes before closing them against the lights, tossing his arm over his face until Tom resurfaced.
“We’ll argue if we damn want to,” Tom’s voice was rough after his hit, and he kicked Jonathan to get his attention. “Especially if he’s instigating it.”
Jonathan sat up to receive the bong, not dignifying Tom with a reply, instead turning to Zack, “Let’s put on something on Netflix.”
Soon, they were arguing about Zack’s merit as a person, and whether or not to kick him out of the band, based solely on his Netflix list. When they’d finally settled on an old anime, and also briefly sniped at one another about whether or not it was worth it to read the subtitles when they were tired and it was well past two in the morning, Jonathan found himself lying on the thin carpet again. His mind was wandering from Melto basement back to the Den, and back to Sock.
Sock. Jonathan’s hand wandered around the thin carpet for his phone, locating it halfway under the couch. He squinted at how bright the screen was when it lit up.
Sock had texted a few hours ago, but Jonathan hadn’t read the message yet, let alone strung together a reply.
Hey jon, great show tonight :3
Finally unlocking his phone for the first time since he, Tom and Zack had crashed after the show, Jonathan blinked blearily at the message. Eventually, he typed a response, and somehow wasn’t surprised when Sock was awake at this ungodly hour to reply only a few minutes later.
Thanks. it was fun
You always look like you’re having fun up there!
Letting loose. Letting it all out.
yea for sure. Music is like that yanno
forget your worries n shit
maybe i should try it :p
you play anything?
Nah. but i could probably use something to help me unwind
weed is pretty good for that
I bet it is
you should come smoke with us sometime.
That’d be cool.
if you’re interested in that kinda thing
When Sock didn’t text back as quickly as before, Jonathan wondered if he’s stepped out of line. Hanging out with gang members and doing favors for the boss was one thing, but maybe pot was another, for Sock. Jon was pretty sure he’d seen more than a few different types of cigarettes at the Den, though, and really, you’d think somebody might mind tobacco in their workplace more than pot in their homelife, what with lung cancer being a real threat. As his eyes meandered back to the show, his phone buzzed.
I think i’d have fun if it was with you! ^~^
That what you guys are doin tonight?
yea. I mean, good wind down after the show.
but we’d be doing this even if we hadnt played the den tonight
Haha i hear that
whatd u do tonite?
did you have to close the bar?
i usually do :p
We only have a couple other people with their bartending certification
i mean you don’t really need it to close since thats just cleaning and organizing
But like. Closing is like, the end of a larger shift, yanno?
So yeah, i close most nights.
But i like late nights anyways
The witching hour ;P
real night owl huh? Bet you wouldnt be caught dead before 10 am
you know me so well~
Call it a wild guess
“Dude,” Zack muttered, “You’re missing the best part.”
“I’ve already seen it,” Jonathan muttered back, though he hadn’t.
well, im glad you made it home safe tonight
But i still have some work to do so i should get going!
I thought the den had been closed for a couple hours
After-hours work, huh?
Be safe i guess
Above Jonathan on the couch, Tom began to snore gently. Jonathan dragged his eyes away from his phone to the show, which Zack was now the only person watching. Jonathan wasn’t able to make a connection between the opening scene – which he’d also barely watched – and the current action. The colors blurred together as his eyes unfocused, until he was brought back by a new text.
I’m always safe c;
See you next friday?
I’m busy this weekend
But...i’m off on monday
let’s hang out monday then.
You don’t have work or anything?
The only thing im doing rn is the band
N u can prolly tell we’re doing a lot of shows atm hahaa
didn’t you say you went to community college tho?
key word “went”
XD i hear that
let’s set some details tmrw, i really have to go now
It was easy for Jonathan to fall asleep. Maybe it was the fact he hadn’t gotten invested in the show; maybe it was the pot. Regardless, the thin carpet and throw blanket that would normally have made for a fitful night welcomed him into a dreamless sleep to the tune of the show that Zack was the only one watching.
Put succinctly, Jon’s apartment was depressing. It was half-furnished, between himself and Tom, the walls essentially bare, especially in the living room. The kitchen had a dearth of natural light, since the living room’s single window was blocked from most anglesl. The small shared – and only – bathroom had cracked tile and a perpetually fogged mirror. Jonathan’s bedroom was big enough to contain a bed with a side table, a desk, and a small closet, but was too narrow to contain anything else.
Jonathan saw every single one of these flaws long before he pulled the door open for Sock, but Sock saw none of them.
“Hey!” He greeted Jon with bouncing energy, immediately stepping inside, close to Jonathan in the small entryway. He was wearing a button-down with a rounded Peter Pan collar, an outfit complete with colorful torn jeans. Jon thought he saw patterns peeking out below the cuffs, and from the holes at the knees; it was a much more colorful and eclectic outfit than anything Jon had seen Sock wear at work.
“Thanks for inviting me today!” Sock chirped. “What’s up?”
“Not much…” Jonathan mumbled, swinging the door shut behind Sock and pulling out his phone to pause his music as they moved towards the threadbear couch parked in the living room. The sound was still audible from the purple headphones hanging around his neck until Jon managed to hit the pause button. “You look nice.”
“Thanks! What were you listening to?”
Jonathan glanced up to Sock’s curious eyes, then back down to his phone. He’d just paused Ghost Song . “Oh, uh… just some stuff I listen to for inspiration, usually. We’ve been trying to write more original shit, so...” His eyes flicker self consciously towards the sheet music and scribbled notes strewn over the coffee table, and his guitar standing precariously besides the side table. One of Tom’s spare drumsticks lays next to his guitar, but the other is nowhere to be seen. Jonathan hoped it wasn’t buried dangerously in a couch cushion as Sock flopped down happily.
“Oh man, I want to hear!”
“The…. inspirational shit, or our demos?”
“The demos aren’t really… uh… great,” Jonathan laughed. “But I can show you on my computer later, if you really want.” Hesitantly, he stepped closer to Sock, moving to take off his headphones. “As for the inspiration …”
“Jon,” Sock said, his voice solemn but his eyes full of amusement, as he reached up for Jonathan’s forearm and placed his hand there, “I like the stuff you guys have played at the Den, so I’ll like whatever inspires you, too.”
Sock’s hand was warm, his fingers somewhat callused on Jon’s bare skin. He ducked his head and offered his purple headphones to Sock, who happily slipped them on over his ears. They did nothing to quell his wild hair.
Jonathan restarted the song and moved to sit beside Sock – or slump beside him, really.
Sock was already nodding along to the song. “It’s more melancholic than what I’ve heard you guys play,” he commented.
“Yeah, uh. I can’t really string together any upbeat rifts. It’s just not what I’m listening to right now.”
“Or feeling, huh?”
“Or feeling, yeah. Oh, but, there’s some fun shit that blends melancholy feelings and an upbeat tone – I like that, too. Who knows if I’ll be able to put down any chords like these guys do, but, just listen to this one.” Jon sat up slightly, long enough to scroll through his music library and change the song to I’m A Bum .
Sock laughed when the chorus hit, “If this song doesn’t tell it like it is…”
“Yeah. If only I was more of a lyrics guy. That’s where half the feeling comes from. If I just sit here with my guitar it’s… hollow.” He gestured vaguely to his electric guitar where it was standing nearby. “Even with Tom on the coffee table drums.”
Sock pulled the headphones off his ears, dropping them around his neck, mirroring how Jonathan had answered the door. Somehow, Sock’s hair is defying gravity even more intensely than before. “What, coffee table drums aren’t the hot new thing?”
“They really aren’t,” Jon replied, dry.
“So does Zack write the lyrics?”
“I mean, hypothetically.”
“So they don’t even have lyrics? None at all?”
Jonathan shrugged, leaning back and letting the couch cushions engulf him once again. “Depends on the song. Most, well… they’ve got… notes. Ideas. I mean, I took note of what I was going for with the guitar. But none of it’s been turned into lyrics yet. Writing lyrics is more like… writing poetry. Really emotional poetry. And I can’t write poetry for shit. Trust me, I’ve tried.”
Sock laughed, musical. “Anything you want can be poetry!”
“But can it be good poetry?”
Sock sinks back against the couch, his shoulder nudging up against Jon’s. He was grinning at him. “...probably not.”
Jonathan’s eyes were drawn to Sock’s hands. Small, calloused, capable; they were winding and unwinding the headphone AUX cord, causing it to tug gently on Jon’s phone in his hand. “Harsh,” Jon murmured. “Building me up to tear me down.”
“I’m just trying to help you find that inspiration .”
“I have inspiration.” Jonathan unlocked his phone, the vast music library that filled the screen speaking for itself.
“What, you don’t want a little more?”
Jonathan looked up to meet Sock’s eyes. Large, open, and vibrant green. When Jonathan angled his face towards him, he could feel the faint feathering of Sock’s exhale on his skin. It was warm, close. Jonathan felt his heartbeat thrum a little harder in his chest – it was hard to prevent when an attractive guy who’s been openly flirting with you for the past two weeks was pressed against your side, his face only inches from your own
“Yeah,” Jon murmured, “I guess...I could use some.” If he was looking at Sock’s mouth, well, he couldn’t be blamed. Sock grinned, and closed the gap between them with a kiss.
It was somewhat sloppy, at first; Jon was out of practice and Sock was eager. Jonathan’s hands found Sock’s chest, his phone forgotten; his fingers moved over him to explore before pulling him in, with an arm secured around him. Sock’s rib cage was small, and when Jon’s hand traveled over his shoulder blades and back, pressing their chests together, he could feel each of Sock’s breaths. Their lips moved together, wet, warm. Sock’s sharp teeth nipped at Jonathan’s lower lip, sucked, stung.
The kiss broke after a few moments. Jon exhaled, shaky; he’d been holding his breath without realizing. Sock shook his hands free of the AUX cable they were still wound up in, and he cupped Jonathan’s face to pull him in for more while Jon wondered, idly, why Sock tasted so sweet.
“Inspirational?” Sock asked again Jon’s mouth.
“I dunno,” Jon replied, a challenge rising in his voice, muffled though it was as Sock nipped his lip. “Could be a little more inspirational.”
They found a rhythm, wordlessly; inhale, exhale, lips finding purchase, sliding; tongues meeting, Sock’s teeth digging against Jon’s mouth. This time, the sting shot a startled stir of pleasure through Jon, and he let out a soft moan. Sock bit him again, and Jon very quickly thought of a few other places Sock should bite.
Sock’s soft laughter told Jon that Sock knew exactly what he was doing. “Is that what’s gonna get you inspired ?”
“Fuck,” Jon cursed against Sock’s upper lip, rolling his hips towards him, his fingers digging into the fabric of Sock’s shirt as he tried to draw him closer.
“Let’s go to your room,” Sock broke the kiss to murmur against Jon’s cheek. “You should show me all your inspiration .” Lust had lowered his voice, and it went directly to Jon’s stomach. Sock’s fingers follow the sensation, dipping against his hips, and coming to rest against Jonathan’s waistband.
Jonathan swallowed with some difficulty, Adam’s apple bobbing. “Yeah.” While he was loath to take his hands off of Sock and move, every implication was something Jon wanted to succumb to. Screw hanging out and pretenses; Sock had already foregone just about every one of those things, and Jon hadn’t been blind to Sock’s relentless flirting before now, or the way that Sock watched him during his shows. He had been acutely aware of those things when he’d invited Sock to hang out.
Sock looked smug, satisfied, as he pulled out of Jon’s arms and stood up, heading out of the living room with a cheerful, “I have no idea which of these doors goes to your room.” He had taken Jonathan’s headphones and phone with him.
Jon ruffled his hands through his blonde hair with a laugh. “Second one on the right,” he called after Sock, making the short trek towards his room, and only stumbling a little as he rounded the corner sharply.
Even though Sock’s head start was miniscule, Jon found him sprawled out on his bed. He’d disconnected the headphones from Jon’s phone, and was scrolling through Jon’s music library. When Jon shut the door and crawled onto the bed beside Sock, Sock laughed.
“I don’t know any of this stuff,” Sock told him. “You sure listen to obscure music.”
“It’s all good. Just choose something at random.”
Sock caught Jon’s eyes, and grinned, rolling his own slightly. He finally hit shuffle and dropped Jon’s phone on the pillow. Versace Summer came on.
Jon’s hand had moved before he had a chance to think about it, cupping the purple earcup that rested against Sock’s throat; the other was splayed on the comforter, and the cable was draped down Sock’s lithe body like a guiding arrow.
“These look good on you.”
“I thought so too,” Sock laughed.
Jon scowled. “Hey, I’m complimenting you.”
“And I’m complimenting your choice of headphones.”
Jonathan shook his head, “I doubt that.” Instead of letting Sock respond with some inane retort, he moved closer, and dipped his head to kiss Sock’s neck, above the headphones. It must have been a good move, because it wrangled a soft gasp from Sock that turned into a keening whine the moment Jon applied a bit of teeth and suction to what had started as a kiss.
Jonathan worked his way toward Sock’s jaw, leaving a short trail of dark pink marks on his skin. When Jon pulled away, Sock’s face was flushed, and his eyes were heavily lidded. Jon barely had a moment to think about how attractive that expression made Sock before he was being pulled on top of Sock, their bodies slotting together clumsily. Jonathan groaned slightly, feeling Sock’s semi-hard dick press into his hip beside his own. From there, Jonathan shifted his hips to move them together, a tentative movement.
“Oh, so you’ll suck my neck, but you won’t properly grind against me?” Sock quipped, “I thought you might be bolder than that.”
Jonathan took the challenge, pushing his hips sharply against Sock. He was rewarded when Sock’s mouth formed a small o , and his back arched against the mattress to return the friction.
“Good…” Sock tilted his head back, displaying the marks Jonathan had just made as they found a new rhythm – this time for their hips rather than their mouths. Jon bit his bottom lip as he felt Sock arch beneath him, felt his dick growing harder as his own did, felt heat and need building in his stomach.
He ducked his head to recapture Sock’s mouth with his own in a kiss that was just as sloppy as their first; whatever sync they’d found earlier was now being superseded by a lack of experience with one another, and a larger focus on moving their hips. Sock accidentally bit Jon’s tongue, which they laughed off, but he nipped against the thickest part of Jon’s lower lip repeatedly as they continued, until Jon’s lip felt hot and swollen. Sock soothed it with his soft tongue, and Jon would be a liar if he’d said there had been any part of that he’d disliked.
He shifted his weight onto his left elbow, allowing him to touch Sock with a free hand. When he felt his soft, warm stomach, pushing his hand beneath Sock’s shirt, it seemed long overdue.
“Mmm,” Sock sighed.
“Can I take this off?” Jon asked, tugging on the fabric of Sock’s shirt.
Jonathan sat over Sock, but wasn’t able to make as quick a job of the button-down as he’d hoped he’d be able to. Sock didn’t seem to mind, his hands resting on Jon’s hips and his index fingers drawing small circles there as he watched Jon.
Finally, the shirt was open, and discarded completely; relieved, Jon pulled his hoodie and t-shirt over his head in one go, at which Sock laughed, “Show-off.”
“Hey, you chose to wear that difficult shit,” Jon grumbled, getting his hands back on Sock’s soft, warm skin, and pushing them over his stomach to his chest, his calloused guitarist fingertips making Sock shiver pleasantly. “And you had to know it wasn’t necessarily gonna stay on all day.”
“I am not gonna let getting dick keep me from looking cute,” Sock pouted, “Buttons aren’t even that bad.” Jonathan could only shrug, because getting dressed up in a nice shirt for a thinly veiled hook-up wasn’t the worst crime to commit. Anyway, he had a much more pressing issue that required his attention, and more importantly, his mouth: Sock’s body.
Jon dipped down to kiss and suck his way over every inviting inch of exposed skin, from Sock’s already-bruising neck down to his soft stomach and his hip bones. The sounds that Sock made – soft sighs and little high pitched noises – more than made up for the buttons Jonathan had contended with; and when he reached his hips, Sock’s arousal was its own reward, as well. Jonathan mouthed him through his jeans, and Sock sighed.
“You know, I’ve been wanting your mouth since I first saw you play.”
“Why? I play with my fingers,” Jon muttered.
“I’ve been wanting your fingers, too.”
A thrill jolted through Jon. He looked up at Sock and saw his eyes were heavily lidded, his sharp teeth digging into his lower lip as he carefully cupped Jonathan’s cheek and jaw.
“Okay,” Jonathan breathed, “I’ll give you both.”
“ Good. ”
The mirror wasn’t particularly kind to Jonathan, an hour or two later. His skin looked pale, dehydrated. It only served to make the dark marks more prominent.
He splashed water on his face, and, water still dripping, pressed his thumb against his neck where the red mark bloomed, and winced. It was ringed by a few noticeable marks from Sock’s teeth, and Jon could only hope that those would fade, even if the mark itself was far too aggressive to hope that for. At the very least, this was the only one visible after he pulled his t-shirt back on; the rest were suitably hidden.
He found Sock lounging on his bed. He’d pulled his underwear back on, and his colorful knee-socks, but that was it. When Sock grinned up at him from his phone, Jonathan was smug to notice that he wasn’t the only one with a few marks.
“Hi,” Sock said.
“I just got a text from Mephistopheles.”
“Oh,” Jon said, sitting on the edge of his bed and bed and leaning over to sort out the discarded clothing that had been shoved to the floor. “Did he call you in to work for the evening or something?”
“You could say that,” Sock hummed. “It’s just an errand of sorts, really. But I hate to dick and run. Do you want to tag along?”
“It’ll be super fast! And we can get dinner afterwards. We’ll be near downtown, so you can pick anywhere you want, and I’ll pay.”
Unwittingly, Jonathan’s stomach growled softly at the mention of good food – and good food he didn’t have to pay for, at that. Finding his jeans, he sat up and looked at Sock, evaluating his expression; he looked open, earnest. Genuine.
Jon shrugged, “Sounds fair. But I don’t have a car so I don’t know how you expect us to get downtown.”
Sock giggled, leaning forward to wrap his arms around Jon. “We can take the bus. I’m so excited! It’s a real date now.”
“Aren’t you supposed to go out to dinner before you fuck?” Jon asked, dryly.
“Who cares about convention?”
“Clearly, not us, since this date also includes… gang errands.”
Sock pouted, chin resting on Jonathan’s shoulder. “You make it sound so distasteful.”
“It kind of is , not gonna lie. Also, we can’t get going if you don’t let me get my pants on.”
“What? You mean we can’t go like this?”
Jonathan looked at himself: boxers, t-shirt, no socks. He glanced at Sock: underwear, knee-highs. “No.”
Sock grinned, rolling his eyes slightly. “You’re no fun.” But he did release Jon from his warm hold, hopping off the bed to locate his numerous clothing items.
Jonathan shoved his toes under the leg of his jeans, attempting to kick them off the ground and into his hands, failing only slightly. “How late do you think we’ll be out?” He asked, one foot into an unwieldy pant leg. “It’s gonna get pretty cold.”
“Not too late,” Sock said, turning his shirt right-side out. “The job for Meph really will be quick. I just have to show up for ten minutes, fifteen tops.”
“Wish somebody would pay me for showing my face when I’m told to.”
“Trust me, you don’t want to be at somebody’s beck and call,” Sock said, a knowing hint to his voice. “It ranges from ‘show up for ten minutes’ to ‘this task is going to consume your life for more than a week’.”
“Sounds more like a vacation to me,” Jon replied. “Huh. Where did my headphones get to?”
“I think I put them on the bed – check under that pillow, maybe?”
“Got ‘em.” Jonathan excavated his headphones, and his phone as well from the depths of sweaty sheets that blanketed his bed. He swiped it unlocked and checked the bus schedule, “What stop are we going to? Does the blue line work?”
Warmth brushed against Jonathan’s arm, Sock standing close enough for their body heat to mingle. “Perfect.”
It was still light out when Sock and Jon disembarked downtown, though Jonathan wasn’t certain it would last. Twilight was coming upon them, and with it would come an increasing chill.
“Where to?” Jon asked, shaking a few fingers through his messy bangs. “Lead the way.”
“Actually….” Sock looked hesitant, biting his lip.
“Maybe it would be better if I just came back here and met back up with you,” he said.
“ Just an errand, huh,” Jon mumbled, but shrugged regardless, “Yeah, no problem. I’m gonna be in Quickly’s.”
Sock’s eyes were wide, eyebrows creasing. “I’m sorry about this. But I promise, I’ll be back in no time! Twenty minutes or less.”
“Your estimate keeps going up,” Jon observed dryly. “You should count yourself lucky, because I can wait for good food.”
With a quick, bouncy movement that Jon barely had time to process, Sock was enveloping him in a small hug, kissing his cheek. Despite himself, he found himself blushing, though this was nothing to where Sock’s mouth had been earlier.
“Thank you! I promise I’ll make it up with dinner.”
“Sure, sure,” Jon mumbled, lifting his arms to hug him back. Thinking back on it, the nature of their relationship hadn’t allowed them the luxury of non-sexual physical intimacy yet. “Aren’t you going to be late?”
“I’m never late,” Sock quipped as he pulled away, his head a blur as he checked the traffic before darting across the road. “Not with my job!”
“What kind of job can you never be late to?” Jon wondered, brushing his hand over his cheek. Still warm. Damn.
“I can tell you the opposite,” someone near Jonathan said, and he turned. The woman who’d spoken wore a green jacket, contrasting against her dark purple hair.
“The opposite?” Jon echoed, thrown off; he had lived adjacent to cities his whole life – growing up in the suburbs tended to do that to you – but he’d never become totally receptive to conversations with strangers.
“Yeah,” she said. She chomped audibly on a piece of gum. “When you’re saving lives? More often than not, people are late to that.”
All Jon could offer was, “Huh.”
She eyed Jonathan. “So the logical opposite – if you’re ending lives, you can never be late.”
“Okay…?” Jonathan stood, looking at her, and began to step away from her, to the other side of the sidewalk, into the path of a pedestrian who dodged around him with a cuss. He stepped backwards the buildings, closer again to the girl.
“Well. You his boyfriend or something?” She gestures to the other side of the street, where Sock had darted. Glancing briefly, Jonathan saw that he was nowhere to be seen.
The girl went on, “If so, he’s really kept you hidden under a rock.” Chomp.
“You know Sock?”
“Yeah,” she said, managing to convey a large amount of disdain in one word, “Don’t we all?”
“I certainly didn’t, at one point,” Jon replies, dryly. The girl was giving him some rather strange vibes, and he steps away again, this time managing to not be trapped in a prolonged conversation, even despite her reply.
“We all do, now,” she called after him, “and we won’t forget him.”
Fucking ominous, Jon thought, his heart rate picking up more than a little, along with his pace, especially with Sock’s … line of work .
He fast-walked a few blocks and ducked into the crowded cafe, sitting down a few minutes later with a small drink. He chose one of the few empty seats, facing the door, his back pressed snugly against the wall behind him. It wasn’t paranoia, he told himself; he was just waiting for Sock to arrive.
Jonathan watched twenty minutes crawl by, and then another two, feeling more and more antsy. He shot off a text,
on ur way back for dinner?
The message went unread, and after a few more antsy minutes of fiddling with his empty cup, he sent a few more.
I met one of ur friends btw
or at least, somebody who knows you
knows of you?
I wasn’t really sure
A few more uncertain minutes passed before Jonathan’s phone pinged, signaling Sock’s response.
Sorry, just got out! omw
Jonathan huffed a sigh, not sure if he was feeling relief or something else, something that was still nervous, was still thinking about the girl with purple hair and a suspicious squint. And a few ominous implications about Sock.
Granted, Jonathan knew that he didn’t know Sock. He knew he worked at a shady bar. He did favors for a gang boss. He knew he was flirty and fun, and a good foil to Jonathan’s often quiet and dry attitude. He knew Sock was good with his mouth and that his teeth were wickedly sharp. But he didn’t know how he thought, or why he did the things he did. He knew next to nothing about his life or family or friends; sure, he knew about his hobbies, his eclectic fashion sense, his big puppy-dog eyes. But there were people out there who knew Sock far better.
Finally, after chewing on his thoughts, Jonathan texted Sock back to let him know he was still waiting at Quickly’s. Sock’s see you soon! in response was nearly immediate. His arrival, however, was not, and Jon soon found himself equal parts annoyed and apprehensive. Sock’s time estimates seemed to be totally untrustworthy, and the mystery of what Sock did for Mephistopheles was heavy on his mind.
When the cafe’s door opened, Jonathan’s head shot up, and he saw Sock heading towards him. He had a wide grin on his face, but despite that, he seemed worried. Jonathan stood up and met him halfway, tossing his cup in the trash.
“Twenty minutes my ass,” Jon greeted Sock, who laughed, genuinely, albeit nervously.
“Ready for dinner?” Sock asked when Jon was about to question him about the situation further.
“Uh – yeah.” Jonathan said, not entirely satisfied.
“I was thinking, we could actually go back to your apartment, and get some takeout on the way!” Sock suggested, bubbly.
“What happened to make this up to me with a nice dinner?” Jonathan’s frustration began to rise, only to be cut off by apprehension, imagining several reasons why Sock might need to get them out of the area, and quickly.
“Just seems so formal ,” Sock complained, grabbing Jonathan’s arm and pulling him outside. It had gotten noticeably colder and darker in the last hour, and Jon noticed that several shops were beginning to close, seeing as it was Tuesday tomorrow. “Since when are we formal ?”
Jonathan gave in. Takeout or not, Sock was paying. “We’re not formal.”
“Exactly,” Sock said, visibly relieved. Jonathan chewed on his lip and Sock slipped his hand down his arm and into Jonathan’s, squeezing. Jonathan couldn’t make himself squeeze back, but he didn’t recoil, either. Sock went on, not seeming bothered, “So, where should we go for takeout? There’s tons of options, depending on what you want. Chinese food? Tacos? Sandwiches?”
Jonathan spotted a head of purple, and tugged on Sock’s hand. “Do you know her?” He asked, rather than answer, gesturing with a nod to the girl lounging against a for rent sign decorating a storefront.
Sock didn’t respond immediately, and Jonathan glanced over. Sock looked nervous, upset, which answered Jonathan’s question. Sock tugged on Jonathan to cross the street, away from the girl.
“She talked to me, earlier. Right after you left.”
“What’d she say?” The question was loaded.
“Uh… I mean, nothing important. Just weird.”
“What does that mean?” Sock attempted a light laugh. “This way, it’s a shortcut.”
Jon didn’t ask where it was a shortcut to. “It just means she’s weird, I guess,” Jon mumbled. “And that she doesn’t like you? I don’t know.”
Sock said nothing, lips pressed together, serious, for a few moments; he was trying to move them quickly through a narrow alleyway to the other side of the block, past back entrances to stores, and bags of garbage – not the kind of place anybody except the employees of the neighboring stores would consider to be a shortcut .
“Fuck,” Sock muttered.
“What?” Jon asked as Sock checked back the way they came, expression darkening further. Jon could feel his blood in his throat as he followed Sock’s gaze behind them. The purpled haired girl had followed them, and brought company.
“Lil,” Sock said, darkly. Turned forward. “JoJo.”
“Bodyboy,” the girl ahead of them returned the greeting. Her voice was low, rough. Seasoned. She crossed her arms against dark overalls.
Bodyboy . Jonathan felt the nickname stick in his throat.
“Whatever you guys want,” Sock said, “is with me.”
“Obviously,” snorted JoJo.
“ Not with Jon,” Sock insisted, tightening his grip on his hand. Jon squeezed back for a moment, near instinctive.
“That’s not your decision to make,” called Lil from behind them.
“Oh, really,” Jon found his voice. “Can it be mine, then? To not be part of whatever this is?”
“You already chose to be part of whatever this is, buddy,” JoJo said, roughly.
Jon doesn’t exactly agree, or like it, but he did follow Sock for – whatever it was he went to do, and he didn’t leave when he had the chance, either. Is that why Lil had talked to him? Had she been giving him an out? Or had she been sizing him up for this shakedown? He could feel an anxiety headache building, and mounting panic. He played guitar, he didn’t really have a job or a degree, and he certainly did not know how to fight.
“Jon, just stay close,” Sock murmured; Jon then realized that not only were these threatening ladies moving closer every moment, but Sock was also brandishing a rather sizable knife. Had Jonathan felt any more clear headed, he might have wondered where Sock had hidden that and when he’d managed to pull it out.
“Uh-huh,” Jon said faintly.
Lil tutted, nerve-wrackingly close to Jonathan, and he felt himself seize up. Did she have a knife, too? “You’re always so scrappy. We just want to talk, Sock. Will you pass a message to Mephi for us?”
“Nothing about this situation says you just want to talk,” Sock snapped.
“Not like you’d talk to us if we asked nicely,” JoJo shrugged. “And you darted down here. Really, you’re making our jobs easier.”
“You’re making a mistake getting Jon involved,” Sock pushed Jon towards the wall, moving slightly in front of him, eyes darting between JoJo and Lil.
“Actually, it’s just the leverage we need,” Lil said, ever closer, “to make you hear us out.”
Jon shut his eyes, but anxiety tore them back open. Fuck. I guess this is how I die.
“Talk, then,” Sock said, tersely.
“It’s pretty simple. The Angels are sick and tired of your work .” Lil explained.
“What can I say? I’m good at what I do.”
“It’s getting old, ” JoJo cut in, “and so is your flippant attitude.”
“You’ll have to forgive me if we’ll have to agree to disagree about all this,” Sock said. “But I’ll let Mephistopheles know you aren’t happy. Why you couldn’t have told him more directly is beyond me, but...”
“We aren’t here to fight,” JoJo said, and with a sickening thud in his chest, Jon saw that she had a pocket knife, its blade flashing in the last rays of light that wormed their way into the narrow alley. “But we do want to send a strong message.”
The next few moments were blur to Jonathan. JoJo launched at Sock; Sock swung back. Jonathan was pushed roughly into brick, and then down, head cracking against something hard the texture of sandpaper as he went. He tasted metal. He heard Sock’s voice, and one of the girls cried out as well. Jonathan attempted to move, to escape, but black jeans blocked his way, and he recoiled back, anticipating a kick to his chest or face that didn’t come. His falter gave Lil enough time to block a swing from Sock, but the fight was essentially two-on-one; Jonathan caught a few more blade flashes from the ground before Sock hit the ground hard, beside him, the wind knocked out of him. He could see red on Sock’s face.
“I think the message is pretty well sent,” he heard Lil say. A muffled response from JoJo, a warning kick to the wall near Jon’s head that startled him badly, and then silence: complete, total silence.
Jonathan stood on shaking legs, reaching up to his pounding head. “Fuck,” he wheezed.
“We didn’t even get mugged,” Jon wondered. He looked down at Sock, who was struggling to breathe, bleeding in more than one place, and cradling his ribs. His cute shirt was torn, clean cuts made by swift blades. It was quickly getting stained.
“I’m sorry,” Sock groaned, pushing himself to sit up. A wince of pain crossed his features as he applied pressure to the wrong part of his body. “I was trying to get us outta here – I walked right into this – I walked you right into them ...”
Jonathan patted himself. His head was pounding, and he could feel part of his face swelling from his fall, maybe a bruise or two forming on his thigh from it as well. Everything he had been afraid of was true: objectively, no matter if it was a fault of his job, or his personality, Sock was dangerous.
“I – I have to go,” he said, feeling – and sounding – distant, strangled. “I have… I have a thing.”
“Jon,” Sock tried, standing with a hand on the brick wall, but Jon was already backing away. “Jon, wait—”
He turned, and broke into a sprint.
“You look like shit.”
“Thanks, Zack.” It was clear Jonathan was not actually thankful for Zack’s observation.
“Seriously,” Tom leaned over, clutching his drumsticks to his chest. “It’s like you got hit by a bus.” He reached over, touching the bruise on Jonathan’s eye and cheekbone with surprisingly gentleness for the rough, bantering friendship they maintained.
Jonathan turned his face away, grimacing. “Or a brick wall.”
Several days had passed since he’d seen Sock, and he’d been doing an expert job ignoring the numerous texts he’d gotten from Sock during that time, which had ranged from apologies, to attempting to check that Jon was alright, to pleading. He hadn’t done as well avoiding his friends, since he lived with one of them. It hadn’t helped that, upon getting home on Monday night, Jon had been forced to ask Tom where the first aid kit was when he hadn’t been able to locate it himself.
Despite his earlier jab, Zack was looking worried, arms full of chords to pack into his van for their last show at the Den. “Are you sure you’re good to play?”
“I didn’t hurt my hands or anything,” Jon grumbled.
“I mean the rest of you. Your face! Your…. heart?”
“I’m fine,” Jon snapped. He snapped his guitar case shut decisively. “Let’s just get this thing over with.”
Zack chewed on the inside of his cheek. Jon knew that, based on Zack’s nature, he wanted to insist Jonathan sit this one out; and while Jon would have loved to continue avoiding whatever situation he’d found himself in with Sock, with the Den, with Mephistopheles, well. The band didn’t exactly have a way to replace him for the night, and they all knew that. Zack said nothing, and the moment of silence stretched.
Finally, Tom said, “Alright!” and smacked his drumsticks on a plastic bin. “Liven up! It’s a show, not a funeral. And we get paid tonight! Come on, who here isn’t excited? Think of all the weed we can buy!”
Zack smiled, and Jon attempted one, not feeling it in the least. In fact, letting Tom attempt to fix his face with some makeup and then piling into Zack’s van with his guitar case on his lap and in his face, he began to feel just a little sick. The Den, when they parked and piled out, each person with armfuls of equipment, looked just a little darker, less inviting, than it had before with the sounds of conversation and laughter emanating from the windows wreathed in shadows.
“Come on,” Tom muttered to him when he hesitated, guitar case heavy in hand and causing a bend in his spine, a bow to gravity and the weight of his music. “We don’t have all night.”
Through the back door, to the stage. Jon didn’t realized he was holding his breath until he released it upon seeing – for the first time – someone else tending the bar. When the stage was nearly set, he found himself watching the new bartender’s movements carefully as he danced between the kitchen and the bar, chatted with patrons, and noticing that, Zack moved over.
“Lucky break, huh?” He said, sounding relieved for Jon, who nodded. “Maybe he got the message. Or, maybe the feelings were mutual! The lack of feelings!”
“Maybe,” Jon allowed, though he didn’t feel as convinced as Zack sounded, because Sock’s texts, still unanswered, had conveyed anything but a lack of feelings on Sock’s end.
“Well,” Zack slapped a hand on Jon’s back, and Jon bent forward with a wheeze from the cheery force of it, and the positive attitude Zack exuded at all times. “Let’s finish up the wires! We’re on in like, fifteen minutes. We’re doing the set starting with Pump , right?”
“Cool, cool,” Zack nodded, “I’ll make sure Tom knows what we’re doing, and then this’ll be over before you know it.” He bent over to grab the unplugged audio cord of the microphone Jonathan had been loitering near.
When they started up fifteen minutes later, they received the same lukewarm applause as the previous weeks in response to Zack’s, “Hey guys! You ready to rock?”
Zack didn’t let it deter him, and he kept it up, “Well, I’m sure you’ll be sad to see us go after tonight. Seems like live entertainment is few and far between here!”
One lone person whooped. Zack laughed. Jonathan kept his eyes on his guitar, adjusting the tuning minutely. Tom drummed up a few beats.
“Well, let’s get right into it then!” Zack crowed with a gesture at Jonathan, who, knowing this sort of toss-over was coming, strummed a high screech before jumping into the rhythm; Zack joined in on the base at the same time as Tom on the drums, and after a measure, Zack moved his mouth back to the microphone and began to sing.
“ Hearts don’t love, hearts just pump blood. ”
The patrons who hadn’t cared about them several moments ago began to turn their heads, listening with mild curiosity. Jon shut his eyes, fingers moving through the same flow. He didn’t want to see them watching; he didn’t want to see the red devils adorning their backs.
“ The system quits when it’s had enough.
A little slit is not enough to fill the cup.
My heart is still beating –
You can’t have it, I’m using it. ”
Jonathan imagined Sock listening to the words with him, Zack’s smooth singing voice turning rough on the last lines of the chorus. When he opened his eyes on the dimly lit bar, he inhaled sharply, fingers stuttering against the strings. Sock stood near the entrance, in a shadow. For once, his clothes were dark, his wild hair covered with a hat, rendering him almost invisible. Had he been here the whole time, watching them set up, watching them start the set?
He recovered the rhythm as Zack glanced towards him, the next lines moving into the mic from Zack’s lips.
“ My blood is my own… ”
Sock had a white bandage on the side of his face. In the dark, and the distance, he wasn’t certain, but he thought he saw bruising around it as well, more savage than what he had ill-concealed, himself. A dark jacket prevented Jon from seeing if Sock had similar bandages on his arms and chest.
“ You’ll bleed me dry if you don’t leave me alone.
Hearts don’t love, hearts just pump blood .”
As Zack sang, Jonathan mouthed the words, lost for anything else he could say to Sock, or how.
Sock turned and vanished from the Den’s front door, not staying for the last chorus, or Jon’s final discordant strum.