Airport hotel, three a.m., and Billy's got enough whiskey in his system to tranq a pony but it's still not enough. He falls back on the bed, eyes half open, staring at the stucco on the ceiling as the air conditioner kicks in.
It's not enough because Billy's not out cold, and if he's still conscious that means he has to face this night after all.
The voice comes from somewhere near the wardrobe, that awkwardly placed, flatpack piece of shit that seems to exist entirely to block his way when he's stumbling to the toilet in the middle of the night. He left his shoes there, he thinks.
The ghost of Joe Dick is standing there on his fucking shoes.
"I can count," he mumbles and covers his eyes with his forearm, legs hanging off the side of the bed, dangling but not quite reaching the floor. His feet are bare but he doesn't think he got undressed when he came back up to his room. He's pretty sure.
"Congratu-fucking-lations," says Joe.
Billy isn't going to answer, because he has nothing to say to that. He has nothing to say to Joe anymore. He has nothing to say.
"What the fuck are you doing, Billy?" That's the ten fucking thousand dollar question, isn't it? But Joe Dick lost the right to ask it five years ago when he put a gun to his head. "Jenifur are a bunch of cunts but at least it was a fucking band. At least it was a band, Billy. You remember what that is? You fucking cock."
"Can we skip the whole thing this year?" says Billy. His mouth feels dry, the words hard to push out. "I'm tired. I'm fucked up. I'm done."
"You're done," said Joe. "You got that right. Fuck." It's not like it's anything Billy hasn't said to himself a hundred times. "Bigger and better, huh? Bigger and better? Try smaller and shittier."
"Fuck off," he says, but there's almost nothing behind it.
It's the truth, isn't it? Making a living's not all it's cracked up to be, and the music business is as shit and corporate as Joe always said it was. Billy's always known that. He tried to build his career around it. And now he's living the sell-out dream, paying the mortgage on time every month with cash to spare. Session musician.
Joe Dick didn't just blow his brains out that night; the bullet went through Billy's soul, too.
"At least it's music."
He could hear Joe spit, hopefully towards the bathroom with its gleaming white tile and its freshly laundered hand towels. He remembers one night in Oshawa when Joe shredded a motel towel with his teeth. Joe didn't even remember the next morning, thought the motel had rats or possums or some shit like that and spent three hours trying to hunt them down.
"What the hell happened?"
"You asked me that last year," says Billy. He blinks his eyes open for a moment but catches a flash off the corner of the mirror from the light he left on just inside the door and it's too much. He hopes he remembered to put the swing bar on. He doesn't need any fucking housekeeping, now or later or ever.
"Yeah, and I'm going to keep asking you till you give me a decent fucking answer,'" said Joe. "What happened to you, Billy? What the fuck happened? You were an asshole, not a loser."
He thinks he feels the side of the bed dip, just for a moment, but it's probably just the whiskey and the fact that he's precariously balanced at this point, under threat of slipping off the edge like some kind of comedy cliché. It's not Joe Dick sitting next to him. Ghosts don't have mass, they don't dip the bed and muss the covers. They have weight, though. They have a fuckload of weight.
"Grew up, I guess," he says, which is the lame answer he gives everyone. The truth is that there was a spark in those months right after, a moment when everything could have gone right. The deal with Jenifur was signed, sealed and delivered and Hard Core Logo was on everyone's lips for a few shining moments for all the wrong fucking reasons. He maybe could have-- what's that bullshit they say? Struck while the iron was hot. There was a moment. He had his shot, right there. Everything he ever wanted, except.
"Bullshit," says Joe. "You and me are never fucking growing up. We agreed."
"Yeah, well now you don't have to, do you?" says Billy. "You don't have to do anything anymore."
"Neither do you," says Joe, "you fucking hypocrite. Don't blame your shit on anyone but yourself."
"Never did," says Billy. He might've done a lot of fucked up shit, but he always owned it. Even at the end. Even when it ruined everything. "I dug this grave. Nothing to do but lie in it."
"What's this melancholy bullshit about anyway?" says Joe. "Jesus Fucking Christ, Billy, grow a pair. If you hate your life, fucking do something about it."
"Like you did?"
He thinks he can hear Joe breathing, as if ghosts breathe. As if they do anything but haunt the shit out of you. Five years now and every year, every anniversary, Billy has this to look forward to, a savage look at a life that didn't go the way he dreamed it would when they were kids together. When they were adults together. But they aren't anything together anymore, and Billy has to live the life he's got.
"I don't hate my life," he says. It's actually the truth. Sometimes he hates that he doesn't hate it, when remembers what might have been, or should have been. But his life is pretty good. It's just not what they planned. "I'm tired, Joe. Can we be done?"
"It's only three," says Joe. "You're tired at three? Used to be at three we were just getting going."
"We were kids, then," says Billy. And he knows Joe knows what he means. Joe might've been deliberately obtuse sometimes when he didn't want to admit something, but he was fucking smart. He always got it. "You know I fucking loved you, right? Even in the middle of everything."
"You and me to the end," says Joe. Except it didn't turn out that way, did it? It was him and Joe until Joe's end, and Billy had to go on after that. At least when they didn't see each other, Joe was still in the world. He could count on that. He took it for granted.
Now he gets one night a year, and that's almost too much too.
"Why do we keep doing this?"
"Hey, I'll stop showing up if you want me to stop showing up," says Joe. "It's all on you. This whole fucking thing's on you. You know that, right?"
"Maybe I could be okay, if it weren't for you. Maybe I could be happy."
He doesn't like saying that aloud. If it's true that he doesn't hate his life, then it's equally true that he's not happy, either. He's not sure he can be happy with anything.
"You want me to stop coming? That what you really want, Billy?"
Billy closes his eyes again, feels a tightness in his head alongside the spin and fall of onrushing unconsciousness. "No," he says, and he hates that he means it. "No."
"Yeah, I figured," says Joe, and either his voice is fading, or Billy is. The whiskey is finally doing its job, and he manages to stay on the bed as it does. He thinks. "See you next year."