A glance in the rear-view mirror confirmed they were still being lazy bastards; two blond heads tilted in towards one another in sleep, while the third sleeping head bobbed slightly, chin creeping closer to its chest. The last passenger was seen as he let his gaze slide sideways; cheek pressed to the headrest his face was set towards the driver. Even in sleep he felt eyes upon him; slowly blinking he peered across the dim car interior. “Do you want me to drive?”
He shook his head, refocusing on the road. “Naah, I’m good.”
“At least turn on some music.”
“Stop worrying about me,” he reassured him.
“I’m not...” A short yawn gave him pause. “- worried.”
“But you are tired, and I’m not. Go back to sleep, I’m driving.” He gave his friend a quick but firm look before returning his attention to the road. From the corner of his eye he saw him nod faintly, sighing contentedly as his eyelids lowered.
It was actually peaceful, just him and the beat-up car on the long night road. Aside from the occasional snore and the one bobbing head the vehicle was quiet and still, a contrast to the concert experience they had a few hours back. Being back in Arizona had been a thrill, having been guaranteed a full house even though they weren’t in Phoenix. With a receptive crowd at their beck and call they quite possibly had their best performance in a long time. The club filled to capacity, they expected generous donations from the venue owner, but their expectations nearly wound up being their undoing.
In the van that carried all of their equipment, hidden beneath amps, cords, drums, guitars and props, a case of twenty-four had been packed, a little after-party for themselves. They smuggled it into the club, placing it under a loose floorboard that Glen had tripped on. It was a blessing at the time, but after the show, the van packed up and driving back to Los Angeles on Dennis’ gas money, they returned to the sacred grounds, a few girls accompanying them. They disappeared quickly enough when the fertile soil proved to be dry. The cans that had been painstakingly removed from the box, squeezed into three tight rows, were nowhere to be seen.
Not about to leave without knowing happened to their beer they split up, searching the building. It was found in part by three teenage boys, sprawled out and giggling in one of the wings, just out of sight from the stage, all but three cans empty and scattered around them, and Neal and Alice stumbling across the scene. It wasn’t long until heated words became full-out yelling. The rest of the band came running, finding Alice in a shouting match with the boy his height and Neal keeping a wary eye on the one boy who was too busy being pale to goad on the fight. A little over a minute later they were all found by the club owner, Mike attempting to physically silence the interloper, Glen trying to calm Alice, and Dennis going to check on Neal and the other boy.
“Stop yelling at my son!”
Alice stopped short upon hearing the shouted order, the unfamiliar voice being much more effective than Glen’s. The reproving face looming over all of them, even Neal, gave them all pause, but Alice didn’t stay quiet for long. “Well, you see, we have a little problem that your son could help us with,” he interjected after a length for deliberation.
Crossing his arms across his broad chest he stared down the singer with a stony expression. “It better be a worthwhile problem for yelling in his face.”
The dark chuckle that came from behind him was an irritation but Alice hid his lack of appreciation with a smile. “We happened to have lost some of our belongings, and since we last left them here, I thought that maybe he and his friends found them.”
“Oh, we found them alright,” the other boy remarked. Shrugging off Mike’s grip from his shoulder he approached Alice just as the other boy stepped out from behind him. Both wore smirks that any other day Alice would have been proud of. “They were so thoughtful.”
“Yeah, they gave us all of their beer!” the owner’s son added cheerfully.
“We didn’t give it to you, you shits stole it!” Alice snapped, pleasant demeanour gone in a flash.
The owner’s glare dropped from Alice’s livid face, glancing briefly around to the rest of the band, expressions caught in various degrees of defeat and disbelief, before lowering to the ground, cans around all of their feet. “I told you that there was to be no alcohol in my club, and not only do you bring it in here, but you also peddle it to minors? All five of you are shits! Get the hell out of here before I call the police on you!”
Mike clenched his fist, no doubt imagining that his hand was still on the one boy, probably around his neck. “We’ll be out of here, but we’ll be waiting in the parking lot, because we have no gas for our car!”
“Next time you should spend your money on gas instead of beer,” the owner mentioned, turning his attention and frustrations to Mike. “Remember that at your next concert, which won’t be here!”
Glen shook his head, giving up his role as peacemaker as he too glared at the owner. “It may as well be here, since we need money to get out of your parking lot!”
The voices raised a few more decibels as a new argument emerged; the two boys grinned at one another, about to open their last beers, stopping only upon realising that Neal and Dennis were staring at them, holding up the third boy between them. His face was looking less pale, flushed to match his sweaty skin. His head swayed in time with his whole body before he completely tensed from the waist upwards. Neal let go of the boy as the two boys took two steps back, leaving only Dennis to stop him from hitting the ground, emptying himself of everything he consumed that night. The fight came to a stand-still, the four men finding it hard to ignore the sudden stench.
Even with his make-up Alice turned an ashen shade as he looked down upon the mess. “This would be the perfect time to take your advice and leave, because I’m not cleaning that up.”
“I’m coming with you.” Trying not to breathe while nodding at the same time, Glen followed after the hastily retreating Alice.
Mike started after them, stopping to check if Neal and Dennis were following. Neal was standing a little ways behind Dennis, as ready as everyone else to leave, but Dennis was still crouched down beside the sick boy. “You do plan on coming, right?” Mike asked.
Neal turned his face towards Mike but remained as he was, waiting for Dennis. “I’m not staying any longer than I have to,” Neal replied, hoping his words would encourage Dennis to act or say something.
“I’ll be a few minutes.” Finally lifting his head, Dennis looked at the club owner, voice calm and expression pointed, but giving nothing away of his intentions.
Neal and Mike hesitated for just a second as they stepped out through the stage entrance, into the hallway that led to the backdoor. Suppressing smiles they took several more steps, getting them out of sight but close enough to hear whatever Dennis was about to do.
Outside Alice paced the length of their borrowed car, jaw clenched and arms and hands gesturing erratically. "This is ridiculous! Where does he get off blaming us for his kid’s idiocy? That was stolen property, our property!”
“Thieves,” Glen muttered, gingerly leaning against the car. “Next time we leave it in the van, or the car, some place only we know where it is.”
“Brilliant idea, too bad we didn’t put that into effect three hours ago,” Alice remarked. Having not worn out his aggravation through his paces he heaved a heavy sigh, joining Glen at the front of the car, sitting on the hood. The car shuddered and the two of them jumped away in alarm. “Whose idea was it to borrow Tim’s car?”
Glen shook his head slowly, carefully keeping an eye on the car to make sure it wouldn’t make any more protests. “The same person who realised that no one else was going to let us borrow their car.”
“He shouldn’t have given it to us, because now it’s going to be stuck out here.” The urge to resume pacing itched at his feet but he stayed put, his frustration welling up even more the longer he stared at the car. “Do we have any extra money?”
“Dennis had all our money, until he had to give it away so the van could make its return trip,” Glen reminded.
“This is so fucked up.” Tilting his head back, whining to the moon, Alice closed his eyes. The car gave a rattle, the tail end sinking as Alice opened his eyes. “Oh no, not you baby, I’d never bad mouth you. We’ll give you your life blood, we aren’t going to make you suffer.” He ran his hand over the front passenger door, a loving touch. “Alice is giving you his solemn vow.”
Biting his lip to keep from laughing at the lover’s spat, Glen crossed his arms, tucking his hands under his elbows. “What’s taking them so long? Neal has the keys and I’m cold.”
“Maybe he’s begging for money out in the front of the club, so we can get you some gas. How does that sound, Em?”
Glen gave Alice’s back a dubious look, the singer too occupied by buffing the broken side mirror. “Did you just call that thing Em?”
“It’s a car, and her name is Em.” Alice glanced back to Glen, realising there was a need for elaboration upon seeing Glen’s blank look. “Em, short for Emerald, as in the colour, as in her beautiful paint job.”
Unless he was missing something, Glen saw no beauty in the chipping green paint, but didn’t make a verbal note of it. “Of course.”
With an aggravated huff Alice turned around. “You have no eye for beauty.”
“Yes I do, but I can’t see how a broken down sheet of metal held together by rubber bands and luck can be beautiful,” Glen pointed out.
Spinning around Alice jabbed fingers to Glen’s chest. “Don’t speak of a lady like that!” The laughter that Glen couldn’t hold back any longer made Alice pause in his jabbing; the corner of his mouth curved up, but he quickly caught it and glared. “Don’t laugh!”
“You can’t be serious,” Glen choked out between laughs.
“I’m always serious,” he replied, not entirely convincing with the little smile that was creeping onto his face again.
“Why are you poking Glen?” Neal’s voice called out, interrupting their friendly argument.
Alice and Glen looked up, surprised to see not just Neal but also Mike and Dennis, only a few steps away. “I’m not poking, I’m caressing,” Alice corrected, stroking Glen in much the same way he had been stroking the car.
Shaking his head but smiling, Glen backhanded his fingers away. “I was offending his lady.”
“Who?” Mike asked, looking around the parking lot, but finding no one else but themselves.
“Never mind.” Glen stopped short his waving hand, extending it to Neal. “Hand over the keys, I’d rather wait in the car than freeze out here.”
“Actually, we don’t need to wait anymore,” Neal mentioned.
Alice and Glen glanced at one another, clearly confused, before Alice turned his attention back to Neal. “When we have no money for gas, we can’t get all that far.” He spoke slowly, as if reminding a forgetful child. “Remember the nearly empty gas tank?”
“We remember,” Neal assured him, expression turning smug. “There’s just one thing you don’t know.”
“Dennis saved your ass,” Mike gloated.
“No I didn’t,” Dennis interjected. “Tim needs his car back for the afternoon, but in order to get the car back on time we need money. So I happened to point out a few details about tonight to the owner. He became very eager to see us out of the city, so he might have given me some funds for our cause.”
The smirk was still firmly in place on Mike’s face. “Still sounds like ass-saving to me.”
“It probably is, and I am taking it as compliment,” Dennis acknowledged, his eyes conveying his amusement. “I just didn’t want to appear completely self-centred.”
“Ass-saving or not, why are we still here? Let’s go!” Glen shooed them to the car, eager to get out of the cold.
Aside from the few minutes spent filling up on gas they didn’t waste time. He hadn’t argued when they insisted he’d drive, knowing that he was the cause of most of their problems tonight. They also insisted that Dennis take the seat of honour for his quick thinking. Without the usual fire of alcohol in their bodies the post-show adrenaline abated faster than usual; it didn’t take long for the three of them to get cozy in the backseat and fall asleep. They slept soundly while he and Dennis double checked the map, deciding to take the same route out that led them into Tucson. By the time the city lights were just specks in the rear and side mirrors Dennis was sleeping as well.
An hour after Phoenix joined Tucson in their past, and driving around another bend in the road, Alice grinned. Drumming his fingers softly on the wheel he sang lowly. “Jo Jo was a man who thought he was a loner, but he knew it wouldn’t last.”
The other occupants of the car didn’t even breathe out of turn at the change in volume.
“Jo Jo left his home in Tucson Arizona, for some California grass – Get back!” He smacked the wheel with his whole hand, the sound reverberating through the car. Silencing himself he looked around; no one had moved yet, but not wanting to push his luck he kept the singing to that. He tapped his hands lightly but otherwise focused on the long road ahead of him, and not on the sleepers around him.
Shrugging his shoulders, getting a satisfying crack in his right shoulder as he lifted it up, Alice started humming the refrain. Eyes scanned over the landscape, from road to desert to the endless dark of the sky, penetrated only by the moon. A distant cry reminded him that the peace surrounding him was deceptive; all sorts of animals lived out in the seeming emptiness of the desert, the stronger preying on the smaller ones. In the car they were sheltered from the savagery, or at least for the time. Back in Los Angeles they would be exposed to a different kind of savageness.
Too occupied in his thoughts he didn’t see dust and sand blow up along the side of the road, an outline of a human body half-concealed by the debris.
“Sweet Loretta – no – Sweet Alice Cooper thought she was a woman, but she was another man,” he sang lightly, grinning with his revised lyrics, unable to keep the song to rest. “All the girls around her said she’s got it com-”
A blur darted across his line of vision, from his left and into the road. His eyes widened as a he found himself staring straight into the eyes of a young girl caught between the headlights of the car, less than eight feet from him. Not trusting the car to stop in time, Alice swerved the car to the right, off the pavement and into the desert. Fishtailing and spinning, throwing sand and rock into the air, he fought with the wheel, slamming his foot back and forth from the gas and the brake. Heart pounding madly it finally stopped as the car slammed to a noisy stop of its own, jarring all of the occupants.
Chest and stomach tender, crunched up against the steering column along with his nose, Alice listened to the pained yelps from the backseat. His head was feeling less than stable so with glazed eyes he glanced in the back mirror; Glen and Neal were glaring at one another accusingly, rubbing their heads.
“What the hell was that for?” Neal demanded.
“I’m sorry, I’ll keep my head to myself next time!” Glen retorted. “You should try the same thing!”
“Not you, I’m asking Alice.” Wincing as he turned his head forward Neal met Alice’s eyes in the mirror. “There better be a good reason why you crashed us.”
“Someone jumped into the road!” Alice defended. He slowly straightened up, gingerly touching his own head. Blood trickled down from his nose, dripping to his shirt and his pants and sparkling like rubies. Blinking in confusion and pain he opened his door. He barely opened it an inch when the whole door fell off. Stumbling out of the car, dazed but determined, he gestured out to the highway, a good thirty feet from where the wreck of a car was. “There was a girl, she came out of nowhere!”
“At this time of night? You had to have been imagining things.” Despite his reprimanding Glen climbed out of the car, making sure to be gentler with his door than Alice had been. Neal followed feet first, keeping his head as far away from Glen’s as possible. Wrapping his arms tight around him Glen nodded at Alice. “So where is she?”
“I told you, on the road!” Grabbing Glen by the arm, Alice dragged him back to the highway. They cringed with each step, struggling through the sand and uneven ground. Neal easily passed them by, despite still rubbing his head with his hand. “Do you see her?” Alice yelled.
“I don’t see anything!” Away from the shelter of the mountains, the wind tangled Neal’s hair as he looked up and down the road, then all around. “Are you sure it was a kid?”
“It wasn’t an animal! The last time I checked, animals don’t wear dresses.” Heaving and clutching his ribs Alice climbed onto the paved surface. Hazarding to straighten up he looked around. By the moonlight he could barely make out the skid marks he left behind from swerving off the road. Still inspecting the road he saw some darker splotches where the marks sharply turned. Bending over carefully he pressed his fingers to the splotches. To his alarm his hand came up wet and sticky, and closer to his eyes they had a distinct rusty brown tone. “Shit, I hit her!”
“A kid would not be up in the middle of the night, let alone out in the middle of nowhere,” Glen argued. “What kind of a parent would do that to their own child?”
“Not a real parent.” Rubbing his hand over his face, adding to his own blood which had by now dried up around his mouth, Alice frowned. “Okay, so if I hit her-”
“There is no girl!” Glen protested.
“-She couldn’t have gotten far.” Alice continued to think aloud, ignoring his friend. “She probably crawled off. Okay Glen, you look on this side of the road, I’ll take the other side. Neal, you take the road.”
Glen shook a fist at the back of Alice’s head as Alice turned to look at Neal. Neal tried to not pay much attention to Glen, and succeeded as he remembered the car and its remaining occupants. “I’m going to check on Mike and Dennis instead,” Neal offered.
Sinking back into the sand he listened to Alice giving orders to Glen, still clear by the time he got back to the car. His feet dug deeper as he stopped, peering inside the vehicle; neither Mike nor Dennis had moved at all since they left. Worry starting to creep in he walked around to the far side of the car, only stopping when he realised a good majority of the side was obstructed by a large boulder that they slammed into. Crawling into the backseat from the driver’s side, he took Mike’s hand in his, turning his arm over to feel for his pulse. Relief washed over Neal and he shook Mike’s arm. “Mike, wake up.” Stubborn in his unconsciousness it took Neal to shake him by his shoulder to get him to open his eyes. “Mike, come on.”
With a deep groan Mike pursed his lips together, slumping deeper into his seat. “Why do I have a distinct feeling that Tim is going to really hate us?” he mumbled.
“Hate us, maybe. Hate Alice, definitely.” Backing out the car he bumped his head yet again. Cursing and rubbing his head at the same time, he gestured for Mike with his other hand. “You’ve got to come out this way, your side is blocked.”
“Oh sure, inconvenience me, that’s not a problem.” He lifted himself, hands on his seat, but with a hiss he aborted the movement. Instead Mike shuffled down the seat, pulling himself along with his feet and his left arm. He had just stood up when he realised that Dennis was still in the car. “You haven’t checked on Dennis yet?”
“I thought I’d help you first,” Neal replied. He waited all of two seconds, watching Mike scoot back in, before getting into the driver’s seat. At some point of the accident the front seats had jammed all the way forward, making it very difficult to get his long legs in. “Has he moved yet?”
“No.” Mike tried to get as far forward as possible to get a good look but Neal had blocked his way. “The window is broken, so be careful.”
Checking and finding another pulse Neal shook Dennis by his shoulder. Rather than wake up his head sunk down to the right, far enough to reveal a large dark glistening patch of something on the section of the rock that broke the window. “Don’t tell me that’s blood.”
Mike stretched his arm across and past the headrest, twisting to dab his fingers against the mysterious darkness. Bringing his hand back inside he smelled his fingers, only to recoil. “It’s blood.”
What relief he felt upon feeling Dennis’ pulse faded; he tried to get closer to have a better look, but his longer limbs were too much of a hindrance in the cramped space. “Shit, I can’t see anything.”
“Let me try.” After another struggle to get out of the car Neal fell to his hands and knees in the sand, Mike barely missing his fingers as he climbed into the front. He flipped over, settling into a seated position to observe. Mike stayed in the driver’s seat for several seconds before deciding to climb over the console, precariously balancing himself over Dennis’ leg, body and head hunched over. With an audible shudder Mike quickly looked away from the gashes cutting up his face, glass and pieces of rock visible around the blood that coated him from forehead down to mouth and jaw. “It’s pretty clear why he’s unconscious.”
Cringing at the implication Neal stood up. “Do you think you can get him out?”
“It would be easier if he was conscious, but I think I can.” Forcing a frown from his face Mike studied Dennis then the car, trying to figure out the best approach. His forearm grazed Dennis’ cheek as he reached for the headrest, needing the support to push himself away. Mike’s skin came back dampened with blood, and he could see some more blood pooling over Dennis’ face. Urgency chose that moment to strike, and while trying to manoeuvre his own way into the driver seat he was already trying to ease Dennis out of the seat, Dennis' head cushioned on his chest. It took some time, repositioning himself or Dennis, gasping in pain, or simply catching his breath. Breathing through his mouth, Dennis hair tickling his nose, he rolled his eyes at Neal, who had spent the last three minutes giving him directions, but otherwise not assisting. “Could you try helping next time?”
“Of course, I’ll make sure to cause an accident just so I can help you.” With a smirk Neal finally moved in to help, freeing Mike from where he was trapped in the driver’s seat, Dennis’ prone body heavy against his. “It would have helped if Dennis could have done it himself.”
“As you can see, that’s somewhat impossible at the moment.” Mike directed his retort with a snarky tone and a shake of his head, turning his head completely to the road upon hearing Alice yelling for Glen. “What are they doing out there?”
“Searching for the girl that Alice claims he hit.” Snorting faintly Neal crouched down, inspecting Dennis face. His own face fell as his fingertips were stained red. “That is a lot of blood.”
Curling his sticky fingers into his palm Mike tried to not show his nerves. “That could mean nothing, aren’t head wounds supposed to bleed a lot?”
“Yeah, but blood loss still isn’t a good thing,” Neal pointed out. Carefully he angled up Dennis head, seeing as Dennis wasn’t able to do it himself. “Or being unconscious for this long.”
Pressing his fist into the back of his head, still resisting the urge to outright panic, Mike looked around at a loss. His eyes widened as he saw Alice and Glen noisily approach the car. What they were discussing didn’t really register to him, his mind too occupied with other things. “So did you find a kid?”
“No kid, no parents, no coyotes, nothing,” Glen replied while Alice glowered, arms crossed tight over his chest.
“I wasn’t imagining things,” Alice muttered, still glaring at the air in front of him.
“Can we please end this discussion now? We’ve got other things to worry about, like finding any sign of life out here to help us and getting to a hospital,” Neal pointed out.
“We don’t need a hospital, we’re walking and talking.” Alice swept his hand out, gesturing to the four of them standing around. “What we really need is a tow-truck.”
“Have you forgotten your math lessons that fast?” Not waiting for an answer, Neal stepped aside, giving Glen and Alice a clear view of Dennis, awkwardly positioned in the driver’s seat and not moving.
At first gawking, Alice tentatively tip-toed up beside Dennis, bending over long enough to see the mess his face was in; hastily he back-treaded, bumping into Glen who also stepped forward to look. “What happened to him?” Alice demanded.
“You smashed into the boulder, and it broke the window along with his face,” Mike answered swiftly, not bothering to be polite with his words. “Not to mention, you and the boulder broke my shoulder. You’re doing real great tonight Alice, going three for three for a complete total of destruction. I’d applaud you, but my arm is somewhat unusable at this point.”
“Do me a favour, and shut up.” With practiced speed Alice was in front of Mike, the two glaring eye to eye. Standing up straighter Alice stared him down. “You want me to say I fucked up? I did, I admit it. I could have had all five of us thrown in jail because of the beer. I certainly didn’t get us paid tonight, so we could have been stuck in Tucson for a very long time. And I know that you won’t let me forget about smashing the car for an equally as long time. I’m sorry that you broke your arm, but at least it’s only broken and you’re not dead. I saw someone in the road, and I panicked. Was it a stupid move? Yeah, but haven’t you done some stupid, fucked up things, in your lifetime?”
With his uninjured left arm Mike shoved Alice back with all the strength he could muster. Combined with his anger it sent Alice stumbling back several steps. “Yeah, I can admit to that, but my stupidity hasn’t put other people out cold or into traction,” Mike snapped.
Alice’s glare weakened and he looked away, his gaze conveniently falling on Dennis. His expression lost all of its intensity as he closed his eyes. “How long has he been unconscious for?”
Ticking his fingers up, Neal thought to himself, taking into account what all he had seen and done. “Nearly ten minutes,” he replied at last.
“Uh, guys?” They looked up abruptly, taken aback by the nervousness in Glen’s voice. “Are we sure he’s only unconscious? He could, possibly...” Inhaling deeply he pressed his lips together into a thin line, lowering his eyes and pitch, before speaking to the ground. “Could he be in a coma?”
Unable to take any more bad news Mike groaned, collapsing back first to the car, his hand covering his face. With what sounded like a dying wheeze, accented by a distinct rattle of loose metal, the car shook then crashed to the ground, the weight of the car suddenly no longer bearable to the wheels. Mike jumped away guiltily at the same time a hubcap popped free, conveniently flying at Glen’s shin, smacking him for his suggestion.
Eyes sinking shut again Alice spoke the words on everyone’s mind, voice loud and ringing through the night.