The ground trembled beneath his booted feet. In the distance, chanting. One word. Two syllables. Over and over.
Backstage, Dominic Harrison knelt in a crouch, giving his bootlaces one last tug before pulling up his trademark pink socks. The crowd’s excitement reverberated through the floor as they stamped on like an army of marching soldiers.
“Five minutes,” someone called loud enough to be heard through his noise-cancelling headphones.
Two of his crew, Gavin and Jackson, rushed past carrying a bundle of props, the smell of fresh paint wafting off the flak jackets they’d sprayed neon pink yesterday in preparation for the new tour. They all wore matching black combat pants, although Dom had scrawled pink smiley faces with X X for eyes on his. Jackson propped the trio of flags, two black and one pink, next to the row of guitars. Gavin pulled two pink ski masks from his vest and lobbed one at Jackson before pulling his own over his face. His brown eyes peered at Dom as he flashed him a palm in a visual indication of the time. Dom nodded in acknowledgement.
Five minutes until everything changed.
Dom stayed crouched, allowing himself a moment of peace as he tuned out the hustle and bustle around him and offered a silent prayer to the rock gods. He pulled his focus inward and stared at the patch of ground between his boots, the worn floorboards scuffed and scratched from countless others who’d passed through before him on the quest for stardom, or at least in the attempt to claw their way out of the trenches of mediocrity. Absentmindedly, he traced a splotch of gum so old it was nothing more than a dark stain, a fading memory of forgotten voices.
One thing was for sure, Dom didn’t want to be mediocre. Or forgotten.
Touching his lips, he thought about his family, his parents and two younger sisters, then pressed two fingers to the floor. He always felt like he left a bit of his soul behind at every show but he wouldn’t have it any other way. This was where he wanted to be. Growing his fanbase. Making a difference in the world with his music. Making himself heard.
Dom stood and shook out the kinks in his legs. His heart beat to the sonorous chant beyond the curtain and his chest swelled with anticipation.
He felt the presence behind him more than heard it and slung his headphones back as a hand landed on his shoulder.
“Ready?” A familiar voice said, in an accent Dom had never been able to place.
Turning, he smiled at his manager, despite the rioting butterflies in his stomach. “Think so, Sal.” The 'th' came out as 'ff', courtesy of his Yorkshire accent.
Every musician needed a suit, and Sal, short for Salvatore Battere, was his. The dark-haired man with midnight eyes and a vulture’s beak towered over him, his lean frame gangly like taffy pulled too long. Sal was maybe a decade older than himself, but sometimes acted like he was ancient. He had about a billion eccentricities which he often blamed on life in the old country.
Despite his eyebrow-raising quirks and old school mafia look, they got along splendidly like most mismatched misfits did. Sal seemed to feed off Dom’s energy, sharing his enthusiasm for the small things. When ADHD transformed Dom into a frantic bundle of energy that had him bouncing off the walls, Sal was his guard rail. Available to lend an ear when the inevitable crash came, encourage him in the studio when he wasn’t feeling it, or offer a hug when Dom battled a down moment. Who knows how he did it, but he kept things ‘running smooth’. He was great with the crew and ensured their every need was met, and most importantly, Sal shared Dom’s vision of bringing his message to the world.
“I can’t wait to hear you tonight,” Sal rasped, voice hoarse from smoking too many spliffs with the boys. He appeared in good spirits, like he was ready to bounce around the stage with them.
“How big is the house?”
Sal inspected the cuff links of his Armani suit, a sly smile tugging at his lips. “Full. Thousand cap reached.”
Dom’s heart thumped. Finally. He’d been elated to see his name up on the marquee of the Vogue Theatre in downtown Vancouver. His elation came with a bit of trepidation that he, a 22-year-old loud-mouthed Brit, could fill the house so far from home. Dom raked black nail-varnished fingertips through his unkempt dark hair and his fingers snagged a knot, which he distractedly pushed off to the side. His hair looked best when it channelled Edward Scissorhands anyways.
No more dive bars, renovated porno theatres or hodge-podge street gigs. This is what he’d dreamt of, worked so hard for, prayed for when he sat huddled in the corner crying. All I want is to make a difference with my music, to be heard, he’d repeated to himself night after night as he’d stood in front of the mirror, envisioning his new persona. Those dark London days had hardened him and fuelled his drive. It was this or the rope.
Still, a part of him was shitting bricks.
Tom, the band’s photographer, ran up to both of them and shoved an energy drink in Dom’s face, forcing him to drink. It was an annoying yet playful antic they dubbed the Red Bull Rinse that had developed into somewhat of a pre-show ritual they filmed for social media, and Dom obliged, careful not to smudge his black lipstick as he gulped the sugary drink. He held up a hand in defeat and pulled away.
“Fook, your eyes are glowing green tonight,” Tom exclaimed in a thick Yorkshire accent, lifting his camera for a quick candid. Tommy was a northern boy like him, and looked like he stepped straight out of a renaissance painting, with chin-length blond curls and azure eyes.
“It’s the eyeliner,” Dom laughed, flattered. “Help yourself to my beauty case. Make those true blues really pop!”
Tom lifted his camera in salute and took off in search of other prey.
Sal beckoned with his fingers and pointed at Dom’s throat. Dom wrangled the headphones from his neck and handed them over. “Do you need anything else?” Sal asked.
Dom shook his head as he popped in his in-ear monitors. He knew what was on offer, but he didn’t want to get blitzed during the show. Dr. Pepper and ADHD were all the energy kick he’d ever need.
Dom didn’t have to look to know when the venue killed the lights. Screams and whistles pierced the air. The first of many.
Make them wait, make an entrance.
A staccato drum roll preceded his drummer, Michael, who insisted on drumming everything on his way to the stage, from the walls, to the road cases, to the roadies. Dom swore the drumsticks were superglued to his hands as the guy took them everywhere. Michael paused long enough to lightly tap a drumstick against Dom’s nose. “Boop,” he said and walked by without further comment, his knot of bleached blond locks bouncing as he headed for the stage. They all had their ways of getting pre-show jitters out.
“Looking dangerous, luv,” Adam purred in his Scottish accent, thumb taming a wild eyebrow above kohl-rimmed eyes as he strolled past with his Gibson 335. He had dark hair, dark eyes, svelte moves, and fantastic lips.
Dom winked and blew him a kiss. “Snog ya out there.”
The sound of the opening prelude carried backstage, horror film music over a rapid drumbeat like machine gun fire. Gavin and Jackson returned from the stage, having dropped off their black flags. They both gave him a thumbs up.
Sal reclaimed Dom’s attention by grabbing his arms and pinning him with his dark gaze. “The fans love you, Dom. They worship you,” he said, his fingers digging into Dom’s arms in an overenthusiastic squeeze. “Go out there and kill them.”
Dom wiggled out of his grasp with a laugh and grabbed his black jacket from atop one of the road cases. He pulled it over his sheer top, completing his Sid Vicious gone emo look. Sometimes Sal’s English wasn’t the best. He accepted the pink flag and microphone that Sal handed him. “You mean, kill it.”
Sal grinned and nudged him towards the stage. “Semantics.”
Sucking in a deep breath and exhaling slowly, Dom listened intently to the prelude, then stepped onto stage to his entrance cue of seizure-inducing strobe lights and sirens.
He stalked the stage behind the sheer teaser curtain like a caged beast, his silhouette larger than life before the kabuki drop. The place erupted in screams. Wielding the flag with two hands, he waved it in the air. The curtain dropped.
The roar of the crowd grew deafening now that they’d caught sight of him.
He paused, partially for dramatic effect, partially to display the flag’s slogan, and partially to blink away the spots in his eyes because he couldn’t see shit past the blinding limelight. For a split second, time hung suspended and the entire world seemed to stop just for him. Here he was, on stage with his two best mates, ready to conquer the world. He lifted the flag in salute. The words on it folded over each other, but every fan in the room knew exactly what they were, they were plastered all over town on the gig posters. “Hope for the Underrated Youth” is what they came for, and that’s exactly what he intended to give them.
He hunched over the mic. “Vancouver,” his amplified voice rose above the screams. “Are ya fookin ready?”
Cheers and whistles pierced the air.
He nodded at Mikey, who expertly twirled a drumstick in his hand. As Adam ripped out the first chord on his guitar, Dom threw the flag to the ground.
Jackson swooped in to retrieve it, but Dom was already jumping up and down. “Let’s go!”
The crowd went mental and surged for the stage.
Adam played the defining lick of the song, deft fingers dancing over the fretboard as he strummed the riff. Dom let himself get swept up in the sweet seductive chaos of a rock concert. Channelling all his emotion, he let his voice carry, the rage, sadness, hope and elation rippling on the air as he sang.
In a place where they fail to inspire
I'm drinking the bleach so that I feel the fire
Inside is a riot but I'm in too deep
A mile in
A mile in
The crowd swirled into an insta mosh pit.
I’m shaving my face with a coke covered razor.
I press so hard it goes in deep.
A mile in
A mile in
They sang the words with him, a sea of fists pumping the air. Dom let the music take over, transforming him into a raging whirlwind of high kicks and sinful hip thrusts that simultaneously stole his very breath and gave him life. He managed a few breathless words into the mic and the crowd took care of the rest, reciting every word back to him.
I’m a twenty-first century liability
Bang bang bang, it’s all bollocks
Energy, amplified and palpable, filled the room. Their passion mutated into this writhing, growing, insatiable beast, unseen yet felt down to the bone as it fed on the heavy bass vibrations. Dom loved this about concerts. That feeling like the roof was about to blow off but then instead it imploded and stayed in the room, obliterating the line between performer and audience and leaving just the music.
The rest was a wonderful blur.
Until the fight broke out.
Dom always kept a close eye on his fans, people he considered more than just a meal ticket, but a part of his actual fookin family. He’d developed a keen sense for when mosh pit antics surpassed the norm. When he saw the brawl break out, he waved at Adam, who cut the music immediately.
“Stop fookin brawlin,” Dom spat into the microphone. His lip pulled up into a sneer that would have made Sid Vicious envious. “I can’t stand fookin fightin at my show. “You—” he pointed at a fan, “—and you.” He waved his hand, indicating that they should separate.
Security moved in to remove the instigators but not everyone welcomed his mediation.
“Just play the fucken music like we paid you to!” someone shouted.
Heat erupted in Dom’s chest. He wasn’t a monkey on the organ grinder’s shoulder.
Yeah, he wanted fans to mosh and have a great time, to go home with honorary bruises and that pleasant ache, a masochistic reminder that they’d just been at a rock show. But he also wanted them to feel safe, a place where they could escape the douchebaggery of the world, at least for a moment. Where they could dress however they wanted. Where they could identify however they wanted. Where they could love who they wanted. Where they were accepted unconditionally. But there was always one punter who insisted on being a dick. In his haven. Any threat to his sanctuary, and that of his fans, ignited Dom’s anger, a fire that he had to be careful not to let rage out of control.
This was the downside to playing larger shows. The bigger the shows got, the higher the chance that a few asshats made their way in. He’d never had these issues with headcounts of two hundred. This was, unfortunately, part and parcel of the big gig. Still, his belly roiled with growing fury and he scanned the crowd with a scowl.
If only they’d listen to him.
Dom cast a glance backstage. Sal stood, half-hidden in the shadows, arms crossed over his chest. His terse expression screamed, “handle it.”
Meanwhile, the crowd continued to jostle, the hostility palpable in the muggy heat of the venue. Dom’s knuckles went white around the mic. “Shut up!”
The ruckus subsided.
Dom brushed the damp hair from his eyes. “Seriously, if you can’t stop fookin fightin and enjoy the show then you can all drop dead, do ya hear me? Have fun or drop dead.” He squinted against the spotlight, the crowd silent like a winter grave. Shit. Nothing to be done about it now, sometimes you just had to roll with the punches.
He looked at Adam, who shrugged at him, hand poised over his guitar.
First show of the tour and already things weren’t going as planned. His community, self-dubbed the Black Hearts Club, aimed to be a place of refuge, not a gladiator pit. And now some twat had made him lose his cool. If he had to weed out a few bad apples from the bunch for the good of the whole then so be it. He motioned at Adam to keep the show going.
“Next song is called Anarchist,” Dom announced into the mic, pushing through his blunder.
Cheers filled the air, the sound a comfort. Adam and Michael bit into the song with fervour, and Dom let the music take over again. This time he relished it, sank into it, using it as an escape as much as his fans did.
“Don’t know where I am,” he sang, “Don’t know where I am.”
The room spun and Dom stumbled. Maybe over a guitar cable, or maybe from his own frenetic bouncing. The shapes in the crowd kept moving to the music. “That’s more like it!” he shouted breathlessly.
“I’m an anarchist, not like the other kids!” he sang and danced across the stage, feet barely touching the ground, every nerve in his body high strung, like he was being pulled in opposite directions. The pain and energy begged to be released, and he let it go and sang, jerking like a junked out marionette.
Dom tried to catch his breath, but the words kept coming and he sang with a surging power he’d never felt before.
“Dom, Dom, DOM!” Someone was screaming his name. Dom blinked, head spinning. Was that Adam? He often got so absorbed in his performance that he had a tendency to scare people but not Adam, Adam who was his rock and always so cool, calm and collected on stage. Adam’s bewildered gaze caught him off guard and he fumbled the next line. Something was wrong. Was his mic turned up too high? Was there feedback from the speakers? Dom couldn’t hear or see the crowd, and that damned light tech was still shining the light right in his eyes. He couldn’t see more than dotted shadows on the horizon.
not like the other kids
He belted out the last stanza, and peering up at the perch, lifted his middle finger in the general direction of where the lighting tech should be. “Kill the lights would ya, I can’t see a fookin thing!”
The theatre plunged into darkness. Adam mucked up the last chord. Which shouldn’t have been a big deal because the cheering crowd should have drowned it out.
If the crowd had been cheering.
His clothes clung to his sweat-soaked skin, and anxiety peeked out of his pocket. Dead air was a real concert killer. Dom covered the mic with his hand and hissed, “Take it from the top!”
Adam neared in the gloom on stage and shook his head. “Open your eyes, mate, sumthin’s off.”
Mikey restarted the drums but faltered when the venue's perimeter lights flickered back to life. His eyes went wide, and he pointed a drumstick in the crowd's direction.
Dom whirled around, sensing the wrongness before he saw it. The venue was quiet. Too quiet. His mouth dropped as he processed the scene in front of him. The sweat trickling down his back turned to ice.
Only one person was left standing. A young male pogoed like his life depended on it. Up. Down. Up. Down. He danced amid a sea of unmoving bodies scattered across the ground like discarded plastic cups at a frat party, their limbs bent at impossible angles and bodies contorted into grotesque shapes. Blood dripped from their eyes, ears, noses and mouths, their faces twisted into grimaces of pain and terror.
Dom pressed his hand to his mouth and bit back a scream. Had Sal slipped him acid? Were his anxiety and fear manifesting into a carnival of horrors? Was he finally, truly, going insane?
“Dom?” Adam warbled.
“What the fuck?” Mikey said over and over, his hands, still holding the drumsticks, pressed to his head.
“Stay here.” Gritting his teeth, Dom jumped off the stage, scrambled over the barrier, and fumbled his way to the closest fan. He pressed two fingers to her throat. Nothing. He checked another fan. Nothing. Dom scanned the crowd, desperate for help. But even the security was dead, their vacant eyes pooling with blood.
Behind him, someone was vomiting on the stage, but Dom couldn’t tear his eyes away from the nightmare before him. He stood up to get a closer look at the kid at the back of the pit. Fourteen, fifteen, tops. Faded blue hair and a pierced septum, jumping in and around and on top of bodies, singing quietly off-key and pumping his fist in the air.
Couldn’t he see the bodies?
“How are they all dead?” Dom spouted a litany of curses and whirled to the stage, where Adam clutched his guitar to his chest like a life preserver.
Adam looked at him blankly. “You did tell them to drop dead.”
Dom flashed him an exasperated look. “That was a fookin figure of speech!” He returned his attention to the kid. “What are you on about, mate,” he called out, his voice sounding too loud in the still room.
No answer. Just the soft thud of boots on flesh.
“Stop!” Dom pleaded, horror twisting his stomach. “Stop!”
The kid stopped so suddenly he careened, unbalanced by the corpses beneath him. He fought to stay upright. The knot in Dom’s stomach grew. He moved, trampling over dead fans to get to the kid. Bodies squished underneath his boots, and his stomach threatened to revolt.
He reached the kid, out of breath and two seconds from spewing his guts everywhere. “What are you doing?”
“Having fun, having fun,” the kid sang in an eerie voice. Now that he was closer, Dom noticed a fanatic sheen to his eyes.
“You think this is funny?” Incredulity tinged Dom's voice. ”Are you having fun?”
The kid shook his head slowly in confusion, wavering on his feet. Dom reached out to steady him. The boy snivelled and wiped his nose. The back of his hand came back bloody.
“Have fun or drop dead,” the kid echoed, voice devoid of emotion. He convulsed twice, then crumpled into Dom’s arms. Dom sagged under his weight, brought to his knees in the surrounding mess.
“Hey!” He shook the boy but the kid’s head lolled back, eyes vacant and lifeless.
“What the fuck,” Dom wailed, clutching the kid and sobbing.
A slow clap came from the stage.
Dom looked up through his tears.
Sal stood centre stage, his arms wrapped around Adam and Mikey as if they were about to take a closing bow. Even from here, he could see the sheer terror on his friends’ faces. “Pick yourself up now, boy.” Sal’s voice was cold.
“I can’t,” whispered Dom. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Sure you do.” Sal grinned and pushed away from his bandmates. He moved to the lip of the stage, the ill lighting casting a skull-like shadow on his face. He clasped his hands together primly and shifted his weight to his tiptoes like an excited birthday girl readying to blow out the candles. “You killed it!”