Then she said “I’m sorry” in a tone of sincerity I never heard from her. It made me stop and look back.

The farmhouse had returned and it was in flames behind her. She was standing there with my father’s razor blade in one of her hands, covered in blood from the sticky, deep cuts she made in both wrists.

“I’m sorry,” she said again, heartfelt and anguished.

I could scarcely move in my horror. Then I found my legs and began running toward her, jumping over the holes and side-stepping them.

I was so close to reaching her, my arms outstretched to grab her wrists and soak them with my shirt, when the ground opened up. A hole became larger at the last second and I was airborne, falling down into a darkness that was lit from the bottom by a fire’s angry light. As I fell, I looked up. My mother was standing over the side, her blood dripping onto my face.

“I hope you don’t see me again,” she said, before the fire swallowed me whole.

***

I woke up in a cold sweat, my heart beating rapidly as the remnants of the dream lifted out of my head, and with the uncanny feeling of someone breathing on my face. It smelled rank, like menthol cigarettes, coffee and mothballs.

I held my breath and managed to pop an eye open. Staring back at me were the citron-tinted eyes of Jacob. His pupils resembled a reptile’s for a split second but as my eyes adjusted from their sleepy fuzz, they went back to round pinpricks.

“You’re alive,” he said dryly, and another burst of odor wafted my way. I was lying on my side in the top bunk and he was just tall enough to have his head at my level.

I scrunched up my nose and moved my head back. “What time is it?”

He pulled out a pocket watch from his ugly jacket and gave it a quick glance. “Ten in the morning, Rusty. I thought you might want to join us for breakfast.”

Ten already? I leaned over and poked my head out of the bunk. The bus was deserted and the early sun was streaming in through the dusty windows.

“Where are we?”

“Just east of Lawrence, Kansas, if that means anything to you. It means nothing to me.”

Kansas. It sounded so far away and oddly exotic to my sheltered ears. The bus really had been going all night long.

He patted the edge of the bunk. “Well, hurry your lazy arse up then and get in while the getting’s good.” He pointed out the window. “We’ll be just in there. Want me to order you anything? Orange juice? A wholesome glass of milk?”

I gave him a tepid look. “Coffee, please, and lots of it.”

“That a girl,” he said with a grin. I always expected Jacob to have gold teeth glinting in his mouth. He turned and started moving down the aisle. I began to get off the bunk, hanging my body rather ungracefully until my feet found the bunk below.

He had stopped at the doors, watching me with amusement. “You know, I hope you don’t take last night the wrong way.”

Right. Last night. I wiped away the lewd images before I had a chance to dwell on them. I pulled down at my Sabbath shirt and stared at the leftover messy bed on the couch, avoiding his eyes.

“They’re a metal band,” he continued, his voice more grave. “They like to have a good time. It’s normal, Rusty. You’ll get used to it, eventually, and if you don’t, well…try loosening up a bit.”

I snapped my head up to give him a dirty look but he was already out of the bus. Right, like I was the one that needed loosening. I was just fine, thank you. It was the band and their careless manager that needed some tightening.

I got dressed quickly, not wanting to keep the band waiting, and put on a pair of white hot pants and a simple red and white striped tank and denim vest. The shorts were the most scandalous thing I owned, and I felt like showing them that I wasn’t as uptight and prudish as they seemed to think.

The moment I stepped off the bus and into the hazy sunshine, I immediately felt better. The weird interaction with Sage’s stalker and my disturbing dream were swept away as I looked around at the surrounding flat fields of golden soybean punctuated by aging grain silos. It was hot already, the oppressive heat of the Midwest giving central Washington a run for its money.

The diner itself was one of those popular truck stop joints, quietly charming in its simplicity and spinning neon sign, with semis and camping trailers lining the outer edges of the half-empty parking lot. I stepped inside and immediately spotted the band. With their long hair and young bravado, they stood out like…well, like a bunch of rock stars. The patrons, worn out truckers and passive middle-aged couples, were on the edges of their padded vinyl seats, watching them like one watches snakes at the zoo.

They had taken up two booths, with Noelle, Mickey, Graham, and Sage at one and Robbie, Jacob, and a small, hawk-faced man I presumed was the bus driver at the other. Jacob saw me and motioned at me to come over and take a seat beside Robbie.

Just great. I felt like I could never look Robbie in the face again.

I sighed and sucked it up and made my way over. I stopped at the end of the booth and smiled at the bus driver. He was an older man, maybe late sixties, with a shock of white hair and a bad comb over. He wasn’t, however, frail in the slightest. He had a scarred cheek and twinkly blue eyes that promised a load of scandals and stories.

“This is Rusty,” Jacob said, as if he were some proud father—who’d forgotten my actual name. “Rusty, this is Bob, our driver and the driver of all drivers.”

“Nice to meet you, Bob,” I told him, totally conscious of Robbie’s eyes at my back, not wanting for the attention to be taken off the driver. “I hear you used to drive The King around.”

He chuckled and slurped back some coffee before saying, “If you think you can get secrets out of me, you’re dead wrong.”

“Bob will take those to the grave,” Robbie piped up. “I’ve tried.”

I flashed Robbie a vague smile without looking at him fully and sat down next to him.

“You’re not as charming as you think.” Bob pointed at him. “Noelle, however...”

Noelle craned her head around from the booth behind us. “What’s this about what?”

Jacob pushed an empty cup toward me and filled it with coffee from a steaming pot. “Nothing you need to hear, Noe. Your ego is already too big for your britches.”

She breathed out through her nose in annoyance and turned back around in her seat. Across from her, Sage looked up from his coffee and our eyes met. He looked tired but strangely vibrant, like he only needed passion and nerves to coast through life. I didn’t want to look away, so I held his eyes until he was the one who gave up and fixed them on his coffee cup, as if he could find all of life’s answers there.

“Did you have fun last night?” I felt Robbie whispering into my neck. I looked over at Jacob who was watching me as he always did, a wry smile dancing on his cracked lips.

“Not as much fun as you had,” I said spitefully. I couldn’t help it. It was inevitable.

I finally looked over at him, his cornflower blue eyes just inches away from mine. How could someone so fresh-faced and California-kissed be as depraved as he was? Right now, with his white teeth, dimpled chin, and wavy chestnut hair, with no signs of drug use or lack of sleep in his eyes, he looked like the poster boy for posterity. In other words, not at all like a fucked-up sicko who liked to fondle breasts and get his dick sucked for the enjoyment of his bandmates. I had a hard time believing it even happened at all.

He smiled and I caught a wave of remorse or embarrassment in the way his head ducked briefly. “Sorry about that. I forgot you were in the dressing room. We’re not used to having girls there. Normal girls. Professionals.”

I heard Noelle clear her throat loudly from the other booth. He ignored her. “You know how it is though. You just gotta go with the flow.”

Sage snorted. I looked at him sharply, unused to the sound of amusement from him.

“What?” Robbie challenged him.

Sage stroked his chin and looked out the dirty window toward the resting tour bus, her green paint looking extra faded in the sun.

“What, nothing,” he said. “If anyone’s going to go with the flow, it’s you.”

“Well, if you stop the flow, you’ll be called a cock-blocker,” Robbie shot back.

“That’s a new one,” Sage mused. He slowly took his eyes off the window and looked right at Robbie, straight-faced and unflinching. “God knows what would happen if you’d put your cock away for two seconds. Maybe you’d get some real work done.”

I sipped my coffee and watched the two leads as they traded barbs across the tables. It was enthralling and I wished I had brought my tape recorder with me.

Robbie laughed but it was mean and forced. “Oh, I see. I see. Sage, the one whose name means wise, thinks he’s the sage one. As always. Can do no wrong unlike the rest of his band, I mean his minions.”

“Boys,” Jacob barked, his eyes hardening. “Can you try keeping your issues in your pants where they belong? It’s morning. I have a headache the size of the USSR, we have a journalist sitting at our table, and there’s another show tonight. A real one, none of this pussy-footed acoustic shite. Let’s please talk about something else. Bob, you pick the topic.”

Bob looked unconcerned, I guess as every rock and roll bus driver should.

“So do you think Nixon’s going to get impeached?” was Bob’s contribution.

“Fuck Nixon,” Robbie said. That sunny look of his had disappeared.

“Many want to,” Bob noted.

I could tell Robbie wanted to keep fighting with Sage but the guitarist wasn’t having any of it. The diner waitress had stopped at their table and she was busy taking his order, her eyes darting at the band with apprehension as she jotted it down.

Bob and Jacob got into a light discussion over whether the full Watergate tapes were going to be released, with Mickey jumping into the conversation every few minutes with his pro-Republican stance. When the waitress made her way to us, I ordered toast and two poached eggs, while Robbie refused to eat anything.

“I’m not hungry,” he said through grinding teeth. I could feel the energy oozing out from his pores, and I knew why he was such a manic mess on stage—it was the only place his frustrations could come out.

When the waitress finally left and the political conversation was getting more heated than I would have liked, Robbie decided he had enough stewing and excused himself. He bolted out of the diner, his hair flowing behind him, and disappeared around the corner. No one took any notice except for Jacob, who watched him out of one eye with a calculating gleam to it. Then he continued berating Mickey for his backward thinking.

I munched on my toast, and after eating an egg, I had enough too. It felt awkward and stifling in the diner and too many customers were watching our strange company.

I excused myself from the table and went out the doors after Robbie. I didn’t know why really, part of me was still put off from his behavior last night, but I was curious as a cat to see one of the best singers in the world down on his luck. Call it morbid curiosity.

***

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