As Mel pulled the Dumpster into a packed parking lot full of blaring 8-tracks and Pabst Blue Ribbon, my hopes sank. Because I was writing on spec, I didn’t have a press pass so I looked just like every other concert goer.

Except not.

The girls were young and beautiful, wearing short shorts and skinny strapped tops. Some had on bikinis, other see-through shirts made of crochet and netting. They were all tanned with ironed hair and large platforms. There were even a few wearing PASTE t-shirts that were clearly meant for children considering the way they showed off their abs. Their lips were frosted pink, their smiles drunk and seductive.

I was wearing a thin red t-shirt that stuck to my skin from sweat. From a quick glance into the rearview mirror, I could see my hair really was a rust-colored rat’s nest, my dark brown eyes didn’t have a lick of makeup on them, and somehow my freckles had multiplied in the last hour. My jeans were bell-bottoms, my shoes were Frye boots—with horse shit on them. I was going to have to compete against these girls for Terry’s attention, and I had a feeling he wouldn’t give a fuck that I was a so-called journalist.

Especially one that compared his voice to a cheese grater.

I sighed, suddenly not wanting to get out of the car.

“Dawn, you’re doing it again,” Mel warned.

“Doing what?”

“Turn off your brain.” She began to reach behind her for the flask.

My hands flew up to my mouth in protest. “No, I’m fine. I need to think clearly tonight.”

She gave me a wry look. “What is with you lately?”

“What do you mean?”

She nodded at the girls in the parking lot who were laughing, drinking, and oblivious to the thunderstorm that was hiding around the corner. “Where’s your confidence, girl? You’re gorgeous and you know it. Not only that, but you’re one fine writer. A double threat.”

“I’m just not slutty enough,” I mumbled.

Mel ripped off her sunglasses and gave me the stare down. She had won in the staring contest against my horse earlier—I was powerless. I looked down at my hands and dirty fingernails.

“Are you calling them girls sluts because of the way they’re dressed, cuz damn child you must think I’m a downright ho in my little booty boobie get-up here,” she said with full-on attitude.

“You’re not a groupie,” I protested.

“Who cares? I could be. What’s wrong with trying to get some rock and roll tail? Sex is sex, Dawn, even for the wrong reasons. I thought you were all for this women’s liberation shit and bra burning.”

I looked down at my chest. “I didn’t need those bras anyway.”

She put her hand on my shoulder. She wasn’t gentle. Mel could fly off the handle and you never wanted her on your bad side.

“It doesn’t mean you have to spread your legs if you don’t want to,” she told me in her I’m-a-year-older-let-me-lecture-you voice. “But let those girls be those girls. You be yourself, loosen up, and maybe, just maybe, if you try the groupie angle, you’ll end up getting the real story.”

I gave her fingers a quick kiss before shrugging them off. “You are a terrible influence Miss Melanie Jones.”

She laughed, throwing her head back. “And you need a good shag, Miss Dawn Emerson. You can’t have the rock and roll without the sex. And drugs. Speaking of…”

She brought out her saddlebag purse and brought out a joint from her slim cigarette case.

“What did I say about thinking clearly?” I reminded her. But I ended up taking a quick puff anyway. Pot was good for the musical experience and clearly I needed to loosen up a little. I felt as tense as the coming storm.

We got out of the car sufficiently high. I gathered my confidence, threw back my shoulders, and the two of us strode proudly toward the entrance to The Ripper. We were getting second glances from a lot of the guys. Naturally the sight of a short, curvy black girl and a tall redhead garnered a lot of attention in itself, plus there were Mel’s boobs swinging around in her top and that flirtatious smile of hers. If they could get past the mess of hair and the horse-shit boots, I knew deep down I wasn’t anything to sneeze at either. But was I “beat out the groupies and score an interview with a rock star” hot? That remained to be seen.

We showed our tickets at the door to a tricked-out bouncer, and after flashing him our IDs, he slapped a yellow band on our wrists, proclaiming to the world that we were of legal drinking age. I grinned despite myself. After years of watching the “cool” older kids have their drinks in the club, it was a relief to be able to do the same.

The club was packed even though half the audience still appeared to be tailgating outside. It was dark and blurry and reeked of cigarette smoke and cheap cologne. I felt like I was floating through the crowd, feeding off the energy of music lovers, intoxicated by the anticipation of a live show. I was in my element and the grass was working fast to mellow me out.

Mel did her usual thing which was to ditch me as soon as we got inside. She spotted a former flame of hers, this real creep from New York who thought he was a ghetto superstar, and took off to him like a moth to a flame. I didn’t mind. I liked to be alone during a concert, the better to feel the music and really immerse myself. Plus observing the crowd was a major tool to creating atmosphere in music reviews, and that was hard to do when you had Mel squealing in your ear, dissecting the size of the lead singer’s dick by the tightness of his pants.

I found a spot against the sweating wall to the left of the stage, conveniently close to the backstage entrance. I kept a deceptively casual watch on it to see if I recognized any of the roadies or managers who were going in and out. So far, none of them looked familiar and after ten minutes the area around the door became crowded with the frosted-lip chicks. I felt my chest tighten. Mel was right, something really was wrong with me. With family issues, my worries about Moonglow’s performance, and Ryan leaving me, it seemed like everything was stressing me out. Music was always the one thing in my life I could count on, the drug that took me away from reality and made me feel whole. Now, it just seemed like too much pressure to make something of myself.

I took in a deep breath of secondhand smoke and closed my eyes. I repeated a Zen mantra I had heard on a.m. television until I started to feel in control again. When I opened my eyes, Todd McFadden was standing in front of me. He worked with me on Big Ears and since he was into the same rock and metal as I was, I was always battling him for music reviews and shows. We were on friendly terms, but I really couldn’t stand his chauvinistic opinions, nor the fact that he always had one long nose hair sticking out of his right nostril.

“Hey Red,” he cooed. He placed his hand against the wall and leaned on it, thinking it probably made him look cool. It just made him look like he couldn’t stand up straight, and after getting a quick glimpse of his red-rimmed eyes, it wasn’t far from the truth.

“Hey Caveman,” I replied. So I may have lied when I said we were on friendly terms.

“Oh, you like the chest-beating type, admit it.” His smile was more reptilian when high.

“The only thing that should be beat is it,” I retorted and turned my attention back to the stage. “So, beat it, I’m trying to watch a show.”

“No show yet, babe,” he said, stepping in closer. “Are you here to write or just listen?”

“Both,” I said, crossing my arms.

He nodded but stood there, not really getting the hint. After a few awkward seconds he said, “Did you hear I’m interviewing Terry after the show?”

I tried really hard to not let that bother me. I failed. My eyes bugged out.

“What? How? For who?”

Todd shrugged. “Spokane. I got a job there for the summer. Beats the hell out of Big Ears.”

I knew it did. Man, that pissed me right off. Of course someone like Todd would be able to land a job like that—he stole half my potential stories anyway.

He glanced over at the scantily-clad girls at the groupie door. “You know you might have a chance if you…”

He trailed off and looked down at my top with disdain. “Never mind. You got shafted, babe.”

That did it.

I pressed both my hands into his scrawny chest and shoved him. Hard. He went stumbling off balance and landed on his ass on the greasy floor. People in the crowd cried out as their drinks spilled, then laughed at him and went about their business.

Todd glared up at me, his face growing visibly red in the darkness. Trying to stifle his embarrassment, he got to his feet and pointed a finger at me.

“Real professional, Red. No wonder you’re not going anywhere.”

And with that he adjusted the collar on his leather jacket and stormed off into the crowd, shoving a few drunks out of his way.

So much for de-stressing. Two seconds talking with Todd and my heart rate was all over the place. I hated, hated knowing he was doing better than I was and hated even more that he thought I was going nowhere. Well, I’d show him.

I tugged my shirt down and began to make my way toward the side door. I didn’t get very far.

The lights in the house went down and the band—minus Terry—took to the stage among cheers and hollers from the crowd. They were all young, fashionably skinny, and trying way too hard to imitate Alice Cooper with their weird boots, tights, and bleeding eye makeup. They looked like ghoulish long-haired clones of each other.

A single spotlight lit up the middle of the small stage, and as the drummer began his roll, Terry Black stepped out in all his glory. He was tall and thin like the rest of the band with hair carefully disheveled in long black waves. He was wearing a cape made out of sewn-on bats and snakeskin platform boots. He looked like an idiot and it was only because he had a handsome, albeit babyish, face that the women were going nuts for him. He raised his arms in the air like he was going to fly away and already a pair of white lace panties were tossed on the stage.

“Minions!” he addressed the crowd in a booming voice. “Calm down before your master.”

Oh dear lord. I shook my head, wondering why I even wanted to interview this loser to begin with.

But the chicks went nuts and even the guys seemed to fall for his faux-metal bullshit. And that was why I wanted to interview him. Because he was popular.

Ugh, I was so close to being a sell-out.

I looked at the stage and saw Todd standing on the side of it, watching the band, taking notes and chatting with one of the roadies.

That’s what I wanted to be? Double ugh.

After about twenty minutes, I had enough of listening to Terry scream and Todd shooting me smug looks from the side stage. I made my way through the sweaty crowd of overheated leather and underage girls until I was at the bar. The line-up was wild, with people shoving and yelling, and after a few minutes there I realized I wouldn’t be getting a drink either. I started to look around for Mel and finally found her in the corner, sucking face with ghetto creep. She wasn’t even watching the damn show.

I thought about approaching her and dragging her away, but I knew better than to get between Mel and her man, whichever man that was. Frankly, I was a little jealous, too. She had no problems finding a guy to shag, where I was too hung up on Ryan to even consider anybody in the venue. Sure, I liked the looks I had gotten earlier but looks never went very far with me. If Ryan and I were actually really, truly dunzo, I was going to have a hell of a time trying to get over him.

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