“Dawn,” he said gravely. “I want you to promise me something. Promise me that the first sign of things getting…fucked up…weird…too much…that you’ll go home.”

I opened my mouth to protest, to tell him things were already fucked up, weird, and too much, but he went on.

“Just listen, please. I know you hate the idea of going home, but you’ve caught a lot of shows, spent a lot of time on the road, you’ve interviewed most of the band. You’ve really got everything you need.”

“I haven’t interviewed you,” I pointed out. “And you’re the most important piece of the puzzle.”

“I’m the most broken piece of the puzzle,” he spat out. He quickly composed himself and tried to smile. It didn’t reach his eyes. “If I give you an interview soon, will you think about packing it in? That doesn’t mean you’re quitting, it just means you’re done.”

“Why do you want me to leave so badly?” I asked, stung.

Silence swamped us like the thick humidity.

Finally he said, quiet and husky, “I have too many things to worry about. I don’t want to worry about you.”

“You don’t need to worry about me,” I told him. I smoothed down my hair and shirt and put on a sober face.

“You’re stubborn and you’re scared,” he said, smiling just enough to make his cheeks rise, dimples found in the scruffy two-day beard on his face. “It’s a dangerous combination.”

“I hear the world’s a dangerous place,” I replied.

He got to his feet and held his hand out for me. I returned his smile and put my hand in his, relishing the strength and warmth as he closed it over mine and pulled me to my feet.

“Come on,” he said, pulling me along. He let go of my hand when he was satisfied I would follow. “Let me go have another word with Graham. I plan on breaking every bone in his body except his arms and legs. Hybrid needs those.”

We walked back to the auditorium in a comfortable silence. In my head I kept repeating what Graham had said to me when he had me pinned up against the wall.

“You can’t save him. You can’t save any of them.”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

I woke up to a weird slurping noise in the middle of the night, followed by a shaking of the bunk. I had my curtain drawn across, but even then I knew it was entirely dark on the bus and that it was in motion. I heard Bob at the driver’s seat, shifting gears as the bus climbed the hills that cluttered around southern Virginia.

I held my breath, listening for that slurping sound again, terrified of the monsters, real or imagined. Then I heard a sucking noise, followed by a groan. I’d heard that groan before. It was Robbie, in the bunk below.

I drew back the curtain and poked my head over the side. In the dim light I could see Robbie. Well, I saw parts of him. He was 69-ing with a rather porky-looking broad, her giant ass pulled apart by his hands, the white skin of it shining in the bits of passing light from the highway.

I gritted my teeth in anger and fell back into bed, putting the pillow over my face. I was dealing with Graham being an abusive asshole, potentially dangerous groupies, and shadowy Sage, and yet Robbie was still Robbie and managed to sneak some random chick on the bus for the journey down to the Charlotte Music Festival. I wished I was so carefree and clueless.

By 9AM, most of the people on the bus were up, except for Graham, thank god, who slept in the latest since he went to bed the latest. I knew Sage had given him a talking to last night when we returned to the venue, and I was glad I got to bed without having to face him. One look under the night sky and I would have sworn he was turning into a monster again.

I hopped off the bunk and got my first look at the smuggled groupie. She was sitting next to Robbie at the table, across from Noelle and Mickey, drinking a cup of freshly brewed coffee. She wasn’t as large as I had originally thought, just soft and curvy, the type of body I could easily have if I didn’t watch what I ate. She had honey blonde hair and green eyes and a cherubic face that wasn’t very sexual or cunning at all. She looked nice, and she was wearing one of Robbie’s t-shirts, stretched across her breasts. She caught my eye as I walked over and gave me a demure smile.

Behind the eating booth, Jacob sat on the bench flipping through newspapers. He spoke to me without looking up. “Someone better introduce Rusty.”

Sage was lying down on the couch with his eyes closed, a book on his chest, his shirt raised enough so that I could see trails of dark stomach hair snaking down toward his pants and hand-tooled belt. I tried not to stare and looked back at the new girl.

“I’m Dawn,” I said, trying to push both my thoughts about Sage and my anti-groupie feelings away.

“Don’t listen to her,” Robbie spoke up with a cheeky grin. “Her real name is Rusty. Rusty, this is Emeritta.”

Over the next hour, as the bus rolled through the trees toward the festival site on the banks of the Catawba River, I learned that Emeritta was actually a pretty cool chick. She was from Boston and was a huge fan of everything loud and gritty. She loved MC5, Sabbath, Vanilla Fudge, Iron Butterfly, and most of all, Hybrid. She gushed to Robbie about how his yapping howls in “Freedom Run” made her think of a dog in heat, and that the first time she saw them live, she almost came. She said it in a fit of giggles, which was quite endearing, and her own face went pink at her frankness. Most of all, Emeritta was kind and really listened to you when you were speaking. It made me feel a little ashamed for branding so many groupies a slut. I mean, yeah she slept with Robbie and I had a feeling she slept with a lot of rock stars, but a slut is a name you give a girl you don’t like. I liked Emeritta and was happy she was coming with us to Charlotte…and any other place after that, depending on how quickly Robbie discarded her.

By the time the bus was pulling up to the festival and lining up with all the other tour buses, the band had found their newfound energy and everyone was getting pretty excited. Graham only came out of the back room near the end, and to his credit, he stayed as far away from me as possible. I caught Sage shooting him wary glances from time to time but Graham took on a very hangdog, meek appearance. I, however, didn’t believe it for a second. I could still sense that black violence rolling around in his soul…if he even had one.

I could tell this was going to be a special show by the amount of whiskey and Bailey’s Jacob was pouring into his coffee. The festival was still sleepy this early in the afternoon, but the breeze of the river was deliciously cool and the air was swamped with a sensual headiness, punctuated by the sun that shone high in the sky and sparkled off the trees. The backstage area wasn’t some dingy dressing room or cramped lounge, but a bunch of mobile trailers scattered about in a pastoral setting behind the big stages. All of us, including Emeritta, walked through the grassy field now turned a miniature town of musicians. We passed trailers marked for Earth, Wind & Fire, Deep Purple, and The Eagles. We saw the wide-mouthed Steven Tyler of the band Aerosmith having a beer on his trailer steps, and spotted Bob Seger and Randy Bachman chatting up a few gorgeous blonde women.

The Hybrid trailer was just as big as the other ones, and our neighbor, who was playing an acoustic in his doorway, was none other than Ted Nugent. Even Sage was impressed and immediately went over to introduce himself.

Despite the ups and downs and nagging sense of doom that permeated my thinking as of late, the festival was turning me around. It was impossible not to smile, and I was glad Emeritta, someone as star-struck as I was, was there with me. We both took many walks together up and down that grass alley between the trailers, trying to look into windows (subtly, of course) and listen to what music was coming from what trailer. It was what I imagined Hollywood was like.

While we did our rounds in the steaming sun, squealing at the hello we got from a killer-mustached Jon Lord, I got to know Emeritta a little better. Now that she wasn’t surrounded by one of her favorite bands, she was more forthcoming.

“So what do you think about the other groupies out there?” I asked, trying to convey sincerity.

She laughed and tucked her hair behind her ears in a nervous gesture. “First of all, we hate that term. I know Zappa and Miss Pamela made it all cool and stuff, but I’m just a rock lover. A lover of rock. I love with my ears and my body.”

I nodded, trying to figure out how not to insult her further. “I guess groupie doesn’t have to be a negative term though.”

“No, it doesn’t, but I know the way girls like you say it.”

I raised my brow but let her go on.

“You seem to forget all about the women’s movement. We’re free to love who we are and when we want to. A lot of us just happen to love rock stars. It doesn’t have to be bad. The bands love us. Everyone should be happy, don’t you think?”

“Sure,” I mused, seeing her logic. We sat down at a splintered picnic table along the fence. You could hear fans on the other side, trying to see over it or find a knothole to look through. I felt immensely cool, a feeling I thought I had lost. I relished it.

“See,” Emeritta said, beaming at me. “You love too, just differently. I know how you feel because I feel the same way right now. It’s far out. And when I’m with the men, I feel far out then too. But ten times more. You haven’t hooked up with anyone from the band?”

I hoped I wasn’t blushing. The last thing Emeritta needed to hear was that I hooked up with Robbie. It was something that made me feel dirty and ashamed, and though she probably wouldn’t have cared, I cared.

“No,” I lied. “That’s against the journalism oath.”

“They make you take an oath?”

“I took my own oath. Thou shalt not touch rock stars.”

“Tough oath you got there. I’d last five minutes. I heard that the first female journalist who went on the road with Led Zeppelin got raped by Bonzo.”

“That’s just a rumor,” I dismissed, knowing the fabled story. “Bonzo’s just a drunken teddy bear.”

She grinned, her teeth small and crooked on the bottom.

I rolled my eyes but smiled. “Let me guess, you slept with Bonzo.”

“No, I didn’t. And I know he didn’t rape anyone. He just got super feisty with the journalist. He gets like that. He did, however, fuck me with a champagne bottle.”

I nearly burst out laughing. “Okay, I just met you, Emeritta. I don’t need to know all your details.”

She shrugged, clearly unfazed. “It’s a pity you took your oath. Wouldn’t Sage be fun for a night?”

I couldn’t help but glare a little. “I wouldn’t know.”

“Oh, me neither,” she quickly said, showing her palms in peace. “Sage isn’t the groupie type. I’ve heard the occasional hook-up story, and I think he was with Miss Pamela for a while, just fuck friends, but he’s the unattainable lone wolf of the rock circuit. Just in case you were thinking about it.”

“Well I wasn’t.” I was really starting to hate Miss Pamela and her ways. If I was being honest with myself, I was jealous.

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