28. Encore

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The ladder dangled overhead, five rungs of shiny fingerprinted steel. Light spilled down from the loft. The others were already up there. They thought I was dozing in my chair, but I had been pretending again.

I reached up from Bitchmaster and took the bottom rung with both hands. Behind the Flintstone Bandaid, behind the cracked plate of my skull, was a dark lapping pressure. I let my breath out slowly. I pulled it back in, slower. Then I started.

I learned something from that climb.

I learned that there are holes in reality, black holes, like the kind that exist in the fabric of space, and that if you fall into one you don't always fall down.

When I came spinning out the other side, I was lying in the loft with two and a half faces hovering over me. The half face belonged to Billy and it had been edged out of the frame by Nip, who kept saying, "Mole . . . mole . . . mole." That made sense sort of, because one of the first things he'd ever told me about was the mole he'd gotten cut off his chest, the one that looked like a third nipple, the one he'd been nicknamed after, but why it was so important he keep shouting it at me, I had no idea.

"Mole."

Rhymes with Joel, I thought, then I realized Joel was what he'd been saying all along. I tried to lift my head. My head would not be lifted.

"Ash," I said.

Her voice squeaked out of her. "What?"

"Where's my drumbeater? I want my drumbeater."

With a little vomit out and a little water in, I was finally able to inch to the window. I opened it wide to the night. The breeze felt nice on my face the way the drumbeater felt nice in my hand.

"What are you doing?" Ash said anxiously.

"Getting some fresh air." I could think straight again, and I knew why I had come up here. "What are you doing?"

"Worrying about you."

"That must get tiring."

"Trust me, it does."

"Did I say 'tiring?' I meant boring." An ache wrung itself out like a dirty dishcloth in my legs. I winced. "You should try screaming at me instead."

"What?"

"You heard me, bitch. Scream at me."

She screamed at me, all right. She got up and gave me what for until she was out of breath and her cheeks were as red as Nip's and Billy's.

"There you go." I scooted away from the window. "Loosen up your vocal cords."

"I think his fever came back," said Billy.

"I think so, too," said Nip.

I pushed onto the drum stool, wobbled, then spun around to face the kit. The sticks were tucked between the low toms. They had glued together. I pried them apart and stuck them between my legs. The bass gave off a rich boom as I struck it with the drumbeater. Large red flakes crumbled to the carpet. "You didn't make it to the talent show, did you, Billy?"

"You know I didn't."

"The three of us put on quite a show. Brought the whole crowd to its feet."

"They were running for the exit," said Nip.

I whacked the bass a second time. Its beat hung darkly on the air. Ash was no longer breathing hard, but she was still watching me. Intently. I held her eyes. "What do you say, pussies? Why don't we give Billy here a taste of The Freaks?"

Nip shook his head. "He really has lost it."

"Get up," said Ash.

"What?"

"You heard me." Her lips fashioned themselves into a crooked pirate hook of a smile. "Get your ass up and man your station."

A minute later all the cords were plugged into the soundsystem, everything juiced by batteries and ready to go. The amplifier hummed. The speakers buzzed. There was a charge in the air, like before a thunderstorm.

Boom. I started us off slow. Boom.

Ash leaned over the microphone, her gaze fixed on Billy across the room. "The sun bleeds down on the dying day . . ."


____ ____

Author's Note:

Has anyone put together Joel's idea?

Coming up, the kids put on a show for all of Honaw to remember, and soon find themselves with an audience . . .

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