The Guns had extra ammunition this year. They had something that none of the other bands booked for Mess Fest had. They had a Powder Girl. And they were gonna get fucked up on brand new experimental dope, right in front of the cops, the cameras, and every federal agent in town.
“This show will be pure hell,” said Ronny Cake, lead guitarist for The Paisleys, a machine-beat funk outfit. Murine and Frank from The Guns just looked at each other and kept their big flaps nailed. For once.
The backstage lounge reeked of hand sanitizer, lip balm, and lighter fluid. This was supposed to be a top venue, and yet there was only one functional light bulb. The Guns had played in nicer liquor store parking lots.
“You don’t need drugs to rock,” said Billy, The Guns soft-spoken front man. “Just think about the money, man. And all those tense, sober, teenage girls.”
“I can’t even get it up unless I’m on something,” said Ronny Cake quietly to himself. Murine and Frank snickered.
“Don’t go spreading that information around, you guys. I just get bored. You know how it is.”
“I know how it is,” said Billy, standing. His leather pants cracked like a mousetrap as the seams caught. “Say guys…you want to go make sure we’re all tuned up?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Murine.
“All tuned up,” said Frank.
“Okay, boys. Follow me. Since Factory Fresh got canned, we’re on first tonight, and we’ve got to make this Castle burn.”
The Guns filed out of the backstage lounge brusquely, leaving Ronny Cake behind to stew in the bilious juices of his apparently unsatisfying baseline consciousness, head in his hands, soft moans escaping from his puttering Adam’s apple.
Little Beverly MacBride shivered in the dark of the backstage parking lot. She leaned against a mural of an eyeless skull with a pistol pressed against each temple that was painted on the side of The Guns touring van. Beverly had made it through each security checkpoint with barely a glance from the off-duty cops being paid panic dollars by the Mess Fest corporate organizers, and was waved through each x-ray machine and set of drug dogs as if invisible. She only got one pat. On the head. And it was accompanied by a lolly-pop which she promptly chucked into the nearest ash can as soon as the quivering, crew-cut huckleberry who gave it to her was looking the other way at some other pert pre-teen.
The plastic baggies full of her Daddy’s emerald powder itched underneath her training bra. Where were these Guns? She wasn’t supposed to have to wait.
Beverly’s eyes crawled up the side of the Castle Theater, tracing out its line on the horizon and cramming the whole structure into a single squint perfect for squishing inside her fist. She squished it and made a kaboom noise.
The Castle Theater concert hall was built at the beginning of the last century by an expatriate Belgian nobleman who had decided that the problem with America was that it wasn’t old enough. Or old enough looking, anyway. Originally, it had screened movies, held premieres, and served as some sort of cultural linchpin for generations of moonstruck idlers. For decades, it had deteriorated into a countercultural shambles.
Currently, its main source of revenue was as the location for the annual Mess Fest Rock Festival, the Southwest’s biggest independent music fiesta. At least, it used to be independent. This year, the Mess Fest was being handled by a conglomerate of corporate interests from South Dakota. This year, in order to draw in a more pliant crowd, Mess Fest was being billed as the world’s first drug-free rock event. Many of the intricate and convoluted security procedures necessary to bring this off appeared to be working, including the pre-show piss tests for every performer. Two whole bands – Factory Fresh and Relinquish Your Mind to the Sun, also known as “Rymtits” -- had just been axed from the bill at the last minute after testing positive for cocaine. The Mess Fest wasn’t playing around.
Irritated, Beverly blew out a puff of smoky soul into the chill night and flipped the top of her hooded sweatshirt over her curly pink mop. She hopped up and down to keep warm.
Abruptly, she heard nervous male chatter from the walkway that led down into the guts of the amphitheater. She perked up and made sure the lot was empty. It was clear. The rest of the Mess Fest attendees were packed like a cracker stack inside the Castle, churning in front of the stage like a pot of boiling chowder. Like silhouettes of ships sailing from the horizon, three male figures materialized in the thrumming sodium lights.
“So how are we gonna get this fix, Billy?” asked Murine, the jumpy red-head. “They got this place locked down tighter than Frank’s sister.”
“My sister wouldn’t be so tight if you had a bigger lever, Murray,” said Frank, the gangly, severe drummer. “As it stands, every time she chews on a toothpick she gets that faraway look in her eyes and calls your name.”
“Cut it out,” said Billy. “We all know the only person that can stand to touch Frank’s sister is Frank. And then he touches himself. And then he picks up his drumsticks and gives us the hits, so lay off.”
“What about the drugs, Bill?” asked Murine. “Seriously, I’m hurting.”
“Seriously, I’m on top of it,” said Billy, his voice getting low. “In fact, that’s our connection right there. Alright, everybody. Get real impressive. Maybe we can convince her to trade the smack for an autograph, like Jack and his magic beans.”
The three musicians pulled themselves together and slunk over to Beverly on pipe cleaner legs, skulking along in time, flapping their shoulders to pop out their pecks like geese in a pack. Beverly narrowed her eyes and then rolled them, but she was hidden too deep in the shadow of the van for them to see her.
“Hello, little girl,” said Billy. “Ever hang out with a real live rock band before?”
“You can touch me if you want to,” said Frank.
“Come on,” said Beverly. “I’ve got places to go. You aren’t my only customer tonight. My Daddy’s got a whole list.”
“You aren’t selling to anybody else at Mess Fest?” asked Billy nervously. “We’ve got a deal, here. Pure exclusivity! While the other bastards twist and jones and miss their licks, we get to be the ones who get hard and play it clean. You’ve got to be dirty to play it clean.”
“It’s science,” said Murine.
“Sure,” said Beverly. “Pure exclusivity. In fact, this is a brand new product. They couldn’t even test for it if they wanted to. Daddy says it’s his best work ever.”
Billy licked his lips.
“That’s what I heard,” said Billy. “I heard it was still experimental.”
“Daddy says I’m supposed to warn you before I take any money, though,” said Beverly. “He says you’ve got to be informed.”
“It gets you high, right?” asked Murine.
Beverly shrugged and blew her bangs out of her eyes. Billy reached into his pocket and took out a wad of cash.
“Not here,” said Beverly. “I’ve got a record, you know. Have some discretion.”
Billy nodded, gave a warning stare to the other members of his band, and opened the door to the van. Beverly squinted into the gloom of the parking lot, checking for flashlights, and then climbed inside. Murine, Frank, and Billy followed. Who was this girl? Where did she come from?
The underground medical practice of Tambo, MacBride, and Xu was internationally renowned for its customer service, professionalism, expertise, and affordability. The rumor was that Tambo the Surgeon and Xu the Pathologist actually worked for free. Dr. Timothy MacBride, the Chemist, was one of those unfortunate geniuses gifted with a rakish flare for exotic pharmaceutical invention, cut loose by the modern medical research syndicates, forever searching for willing human subjects on whom to test his diabolical creations. Sometimes he required his customers to fill out a lengthy and tedious patient questionnaire, but he only charged a nominal fee, and his shit was dependable, so everybody who knew him suffered through the guinea pig bullshit with a smile and a big thumbs-up.
MacBride’s 11 year old daughter was the closest thing Tambo, MacBride, and Xu had to a nurse or receptionist. They had raised her themselves like a science project, and were busy teaching her everything they knew about the human body and its physical possibilities and limits. She was sharp, and she soaked everything up they flung at her with demon precocity, but she bored easily. Sure, she liked it when a patient went home all fixed up and happy. But she liked it even better when things went wrong.
Carefully, Beverly removed the three tiny plastic baggies full of green powder from inside her shirt. She lined them up on the van’s coffee table and sat down cross-legged on the floor.
“Pay up,” said Beverly.
“Maybe we should try it first,” said Frank suspiciously. “It’s green, Bill. Why is it green?”
“It’s ocean fungus or something,” said Beverly.
“What is it called?” asked Billy.
“Daddy calls it Rapture. But I guess you can call it whatever you want.”
“I guess we’d better try it first before we do any marketing,” said Murine, picking up one of the three baggies and pinching it open. “How does it work?”
“You sprinkle it on your shoulders and think about candy canes,” said Beverly.
Murine frowned, thinking about this.
“Just eat it,” said Beverly with a sigh. “Eat all of it. Could somebody PLEASE give me some money so I can get out of here?”
Billy pulled out his wallet and handed her a sheaf of twenties.
“This isn’t enough,” said Beverly, dramatically sprawling on the floor and groaning.
“You’ll get the other half when we don’t die,” said Billy. “Now hurry up, boys. We’ve got a show to do.”
The three Guns looked at one another and each downed their bag full of emerald green powder. They each crumpled their bags at the same time in a synchronous display of musical solidarity and tossed them to the floor in a plastic pile. It was adorable.
“How long does it take?” asked Frank, pinching the knobby flesh on the ends of his elbows.
“Not long,” said Beverly.
“Maybe we should get out there and become part of nature,” said Murine, opening the van door and peeping out.
“I think I’m starting to feel it,” said Frank, staring at his hand. “I’m not shaking anymore.”
“That’s probably just psychological,” said Billy.
“I feel really light-headed,” said Frank. “Like one of those balloons on sticks you used to see parked by the shopping carts at the grocery store.”
“Let’s get some fresh air,” said Murine.
“I’m not going anywhere until it kicks in for real,” said Billy. “If you ask me, nature is a big fat zero.”
Murine and Frank walked out into the parking lot and lit cigarettes. They both stared at the sky. Beverly made patterns with her shoes in the shag carpet of the van, humming Paisleys songs to herself just to be irritating.
“You aren’t dead,” she said experimentally. “See? Hooray for drugs.”
“I feel strange,” said Billy. “My heart is beating very, very fast. This isn’t some bullshit upper, is it?”
“You could say that,” said Beverly.
“I knew it,” said Billy. “All that negotiating just for some designer meth. Now my head feels all light. You better hope I can do this set for your Dad’s sake. You wouldn’t want him getting a bad reputation.”
“I don’t think he cares very much,” said Beverly, narrowing her eyes and standing up. She pulled the strings on her hood until only her nose was showing.
Suddenly -- from outside -- Frank started laughing like a lunatic.
“Finally,” said Beverly.
Billy frowned and peered out through the open van door.
“Check it out, man!” screamed Frank. “I’m floating! I’m flying away! This is great!”
Billy blinked and snaked his hand into his sleeve to feel his own pulse.
“Am I seeing this?” he asked Beverly. “Or is this the drugs?”
“It’s real, man!” said Murine. “Frank can fly!”
“It’s the drugs,” said Billy.
“One way or another,” said Beverly, smiling sweetly.
Beverly peered out of the van door from behind Billy shoulder. In the backstage parking lot, Frank had left the ground and was hovering five feet in the air. He was whipping his hands back and forth over his head and knocking his head between his shoulders like a pinball. Murine had a hold of one his tennis shoes and was gawking up at him with a big stupid grin on his face.
“Are you two idiots just going to hold on to each other?” asked Billy quietly. “That won’t work, will it?”
“Oh shit,” said Murine, his grin dissipating into a puzzled cloud. Murine bent down and tried to grab his own shoe and then found himself thrown off of his feet and upside down in the air. He let go of Frank, and they both ascended rapidly like champagne corks from the bottom of the ocean.
“I have broken my brain,” said Billy quietly, stepping outside of the van to watch them fly screaming into the sky. Then Billy started to rise. He clothes-lined himself on the van’s threshold, cracked something in his neck, but managed to twist around and wedge himself into the door before he could lose himself to the sucking heavens.
“What the fuck is going on, little girl?” he shouted. “Where are Frank and Murine?”
“By now, they are probably somewhere in the upper atmosphere wishing they had gas masks,” said Beverly. “Daddy will be so proud.”
“Are they going to come down?” shrieked Billy, trying to squirm back inside the van. “Am I going to come down?”
Beverly grabbed the top of Billy’s thrashing head and pushed on it.
“You are in my way, fatso,” said Beverly. “Besides, a band is supposed to stick together.” She grabbed him by the jacket and pulled him into the parking lot. He was too confused and scared to fight back much. He got in maybe one good swipe, but once they were outside, he was as much at Beverly’s mercy as if she were dangling him off of the side of a building.
“Why are you doing this?” asked Billy, tears falling from his blubbery face onto Beverly’s pink curls.
“I have no idea,” said Beverly, irritated by the saline waterfall. “Seems like a pretty stupid drug, if you ask me.”
She let him go, screaming, into the cold ass night. His voice slid up like a slide-whistle after him as he shrunk into a match-head, into a pin-prick, into a dust-mote, into a memory. Beverly stood there, as if waiting for something. Three wallets and three sets of car keys fell with a leathery jangle onto the pavement in front of her. She stuffed them into the front pocket of her sweatshirt, and casually made her way back inside to catch the rest of the concert.