The Best-Ever Doom Metal Band
by Lara Markstein
The best-ever doom metal band out of Oakland played for an aging audience lounging in lawn chairs that had sunk into the Savannah sludge so that their occupants appeared drunk, perched at odd angles between the RVs and the oaks.
“At least no one complains about the noise level,” Cleo said between songs.
Like their listeners, who’d lost the last batteries for their hearing aids, Aubrey didn’t catch Cleo’s joke. She was high on whatever she’d mixed in the back of the truck and plucked at her strings with a singular focus, as though with the right notes she could cleave the steaming field in two so they wouldn’t have to clean the mud later from their pedals and chords.
Cleo whispered into the microphone and kicked the drum machine when it petered out, which happened more frequently since they’d hit the south. The weather had been grim; endless overcast skies and flash thunderstorms. They’d stacked their solar panels uselessly beside the spare tire and jack. Cleo didn’t actually mind the warped sound. She imagined their songs lumbering up like some half-formed beast from the swamp.
The last chord reverberated through the camp to a scattering of applause. Their audience was already packing away their coolers and canopies.
“Fucking Floridians,” Cleo said. “Can’t even spare a beer.” She almost missed Sam, the fool, who’d gone to every one of their shows, greeting her afterwards with liquor and a towel, as though she really were someone. A pity his greatest dream was to sleep beside her, growing old. “How many days till Austin again?” They’d booked The Moody Theater, a career-defining coup that could launch them onto the international stage. On a Monday, sure, but for a fee that was financing this whole ridiculous escapade.
“They’re refugees,” Aubrey said. “Give them a break.” But even she curled her lips at the grubby cables that had to be wound into plastic crates. This was not what they were used to. Cleo and Aubrey (and Skeet in the day) played second-tier indie venues, with roofs, the bodies beneath them swaying like a small, sweaty wave. But here they were, because it turned out that crossing Savannah’s new network of bridges from isle to isle cost a month’s rent.
Cleo slapped at a mosquito. The bugs had rallied in the evening air.
“Hey, kids!” She called to a pair of skinny Spanish-speaking children. “You want a meal?” When they nodded, she chucked them a couple of cloths. “Clean this shit up.” Cleo explained how to loop the wires with a flick of wrist and made them practice before her till they got it right.
Aubrey handed Cleo a bong. “We haven’t got food.”
Cleo inhaled. “There’s squirrels fucking everywhere.”
Aubrey grabbed her revolver from the cab, where her phone was ringing still. Her parents were always calling, wasting their lives worrying about their precious child.
“They’re probably diseased,” Aubrey said, swinging a bleeding carcass at Cleo. She was a crack shot, even blazed. Her boots made sucking sounds in the mud.
“So? Cook it good and no one will know.” Cleo had fixed far worse for her family when money was short. She skinned the creature quickly and threw it in one of their pots with the last of their distilled water and some roots Aubrey had found. By the time the kids had finished, the stew didn’t smell bad.
Cleo and Aubrey watched the children eat greedily as the thunder rolled by. Flashes of dry lightning tore through the camp, then the rain churned the grass to mud. The kids did not move and their shirts stuck soaked to their skin. You couldn’t swim in the rivers here, what with the alligators and snakes and the waste overflowing from outlying hog farms. The Floridians lifted their faces to the downpour as though there were grace to the cool sting. An old couple washed each other beneath the rain, all humility vanished. Naked as wrinkle-assed cherubim except for baseball caps.
“Shoot me if I get that old. Christ,” Cleo said.
“Rege Satanas,” Aubrey agreed and passed Cleo a powder from a dirty plastic bag that had been reused too many times and leaked. They’d had a death pact as teenagers, the three of them, back when things were just starting to go bad; when the oceans reared up on stilts to trample the lowlands and the storms thrashed whatever had not drowned. They wouldn’t grow old and ugly, worrying about some bullshit future for their bullshit kids (they wouldn’t have kids. Cleo’s siblings had produced plenty, all in those same damn rooms they’d grown up in, and still not enough in the broke-ass fridge). They’d flame out, bright and beautiful.
Although they couldn’t agree on the exact means. Aubrey thought they should kick it in some wild, drug-induced orgy. Hedonistic till the end. Skeet said they should stick to the classics: knives, arrows, guns. Cleo wanted something that would etch their names in the soon-to-be-forgotten history books. A rocket blasted into outer space, from which they could explore the vast stretches of the inhospitable universe until finally, one by one, they perished, their eyes wide.
Alright then, scram,” Cleo said when the kids had finished licking the pot clean. “This isn’t fucking Disneyland.”
* * *
Cunticle was on tour. Ravaging storm surges and a thresh of fires could not quash the band as they stampeded across the country, bearing beats and distortion pedals and the sorrow of a generation that had lost the Earth upon which it had been born. From the swirling Atlantic over the thick-jungled Appalachians to the Great Plains that had once produced endless golden horizons of corn to the pink pancake crusted deserts and a bleached and barren sea. The music would play on.
But it was not easy these days to arrange such a trek, and Cleo and Aubrey waited in a long line of cars at a state border checkpoint, their windows wide, feet hanging over the glass. Police, armed with machine guns, stopped every car.
“You got rid of everything, right?” Cleo asked.
Aubrey pulled out her earphones. “Yeah. I mean mostly…”
“Hey, you’re the reason we don’t have the paperwork.” Aubrey had been in charge of procuring the first set of visas to take them to the East Coast. Cleo was supposed to shepherd them home. For some states — the shit states — a simple online form and money transfer sufficed. For others you needed letters of invitation, proof of onward transportation, sufficient bank balance… the list went on. Cleo had bored while sifting through the ever-changing regulations, and finally she’d forgotten the stack of documents beneath her bed. Organization had been Skeet’s job. She planned their expeditions as though they were military operations with backup generators and batteries. Without that extra crap, Cleo and Aubrey had more space for booze, which by now they’d mostly drunk.
“Shit, do we really have to see Skeet when we’re back in town?”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist. It’s weeks away still. You going to call Dionne’s kids?”
“Christ. At this rate we’ll never make the Chicago gig.” Cleo reached over and honked the horn so that Aubrey leapt. Several officers swiveled and walked towards the truck.
“Fuck, Cleo. Fuck. Everyone’s trying to get across this border.” Chicago was one of the cities that hadn’t been affected as badly by climate change. The Great Lakes had tempered the hike in temperature, and the locals welcomed the heat. The ones who hadn’t been priced out of the state, that is.
“I’m sorry,” Cleo batted her eyes at the officer. “I must have nodded off a moment and my arm slipped.” She was nowhere near the horn. Cleo was used to getting what she wanted, being beautiful. Men and women and goddamn animals tried to please her. She strolled through the Deep East of Oakland like she was charmed.
The officer asked to see their papers. “They must be somewhere. We’re a band, you see. On tour. Maybe you’ve heard of us?” Unlikely. Theirs had been a slow-burning success in a genre that had never penetrated mainstream music tastes. Cleo made a show of searching through their trash. “Maybe you’ll come see us play tonight?” She flashed him a ten-thousand-watt smile. Their solar only supported two-fifty at a pinch.
So they didn’t see Chicago. There were too many people there. They’d just booked the show because they were on their way to Austin anyway.
* * *
They drove through Indiana, Missouri; through denuded fields of cotton that had crept North year after year. The spindling branches scraped the sky clear. In St. Louis and Kansas City, they played gigs at the houses of friends. “Making hay out of a shitstack,” Aubrey said, cheerfully, as they unloaded again. The shows were small, ten bodies jammed on counters and windowsills; no chance to make a buck. But they drank and ate and crashed on couches for free. These were musicians, after all, they’d met on tour once before. Acquaintances of classmates whose numbers they’d long since lost.
“What happened to Skeet?” Ciara asked. She’d been the drummer for an epic doom band called Vicious Rite. “She okay?” People assumed there’d been some accident. A disease.
Cleo said brightly, “Skeet quit. Good riddance. She was a control freak. Everything had to be done on schedule. The nut job tried to timetable our goddamn shits!” Skeet was the daughter of an accountant and UC Berkeley math professor — she liked order. Aubrey was the daughter of a doctor and lawyer; she rearranged the refrigerator so no one could find the eggs. But Aubrey had liked the Jacksons. They’d let the girls convert the basement into a studio and never mentioned the missing alcohol.
“Then she’d be furious when practice ran long. Though she was the one who wanted to go over every note a hundred times.”
Aubrey said, “Skeet reckoned that’s how you got famous: doing things perfectly.” The fool.
* * *
Aubrey had been perfect once. She’d been a perfect five-eight, one-twenty pounds, straight As. She not only played the guitar, but also the piano, and could dance en pointe. It had been Aubrey everyone’d expected to quit. Aubrey, who held herself aloof from every argument, as though she did not need to dirty her knuckles in the melee, because she was going far. Far, far away from that basement on Euclid Avenue. Cleo had known she was going places, too, and she was ready to punch out your teeth to prove it.
Aubrey did leave for a while. She enrolled at Harvard University, where her parents had met as freshmen in a dramatic production that had seemed surreal before the world outside their windows seemed stranger still. She’d taken classes in cognitive science and chemistry and planned a career in research psychiatry. Then the schools closed, and then the universities.
“Fuck Harvard,” Aubrey said, back on Euclid again. “I hated it there.”
But it had taught her a few things: how to make drugs out of common weeds and chemicals, which became important as air transit vanished and shipping routes were routinely disrupted by fragile economic alliances. She’d become a veritable master in the dark arts of finding a high.
* * *
In most towns, Cleo and Aubrey knew no one. So they continued driving along endless straight roads that stank of animal rot. Storms drowned the possums, maimed the deers; coyotes and snakes and skunks, which had multiplied, burned. A plague of carcasses that bred disease lined up like a welcoming committee. At night, they pulled into whatever field they found and made camp; this the type of foolish decision Aubrey’s parents feared. The highways weren’t safe in the dark. Newspapers ran stories on truck hijackings and violent robberies. Cleo figured the interstates were safer than home, where her sister Dionne had taught Aubrey how to shoot. After she’d returned from Harvard, Aubrey bought herself a gun and appeared on Cleo’s crumbling doorstep to aim at fence posts without the neighbors calling the police. As if someone like Aubrey, who lived in a fancy apartment with running water still, would need to kill anyone.
Aubrey worried less about bandits and more about the wildlife. She was convinced that as towns collapsed and whole populations packed out, the animals had gone rogue.
“Don’t wander off to pee,” she warned Cleo. “Those turkeys are organizing.”
“Let me know when their union presents a bill of demands,” Cleo said. But it was true that she felt their marbled eyes surrounding her as she pulled her pants about her ankles. Their rubbery necks lengthened, their dinosaur beaks clacked open and closed.
“Just try me, fuckers!” Aubrey yelled. She ripped off her underwear and pissed in a circle around the truck, convinced her feral scent would scare the birds. The turkeys were unimpressed. So Aubrey shot the bastards, one by one, until she ran out of bullets and passed out half-naked in the back, leaving Cleo to fix the carcasses. They ate turkey for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. Then the meat went bad and they threw it out to sicken the vultures that lined the roads.
* * *
“Whatever happened to Bong-Ripper?” Aubrey asked when they finally passed the outskirts of Tulsa.
“Overdose,” Cleo said. They eyed each other: Cleo was driving with her knees so she could roll a joint while Aubrey practiced chemistry in the passenger seat. Then Aubrey snorted and they both laughed so hard Cleo had to swerve to keep from smashing a speed sign.
“Of course,” Aubrey sighed. Five years earlier there’d been a spate of suicides in the doom metal community. Cunticle wasn’t the only group that’d made a death pact. Bong-Ripper and Acid Bath and Espiritus Cock all had their own contracts.
No one would have known if Acid Bath hadn’t fulfilled their end of the bargain in such style. The musicians booked an expensive hotel, loaded up on caviar and champagne, then dissolved their bodies in acid in a massive jetted tub. In the video they streamed of the night online, just a necklace, looped around the empties, remained. The necklace, rumored to be made from the skull of a man called Death, was a giant fuck you. For years, black metal had claimed the title of the darkest, deadliest crowd. Acid Bath proved that at the end of the world, when the lights really went out and all turned to gloom, there was nothing like doom. Everyone agreed Acid Bath’s suicide was as Metal as it got. An example to follow.
And follow they had: Bong Ripper to overdose, Candle Congregation in an inferno of fireworks, the Electric Blood Forks in an impressively gory DIY situation that fueled gossip for months (what motor had they attached to their kitchen utensils? Did they sharpen the tines first?). Suicide fell out of fashion after that. Cleo said that the pinnacle had been reached; there wasn’t a decent death left. Aubrey thought there weren’t many bands that remained.
Cleo must have known that, too, because she began to claim that they were the best this side of the Mississippi — and the theater they’d pitched in Austin, which was far larger than any venue they’d played before, hadn’t disagreed. It only took a massacre and an interstate travel ban for Cunticle to receive the recognition they deserved.
Aubrey rolled up the window against the smell of dead things.
* * *
They slipped into Texas with a quick hand job behind the booth, courtesy of Cleo. Aubrey played their first record in the truck and smoked a jay so she wouldn’t have to hear the border control agent moan. The throbbing base of her guitar wound about the songs, chaining Cleo’s rising vocals to the asphalt and beneath that the dirt, the shale that formed the very crust of the earth. A geologic reckoning.
“You think we should play ‘We Will All Burn’?” Aubrey hadn’t noticed Cleo reappear, and she scooted across to the driver’s seat.
“We don’t have an encore.” The engine, which had needed servicing the past thousand miles, roared over the rest of the track.
From the highway, Texas was all scrub; dry grass that would burst into flame like some biblical smoke-sign of their destiny. Only when their truck overheated and they pulled aside to the stench of scorched oil, there was no divine missive, just a stretch of empty clay. In the distance, a stand of elms promised a trace of shade, but Cleo insisted they practice while they wait. They shared a joint instead, their thighs sticking to the seats, and dreamed of air conditioning.
Austin itself was barren of vegetation. Ordnances forbade the very greenways that had once been the hallmark of the city after fires tore through a canyon, trapping thousands. Now, only the weeds in the pavement were allowed to sprout.
At the Moody Theater, the facilities manager watched the two unload. “You ain’t got staff?” Their truck took up just a small corner of the space marked out for buses. Still, he did not offer to help.
For hours they tinkered with levels with the sound technician, the bass growing powerful, the drum machine heavy, Cleo’s vocals shattering. When Cleo was finally satisfied, they lay back, exhausted on the vinyl floors. “Don’t you have to set up for the opener?”
“Saint Boofus?” The engineer eagerly accepted Aubrey’s joint. “No one told you they bailed?”
“They couldn’t find a backup?” Aubrey asked and Cleo said, “More profits for us then.”
“Sure.” The engineer blew smoke circles in the air.
“We could play a longer set…” Aubrey said, but Cleo shook her head. The new tracks were raw still, untried.
“Re-lax,” the engineer’s words catapulted off the high, high walls and Cleo and Aubrey stared at the empty seats, imagining.
Above the crowns of their heads, smoke hung like halos.
* * *
Cleo and Aubrey would remember the moment they walked on stage at The Moody Theater their whole lives. They would recall the soft squeal of their sneakers on the resin. They would feel the heat of the stage lights like a brand on their newly-laundered skin. They would never forget how the blood seemed to clatter through their veins like coins, a jangling sobriety Cleo would hold responsible for subsequent mistakes. This was the moment they had been waiting for their whole lives. Ready, world? Cunticle had arrived.
Then they plugged in their instruments and the guitars screamed and they faced the men and women who would spread their name across ocean and sky.
All thirty of them.
Thirty was not a bad crowd — about the audience they pulled in San Francisco. But in the three-level theater that seated over two thousand, those bodies seemed pitiful.
Then Skeet’s drums began; loud and slow and strong and Aubrey struck her first chord. Cleo didn’t have time to worry about the meager turnout, she leaned into the microphone, waited, the drone of the riffs lurching forward, a rumbling of heavy tectonic plates. She closed her eyes and felt the pressure build.
She sang, her voice crystalline. Then she plucked gently at her guitar.
The crowd was rapt.
Cunticle built a skeleton out of bare drums, conjured movement from these bones in the bass, which trudged through the darkness of these last twenty years, and brought a monster to life with lyrics that floated, fragile, above a rhythm ’n blues guitar.
They were good and they knew it. The best-ever doom metal band not just out of Oakland but the West Coast, the world. In any other universe, where metal wasn’t a joke, they’d have been famous by now. Concert halls like the Moody Theater would hardly have been able to contain their fans. Which was why, when they’d run through every song, Cleo picked at her individual strings, her fingers flying, seeking to remember notes they’d only recently laid down.
Aubrey came in three bars late, but she caught Cleo’s shift, picking up the melody, which she anchored with a pounding bass. A psychedelic landscape of distortion and doom that should have seized the audience by the lungs.
But the music wasn’t coming together right. Their parts appeared disjointed, confused, and Cleo felt the audience’s attention shift.
When they ended with a long reverb, no one called for an encore.
* * *
At the loading dock, the facilities manager passed Cleo a bottle of moonshine. “Y’all were good,” he said.
Cleo stowed the last of their cables in a cracked plastic bin. The bottle clinked against her teeth. “The theater was empty.”
“Not much to dance to.” Hope, that’s what sold. Some synth-strewn, auto-tuned pop. “Still. It’s nice to hear a band from another state.”
“How you still working?”
Cleo meant it as a joke, but the asshole said, “I ain’t. I come here cos it’s something to do and I probably would have killed myself otherwise.”
What was she supposed to do with that? Nothing, her sister Dionne would have said. But Cleo polished off the bottle, spilling liquor down her bra.
In the alley, they fucked. Cleo could see every one of the man’s pores. When he came, the pounds he could not yet afford shivering, his body crushed her against the big brick wall. Dirt tattooed her scraped back. In the end, Cleo was like Dionne: just another bleeding cunt.
She didn’t think the day could be more disappointing.
Then the earth shook, shattering the windows and toppling a street light that dented the roof of their truck.
“Fracking,” the asshole said, zipping up his pants. “Careful of the sinkholes on your drive.”
Cleo crawled out from behind the trash, where she’d hid. She could have used a sinkhole. She’d have leapt into its gaping mouth. In her dream that night, she’d only be saved from hurtling down, down, into the planet’s molten core by the cables she’s twisted together. Tight, like a noose.
* * *
Across the panhandle and over the high sandstone plains of New Mexico, they climbed, heading home. It was a long drive of dust flatlands, of hardy juniper and rock and grass — and the dark silhouettes of derricks, rising like wraiths, beneath slabs of heavy cloud. The metal pinions spun and the rod dipped, bowing towards the earth as though in prayer.
Oil, oil everywhere, and they were running low on gas. Cleo drove fast to catch a warm breeze because they couldn’t afford to run the AC. Plus, the noise of the engine drowned out Aubrey’s phone; her parents calling again. (“A hundred dead, dear. Please, just text that you’re alright.”) At that speed, they leapt over rocks, barely weaving around potholes.
“Craters,” Cleo said. Erosion had formed great cavities in the road. Where there were roads. Concrete had cracked and washed away in flash floods, the desert turning to dark rivers that would carve out new canyons within the century. And the rest of the world wanted them to drive compact electric cars, sourced from sustainable materials, that would not further defile the environment? Had they seen how vast this country was? How savage still? Only a diesel-starved truck could survive its ravages.
* * *
Aubrey studied the desert through the windshield. Mesas rose up in the distance like long abandoned skyscrapers, and the pink earth shimmered in the heat, transforming into tin foil lakes.
That final day at Harvard, she’d taken a motorboat to the airport, which had been hitched onto a plateau of fill, then moved because its flood gates broke every storm, then hoisted high again.
The Boston of her parents’ past was such a sturdy place: they’d walked on centuries-old streets, lived in buildings with basements that only flooded after rare hurricanes. Over the years, the hurricanes blew in more frequently, and the storm surges swelled. Eventually, the T had washed out so often, the trains stopped running. Eventually, certain neighborhoods never drained.
But it had seemed so beautiful to Aubrey, that wet city of hers, which existed in no one else’s memories. In the library stacks, she’d felt herself marooned. Like some ancient explorer aboard a vessel built of books. She navigated by the skylights.
When, after two years, she climbed onto that boat on the Charles, taking a final look at the Elliott clock tower before speeding off past Boston University and what was left of Fenway park to one of the last commercial planes that would ever fly, she had felt as though something had been stolen from her. Her parents felt this way, too. Their dreams had drowned.
Aubrey closed her eyes and clutched the steering wheel of their truck in this dry, dry land, and pretended she were still sailing through the city she had loved.
* * *
“The problem with Skeet,” Cleo shouted over the wind that buffeted the car, “Was that she thought she was so good.”
Ever since they’d crossed the Arizona border, great gales had swept south. In the desert, small tornadoes of dust disturbed the horizon, then disappeared.
“Just because she came up with our name, she thought she was in charge.”
The band had been called many things over the years. They’d gone by Bloodsob first — Cleo’s pick. For a concert poster, she’d stenciled a dark red stream issuing from a girl’s blank face. It was a striking image, but Aubrey had been pleased they’d rebranded by the Year of the Suicides. She’d imagined choking on thickened gore. A few years later, when they still weren’t famous, Cleo calculated this was the name’s fault. So: Acid Boof was next. But then Acid Bath went and killed themselves elaborately and the name became a joke. Men in the audience volunteered to off them with their dicks. Skeet punched a particular prick. “You fucking cunt!” he’d said. “This cunt’s good for more than fucking,” Skeet said. And Cunticle was born.
“There’s hardly any drums in our tracks, you know? But she acted like she was some freaking genius. Like it takes talent to whack out a d-beat.” They’d only let Skeet into the band because she’d had a basement. “I’d been wanting to kick in those drums of hers forever.”
The boot that broke the camel’s back. All because Skeet had called a melody on one of their newest songs leaden. “It’s a goddamn dirge,” she’d said.
“We’re a doom metal band?” Cleo had reminded her. Admittedly, largely because they’d figured that doom would finally rise to its rightful prominence with the world’s destruction. They hadn’t reckoned on folks staring down the barrel of humanity’s eclipse and wanting something fun.
Skeet claimed the bass and drums already had that Valley-of-Death vibe. The melody had to be delicate. Haunting. In a rage, Cleo had rammed a foot through a snare.
Cleo had called Skeet an amateur. The glowing reviews of their first album had hardly mentioned her after all. Cunticle wasn’t yet mature, but Cleo’s mournful voice promised great things. They were a band to watch. Their second EP had received even more praise, particularly Cleo’s melodies, which were “exquisite tapestries.” But a tapestry that relied on old formulas. “A solid band, if they want to enter cultural memory, they’ll need originality.”
“We don’t have a problem with Skeet,” Aubrey said. “We don’t have Skeet.”
* * *
But who they didn’t have made for a long list. Such as Sam, who had believed in every one of Cleo’s dreams.
Aubrey had claimed he wasn’t good enough for her. “You just lie together on the couch.” Weren’t they supposed to see what was left of this world? Where were the stage lights and the jet planes to new continents?
“He wants to ruin your boobs with babies,” she’d said in disgust. Would Cleo really coo over some kid crawling? Was Cleo prepared to praise some finger painting of a house that would be underwater one day? They’d both seen what had happened to Dionne. Talented as fuck. Could have been something. Instead she’d bred and bred until she lost her looks and when she might have left, she’d gone and gotten strangled by that man she’d loved. “He’s selling you a bunch of bad checks.”
Cleo hadn’t been sure. So Aubrey had kissed Sam one night, jamming her tongue down his malt-liquor throat. He’d reeled back, shocked, and Aubrey had flopped on the bed. “I don’t know why you’re upset. It’s not like Cleo doesn’t fuck anything that moves when we’re on tour.”
This wasn’t entirely true. Cleo only fucked when she was too high, too lonely, too unknown still.
* * *
What was left of Cunticle pulled into Oakland at night, the highway following the dark stretch of Bay. Since the embargo, container ships no longer anchored offshore. The smugglers used smaller vessels and operated without lights.
“Where are you going?” Aubrey had flicked her indicator to exit into the flood zones of the east.
“We’re not staying with my parents,” Aubrey said. After the cleaning lady had discovered her drug paraphernalia beneath the bed, Aubrey’s parents had taken to spying on their daughter. Never mind that her chemical concoctions kept the band alive. No matter where in this God-given country they found themselves, there was someone willing to buy. If she’d had any ambition, Aubrey could have grown rich on the spoils.
“Fuck,” Cleo slammed her palm against the busted glovebox so that it popped open. Cleo had never let her friends visit the East. At first, Aubrey had thought she was ashamed of the poverty of her place, with its rusted burglar bars and wood-paneled windows, the walls blossoming in brilliant white curtains of mold. Then she’d figured from the gunshot holes in the particleboard that Cleo was concerned over their safety. Ha! When Aubrey finally appeared uninvited, she’d realized Cleo was embarrassed of them.
“West Oakland then,” Cleo said. Aubrey swerved back onto the highway.
Skeet’s parents had lost the house on Euclid Avenue to the third set of hill fires that had torn through Tilden, thanks to overburdened power lines. Only the charred concrete foundations of their home remained. If years before they hadn’t lost their jobs, like others they could have built again. As it was, Skeet moved them south, into a Victorian that would have been beautiful if it weren’t for the stripped wood and the stench of mildew and the many bodies splitting apart the once stately rooms. She let a studio herself four streets down, and over shared meals, they told each other how lucky they were to be alive.
“You ready?” Aubrey had parked with two wheels on the sidewalk, and Cleo felt a little skew, too. But she kicked open the car door and hauled herself onto the curb. Kids lounging on the street watched them grab their guitars and bash shut the doors, which they didn’t bother to lock so their shit could be stolen without smashing a window first.
* * *
“You survived.” Skeet handed them each a straight fist of gin in dusty mugs she did not wash.
“Barely,” Aubrey added, leaning against the loud fridge. “Hurricanes, earthquakes, checkpoints — I know. I’ll call my mom tomorrow.”
Cleo did not delight in Skeet’s jealousy exactly. All the same, she was pleased by her friend’s pretense of indifference. “We played alright,” she said before Aubrey could complain about audience numbers and missed shows. “But look what you’ve done with this place!”
“Mom’s design.” Skeet drained her mug and poured out more gin. “I hardly cook with the lines for groceries.” It didn’t seem she ate much either. Skeet had shorn her hair short, and the cut called attention to the bones around her neck, the hollow sockets of her eyes.
They clambered onto her bed. “It may not be what we pictured as kids, but I’m luckier than most.” There were so many homeless: under corrugated lean-tos, stuffed inside abandoned pipes. Most everyone had fled from the Valley after the ground cracked beneath their feet and sunk. What farms remained trucked in workers, who tied bandannas over their noses as though this would save them from lung disease and the fever in the dust. In Oakland, new cities mushroomed overnight. As the winds changed, stolen tents and ripped tarps flapped through the air like spores.
“I’m working in the shanties now, studying nights to be a lawyer. Your mom seemed to think it was a decent idea.” Skeet nodded at Aubrey.
“What?” Aubrey froze.
“I figured she could help?”
“You talked behind my back!” Aubrey whipped her palm around to slap Skeet’s cheek, her glass never wavering.
Across the room, the refrigerator thrummed.
Skeet wiped a drop of blood from her lip with her thumb. “Grow the fuck up.”
Cleo emptied the bottle in her glass. “Are we really going over this argument again?”
“You both shut your eyes to reality even when your noses are shoved in its shit.”
“What does it matter what we do when we’re all going to die? Aubrey, you got pot?” Aubrey pulled out her stash.
“You can’t pretend you’ll be famous one day. You know you won’t fly anywhere. We’re not fifteen. This is our fuck-up to fix.”
“And what exactly have you fixed?” Aubrey asked, licking the wrapper of her neat roll. The blood vessels in Skeet’s thick jaw pulsed. “No, I’m curious.” Aubrey coughed and passed the joint across. “Saint Skeet, please, tell us mere mortals how you’re turning back the fucking tides.”
They stared at their grubby feet on the bedsheet, silently, waiting for their heads to fill with fog. Small marijuana clouds floated above them, providing not a lick of rain, incapable of anything, even shade.
* * *
Aubrey asked after Skeet’s parents. “They holding up okay?”
Skeet massaged her puffed pink cheek. “The smoke from the fires’s killing them, but that’s the same for all of us. I’ll tell them you say hi.”
“You playing tomorrow?”
Skeet glanced at Cleo. “I wouldn’t know the songs.”
The joint hung from Aubrey’s lips as she fetched her bass. “We’ll practice.”
“I got to work,” Skeet said, the implication being that they didn’t (well, Aubrey didn’t).
Cleo tore herself from the bed to gather her guitar. “It’s one night. For old time’s sake. The world will still be ruining itself when we’re done. Give me a toke.”
As Cleo puffed, Skeet pulled her drum sticks from beneath the bed, along with a metal bucket and books she arranged in a practiced curve. Then she removed the shade from the lamp with a flick of her nail that made the brass ring. Cleo had smoked enough that she heard the cymbal in its ding.
Then Aubrey strummed and Skeet began the beat. Without the amps, it took Cleo a few
bars to catch the track; the first song they’d written that had made it onto their
EP. There was the bluesy bass, the tom-tom slap; Cleo shoved the joint between Skeet’s
teeth and sang about a tiger’s lost love, her voice tiptoeing over the drone.
The next song was off their past album. Fewer drums this time: each one a punch to the gut. The riff was slow and jazz-inflected, the lead guitar a flash of psychedelic inspiration. Cleo’s voice teased through the registers, weaving the synths with the darkness of the beat. Now they were playing. Cleo could feel the music in the pricking of her fingertips as they slid over the frets.
Then Aubrey began a song they’d only just composed. Cleo tried to catch her eye, but Aubrey was focused on her finger work. Skeet took a moment, two, then she began tapping at her make-believe set. Lightly at first, the sound against that country twang foreboding, then harder, and harder still, the drums a terrible pummeling, and it was Cleo’s turn to join. She opened her mouth; her voice soared.
This was what they’d been missing, of course. This was why they’d never finished the track. And Cleo knew that with the hammer of Skeet’s sticks, the song was devastating. The best they’d written perhaps; the ethereal notes like whispers that seemed to escape from some hot, messy core. Cleo gripped her guitar, the lyrics boiling in her throat, and keened until the music stopped and she couldn’t breathe.
They stared at each other, panting and covered in sweat, afraid to move. As if the slightest twitch would undo all they’d created the past four minutes twenty-two.
A neighbor banged on the floor.
“Fuck,” Aubrey said, disappointed and Skeet packed away her makeshift kit. Then they all three climbed onto the thin bed, laying top and tail, knees jamming into kidneys, toes grazing ears. Cleo turned to face the wall. She did not want to catch Aubrey staring at her with those big eyes, saying, See? She refused to believe that Skeet was responsible for anything.
Skeet was wrong. The band wasn’t some childish waste of time. Cleo wasn’t pretending the world wasn’t screwed. The world had been ruining itself far longer than Skeet realized.
Poor and black, Cleo’s family had been murdered by police, gangs, bad luck, for centuries. Now that everyone else was suddenly at risk they thought she should get involved. They were fools. Cleo had seen what fighting back did; it ground you down till you were dust before your time.
Cleo had promised herself she would not let the world crush her like that. Like she was nothing and no one and could be trampled over carelessly. Life was short and she would die, but many years before Cunticle had sworn their death pact, she had vowed that her departure would be magnificent. She would create the finest band that had ever played on this ill-fated Earth, and she would sing until the amps cut out and the flashlights broke and the oceans had swallowed the deserts whole.
* * *
By the time Cleo woke, Aubrey had already scrounged through every cupboard. “Nothing?” Cleo’s stomach coiled in a hard knot. They hadn’t eaten since Nevada.
So they picked their way through ash-coated streets, which stank of shit and smoke and the brackish flood waters that had been trapped in potholes and sunk fill.
Aubrey handed over too much of their weed for a couple of overbaked tamales. Still, they quickly licked the last crumbs from the corn husks so their food wouldn’t taste of chalk now the wind had turned. In the haze, their eyes burned.
“Would we have her again?” Aubrey asked when they stopped for a breather on their way back. The smog triggered her asthma, and she crouched low, hoping to duck beneath the yellow haze, her forehead almost touching her once-ballerina toes. Neither had respirators.
“She better beg if she wants in.” Skeet should have been grateful for the chance to play in their band. She should have bent over backwards trying to please them. After all, the night before, she’d plunged into the songs as if the notes were fresh water she could choke on. Only, Skeet rehearsed her martyrdom. Lay her graying head across her creaking, too-small bed, like some half-charred sacrificial bird.
“That’s not Skeet’s style.”
They could barely see ten paces ahead through the fumes and took twice as long returning to the apartment, Aubrey coughing the whole time. When they reached the truck, she collapsed on the curb. “Do your folks believe you’ll make it?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter what they think,” Cleo said, fierce. “They’ll fucking believe when we own penthouses and vacation in Greenland.”
Aubrey wrote their band name into the film of ash on the bumper. Only Skeet’s parents had ever thought they’d succeed. It had been rich then when the Jacksons’ bad luck had forced Skeet to abandon their dream. Not that Aubrey had noticed; Skeet had withdrawn in increments. She couldn’t practice as she searched for apartments. Then she couldn’t tour, because her parents needed cash. By the time Cleo realized Skeet no longer gave a shit about Cunticle, she only ever spoke of getting involved. But this hellscape needed a whole lot more than a good vacuum and some TLC.
“I should visit my parents,” Aubrey said.
“Yeah. Me, too,” Cleo lay back against the hot pavement, where her sister might have walked, listening to the country breathe.
* * *
They waited for Skeet over an hour, then Cleo slammed the trunk shut. Already, they’d missed their chance for a tech check; if they didn’t leave now, they wouldn’t make their slot. Still, they stared down the street, hoping for some sign.
But there were just kids playing soccer blindly through the smog, a scavenger in full face mask digging in the trash, a sky so brilliant they’d never see the likes again.
Cleo tapped the vehicle twice, then climbed inside. When the engine revved, Aubrey followed, feeling a fool. She’d really thought they’d perform together again, the three of them. In a small corner of her mind she’d imagined that this would change everything. Their music, fame; the world itself would transform; the storms weakening, temperature dropping, and the gash in the ozone would stitch itself up.
Cleo clanked the truck off the curb and drove, not looking in the rear view once. At San Pablo, she gunned the motor, as though she could shoot their way out of the disappointment of this town. Then Cleo screeched to a stop. Aubrey’s head slammed back.
Skeet stood in the crosswalk.
“Get in!” Cleo yelled, though they were already too late to stop.
“The Camanche fire hit the Oakland hills,” Skeet said. “You haven’t smelled the smoke?” But there was always a fire somewhere. You couldn’t keep track of every inferno. A car horn blared as the vehicle tried to pass. “I need your truck. We have to evacuate the refugees.”
“Hasn’t everything there burned to a crisp ten times now?” Cleo said.
“The homeless took what was left.”
“Their fault then.” Cleo shrugged. ”You have a gig. Live for once. Christ.”
“It’s an emergency.” Skeet ripped open the cab door and grabbed Cleo’s arm, yanking
her from the seat. Cleo clutched the wheel and the truck lurched sideways. Aubrey
jerked the parking break up just as the vehicle rolled onto the median. Neither Skeet
nor Cleo noticed. The two tore at each other with knuckles and nails.
“Back the fuck off.” The gun in Aubrey’s hand did not waver.
Skeet stared at her. Whether from the fires or frustration, her eyes were wet. “Please?” And Aubrey was reminded of how when they were young, for soundproofing, they’d nailed blankets to the basement walls. She or Cleo, she couldn’t remember who, hammered four neat holes through a quilt sewn by Skeet’s gran. Skeet had cried. Sat on the floor of that dark room, inconsolable. They hadn’t known what to do, but they’d waited with her for what seemed like hours, until her tears had dried.
“It’s just one night. For old time’s sake. You can ignore the world tomorrow, too.”
They’d known each other so, so long; they still chafed at the ways they’d changed.
* * *
Cunticle had its biggest audience at the San Francisco show: a hundred cheering fans. Cleo leaned into the microphone and whispered, “San Francisco?” as though her mouth were filled with rocks. She was high on Aubrey’s homemade painkillers. The crowd roared. “San Francisco, are you ready to die?” Then the drum machine began; a seismic bass that shook the bones like splinters from their spines.
On the street, their truck waited empty for them.
“Maybe we should go somewhere new,” Cleo said when they loaded their instruments later. She stumbled into the cab. Aubrey turned the key and headed south, away from the Oakland hills.
“We might be the best doom metal band on the planet,” Cleo said.
“The only doom metal band,” Aubrey added. “Hail, Satan!”
Aubrey pulled off the road to pee when they hit the crumbling coastline. Cliffs had pitched over, spilling out to form new promontories that washed away in the storms. With gun in hand, she squatted over the slick boulders, only a faint stench of smoke against the brine of the sea. Aubrey aimed at the vehicle, which must have been two hundred feet away. More. She pulled the trigger. Once, twice, three, times, four; she blasted each and every tire, except the spare. She could not say why. Not even the turkeys stirred.
Cleo, head leaning out the open window, as if detached, did not notice the car sinking violently. She stared up at the night. Her world was spinning so fast she could almost believe she was on that spaceship she’d dreamt about, that would shoot them through the unexplored galaxies. No chord could tie her to this earth.
Only, the universe wasn’t so strange in the end. If you closed your eyes, you could hear the stars pounding out the bass they’d been searching for since Skeet left: a drumbeat of little sledgehammers puncturing the pail of the burnt early morning sky. All that sweetness, running out.