PodCastle 571: The Guitar Hero

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.

The first time Bella, Alice, and I exorcised a demon it was an accident: a pentagram doodled backstage, some quotes from The Exorcist, and suddenly that vocalist from the band we were opening for wasn’t quite himself anymore.

Who knew hellfire was so damn hot, anyway?

There have been other moments that altered the shape of my life: that afternoon in 1978 when I heard Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and hit puberty in the same instant; or that Friday night at age fourteen when I switched on my first electric guitar in the garage, next to Bella’s drum kit, and heard Alice’s bass rev up beside me. But nothing beats an accidental exorcism for short-term shock value and long-term impact. The scarred fingers on my left hand (barely able to pick out even the simplest chords) and the death of Bella (who stood closer to that demon than any of us) forever twisted my life in a new direction.

I don’t play guitar anymore, but according to my spreadsheet, Alice and I have dealt with close to four hundred entities (demonic, fae, malevolent spirits, and others) on the indie music scene since Bella died, turning our pain and grief into a part-time job and eventually a career. With all that experience under my Motörhead-buckled bullet belt, I don’t usually get nervous, but tonight is different. I’m sweating, even though I’ve stripped off my leather jacket, and my hands are shaking on the laptop — every muscle in my body in flux between fight and flight.

Excitement and adrenaline, I try to tell myself. Not fear and anxiety. Not doubt. Not hesitation and dread because we’re dealing with something we’ve never handled before.

No one to blame but ourselves. This isn’t a paid job, after all, but a personal quest involving the most famous musician we’ve ever dealt with: Slim Rick himself, original member of legendary rock band Slim Chance, guitar hero, riff-god, and — if we’re right – host to an entity that has convincingly worn a human meat-suit for three decades, give or take a millennium or two.

None of our jobs to date have been this high-profile. Mostly we deal with third-rate demons, restless spirits of expired roadies, and newbie metal bands that accidentally curse themselves in a quest for satanic cred. We also turn away a fair number of bands who think they’ve signed a deal with the devil, when they’ve actually signed a bad contract with a lousy record label. (Pro-tip: not even the devil gives a shit about new rock and metal bands these days.)

The setting tonight is a backstage room much like any other, even though the venue is one of the most prestigious in Vancouver. It smells of sweat and hot dogs, old beer and hockey games, and the props are drab and ordinary. Stackable plastic chairs, a sink and mirror, foldable tables littered with our empty Starbucks cups and the two items specified in Rick’s rider: carbonated water on ice, and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. The only hint of luxury is the divine black leather couch.

The concrete walls vibrate with the muffled rumble and roar of audience and music. Somewhere above our heads, Rick is playing, flanked by the hired guns he calls his band these days. The old band, the one everybody remembers, those guys are all gone. Graham? Choked on his own vomit outside a club in Camden. Charlie? Cocaine induced heart attack. Benny? Cancer, slow and cruel. And finally, two years ago, Todd the drummer with the cute ass, dead by suicide. That’s what the medical report says, though Alice and I have other ideas.

“Fifteen minutes. Twenty, tops,” Alice says, glancing up from the YouTube video on her phone, the one she always watches to calm her nerves: Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” live, in New York, 1973. “If you ever build that time machine you promised me,” she adds, halfway lost in Robert Plant’s hair, “I’m going back to that gig to try my luck backstage.”

“You do know that the time machine thing was just a joke, right?”

“So was this,” she makes a grand gesture to encompass us and the room and everything in it, “until we became a full-time, two-bit Scooby Doo gang.”

“Two-bit? Surely we’re at least a three-bit outfit by now.”

I pull the last of my gear out of the backpack, arranging it on the coffee table in front of me. No wolf’s bane or graveyard dust or crucifixes tonight. Instead, assorted cables and wires, a silvery chain I hand to Alice, a camera, and a box so light and small you’d think it contained nothing at all.

“You think it’ll do the trick?”

Alice gives me a long look.

“You’re the one who found it in Istanbul. You’re the one who did the research. What do you think?”

“I think we’re in over our heads.”

“What else is new?”

I should have stuck to playing guitar in a loser band, I think, flexing my clumsy fingers, eyeing the bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the table and aching for a hit of booze, but I know that would be a bad idea.

Through the concrete, Rick’s guitar calls out to me. His playing is simultaneously diabolical and divine, and the sound rushes through my veins and groin and gut and lungs, into every spiky bleach-blonde hair on my head. It’s Slim Chance’s “Dark Side of Heaven,” from their self-titled debut album released in 1972, and there’s that riff, the one that takes me back, the one that ravishes me, the one that reminds me of when I could still make a guitar sing and cry and roar. It’s a music-induced, instant flashback to my whole damn life: every dream and disappointment, every lonely moment with nothing but spinning vinyl to sustain me, every manic night with a guitar in my hands and a head-full of adrenaline and beer.

“Jackie. Do we have to do this?”

Looking up, I see my own memories and doubts reflected in Alice’s face. Forty-five plus, a PhD in electrical engineering for me, and one in computer science for Alice — who is also able to bench press 120 lbs — and here we are, on the verge of tears because of an appallingly wealthy son of a bitch who is finally going to get what’s coming to him.

“Come on, Alice. He killed Todd. And who knows how many others.”

“I know.”

Upstairs, the band finishes the third encore and we both know what that means. Rick’s routine after a gig is always the same: he gets a room all to himself, and his entourage will expect him to stay there for almost an hour before joining them. Hopefully, it will be enough.

We wait. I can hear my heartbeat, and the distant thrum of the crowd heading towards the exits. Then the door opens, and Rick steps inside.

“Holy Hannah,” Alice breathes, and I know what she means. Seeing him up close, all sweat and leather, is giving me a head-rush like the first time I downed a line of tequila slammers.

“Close the door,” I say, trying to steady my voice and myself, even though my knees are so wobbly it’s only the tight denim holding me up.

Alice slides in behind Rick and locks the door.

He is taking us both in, head to toe, pausing for an extra look at the backstage passes around our necks, the ones Alice made using Photoshop and a laminating machine. A vaguely puzzled expression crosses his craggy mug, but I’ll give him this: he doesn’t panic, hardly bats an eye. He doesn’t call for his bodyguards either, and Alice looks relieved she won’t have to subdue anyone with her Taser and ninja-moves. After examining us, he saunters over to the sofa, grabs a water bottle, and sits down.

Every bit of him is tall and lanky, with more than a hint of salt sprinkled into that famously shaggy mop of dark curls. His shirt is silk, of course, flowery and ruffled, the kind he’s been known for since the 1970s: unbuttoned to his navel, showing off his graying chest hair and sagging abs. The pants are Ray Brown all the way: tastefully flashy black leather and studs; and those hot-damn leather bracers are surely Ray Brown, too.

“Nice shirt,” I say, because someone has to say something or we’ll just stare at him forever. “Galliano?”

He actually winks at me.

“No. Girlfriend.”

His voice is low and slow and gritty like cigarettes, bourbon, and velvet, pulled over that soft Midland English lilt.

“Rick,” I say, assuming my most officious tone as I turn on the camera next to the laptop. “I have to advise you that we will be recording this encounter and conversation.”

That makes him laugh.

“Are you YouTubers? Angling for a sex-tape or something?” This time he winks at Alice. “I appreciate the thought, but I’m almost seventy and . . .”

He trails off but the grin stays put and he keeps his eyes on Alice who is pacing the room again. His eyes linger on her business attire: studded bracers, skull rings, and a denim battle vest covered in patches and pins — Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Saxon, and the rest of the usual suspects from the 1980s. Alice glares back, flexing her biceps just a bit.

“How long have you posed as a human, Rick?”

There’s a sharp glint in those big, brown eyes set among the wrinkles, and his voice is sharper still.

“What are you on about, love?”

I’m about to give him my carefully rehearsed intro-speech, when he snaps his fingers, his cutlass smile widening, the silver and turquoise rings flashing as he points at me.

“I knew I’d seen you girls somewhere! You used to play. You’re Jackie Ripper and you . . . you’re Alice Wonders. I saw you in a club in Seattle. 1987, maybe? You were opening for some shit band who thought they were the second coming of Black Sabbath, and before you went on I thought you were just groupies. Bet you got that a lot. What were you called? Devil Hearts?”

Alice and I look at each other, incredulous. Of course, we remember it. We remember him being there, drunk and high like all rock-stars in the eighties, but that he would remember us and recognize us all these years later, that possibility never even crossed our minds.

“You were a three-piece then. The drummer, she was your singer, too, right? What was her name . . . Brenda? Betty?”

“Bella. Bella Lugosi. She’s . . .” My voice catches in my throat. “She died.”

“Of course.” There’s a moment of silence for Bella. “So, you quit then? After she died? Like Zeppelin?”

“Yeah,” Alice mumbles, breathlessly. “Like Zeppelin.”

He turns to me and I feel his gaze like a touch on my skin, an intoxicating and unsettling surge of heat rushing through my limbs.

“I definitely remember you, Jackie, because you played an awesome guitar solo. That thing you started with — what was that? Like a hot rod starting up. Sounded wicked!”

Something in me thrills then, forgetting all the reasons why we’re here, because, yes, I do remember that night. I remember the way the guitar felt in my hands, what the strings felt like beneath my agile, dextrous fingers. I remember the hot and sticky air in that joint, the sweat beading on my skin, the power rushing through my veins like vodka and Mountain Dew as I hopped on that stage.

“Oh, that. I just hit harmonics at the fourth fret and then bottomed out the strings with the bar so it sounded really ugly. It’s easy to get to the next part because I wasn’t actually playing anything, just bringing the note up with the bar.”

“The tapping part? That was awesome. You worked that all out beforehand? That climbing bit where you end up right up here . . .”

“Yeah, I worked all that out at rehearsals so I wouldn’t screw up. It’s really just following the inversions up the neck to that high bit . . .”

My head snaps sideways when Alice slaps me. Hard.

“Jackie, shut up! He’s doing that thing he does. To you!”

I don’t have to look at Rick to know she’s right, because I feel it: the tug at my insides, the drain, the way he somehow, right now, right here, is sapping the energy flowing through my body, through my veins and neurons and cells. He is feeding off me while he sits there, eyes twinkling, smirk askew, sipping his water.

And I realize that I’ve felt this sensation before, when I’ve attended his shows in the past, but then it was more distant and diluted, not a palpable physical presence like this: like he’s burrowed into me and is tapping my power like you’d tap a maple for its sap.

“He’s good,” Alice whispers.

Of course he is. Because this is how he lives. This is how he, it, feeds. This is what he does every night on stage, to however many thousands are in the audience: turning them on, seducing them with the music and then feeding off their energy, that sky-high rush of it all. Never draining any one person fully, at least not in public. Because he’s cunning. Because he’s careful. Because this is how he, it, has lived for decades, centuries, ages.

Rick has switched beverages and is swigging from the bottle of Jack Daniel’s. His grin has turned predatory, or maybe it has always been like that, only I didn’t see it for what it is until now.

“Thank you, love. Nice to get a taste. So much passion, cut through with pain . . .” He’s looking at my fire-scarred fingers curled on the laptop. “Not being able to do what you love, what you’re best at . . . that’s tough.”

I stare back, feeling his tendrils slithering and shifting around my mind.

“What about you?” he asks Alice, fixing his eyes on her. “You still play bass?”

The sensation — of him partially releasing me and wrapping himself around Alice instead — is visceral. Almost, I feel jealousy rather than relief: as though what I really crave is for him to keep devouring me.

“I do some occasional studio work. Nothing serious.”

“And you’re good with that? Don’t miss playing? Come on, be honest.”

“We . . .” Alice shakes her head like a dog shaking off the rain. “Stop it.” She reels and reaches for my hand to steady herself, ourselves. Holding on to her makes the world feel solid again, like finding my footing in slipping mud.

“Now,” I whisper and Alice moves fast. In a blink, she’s at the couch, then she’s straddling Rick’s lap, pinning him in place. At first he looks taken aback, then he smiles like he’s expecting a lap dance, but when Alice slips the chain around his neck he tries to buck her off. Too late. I hear the click of the lock and see him shiver, see his face shift so pale it’s almost gray when Alice shuffles off him.

“What’s this?”

I activate the laptop interface and Rick twitches as the readings pop up on my screen. For the first time since he came into the room, something akin to fear crosses his features.

“It’s a chain, made just for you,” I say in my best science-voice. “It’s designed based on readings we’ve taken at your public appearances. All weapon’s grade materials, alloys and such, and a patent is pending. Don’t struggle against it: you’ll only hurt yourself.”

“You’re crazy. Why are you doing this? I thought you were just over-zealous fans.”

“You killed Todd,” Alice says and her voice is so quietly mournful and accusatory that it chills even me. “That so-called suicide . . . after you’d visited him that same day. That’s when we knew something was wrong. Just took us a while to figure out what it was.”

Rick coughs out a laugh.

“Todd. Really? That’s what’s got your knickers in a knot? I know he had a cute ass back in the day, but he’s not worth your devotion. Did you know he wanted to pull the plug on the band and stop touring? Lazy SOB.”

He tries to get off the couch, but it’s too late for that, and there’s a glint of panic in his eyes when he realizes he can’t stand up.

“Let’s talk about when you started posing as a human.” Rick’s head swivels back to me, and I exchange a brief glance with Alice, hoping we’re ready for whatever comes next. In all cases of possession there’s a moment when the person says yes: yes to the entity, yes to being taken. And if you can invoke the memory of that moment, it’s significantly easier to extract or evict the invader. It can also bite you significantly in the ass, if the entity decides to lash out. “Does June 25th, 1972 ring a bell? You’re on tour with Slim Chance, in between Nowheresville and Nothingtown, USA, and wondering what to do. The band’s been gigging hard for months, years really, but everything seems to have stalled. That night you’re ready to skip the gig, skip out on the band. And then something happens.”

“What do you think happened, Jackie?” Rick’s voice is soft, just a rumble, just a tremor, as he leans forward and grabs the bottle of Jack Daniel’s, straining against the hold the chain has on him. I smell the booze on his words, but even though the bottle is about a third empty already, there’s no noticeable effect on his speech or motor skills. “Did I strike a deal with the devil at the crossroads? Are you going to splash me with holy water? Rub me with a crucifix?”

“No.” I wish my voice didn’t shake, but it does. The chain should keep him, it, contained and restrained for about an hour, but this is our first real field-test, and I’m hoping I won’t have to rely on it that long. “You’re no demon or devil. You’re something else entirely.”

He touches the chain, snatching back his hand as if he’s been stung, but even then, his dark eyes never leave my face.

“Is that right? Why don’t you tell me what I am, then? Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

So I do. I tell him the story, his story. The story Alice and I have pieced together through endless, booze- and coffee-fueled nights and days: poring over old music magazines and YouTube videos, gleaning evidence from interviews with bartenders, fans, groupies, and roadies. It’s our own personal wall of crazy: sprawling and fragmented, with frayed and wavering outliers of speculation trailing off beyond 1972, into the dimly lit past, so far back it gives me vertigo to think of it.

The club where it happens is called the Golden Horn. It’s an old music venue going back to the 1930s, and an odd place, even in my vast experience of odd places. A hole in the wall, stranded between the tilled fields and grasslands of the past, and the electric lights and combustion engines of the present. Even though it isn’t a crossroads, it has the feel of one: of many ways meeting and diverging, of possibilities branching out and ending. Maybe the crossroads is there, beneath the most recent layer of civilization, just paved over, smothered in pot-holed asphalt and cracked concrete.

Inside, the place maintains a run-down, louche glory: velvet seat cushions worn to a shine, a lingering smell of ancient tobacco and wood-polish, smoke-stained walls and ceiling, faded photos of black and white musicians, the bar gleaming like alluring amber beneath the glasses and the bottles of booze.

This night, that night, you step inside with the band, each one of you carrying your own darkness with you. Outside is the shitty van you’ve been touring in all year, its doomed engine hacking up fumes. The spare tire is on after a mishap on the highway, and everyone is dejected, demoralized, drunk — dogs snapping at each other out of hunger and boredom. You’re ready to take your guitar and head home to England, to throw your lot in with a new band. There have been offers, some of them tempting, and anything is better than this dead-end tour.

You see Billy as soon as you enter, even in that gloom. He’s at a table in the back, big as life: Billy Shoes, blues-player, one of the greats, fallen on hard times, nursing a drink, shadows crouched around his table. And you crouch with them.

You sit with him while the band sets up the gear and gets ready for the gig. They see you there: smoking, drinking, tuning your guitar, talking to Billy, but no one interrupts; likely because they don’t want to get on your bad side. An hour later, you step up on stage and throw down the gig of your life. Everyone who was there says they could feel it was something special as soon as you hit the first riff: like the smell of lightning contained, like a tremor beneath the earth, like a massive current of energy gathered and released. To this day, people who were there talk about it like they must have talked about Moses coming off the mountain.

And the band? They fly with you: they’ve never been better than they are that night. Best of all, a suit from a label just happens to be there, passing through on his way to L.A., and he signs you on the spot.

A week later you’re on national TV with a worldwide tour lined up.

A week after that, Billy Shoes dies. Old age? Hard living?


“Don’t forget what that bartender said. About the silver ghost.”

“Thank you, Alice, I was just getting to that. Don’t wreck the mood, please.”

What was it like for you that night, I wonder? That’s the part I won’t ever know for sure, unless you tell me, but I don’t think you will. I think you saw it. One of the bartenders told me that at one point, it looked like you had a halo, a silver-misty glow above your head. Could be, he was tripping on ‘shrooms or acid, but maybe he was telling the truth. Sort of like a silver ghost, he said. There for just a moment, then it was gone.

Except it wasn’t gone. You were it, it was you, and you still are. Whatever it promised you . . .

“Sex and drugs and rock and roll.” Rick’s voice. Soft. Wistful, even. “That’s what it promised, and that’s what I got.” His eyes glisten with what I might almost believe are tears. “I haven’t regretted it once. Neither one of us have. You know . . . Whatever you think, it just really, really likes to play guitar.”

Alice gives me a sideways look: the look you get when you can smell the kill. The look you get when things can go to hell in a handbasket, but I don’t need the warning. I know how taut and frayed this moment is, I can feel it in the air, I can see the readouts from Rick’s chain spiking all over the laptop screen.

I wait for Rick to speak again, but when he doesn’t, I keep talking.

The guys in the band, they knew you were different from then on, though they might not have said it. Maybe they couldn’t put words on what they knew. Or maybe they were lured in and seduced, like the rest of us. After all, whatever happened to you made them better, too. Not to mention richer.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you weren’t good before that night. But I’ve listened to every demo, every bootleg, everything you’ve ever recorded, and after that night there is a difference: a radiance, a heat, a vibe . . . something that makes the listener crave more. You wrote “Dark Side of Heaven” that week. You haven’t stopped touring or playing since.

Alice guessed it first: what you are, what it is. She guessed it when we followed your trail and then Billy’s trail, when we followed the trail that led past both of you, stringing people together through time, all these chance meetings that seemed to change one life after another drastically for the better. Musicians, mostly. It’s guesswork and conjecture, but Alice said to me one night: what if it’s not a demon or a ghost, but something like a fae or a genie, granting wishes.

That’s it, isn’t it? You’re a wish-granter. A genie, or something very much like it. A genie without a lamp or bottle, but in need of a vessel of flesh and blood. Not capable of making everything come true, but powerful enough to seduce new human hosts throughout the ages.

Of course, there’s a price to pay. There always is. You feed off human energy, human lives. Sometimes you feed until people die. Like Todd. Like countless others.

I don’t know where you came from, originally, though I can make an educated guess based on what we found on our trip to Turkey and Egypt. I think . . .

There’s a tap on my shoulder.

“Jackie,” Alice stage-whispers, “you’re monologuing. If he’s not ready for extraction now, it’ll never happen.”

And in that instant when I look away, when I look at Alice, it lashes out.

Whatever Rick is, whatever is inside of him, whatever has been roaming this world in all its different guises for however long, reaches out and seizes hold of me — in spite of the chain, in spite of the software, in spite of the weapons-grade materials and the patent pending. It isn’t just tapping into my energy like before, it busts into me like a battering ram, raking through my memories like playing cards, slipping one to the top of the deck: me, in my bedroom, fourteen years old, listening to “Dark Side of Heaven” for the first time, when Rick’s riff ripped and raced through me like a torrent of fire and love.

I try to pull away, but I can’t, even though I feel him feeding off it, eating the joy of that moment, devouring me from the inside, the marrow of my life and memories extracted.

I’ll suck you dry. I’ll kill you if you don’t release me.

It’s Rick’s voice, or maybe I just hear it like that inside my head, and in a stark, singular moment, it is there in front of me, revealed as a creature of mist and lightning, fire and vapor, unimaginable, yet beautiful and alluring beyond understanding.

I’ll give you anything you want. I already know your first wish. You don’t even have to speak it out loud. Isn’t that why you came to me tonight? Isn’t that why you’ve been tracking me down. Isn’t that really why you’re here? Not to evict me, but to take me in?

I can see it: everything I could have, everything I could be, every dream I had when I was fourteen coming true. I also see, with devastating clarity, that no matter what I’ve tried to tell myself since that demon wrecked my fingers and killed Bella, that I would trade everything I’ve done and accomplished since, for a chance to play guitar again.

Yes, I think: fervently, feverishly. Yes.

Somewhere, Alice is speaking, shouting, and when the vision of what was and could be withdraws, I don’t feel relief, only regret and pain. The genie keeps its hold on me, but it’s speaking to Alice now:

“I’ll give you what you want, too, Alice. Just let me go, and you can have him. Robert Plant? He’s here, tonight, backstage, waiting to see me. I’ll take you to him. Anything you want. Just let me go, I . . .

“Shut . . . up.”

Alice’s voice is cracked and jagged, and I can feel the physical effort it takes her to tear away from the temptation of that offer.

“I’ll kill Jackie. I . . .”

The grasping force that fettered me withdraws so fast it’s like a rubber band snapping back. I fall out of the void, into the present, backstage, this room, the smell of leather and sweat and Jack Daniel’s. Alice is holding me and somehow I’m on the floor, her dark hair tickling my face.

“Jackie, don’t you dare die on me!”

“Rick . . . what happened?”

A sob catches in her throat.

“He went down like a ton of lead.”

And there he is: unconscious, sprawled on the couch. His chest is heaving, so I know he’s alive.

“I guess we miscalculated,” I say as we scramble to our feet. “That thing is a far sight stronger than we counted on.” I check Rick’s pulse: quick, but steady. “I think it was the Jack Daniel’s you prepped that knocked him out. Thank god for the good old standby of sleeping pills and booze, am I right?”

“Get it out of him. I don’t like our chances if he wakes up.”

I open the small cardboard box, removing the contents: an oblong glass vial wrapped in tissue paper and bubble wrap. It’s the size of a bottle of liquid Tylenol, bluish glass wound about with uncorroded, shimmery metal wire; engraved with hieroglyphs around the top and bottom. Just a pretty trinket, so you’d think, bought for two bucks at a market in Istanbul.

“A magic bottle,” the vendor insisted when I tried to haggle. “Used by the Pharaohs to hold divine tears.”

Which isn’t exactly what the hieroglyphs say, but close enough, I guess.

I work fast, fastening the extraction unit over Rick’s head. It looks like a metallic hairnet, and I carefully connect the wires from it to the open mouth of the vial. The net pulses and glows in Rick’s dark hair when I switch it on, and it takes so long before anything happens that I almost give up. Then I see it: a brief flash of glistening, amorphous silver mist, a shivering phantom mass of something unseen and unseeable, flickering in and out of sight. For a second or two it seems to hover around Rick’s head like a halo, as if it might break free, before it’s snuffed out and disappears into the vial.

“Done,” I say, removing the chain from Rick’s neck and pocketing it.

“Good. I’d say five minutes or less before his entourage comes knocking on the door.” Alice has already packed up most of our gear, and now she smiles, looking at the vial as I secure the stopper, wrapping the top in duct tape. “What are we going to do with it? I mean, demons and spirits usually just poof out of our plane of existence, but this . . .”

“I’ll seal it with something more permanent once we get home. Then we’ll store it safely or neutralize it if possible I guess.”

“What about him?”

Rick looks peaceful, but older: frail, empty, diminished. I don’t know what he will be like when he wakes up, but I know he won’t be the same, and neither will his music.

There’s a sense of loss and grief in that moment that I cannot name properly even to myself. For the Rick we loved. For the music and the riffs and those moments he gave us when there was nothing but joy. For Bella, for ourselves, for a band gone down the drain, for my mutilated fingers, for the pain and grief that is impervious to drugs or booze, for the never-ending regret of it all.

“Just leave him be,” I say. “He’ll wake up with a heck of a hangover, but there’s nothing more we can do for him.”

Cradling the vial in my right hand, I slowly flex the crumpled fingers of my left, bending them as if they’re resting on strings again. To my surprise, I feel the idea of a riff take shape inside me, slipping into my wrist and hand. I flex my fingers again. They feel stronger, more dextrous. As if the heat of the fight with Rick has loosened my joints, as if the scarred cartilage and bone has softened, as if . . .

I stop myself. I close my eyes.

No, I think. Then: yes.

“Alice, want to get a band together again?”

But she’s already at the door, not listening.

“How’s my hair and face?” she asks, hefting the backpack and duffle bag with our hardware out of the room. Looking at her, I realize she’s found the time to reapply her lipstick and eyeliner.

“Fine, but . . .”

“I’ll see you at home, OK?”

“You’re leaving? But the gear . . .”

“You can get it to the car, can’t you? Because, you know, if you’re not going to build me a time machine, I’ll have to take my chances in the here and now.”

She’s off, and when I peer into the hallway, I see her heading for a blond and gray-streaked mane of divine curls, a flash of denim and paisley, a whiff of “Black Dog” and “Kashmir” hovering in the air.

“Good luck!” I whisper, curling my fingers around the vial, around the silvery whispered promises contained within.

About the Author

Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins Photo

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and debuted as a writer in Sweden. Currently, she lives in Canada, just outside Vancouver, with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cast of Wonders, Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Flash Fiction Online, Shimmer, and elsewhere.

Find more by Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins Photo

About the Narrator

Summer Fletcher

Summer Fletcher (they/them) has written for major and indie games, and narrated over 30 short stories for various fiction podcasts. More at summerfletcher.com

Find more by Summer Fletcher