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This Excerpt of ‘Last Things’ is Not For the Faint of Heart

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This Excerpt of ‘Last Things’ is Not For the Faint of Heart

This Excerpt of 'Last Things' is Not For the Faint of Heart

Brace yourselves, booknerds. The read we’re sharing today is not for the faint of heart. It’s part heart-racing thriller, with a touch of horror, and is basically what would happen if you mixed the eerie supernatural vibes of Stranger Things with the creepy suspense of You and set the whole thing at a rock concert. It’s Last Things by Jacqueline West, and it follows local music star Anders Thorson, as he tries to figure out if the creepy and increasingly dangerous events that keep happening to him are the cause of a mysterious superfan/stalker, or a supernatural evil force.

This book had us guessing and gasping from start to finish and we aren’t the only ones. Victoria Schwab literally describes it as “everything I love in a book.”

Since we can’t top that review, we’ll just cut straight to the excerpt. Start reading the first three chapters of Last Things right now!

 

THEA

I like the edges.

Places where things end. Fade out. Disappear. Where two things eat away at each other until neither of them really exists anymore. Sharp edges. Frayed edges. Places that are more than one thing, or nothing. It’s more comfortable at the edge. No one really pays attention to you if that’s where you live, or stand, or eat your lunch.

Most people don’t even notice that you’re watching them.

On Friday nights I go to the Crow’s Nest. Everyone goes to the Crow’s Nest. All the kids from high school, all the bored twentysomethings, all the coffee drinkers and scruffy artists and metal fans within a fifty-mile radius. Last Things plays on Friday nights. There’s not much else to do in Greenwood, even on a Friday night. And Last Things is special. They’d be special anywhere.

In a town like Greenwood, they’re legendary.

The Crow’s Nest Coffeehouse is out of town, down a twisty road that leads back to the river, if you’re not in a hurry to get there. The woods lean in around it. They lean farther and farther. They drop acorns and send out reaching suckers. They’ll get this spot back eventually. They’ll take everything.

The Crow’s Nest is an old farmhouse with the innards ripped out. The interior is just one huge room, with a stage at the back and a coffee bar at the front. The walls are so coated with stickers and posters and ragged-edged artwork that there’s no telling what they’re made of, or what color they used to be. Part of one outer wall has been replaced by a row of glass doors, so the room leads straight out onto a weathered porch, and from there to an overgrown patio full of mismatched tables and junkyard statues and climbing vines and chipped bathtub planters full of dirt and whatever kinds of flowers survive on a decade of tough love.

On nights when Last Things plays, the place is packed.

Guys in T-shirts and leather, girls in black. A blur of tattoos on exposed skin. Piercings. Heavy boots. Thick makeup. Clumps of soft-faced freshmen, out past their usual curfews, whispering about music. Every table taken. The floor in front of the stage already occupied by rows of the most hard-core fans.

Sometimes I take a table at the edge of the patio. There’s one behind a potted juniper that has a clear view of the stage. If that spot’s taken, I pick a seat in back, at the very end of the coffee bar, where Ike and Janos are busy at the espresso grinder or drizzling sickly caramel syrup into the lattes the other girls order.

I order café au lait. Not sweet, but not bitter. Just on the edge.

And it’s cheap.

Last fall, after I’d ordered café au lait for three weeks in a row, Janos started charging me for a regular coffee, which makes it even cheaper. Sometimes he hands the cup over with a friendly wink.

I come alone. I’m no trouble.

Not to him.

Then I take my spot, on the edge of the patio or at the end of the coffee bar, and I watch the half-ready stage, and I watch the crowd waiting, talking, shoving, texting, posting photos of their eyeliner or their perfect pouting lips, and I sip my coffee.

And, of course, I watch the woods. They’re always closer than you think.

Someone lets out a whoop. Patrick, the drummer, and Jezz, the bassist, have stepped unobtrusively onto the stage. Jezz is lanky, with long sun-blond hair; Patrick has a buzz cut and burly shoulders and arms. Jezz looks like a surfer who got lost here in northern Minnesota. Patrick looks like he could rip a car apart with his bare hands and then put it correctly back together again.

They arrange mic stands, check amps. It takes ages. They’re particular.

It’s actually Anders who’s particular. But he doesn’t help with the setup. He doesn’t appear until the very end. Because the moment he steps onto the stage, everything changes. The taste of the coffee. The lights. The air. It’s an energy that can’t be sustained, not while the band futzes around with plugs and strings and cords. It starts to feel dangerous. The simmer before an overflowing boil.

So Anders waits until everything is set.

Then he steps through a back door onto the little stage, holding his black electric guitar—I’ve heard he calls it “Yvonne”—and there’s a shift in the air. People scream, as though half of them haven’t sat across the aisle from him in math class.

And they haven’t, really. Classroom Anders blends in. He’s medium height, with choppy brown hair and the kind of features you only start to notice the second or third time you look: well-shaped face, nice edges, sleepy-lidded eyes. You could pass him in a crowded school hallway and not look up.

But seeing him on stage is different. You wonder how you didn’t see it all along. You wonder how you ever looked at anything else.

He seems taller, looming over the packed room. His face is harder. His hands, sliding into place on the black guitar, are long-fingered and rough. But the way they move isn’t.

There’s a beat. A blast of feedback.

The first song starts.

It’s “Dead Girl.” I recognize it immediately. I know all the songs by heart. Even the new ones, the ones they’ve only played in public once or twice. The ones they’ve never played in public at all.

Patrick hunches behind the drums, his arms a muscular blur. Jezz leans back like the bass in his hands is a counterweight.

And Anders. At the front of the stage. At the microphone. The black guitar in his hands. Anders.

Anders.

My hands are always cold

she says, she says

I forgot my coat

she says, she says

 

Would you walk me home

Walk me home and I’ll be warm

 

I’m not the only one who knows all the words. Half the crowd is screaming along.

 

Just a little more

she says, she says

It’s lonely underground

she says, she says

 

But we always leave the door—

We always leave the door open

 

By the second song there’s a pit forming in front of the stage. Bodies are jumping, writhing, smashing into one another. The music gets faster. Harder. The floor trembles. Energy crashes off the raggedy walls. It shoves back at the woods. It pushes out the emptiness.

I stay at the edge, sipping my coffee. But the music has gotten into my blood, too. My heart thumps in rhythm.

Finally, when the energy can’t rise any higher, everything stops.

There’s a hush. That floating feeling, after the ground disappears beneath you but before the fall.

Anders plans all of this. The order and number of songs, the moment when the hunger will peak. The pause.

He trades Yvonne for the acoustic guitar.

The roaring, thrashing crowd goes still. Patrick rubs a thick forearm over his face and rests his sticks in his lap. Takes a long drink of water. Jezz backs toward the wall, where the shadows erase him.

The song starts with a few instrumental lines. A melody moves up and down the lower strings.

The room has been sealed in glass. No one moves, or everything will shatter.

Anders starts to sing.

For most songs, he uses a growl, a mix of low tones and monster rasp. But this is his real voice. It’s smooth and warm and softer than you’d expect.

The song is called “Deep Water.”

I’ve heard it four times, because that’s how many times he’s played it. I’m at every show. At the edge. Keeping watch.

Nothing you can do

She’s got secrets, depths where you can’t go

She’s been here before

One day she’ll carry you away

 

Everyone keeps still. No whispers. No click of cups on tabletops.

The woods are listening, too. A soft, cold wind, a wind that has passed through the palms of ten thousand rustling leaves, moves across my ear like a breath. The woods are getting hungry. But they’ll wait. For now.

The song holds us all. Metalheads. High school cliques. The things that wait in the woods.

Anders’s fingers move over the strings. Slowly and softly enough that the strangeness is hidden now, wrapped up in the perfection of the song like one knot in a silver tapestry, one tiny bug in a dewy spiderweb. Most people are too caught up in the music to notice. But if you watch as closely as I watch, you see.

A final note soars and soars, holding everything still, until Anders silences it with the press of his fingers.

The end.

Before anyone can applaud, scream, clap, anything, Patrick and Jezz jump into the next song. It’s “Breakdown.” Driving and hard and deafening. The audience, set free, loses its mind.

I finally pull my eyes from the stage.

It doesn’t take long to find Frankie in the crowd.

It’s only because Anders is onstage that everyone in the room isn’t staring at her. Frankie has a force like gravity. Wherever she stands becomes the center of everything else. Elements arrange themselves around her. She’s the opposite of everything I am.

Frankie has dark brown hair and full lips. She doesn’t wear makeup. She looks like the heroine of a romantic French movie. I watch her watch Anders, which she only does part of the time. Now she’s whispering to a friend. Getting another drink. Doodling something on a napkin, which she passes to someone else. Not what you would expect from the lead singer’s girlfriend. Or maybe you would.

The band plays three more songs. The air in the room gets thicker. The woods creep closer. The sky is blackening like something scorched.

They end with “Superhero.” Everybody—everybody—knows the words to this one.

 

They came down from another world

bigger than ours, stronger than ours

Beautiful strangers

under a sun where there’s nothing new at all

 

Look around at the mess we’ve made

bigger than us, better than us

Opportunities we waste

in a place that starts to seem too small

 

We need a caped crusader

We need a savior

 

It comes down to this

Red leather gloves and a long black list

We know we asked for this

X-ray vision and an iron fist

 

Someone to rescue us

bigger than us, smarter than us

Decide and think for us

when all we build is doomed to fall

 

Someone who’ll protect us

bigger than us, stronger than us

Close and lock the doors on us

keep us safe behind the walls

 

Now bow down

I said GET DOWN

 

It comes down to this

Red leather gloves and a long black list

You know we asked for this

X-ray vision and an iron fist

 

Anders breaks into a guitar solo.

Watching the show, no one would have thought he was holding back. But it’s suddenly clear that he was.

His fingers on the neck of the guitar are a blur. The other hand, like a claw, tears at its strings. Fast. Fast. Impossibly fast.

No one should be able to play this fast.

Not so flawlessly. Not so young.

Outside, just beyond the wall of sound, the woods roar.

The crowd is too deep in the frenzy to notice.

Sometimes I think Ike catches it, leaning one big elbow on the counter, behind his gleaming espresso machine. He owns the place. He’s got thick skin and sharp gray eyes. There’s not much that slips past him. But his face never gives anything away.

The solo tears to an end. The chorus blasts back one last time.

 

You know we asked for this

X-ray vision and an iron fist

X-RAY VISION AND AN IRON FIST

 

With the last line, the noise in the room is so loud—the screaming guitar, Anders’s amplified voice, the voices of the crowd singing along—that it actually has weight. It presses down on me.

But then the song ends, and everything collapses into the hailstorm of applause.

Anders takes one quick little bow. He turns and walks off the stage.

Jezz and Patrick wave, hold up their sticks and their bass, soaking up a few more moments. Then they walk off, too.

The applause and screaming slowly, finally, die out. The crowd turns back into people. They look at one another. Laugh. Fracture into small groups to smoke a cigarette, make out, climb into cars. Frankie and her friends glimmer away.

I don’t move.

Once the room is mostly clear, and Ike and Janos are wiping tables and putting up chairs, the band finally comes back out onstage. They wind cords, collapse stands. A few fans, headbanger guys and some giggling girls, press up to the stage. Some of the girls ask Anders for autographs. One of them asks him to sign the skin of her arm. Then she darts off, blushing, laughing, and floats out the door with her friends.

Another journalist is here tonight. He’s recording on his cell phone, jotting notes in a tiny book now and then. He stands at the edge of the stage, leaning back in his peeling screen-printed concert T-shirt and battered black jacket. The room is quiet enough now that I can hear their conversation.

They’re talking about Mastodon. Trivium. Alaya. The journalist scatters metal band names like confetti. Jezz and Patrick are only half listening. The journalist isn’t really talking to them anyway. It’s Anders he’s speaking to. It’s always Anders.

The band put their instruments in heavy black cases. They gather armloads of cords. Climb down from the stage. The journalist doesn’t help, but he follows them out the side door to their cars, still talking.

I know, because I follow them, too.

It’s dark now. A cool April night, with thick blue sky and tangled clouds shutting out the moon. The woods are still a little too close. They’ve quieted, though. I can feel them pulling back, a loosening in the air. Patrick and Jezz hoist their stuff into the bed of Patrick’s black truck. Anders’s trunk is open. He lays his guitars inside. There are blankets in the trunk, I notice, ready to cushion the cases. It looks like the scene of a cozy abduction.

The journalist finally stops talking. He shakes hands with the band, Anders last.

“Thanks again, guys. I’ll be in touch when the piece is up.”

“Cool. Thanks,” says Jezz.

“Drive safe, man,” says Patrick.

Anders doesn’t say anything.

Patrick shuts the back of the truck. His eyes catch on me, lingering in the shadows, back by the overgrown porch. “Hey.” He nudges Anders. “Look. Your stalker is here.”

Anders finally looks in my direction. His face stays absolutely still. But his eyes meet mine for long enough that it’s almost like a greeting. This is as much as I can ask for. I have to keep hidden everywhere else. But at The Crow’s Nest, I’m just another fan. Another follower. Here, he thinks he’s safe. Anders turns back to the car, closes the trunk. He murmurs something to Jezz and Patrick. They all laugh.

He doesn’t give me another glance.

They climb into their cars, Jezz and Patrick into the truck, heading toward the east side of town, Jezz’s house, Patrick’s place, and Anders heading toward his house, not far away, here on the northwest, near the woods.

I wait until their taillights have winked out in the distance, down the cracked asphalt of the road.

I get my bicycle. I take the path straight through the woods. The trees lean back as I pass. They whisper and hiss. They know what I am. They know what I know.

My own house isn’t far away, on a mossy dead-end road deep in the oaks and pines. I’ll pass Anders’s house first. Take one more look. Make sure he’s inside. Watch his windows. Wait until he shuts off the lights. Maybe.

Maybe I’ll wait even longer than that. Maybe I’ll watch all night.

 

ANDERS

 

When I get home, I take an epic shower. I do this after every show at the Crow’s Nest. It’s the start of my comedown. And I need to come down, or I’d still be buzzing from the energy of the show at four a.m. I’m sure Mom and Dad think I’m doing some embarrassing and perverted teenage guy thing in here. They’d be surprised to know I’m just standing with my back to the showerhead, my hands hanging at my sides, letting the spray pound the aching muscles in my back.

Not that I really want them to know this, either.

I keep the water right on the edge of blistering. Hot enough that when I climb out, the bathroom is one big cloud, and I’m just a shadow on the foggy mirror. Even when I wipe the fog away, I barely recognize myself. I grew three inches last year, long after I’d stopped expecting it. Free weights and push-ups have changed things, too. These days, my arms look less like something that could have been squeezed out of a toothpaste tube. Plus, Patrick’s sister gives me free haircuts in exchange for letting her practice her cosmetology school techniques on me, so I don’t look like the poster boy for the fifteen-

dollar kids’ cut at ValuClips anymore.

I look like—

I don’t know.

I clear another stripe of mirror with my forearm. The guy staring back at me from that blurry stripe is taller, broader, choppier haired than the kid I still expect to see. I put on the rock-star face. Aloof, a little haughty. A little hard. The guy in the mirror almost pulls it off. He can fake it, anyway. Except for the eyes. His eyes still show what a complete and perpetual dork he is.

I drop the face and lean into the mirror, palms on the counter.

Tonight was good. Really good. Amazingly, mind-

blowingly good. Jezz and Patrick and I know each other so well and have played together so long that it always feels like we’re part of one electrical circuit. But tonight, like it has more and more often, the electricity laced out of us and ran through the entire room, all the heartbeats pounding in rhythm, the crowd giving back everything we gave to them.

That feeling, that connected, electrical feeling, is the best thing in the entire world. It’s like a shot of adrenaline that goes on and on until your whole body is practically throwing off sparks, and you feel like you could run straight up the side of a building and dive up into the sky.

I hate that it ever has to end, even for those couple of seconds between songs. When I’m not playing, I’m just me. Standing there. Getting stared at by a hundred

people who all know my name. That’s why I always jump into the next song as fast as possible. It’s why, even when I’m not onstage, I’d rather be playing than doing anything else.

I’d rather be the guy with the guitar.

The guy with the guitar might actually be worthy of people screaming his name. That guy would know how to deal with journalists and fans. He’d always be able to find clothes that say rock star, not garage sale poser. I’m pretty sure he’d tell any little metalhead complaining about the side effects of fame to suck it up, loser.

I mean, Last Things isn’t famous. Not really. But we’ve got the bite-sized, backwoods version of fame. Okay, is it a little weird to have girls who’ve seen you in your school gym shorts asking for your autograph, and to start recognizing your very own stalkers, the ones who hang around until the very end of the night, staring at you but never saying anything at all? Yeah. Sure. But isn’t it also worth it about a million times over?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Plus, there’s just one thing I have to remember to put everything back in perspective. They don’t love me. Even the obsessive online fans who say they do. They don’t know me. They don’t know me at all. They just love the music.

I get that. I feel exactly the same way.

I lean toward my reflection again. I put on the rock-star face. My chin rises. My jaw goes tight. Suck it up, loser.

“Anders?” Mom’s voice calls from outside the bathroom door.

If there’s anything that can immediately make you feel not like a rock star, it’s your mom calling to you through a bathroom door. I back away from the mirror. “Yeah?”

“How did it go tonight?”

“Fine,” I shout back.

“Good crowd?”

“Yeah. It was pretty full.”

“Did you play anything new?”

I guess this isn’t going to be a short interview. And there’s no point telling Mom I can’t hear her. She’ll just wait and follow me down to my bedroom. I tuck a frayed towel tight around my waist and open the door.

Mom stands in the hall, still dressed from a long day at the front desk of the Greenwood-Halmstad Hospital, in her blue sweater set and beaded necklace.

“A couple new things,” I tell her. “Mostly old stuff.”

“I’m sorry your dad and I couldn’t be there,” she says. “I had that staff meeting tonight, and it went late. Really late.” Behind the glint of her glasses, Mom’s eyes are tired. “But that should be the last one for a while.”

Mom and Dad haven’t come to a show at the Crow’s Nest in . . . I can’t remember how long, that’s how long it’s been. I know Dad hasn’t been to a show since I announced I’d be taking a year after graduation to see where this music thing leads. For Mom, it’s been almost as long. And that’s fine. It’s harder to keep up the rock-star face when your mom is in the audience, beaming up at you.

“That’s okay. It’s the Crow’s Nest.” I give her a half smile. “Not really your and Dad’s scene.”

Mom opens her mouth, mock offended. “You know we can headbang with the best of them.” She pauses. “That’s what they call it, right? Headbang?”

Now I give a whole smile. “Yes, Mom. That’s what they call it.”

Mom smiles back. “Are you hungry? I could make you something.”

“Nah, I ate. Thanks.”

“Where did you eat?”

“Crow’s Nest. They gave us sandwiches.”

Mom’s eyebrows tighten. I can tell her mind is already going to the wallet inside her old faux-leather purse, counting the cash. “Do you owe them for it?”

“No. Don’t worry about it. Ike says it’s payment.”

“Well. That’s nice.” Mom looks at me for a minute. She smiles slightly, her head tilted to one side. She looks like she’s staring at a painting, trying to figure out exactly what it’s supposed to be a picture of.

“Well,” she says again. “Good night then.”

“’Night.”

Mom reaches up and rubs my bare shoulder. I let her. Down the hall, I can hear the TV blaring the noise of a baseball game. There’s a hiss and click as Dad opens a beer can. Then Mom’s hand glides away. She turns and heads toward the living room.

When I was younger I had all these daydreams about what I’d do for Mom and Dad when I became a huge rock star. I’d buy them a mansion and fancy cars and a speedboat and nice clothes, and they’d never have to worry about money again. Little-kid fantasies. Now I mostly think about how much money I’ll save them just by taking care of myself. Then they won’t have to pay for my guitar lessons, or the picks and strings and sheet music, or the car insurance that shot up when I got my first speeding ticket.

Mom tries to keep money stuff quiet. But Dad’s not so subtle. I know things are tight. And I know that my spending every spare minute on music instead of washing dishes at some crappy local grease pit is making Dad’s blood pressure climb even higher.

Sometimes I imagine handing him a huge check, back payment for everything he’s had to pay for in my entire life. And then all the threads of guilt that tie me here will be snapped, and I’ll get out of Greenwood for good.

I grab my clothes from the bathroom floor and head down the hall.

My room is at the opposite end of the house from Mom and Dad’s. Dad designed the house himself, before I was born, and oversaw the crew that built it. He hasn’t designed anything since. Over the last few years, he’s done less of a lot of things. Nobody’s building houses in Greenwood anymore. Our place is a long, low ranch house covered in rough wood shingles. It looks like a giant pine tree fell over and someone hollowed it out and moved in. The house is surrounded by other, actual pines. There’s a carpet of moss and pine needles on the roof, in the yard, everywhere. My room faces the woods. You can see out the window into trees that go on and on.

I shut the bedroom door quietly behind me.

There’s a growl-squeak from under my bed. A second later a little gray monster barrels out and runs into my ankles.

“Hey, Goblin.” I bend down and rub the cat between his raggedy ears. Goblin is old and deaf, with bony shoulders and snaggleteeth and breath so bad it could wilt a houseplant. He might be my favorite creature on earth. He doesn’t say meow anymore, I suppose because he can’t hear himself. Instead he says mirk and ackk and eeeooww, and a bunch of other cat words he’s invented to suit his cat moods. And he always waits under my bed for me to come home.

Rrrurk, says Goblin, butting his head against my foot. After I’ve rubbed him enough, he leaps heavily onto my bed and curls up in the blankets.

I throw the towel over the chair and pull on a fresh pair of boxer shorts. I don’t turn on the light. I’d rather hide in the dark for a while. Even when I’m alone in my room, I swear, sometimes I feel the pressure of eyes on me. In this little town, there’s always someone watching. There’s enough glow from the night sky for me to make my way around the room anyway. I could do it with my eyes closed: Twin bed. Scarred dresser covered with stickers and metal band logos drawn by hand with black Sharpie. Desk and chair. Sound system pieced together from garage sales and Goodwill. And, beside my bed, the guitars. My first acoustic, cheap and light as balsa wood. My new acoustic, still in its case from the show. My old ninety-dollar Epiphone Les Paul Special. And the black Ibanez electric. The most valuable, most beautiful thing I own.

Yvonne.

I sit down on the end of the bed. I’ve already played for almost five hours today: two hours of practice, warm-up, sound check, the show. But I can’t help myself. I unzip the case and pull Yvonne into my lap. I run my fingers down the strings, feeling the buzz of the wires against my fingertips.

As long as I’m playing, I can shut off the rest of my brain. I can stop thinking about what my face is doing, and about how my autograph on some girl’s arm looked like it was written by a six-year-old girl, and about all the people screaming for our set tonight, and about Dad not even looking up from the TV when I walked into the house, and about the much worse things—the things I can’t tell anyone, that I barely confess to myself. There’s nothing left but the music.

I don’t plug into the amp. I just practice the pentatonic scale, as fast as I can, up and down the fretboard. Then I practice fingerwork. First finger to second, second finger to third, third to fourth, as fast as I can. Until the tendons are screaming.

Then I lay Yvonne on the bed, climb down onto the rough dark blue carpet, and do fifty push-ups on my knuckles. The skin on the backs of my hands burns. After fifty I stretch for a minute: neck, shoulders, hands. Then I pick up the guitar again. Scales, slightly faster this time.

I’ll do this for a while. Until the last of the adrenaline from the show has finally drained away, and my whole body aches, but in a good way, like after a long run, and I can just pass out, without the rest of my brain ever turning itself back on. I’m just getting down on the floor for the next round of push-ups when there’s a tap at the window.

I jerk up. My heart jumps.

Someone is outside.

At first all I can see is a shape. It looks human. It’s small and short-haired, and it’s pressed right up to the glass.

Then it lifts one hand in a little fingertip wave, and I realize that it’s Frankie Lynde.

And I’m standing beside my bed, out of breath, my mouth hanging open, in nothing but my ratty boxer shorts.

Jesus Christ.

I grab a pair of jeans from the laundry pile, yanking them up over my damp skin as I stumble toward the window.

She’s seen me like this before. Shirtless, out of breath. The memory makes my frozen heart start to thud again.

Rock-star face. Rock-star face.

I shake my hair out of my eyes and shove the window open. A rush of cool, damp air pours into the room.

Mrk? says Goblin from over my shoulder.

My window is just high enough that Frankie needed to stand on something to look inside. She’s rolled a stump over from the firepit out back. In the moonlight her hair is sleek and her skin is silvery gold and perfect.

Everything about her is perfect.

“Hey,” she says. She smiles.

My heart trips, but I keep my face still. “Hey.”

“How’s it going in there?”

“Fine. How’s it going out there?”

“Also fine. Although Sasha spilled some iced green tea on Mason’s phone, and now he might have to kill her. Or get a new phone. Whatever’s easier.”

In the background I can hear a shriek. “Stop it, Mason! That won’t bring your phone back from the dead!” There’s crunching, steps running through pine needles. Somebody laughs.

“Who else is out there?”

“Just me and Sasha and Mason and Gwynn. We might drive around for a while. The moon’s so bright.”

Of course Frankie isn’t alone. She’s never alone. That’s the kind of girl Frankie is: the kind who’s surrounded by people who love her every minute of every day.

Frankie is fun. She’s cool. She’s also the most beautiful human being I’ve ever seen in real life. If it weren’t for the music, a girl like Frankie Lynde wouldn’t even give me two seconds of her attention. She notices me for the same reason everybody else does, and I know it.

I’m not whining. I’m not. But I’m also not going to pretend something’s real when I know that if my guitar suddenly disappeared, Frankie Lynde would disappear, too.

“We were all at the show,” Frankie says. “Did you see us?”

Did I see them? I can’t remember. While I play, I focus on one face after another until all of them melt into one blurry gray face, and nothing sticks in my mind at all.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Well, we were there. And you were great.” Frankie smiles again. “So. Want to come out with us?” She raises one eyebrow. “I suppose you’d have to put a shirt on.”

I shift my weight so that a little more of my chest will be hidden behind the window frame, trying to look as casual as possible. Then I think about what she’s asking. Driving around town with Frankie’s friends, having to keep up the rock-star act all night. I can barely keep it up right now. I’d rather be alone with Yvonne and the music.

“I don’t think so,” I tell her. “I’m down for the night.”

Frankie doesn’t beg. She probably doesn’t know how. She just gives a little sigh. It’s as close as she ever gets to seeming disappointed. Her eyes flick to my bare chest, just for a second. I’m not sure if she’s pleased, or if she’s only less than disgusted, but she doesn’t look disappointed anymore.

“Okay,” she says. “Well—have a good night in there.”

“Have a good night out there.”

She hesitates for a second, like she’s waiting for me to say something else, or to change my mind and climb out the window after her. But my feet might as well be glued to the worn blue carpet.

Another beat, and Frankie is jumping down from the stump, running off toward the trees, disappearing. I hear more footsteps in the pine needles. More laughter.

Frankie’s laugh is like music.

It’s a cliché, but I mean it. Her laugh is sound perfectly arranged in time. It’s too perfect to be effortless, but it sounds effortless anyway.

Somewhere in the distance, there’s an engine, and then the woods fade to quiet again.

I shut the window.

I sit back down on the end of the bed. Goblin crawls across the blankets and flops down next to me with a little grunt, his curving spine pressed against my back. I haven’t even picked up Yvonne again when it hits me.

A chord. A line of melody. Another chord.

It comes like a punch, just like always. Air knocked out of my lungs; thoughts scattered. There’s nothing left but the spot where the fist struck.

I grab the notebook and pencil from the bedside table and get it all down as fast as I can.

 

What are you waiting for?

I know you’re listening

Why are you holding still

clenching that key in your hand

 

What are you hoping for?

All alone, one a.m.

Why are you here again

standing still until you can’t stand it anymore

 

And you’re not

the flying bullet

And you’re not

the speeding car

And you’re not

even the empty sky behind a falling star

 

What can you see?

The darkness closes

What does it mean

that every light is too light to hold you down

 

And you’re not

the buried bullet

And you’re not

the totaled car

And you’re not

even the empty sky where there was a falling star

 

When it’s done, I feel hungover. I’m guessing this is what a hangover feels like, anyway. I’ve only been seriously drunk once in my life, and then I puked so much, I don’t think there was enough of anything left in my system to give me one. But after the songs come, I feel exhausted and empty, just like I did then. Like my brain

is out of my control. Like my stomach is a wrung-

out sock and my mouth is carpeted with sour paste, and like I’m not sure what I was doing five seconds ago.

It’s been this way for almost two years now. As long as I’ve been writing anything decent. A song comes: Everything else in my brain fizzes out. I’ve had to stop in the middle of a math test to scribble notes and lyrics under my desk. I’ve had to pretend I was sick and bolt from the dinner table. It’s like when some big breaking news story comes on TV, and it’s on every channel, interrupting every show, and everything else has to stop. Everything but the song.

And the songs always come in one finished piece. I can hear the bass line, the drums, the guitar intro, and solos. There’s no voice, but there are always lyrics, playing in the tone where I’m supposed to sing or shout them. They fill up my skull, blasting at top volume again and again, louder and louder, until I release them all on paper.

It’s exhausting, but it’s exhilarating. It’s a lot like the shows. I guess there’s a reason people want to get drunk again and again.

It’s gone on long enough, and I’ve gotten enough good songs out of it, that I guess this is just the way my songwriting works. Other composers have described feeling the same way. Beethoven even said, “Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.” Not that I’m Beethoven or anything. Just that what happens to me when a song comes isn’t that strange.

This is what I tell myself.

And the way that I can play, the way my hands have gotten faster and faster, and how it sometimes feels like I’m not even the one controlling them—that’s because I’ve practiced like crazy for the last nine years.

This is what I tell myself, too.

Even though I’m less and less sure I believe it.

I put Yvonne gently back on her stand. I set the notebook and pencil in their place.

Then I stretch out on the bed, on top of the sheets. Goblin’s stinky breath caresses my shin.

I don’t fall asleep, not the way I used to. But eventually something shorts out. Things go dark. And I’m finally gone.

 

THEA

There’s a pine tree with a trunk so wide that three people could hide behind it, about a hundred feet from the Thorsons’ house. It’s far from the road, so no one driving by will catch me in their headlights or spot my old blue bicycle buried in a patch of shrubs.

The bark of the pine is rough, jagged, gnawed like a sheet of rusted metal. Gluey sap trails from the knotholes. If I press against it, it will rip out strands of my long hair.

The tree doesn’t want me here. It would like to scratch me, sting me. It would like me not to be so close. The woods want me gone.

I peer out from around the trunk.

There’s enough moonlight pushing through the hazy sky that I can see everything. The woods. The lawn. The low, shingled house. I can see his bedroom window.

It’s on the very end of the house, the only window in the short stretch of wall. There are curtains, gray ones, but they’re almost never closed. On quiet nights I can hear him practicing. Composing. Fractured bones of music tumbling through the window.

There’s no music now.

First he’ll shower. Sometimes he’ll eat, if his mother talks him into it. Then he’ll head to his room. He’ll pet his cat. He doesn’t always turn the lights on. But I know when he’s there.

I shift my foot on the thick pine needles. Inch forward for a better view.

The woods watch us both.

A crunch of tires. Voices in the trees. Car doors slam.

Someone has parked on the shoulder of the road, out of sight of the Thorsons’ house. I can hear them, two, three, four of them, their running feet on the pine needles as light as a family of deer.

Gold limbs and sleek brown hair flashing past me. Frankie. Her friends scamper in the trees to my right. One of them holds up a glass bottle, threatening to splash it. All of them laughing. The woods hold their breath.

I crouch beside the big pine. They don’t notice me.

Frankie flits to the bedroom window. I watch her climb onto a stump, tap at the glass. A second later the window rises.

Anders stands inside. I can see the outlines of his face, moon-blue planes and shadows.

I can’t hear their words. They don’t talk long.

No, I think. Anders. Don’t go. Don’t go.

Frankie leaps off the stump. She runs back into the trees, where someone else is shrieking, “Stop it, you lunatic!” and laughing.

“Let’s go,” says Frankie’s voice. “I want to drive around for a while.”

I take a breath. He’s not leaving.

“What, am I just your chauffeur?” says a guy’s voice.

“Not just my chauffeur,” says Frankie. “Come on.”

Someone else laughs. Voices evaporating. Slam of car doors. Tires whirring away, away, until the road is quiet and empty again, and the woods come back to life.

They lean closer now. They whisper to the long, low house. They stroke it with their shadows.

I keep my eyes fixed on the window.

Then it starts.

The music.

Nothing is born already finished. Already perfect. Nothing should be.

But this is. Every time.

I hold my breath.

They’re here. The dark things.

No one is around to watch me, to notice what happens to my eyes when I let myself see. No one to notice how they burn.

I scan the woods.

Dark things are everywhere. In the shadows. In every trembling needle on every pine tree. Darkness slithers from their bodies, from their too-long, crooked limbs. They’re right here.

But so am I.

I stand perfectly still. Until the music stops, and afterward. Half an hour. An hour. The moon combs through the branches above me, reaching down with tiny filaments of light.

The window stays shut. The light stays out.

At last I feel the woods shift. The weave unravels. The night sky sifts through. The trees lean back, silent again.

Anders is asleep.

He’s safe for tonight.

For a sliver of a minute, I let myself imagine him in his bed, cotton sheets against his skin, his eyes shut, his lips relaxed, apart—

I shove myself away from the tree.

I yank my bike out of the bushes. It’s a very used Schwinn, colored sky blue with matte house paint. Its wheels tick softly as I climb on. I pedal through the woods, weaving between trees, letting the branches touch but not catch me, letting the moonlight lead me back to the road.

The road is deserted. Still, I stick to the pavement’s very edge, balancing the bike on the weedy shoulder. At County N, I turn.

Our road is narrower. Twistier. There’s nothing on it, not for two more turns. Nothing but Aunt Mae’s place.

Aunt Mae’s place is an old farmhouse, although the woods have already taken back whatever fields once surrounded it. It’s pale blue and very used, just like my bike. There are no lights on inside. I leave the bike on the porch and unlock the front door with my key.

Just down the short hallway, in the living room, the TV mumbles to itself. Faint pulses of blue light wash the walls. Aunt Mae leaves the TV on almost all the time. For company. She rarely has any other kind. Now and then someone will leave a bottle or some home baking in a bundle on the porch. Every once in a while, an old lady will drive out for a visit, the kind of old lady who carries a rosary and a bottle of holy water and saints’ medals in her purse, whose eyes never quite focus, who asks Aunt Mae to sit and pray with her. And sometimes kids from town come out here, too. They smash pumpkins on the driveway. Toss toilet paper into the trees. Leave nylon witches’ hats on the mailbox.

But now she has me.

I tiptoe far enough down the hall that I can make out the shape of Aunt Mae on the couch, her head on the armrest, her body covered in blankets. I watch until I see her eyelids flicker, her chest rise and fall. Then I head the other way, quietly, into the kitchen.

The kitchen smells of lemon balm and rust, with a light layer of mildew. I pull one of the empty jam jars from the cupboard and run the tap until the water is slightly less than warm. I drink. Wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. It was a long night.

It isn’t quite over.

I climb the narrow staircase. My room is to the left, above the kitchen. The eaves are low. Slanted walls, two windows, iron-frame twin bed. On the dresser, a row of ten votive candles in little glass cups. I strike a match on a sandpaper strip and light them all.

On the wall above the candles hangs a picture. It’s smaller than a postcard, smaller than a photograph printed at a drugstore. It was posted on a metal music blog last fall, taken by someone with a decent camera. I printed it out at the public library.

In the photograph Anders is onstage. Lips parted. Eyes almost shut. The fluttering wicks turn his image to oily black and gold.

I close my eyes.

Anders. Anders. Anders.

I repeat his name like a chant. Like a song of my own.

Anders. Anders. Anders.

We’ve lasted one more night.

Around the house, the woods creak and whisper and groan.

But they are shut outside. Anders is asleep, in his own quiet house. And I am here.

I blow the candles out. I fold back the blue cotton quilt with its yarn knots and its fading flowers, untie and pull off my shoes. Then, at last, I climb into bed. The woods will whisper to me all night long.

 


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