In my head, it sounds better—in my head, I am Johnny Rotten screaming into a tattered microphone, I am Vince Neil shrieking to a sold-out arena, I am Roger-fucking-Daltrey singing "Magic Bus" at the Monterey Pop Festival, and Chris is my Keith Moon. We play before thousands, a crowd that cheers wildly when Chris at last smashes his drum set and I throw my mike into the throngs, a ripple like a shockwave through their swarm. We sweat beneath stage lights, our skin like oil slicks, and we march offstage as the lights finally dim, as the crowd begins a slow chant no, this can't possibly be the end.
It sounds better, in my head.
But here, in Chris's leaky basement full of house spiders and worn carpeting, we are just two jerks, two nothings with no amps, not even a microphone, only the toy drum set Chris's dad bought him for Christmas last year. We play for no one, not even Chris's awestruck little brother who stayed late at school for origami club, just for the basement's rafters above, where the pipes leak rusty water.
But soon, we will. Not the Belmont Jr. High talent show, not Lila Duldorf's birthday party, not even the Hi-Dive down the street—things we might have once wanted, but now we have no time. Now, we're focused. We have a plan. We will play Moss Regional Hospital, something Chris's dad hooked up two days ago, because he knows a guy on the board of directors.
We will play Moss Regional, in one week. We will play to save her life.
After we practice for an hour, we grab Hi-C and Twizzlers and sit on Chris's front porch, where we were the other day when Chris's dad came home and told us the news. Chris said right there how fucking awesome that was, and I felt like maybe I could kiss Mr. Winchester, but instead I stuffed a WarHead in my mouth and wondered why I couldn't say fuck in front of my own dad.
Though now, the real issue is that he's already given up, just sits and watches the same reruns of "M.A.S.H." and "Three's Company" over and over again, while I bike to the hospital after school, or call mom in her room if I stay at Chris's too late.
"She knows we're doing this, right?" Chris bites the end off a Twizzler and looks at me.
"Sure, man, she knows. I told her last night, when we talked."
"You really think a week is enough time?"
I want to tell him we don't have any goddamn choice, but I hold my tongue and chew on my thumbnail instead.
"Jesus, Mike, don't pull that shit on my porch. If I find one of your fingernails later, I'm going to put it in your Coke when you're not looking."
In fifth grade, I'd saved a bunch of my nails and put them on Chris's pillowcase once, when we were watching Cujo and he got up to pee. Just for spite, I bite off my thumbnail and spit it onto the porch stairs.
"Sick, man. Better not leave your Coke alone tomorrow at lunch."
I tell Chris he's a dick, and we sit on the porch until the Twizzlers are gone, until an ant crawls up and carries my thumbnail away.
At home during dinner, dad is quiet. We sit in front of the television, eating microwave dinners while Nick at Nite blares from the screen, an "I Love Lucy" episode featuring Harpo Marx. Dad knows I'll call mom when I'm finished, and I don't know whether he'll choose to talk to her this time, or pretend to wash dishes again, even though we're eating out of cardboard.
"You tell your mother about your little scheme?"
I nod, but dad's eyes don't move from the television. He takes a bite of nuked turkey, and he smiles a little when Lucy hides behind a doorway, afraid to meet Harpo in person.
I know he thinks I'm doing this as therapy—like how music is supposed to heal, to make mom smile, just like pets do for sick people, why resident tabbies live in nursing homes. Chris too, because I said as much, when I told him I wanted to do this. But what I never told him, and what I never can, is that some part of me is doing it for that story she used to tell.
The healing is fine. If nothing else, we'll have that. But why I really want this, what some small part of me still believes, is that when my voice moves across the oncology floor, filtering into her IV bag, her needles, the radiation that permeates her skin, its energy will power the tools she needs to live. And by some strange miracle—but one I can actually imagine, again and again, when I can't fall asleep some nights—the music will make her well, just like it made the ship move and fly away, in the best bedtime story she ever told me.
I don't know what has made me think of the story lately, or why I even believe, in some small corner of my mind, that this will make any goddamn bit of difference. She is sick, and I'm old enough now to stop believing in most things, and dad said last week, after the doctor called and I found him standing in the kitchen, palms resting on the edge of the sink, you know, Mike, your mom might not be around forever.
But I want to believe. Even if I never tell Chris, even if he thinks we're just playing for fun, even if dad watches reruns for the rest of his fucking life. There will still be me, my energy to hers, the last porch light left, like the one she used to leave on when I was out after dark.
I wait awhile to call her, after I've done my pre-algebra homework, and after I know dad has settled into the couch for the primetime lineup, so it won't hurt so much that he doesn't pick up the phone too. They haven't been on bad terms, necessarily, just distant, like maybe he doesn't know what to say to her, or like she's waiting for him to make some impossible move that could make her stay on this earth.
I call directly to her room, since she's been out of surgery for a few days, and the ward nurse will no longer need to mediate our calls, or make sure she's awake. She sounds groggy when she answers, like she's been taking a nap, and she tells me she's just watched "Wheel of Fortune", over a hearty dinner of Ensure.
"How is practice going? How's Chris?"
"You know, good. We can't really play with just singing and drums, though, so I borrowed Mr. Winchester's guitar."
Chris and I had decided the day before that drums and vocals wouldn't be enough, so he'd asked his dad to lend me their family's acoustic. I knew a few chords, from when mom had shown me her old Bob Dylan albums, from when she told me they'd seen him live in 1972, when he was drunk as a skunk, as she'd said, and barely knew the words to his own songs. I'd borrowed her old guitar then, and had learned "Blowin' in the Wind" by playing my own wobbly notes for two days, against the scratch of our turntable's vinyl.
"So you remembered something from our lesson. Still listening to Bob Dylan?" Her voice brightens, and I can hear her smiling. The sound makes me want to cry.
"Nah, mom, I've moved on. You know, Zeppelin, the Pistols. Motley Crue."
"I saw Led Zeppelin once, in college. I almost touched Robert Plant's shoulder, after I pushed my way to the front."
The thought of her pushing anything, of having the strength to elbow through a crowd much less leave her hospital bed, is one I can't think too hard about.
"Mom, do you remember that story?" I blurt it out, a question I hadn't meant to bring up.
Quiet stills her end of the line. "What story, sweet?"
"You know, the story. About the ship."
She's quiet again, and for a second I wonder if breast cancer has stolen her memory too, if the slow spread to her brain has blocked out everything that was once me, if maybe she doesn't even remember dad and that's why he's been so down.
But then she laughs. "The ship in the Sea of Sadness?"
"Yes. The ship in the Sea of Sadness," I say, and something in my chest floods.
"Oh God, Mike, I haven't thought of that in so long. How do you even remember that?" She is laughing still, as if it's the best thing she's heard all week.
"Of course I remember. You used to tell it all the time."
"You know, that was one of your grandmother's stories. Not even mine." She is reeling. Her voice sounds drunk.
"Could tell me again?"
In her voice I hear it, that I'm too old for this now, that kids on the cusp of teenhood don't need bedtime stories anymore. If Chris were here he'd say the same thing, only he'd probably punch my shoulder and give me a dead arm, maybe call me a loser. But I tell her yes, yes I want to hear the story, now. So she tells me.
She tells me that once there was a ship that sailed through the sky, a ship powered by the music of one family, a family that played flute and harp and violin and piccolo together. But one day a great storm raged through the clouds, blowing the whole family except the little boy clear away to the other side of the world, and the ship fell to the earth without any music to guide the way. When the boy awoke after the storm, he was alone in a great desert of only sand, on the deck of the abandoned ship, his violin broken beside him. He cried so much that the sand flooded with tears, an ocean from that day known as the Sea of Sadness.
Mom pauses a moment, like maybe she's forgotten the rest. But then she tells me that a great blue heron heard the boy's cries and flew across the Sea of Sadness, landing on the boat's deck where the boy lay weeping. The heron pulled several strands from its own feathers, and strung them across the broken violin, and when the instrument had been repaired, the bird handed it to the boy and flew away. The boy watched the heron take flight, then picked up the violin and played until the abandoned ship roared to life. He played the ship across the Sea of Sadness, the music commanding the boat toward his family. At last he found them, washed upon a sandy bank of deserted beach, and there they at last took flight, the ship at full speed as the family played in unison once more.
She tells the tale with precision, as if no time has passed between the last time she told it while tucking me in, and now, relaying words across telephone wires. She asks, "Is that the one you meant?"
And I tell her yes, mom, that's exactly the one I meant.
I keep a hand over my Coke at lunch, just in case Chris remembers what he said about the fingernails. But he seems too distracted to remember, making plans for our afternoon practice, talking so fast that bits of potato chip fly from his mouth.
"Oh, and I mentioned the show to Lila Duldorf. Just in case she wants to come."
"Jesus, Chris, it's for patients. Do you really think she'll give a shit?"
"I can get her in. You know, VIP passes."
"To a fucking hospital?"
"Hey, man, simmer down. You're not the only one performing."
I look at Chris and see my mistake in not telling him. The show is a spotlight, for him. Nothing more.
"Fine, whatever. Invite her. Woo her with your magic."
Chris crushes a potato chip, drops the crumbs in my Coke.
In science class we talk about kinetic energy, how molecules rotate and vibrate, their electrons bumping into each other until friction causes movement. And for a second I consider this, how sound makes similar vibrations, wavelengths traveling across a room with enough energy to power cities. I scribble a drawing in my notebook, a guitar blaring notes into a stick figure's heart, and shove the figure to the bottom of my bag when the sixth period bell rings.
After school Chris and I are walking across the parking lot, heading past the lined-up school buses toward Chris's house, when Scott Barnstone comes up. He's wearing a giant pair of headphones and his hair hangs down into his face.
"Hey, I hear you guys are playing the hospital."
"Fuck off, Barnstone." Chris has never liked Scott, not since they were in after-school Latchkey together in the fourth grade and Scott spat on him once from the top of the slide.
Scott looks at me. He doesn't like me either. I accidentally clipped him once on a high-sticking penalty during gym class, when I was the goalie and he tried to check me against the net. He'd had a shiner for three days.
"Is it because your mom's got cancer in her tits?"
He grins at me, a line of crooked teeth. Before I can think to say anything, Chris shoves Scott in the chest.
"You kiss your boyfriend with that mouth?" Chris says, and spits on Scott's tattered sneakers. "Go back to your sandbox, Barnstone."
I tell Chris we should go. I pull him toward the baseball fields, which we'll cross to the tree line and Chris's house.
"Whatever, assholes," Scott says. "At least I'll still have a mom after you douchebags are done playing your stupid songs."
Before I fully hear him, I drop my backpack and punch him in the face. His headphones clatter to the pavement, and I stand just long enough to see a line of blood dribble down his chin before Chris pulls me toward the field and we are off, we are running.
When I get home later, the television sits silent and dad stands in the kitchen over a pot of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Two bowls set the table, two tall glasses of milk.
"I thought I'd make us dinner tonight," he says. He looks up from the pot, where he's stirring the noodles and cheese powder, and smiles at me.
I leave my bag in the living room, next to mom's old guitar. Chris and I had planned to practice at least twice more before Saturday, but I'd also gotten out mom's old acoustic and squeezed in some extra prep at home.
"So how was the day?" dad asks when we sit down at the table. He drops two big spoonfuls of fluorescent noodles into my bowl.
"Not great. I punched a kid in the face."
The words feel awkward, as if dad and I don't have that ease between us anymore. Before any of this happened, he took me to the movies for whole afternoons as if he had nothing but time, or when my T-ball coach robbed me of a run, he told me that in his eyes my swing still merited a homer.
"He said something bad about mom," I say.
Dad looks up from his bowl. "You shouldn't punch people."
I expect him to be mad, but he looks more hurt than anything. I take a gulp of milk and ask him about his day instead.
"You know, same-old, same-old. I visited your mother, though. I left work a little early."
What dad does during the day has never really occurred to me, and when I hear him say this, I wonder for the first time if he's done this more than once. I picture him eating a sandwich alone at his desk, driving to the hospital, sitting by mom's bed.
"Mike, there's something we need to talk about."
He sets down his fork and looks at me. His lips are thin, a pencil mark.
"Your mother—well, I talked to her doctor today. And Mike, it just doesn't look good."
He stops talking and holds his breath, and I wonder for a second if maybe he's trying to hold back a burp. But then he looks at me, and I know he's trying not to cry.
"The surgery didn't do any good. And the chemo, well, it's not doing any good either. They say it just keeps spreading."
I've only seen my dad cry once in my life, last year when we buried Sampson, the cat my parents adopted after they got married. We laid him in a shoebox, and dad dug a hole in the backyard. Two tears slid down his nose when he pushed the shovel into the ground.
"I just wanted you to know that," dad says, and I don't know what to say so I just keep eating my macaroni. He's not crying, exactly, but he sits for a few more seconds without moving, then he picks up his fork and we finish the last of our dinner without really talking.
That night I don't call mom, and I don't do my homework. But before bed I set my alarm, to wake up early and gain back the time I've lost by doing nothing all night when I could have been practicing. I take awhile to fall asleep, but when I finally do, it's because I've made myself think of molecules, vibrations, the movement of ships.
On Friday, the night before the show, Chris and I sit on his roof and look out toward the football field. Two teams play a scrimmage game, some peewee league sponsored by our junior high, but we watch the players dart across the field anyway, their helmets gleaming in the field's floodlights.
"Barnstone's face is kind of fucked up." Chris exhales a cloud of Pall Mall smoke, a pack he stole from his dad's sock drawer. It's the second time I've seen him smoke, something he must think rock stars do.
I shrug, and neither of us speaks for awhile. Instead we watch a small crowd cheer on the field's metal risers, and I wonder if those are parents, siblings, moms rooting for their sons.
"You know, I think we're ready." Chris flicks his glowing cigarette off the roof. "You don't have to worry."
I know he's right. We've been practicing all night, not even taking a break for dinner. But now, looking out across the field at the tree line just beginning to brown and fade, I wonder if we're not ready at all, if maybe we never were.
"Your mom's going to be fine," Chris says, the first time I've ever heard him say it. But he avoids my eyes, assures only because he should.
"How's she doing, man? You never really talk about her."
Chris's face looks strained, as if he wants to say more. But he doesn't, and I tell him she's fine, and we sit again for awhile without talking. Out on the field a whistle blows, and we watch the players huddle in for halftime.
"Do you ever wonder if something totally crazy could happen?" I stare out toward the field, away from Chris.
"What, like Lila suddenly falling in love with me?" Chris laughs. "Sure, man, I wonder all the time."
"No, I mean something ridiculous," I say. "Something totally unreal."
"Playing lead with the Crue? I think about shit like that, sure."
Chris pulls another cigarette from his stolen pack, and my chest suddenly feels heavy. I think of dad, probably sitting in his armchair watching the Friday lineup alone, and I tell Chris I should head home, get some sleep.
Chris stays up on the roof, to finish his cigarette, and maybe watch the start of the second half, though neither of us cares about the game. I bike the five blocks to my house and for the first time the night air feels bitter, like autumn has arrived sooner than I thought.
We arrive at Moss Regional an hour early, but there are patients already seated and waiting, maybe some of mom's friends from her floor. The ward has arranged chairs in a horseshoe pattern, in a small lounge just past the floor's elevators, and my dad helps us set up the tiny drum set, Mr. Winchester's guitar, even a microphone the hospital's chapel let us borrow. Once everything is in place, dad leaves us alone, says he knows we need time to prepare. I watch him head down the hallway toward mom's room. Maybe they need time to prepare too.
"So I don't see Lila," Chris says. The room has started filling up, and I'm glad I don't recognize anyone from school.
"It's for patients, Chris. What did you expect?" Though I don't have to look at him to know we've expected different things. I tell him we can schedule another show, another time, somewhere people will actually want to go. Someplace he can shine, I think, but I stop short of saying that.
Just then I see dad down the hallway, wheeling mom toward us and the lounge. She looks tired, and I know she's too weak now to stand. But for some reason I think of her pushing her way toward Robert Plant, and I think of her laugh when she told me the story again on the phone, and suddenly she looks so pretty. A memory floods me from nowhere, second grade. My Cub Scout leader telling everyone I'm too short to ride horseback on the trail. Mom escorted me to the next meeting, told him I'd do anything I damn well pleased.
"Oh, sweetheart, you look great," she says when they reach us, and I bend down to hug her. Chris hugs her too and she pats his head, like she's trying to absorb the light reflected in his hair.
"You two ready?" she asks, and she smiles extra big, like something in her face might crack if she doesn't.
Chris nods, but then his dad arrives off the elevator and he leaves us, just mom, dad and me. For a second none of us speak. I scan my brain for something to say.
"I can't tell you how much this means to me," mom says. She gestures toward the others gathered in the horseshoe of chairs, as if the show means something to them too, but she doesn't say anything more. Just then the head of the oncology ward waves me over, and mom and dad move to the edge of the horseshoe, waiting for us to start.
Chris and I have prepared three songs, mostly because they're all we know, but also because the hospital told us not to play much more, the patients would need their rest. We move to our makeshift stage, a couple of instruments gathered in a corner, and I stand before the chapel microphone. I cough out an introduction, something stupid that draws a few smiles and blinks. Then I turn back to Chris, and he nods me the signal. We start to play.
We sound rough at first, filtered, the slow strain of Play-doh through clenched fingers. Chris has brought drum brushes, not drumsticks that would drown out my guitar in this small space, and the scratches keep time with my voice, a voice that now sounds cracked to me as I gasp out the first few lines of our opening song. We've agreed on "Patience," my favorite Guns N' Roses ballad, followed by Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here"—Chris's pick, and one I've agreed on too. But Chris has let me decide on the last song, one I've chosen just for mom—the Beatles' "Across the Universe." The chords aren't easy, and Chris and I have spent days mastering their progression. But mom has always loved the song, and if I was ever to learn its notes, now was the time.
We falter through the first song, a warm-up at most since our audience doesn't react, and my voice is hoarse but not in the way that Axel Rose might have wanted. My face flushes as we proceed straight into our second song, but when I look up for the first time, I can see mom and dad off to the back. They're both smiling at me. The rest of the small crowd—maybe ten patients, and a few people who look like family members, plus three nurses and the ward director—they all look half-interested at best. But as I stare out over our tiny crowd, their faces suddenly fade into nothing. I know why I'm here. I have little more than a song left to get this done.
My voice rises, maybe not in volume, but in some degree of strength. Chris notices the change, his percussions grow in zeal, and by the second verse our instruments are belting out Pink Floyd together, and I start to imagine what this noise might do. I picture sound waves, floating from my fingers, my voice, Chris's hands. I picture them billowing from this room, down the hall, into mom's room and inside her monitors and tubes. I picture them infiltrating her veins, right here in this room, a surge like a quiet explosion through her brain, her brave heart, her small, pale hands.
And then we are to the last song, and I look up and she is smiling. She is smiling so large, bright tears form and well at the corners of her eyes. Dad is smiling too, like he once did, before everything broke. And that is when maybe I know it has happened—that the world is just like the story said, that for once these notes and chords can inject life straight into our chests, just like the stick figure I drew, just like a ship setting sail toward the sky. I glance back at Chris, just long enough for him to look at me and grin, and for one perfect moment all is right, we are here, we are all alive in this room where sound and waves and molecules oscillate, all beneath the steady rhythm of these drums, my voice, our hearts all pounding as one.
And then it is over. Our last song peals a final cadence of notes, and for a second the room falls silent. But then mom claps first, she claps so loud that she stands to support the movement of her hands, and dad stands too, partly to clap, but also to watch her so she doesn't fall. I see Mr. Winchester to the left of them, and he's clapping and smiling too. Chris and I both take awkward bows, and we smile back at the audience. But our moment is over, leaves as quickly as it came, and the room is just a hospital room, the ward like any other on this earth.
I know what will come. I know the patients will trickle back to their rooms, that Chris will leave with his dad, that when my dad and I pack the equipment back into the van and drive home, he will whisper over to me, his eyes still on the road, you know, Mike. You know she's not going to make it. And I know my mom will pull me aside back in her room, once we've tucked her back into her bed and dad has ventured off to use the men's room, and she'll look at me in a searching way and say, sweet, is that why? Oh, honey, it's just a story. Didn't you know?
But in my head—right now, while we're still standing here—it sounds better.
In my head, I am still singing—even as the energy leaves this room, even as the oncology ward becomes just what it was, ten minutes before we played. In my head, I am still singing, I am playing guitar better than I ever could tonight, maybe I'm even playing the violin, a meaningless difference now.
In my head, she is not in bed hooked up to IVs, she is not so weak she can barely stand, she is nowhere near this wasted floor. She is somewhere else, I don't know where, but she's with me, and she is safe. She is somewhere I can keep her secure, and we are taking flight, up, away from this place, so far away I can no longer see the ground.