She wasn’t surprised that once away from the house and her sister, she soon felt much better. The Spencer weather, as ever in tune with her mood, had itself begun to clear by late afternoon. On long-ago midwinter days during the Christmas holidays, she and a few friends would drop acid to roam the streets and haunt the cemeteries, to explore the banks of the river where rapists were said to hide; and as soon as the drugs dissolved on their tongues, after weeks of grey flannel skies and steady drizzle, the clouds would scatter, the sun would come out, and by early afternoon the grass was dry enough to lie on in a warm December wind.
She hadn’t touched acid in over five years, but the sharp blue sky edged with clouds brought back memories nearly as strong as the drugs. With her bags in a motel room and a car at her disposal, she felt exuberant, liberated, as if it might be possible to live here without immediately being reclaimed by old unwelcome parts of her past.
That thought came with a surge of guilt. She picked up the phone and let it ring for several minutes. She was about to hang up when Heather answered, out of breath.
“Who else? Look, I’m sorry—”
“Please come out here, please. I didn’t mean to upset you. You . . . you have to stay with me.”
“Heather, I told you I need time alone right now. I just called to give you my number, so write this down.”
“But I thought you’d want the words. I want you to have them. “
“Don’t change your mind on my account.”
“I haven’t. I’m not. I mean, I want you to hear them the way I do. Write them down yourself.”
“Are you crazy? You can’t give them to me. That’s your talent, your inspiration. Mine is music.”
“But they both come from the same place.”
“Heather … do you want the number or not? I’ll hang up.”
Heather’s voice rose into a hysterical whine, and Holly couldn’t control herself. She hung up on the words, “I’ll take you there!”
Fuck her. She wasn’t going to let this madness ruin her life.
A bitter joke to think that she had built her success around Heather’s madness up until now. Many writers could fake the trappings of dread and a mood of gloomy posturing, but Heather had some sort of innate power of evoking dread with a few choice images. Something to do with her chemical imbalance. Their skills were suited to each other, that was certain? and that must be what Heather meant when she said they came from the same place. She had always found it easy to match Heather’s words with the perfect sounds to deepen the spell of fear. She could hardly imagine meshing so well with anyone else. But perhaps it was time to try something totally different. She couldn’t go on being what Rolling Stone had called “rock’s first Edgar Allan Poe” forever.
Even Poe had mastered a myriad of styles. The band had begun to complain that horror was stifling them, that their music was becoming progressively darker and drearier, and even the fans were starting to find it too oppressive. Almost everyone wanted her to lighten up. But she couldn’t control the lyrics that came from Heather; nor could she explain that there was no way of “lightening up” her sister.
So this disruption, along with all the others, might end up being a blessing. It was unfortunate that the band had broken up just when they had finally begun to reach an audience beyond the loyal cult that had kept them alive this long. But instead of devoting herself to more of the same, she could try something new now, unhampered by public expectation.
She had returned to her roots; it was time to see if new shoots could spring from them.
She went walking in a vibrant purple dusk. Because most of the motels in Spencer were naturally clustered around the University, she inevitably found herself on campus, treading oak-lined paths mosaiced with leafprints. The air grew brisk and dark and the stars came out like distant reflections in a sheet of obsidian. The ivied buildings and chilly scent of pine, the students hurrying and laughing and holding one another, carried her mind away from recent trouble, toward older longings. The streets at the far edge of campus were lined with taverns; she wanted a hot drink, but didn’t think she could handle the obnoxious crowds of frat boys that seemed to control every bar. She considered going back for her car and driving out to one of the taverns over in Laineville, Spencer’s sister city, where the music was sometimes good and the crowds weren’t guite so young. Or maybe she would save that trek for tomorrow night. She was starting to feel jet lagged.
In the act of turning back, she noticed a sign outside a bar.
“I’ll be damned,” she whispered.
Inside, the music was just starting. She found a seat in a dark corner where she could watch the band without being seen. A man she didn’t think she knew, though his face was mostly covered by his hair, sat at a synthesizer that seemed to have been custom-built by a very eccentric and impoverished engineer. The sound was good, though, and made her long for her own instrument, which was waiting for her in L.A. Ron Deal, looking surprisingly middle-aged, played bass with that particular lack of enthusiasm he had made all his own. Another stranger, a pretty short-haired woman, played drums with enough energy to make up for Ron. And on acoustic guitar, his Strat on a stand in the shadows, was the man whose name had made her stop and damn herself in the street.
Kelly Conklin played lead and sang, though the keyboard player and drummer threw in a few near-miss harmonies whenever it seemed the song absolutely couldn’t do without.
Otherwise, as usual, Kelly was trying to carry the whole band himself, and staggering under the weight. But it was the Kelly Conklin Band, and it seemed only fair that he should bear the burden.
She wondered how many bands he’d formed since she had broken up with him, and how long this group would hold together in its current incarnation. She watched Kelly and thought idly about a lot of things, which was a bad sign considering that the music should have caught her up and carried her away from all that. The fact was, they weren’t very good. It was a long-cherished opinion of hers that Kelly had committed himself to mediocrity; which firmly held belief had made it easier not to regret certain choices she had made herself. She supposed it was unfair to keep a chokehold on her opinions. Kelly must have gone through plenty of changes by now. He still looked much the same, though—his coke-bottle lenses making his eyes bug out, his long sandy hair beginning to thin, giving him an inappropriately seedy look. What he was, was nerdy, but the nerd look had worn out now that he’d turned thirty. They were the same age, six months apart, born in opposite seasons. When they’d first gone together they’d used this to explain their complementary natures; and when everything was ending, it had provided a useful metaphor for their combativeness. She could look at him tonight without seeing that arch-enemy; she could even feel a little glad to see him. Gladder to see him than to hear him, in fact. The music was a real disappointment.
It seemed like a long time before they took a break. Kelly went out through a back door. She checked the urge to follow him, wondering if he still kept his old habits. Maybe he and the drummer were hooked up. No, the drummer was in a corner with her arm around another girl. Kelly reappeared, smiling shyly at the crowd, making the same old moves, sauntering past the bar to acquaint himself with any girl who might’ve engaged in eye-play during the set.
It was a matter of waiting to be noticed. Eye contact brought him drifting closer. The dark corner gave her a perhaps unfair advantage, so she leaned to bring her face into the glow of a candle in an amber ball. He was starting to speak, still smiling, when recognition made him mute.
His whole body stiffened, shook, and then he came at her with a yell, his delight pleasing her more than she would have expected or admitted.
“Holly! My God, I don’t believe it! What are you doing here? What the hell are you doing here?”
He wrapped his deceptively strong arms around her, but only briefly—disengaging before she had to struggle to free herself. That was new. He sat down across from her and shook his head, his eyes seeming to swim inside his lenses, grinning and laughing. “This is unbelievable!” Apparently for him, too, the old enmity had faded.
He ordered another Irish coffee for her and one for himself, and they launched into the kind of talk that always follows long periods of incommunication. The major events of their lives were treated first as trivialities, to be touched on in more depth later if there was to be a later. The break-up of her band amazed him, despite the fact that he’d been in and out of a dozen groups himself in half as many years.
“But that’s different,” he said. “With so much money and so many people hanging on everything you do—I mean, who cares what goes on in a small town like this? A few college students? Man, I couldn’t stand the pressure. A million people hearing about every little squabble.”
She waved this off. “We weren’t up to a million fans. Maybe next year we would have been.”
There was no way to explain some things to Kelly. If he’d wanted to learn them, he would have tried harder. When she left him here, he’d been putting more energy into digging himself a hole than he’d put into playing guitar. That hole ought to be pretty deep by now, with wall-to-wall carpet and a reinforced roof, cable TV and a sound system good enough to keep him happy through the long dead winters.
You’re so fucking judgmental, she told herself. Snap out of it.
The other musicians were starting to regroup. There was a quickening among them when they realized who she was. The keyboardist, Neil, and Raelene the drummer came over and introduced themselves. Ron gave her a brief nod, as if he saw her every day. Kelly apologized for not introducing her earlier, “Especially since Neil worships you.”
Neil blushed and looked at the candle.
“I hate to break up this tender reunion,” Ron said, “but it’s time we got back to work.”
Neil mumbled something in a choked voice, and Raelene jumped on it. “What a great idea!”
“Sure!” said Kelly, jumping up and taking her arm. “Come on, Holly, we know all your songs.”
She pulled back. “What? I can’t do that. You guys—I mean, Neil. …”
“It was his idea,” Kelly said.
Neil smiled out from under his hair. “Honored, really.”
She hesitated. She had come out looking for something new, and this was too much like slipping backward into an old groove. Well, and so? Was that always bad? It was one thing when the past reclaimed you with a reek of mildew and a breath of damp earth, like a grave gaping to welcome you home. It was another thing when music was involved. Music wasn’t static; it constantly evolved and changed. Besides, she missed playing. It had been weeks.
“Whatever you want to play,” Kelly was saying as they pushed and pulled her along. “You sing lead. Come on, Holly, you’ll shake up this place.”
She found herself settling behind Neil’s keyboard, which lacked several familiar landmarks while featuring a few she didn’t recognize. She loved to experiment, though.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Kelly called, “we have a special guest tonight, straight from a performance for the crowned heads of Europe—and I do mean ‘heads.’ Some of you have already recognized her “
And indeed, as she came into the light she saw startled looks out in the crowd, heard gasps, and someone went rushing out onto the street calling her name just as Kelly was saying it:
“Spencer’s own, Holly Terror!”
She glanced at Raelene and whispered. “You know ‘The Woods Are Dark’?”
Before Raelene could even nod, Ron began pulsing out the first notes of the piece, which began with a deep choked bass like the beat of a heart buried under six feet of wet mulch. He looked over at her with a smirk that was somehow affectionate, and then it was her turn, the wavering notes seeping out like the last heat ebbing from a corpse. The drums kicked in, sounding weary, funereal. Kelly began to scrape his pick over his strings, eliciting a sound like long nails scratching at splintered boards. This was one of her first songs, one of the first Heather had given her, and she realized suddenly that it was the first song she and Kelly had played together, the first which had really come together and taken on a life of its own. An old song, but it hadn’t lost its power. She had forgotten this power until now, because it had so much to do with home, and with being buried here, her teenage fears that she might never claw her way free. They were Heather’s words and images, Heather’s emotions—but when Holly sang them she made them her own.
She belted out the words triumphantly at first, because she had escaped after all, her fears had been proven false; but by the second verse an edge of awful awareness crept into her voice and the words seemed to mock her, because she was back again, wasn’t she? It was escape that had proved illusory. The guitar seemed to laugh at her, tinnily, with Heather’s voice. Heather rarely laughed, but this was a rare, rich, cruel joke. She was back on her home ground where the woods were dark and the ground was rotten with shallowly-buried memories. She was playing in a band with her old lover in the same kind of bar she’d dreaded she would never outgrow, singing practically the first song she had ever sung. It was as if nothing at all had intervened, nothing had changed, and the music was only there to remind her of her ultimate failure. And she felt that Heather had known all this years ago, had planted the images in her repertoire as an emotional landmine she would stumble over years into the future, and finally be destroyed.
It was a relief when the song ended. She was wary of what might follow.
But first what followed was applause. The doors to the street were open wide, and the amps cranked up to spill their sounds out into the night. She could hear her name echoing out there in screams, as bodies pushed in to fill the bar beyond its legal limit. The little stage itself was getting so engulfed by bodies that Kelly had to move practically back to the drums. Several bar employees stationed themselves around the stage to shove people back.
It was with more than a touch of panic that she realized it was too late to stop. The night had shifted its course, and caught her up in something she couldn’t hold back. She could almost see what was coming, as if she had lived all this before. Something was crawling over the horizon, a smothering shadow she couldn’t avoid, something black and faceless and awful that pressed in like the crowd, that massed swarm of faces, to suck the life out of her.
But she wouldn’t let it have her. She could take control of a crowd; she was skilled at that. All she needed was control of herself, and something powerful to exorcise her fear.
There was one song that frightened her more than any other, one she rarely played though it was always requested. Maybe if she played it now, if she let herself go where that song always led, she would reach the end of all darkness, the bottom of the well, and afterwards everything would seem light by comparison, all roads would lead uphill, out of oppression.
She caught her breath. The audience waited, tense and expectant, getting edgy as they wondered what was coming.
She glanced at Kelly and his eyes reassured her that she wasn’t alone. Everything would be all right. This was just for tonight. Songs didn’t exorcise or invoke anything unnatural; they were only songs, spun from human hearts and dreams. A good song was an encounter, like jamais vu, a recognition of a place one had never seen before.
She winked at Kelly then, and brightly named the song she could play a thousand times and still find in it something to fear: “How Black Was My Valley.”