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Rehab for One-Hit Wonders

George Traikovich


Copyright © 2018 by George Traikovich

Smashwords Edition

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover Design, 2018 by George Traikovich


Not that long ago, and not that far away…

(1999)

Contents

Day1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 9

Day 10

Day 13

Day 14

Day 15

Day 16

Day 17

Day 18


Day 1

He leaned back against the headboard and waited until the room stopped spinning before realizing where he wasn’t. “This ain’t no Motel Six.”

He knew that because the room he’d woken up in wasn’t the same as the one he’d gone to sleep in. For one thing, the sumptuous furnishings didn’t fit the bargain hotel chain’s profile. For another, the smell of dying roses trapped in the faded brocade fabrics heightened the sense of aristocratic decay the musty upholstery reinforced.

Lifting the sheets reacquainted him with his host, though her name remained elusive. She was built like the clean-up hitter on a women’s semi-pro softball team and not his usual type, but the luxury blonde’s expensive manicure and healthy tan indicated a higher tax bracket than the company he usually kept.

The empty whiskey bottle on the nightstand explained his hangover, and the hangover explained why he couldn’t remember her name. He grabbed a mint from the silver dish beside the lamp to cleanse the stale film coating his tongue but spit it back out right away.

The pill’s medicinal aftertaste lingered, but he wrapped the bedsheet around his waist and tiptoed across the terrazzo tile floor, fighting his way through the billowing drapes to the balcony, where he focused his bloodshot baby blues on the foggy horizon. “Water.”

The ocean, in fact, though the revelation didn’t clear the cobwebs.

He leaned over the balcony as far as his courage allowed, but turrets and towers stepping in and out of the main wing on either side kept him from gauging the castle’s scale in either direction, though the unique architecture narrowed the list of possible locations.

“I musta been really messed up to crash into Disneyland.”

He turned his back to the panoramic view and opened the bathroom door, where the flickering light above the mirror gave him his first good look at the previous night’s damage. “Rick Paulsen, age twenty-nine of Ventura, California, passed away this morning from complications of a hangover. He was born February 20, 1970, and was a musician best known for…”

Rick found the aspirin behind the medicine cabinet mirror as expected—though seeing the shelves stocked with the same brands of toiletries he used at home seemed like a strange coincidence.

He ran his fingers through his schizophrenic brown curls—though not without some difficulty. Residual product rendered the wavy mess compliant, but no amount of gel could ever tame it. “Don’t remember that bump being there.”

He wouldn’t remember the bump on his skull or the events leading up to it if he had a concussion. “Musta hit my head.”

The blonde rolled over, a soft purr escaping from her lips.

There was still time for a graceful exit and a chance to avoid the morning-after chitchat propriety demanded. He found his corduroys balled up in the corner and stepped into them one leg at a time. Digging through the pockets didn’t produce his keys, but he was relieved to find his Walkman still clipped to his belt.

Rick reached for the closet door but grabbed the bathrobe hanging from the hook instead. He didn’t recognize the logo embroidered across the breast, but the deep brown cotton felt expensive between his fingertips.

He opened the door and rummaged through the wardrobe. Already confused, the realization that every item inside the closet was his confused him even further.

“I don’t remember packing for a trip.”

He grabbed his Black Watch flannel from the hanger and shut the door. His Chuck Taylors were under one side of the bed, but he found what he was really looking for under the other.

Rick pulled the guitar case out and popped the latches, but the Sunburst Stratocaster cradled inside remained as pristine as the day he’d bought it. The problem was that he didn’t remember packing it, either.

He added another entry to the list of things he’d figure out later and laced up his sneakers. He checked the room to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, grabbed his guitar, and blew the blonde a kiss before easing out of the room.

***

Navigating the hallways was tougher than Rick expected because there weren’t any signs to guide him, but he made it down the castle’s grand staircase and out of the lobby before the harsh transition from shade to sunlight sent him fumbling for his sunglasses like a vampire. “Somebody’s out of tune.”

The twentysomething woman playing guitar beneath the ornamental lilac ignored his criticism and kept right on strumming.

Rick crossed the tiled courtyard and waited for her to finish. Honeysuckle carried on the wind brightened his mood, but the headache persisted, as did her playing. He pulled his headphones off and dropped a crumpled five-dollar bill from his pocket into her empty guitar case.

Her milky skin faded into her pale tracksuit, and if not for inky black bangs fringing her eyes, he would have thought she was just a lovely ghost doomed to play the same off-key song throughout eternity. But she stopped playing when he got closer, her eyes shifting toward him, twin espresso shots ringed by heavy eyeliner. “Any requests?”

“No requests,” Rick said. “Was digging what you were playing just now.”

“I’m glad to hear that I made a fan.”

“Love the song,” he said. “But I suppose that’s because I’m the guy who wrote it.”

She resumed her clumsy picking, her tapered fingers tangling in the strings more often than not. “If you wrote ‘Cutback’ I suppose that makes you Rick Paulsen.”

“It does,” Rick said, turning his chin to crack the vertebrae in his neck. “Have we met?”

She held her smile a beat longer than expected, but the longer she held it the less he minded her slight overbite. “I recognized you from your band’s video.”

“Glad to hear we’ve got a few fans left,” Rick said. “But I still don’t know your name.”

She turned her shoulders to let him read the nametag pinned to her zippered jacket.

“Jolene,” Rick said. “Like the song?”

“Like the song,” she said. “Mama loved Dolly Parton.”

Her faint twang wasn’t far removed from the singer’s own, though that’s where the similarities ended. But Rick was more interested in the guitar she was playing. “That a Martin Standard?”

“I don’t know,” Jolene said, giving the spruce body a satisfying thump. “One guitar sounds like the next one to me.”

“No two guitars play the same note the same way.”

“Is that so?”

“You bet it is,” he said. “That Martin Standard you’re playing is known for its strong bass tones.”

“Do tell.”

“And there’s tonal variation even for models that roll off the same assembly line.”

She strummed the strings and listened to the chord fade. “Still sounds the same as any other guitar to me.”

“Here,” he said. “Let me show you what I mean.”

She got up to hand him the guitar—but didn’t. Instead, she grabbed it by the neck and swung wide.

Boom! The Martin Standard splintered against the tree in a cloud of sawdust and nylon filament.

Rick lowered the hands he’d raised to protect himself from the fallout. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Don’t have a hissy fit,” she said. “It’s just a guitar.”

Not to him it wasn’t. It was a Martin fucking Standard.

“We get these knock-offs from an overseas distributor in bulk,” she admitted. “But you have to admit they sure look like the real dang thing.”

“A knock-off?” He sifted through the crime scene for proof she was wrong but couldn’t find any. “Sure looked like a Martin Standard.”

“And you look like the boy band member they kicked out of the band when he hit puberty.”

He sucked in his gut and straightened his slouch. “That a shot?”

“An observation based on your appearance,” she said, “but an observation that wouldn’t be an accurate representation.”

Damn right it wasn’t. But he was curious about what she considered to be an accurate representation and let her continue.

“We both know you’re a skilled guitarist who can crank out power pop melodies with the best of ’em.”

Now that was more like it. He wasn’t done fishing for compliments, but laughter in the distance got his attention. “Sounds like the party is still rolling.”

She smiled like she knew something he didn’t, which, given the circumstances, was more likely than not.

***

The courtyard opened into a cloister, flagstone giving way to mossy tile where the pavers ended. Crumbling statuary divided the patio from the sparkling water emptying into a fountain’s basin, letting the sparse crowd enjoy the view from the comfort of the surrounding tables unimpeded by the construction scaffolding blemishing the rest of the grounds.

“Nice little place you got here,” Rick said. “Must have set you back a bit.”

Jolene invited him into the cloister with a wave of her hand. “I heard tell that it’s on the market if you’re interested.”

“I’ve been looking for a summer place,” Rick said. “Malibu’s kinda played out.”

“This fifty-thousand-square-foot, twenty-eight-bedroom fixer-upper situated on a five-hundred-acre lot is priced to move,” Jolene said. “Amenities include formal gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, and a first-floor laundry.”

“Was gonna pass until ya mentioned the first-floor laundry, but now I’m all in.”

She led him though the buffet line, but he didn’t have much of an appetite despite the aromatic fare presented. He disappointed the eager chef at the omelet station by settling for toast and followed Jolene to a cozy table along the cloister’s periphery.

“Kinda reminds me of the Playboy Mansion,” he said. “A friend of mine snagged an invite once and brought me along.”

Jolene poured herself a Bloody Mary from the pitcher between them. “Just the once?”

“Once was enough,” he said. “Not my scene.”

“Oh no?”

“Lots of C-list celebrities and half-naked stripper chicks running around,” Rick said. “Though now I’m wondering which one of those categories this crowd falls under.”

“Do you recognize anyone?”

He scraped his fingers against the stubble blighting his chin and scanned the surrounding tables. Their dress ranged from vacation casual to naked—or as close to it as they could get, given the damp weather—but he didn’t see anyone he knew. “Must have gone into full-out montage after the party.”

“Montage?” she repeated. “What on earth do you mean by ‘montage’?”

How could he describe it to her? “Like when you start partying and you skip over the boring parts and only remember the cool stuff.”

“I have never heard of that before,” she said. “Maybe you should see one of the doctors.”

One of the doctors?” He dismissed her advice with a shake of his head but shook too hard and started the throbbing in his skull again. “I’ve had worse hangovers than this.”

“I believe you,” she said. “But take another look around.”

He obliged, and this time recognized the scraggly-haired scarecrow in ripped denim deciding between bacon and sausage at the buffet. “Think I know him.”

“Do you?”

“Played bass for a band—what was their name?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you recognize anybody else?”

Rick finished his toast and pushed the plate away. “Yeah—that chick over there.”

“Which one?”

“White chick in the babydoll dress with the dreadlocks by the water,” he said. “I know I’ve seen one of her videos on MTV.”

“Is that where you know her from?”

“Might have run into her at a party,” he said. “Used to get invited to a lot of parties.”

Jolene picked another face in the crowd. “What about him?”

He followed her finger to the bullfrog-eyed neckbeard with the gentle perm destroying an omelet a few tables away. “I know the face, but I’ve never been good with names.”

Jolene smiled but didn’t say anything.

There were others like the Bullfrog scattered throughout the cloister, somehow anonymous despite being somewhat famous, gathered together under circumstances Rick didn’t think curious until then. “Where the hell am I?”

“Where do you think you are?”

“My manager said something about some kinda music festival,” Rick muttered. “What the hell was it called?”

“No,” she said. “That’s not it.”

If it wasn’t the festival, then it was the benefit concert his manager booked him into at the last second. “This that Free Tibet gig I was supposed to play?”

“No,” she said. “I’m afraid not.”

It wasn’t the music festival, and it wasn’t the benefit concert, which meant that it had to be…

“That’s not it, either.”

She was doing her best not to tell him where he was, and that was making him nervous. “You told me that you worked here on the walk over, but you never said what you did.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I suppose that’s why I asked.”

“I’m a counselor.”

He dabbed at the sweat beading on his brow. “What kind of counselor?”

“The kind that works in rehab.”

He held his smile long enough for her to deliver the punch line and pulled his hand away when she didn’t. “Think you got the wrong dude.”

“That’s what everybody says when they first get here.”

“I get messed up like everyone else,” Rick admitted. “But I got it under control.”

“You mean the substance abuse?” she asked. “Honey, it ain’t that kind of rehab.”

“What other kind of rehab is there?”

She leaned back in her chair while deciding how best to explain it him. “Don’t you think me playing your song outside your room was a strange coincidence?”

“I thought you just liked the song.”

“I like all your songs,” she said. “I even bought your solo records after the band split.”

“I wish all my fans were as loyal,” he grumbled. “Starting a solo career feels like starting all over some days.”

“Not everybody equates sales with success,” Jolene said. “But I suppose you’re feeling pressure from your label.”

“They keep reminding me how long it’s been since ‘Cutback’ hit the charts,” Rick said. But then he glanced over his shoulder at the buffet crowd and realized he was in good company. “It’s been a while since anybody here hit the charts.”

She gave him a second to think about what he’d said before confirming his suspicion. “It’s that kind of rehab.”

He didn’t appreciate the implication, or the fact that he’d been checked in without his consent. “My records might not be selling like expected, but starting a solo career really is like starting all over again.”

“You’re not selling records because you’re not writing the kind of songs your audience wants to hear,” she said. “And you’re not writing those kinds of songs because you’re suffering from Schumann’s Dissociative Disorder.”

***

Transcript of Robert Capricorn Interview with Rolling Stone Magazine

Though largely unknown to the general public, there aren’t many recording industry insiders who don’t know Robert Capricorn either by reputation or through experience. The self-proclaimed “rock and roll psychiatrist” has counseled the biggest brands in music during his twenty-five-year-career, though he won’t name names. “Client confidentiality is our utmost consideration for obvious reasons,” he explained to us over the phone. Accordingly, we caught up with him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan after he’d just arrived from the groundbreaking ceremony for an exclusive new treatment facility whose very existence is still only a rumor. Answering the door in the gray flannel suit and bowtie combination that has become his signature look, the crew-cut doctor put on his glasses, and welcomed us into his suite to discuss his new book.

RS: Can you explain what Schumann’s Dissociative Disorder is for those who haven’t read your book?

Capricorn: SDD was named for composer Robert Schumann, who suffered from prolonged bouts where he only heard a continuous A note despite his best efforts to write anything else.

RS: Does everybody with SDD hear a continuous A note?

Capricorn: The notes vary from patient to patient but hearing any notes besides the ones you want to play makes working tough.

RS: It doesn’t sound like anything the majority of our readers should be too worried about.

Capricorn: The disorder can affect anybody, but my practice is limited to musicians, and it affects a significant percentage of that population.

RS: How widespread is SDD?

Capricorn: An accurate census is difficult because of the stigma attached, but awareness is spreading.

RS: Then some musicians might not even realize they have it?

Capricorn: They’ll know that what they write isn’t as good as what they wrote before, but they won’t know why.

RS: Is hearing the unwanted note the only symptom?

Capricorn: Like Schumann, patients also suffer from depression, paranoia, and hallucinations.

RS: What kind of hallucinations?

Capricorn: In particular, the presence of an additional personality common to everyone who suffers from the condition.

RS: A few years back, they would have called that possession.

Capricorn: (laughs) A few years back, I might have agreed with them.

RS: What’s the difference between SDD and multiple personality disorder?

Capricorn: First, they don’t call it multiple personality disorder anymore—they call it Dissociative Identity Disorder. Second, DID is characterized by the presence of multiple personalities that are aware of each other, but only one personality is in control at any one time.

RS: And SDD?

Capricorn: Patients manifest the additional personality during the demiurgical cycle. The personality is aware of the patient and the patient is aware of the personality.

RS: What is the “demiurgical cycle”?

Capricorn: It is the collective name that we’ve given to the subconscious processes responsible for creative output.

RS: Then just trying to write a song can trigger an appearance?

Capricorn: You must understand that the additional personality is a defense mechanism that the mused mind uses to defend itself against the struggles inherent in the cycle.

RS: When you say “mused,” you are not talking about a patient inspired by the Muses?

Capricorn: Only if you see the Muses as the personification of the cycle.

RS: Our readers might be disappointed to learn that there’s nothing supernatural involved.

Capricorn: When the mused artist is functioning at the height of their abilities, the results can seem supernatural to the rest of us.

RS: And when they’re not?

Capricorn: (laughs) Then they call me.

RS: How does your treatment work?

Capricorn: I can’t divulge any of our proprietary methods, but I can tell you that we’ve had good success with patients who complete the program.

RS: Any side effects?

Capricorn: Patients grow to depend on the additional personality, and not hearing the voice after hearing it for so long can be traumatic, but we help them manage the psychological withdrawal.

RS: There are patients who learn to live with DID—isn’t the same possible for those suffering from Schumann’s Dissociative Disorder?

Capricorn: Left untreated, the personality grows stronger over time, because the root cause for its existence remains unresolved.

RS: What happens in those cases?

Capricorn: Prolonged exposure to the conditions responsible for its creation changes the personality from something benevolent to something malignant.

RS: Becoming the entity your patients call Static?

Capricorn: (smiles) An unfortunate colloquialism coined by a recovering patient to describe the additional personality that stuck.

***

Rick read the letters casting their shadow across the pavers while passing beneath the wrought iron arch they were bolted to. And while he’d never heard of Pantheon Recovery Services, the sheer scope of their operations meant somebody with deep pockets believed in their mission statement.

Following the two-lane road hugging the cliff’s edge gave him a better sense of the geography. The castle perched on the tip of a rocky promontory, surrounded by choppy gray water blurring into the dismal horizon in all directions, but gave no indication of his location.

“All this fog could mean I’m somewhere near the Bay,” he decided. “Except that I don’t remember any islands like this up that way.”

Steps poking out of the vertical rock face led down to the water, each hexagonal platform capping a porous column protruding from the side of the cliff like fossilized vertebrae. While a million-year-old volcanic eruption extruded the platforms, the wooden handrail was a modern addition.

He’d seen the same kind of rock formation before, but where? And then he remembered. “The cover of Houses of the Holy.”

Rick hit the beach forty-two harrowing steps later and followed the coastline. Flotsam clogging the narrow inlets was to be expected, but Buicks, Chevies, and Fords scattered among the jagged rocks left him shaking his head. “Some drunk-ass cabbie even managed to roll a Checker cab into this junkyard.”

Further down the beach, pastel cottages climbed the cliff base in terraced levels, camouflaged by gnarled trees growing almost horizontally out of the naked rock. Missing roof tiles and overgrown foliage suggested abandonment, though the occasional silhouette behind the odd window pane suggested otherwise.

Rick picked up the main road on the other side of the village, his eyes following the asphalt zigzagging across the water atop a bed of stone and gravel. Squinting didn’t help bring the architecture across the bay into focus, though he could make out turrets and towers.

Castles were common in some parts of the world, but not in the States. At least he knew where he wasn’t.

He approached the adjacent dock while the uniformed staff unloaded supplies from the back of the idling truck parked at the edge of the causeway. A forklift shifted palettes from the trailer to the back of the next cargo van in line, the branded vehicle buzzing past him as soon as it was full as the next van in the cue moved forward to repeat the process.

Figuring out who was in charge was easy once Rick spotted the only man on the dock not wearing overalls. He recognized Dr. Capricorn from the fleeting moments of a Larry King Live rerun he’d woken to while fighting insomnia—which was the only reason he ever watched Larry King Live.

Rick put on his most ingratiating smile and headed toward the doctor. “I think there’s been some kinda mistake.”

He waited for a response but got nothing except his reflection in the lenses of Capricorn’s horn-rimmed glasses and a healthy whiff of Drakkar Noir he could have done without.

“Everybody says that when they first get here,” Capricorn said. “But I can assure you that it gets easier after the initial shock wears off.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Rick said. “But I don’t need rehab and I don’t know what my manager was thinking.”

“Your manager?”

“My manager,” Rick said. “Isn’t he the one that signed me in?”

“Perhaps.”

Perhaps wasn’t the answer Rick was looking for. “I don’t understand.”

“All patient information goes through the admissions department,” Capricorn explained, combing his blunted fingers through the part in his hair. “And all information is protected in accordance with—”

“But someone had to fill out the paperwork.”

“Someone did,” Capricorn said. “But our patients are high-profile personalities, and records are anonymized to minimize leaks for reasons that must be obvious.”

“What kind of practice are you running?”

“Every effort is taken to maintain patient privacy,” Capricorn assured him, “from our isolated location to our pre-screened employees.”

“Then you don’t know how I got here?”

“I don’t know how you got here,” Capricorn said, “but I know who you are.”

“You do?”

“Your name is Rick Paulsen,” Capricorn said, “and you were in the Velveteen Habits.”

“Yeah.”

“Your band showed such promise,” Capricorn said. “A pity that you broke up so soon.”

It was an opinion that Rick shared. “Hated to see it end, but the solo career is keeping me busy these days.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Capricorn said. “But as I explained, I don’t remember your file coming across my desk.”

“You don’t?”

“No, but I’m not the only psychiatrist on staff.”

“Is that normal around here?” Rick asked. “Not knowing who is running around?”

“It’s not unusual,” Capricorn said, his widow’s peak rising to accommodate his arching eyebrows. “Though security does a good job of keeping unauthorized personnel out.”

“Unauthorized personnel?”

Capricorn stepped back to give him an unobstructed view of the guardhouse on the other side of the dock. “In this case I mean paparazzi, overzealous fans, and memorabilia collectors.”

The doctor signed off on the bill of lading and gave the truck’s cab a thump. The driver didn’t hesitate, shifting into gear and spinning his tires before rumbling across the causeway riding a plume of black smoke.

Rick waved the fumes from his face and coughed. “He’s in a helluva hurry.”

“He’s got a schedule to keep,” Capricorn said. “Now, if you’ll just—”

“Is there some kinda plane or boat that I can hitch a ride with?”

Capricorn aimed his thumb at the truck speeding away from them. “Supplies are delivered once a month.”

“That ain’t gonna work,” Rick muttered. “Is there anything else?”

“The employee shuttle brings in a new crew every three weeks.”

“When’s the next shuttle due?”

Capricorn tapped his watch apologetically. “The day before yesterday.”

Which meant the next one wasn’t due for another three weeks. “You telling me that I’m stuck here for the next month?”

“There is a limousine service that runs between the island and the mainland.”

Rick hesitated before following up, afraid that he already knew the answer. “When is the next limo outta here?”

“I’m afraid limousine service is reserved for patients who complete treatment,” Capricorn said. “They’re scheduled from the mainland using a two-step authentication protocol to prevent unauthorized usage.”

“Getting out of the Hotel California was easier than getting outta here,” Rick said. “You can’t keep me here against my will.”

“Someone signed you in,” Capricorn explained. “Releasing you without performing our due diligence might expose us to a negligence claim on your behalf.”

“You don’t have to worry about me suing you.”

“It’s not you that I’m afraid of,” Capricorn said. “It’s your lawyers that send a shiver down my spine.”

“You know that I’ve been in rehab before,” Rick said. “They couldn’t keep me in there, either.”

“This isn’t that kind of rehab.”

“I can’t be here,” Rick said, his tone growing more urgent. “My label is expecting a new record from me before the New Year and I already spent their advance.”

“Is it possible that the new record is the reason that you’re here in the first place?”

It was possible, even if Rick wouldn’t admit it.

“I’ll see if I can’t dig up your paperwork,” Capricorn said. “Until I do, why not take advantage of our amenities?”

“Might as well,” Rick said, “seeing as how I’m stuck here.”

“Look at it this way,” Capricorn said. “Treatment is expensive, which means that someone believed in you.”

Rick turned toward the beach and started back across the dock already mumbling beneath his breath. “Someone believed in me and I think I know who the fat bastard is.”

***

Rick tilted the frame to cover the gash in the wall before stepping back to read the legend at the bottom of the plaque. “Presented to the Velveteen Habits to commemorate the sale of more than five hundred thousand copies of the PolyGram Records long-play album End to End, released February nineteen ninety-one.”

Mr. Sparkle remained unimpressed. “Nineteen ninety-one was a long time ago.”

“You keep saying that.”

“I keep saying a lotta things but ya don’t listen!” Mr. Sparkle said. “I can’t remember a client as hardheaded as you!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Rick moaned, pulling his jeans up past his waist like he had to go. “Keep shaking that finger and all that bling is gonna fly off.”

Mr. Sparkle was on his way to an important meeting (the track) which explained the attire—though the jacket’s pattern was more dog than derby. The interruption in his routine was enough to twist his jaundiced face into the disapproving scowl he made every time he came all the way across town to count the gashes his client had punched through the rented bungalow’s paper-thin walls.

“Those repairs are coming out of your pocket,” Mr. Sparkle reminded him. “I can’t afford to write any more checks to your landlord.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Mr. Sparkle paused to check his bug-eyed reflection in the mirror above the hall table. “You put a melody behind that chorus and you might have something, slick.”

“Thought about it,” Rick said. “Turns out a little band called the Beatles beat me to it.”

Mr. Sparkle headed toward the door but stopped when he finally read the caption scribbled across Rick’s T-shirt in magic marker. “‘I Hate U2’?”

Rick folded his arms against his sides in preparation for what he knew was coming next.

“Johnny Rotten tried the same shtick in the seventies,” Mr. Sparkle said. “Only he cut the sleeves off a Pink Floyd T-shirt and—”

“And scratched out the band’s eyes before scribbling over their logo,” Rick said. “Which should explain my T-shirt to anyone with even a basic understanding of pop music history.”

“Well, it don’t.”

How could Rick explain what he meant to a man whose idea of dissent was a comb-over swept from left to right instead of right to left? “U2 is the new Pink Floyd.”

“You got a problem with U2 now?”

“Don’t have a problem with them,” Rick said. “Got a problem with sellouts.”

“You should only live long enough to ‘sell out’ as much as they do,” Mr. Sparkle said. “Do you know how much product they move?”

“A lot?”

“Damn right a lot,” Mr. Sparkle said. “And do you know why?”

“Because they give the audience what it wants?”

“Because they give the audience what it wants,” Mr. Sparkle said. “And what does the audience want?”

“What they already got?”

“What they already got,” Mr. Sparkle said. “They just want more of it.”

It would have been depressing if it wasn’t true. “What about what I want?”

“You let me worry about that,” Mr. Sparkle said. “Just get your ass back to writing.”

“Been writing,” Rick said. “Just not writing anything that’s any good.”

“You need inspiration?”

“No!” Rick insisted. “I don’t need any inspiration!”

But Mr. Sparkle already had his reading glasses perched on the bridge of his bulbous nose by then. He unfolded the clipping he kept inside his coat pocket and started halfway down. “Paulsen’s solo debut showed promise, but his undistinguished follow-up relies on the same tired riffs and clichéd writing.”

Rolling Stone is a corporate rock and roll magazine,” Rick said. “Just think about the inherent contradiction in that statement.”

“That sounds like what’s-her-name talking.”

Rick offered a noncommittal shrug in his defense. “Maybe she was right.”

“About what?”

“About a lot of things.”

“She wasn’t right about anything,” Mr. Sparkle said. “And her leaving was the best thing that ever happened to you.”

Neither of them believed it for a second, but saying it made them both feel better about how everything had unraveled at the end.

Mr. Sparkle put the clipping back into his pocket and took a deep breath. “I ever tell you about Clyde Yearling?”

Every chance he got. And he was going to tell him again, whether Rick wanted to hear him or not.

“Good-looking kid like you,” Mr. Sparkle said. “Played in a band called the Ultraviolet Pilots before he went solo—”

“Played the keytar—”

“He was the Jimi fucking Hendrix of keytarists,” Mr. Sparkle said. “They hit the charts in 1987 and went all the way to number four.”

“But then he started writing music he wanted to play.”

“But then he started writing music he wanted to play instead of what the audience wanted to hear,” Mr. Sparkle said. “He started working on his solo album while he was still in rehab and you know how the rest of it goes.”

“One of these days you’re gonna have to finish that story about Clyde.”

“One of these days I will,” Mr. Sparkle promised. “One of these days I will.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Mr. Sparkle grabbed the door by the handle and was almost out before turning around at the last second. “Almost forgot. I have some papers for ya to sign.”

“So close,” Rick muttered. “What kind of papers?”

Mr. Sparkle pulled a document a few pages short of a King James Bible from out of his attaché case. “Papers.”

“This for that music festival you been talking about?” Rick asked while skimming the opening paragraph. “The one on the Isle of Wight?”

“Just sign…”

Rick dug a few paragraphs deeper and handed the contract back to him. “Not ready for this.”

Mr. Sparkle reminded him of the gash in the wall he’d just covered up with a tilt of his elephantine head. “You could use the money, slick.”

He was right about the money but releasing a “best of” compilation felt like surrender, and Rick wasn’t convinced the Habits were finished yet.

“Every band has a shelf-life and the clock is ticking on the Habits,” Mr. Sparkle said, pinning the contract against his chest. “You might as well cash in while you can.”

That was easy for him to say because they weren’t his songs. “I just don’t wanna hear us playing in the background of some Chevy commercial.”

“That won’t happen,” Mr. Sparkle promised, crossing his heart. “Unless you want it to down the road.”

Rick took the contract from his hands and flipped through the stapled pages. “Ty and Carter already signed?”

“Ty has twins, and Carter is living off a professor’s salary,” Mr. Sparkle reminded him. “They woulda signed their names in blood if I asked them to.”

But Rick was more interested in the signature he didn’t get. “Doesn’t every member of the band have to sign?”

“She’ll come around,” Mr. Sparkle said. “This is the smart move, and she was always smart.”

Smart enough to get out from under his thumb, which was more than Rick had managed. “Have ya seen her around?”

“Haven’t seen her,” Mr. Sparkle said. “But she’ll show up when she’s ready.”

“I’ll think about it,” Rick promised, putting the contract aside. “Was there anything else?”

Mr. Sparkle fanned another stack of documents across the hall table like a blackjack dealer. “Just a few more papers for you to sign…”

***

Convinced he’d figured out who signed him into rehab, Rick’s focus shifted to the man keeping him there. High-profile clients like Capricorn’s weren’t eager to publicize their career struggles, and keeping patient records to a minimum made sense, but controlling information meant controlling access, and that meant keeping patients in while keeping everyone else out.

He hit the stop button halfway through “Driver’s Seat” and pulled his headphones off. Turning left instead of right when he got to the top of the cliff led him along a worn footpath cutting through the dense foliage guarding the other half of the island. He should have turned around, instead he kept going, confident that the trail would lead him back to the castle. But the path looped in and out, up and over the ancient rabbit warrens sheltered by clustered pines that grew thicker the deeper he went.

The island’s dramatic weather suited the primeval landscape, fogging the forest in an ethereal mist while hiding the neglected architecture until he stumbled across the first pylon.

Crawling ivy camouflaged the twelve-foot-high monument at a distance, but the engineered symmetry became evident up close. It was the first in a network supporting the remnants of an elevated rail system, wooden ties reinforced by steel beams connecting each to the one before and after.

Giving in to his curiosity led Rick through the foliage beyond, forcing him to fight through the thorny underbrush until stumbling into the glade on the other side.

He didn’t know what he’d found, but he could tell by the weathering that the ancient stone tower predated even the castle, rising from the detritus almost two stories high, the half dome on top adding a third. And while the tower’s foundation was laid centuries before, gears six feet across built into the base were a modern-day retrofit.

Rick passed under the spoked wheel surrounding the tower. Three by three latticed sections connected into something like a horizontal Ferris wheel, the structure’s weight supported by a ring of pylons identical to those leading the rails into the glade.

He touched his fingers to the translucent conduit running beneath the wheel while trying to explain the multitude of dead fireflies lying in its shadow but couldn’t. “Weird.”

Stepping between the wheel and the array of mirrored panels bracketed to the pylons brought him face to face with his reflection. He smiled, but imperfections in the panels warped his image beyond recognition.

Twigs snapping beyond the tree line sent him ducking behind a pylon before he could mug any further, but not from leaning beyond the monument’s footprint for a peek.

Marching feet heralded the procession before they appeared in the glade, seven of them in all, pushing a patient in a gurney across the uneven landscape by means of an inverted pulley system running beneath the tracks. The conveyance made movement easier, but why they’d need such a utility was only the first question flashing through Rick’s head. Estimating height was difficult without a point of reference, but he realized the diminutive attendants in the procession weren’t children…

“They’re dwarves...”

He’d blurted out what he was thinking louder than he’d intended, but the procession continued unaware, giving him time to study the membership from the safety of the pylon. Winglets strapped to their backs gave the bare-chested dwarves the same sense of menace as children in a Christmas pageant, though the pitchforks at their sides seemed legitimate. And while grease paint masked their features, Rick recognized the only unadorned member of the procession in the fringed jacket. “The Bullfrog with the perm.”

Rick inched closer, but leaves crunching beneath his foot broke the silence. He disappeared behind the pylon, listening for the excited chatter that meant he’d been caught, but didn’t hear anything. He eased out as far as he dared and…gotcha!

The square-jawed dwarf heading the procession zeroed in on him with the kind of hardened stare symptomatic of a man who’d done time and liked it. And while the other dwarves shared the same billiard-ball iconography, Rick guessed that the stylized eight ball painted across his forehead made him the pack’s alpha dog.

The half-buried gears broke the stalemate by opening the third story dome to expose twin umbilical arms within. Their chamfered sections telescoped out in opposite directions, each segment measuring three feet in circumference before tapering to half that size at the tip.

Rick waited for a reaction, but the alpha dwarf didn’t even raise the pitchfork at his side in warning. Instead, he turned his head and their march resumed.

The dwarves loaded the gurney into the first steel cage at ground level, pushing the stretcher forward until it snapped to the docking ring inside. Once secured, the cage climbed the rails, spiraling up and around the tower to the second level before stopping with a jolt.

The foremost umbilical connected to a slot in the back of the cage and started the attached bulb flashing red about once per second. The strobe outlined the patient’s silhouette, but even straining his eyes, Rick still couldn’t bring the anonymous tangle of arms and legs into focus.

The alpha dwarf grabbed the holstered remote from the gantry’s control panel and brought the empty cage around. The Bullfrog climbed the ladder to the second level and let the attending dwarf strap him in.

The conduit beneath the wheel buzzed to life, the agitated particles inside glowing red enough to stain the surrounding foliage pink. Every instinct Rick had told him to beat it back beyond the pines, but he had to see what was going to happen next.

The dwarves locked the arms and stepped back to let the wheel drive the cages through their initial orbit. The gears groaned under the strain, but the first revolution finished in under a minute, though the second was faster and the third faster still.

Red light bounced back and forth inside the mirrored array until blurring into an incandescent halo enveloping the wheel. The frequency was almost enough to lull him into a trance, but Rick fought off the hypnotic effect even as the pressure in his ears built.

Blood trickled from his nose, and the scenery started spinning faster than the cages whirring past him. He felt himself blacking out, but just when he thought he would lose consciousness, the flashing stopped, and the pressure eased.

The gears wound down and the wheel eased to a stop, and Rick watched the ritual he’d just seen unfold play back in reverse. The umbilical arms retracted, and the first cage spiraled back down the ramp. The Bullfrog’s cage swung back around, and he climbed down the gantry ladder. The dwarves fell back into formation and the Bullfrog followed alongside the patient in the gurney, the entire procession taking the same path back that they’d taken to get there.

Rick waited until he was sure they were gone before stepping out into the open. He should have waited longer. He fell to one knee and tried to keep from vomiting but couldn’t. “What the hell did I just see?”


Day 2

“It’s gotta be some kinda cult or something,” Rick muttered, “like Heaven’s Gate or Jonestown or the Solar Temple.”

There was no other way to explain the ritual in the forest. And knowing the apocalyptic end that those cults met, he went back to his room and locked the door. The blonde was gone, and he had the bed all to himself, but he didn’t sleep. He waited until first light before grabbing his guitar and escaping his room with nothing else besides the flannel he was wearing, and his trusty Walkman clipped to his belt.

Following the paved lane connecting the castle to the main road got him all the way to the cliffside steps before the first ATV zipped past him, but he didn’t panic. “Far as they know, I’m just another patient out for an early morning stroll.”

He hit the beach not long after but couldn’t even see the dock ahead of him. A low-pressure front lingered, limiting visibility, but he could hear the unmistakable growl of a V-8 engine idling dockside. His stride lengthened, and his breath shortened, but the limousine pulled away just as he got to the dock.

“The driver must have seen me,” Rick said, bending over to catch his breath. “Why the hell didn’t he stop?”

There weren’t any other vehicles in sight, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any scheduled. He could wait until another truck pulled up, but who knew how long he’d be waiting.

“One second longer is too long.”

He stepped across the rubbery seam connecting the dock to the causeway, watching for a response from the guardhouse.

He didn’t get one.

Rick kept stepping and watching, stepping and watching, the rhythmic stride he’d adopted inspiring him to stomp out an impromptu beat in anticipation of the boredom already creeping up on him. He whistled the accompanying melody, but the notes got lost in the wind before even forming the harmony.

“Wait until I get my hands on you, Mr. Sparkle.”

The sun broke through gaps in the stubborn clouds a few minutes later, thinning the oppressive fog, and for the first time that morning, he could see the castle across the bay. Using the dwindling limousine’s position to gauge the distance, he figured he’d be walking until nightfall if the weather held.

“Wait until I get my fucking hands on you, Mr. Sparkle!”

He started whistling again but stopped when he could hear the notes. The wind calmed, the water smoothed, and an eerie quiet fell over the scene.

“What’s going on?”

He trained his eyes on the horizon and the car ahead of him, keeping the black stretch in sight for another few seconds before it disappeared.

“That’s gotta be some kinda optical illusion.”

But then the wind rose, and the waves broke against the guardrail, washing across the asphalt before retreating to start the cycle again. Suddenly the cars he’d seen yesterday, smashed against the rocks, made sense. “The tide is coming in.”

The breaking water claimed another few inches of asphalt, but he didn’t panic. He wasn’t far enough out to panic, though he was farther out than he first thought. Instead, he turned back the way he’d come.

He took another few steps, and the water claimed another few inches, seeping through his sneakers and soaking his socks. He squished forward, but he was fighting the rising tide and the gusting wind pushing him backward.

Rick lowered his head and shortened his steps, keeping his cool even when the water rose past his ankles. “Another few minutes and it’ll be up to my knees.”

Another few minutes proved him right. Another wave cycle claimed another few inches, and another cycle followed the one before it.

“Gonna have to go in,” he said. “Not gonna be able to walk back.”

He took another few steps before deciding he couldn’t wait any longer and dove in. The icy water jolted his system, but he was out of time and he could use the adrenaline coursing through his veins to his advantage.

Stroke, kick, stroke, kick. He lifted his head out of the water on every alternate stroke but hanging on to his guitar case while fighting the waves took more out of him than he expected.

Stroke, kick, stroke…Another cycle pulled him beneath, but he bobbed between the troughs and gulped air between crests.

Stroke, kick…He swallowed a mouthful of water and then another. He bobbed to the surface to check his orientation but couldn’t see the shore in the gray blur closing in on him.

Stroke…

The next cycle slammed into him, and he went under one more time.

***

Rick coughed as much water out of his lungs as he could before falling back onto the sand. “Felonious?”

He didn’t realize it wasn’t Felonious until the man in the wetsuit peeled his hood back by way of an introduction. Gray streaks in his matted hair matched those woven through his blackened beard, just like the real Felonious, but the real Felonious wouldn’t have fit into any wetsuit. This was more of a low-calorie version—a Fauxlonius if anything.

“Who is Felonious?”

“This dude who lived in the same apartment building as me,” Rick said. “We used to call him Felonious Punk.”

His rescuer’s wide grin exposed a mouthful of teeth yellowed by a steady diet of coffee and cigarettes going back decades. “Man, a moniker like that has got to come with a back story.”

“It does,” Rick said. “Felonious Punk’s real name was Byron.”

“Byron?”

“Byron was the kinda dude who eyewitnesses would describe as a loner who kept to himself after he made the news.”

“Is that what happened to Byron?” Fauxlonius asked, his thick eyebrows knotting above the bridge of his nose. “Did he make the news?”

“Almost,” Rick said. “Byron loved jazz, though I can’t say I ever acquired the taste myself.”

“No?”

“I hate jazz, but Byron was into it,” Rick said. “He collected rare vinyl and used to play his records all day long.”

“One of those guys.”

“Byron wasn’t one of those guys,” Rick said. “He kept the volume down and was the kind of neighbor you didn’t mind living next door to.”

“I’ve met my share of the other kind.”

“This building catered to nothing but the other kind,” Rick said. “Has-beens and never-weres working the fringes of the legitimate entertainment industry.”

“Present company excluded?”

“Present company excluded,” Rick said. “Anyway, this punk band called the Latter Day Ain’ts moves into 6B.”

“Cool name for a band.”

“It was a cool name for a band,” Rick agreed, “but these dicks were anything but.”

“No?”

“They practiced day and night,” Rick said. “Played the same fucking song over and over again and never in the same key twice.”

“That is not cool,” Fauxlonius said. “Had to be tough for Byron to listen to his records with that kind of racket going on.”

“Turns out it was impossible,” Rick said. “Everybody in the building wanted the dicks in 6B out, but nobody did anything about it.”

“Let me guess,” Fauxlonius said, the corners of his mouth rising in anticipation, “nobody did anything except Byron?”

“One day Byron goes from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde,” Rick said. “He busted through their door, smashing guitars and throwing amps through the windows.”

“The irony is that you don’t get any more punk than that.”

“You don’t,” Rick agreed. “But Byron gets arrested like every hardcore punk I know.”

“Present company included?”

“Present company included,” Rick said. “Except they only hold Byron forty-eight hours.”

“They didn’t charge him?”

“Turns out that one of the dicks in 6B had an outstanding warrant out for his arrest,” Rick said. “They were gone before the cops came back to take their statement.”

“Byron to the rescue.”

“The tenants are so glad to be rid of the dicks in 6B that they throw Byron a welcome-back party when he’s released,” Rick said. “He comes through the door to his apartment, and one guy shouts, ‘Welcome back, Felonious Punk!’ and the name kinda stuck.”

“Far out,” Fauxlonius said. “I knew it was going to be a hell of an origin story as soon as you started.”

“Origin story?”

“A lot of superheroes have secret identities,” Fauxlonius said. “Clark Kent is Superman; Bruce Wayne is Batman; Peter Parker is Spiderman.”

“I like to think Byron was Felonious Punk’s secret identity and not the other way around,” Rick said. He tried using the end of the story as a segue to get to his feet, but his legs betrayed him, and he collapsed back into the sand.

“You better take it easy,” Fauxlonius said. “You coughed up a lot of water, and you might need to cough up even more.”

“My guitar!”

Fauxlonius stepped aside to give him access to the case half-buried in the sand.

Rick crawled past him and popped the latches. He checked for damage, but the extra money he’d spent on the deluxe case paid off.

“This washed up a few feet from you,” Fauxlonius said, handing him his Walkman. “I’m glad to meet someone else who prefers analog to digital.”

“Damn it!” Rick pressed play, but all he got was a snippet of garbled vocals that sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher rapping. “That was my favorite mix tape.”

The excitement of the moment having passed, Fauxlonius turned toward the now-submerged strip of asphalt behind them. “You know they don’t call it the Drowning Road for nothing.”

“Didn’t know it had a name,” Rick said. “Though I can see why that one stuck.”

“It’s not a problem as long as you keep track of tide,” Fauxlonius said, “though the tide here isn’t as predictable as it is in—”

“What I really wanna know is why they built a road that gets washed out by the tide in the first place?”

“This must have been a road for a long time,” Fauxlonius said, directing his attention to the modern road’s ancient stone bed. “Sometimes it’s just easier to build on top of something that’s already there instead of starting all over again.”

“Never seen anything like that before,” Rick said. “Never even heard of anything like that before.”

“Crazy things happen in crazy places because they can’t happen anywhere else,” Fauxlonius said. “But the reality is that you’ll find roads like this all over this part of the world.”

“What part of the world is that?”

Fauxlonius waited before laughing, and then Rick laughed because explaining he was so out of it that he didn’t know where he was meant he belonged in some kind of rehab.

Rick steadied himself by fixing his eyes on the shimmering horizon and made it to his feet on the second try. “Wait—where’d the castle across the bay go?”

Fata Morgana…

Rick repeated the unfamiliar phrase. “Fata Morgana?

“It’s Morgan le Fay’s name in Latin,” Fauxlonius said. “She was an enchantress who lived during the time of King Arthur. But it’s also the name sailors use to describe castles in the clouds.”

“Castles in the clouds?”

“Where they thought she lived,” Fauxlonius said. “Where they thought she lured sailors to their doom.”

“You mean like a mirage?”

“It’s a trick of the light, one way or the other,” Fauxlonius said. “Maybe a reflection or maybe a refraction.”

The distinction was lost on Rick. “What’s the difference?”

“The same as the difference between a mirror and a window.”

Getting a straight answer out of him was going to be a challenge, so Rick got right to the point. “Is there any way off this fucking island?”

“There’s a limousine service to the mainland,” Fauxlonius said. “But the tide’s more predicable than the limo is.”

“Is there another way off this fucking island?”

“Depends on how bad you want to get out of here,” Fauxlonius said, tilting his head toward the overturned rowboat behind him. “You’re welcome to use the launch.”

Rick gave the craft a quick once-over before deciding it wasn’t seaworthy. “Suppose there are sharks or something swimming around out there.”

“No sharks,” Fauxlonius said, “but I have to warn you about the reef.”

“Reef?”

“You do much sailing?”

“Grew up on the water,” Rick said. “Still surf when I get the chance.”

“Then you know scraping bottom is a real possibility,” Fauxlonius said. “And I’m sure you saw the wreckage along the rocks.”

“Seeing all those boats and cars smashed up against the rocks was pretty creepy,” Rick said, “like strolling through some kinda low-rent Bermuda Triangle or something.”

“They call it the Cauldron,” Fauxlonius said. “And don’t get me started on the weather.”

“The weather?”

“It’s that time of year,” Fauxlonius said. “I’ve seen five-foot waves turn into twenty-foot waves in a matter of seconds.”

Lightning split the sky from the horizon before he finished his sentence, leaving Rick to wonder if the gods themselves were conspiring to keep him on the island.

Fauxlonius grabbed his snorkel and headed down the shore.

“Hey,” Rick said, “thanks for dragging my ass out of the water.”

Fauxlonius glanced back over his shoulder to wave but didn’t stop.

“Wait!” Rick shouted. “You never told me your name!”

***

The near-death experience at the Drowning Road must have disoriented him more than he thought, because getting back to the castle took longer than Rick expected. Twilight scrambled his radar, sending him wandering in every direction through the forest except the one back, giving him time to think about what had almost happened as well as what hadn’t.

“How come my life didn’t flash before my eyes?”

The first thing anybody said after almost dying was that they saw their life flashing before their eyes. But all he saw was black, and that didn’t count because that kind of black wasn’t an absence of light—it was an absence of anything.

“Seems like I should have seen something.”

Rick fought through the last of the thinning branches until the trees parted for good, and grass gave way to flagstone. He headed for the narrow gate hyphenating the castle’s curtain wall but found his path into the courtyard blocked. “Pardon me.”

The jukebox moved to let him pass, but Rick paused to read the manufacturer’s tag bolted to the machine’s candy apple shell. “Sony Corporation Walkman 2000.”

He’d seen the same kind of units bleeding neon throughout Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, where the locals used them as glorified karaoke machines. Caterpillar treads left the jūkurobottos free to roam the streets and lure visitors into the clubs they were promoting—until one malfunctioned and pushed a tourist in front of a taxi.

“I knew your little brother,” Rick said, patting the Walkman hanging from his belt. “May he rest in peace.”

For a second, he thought the jūkurobotto had answered him, but the music wasn’t coming from the Walkman 2000. Rick followed the funky bass line across the courtyard, drawn forward by stained-glass windows glowing green, pink, and gold against the purple twilight.

He didn’t recognize the stick figure in the leather vest standing outside the chapel door, but Rick knew that he’d seen him somewhere before. Long, flowing white hair wasn’t that unusual, but pink irises without a trace of pigment were.

Stick Man lit his cigarette and exhaled wispy vapor into the cool night air. His papery skin wrinkled around the edges with every breath, and he was all edges, from his jagged cheekbones to his pointed chin. He smiled and held out his hand to share the pack.

“You read my mind,” Rick said. He helped himself and touched his cigarette’s tip to the lighter’s flickering orange flame. “You know I just quit.”

Stick Man pulled the chapel door open and let him in. “So did I.”

***

A glass partition divided the altar from the nave, though the pews remained untouched. Opening the vestry door led Rick to the mixing console and a thirty-two-channel board that cost more than his first motorcycle. Acoustic tile lining the control booth’s interior muffled the audio, so he cranked up the volume.

The stubby MC behind the mic made eye contact but stuttered and stammered through the rest of his lyrics.

Rick waited for the backing track to finish and hit the intercom. “Want me to rewind?”

The MC took off his scarlet beret and wiped his gleaming head with a towel. “Naw, ain’t no use, anyway.”

***

Groovedigga opened the refrigerator in the corner and handed him another beer before sitting behind the console. “Yo—call me Junior.”


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