Chapter One: Rattled
Hunter McKenzie kicked the guitar amp and stalked off set.
‘That was bloody crap,’ he said, unstrapping his bass guitar and slinging it in its case. ‘They’re gonna crucify us.’
Sam and Christian ground to a discordant halt. Max, the drummer, carried on, lost in his own world. Sam prodded his shoulder. ‘Meltdown time again,’ he said with a shrug.
Max let his sticks drop. ‘Oh you’re freaking kidding me. What now?’
‘Come on guys, we’re dead meat,’ said Hunter. ‘It’s a song about alienation, about existential angst, and you make it sound like the bloody teddy bear’s picnic.’
‘That’s a bit harsh,’ said Sam.
Hunter shook his thick blond hair out of his eyes and glowered. ‘Look, I’m thinking Joy Division and you’re channeling sodding Jack Johnson. We’re not a bloody surf band.’
‘You mean me. I’m screwing it up,’ said Christian. ‘Look man, if I’m doing such a crap job, why don’t you take over?’
‘He’s got a point, Hunt,’ said Sam. ‘They are your songs. It is your band.’
The others nodded. Hunter just walked out and slammed the door so hard it the house shook.
It always came down to this. He breathed in the humid city air and felt his chin itch. Reaching into his jeans pocket, he pulled out his inhaler and took a deep puff.
He knew they were right: he was the obvious front man. He was only just fifteen but he could do the brooding rock god to perfection.
The door opened. Sam came out, gave him a sympathetic grin and leaned against the wall. ‘They’re right, you know. There’s no point taking it out on us. You’ve got it, mate. All the girls are hot for you. You’ve even got that English accent girls go mad about. And you can play and you can sing.’ Sam ran his hands through his own frizzy mop and smiled ruefully.
It was true, he could. At home, in front of his bedroom mirror.
‘Yeah mate. But we all know what happens to me when we play live, don’t we?’
Sam glanced away. Density Matrix was one of those bands that might go all the way except that its natural lead guitarist and singer had…. Hunter barely liked to think the word, let alone say it. His best mate however had no such compunctions.
‘Look, it’s only stage-fright,’ Sam said. Hunter grimaced.
‘You’ll get over it.’
‘I don’t think so.’ He stabbed speed dial on his phone, turned away and spoke quickly. ‘Hey, Mum. Yeah, it’s me. I’m at Sam’s. Can you pick me up?’
He glared into the phone. ‘Yeah, we’re done here. Yeah I know it’s early. Yeah, I’m fine. Look, d’you want me to grab a cab or something?’ He knew that would get her.
Snapping shut the phone, he picked up his case.
‘See you tomorrow,’ he said, punching Sam on the arm.
‘Hey, come back and talk to the guys,’ said Sam. ‘Christian does his best. They all do.’
‘Yeah, well. Shame best isn’t better. This gig’s going to be a bloody farce.’
Sam shrugged and turned back to his house as Hunter slouched down the drive. The last thing he wanted was a post-mortem: he’d wait for his mum at the street corner. He knew he was being unfair but they hadn’t a clue how it felt. He loved writing songs, loved performing even – providing there wasn’t anyone watching. As soon as he had to play in front of more than the band, he froze. His hands started sweating and his fingers slipped on the strings. His voice, so deep and gravelly in the bathroom, turned shrill and squeaky.
‘Hey, it worked for Mika,’ Sam had said. He hadn’t found that remotely amusing.
A cat ran across the street, low and purposeful. It saw him and, instead of running away, stopped on the sidewalk in front of him.
The cat looked at him.
‘What you want, heh?’
The cat just stared, blocking his way.
‘Come on, cat. Scoot.’
He glared at the cat but it stared right back. He blinked and the cat looked scornful.
‘Look mate. Whatever it is you want, I haven’t got it, okay? This is a fish-free zone.’
It triggered a memory, long time back, of him in the garden of a house; he couldn’t remember where, they’d moved so much. He was sitting in long grass, talking to a cat and – this was where it went seriously wacko – the cat was talking back. Weirdo kid memories.
But the thing that really struck him, thinking back, had been his mum’s reaction. He must have been only – what? – four, five at the most. Most kids talk to animals or have imaginary friends at that age - but she’d seriously freaked. They’d moved pretty soon after and, now he came to think about it, they’d never had another garden. Not even a roof terrace.
They’d shunted all over the world, lived in pretty much every major city from Tokyo to London, New York to Sydney – he’d lost count. But they’d never had a garden and they’d never had a pet.
The sound of tyres broke his reverie.
‘What’s this crock of shit?’ he said as he slid his guitar into the back of the unfamiliar red car.
‘Hello darling and a very good evening to you too,’ said his mother, ladling the sarcasm with a spoon.
‘Sorry.’ He slid into the passenger seat and gave her an awkward hug across the gear shift.
‘The BMW wasn’t ready so the garage lent me this one. How did rehearsal go, or don’t I ask?’
‘You don’t ask.’
Hunter prodded the CD player. Nothing happened. He glared out of the window, watching as they drove over the river back into Boston.
‘What a crock of shit.’
‘You’ve said that already.’
‘And since when was repetition a crime?’
‘Since now. You’ve got an English exam coming up.’
He leaned back and rolled his neck until it clicked. ‘Hey, Mum? How come we move so much?’
‘Neat change of subject.’
‘Yeah, but really. Why do we?’
‘It’s work, hon. You know that.’
‘But are we ever going to, like, settle down someplace?’
His mum sighed. ‘I know it’s tough. Making new friends and all.’ She executed a neat reverse, parallel parking into a tiny gap, and then performed her own change of subject. ‘Hey, your dad’s back from London. He’ll be able to come and see you play tomorrow.’
Oh great, just bloody great. Someone else to watch the great humiliation. But he could see his mum’s face, eager and watchful.
‘That’s good. Really good.’
His dad was in the kitchen when they walked into the loft, chopping vegetables into tiny precise cubes. Hunter smiled. Dad was so flipping anal; such a geek. He even cooked in a geeky fashion.
‘Hey.’ His dad’s eyes lit up behind his little round glasses. They went through their usual welcome ritual: shook hands firmly, like good businessmen, and made firm eye contact; then cracked into grins and gave each other a bear-hug.
‘How did the conference go?’
‘Yeah, good. Got you those games I promised.’
‘Cool.’ His dad was a very useful geek, it had to be said.
They ate at the long rustic table. His mum wouldn’t buy anything mass-produced or synthetic, every single thing in the apartment had been made from natural materials. She lectured in anthropology and the place was full of weird objects she’d picked up on their travels. But they were all kept behind glass, in locked cabinets, like they might bite.
‘I’m looking forward to the gig,’ His dad said, carefully pouring a teaspoon of soy sauce and drizzling it in a neat circle over his bowl of noodles.
‘I wouldn’t bother.’
He caught the exchange of glances between his parents. The ‘don’t go there’ raise of the eyebrows.
‘Hey love, I forgot; I got you a present too,’ his dad said brightly, rummaging in his laptop bag.
His mum went all quiet as she unwrapped the brown paper parcel, as if she already knew what it contained.
She frowned, her face unreadable. Hunter peered over, intrigued at what had provoked such a strange reaction. It didn’t look much cop, to be honest. Some kind of rattle made from what seemed to be animal skin with a bone handle. It made a shushing noise as she picked it up and Hunter felt a tingle down his spine.
‘I had one like this once,’ she said softly. ‘Back on Exmoor.’
His ears pricked up. His mother had never spoken about her childhood; just the bare minimum. She’d grown up in the middle of nowhere, which was why she said she liked cities so much. Her mother, his grandmother, still lived there, in her childhood home, but they never went. Not even a quick visit when they were living in London. His mum had said it would make his asthma worse, bring out allergies. When he asked why Granny Greenway didn’t come to visit them, she’d said her mother didn’t like flying, didn’t like cities and, anyhow, she couldn’t leave the animals. It was all excuses of course – bottom line, he guessed, they’d had some major falling out.
The mood had shifted and Hunter figured he’d leave them to sort it out. He’d go try out the new games in his room. But when he got there he cranked up The Cure – A Forest – instead and stretched out on his bed. The chords chimed and he felt his fingers flex to copy their shapes. It was so simple, so pure. He loved that old eighties’ music. He shook his head in irritation. He bet Robert Smith never had sodding stage fright.
His phone burred and he groaned at the ID. Charade. His girlfriend. She burbled on about what she’d bought at the mall, what was happening on some loser soap, what Frankie and Bella and Sparkle thought about various random crap. Like he gave a shit.
‘What? Yeah, of course I’m listening, babe. You said that Bella fancies Christian… What? Yeah, I meant Max. Whatever. Yeah, I’ll be cool at the gig. Look Char, I’ve got to go. Got to practice a new bassline.’
God she was annoying. But it did his ego no end of good going out with the hottest girl in class.
He couldn’t sleep. It was always like this before he performed. He tossed and turned; tried reading but couldn’t keep his focus on the page; tried listening to music but everything he played wound him up, shouted out his flaws, his weaknesses. He heard his parents go to bed, the low murmur of their voices. Outside a police siren wailed; a car braked hard; a heavy bass line of dub reggae; a girl laughing – the sounds of the city.
His mind floated back to the rattle. He could imagine the start of a song using that hiss ssh ssh in the background.
He padded down the corridor. The rattle wasn’t on the table. Hunter walked over to the large display cabinet. He knew the door would be locked but equally he knew where she kept the key. He felt bad rummaging through her bag – he knew she’d never interfere with his stuff – but hey… He found her key fob and slipped the smallest key in the lock. It opened with a faint creak and he reached for the rattle.
His head buzzed. A wave of nausea hit his throat and he sank to the floor, images flashing in front of his eyes. A herd of deer flying over moorland. Two stags rearing up, bellowing, the sound was a mix of a lion’s roar and a chainsaw revving up. Then the deer vanished and other images smashed into his mind. Malformed creatures – monstrous beings with no eyes but with wide gaping hungry mouths, sharp with teeth. They sniffed the air and paused – he had the horrible feeling that they had found their prey.