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Mark the Music: A YA Retelling of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

This story originally appeared in the YA Shakespeare anthology Never Be YoungerThe complete text is included here.

Mark The Music (1)

The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.

The motions of his spirit are dull as night,

And his affections dark as Erebus.

Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

Merchant of Venice Act V. Scene 1. lines 82-87

 

 

Club Belmont is looking for a new DJ.

Samuel slams the flier down in front of me while I sit at my Korg mixer. I’ve finally gotten the levels for this mix right and normally I would rip his head off for interrupting me. My headphones say “Eff off” in safety orange on the earpieces, and I mean it with every aggro ounce of me.

Older and wiser though he may be, Samuel knows I can beat the tar out of him. In fact, sometimes he pays me to be his “muscle” which is funny considering he’s a bouncer. But in his side job, his less legal one, his dangerous one, sometimes he needs someone truly scary. And what are little brothers for? In return for my services, he provides me with the highest quality fake IDs and a first taste on his merchandise.

I’m not really a habitual user. Drugs can seriously muck up your mixing ability. Like, with pot you can’t hear the bass. Ever wonder why there’s so much bass in reggae? Cuz they can’t freaking hear the bass, so they turn that shit way way up. But, yeah, I like a little chemical assistance when I’m not mixing. I’m too in my brain for dancing otherwise.

Club Belmont. AKA the Mecca of all things bright, shiny, sexy, musical, trendy, on point, and—most importantly—Her. Her name flies off my lips as I slam my headphones down.

Portia.

            “Exactly, baby brother. This is it. I can feel it. This is your chance.”

I clutch the flier with a death grip. “Jesus! When did you get this?” I can already think of a dozen other DJs who are probably working on sick mixes at this exact second, hoping to impress Her. They’re probably tweaking their style to fit her tastes: trippy, haunting vocals, with a  light touch and a heady build. We’re not talking the basic untz, untz untz of days of yore. Not the mindless crashing of synth. Portia loves the artistic, the emotional, the journey that only the more sensitive DJs can create. And I just happen to mix all my music with her in mind.

God, that sounds killer creepy. But I just happen to have the same tastes. It’s like destiny, right? I’m meant to mix at her father’s club—or rather, the crown jewel in his slew of sleek club gems. I think I wrecked up that metaphor, but whatever—Club Belmont is it. Portia is it.

When I have some pocket change and a free night, I’m always there to hear the latest sounds and drink in the vibe. When the DJ is killing it, Portia is always on her feet, dancing in a way that makes me want to jump into her secluded VIP balcony and just ask her to elope. She clearly knows good music.

Not that she’d go for a hood like me. She’s untouchable. She’s perfect. She doesn’t do casual. She doesn’t do slumming it. Her tastes are singular. She likes the hottest DJs. Everyone on the scene knows that music gets her hot, and she’s never heard mine. But—shit—she will. She will next effing Friday.

“I gotta get to work.” I start to replace the headphones over my ears.

But Samuel has other plans. “I actually need you to fill in tonight.”

“What for?” God, I don’t want to cover the door. Nothing worse than guarding the velvet rope at the hole-in-a-wall, second-rate dance club. I know Samuel loves the power of it, but for me, all I care about is the music. And bartending can kiss it. Frequenters of The Venetian are lousy tippers. Most are too high to remember to thank their bartender. And most of them are that high thanks to Samuel’s blossoming drug business.

Possibly not the most admirable line of work, I grant you, but funds are tight and Samuel’s always kept me in mixing equipment, and he makes sure I get to school on time and that I’m mostly well-fed. Can’t have a muscle without muscle, right? He’s basically the best big brother/legal guardian a bum like me could ask for.

Mom’s locked up. Dad’s never been around. Essentially, Samuel and I are blue-collar, working class nobodies. I’d never have a shot with a goddess like Portia. She goes to one of those prep schools with the name carved into stone above the doorway and the teachers that are called “professor” and plaid uniforms and ties. That’s actually pretty hot…

Our paths wouldn’t cross. Because I go to  one of those classically inner-city schools, one where a D average and a 50% attendance rate don’t warrant the attention of the administration, which is fine by me. Who wants to do history homework when you can get lost in music, party, and audition for Portia?

“Wake up, Ethan!” Samuel smacks the back of my head.

“Okay, okay. I’m listening.”

“I need you to DJ.”

“For real?”

“For real.”

This has only happened half-a-dozen other times. “You’re not messing with me?”

“Hell no. Pack up your gear. The limo leaves in ten.”

“Right.” I stand from the mixer. “Do I look okay?”

“Wag off! ‘Do I look okay?’ You’re fine. Ten minutes.” He punches my virgin arm with his heavily inked one. Wanker won’t let me use my fakes to get tattoos. He doesn’t want me to limit my options, career-wise. But no one cares what a musician looks like, it’s the music that matters. But you’d better believe I want to impress Portia. This audition is my one shot. At love. And fame. And sex with a bona fide goddess.

 

*          *          *

I’m literally on fire. Well, no, not literally, although I’m sweating as much. Music is just flowing through me and every single soul in this place cannot not dance. All these dilated pupils are locking with mine and we are just connected. Beat by wrecking beat. I’d dance myself if I didn’t need to stay glued to this board with my fingers flying, one headphone on (“eff”) one off (“off”).

This one girl is eye-screwing me, but I feel this great desire to be somewhat cleansed of tail when I meet Portia. So no shank-cranking for a week. Put all those feelings in my music.

Flow baby, flow.

*          *          *

I’m doing my end of the night thing: wrapping cables, wiping my sweat off of every surface, clearing my thoughts. The beat is still ticking in my head, I’m moving with a crossfade, like I’m still spinning but no one else can hear. And, yeah, I might have tried a little of this and a little of that as the night was winding down, and I’m left feeling like a head floating through time, space and music and like my limbs and extremities are just listening to what my head is telling them and it’s actually pretty sparkling trippy. So I’m not sure how long he was tapping on my shoulder.

And we’re the only two in the club. Samuel’s stepped out for business or to hook up with some guy. I dunno. But this guy in front of me. He’s one of those friends I hate. You know? Like, I’m all “Yo, what’s happening? You spin tonight? Did you catch my work?” and stuff but really I’m like “Why is your ugly face up in my club when we all know you spin that heavy-handed pseudo-hip-hop schlop downtown?” and “Fragger, you are in my personal space!” But maybe that’s some weird effect of the drug.

Anyway, The Skipper—yeah, the dude’s name is Skipper like one of Barbie’s many anorexic relatives—just nods to some beat only he is hearing. He likes “The,” like he’s the captain of some ship, but I leave it off.

“Yeah. I worked tonight. Caught the tail end of your little jam session.” His voice is smooth. And he’s charming. Never a lack of love for Skipper. “You heard about the audition?”

“You’re not thinking of mixing are you?” I try to sound above it. He’s not a threat. He’s not an ape-breaking threat. “Belmont isn’t known for its hip-hop.”

“Yeah. Well. You haven’t heard what I can do these days.”

He’s got a grin like he’s a cat with a cornered canary and I don’t like it one bit.

“Good luck.” I hold out my hand so we can complete our little charade of camaraderie.

He takes it. Doesn’t let go. Squeezes. Nods to someone I didn’t see in the shadows.

“What is this?” I don’t want the panic to come out in my voice. But it does. I don’t even feel that panicked. More like numb. This is not happening.

But then this other hired muscle—I don’t even know the guy—takes a bleeding bat to my beautiful Korg. My Roland keyboard. Even my bloody mic. Everything.

The first smash, I feel it right in the gut. The second in the groin. I double over and Skipper just lets go of my hand.

So, despite the meds and the metaphysical pain I’m in. I go completely aggro. I’m a million times faster than that nutsack Skipper. And I’m on that other guy. I wrest the bat from his hands. And he just drops to the ground in a fetal position. Because, yeah, I could mop the floor with both of these guys. So I fling the bat and just use my boot, kicking and kicking and kicking this mother-lover until the pieces of my destroyed board are permanently enmeshed in his face and I feel his ribs crack. Skipper tries to pull me off of his compadre so I tackle him and just start punching. He gets in a few scant swings before Samuel is pulling me off of him. Sammy’s calling the cops and pushing me toward the door. He starts to pick up the pieces of my gear as I howl.

“Wait in the car!”

“Just leave it, Sammy!”

And I’m crying and he’s crying.

*          *          *

Of course I don’t want to go to school the next day. Because I might actually kill Skipper if I see him. But I have to. Not because of grades or the fact that I’ve got to pass this Chemistry test to pass the quarter. Because I still need to act like it’s fine. Like I’m still going to audition. Like he can’t ruin everything.

Proud moment: he side-eyes me in the hall and I just keep moving. Swimming through the hall, thinking of Portia and her perfect lips and her distant haughtiness and how I would do anything to get even the slightest smile from her. Headphones on. Hood up. I look like a total wannabe tough-guy, but I don’t care. Or I care, but I don’t want to look like I care.

This one girl from my cooking class is all over me. We’re partnered for this omelette-making exercise. She keeps purring in my ear about the sexiness of a man who can cook. I take the compliment but it does nothing to stir my desires. I’m just getting through the day and thinking of Portia. And I make the best cheese and pepper omelette I can, because I’m sick to death of the frozen saltlicks we eat every night for dinner.

On the way home I grab a dozen eggs and some cheese and butter. I’ve got nothing to do at home without my sound gear. Samuel swore up and down and left and right that he’d work something out. Whether he does or not, he deserves a real meal before he heads to The Venetian. I might even nuke some of the ice-locked green beans from the behind the frozen meals.

He takes care of me. And I’m dead grateful.

*          *          *

Actually dead grateful is an understatement, because at home I drop that dozen eggs right on our front stoop because Samuel’s carrying this mixer. Brand new. Top of the line. He’s just got this sparkling grin I haven’t seen since he fell in love sometime last year. It’s been hidden since he fell out of love. That sap.

“Ethan. Wait and see. I was gonna let you shop with me but I was just too excited.”

“Is this—?”

“Come inside!”

He practically shoves me inside the door and on my worktable next to my desktop machine is a brand new keyboard, drum machine, effects pedals, a microphone. He sets the mixer down. He’s waiting for me to speak, but I can’t.

“You’d better get practicing. I’m sure these things have some new quirks you need to figure out.”

“Pretty sure these things don’t have quirks. Not like the old stuff. But, Sammy…” The words are still caught somewhere else. All I manage to ask is “The money?”

“Covered. Totally covered. Just rock the audition, baby brother.”

“I thought…”

“Right, well, yes most of my funds are…invested. In product. But it’s okay. My buddy is liquidating the assets as we speak.”

“So…”

“I just borrowed a bit of cash. Interest free. Once we’re liquid, we’ll be swimming in it.”

I can’t help the wrinkle that forms between my eyebrows. Because we have never had cash. Not really.

“You borrowed it? How?”

“Don’t worry about it! Just practice!” Samuel’s giddy. Giddy.

“I’m not practicing until you tell me where you got the money.”

“I know a guy.”

“Super shady. Who?”

“You know that hardcore punk club a few blocks over?”

No. He has to be joking. Not only do I despise punk in all of it’s loud, off-key, screw-you-real-music sort of way, I know which club he’s talking about. And I hate HATE the owner, Shark. He’s lecherous and loud, cocky and aggressive. He’s always high, on the really, really hard stuff. He’s a sadist piercer/tattooer who gets off on performing extreme body modifications on just barely-willing participants. He’s punk scum and he belongs in some sort of pond, feeding on the bottom. The guy takes advantage of everyone. He gets what he wants. Period.

“Yeah,” Samuel continues, “Shark’s not such a bad guy after all. He said he would love for a kid from our neighborhood to make it big on the music scene.”

I scoff. “What does he know about real music? Did you sell your soul, or what?”

“Nothing like that.”

“No. You did. It’s the only way that tightwad would part with some of his filthy money.”

“I told you, he loaned it to me interest-free. Don’t worry about it. Once the product has been distributed, I’ll pay him back.”

“I don’t get the catch. What’s the catch, Sammy?”

Samuel just shakes his head. It must be bad.

“Return it. I don’t need it. I can just borrow Rocko’s equipment. Or Cherry’s. I’ll figure out something.”

“And then what if you get the gig? I mean, I don’t say this lightly: you’re the most amazing DJ I’ve ever heard. You’re gonna get the gig. You’re gonna need this stuff. And then, if you want, you can pay me back because you’ll be rolling in it.”

“How do you know I’m so good? You’re tone deaf.”

“Whatever. I know you get every last person on their feet. The amount of tail your ugly mug gets, you must be some sort of artistic genius.”

“Very funny. I’ll get the gig. I have to.” Consider my resolve hardened.

“Good. Get practicing.”

“I can’t.”

“Don’t be an idiot. It’s fine. I can handle Shark’s loan. It’s all good. Please. Please. I don’t ask you for much. I gotta find something to eat. Practice. I demand it as your legal guardian and best friend.”

And maybe I shouldn’t, but it’s all right there: the best equipment I’ve ever laid eyes on. And if I’m gonna get up to speed I need to get all my samples in order.

When I sit at the desk, Samuel grins. I grab the lone piece of equipment that survived the assault: my much beloved headphones. Once they’re on, I can feel Samuel hovering. He punches me affectionately. I give him the finger. Eff off. Seriously. I have work to do.

*          *          *

I have never been so glad to hear one of Skipper’s sets in my life. It’s the audition and he is flailing musically and literally. If I wasn’t an expert musician and could hear his flubs, it wouldn’t matter, they’re written all over his face. His head jerks up and his hands fly pointlessly.

“Thanks!” Portia’s husky voice booms into the mic she’s holding. She’s in her balcony above the dance floor, for once not surrounded by bouncers and eligible bachelors.

“Thank you,” Skipper says.  He tries to save face and look cool and collected, but he really fouled up. And I am so effing pleased.

“BassBuzz!” She said next. That’s my DJ name. I want to change it. It’s not reflective of my music now. It’s leftover from when I habitually blew out speakers because of over-emphasizing the bass. It totally lacked subtlety.

The sound crew helps me set up my gear and I focus on calming the nervous tremor in my fingers. I need these fingers to cooperate. The crew did a good job, everything’s in order. There’s no excuse for my delay, so I flip on the beat and work the distortion. I loop a sample and slip one of the headphones on. And then I’m there, in the beating pulse of the song. Floating in a river and jamming on the keyboard adding loops, adding dissonance that never quite resolves but drives the music onward. I can’t even look at Portia, even though I know her face doesn’t lie. It’s a good sign when I wind this one down and pick up the beat to a frenetic dance rhythm. A whole new song, but she doesn’t stop me.

*          *          *

Portia hasn’t told me I got the gig. But I would have to think being invited to her palatial penthouse is a pretty good sign. An even better sign when she takes my hand and pulls me up to her bedroom loft. I thought my heart was pounding before the audition, but it’s got nothing on the slamming against my ribs that it’s doing now.

The first floor of the penthouse was all golds and browns and cream, sparkly, meticulous and arid. But Portia’s room is like stepping onto another planet. I scan the room, completely at a loss for words. It’s surprisingly masculine for such a fragile-looking princess. She’s so primped and up on the pedestal of four-inch heels. The furniture is opposite, heavy, weighted, large rivets and upholstery tacks, reclaimed wood, cogs and gears, warm incandescents in iron wire cages. So many bells and whistles and…sound equipment.

“What do you think?’ she asks. For a second I think she looks a bit nervous at me seeing her sanctum.

What I think is that this feels intensely intimate. What I think is about how many guys and girls she’s brought up here and for what purpose. What I think is that she’s beautiful. What I think is that she has the most amazing equipment I’ve seen, and I’m including the stuff Samuel scored me.

“Do you mix? Or do you bring all your DJs up here?” I ask, hoping it comes off as flirtation and not insecurity. If she mixes, herself, what does she need with DJs?

Portia kicks off her shoes, sighs and sits on her bed. “I dabble. My first love is singing.”

“No kidding. I’ve never caught your sets.” She’s never performed. I would have know if she had, but I don’t want to admit that.

“My father totally forbids it. He says he’d strip of my duties at the club if I ever disobeyed him. And since the club and its music are basically my life…”

We have that in common. “Why won’t he let you?”

“He says it’s unrefined. He wants me silent and beautiful. Like the club’s figurehead. In his mind, being a singer is a pretty lowly occupation. Just a step up from prostitutes really.”

“I know some prostitutes who would welcome that comparison.”

“You know prostitutes?” she asks, one eyebrow creeping up.

Rats. I’m blushing. “Nah. Not, you know, biblically or anything.”

“I’m teasing,” Portia says. “I mean, despite my dad’s best intentions, people still think I’m like some musical slut. I know the rumors.”

“Rumors?” I ask. Super lamely.

“I don’t bang every DJ we hire at Belmont. I’m sort of okay with the rumors because it seems to cast quite a wide net. And I love talent. And you, BassBuzz, are talented.”

I shake my head and laugh. “It’s Ethan. I came up with that handle when I was just a mite.” The next bit just falls out of my mouth: “So why am I up here with you?”

“You’re free to go.” Suddenly she’s all ice. “I thought maybe you’d listen to something for me.”

“I’d love to.”

Just like that she thaws, and again looks a little nervous. She hops off her bed and pulls the chair out from the desk. I sit and accept her headphones, which are easily worth a couple grand. It’s a sickness, pricing all the equipment I see, wondering about the monthly cost of living in this place, wondering how often she drinks that champagne that costs more than Sammy’s house.

But these thoughts come to a halt when she spins up the hard drive on her sleek laptop and I’m there. The music’s simple. Nothing virtuosic or innovative. But a compelling beat and lyrical musical lines.

Then. The singing. I try to keep my face neutral. But it’s like hearing an angel. I must give it away because Portia looks desperate for approval. I point to her in a question. Is that you? And she nods.

Kill me now, I just fell even more in love with this girl I don’t know hardly at all.

The song ends. And, hang it all, my carefully controlled mug just splits into what has to be the goofiest grin ever. Portia’s lips press together in a lame attempt to hide how relieved and thrilled she is that I obviously loved it.

Headphones off.

“So…” she asks.

“Beautiful.” You. The voice. The fact that I’m here with you.

“Yeah?”

“Amazing. I’d love to play around with this… Is that too forward?”

“No. Not at all. I was hoping you would.” She looks at me expectantly. And she’s standing so close, I can smell her perfume and occasionally her leg brushes against mine. I try not to think about kissing her. So I dive right into the music. I plug my headset in and pass her hers. She pulls up another chair.

Now her leg is flush against mine, so I turn up the volume. Do not foul this up, Ethan. Do not kiss the beautiful girl.

I add complexities and layers. I trip up the beat in my signature style. I loop this gorgeous line of humming and add a harmony or two. Small tweaks really. It’s still her song. She keeps nodding. And when we get to this one spot, she reaches out and grabs my hand. Because this song is pure magic.

When I remove my headphones, I’m embarrassed at how hard I’m breathing. But she is also.

“I can’t….” she shakes her head as she takes off the headphones.

I can’t help but laugh. “And that means what exactly?”

“You’re incredible.”

“Back atcha. Does this mean I got the gig?” I ask, surprised at my boldness.

“Didn’t I say? You’ve had the gig. Saturday night prime time slot is all yours. No this is more…do you think you could help me with my own music? I mean, I have to make a big splash. I get one shot at impressing people enough to have a chance at a career before my dad decides to cut me off.”

“Of course I’ll help you. Your voice needs to be out there.”

She smiles. And asks formally, “So you would you mix some stuff for me? I mean, I think possibly we’d be a good team. It would mean a lot to me.”

Awkward. This conversation is so stilted and weird, but I’m bleeding happy.

“Absolutely. I would be honored. I think you’re…transcendent.” And I just raised the awkward ante.

But apparently awkward works because before I can process it, she’s leaning forward to kiss me. Maybe it was meant to be a peck on the cheek, but I go for it and (again, awkwardly) kiss her on the lips. But it must not be a misstep because she kisses me back and pulls me toward the bed and….

FADE TO BLACK

*          *          *

Mixing the first night. It’s like all those heavyweight planets aligned. She was there. Sammy took the night off with his stud of a beau and the two of them couldn’t hide their glee as they danced. Really, I’ve never seen Sammy look so at ease. Without aid of any wonderland magic. If he’s nervous about his deal with Shark, he isn’t showing it now.

Maybe this is naive of me (but, dammit, there are worse things in this jaded world to be than naive) but the way Portia looks as I spin, especially when I pipe in the vocal line I boosted from her computer, the way she looks is all stars, and I think maybe, maybe, she’s a fraction of as in love with me as I am with her.

I mix it down to the bare bones, tight snare beat, gymnastic vocal line (by my love), then a roll of high-hat into an acoustic bass line then BAM bass heartbeat. It’s the best climax I’ve ever done. And lewd jokes aside, it’s because of her. The sound of her voice, the way her hands felt on my pecs, her lips on my jaw, the whisper of skin, the curve of her calf. I’m on a higher plane.

And even though if you’d asked me last week if there was anything better than mixing for a groovy crowd, I’d certainly have argued, pluck a pheasant if I’m not looking forward to my set being done. Because I’m going to taste those lips again.

Whatever this is, it’s more than happiness.

*          *          *

Portia wakes before I do. She’s up for a few hours before crawling back into bed with my tired ass. I ask what she’s been up to me and she hands me these pages of lyrics, all in her expressive script. I read them and the cadence of the words is already clicking a beat in my head.

“I was just so awake,” she whispers, swirling a finger on my sternum. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“Hope you don’t mind I used your voice last night.”

“Are you kidding? I’ve never been more flattered in my life. It was amazing. I couldn’t wait to get you back here.”

“Glad we’re on the same wavelength, Portia.” Saying her name like this, with her right next to me, it’s magic.

But the magic is nixed when my phone rings. Sammy. Eff off, Sammy. Im obviously busy. So I silence it and kiss Portia, grabbing the silk rope of braid. She climbs on top of me and I groan. It’s too much. I’m going to supernova until the light inside me blinds us both.

But the phone rings again. Portia rocks her weight off of me and tosses me the phone.

I don’t even answer before I hear the panic in Sammy’s voice. “It’s gone, dude. We are so screwed. I’m so so so sorry. And Biggs is laid up in the hospital. My guy, Biggs. Totally jacked. I’m so sorry.”

Pretty sure his voice sounds like that because he’s trying not to cry. “Slow down.” I sit up and throw the covers off of me, not caring that the cool air is hitting so much bare skin. “Biggs? Who’s Biggs?”

“My dealer. I fouled this up so completely. He had everything. Everything. Every slip and pill and hit I had. What did mom used to say about eggs and baskets? Remember?”

I let out a breath. “It’s okay. We’ll sell my equipment. That should cover it, right? When’s the cash due back? We’ll get it together.”

It’s not like I asked her, but quick as a flick she’s reaching into her pocket for a tiny silver key, opening her closet, unlocking a fireproof box and showing me stacks of cash. She points to it in a question. I shake my head. No. I don’t need my wealthy girlfriend to bail me out no matter what. But the tenderness of her offer make my chest feel pleasantly tight.

“We can’t,” Sammy says.

“Why the hell not?”

“It was due at nine this morning.”

“So hoofing what? Money is money, right? We’ll square you out. I’ll just pawn my gear and meet you at Shark’s in an hour.” I’m already pulling on my pants and my shoes and halfway out the door.

Sammy sounds so defeated and resigned. “No. Dude. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to go face the music. I mean, if I don’t show up soon, it’ll be worse. As per our agreement. Shit…I have to somehow try to give Biggs a break on his hospital bill. I can’t leave him hanging.”

“No. Slow the hell down. I’ll meet you at Shark’s–” I jog down the stairs accompanied with a clacking drumbeat. Portia’s right behind me dressed in these skinny little jeans and my button-down shirt. God. If I wasn’t on my way out to possibly save my brother’s life…

“Little brother, do not sell your gear. Or else everything will be for nothing. Please. Please.”

“I’ll see you soon.” I shut off my phone. “Look, Portia, you don’t need to come with me.”

“Bullshit,” she says. “Shark? That guy is so slimy. He’s a sadist. And my father’s helped him out a couple times. I’ll be able to help.”

“I’m sure we can handle it,” I tell her. But if I’m being honest, having her with me is like having a lucky penny. I’m not superstitious, but I feel miles better when she slips her hand in mine.

“We’ll take my car.”

I’m glad when she goes to the driver’s side door. Because my hands are shaking, like an addict two days sober.

*          *          *

Shark’s punk joint is disgusting. It wears its refuse and sweat-stained upholstery with pride. I’ve been here a few times on various errands for Sammy. And I hated it every time.

It’s a little before noon, so it’s dead in here. It’s as dark as usual. Maybe more so since the bar is shut down and the stage lights aren’t on. Sammy’s already here. And he’s alone on one side of a booth. Shark’s on the other and three of his cronies are hovering over them menacingly.

“Ah. Good. Your witnesses are here,” Shark says brightly when he spots Portia and me. And I feel sick, not sure what we’re going to be witnessing. “Buzz,” he says brightly to me. As if I were here in a musical capacity. And it makes me want to go ragey and beat him until he cracks and splits open. But it’s pretty clear his goons would probably kill Sammy and me. Sammy’s not a fighter. And with Portia here…I gotta keep a lid on it.

“And the lovely Portia!” he says. “An honor.”

“Don’t talk to me,” she says, out icing even her coolest moments.

“We are verifying the documents which spell out your brother’s debt. Please, take a look.” Shark beckons me over and I squeeze between two men to sit on the sticky leather bench next to Sammy.

I don’t want to make him look weak, so I don’t look at him. Because I’m sure I couldn’t hide my concern, which is overwhelmingly intense. The contract slides across the table and I note the latest of Shark’s piercings: studs in between each of his knuckles. They’re still bruised-looking.

The terms are spelled out clearly. The cash was to arrive this morning. Even one minute late was unacceptable. And now I see why Shark offered a loan without interest. He was hoping Sammy wouldn’t pay up. He really is a sick bastard.

The list of experimental body modifications he is allowed to perform is extensive. Which is why I can smell the adrenaline coming off of Sammy in sickening waves. I swallow a bit of bile.

Suspensions. Uncommon and brutal piercings. Implants. Scarification. All to be done in one session. Substitutions for some of the modifications are up for negotiation but it is solely at the discretion of Shark. And noncompliance will be punished by death: in this case a forced drugging that would lead to an overdose.

I have to picture Portia this morning. A nice image. Anything to keep from vomiting.

“Do you agree that the terms are spelled out and that your brother’s signature appears on the line?” Shark asks.

“Is this legally binding?” I ask. “No way you got this shit notarized, right?”

“Nothing legal about any of this,” Shark laughs. His cronies echo. “Go ahead and see how far you make it out the door before I inject your brother here.

“But it’s up for negotiation?” I ask.

“Sure. Tell me what cutting edge modifications you know how to perform and I’ll let you do it yourself,” Shark offers. He grins like a snake. Quite literally with a forked tongue and filed fangs.

“Can he survive these? Are you using clean tools?” I ask. I mean, the guy does earn some of his livelihood on willing participants in this torture, surely he wouldn’t want someone coming away with a raging hep infection.

“Clean tools, yes. Survivability is likely. I’m not a murder. Well, unless you don’t do as I ask.”

I still can’t look at Sammy. He got his eyebrow pierced once and hated it, letting the hole close over after a few short months. Tattoos aside, he’s not into pain. Why did he ever agree to this? I want to kill him myself, except I love him too goddamn much.

“Can we at least get a couple shots?” I ask.

One of the goons grabs a bottle of cheap vodka from the bar and pours two shots. Sammy takes both of them.

“No more or it’ll increase your risk of bleeding,” Shark says. He acts like he’s concerned, but anyone can see he’s getting his rocks off. “Let’s begin.”

Shark goes over to the sound systems and puts on the loud punk garbage. As if this moment could be any more painful for any of us. Sammy and I are pulled to our feet. Sammy’s shoved to the middle of the room and we make eye contact for the first time. He tries to smile. But it’s not reassuring. It just makes me angry that he would put himself through any of this just so I could get a squicking gig!

I’m shoved back down and Portia is roughly sat down next to me.

“Watch it,” I growl. But Portia grabs my hand. And I get it. I need to pick my battles.

“Man,” she says looking over the contract, “they’re going to do everything while he’s suspended.”

And she doesn’t need to elaborate, because they’re already taking the large de-barbed fishhooks and jamming them under Sammy’s skin. Two over his shoulder blades. Two under his ribs. I don’t want to watch. But I have to. Like it’s a penance.

“We’ll do the ankles as a permanent piercing,” Shark says to the guy who I appears to be his assistant.

Somehow, when the large-gauge needle slides behind his Achilles tendon, Samuel doesn’t scream. I bite down on my knuckles hard, but I watch.

*          *          *

“Stop!” Portia yells.

Sammy hangs from the beams in the ceiling. He looks like he’s flying. And I can hardly believe he has survived and that his consciousness has remained intact.

Shark brandishes his razor. He’s savoring every moment. The term “sadist” has never, ever, in history and probably prehistory, described someone so wholly as it does Shark. He briefly toyed with the idea of branding Sammy like some sort of cattle. I knew the smell of burning flesh would be awful. But it’s possible this will be worse. He plans on cutting patches of Samuel’s skin right off. Revealing flesh. Inviting infection. Scarring. Marring. My wonderful, loving, stupid brother.

The blade is poised by Sammy’s clavicles. Sammy’s jaw muscles are clenched and popping out, his eyes wild.

“We have to negotiate,” Portia says.

Sammy lets out a sound. I’m sure he wants this over and done with. Every second he hangs here, suspended by skin and tendons and mere flesh, he’s humiliated, which probably hurts him worse than anything.

“What could you possibly offer that would be half as entertaining as this?” Shark laughs.

“Let him down and I’ll let you pierce any part of me you want,” Portia says. No idea if she’s thought this out at all. But I’ll be damned—

I guess I tried to stand up because I’m slammed against a wall faster than I can fathom. And the needle full of a deadly dose of some poison is inches away from my skin.

“Portia,” I gasp. Her name sounds pathetic in my desperation and I want to suck the outburst right back in. I have to flipping relax or I’m going to get us all poked.

“No thanks,” Shark sneers at her. “Though I’d love to if you think you’d enjoy that.”

“Do it tonight. When the club opens. Certainly that’d be a good marketing move. I could even get some classmates in here. You could benefit from the prep school misfits. They have lots of money to spend. Please.”

I wish she didn’t sound so desperate. Her reputation is sterling. The veneer is cracking, but condemn us both if it doesn’t make me love her with every pulsing inch of my body.

“This doesn’t change the scarring plans I have. This would just end the suspension a bit earlier,” Shark says.

“Fine. Fine. But maybe we can negotiate for that too,” Portia’s strength returns at Shark’s concession.

“In my office,” Shark agrees. “Let him down,” he commands.

Samuel collapses on the floor. The hooks remain in his skin, but he’s untethered. The henchman lets me go and I don’t care what happens, I have to get over to Samuel. He’s sweating and shaking, and—shit—I’m not a nurturer and I don’t know what to do to make it better.

“Don’t,” he gasps. “let her. Go in there. Alone.”

I jump up but it’s too late. The office door closes. I yell. I swear. I am rage incarnate, but I can’t do anything. These guys will jump at a chance to end us.

Longest ten minutes of my life. Portia struts out of the office with a look of triumph. Shark looks satisfied. When she crouches down to Sammy, perched high on her impossible heels, I see a new labret piercing, but it suits her. She grabs Sammy’s arm and the two of us help him to his feet.

“Bring us a bottle of vodka. I’ll pay. Bring us the top-shelf,” she orders one of the men as if it’s her club.

“I’ll let you guys rest. Three hours till show time,” Shark tells us.

We’re given a large bottle of vodka and three shot glasses and some privacy.

Sammy starts to pour himself a shot, but Portia takes the glass out of his hand. “This is just for Ethan and Me. Ethan, you need to relax. You’re gonna get someone hurt. Sam should stick to water. I’m Portia, by the way,” she adds, extending a hand to Samuel.

He takes her hand limply and then closes his eyes and lays flat on his stomach on the filthy bench of the booth. He falls asleep.

“You’re an angel. Is that all?” I point to her new stud.

“Nah. But don’t worry. You’ll like the others,” she says coyly.

But I want to flipping kill that creep. “What is this show?”

“I’m making my debut,” Portia whispers.

“Singing?” Color me confused. How is that a deal?

“Well. Yes. Once a week for the next year. Unpaid.”

“Why would he agree to that? He was about to slice into my brother.”

“Because my father will flip. And who wouldn’t love to piss of the biggest man in the business? And he knows that once word is out, the evening will be hopping. He can’t say no to major money. Which, by the way, is so very not punk of him. With any luck he’ll hook a couple narcotic clients, his bread and butter. But don’t worry. Your brother will be okay. And…you’ll mix for me? I don’t exactly have a backup band, but I could just a set of fairly standard songs. I mean, ones you could play or find easily and…I’m actually really nervous. And my dad could very well kick me out of the penthouse. He hates Shark. This is like a double betrayal. I could be out on the street.”

“Never gonna happen. Listen, our place is sad, but you’re welcome any time,” I tell her.

“I love you.”

I kiss her. I can’t not kiss her.

*          *          *

She’s magnificent. I keep an eye on her and my eye on Sammy who’s propped up in a chair next to the stage. Shark’s guys wouldn’t exactly let us leave. It makes me sick. Sam, a sideshow attraction. Shark’s punk buddies show up and can’t be too pissed about the pop music because Shark is showing off some of his latest, most brutal works. Sammy’s in hell. Shivering. Probably still in shock.

Portia knows how to work a crowd. A few phone calls and she’s got every kid with a decent fake ID and within a fifty mile radius in this club. It’s all by the seat of our pants, so it isn’t fancy. I can’t do the stuff with loops I normally do, and I have to sweat to play the keyboard at an acceptable level, especially given my lack of sobriety. Also, this house equipment is temperamental as a mare in heat, but what can you do?

She does a cover of a famous eighties punk song, but it’s totally pop and kicking. And the old geezers in the place get really hot over it. I just have to ignore the lasciviousness of the looks. This girl would fit anywhere.

The set is finally almost over and we do the song I’ve actually worked on, the one from her room. It just pours out of her. Tumbles over the crowd. Hypnotizes us all.
I don’t know how she does it. Is it possible to fall more in love with her? How can it?

When Shark gives us the nod, Sammy’s torture is done. Some techies clear the stage. Portia and I hop down and start to help Sammy to his feet. But Shark jumps over and puts a hand on Portia’s arm. If I wasn’t so relieved at being able to leave, I’d sock him.

“You were great, Love,” he says with a drunken drawl. “Stay for the next set with the band, won’t you?” It’s not really a question of course not. “But you lot can leave. Fast. Before I change my mind.”

Say no more. No time to even kiss Portia goodbye before Shark takes her to show her off to his scummy buddies.

I sling Samuel’s jacket over his shoulders, help him to the door, and ease him into a cab. I pat him down. The guy’s always got pills on him. I find a couple that look like they might be opiates and I pop them in his open mouth.

He swallows gratefully. “She’s a catch, baby brother.” Then he goes heavy.

I watch him breathe all the way home. And for a few more hours after that. He shivers with a fever, and I think he must be in shock, but his color returns. I set to fixing him some toast, wishing to God I hadn’t dropped those eggs last week.

*          *          *

Portia shows up at the front door and eases herself in quietly. And she actually looks happy to see me. Her mascara is smudged. She’s sweaty and smells of booze and cigarettes. But she’s radiant, practically dimming the sun that’s just starting to rise over the rowhomes.

She hands me a coffee. But I put it down and kiss and kiss and kiss her.

When my lips start to numb from kissing and fatigue, she pulls away. She pulls some antiseptic out of her bag and finds Sammy. As fumbling as I was as a caretaker, she’s that brilliant. More so. She kisses his forehead gently, and he gives her a smile.

Then we shower the nightmare night off of ourselves. “I gotta go home and face the music,” she tells me as I rinse her hair.

“You’re joking.”

“Nope. Putting this off is making me too nervous.”

“He shouldn’t be mad. He should be effing proud.”

She shrugs. She’s letting her guard down. “Are you proud?”

“Are you kidding? I can’t breathe. There’s no room for lungs in my chest.”

“I’ll let you catch your breath. Make your bed. I might need to crash here later.”

But she presses that sleek body to mine. I would do anything for this girl. I will. Anything. And as if she could hear me she says. “And, maybe work on some tracks for me when I’m gone?”

When she’s gone, I’m not sure I can mix. I need to watch after Samuel. I need to process the last twenty-four hours. But I owe Portia that much, so I sit at my gear. I don’t lose myself to the music. Not completely. My thoughts keep drifting back to Portia and her lips and her magnetism and bravery and.… And despite my mind being in two places, it’s possible that this is the best song I’ve ever made.

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