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datatime: 2022-10-06 11:56:40 Author:uVjIquGf

Hands plucked at Ghost's clothes, at the streamers on his hat. He was greeted by a multitude of young voices. He felt the brush of their fingers and their minds; he breathed their cigarette smoke. Then they were stumbling onstage, Steve and Ghost, Lost Souls? come back again.

And there in the middle of the crowd was Nothing, not swaying but standing very still, his face tilted up with the rest, his eyes wide and shadowed. His three friends were there too, clustered around him. Zillah stared at the floor, his face in darkness. One of the two bigger ones poked Nothing and shouted something into his ear, but Nothing only shook his head and kept staring at Ghost.

Then, as the first song ended, Zillah looked up at the stage. Even from behind the lights, from fifteen feet away, Ghost could see that Zillah's face was perfect as a mask again. His nose was straight, his lips full and lustrous. There were no bruises. There was no swelling.

The audience was a sea. The music pulled like the Mississippi; he could be swept away, he could drown. But drowning might be sweet. In his throat, his voice was thick wine. The pale hands snatched it and bore it up on a cloud of clove smoke. For those children Ghost sang harder, letting his voice soar, pushing it down deep and gravelly, stringing it out in a howl like a shimmering gold wire.

They were so very young. Ghost thought as he stood among them, feeling their pain and their exuberance, their stupidity and terror and beauty brush his mind. They were so young, and they wore their thrift-shop jewelry, their ragged jeans, their black clothes like badges of membership to some arcane club. Some club that required drunkenness-on cheap liquor, on rainy midnights, on poetry or sex. Some club that required love of obscure bands and learning to lie awake at 4:00 A.M., bursting with terrors and wide-awake dreams.

The audience swayed at the touch of his voice. He looked into those upturned young faces bathed in dim stagelight, the fresh faces, the pale hollow-boned faces with their darkly lined eyes.

Well, what the hell. So would he. Maybe.

Ghost sipped his beer-he didn't need it, not tonight; he would drink music-and watched the kids come in. Soon the club was full of them. College students from Raleigh, and dropouts like Steve and Ghost. High school students from Windy Hill, the hippie Quaker place, but hardly any from the county school; they were all metalheads over there. Younger kids too-junior high kids smoking Marlboros and Camels, kids trying to look jaded and managing only to look bored. Kids with wide-open innocent faces and easy smiles, kids with long dark hair and eyeliner, kids with razor scars on their wrists, kids already sick of life, kids happy to be alive and drunk and younger than they would ever feel again.

The right choice was not always clear. Nevertheless, Nothing had had to make one. Ghost had felt him do it, right there in the bedroom as he woke up, and he had felt the boy grow a little older. He felt his mind straining at something it could not quite grasp, and the feeling was odd; there wasn't much Ghost could not empathize with. He reminded himself that he had not really tried, had not wanted to try.

Smiled with a complete mouthful of sharpened, shining teeth.

Ghost sipped his beer-he didn't need it, not tonight; he would drink music-and watched the kids come in. Soon the club was full of them. College students from Raleigh, and dropouts like Steve and Ghost. High school students from Windy Hill, the hippie Quaker place, but hardly any from the county school; they were all metalheads over there. Younger kids too-junior high kids smoking Marlboros and Camels, kids trying to look jaded and managing only to look bored. Kids with wide-open innocent faces and easy smiles, kids with long dark hair and eyeliner, kids with razor scars on their wrists, kids already sick of life, kids happy to be alive and drunk and younger than they would ever feel again.

Ghost knew every corner of the Yew, every one of the fancy antique-gold ceiling tiles Kinsey had put in, every graffiti in the restrooms. When you played at a club forty weeks out of a year, it got to be home.

Then, as the first song ended, Zillah looked up at the stage. Even from behind the lights, from fifteen feet away, Ghost could see that Zillah's face was perfect as a mask again. His nose was straight, his lips full and lustrous. There were no bruises. There was no swelling.

Ghost faltered. He forgot the words of the next song. Steve was trying to give him the cue, but Ghost couldn't look at him, couldn't turn his head away from that perfect mouthful of teeth. What was he dealing with here? What the hell had decided to visit itself on Missing Mile?

At the end, Steve joined Ghost at the microphone to sing backup on the last song. It was "World," the song they always closed with. Steve's fingers stroked the strings, lingering on them, making them chime. "World out of balance," Ghost sang. Steve gave the accompanying line, "World without end," in his usual off-key tenor. But Steve's singing was bettor tonight than ever before. It was still pretty bad, but there was an element of rawness to it, a hoarseness born of beer and sorrow. The audience rose on tiptoe. "'WE ARE NOT AFRAID," Ghost chanted, throwing his shoulders back, pushing his voice harder. "'WE ARE NOT AFRAID."

Something in him ached for that boy. For the sadness in his face, for his eyes yearning to stay young. He wanted to grab Nothing away from his companions and tell him that sometimes everything could be all right, that pain did not have to come with magic, that childhood never had to end. And yet he wondered whether Nothing had not known all those things when he made his choice. Whatever that was.

Ghost faltered. He forgot the words of the next song. Steve was trying to give him the cue, but Ghost couldn't look at him, couldn't turn his head away from that perfect mouthful of teeth. What was he dealing with here? What the hell had decided to visit itself on Missing Mile?

Zillah caught him staring and smiled.

Then Steve grabbed Ghost's arm and dragged him through the crowd toward the stage. It was time to play. Ghost felt the small shiver of something like stage fright and something like wild intoxication, when the room swims, when you can no longer stand up straight or trust your eyes.

But after the music was over.

Steve was staring at him, half pissed off, half scared. He tapped his foot three times and gave Steve the nod. And when Ghost started singing again, the words poured from him like a river of gold.

The audience was a sea. The music pulled like the Mississippi; he could be swept away, he could drown. But drowning might be sweet. In his throat, his voice was thick wine. The pale hands snatched it and bore it up on a cloud of clove smoke. For those children Ghost sang harder, letting his voice soar, pushing it down deep and gravelly, stringing it out in a howl like a shimmering gold wire.

But after the music was over.

And there in the middle of the crowd was Nothing, not swaying but standing very still, his face tilted up with the rest, his eyes wide and shadowed. His three friends were there too, clustered around him. Zillah stared at the floor, his face in darkness. One of the two bigger ones poked Nothing and shouted something into his ear, but Nothing only shook his head and kept staring at Ghost.

At the end, Steve joined Ghost at the microphone to sing backup on the last song. It was "World," the song they always closed with. Steve's fingers stroked the strings, lingering on them, making them chime. "World out of balance," Ghost sang. Steve gave the accompanying line, "World without end," in his usual off-key tenor. But Steve's singing was bettor tonight than ever before. It was still pretty bad, but there was an element of rawness to it, a hoarseness born of beer and sorrow. The audience rose on tiptoe. "'WE ARE NOT AFRAID," Ghost chanted, throwing his shoulders back, pushing his voice harder. "'WE ARE NOT AFRAID."

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