"Jesse, sweetheart, it's mom again. I wish you would call me back. I've been worried sick about you since last night. Your father, I know he feels horrible about what happened, and I know saying this is just going to get you angrier, but you can't blame everything that happened on him. You know how his temper is, and you still provoked him by yelling at him and shoving him. If only you wouldn't push him so hard to accept that you're...you're-"
Jesse snapped his cell phone closed to silence his mother's stammering message before the roiling disgust in his stomach rose to his throat and choked him. He lifted his left hand, gingerly touching his fingertips to the light purple bruise on the left side of his jaw. His father felt horrible? Yeah, right. If there was one thing his father felt horrible about in regards to his two sons, it was that in his father's opinion, they had fallen so short of being the men he wanted them to be.
Jesse fell over backward on the twin-sized bed that barely fit in his apartment bedroom. A growing headache caused his brain to feel like it was swelling to the limits of his skull. As if it hadn't been embarrassing enough setting foot in a house he had vowed never to enter again, to do it in order to borrow money to get his piece of crap truck fixed-money his mother had sneaked away from his father-and getting caught by his father arriving home early, had been absolute humiliation. Maybe he deserved what he got for going where he knew he was forbidden to return. Maybe, for once, his father's rage had been justified. Maybe he should have accepted being told, yet again, that he was ungrateful, that he had thrown everything away in pursuit of a pointless dream, that no little faggot was any son of his father's.
With a mental fist, Jesse punched the thoughts away. No. He didn't deserve any of that, and he held no regrets about retaliating against his father, even if it had earned him a right hook to the jaw. It was better than letting his father feel victory over him. Never would he allow himself to be defeated, not by his father, not by anyone or anything; and by staying true to himself, he knew he delivered a more devastating blow to his father than any physical hit. Though it had felt really good to shove him and feel his father's body give way under the force.
From the small stereo on the nightstand beside the bed came the smooth baritone of his favorite singer, Evan Arden. Like a soothing tonic, Evan's rich voice cooled his heated temper and mended his frayed nerves. He listened to the ballad "One More Time" and softly raised his tenor to join Evan.
"Despite all the tears I've cried,
And all the pain they've brought,
I'd shed them all one more time,
To see you smile again.
If seeing me hurt pleases you,
Then I'll cherish this pain forever..."
Jesse sighed and let Evan take over. The song finished, and he raised his left wrist above his head to look at his watch. Seven o'clock. He needed to get ready to meet his brother. He pushed himself upright and hopped off the bed, snatching the clothes he had laid out on his way to the door.
He opened his bedroom door and paused. It seemed so dark and gloomy in his apartment, but then he thought maybe it was just his mood. He glanced at the cracked and scratched hardwood floor, the stained countertop separating the kitchen from the living room, the secondhand furniture, the single window overlooking the dingy alley below, and decided his apartment was a gloomy shit-hole no matter what his mood.
An acoustic guitar and a battered black Gibson Les Paul sat in one corner. The Les Paul had seen better days externally, but still carried a sweet, perfect pitch when the six strings were played. Two mini amps, four microphone stands with mics, and two keyboards were close to his desk where sheets of music with his scrawling handwriting were stacked in neat piles. His bass guitar and sunburst Fender Stratocaster sat on the other side of his desk.
His eyes fell on Kenny, his oldest friend, guitarist, and roommate, on the raggedy multi-colored couch. His dark blond hair fell into honey-brown eyes that were focused on the black and white Fender Stratocaster on his lap. Jesse watched the tender way Kenny rubbed a soft white cloth over the body of the instrument, polishing it to a lustrous shine.
"Hey," Jesse said. "It sucks enough when I walk in on you and Carrie messing around, and I know you love your guitar, but you're kinda freakin' me out the way you're stroking it."
Kenny rolled his eyes up to Jesse in a look of exasperation. He repositioned the guitar on his lap to play. "I want you to hear this new riff I thought up. It's really cool."
Jesse walked across the miniscule living room and sat beside him. Kenny streaked his hand down the neck of the guitar, his long, agile fingers glided through smooth chord changes. Even without the guitar plugged in, Jesse heard the riff as if it were, high and fast, strong and catchy.
"What do you think?" Kenny asked.
Jesse placed his hand on Kenny's and slid it a fret higher to slightly deepen the pitch. "Now play it."
Kenny tore out the riff again.
"Perfect," Jesse said as Kenny finished. "Play it a few more times."
Kenny put his fingers to the frets, playing the same chord combos five times, knowing that's all Jesse needed to memorize the harmony.
"I've already got some lyrics and partial music down to a new song I think that should be perfect for," Jesse said.
"Cool." Kenny leaned back against the couch, cradling the guitar to his chest. "Mike called me. He needs directions to our gig tomorrow night, but I couldn't remember the name of the bar, so I told him you'd call him back."
Jesse let out an irritated huff. "I'll write them down and you can call him. I'm too pissed at him after he ditched rehearsal last night. He thinks he's the god of thunder, but he can't keep a good rhythm to save his life."
Kenny shot Jesse a scolding glare. "He's not as good a drummer as Justin was, I'll give you that, but since your cocky ass attitude drove him away like Andy before him, now we're stuck with Mike until he gets sick of you."
Jesse flipped his hand in a dismissive gesture. "They weren't professional quality, anyway."
"Just try not to fight with Mike tomorrow night," Kenny pleaded. "We'll never get picked up by a label if we keep changing members."
Jesse squinted at him and poked him on the chest with an accusing finger. "You should know by now to never lose faith in me. It doesn't matter how many band members we go through. You and I are the heart of Conquest." His words came faster with his mounting excitement. "Maybe we play shitty bars now, but soon it'll be the hottest clubs! Then sold-out arenas!" He leaped to his feet, his indigo eyes shining like a warrior's about to enter a battle where he knew his victory was the only possible outcome. He threw a triumphant fist high into the air. "It's only a matter of time before all of Chicago is coming to hear us play! How can they not with me, the golden god of music, singing? I will conquer the world!"
"Here we go again," Kenny muttered to himself, then said louder to Jesse, "shouldn't you be getting ready to meet Brandon? Carrie's going to be here soon, and I don't need you putting her in a bad mood and blowing my chances at gettin' some."
Jesse cringed with a fake shiver at the mention of Kenny's girlfriend. "Don't worry, I'll be long gone. I try to make sure I'm not within a mile radius of anywhere that thing's getting naked."
Kenny frowned up at him. "You could at least attempt pretending to be nice."
Jesse turned for the bathroom. "I'll be nice when she speaks in a pitch that doesn't hurt my ears." He paused in the doorway. "Hey, did you get the mail today?"
"And don't you think if there was anything in it other than junk and rejection letters saying how our demo isn't what every record label in the world is looking for, I would've told you by now?"
"Beautiful," Jesse grumbled, shutting the bathroom door behind him.
He leaned back against the door. Despite his confident declaration, doubt twisted his heart. Week after week he faced the rejections for their demo, from agents and labels. He wondered just how many more times he could take being knocked down before his spirit became too weak to pull him back up to try again.
He drew in a quick breath and shook his head to clear it of the depressing thoughts. He got the water running in the shower and stripped while he waited for it to get up to temperature. He stepped under the flow, and as he did, the temperature faded back down to lukewarm, then cooled to a chilly stream trickling from the showerhead before a surge of hot water blasted out with skin reddening force. Jesse scowled up at the showerhead, sending a silent curse through it to the antiquated plumbing. He turned to washing and did his best to ignore the inconsistent temperature and pressure as it repeated the pattern several more times.
When he got out, he wiped the condensation off the mirror and looked at his reflection. At five foot seven, he was lithe and fit, his biceps firm with sinewy strength, his abdomen lined in muscle, his smooth chest well-defined. He ran the backs of his index and middle fingers along his slender jaw, then lathered his face and took his razor carefully over his flawless skin. His black hair toweled and styled to accentuate the sharp, jagged angles around his face, with enough length in back to fall just to the top of his neck. Long enough to get a messy look, but able to style neatly when he wanted.
Dressed in jeans faded on the thighs and a black V-neck shirt that clung to his lean frame, he slid three small silver hoop earrings into his left earlobe and a fourth up in the cartilage, then two more in his right earlobe. Around his neck, he fastened a choker of two thin black leather cords with a gold pendant of a sixteen-rayed sun that rested in the hollow of his throat.
He stepped out of the bathroom to the living room, and after putting on his shoes, he sprang up and spoke to Kenny as he walked toward the door. "I might spend the night at Brandon's, so don't worry if I don't come home."
Kenny nodded, concentrated on his guitar once again.
With the elevator broken in the rundown apartment building, Jesse jogged down three flights of stairs to the ground floor and pushed through a front door roughly the thickness of a sheet of plywood. He turned in the direction of his brother's apartment a few blocks away. His heavy thoughts invaded his mind again and pressed down so hard they were reflected in the way he walked, dragging his feet, scuffing his already tattered Nikes on the sidewalk.
A piercing wolf whistle cut through his mind.
Jesse snapped his head up and spun toward the sound. His older brother waved to him, idling a few feet away on his Suzuki motorcycle.
"Moron!" Jesse called, walking toward him.
Brandon laughed. "Who'd you think it was? Prince Charming come to whisk you away on his gallant white and blue crotch rocket?" He pulled up next to the curb and stopped. His eyes locked on the bruise on Jesse's jaw. He caught Jesse gently by the chin and turned his head to the right, peering intently at the purple blemish. "When we talked last night, I thought you said he only clipped you."
Jesse stayed still while his brother inspected the injury. "He did. I twisted away and dodged the full impact. Mom's been calling me, but she's warped back into her classic stand-by-your-man mode. What sucks most is I was so pissed after everything happened, I refused to take the money she got for me, so now I'm going to have to dip into the funds I've been saving for a new keyboard, but I guess it's better than taking anything that's attached to him."
Brandon dropped his hand from Jesse's chin. "I'll help you out as much as I can." He faced forward, squeezing the handlebars of the motorcycle with white-knuckled force. "He could've broken your jaw. I should show him the results of all my karate lessons he paid for when I was a kid."
Jesse gazed at the distant expression and barely concealed hurt on Brandon's face. If anyone understood how their father could be, it was his older brother. There wasn't a week he remembered from when they were young where Brandon and their father hadn't been at each other's throats over something. Their relationship had been a lot more volatile than what he had with their father, and he knew he should have learned from watching it, especially when Brandon decided to major in theatre and the performing arts at Chicago University and their father turned his back on Brandon. He should have seen his own expulsion from home coming a few years later, and part of him had, but part of him wanted to believe his father would change. At least when he got kicked out he had Brandon to go to, unlike Brandon who'd had no one.
Jesse laid his hand on Brandon's shoulder, wanting to save him from reliving his dark memories. "Hey, you promised to feed me before we go out, remember? If you don't, I'll be too weak from hunger to be able to bait all the hottest guys in for you."
Brandon rolled his eyes. "Like I need your help."
"I've seen some of the people you date. You need all the help you can get."
"Jerk-ass," Brandon chuckled. "Get on."
Jesse swung his leg over the back of the Katana 750. Brandon hit the throttle and zipped the bike through Jesse's neighborhood toward his own.
Jesse leaned away from his brother and patted the back of his shirt. "You're all sweaty. What the hell were you doing before you came here?"
"What do you think I was doing? Dancing my happy little ass off in rehearsal. We gotta go to my place so I can get a shower before we go out, but we can grab something to eat first." Brandon veered the Suzuki onto South Dearborn Street and found a place to park near his apartment building.
Jesse hopped off, shaking his fingers through his hair, and fell into stride beside his brother as they walked away from the weathered brown brick building in the direction of their usual burger place up the street. "I read a review of Cabaret in the paper the other day. They were saying it's the best production of it Chicago has ever seen. They spent two paragraphs gushing over you as the Emcee."
"Of course. I'm only the best Emcee ever."
A humorless snort rattled from Jesse's nose. "Yeah, only because I spent every night with you for three weeks teaching your lame ass how to sing."
Brandon pushed him on the shoulder, making him stumble. "Like I don't spend hours teaching you new dance moves for your silly little rock performances."
"A lot of good it's done me," Jesse mumbled.
He lifted his eyes to the Manhattan Building, one of the largest buildings in Chicago over a century ago, now dwarfed by skyscrapers and high-rise apartments. In this area with many of the structures dating back to the end of the 19th century, it was easy to feel the history of the city closing in around him. Normally he loved admiring the old architecture, each building had some sculpture or design that made it unique, but now he walked with his eyes focused on the sidewalk.
Brandon glanced at him, taking in his somber mien. "There's more bothering you than just what happened with dad, isn't there?"
"It's a lot of things," Jesse said softly.
He stopped outside a small burger joint and pulled open the door. Crossing the pale yellow linoleum floor, he slid into the red vinyl, duct tape patched seat of a booth near a window and pulled a menu out from behind the dented stainless steel napkin holder. He gazed around the greasy spoon decorated to local flavor with pictures of past and present players from the Chicago Bears. Helmets and jerseys from the Big Ten Conference teams, including the Purdue Boilermakers, hung on another wall. He always found it cool to see memorabilia from his favorite pro and college teams, and being on the South Side, it was nice to be in a restaurant that had more White Sox stuff displayed than the Cubs. He turned his attention to the grease stained print of the menu. A sugar packet flew over the top of it, hitting him on the forehead.
"Are you gonna talk or be a pouty little punk all night?" Brandon said.
Jesse lowered the menu and met eyes a shade lighter blue than his own. People always said they looked alike, and he guessed they had some resemblances, save for the fact Brandon had three inches on him and a thicker, medium build. They shared the same jet-black hair color, though Brandon wore his a bit longer than him these days.
Jesse took a breath to speak, but stopped when their waitress walked up. After mimicking Brandon's order of a Pepsi and a bacon mushroom Swiss burger with an extra side of fries, he focused on answering Brandon. "Things have just been messed up lately. It seems like no matter what I do, I can't get ahead with my music."
"You still got Tweedledee and Tweedledum playing with you, right?"
Jesse chuckled at Brandon's nicknames for his keyboardist and drummer, and leaned back as their waitress returned with their drinks. His laugh slowed, and he took a deep breath, his moment of good humor slipping away with the exhale. "Yeah, Mike's drumming hasn't gotten any better since he joined, and Ben can't work the synth and his keyboard playing blows. I'm trying to teach him ‘Shattered' but it's too complex for him. What the hell am I supposed to do? Sing, perform, play keyboard, rhythm guitar, bass, and drums? If it wasn't for Kenny, I'd be going insane."
His voice rose with his frustration. "I've sacrificed everything for this and where am I? Twenty years old and I can see my future clear as freakin' day. I'll be the stock manager at the goddamn bookstore for the rest of my life. I turned down college for this, to live in a shit-hole apartment and play in shit-hole bars, losing more money than I'm making because I've got nothing but idiots dragging me down and holding me back. Third largest city in the damn country and I can't find two people who know how to play their instruments." He collapsed back in the booth, ending his rant when he saw their waitress coming with their food.
Brandon stared at him from the other side of the table. "Damn. You're a lot more pissy than usual tonight."
Jesse glared at him while Brandon drowned his burger in ketchup and squeezed a glob on the side of the plate for his fries. "That's all you've got to say?"
Brandon shrugged and took a bite of his burger. "It's too late to be piss-eyeing over college now. Some other book smart, no common sense dork has your seat in pre-law 101."
Jesse flipped the top bun off his burger. "Thanks, jackass. That was real helpful."
Brandon lowered his burger to his plate. "What do you want me to say? When you made the decision to keep going with your music, that was the only time I ever thought you might have just a smidge of common sense, but as always, you've decided to prove me wrong by acting like you are now."
Jesse shook the ketchup bottle harder than it needed and flicked it open. "And how exactly am I acting?"
"Like a spoiled little prima donna who expected to have a record deal and a Ferrari after only a year and a half of trying to get noticed. Look at how it was for me my first year trying to be an actor and for the next couple years after that. I thought I was going to be a waiter at the Hard Rock for the rest of my life because it seemed the best I could get was doing community theatre. But I kept with it. I didn't stop. Was it hard? Hell yeah it was hard, but if it wasn't then it wouldn't be a dream now would it?"
Jesse swirled a fry in ketchup, playing with it more than having any intention of eating it. "Yeah, but now look at you. You're only going to be twenty-five this July and you're the Emcee in Cabaret."
Brandon's face fell serious. "Thanks to your help with my voice."
Jesse lifted his eyes to Brandon.
Brandon picked his burger up again. "You know what? Just forget it, you should quit. You gotta have stones if you're going to pursue your dreams. I used to think you had ‘em with the way you can get up in front of people and sing, the stage charisma you've got. You're a different person when you've got your music backing you. But now you can just give it up. With the grades you had and being valedictorian, I bet you could even get accepted into Purdue again, then you can work your way through school and get a nice, safe job. I really think that's the way to go. It's time for little Jesse Alexander to grow up and become a good boy."
Jesse clenched his teeth, biting his anger back as much as he could. "How can you say that? My music is everything to me! Singing, playing, writing, it's all I ever wanted to do! And I never said I was giving it up." He lowered his eyes, his voice softened. "I just said things have been rough lately."
Brandon folded his arms on the table. "Look, it's normal to doubt yourself sometimes. In fact, it's abnormal that you haven't doubted yourself until now. But don't take that self-doubt so far that it makes you fear what you love."
Jesse nodded slowly. "Your delivery was actually pretty good there."
"Why do I even try with you!" Brandon threw a fry and hit him on the chest.
"Cute," Jesse said, wiping the fry's salt off his shirt.
Brandon shoved the last bite of burger into his mouth. "Seriously though, everyone doubts themselves. Look at Evan Arden. You don't think he was Mr. Confident his whole life before being discovered, do you?"
Jesse looked up at the mention of his favorite singer. When Evan Arden had entered the music world he was a force that couldn't be stopped. His music had a rock edge, but more depth than a lot of performers. He never held back on using violins, horns, even full symphonies to give his songs a richer, deeper sound. The fast beats attracted young audiences, the depth of the music pulled in older audiences, and his voice captured everyone. He rode the charts at Number One, selling out concerts in the largest venues across the world. He learned most of what he knew about vocal control by singing along with Evan's CDs, striving to match Evan's voice note for note. He couldn't imagine a vocalist that talented ever doubting himself.
"Okay, bad example," Brandon said. "Evan can't be touched. I Googled him the other day to see if there were any updates. Nothing. Just the same old crap on the fan-sites and forums with people gossiping about what's happened to him. This one idiot posted Evan had died of a drug overdose in China, but I don't believe it. You could tell when you saw him perform and in interviews he had too much pride in himself to get messed up like that."
"But who knows what was going on in his life when he wasn't smiling for the cameras." Jesse sat silent for a moment. He shook his head slightly. "I don't even want to think about him being dead. It would hurt too much if he were. His music has meant so much to me."
"I know, but it does make you wonder. I mean, how the hell does someone so famous just vanish off the face of the earth for three and a half years?"
"Maybe making music didn't mean that much to him."
"That's pretty shitty, to be gifted like that and take it for granted." Brandon exhaled an exaggerated forlorn sigh. "But I guess I could forgive him if I ever met him."
Jesse chuckled softly. "Yeah, I'm sure you could."
He finished his food and pushed his plate to the edge of the table. Their waitress dropped off the check, and while Brandon headed to the register, Jesse went outside. He stretched his arms over his head and gazed up at the amber sun as it made its descent from the azure April sky.
Brandon tossed his arm around Jesse's shoulders and steered him back toward his apartment. "You'll feel better after we get to a club and you hit the dance floor. But if you disappear on me like you did the last time, I'm bringing Kenny when we go out from now on so he can help me keep an eye on you."
"I'm pretty sure his kicking and screaming as you dragged him through the club doors would ruin both our chances at scoring, so you should probably rethink that idea."
After Brandon, Kenny was the second person he came out to, and though Brandon said he'd known long before, Kenny had been clueless. Maybe with him and Kenny being seventeen at the time, Kenny hadn't been ready to hear him discuss his first experience with another guy, Aaron, whose body of energy and muscle made him fully acknowledge what he needed to be happy and satisfied in life. Kenny seemed to accept it better now, but to spare him, he didn't divulge the full details of what happened between him and other men when he and Brandon went out, and he would never ask Kenny to join them at the clubs.
"You really need to start desensitizing him a little more," Brandon said. "What're you going to do if one of these days you meet a guy you really like and you want to start a relationship? Oh, sorry. I forgot who I was talking to. Guy, girl, or blow-up doll, you've never spent a full night with any, so what am I talking about relationships for?"
"You're not exactly Captain Monogamous, so I don't know why you're ragging on me."
Brandon hushed his voice, concern edged his tone. "I know, but after the last time we went out and you vanished on me, I want to make sure you're always being careful. When I didn't know where you went, it freaked me out."
"I don't know why. It's not like I ever go home with anyone. If I did, I'd have to call you and put my cell on speaker because it'd be so weird not having you at my hip."
"I'm just trying to watch out for you."
Jesse stopped and faced him. "And I appreciate it, but you know I'm always careful and you also know my limit."
"For now. In the right situation with the right guy, that'll change real quick."
"And then I'll be even more careful."
A doubtful look crossed Brandon's face.
Jesse ignored Brandon's look and climbed the concrete stairs to Brandon's building. He headed inside to the elevator, closed the rickety metal gate after Brandon entered, and hit the button for the fourth floor. The elevator creaked its way up, and they stepped out to Brandon's apartment directly across the hall.
Brandon unlocked his door, and Jesse followed him into the studio apartment, his eyes falling on a large, serene sculpture of a meditating Buddha sitting in one corner. He walked across the living area to a small jolly Hotei statue atop the TV and rubbed the Japanese deity's fat belly for good luck. On either side of the TV, two towers held fifty DVDs each, both full. In front of the towers sat two milk crates containing the overflow.
Jesse grabbed the remote and plopped down on the couch. "You collect movies like I collect CDs."
Brandon's voice echoed in the bathroom over the running water. "Comes with the trade. Gotta study the art, you know?"
"Yeah? So what's up with all the anime?"
"Maybe I'll try being a voice actor someday."
"Or maybe you just like watching cartoons," Jesse teased.
"Hey! Instead of sitting on your lazy ass, why don't you fold my laundry on the bed?"
Jesse shot a glare over his shoulder toward the bathroom. "Why don't you fold your own damn laundry?"
"Why don't you pay for your own damn dinner?"
Jesse exhaled an irritated sigh. He sat on the couch for another moment before getting up and stomping across the hardwood floor to the little nook where Brandon kept his bed and dresser opposite from the bathroom. He grabbed the blue plastic laundry basket by its broken handle and dumped Brandon's clothes on the bed. He picked up a dark maroon button down shirt and a pair of black dress pants, walked to Brandon's closet to hang them and heard the water turn off in the bathroom. He moved back to the bed, flicking a pair of Brandon's boxer-briefs away with his index finger.
"You know, we haven't lived together for three months. I thought my days of having to see your nasty ass underwear were done."
A wet towel flew out of the bathroom toward him, but fell short and slid across the floor.
Brandon walked out of the bathroom in a pair of jeans, snatching the towel off the floor on his way to the bed. He reached toward Jesse and grabbed the sleeve of the shirt he wore, rubbing the material between his thumb and index finger. "This is a cool shirt. Why do you have to be built like a damn munchkin? I never could wear any of your clothes."
"Suck it!" Jesse threw the shirt he was getting ready to fold at Brandon and headed toward the bathroom. "You got anything that can cover this bruise?"
"I'm an actor. What do you think?"
"That you're a lot more gay than me," Jesse snickered.
"Asshole," Brandon laughed. "There's some foundation under the sink. But hurry your ass up, Cinderella. By the time you're done primping, the ball will be over and the Prince will be in bed with someone else."
"Somehow I doubt I'll find my prince in Boystown."
Brandon held up the shirt, trying to decide if he wanted to wear it. "You never know. The man of your dreams could pop up when you're least expecting it."