Looking back on the incident, Maeve would come to realize that this was the exact moment where she should have realized just how far removed from reality the mind of Duke Lethe could be. She had known he was a madman before, of course, but this was just the bottom layer of what would become a great big crazy cake.
But at the moment, she was just confused. Very, very confused.
When she, Cooper, and Jo had gone to work that morning, the common area of their apartment had been fairly neat, and they had been expecting it to be the same when they returned. They had a gig in only a few hours, and they had to get ready fast.
Circumstance, however, was against them. Chairs were overturned, the sofa was lying on its back, and a lamp lay broken on the floor. The papers that had been on the coffee table were scattered about like leaves in a forest. It was a complete mess.
And in the middle of it all was Duke and Sextus, locked together in a wrestler’s embrace. Despite his black eye and broken glasses, the latter clearly had the upper hand in the two-man brawl.
“If you’re gonna insult me,” he growled, “then get your bloody insults straight, ya twit!”
“Don’t you think that you’re overreacting just a little bit?!” Duke’s voice was made almost inaudible by his bloody nose and the forearm pressed against his windpipe. “Seriously, man!”
Six tightened the choke, making him gag. “Overreactin’? I ain’t overreactin’, mate. How the hell would you like it if I called you a–”
“Enough!” Joanna shouted. She pushed her way past Cooper. He looked at Maeve, eyebrow quirked, but she could only shrug.
As soon as he saw her, Six jerked his arm out of the lock and let Duke hit the floor with a hard thud. He grinned sheepishly. “Erm, ‘ello, Joanna,” he said. “When did you get here?”
“Just a few minutes ago.” She crossed her arms. “You both realize that you should be getting ready for our gig, right?”
Duke staggered to his feet. “He’s trying to kill me!” he said. In addition to the bloody nose, an ugly bruise was forming on his jaw.
She turned to Six, eyebrow raised. He folded his arms, frowning. “He called me a fruit,” he said, “so I decked him. He hit back, and we had ourselves a bit of a tussle.”
“If this was a ‘bit of a tussle,’ I’m not looking forward to seeing what an actual fight looks like,” Maeve said to Cooper. He nodded in agreement.
Joanna returned her attention to Duke. “A fruit, Duke? Really?”
He was beginning to flush, as he usually did when agitated. “I…you…but…” He shook his head as if to clear it. “I didn’t mean to…”
“How do you ‘accidentally’ call someone a fruit?”
He rubbed the back of his head. “I was trying to say Kiwi, but I couldn’t think of the right word, so I just kinda blurted out the first thing that came to mind…”
Six’s laugh was completely devoid of humor. “And there’s the other problem,” he said. “I’m an Aussie, damn it. It was a point of national pride.”
After a long moment, Joanna sighed. She rubbed her temples. “Alright, whatever.” she said. “We need to get ready. Duke, apologize to Sextus for your terrible communication skills.”
“B-But–!” Duke looked ready to argue until he remembered that Cooper and Maeve were still standing in front of the door. “Danza! Back me up here! Tell your boyfriend it was an accident!”
Cooper frowned. “Sorry, but I ain’t takin’ sides this time,” he said. He crossed his arms across his chest. “Y’all can sort this out for yourselves. I’m gonna go get my stuff ready.”
He walked past them and quickly made his way up the stairs that led to the bedrooms. Maeve was sure that Sextus smirked, but her view of him was suddenly blocked by Duke.
“C’mon, Maeve,” he pleaded, “help me out. I’m begging you.”
Maeve looked between the two men. She could easily see both sides of the issue, but it wasn’t like she could side with both of them.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’m gonna go with Coop on this one,” she said. “I get what you’re saying, Duke, but…”
She trailed off as his face darkened, lips tipping into a frown. Without another word, he turned around and ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. She heard the bathroom door slam, and her heart sank.
Sextus shook his head. “Truly, the epitome of quiet dignity and grace,” he said. His voice was practically drenched with sarcasm. “If you need me, I’ll be gettin’ dressed.”
He leisurely made his way upstairs, leaving Joanna and Maeve standing alone in the disaster area that used to be the living room. Joanna rubbed her forehead. “I don’t know what to do with those two,” she said. “I swear, one of these days we’re going to come home to a crime scene.”
Maeve nodded. “I can’t tell if they even like each other anymore.”
“Yeah, well, that’s men for you.” With a mighty heave, she righted the sofa. “Go get ready. I’m going to clean up a bit down here.”
“You sure? I can–”
“Yeah. My drums are already in the van and getting dressed is just me throwing on a tank top. You, on the other hand, have a guitar and an amp to pack, and a uniform to change out of.”
She did as she was told. Being a loft apartment, the open stairs led up to a small balcony that overlooked the small kitchen and living room, and from there led to the bathroom and the three bedrooms she, Cooper, Sextus, and Duke occupied. Joanna slept downstairs, having curtained off the section under the balcony for personal use. They were only able to afford such a large space thanks to the generosity of the landlady, a friend of Maeve’s mother.
She entered her bedroom, between Duke’s and the bathroom. It was an organized mess, as she insisted upon calling it, with clothes piled next to her dresser and hundreds of photographs pinned to the cork boards that surrounded it. Next to said dresser were her guitars, a black acoustic and a pink electric.
She checked her appearance in the small mirror that sat atop it. Deciding that her makeup looked fine, she pulled her hair into twin pigtails. She quickly changed into her most comfortable pair of blue jeans and a black blouse.
As she turned to her guitars, a white square poking out from underneath the mirror’s base caught her eye. Curious, she removed it. It was a black and white Polaroid of the other band members resting their head and arms on the back of the sofa, smiling down at her. She remembered taking it several months ago, when they had first moved into the apartment. She were just goofing around, having a good time as she tested her new camera.
She smiled sadly. It wasn’t like that anymore; not between Duke and Sextus, at least. Joanna and Cooper seemed fine, but she could tell that something was bothering
She had tucked it into her back pocket when she heard a knock at the door. Moving quietly, she looked through the hidden peep hole she had drilled when no one was looking.
Maeve couldn’t help but smile as she saw the top of Duke’s dark, curly-haired head. The little coils swayed as he shifted his weight from foot to foot, as he usually did when he was nervous. She imagined him shuffling his feet as well.
“Who is it?” she asked.
He jumped, as if her voice had taken him by surprise. “I-It’s Duke,” he said. “I… want to talk to you. If that’s alright, I mean. If you don’t, that’s fine. I totally understand. I wouldn’t want to talk to me either after what happened earlier. I deserve it. I was kind of a prick and… er, no, I was a prick, and– yah!”
He yelped as the door opened, almost falling backwards in surprise. Her smile widened as she waved him inside. “There’s no point in apologizing through a door,” she said. “Get your butt in here.”
After a moment of bewildered staring, Duke shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. “Right.”
He entered, Maeve closing the door behind him. “What’s up?” she asked. She had a fairly good idea as to what he wanted, but it felt polite to ask anyway.
“You take a lot of pictures,” Duke responded. His back was to her as he examined one of the cork boards. Though he sounded genuinely interested, he was clearly stalling for time.
“That I do.” Letting him gather his thoughts, she removed the rectangular instrument case from under her bed. She placed her electric guitar inside. She wouldn’t be needing her acoustic tonight, or so she hoped. She wouldn’t need any of her picks, either.
As she took a quick mental inventory of her equipment, she heard Duke clear his throat. She looked up. He was still facing the wall, but he had turned his attention away from the photographs and was staring at his sneakers again. “I… kinda wanted to apologize for storming off earlier,” he said carefully. “I was still pretty riled up from the fight. It’s not your fault that you didn’t want to get involved. Er, I mean, it is your fault, but–” She cocked her eyebrow, but he realized what he had said and turned around quickly. “Uh, wait, no! I didn’t mean it like that! I meant to say that I don’t blame you for not taking my side…ugh, that’s not right either.” He buried his face in his palm. His frustration was almost palpable.
Maeve shook her head, smiling. For a singer in a rock band, he had an absolutely terrible way with words. She stood up and walked over to him. She would have put her hand on his shoulder if she were tall enough, but she had to settle for his upper arm. “It’s alright, Duke,” she said. “I understand what you’re trying to say. I think.”
He looked at her through his fingers. “…You do?” She nodded. He moved his hand from his face to his neck, rubbing it as he smiled sheepishly. “Okay, good. I didn’t want a repeat of earlier to happen. Sextus is gonna be pissed off for days.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” she said. She turned back to her guitar case, closing the lid and fastening the latches. “It’ll work itself out.” She removed the photograph from her pocket and handed it up to him. “Remember when I took this? Twenty minutes before, you two were going back and forth like you were playing insult ping pong.”
He examined it closely. “Yeah. Wish I could remember what we were fighting about.”
“Exactly,” she said, smiling. “This will pass like every other fight you two have had.” Or so she hoped. She stood up again and opened her arms to him. “Hug?”
After a moment of hesitation, he allowed her to wrap her arms around him. He didn’t return the embrace, but he was smiling when she pulled away. She began to turn back to her case, but he grabbed her sleeve. “Wait!”
She stopped. “What?”
He cast his gaze downwards again. “Can I tell you something? Something personal?”
To her surprise, she felt her heart flutter in her chest for a moment. That had certainly never happened before. She immediately quelled the feeling. “Of course,” she said.
He licked his lips. “I–”
Joanna interrupted him.“Duke! Maeve! Sextus! Cooper!” she shouted. “All of you, get down here, now!”
They both looked at the door in surprise, both taken off-guard. She turned back to him. “You can tell me later,” she said. “Jo doesn’t sound happy. Could you grab my guitar for me?”
He blinked. “Uh, sure,” he said. He picked up the case as she picked up her amplifier, and he followed her onto the landing.
Cooper exited his room at the same time. “What the hell’s goin’ on?” he asked. Maeve felt a twinge of jealousy at the fact that he was big enough to carry his speaker with ease even with his bass slung over his shoulder.
“Beats me.” Duke shrugged. She mimicked the gesture and started down the stairs. She could see the rain pouring down outside the window, the sky a dark gray that looked about to thunder at any time..
Joanna was leaning against the wall in the kitchen, arms crossed and eyes closed, the rest of her face an unreadable mask. She held her cell phone in her hand. Sextus sat cross-legged atop the counter next to her, fingertips pressed against each other. Cooper cast him an inquisitive look, but he just shrugged.
Joanna’s eyes remained closed as she spoke. “I just got a phone call,” she said evenly. “You’re never going to guess who it was from.”
Maeve and Duke looked at each other. She could see the panic in his eyes. This was definitely not going to be good news.
“So who was it, then?” Cooper asked, frowning.
Despite the level tone of her voice, it was obvious that Joanna was just barely holding back her anger. “That was the landlady, Ms. Sylvie,” she said. “She just called to tell me that the van’s been towed.”
Maeve’s eyes went wide. This couldn’t be happening. “But… but why?” Her voice was no more than a squeak.
“Someone parked it in a ‘No Parking’ zone,” she said. The older woman opened her eyes, and she scanned the room. “So, who was driving last? I know for sure it wasn’t me.”
“Didn’t Sextus take it to get washed yesterday?” Duke said.
Predictably, the Aussie bristled. “And who the bloody hell are you to be accusing me like that?”
“I’m not accusing you of anything!” he said. “I’m just saying! Jeez, you’re sensitive today.”
Sextus bared his teeth, but a glare from Joanna made him rethink what he was going to say. “While I did take it out to get washed, I know for a fact that I parked it on the right bloody side of the street afterward,” he said carefully. “And it’s also a fact that you took it out after I did.”
It was Duke’s turn to be defensive. “I did not!” He crossed his arms and frowned, looking for all the world like an irritated child. “I was home all day yesterday.”
“What about today? You went to go… wherever it was that you went.”
“I never went anywhere,” Duke said quickly.
Sextus frowned. “Liar, I saw you put your jacket on and head out the door,” he said. “And I saw you take the keys, too!”
“That’s because–” He stopped abruptly. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I didn’t go out, and I didn’t take the stupid van,” he said.
“Then where did you go?”
“I didn’t freaking go out.”
“You’re getting really bloody defensive about this, mate.”
“I am not!”
Joanna slammed her hands on the counter, making everyone jump. “Enough!” she hissed. “Since neither of you can seem to reach an agreement about who went where, I’m going to assume that you both screwed up. Both of you are coming to the garage with me, and you’re both going to split the fine.”
They balked at her. “What?!”
“I know it’s not fair, but we’re a little pressed for time here.” She turned to Duke. “Unless you want to come clean about where you went yesterday and prove your innocence.”
He glowered at her, his lips set in a hard line. “Lemme go get my wallet,” he grumbled quietly. Sulking, he made his way over to the stairs.
“Be at my car in five minutes,” Joanna called after him. She ignored the fuming Sextus and turned to Cooper and Maeve. “Get all our stuff ready for loading as soon as we get back. We’ll be able to just make it in time if I push the speed limit.”
“Should we call ahead and say we’ll be late?” Maeve asked.
She shook her head. “Barring a catastrophe, no. With any luck it’ll only be a couple minutes.” She turned back to Sextus. “C’mon.”
“I said c’mon.”
With an exasperated sigh, he hopped off the counter and followed her out the door. Duke wasn’t too far behind, and he gave Cooper and Maeve a sarcastic salute before he bolted after them.
The remaining band members were quiet for a moment. Maeve looked up at Cooper. “Do you know who did it?”
“I, uh… I’m not really sure,” he said. “If Duke’s lyin’ about not goin’ anywhere yesterday, then it’s his fault. But if he ain’t…” He swallowed dryly. “After Six got back I kinda had to go get stuff…” He trailed off, sheepishly rubbing the back of his head.
Maeve stared at him. “Cooper!” she scolded. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“‘Cause I dunno if he’s lyin’ or not! I mean, I know why he would’ve had to go out, but–” He stopped. “Dammit, I really shouldn’t’ve said that.”
She cocked her head. “What?” When he didn’t respond, she crossed her arms. “Cooper, why did he go out?” she asked firmly.
After a moment of hesitation, he sighed. “Well, so much for that…” he muttered. “Look, I’ll tell you if you swear not to tell anyone else. Alright?”
After a brief moment of hesitation, Maeve nodded. “I swear I won’t tell anyone else,” she said.
Cooper sighed and ran his hand through his hair. Maeve noticed that he looked exhausted, something she never saw in the tall, blond man. “Duke had a doctor’s appointment,” he said.
She wrinkled her forehead. “For what?” He was about as healthy as a horse, as far as she could tell.
Cooper laughed humorlessly. “Oh, he’s fine physically. Mentally?” He shook his head. “The poor guy’s a basket case.”
“What do you mean?” She followed as he picked up his equipment and set it in the hall next to the elevator. She knew perfectly well what the term meant, but Duke didn’t seem to be particularly crazy. Yes, he had his quirky moments, but he wasn’t crazy crazy.
“He’s been seein’ a shrink for a while now,” Cooper said. “I only found out when I caught him hidin’ a bottle of pills under his pillow. Won’t tell me exactly what they’re for, but he told me that if I tell anyone, I’m gettin’ slapped. You want me to take your amplifier?”
She nodded, and he set the large speaker next to his own. “Pills?” she asked. “Are you sure they’re not…y’know, drugs?”
“That was my first thought. I made him show me the actual written prescription. It’s legitimate. Signed by the psychiatrist and everything. Don’t remember the name of the medicine, though.”
She watched quietly as he moved the rest of the equipment into the hall. The news that one of her friends had become sick without her knowledge wasn’t exactly a welcome notion, and the fact that she didn’t know what was afflicting him was going to be weighing heavily on her mind for a while. The natural course of action would be to ask him about it, but that was obviously not an option if she wanted Duke to keep Cooper’s trust.
Still, her curiosity got the best of her. “I’m going to go grab my sweatshirt,” she said as Cooper started moving everything into the elevator. “I’ll meet you downstairs.”
“Alright, but be quick,” he said. “Sextus just texted me. They got the van and are headin’ back here right now. And don’t forget to lock the door behind you.”
She nodded. She re-entered the apartment and bounded up the stairs, stopping in front of Duke’s bedroom door. It wasn’t locked, to her surprise, and she pushed it open.
It was very orderly for such a small room, especially considering the identity of its current occupant. His bed was well-made, and the only piece of clothing not in a dresser drawer was a blue sweatshirt hanging off of the doorknob. The walls were a little too bare for her tastes, but she paid it no mind. She cautiously made her way over to his bed and, with little ceremony, plunged her hand under his pillow.
After a bit of groping around, her fingers wrapped around something cylindrical and she pulled it into view. It was an opaque orange medicine bottle. Most of the label had been pulled away, to her disappointment, but the letters EUS were still visible.
She wrinkled her forehead. She couldn’t recall any drug name that ended in EUS. She shook the bottle, and a hollow rattle was heard. It sounded as if there were still a few pills left. She twisted the cap open and tipped a small, oblong pill into the palm of her hand. It looked like a tiny piece of candy, but she knew better than to eat it.
She put the pill back into the bottle. Instead of landing at the bottom, however, it was caught between the side of the bottle and something inside. She realized that the bottle was translucent, and that the apparent opacity was caused by something inside. Curious, she reached inside and removed a flat, folded up object.
She was about to unfold it when her cell phone began to buzz, and she dropped the pill bottle onto the floor. She cursed and scooped the small objects back into the container and shoved it back under the pillow. She cursed a second time when she realized that she had forgotten the paper, and she hastily shoved it into her pocket as she ran for the door, answering her phone along the way.
“Hello?” she asked. She hoped she didn’t sound too winded.
It was Joanna. “Where are you?” she asked impatiently. “We’re ready to go.”
“I’m…uh, hold on.” She slammed the door behind her and ran into her own room, snatching a purple sweatshirt off of the bedpost. “I was just grabbing my sweatshirt. I’ll be down in a sec.”
“Alright. But hurry up.” Before Maeve could say good-bye, the phone beeped. She sighed. She hated it when everyone was stressed.
Making sure to lock the apartment door behind her, she ran into the hallway. She opted to take the stairs instead of the elevator, taking two at a time. She reached the ground floor in record time and exited the building. The black van was waiting there for her. She could see a brooding Duke sitting shotgun, forehead pressed against the window.
She slid the door open and climbed in, the van starting to move before she had even gotten the chance to close it. “Sorry,” she said. “I got distracted.”
No one spoke. Joanna was staring straight ahead as she drove, mouth set in a hard line. Sextus had his head tipped back and his eyes closed, looking as if he was sleeping. The only acknowledgement she got was in the form of a solemn nod from Cooper.
Quietly, she buckled her seat belt. What had happened to them? They used to have so much fun driving together. They would sing, goof around, tell stories… it was almost better than actually playing the show. Now it was like this, with everyone glum and agitated.
She suddenly remembered the paper in her pocket. No one was paying attention to her, and Duke was sitting in front of her, so he wouldn’t see, either.
As surreptitiously as possible, she slid the small rectangle out of her pocket. Making sure no one was looking one last time, she started to unfold it.
The paper had been folded and unfolded so many times that the creases were worn through, but the intact areas retained the stiffness that was characteristic of a formal document. Maeve briefly wondered how he had been able to fold it up so small, but she ignored the thought and focused on the letter itself. It was dated several weeks ago, though the abysmal quality of the handwriting made it hard to tell, and it took her far longer than it should have to decipher it.
When she did, however, she immediately wished she hadn’t.
Duke, it read, I’m sorry that I was unable to see you today, something came up that was unavoidable. However, I did want to let you know that I’ve been thinking about what you told me during our last couple of sessions. I know this isn’t going to be what you want to hear, but I really think that in the long run, it would be best if we stopped your prescription and placed you in a psychiatric hospital for a short time. Based on what you’ve said, it seems like your current prescription coupled with the environment you’re in is having an adverse effect on your overall mental condition. Again, I know it’s not what you want to hear, and we’ll talk it over during our next session. — Dr. Rheau, PhD.
It was only through an immense amount of effort that Maeve was able to keep her composure. Her best friend being sick was one thing, but him being sick enough that they wanted him institutionalized? That was another thing entirely, and it wasn’t something that she could just let go.
Craning her neck so that she could see the side mirror, she stole a glance at Duke as he stared out the window. He didn’t look to be particularly distressed, but she supposed that that was just it. His stare was still and empty, like he was looking at something far off in the distance.
“You lookin’ at something?” Sextus asked.
Maeve jumped, suppressing a squeak of surprise. “N-No,” she said. She smiled innocently at him, hoping in vain that he would believe it.
To her dismay, he matched her own grin with a wry smirk. “I think you were lookin’ at something,” he said, “and I think I know exactly what it is.”
She felt her cheeks grow warm. “Is that so?”
“Mm-hmm.” His smirk softened, but it didn’t disappear. “Don’t worry your pretty little head, kid, I won’t say anything.”
She bobbed her head rapidly. She knew exactly what he was insinuating, but she had no choice but to go along with it. To deny it would only raise further questions, and that would accomplish nothing but ending badly for everyone. The fact that she was still blushing furiously didn’t help matters.
“Aw, c’mon, Sextus, lay off the poor girl,” Cooper said. “She’s had a long day as it is, no need to go on harassin’ her.”
“I wasn’t harassing her, I was asking a question.”
“Then why’s she pinker than a flamingo?”
Sextus crossed his arms. “I dunno. Ask ‘er yourself.”
“Both of you shut up,” Joanna said, “we’re here. Everybody get out and start unloading stuff while I go talk to the guy in charge.”
Maeve slid the door open and stepped out of the van, Cooper and Sextus close behind. She looked at the building in front of them. The bar wasn’t the classiest place in town, but it was a popular destination on a Saturday night and they were guaranteed to have an audience.
She wasn’t worried about playing to an empty room, however. She stared down at the letter in her hand. To hell with keeping promises, this was serious, and she knew she had to do something
Shoving the letter into her pocket, Maeve made up her mind. She had to talk to Duke. She had to know the truth. About the letter, about the pills, the secrecy… everything.
She peeked around the back of the van. Cooper was busy unloading the equipment with Sextus. He wouldn’t notice her and Duke talking. She felt a pang of guilt for breaking his promise not to confront their dysfunctional lead singer, but she ignored it. If making sure that said singer got the help he needed meant the loss of his trust in her, she would have to deal with it.
Duke was leaning against the hood of the van, hands jammed in his pockets as he stared intently at his shoes. He did not react at all to her presence until she spoke. “Duke?”
He slowly looked up at her. For a moment, it was like she was looking at a stranger with eyes that were lidded and dull. They were missing the gleam that she remembered them having, the captivating shine that could draw anyone in and convince them to listen to everything he said, no matter how inane.
As soon as she noticed, though, he seemed to realize that it was her. He perked up a bit, adjusting his slouched posture and crossing his arms across his chest. “What’s up?” he asked. The corners of his mouth were turned up, but it was obvious that it was a forced smile.
She resisted the urge to shuffle her feet. “Could I talk to you for a second?” she asked.
He stared at her. “About what?”
“Um, well…” She took a deep breath. She could always turn back now, wait until after the show to confront him. “I-It’s nothing,” she said without thinking.
He cocked his eyebrow. “Um, alright.” He started to turn away, but she grabbed his elbow, making him flinch. “What?”
Her mouth suddenly felt like cotton. “I…” She struggled to find her voice. “I, uh…”
“I need to tell you something,” she said.
He blinked. “Um, alright,” he said. “What’s up?”
Before she could say something stupid a second time, she yanked the piece of paper out of her pocket and shoved it against his chest. He caught it before it could fall to the ground and slowly unfolded it. She wrung her hands as he scanned it.
His entire demeanor changed before her very eyes. His posture stiffened and grew rigid, and he started to visibly shake. He looked up, and her stomach dropped.
“Where did you find this,” he stated. It was not a question, it was a demand.
“In the pill bottle in your room,” she said softly. She was starting to regret this already. “Look, I just want to talk about what the doctor said. I think–”
“Did Cooper tell you about the bottle?” There was pure, venomous rage in his voice.
“No–” She swallowed. “I mean, yes he did, but…”
“I told him not to tell anyone.”
“It’s not his fault! Please don’t be mad at him. I just wanted to know what was wrong with you.” She winced. That was a poor choice of words.
“There’s nothing wrong with me!” he snapped. He crumpled the paper into a ball and shoved in in his pocket.
“I never said there was anything wrong with you! I’m just worried about you.” She folded her arms across her stomach. “You’re my friend. I don’t like seeing you upset.”
He stared at her for a moment. Expressions of fury and pain flickered across his face, making it twitch and jump. Without another word, he slowly around and started walking to the back of the van, clenching and unclenching his fists as he went.
Realizing what he was going to do, Maeve followed. “Cooper has nothing to do with this,” she said.
“Cooper has everything to do with this! He’s got no right to go talking about my personal life behind my back like that. I never should have trusted him,” he muttered. “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted that bastard son of a–”
“Duke!” She grabbed his elbow and yanked hard enough that he stumbled backwards. “Coop only did it because he cares about you. You’re his friend. He doesn’t want to see you hurt.”
He barked a laugh devoid of humor. “Then he shouldn’t have went and shot his mouth off.”
She tried to stop him again before they rounded the corner, but it was futile. She could only watch as he stormed up to Sextus and tapped him on the shoulder. “Where’s your jackass boyfriend?” he asked.
“Already inside,” he said. He slammed the van doors shut and turned around, cocking an eyebrow as he saw the expression on his face. “What’d he do, kill your dog or something?” He watched as Duke ran for the doors. “What’s gotten into him?” he asked Maeve.
“It’s a long story,” she said. They ran after him.
They opened the doors just in time to see Duke punching Cooper hard enough for him to be knocked flat on his back, and for Joanna’s jaw to drop.
Sextus bristled. “Hey!” he barked.
Duke tried to jump out of the way, but Sextus was faster. He tackled Duke to the ground. They exchanged several blows before a bloodied Cooper and the bar’s bouncer were able to pry them apart.
They continued to thrash even as Joanna stormed over. “What the hell’s gotten into you two?!” she shrieked. “I can’t turn around for five minutes without you two getting into a brawl!”
“Duke hit Coop!” Sextus growled. “No one’s allowed to rough him up ‘cept me!”
“That tool deserved it!” Duke spat. “I told him not to tell anyone and he went and told Maeve everything!”
Maeve shrank back at the sound of her name. She should have known this was going to end badly.
“That doesn’t mean you go around punching people,” Joanna said. She rubbed her forehead. “God, I have no idea what’s going on here…”
“Ask Maeve, she knows everything,” Sextus said. “Go on, tell ‘em.”
“Don’t you go draggin’ her into this,” Cooper said. “ I know why I deserved it..”
Duke glowered at them both, then turned to her. She didn’t need to read minds to be able to know what he was thinking. Don’t say a damn word.
She swallowed dryly.
Maeve felt the expectant stare of everyone in the room as she wondered what to do. Sextus was glowering at her. Joanna’s look was concerned, one eyebrow raised and her lips pursed. Even the bar’s employees had come to see what was going on. The only sympathy she received was from Cooper, but even he was shaking his head just subtly enough for her to see.
For a moment, she considered listening to Sextus, but she remembered the pain in Duke’s eyes when she had first confronted him. It had returned, replacing the glare that had been there moments before. He was begging her now, not ordering her. It hurt her to see him looking so miserable.
She made her decision. He had suffered enough today. It was his secret to keep or tell, and she didn’t need to put him through any more. She would talk to him after, when everyone was less high-strung.
She closed her eyes and straightened her back, holding her chin high. “I don’t think it would be right for me to say anything,” she said. “It’s Duke’s issue, and if he doesn’t want it shared, then I won’t share it.” She quickly remembered that everyone was staring at her, however, and the surge of confidence faded. “I-If that’s alright.”
Duke sagged in relief, the sudden dead weight making Cooper stumble backwards. She suppressed a smile.
The others didn’t seem nearly as satisfied. Sextus’s glare intensified as Joanna sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Fine. We’ll discuss all this later. For now, everyone go get cleaned up,” she said. “Not you, Maeve. I want to talk to you. Outside.”
Eyes cast downward, Maeve followed the older woman into the parking lot. This had to be a record for the number of bad feelings she’d ever gotten in a single day, surpassing even the first time she had ever performed in front of an audience.
They stopped behind the van. Joanna shut the doors Sextus had left open and sat on the fender, arms crossed. She didn’t look mad, but she wasn’t happy, either.
“Explain to me what’s going on with Duke,” she said. Before Maeve could protest, she held up her hand. “I know you said it’s not your business to tell and I understand that. But if you really love him, tell me what he’s going through so we can get him the help he needs.”
“I don’t love him!” she sputtered. She felt her cheeks turn pink. Did she? They were just friends, as far as she knew.
Joanna chuckled. “I didn’t think you did. Not that kind of love, kiddo. I meant as someone you care about.”
Her cheeks only grew hotter. “I knew that.” She sighed. “He’s…he’s sick.”
“Sick? He looks fine to me.”
“Not sick-sick. Mentally sick. I found a bottle of pills and a note from a psychiatrist that said he should look into checking into a hospital. From a few weeks ago.”
Her eyes widened at the mention of the hospital. “Are you serious?” she asked. Maeve nodded, and she crossed her arms again. “God damn. I wish he’d told us sooner. Or at all.”
“Please don’t tell him I told you,” she said. “He’s already mad enough at Cooper for telling me. And I told Cooper I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“Wait, Cooper knew, too? Is that why…?” She mimed a punch.
Maeve nodded again. “Only about the pills, though.”
“Uh-huh.” She pursed her lips. “And you’re sure they were actual prescription pills and not…whatever it is people take to get high these days?”
“I’m pretty sure they were prescription. The label was peeled off of the bottle, but it looked legitimate.”
Joanna nodded. She was quiet for a moment, then stood up. She put her hands on Maeve’s shoulders. “Thank you for telling me all this,” she said. “I won’t say anything to him about you, I promise.”
She pulled her into a brief, warm hug. “Let’s go find the boys before they try to kill each other again,” she said as they separated. “Almost all of the instruments are set up. We need to do a sound check before the doors open.”
They walked back inside. Everything seemed to have calmed down after the almost-brawl, and everyone and everything was ready on the small stage, with Cooper bass slinging his bass over his shoulders, and Sextus speaking to one of the employees from behind his keyboard.
Everyone except Duke, however. Maeve looked around. There was no sign of him anywhere. She saw the bouncer and approached him. “Have you seen–?”
“Dressing room,” he said. “Everyone came out except him. It’s straight ahead on the left, just after the ‘Employees Only’ sign.”
She followed the directions and pushed the door open. It was sparsely decorated, with a small sofa and a counter area with a mirror. Duke was too busy staring at his reflection to notice her when she entered. She could tell that it wasn’t out of vanity. His brow was furrowed and he was gripping the counter so hard, his knuckles were turning white.
Maeve cleared her throat. “Um, Duke?” No response. “Duke?”
She was about to repeat herself when his delayed reaction occurred. His eyes widened, and his whole body seemed to jerk away from her as he turned, like a cat taken by surprise. She flinched. She hoped that she hadn’t set him off again.
“What?” he asked, breathlessly. He looked like he was bracing himself for something, and she had a feeling that she knew what.
Again, she toyed with the idea of approaching him. It probably wouldn’t be a repeat of earlier, given that she wouldn’t be completely blindsiding him, but she didn’t want to take the chance. “We’re ready for the sound check,” she said. “Everything is pretty much ready to go.”
He blinked at her, and then nodded. “Okay. I’ll be out in a minute. Thank you for letting me know.”
“Anything for a friend,” she said. She gave him what she hoped came across as a warm smile.
The door was halfway closed when he spoke. “Wait! Maeve!”
She caught it with her foot and poked her head through the gap. “Yes?”
He had stepped away from the mirror and was leaning against the wall, hands behind his back. “Can I talk to you for a second, while we’re in private?”
Remembering what had happened earlier, she hesitated. She didn’t want to put herself in a situation where she couldn’t defend herself. Then again, those were extenuating circumstances, and Duke wasn’t the kind of person to hurt someone he knew couldn’t fight back. Not without permission, at least.
But she was tired of keeping secrets. “It’s not that I don’t trust you,” she said, “but can it wait until later? We need to do the sound check.”
For a moment, he looked like he was going to shout at her, but it vanished. He slumped. “Okay,” he said. He followed her out of the dressing room, completely silent. The urge to look behind her was overwhelming, but she resisted.
Joanna was pounding on her drum kit as they walked back onstage. Without missing a literal beat, she looked up at them and tossed her head toward the front. The microphone stand had been set up already and her guitar was resting on a chair, being “guarded” by Cooper.
As she lifted the strap over her head, Cooper leaned over to her. “This is gonna sound like a dumb question,” he whispered, “but is he alright? He doesn’t look as mad, but he looks more agitated than before.”
“I’m not sure. He was having a staring contest with his reflection when I was in the dressing room.”
“Sounds like a ‘no’ to me.”
She picked up an amp cable for her guitar, plugging one end into her guitar and the other end into the amp, she switched it on. She gave a string an experimental pluck. No sound came from the amplifier. She twisted one of the guitar’s volume knobs and tried again. Still no sound.
She turned back toward the amplifier and frowned. The reason it hadn’t made any sound was because it was off; it hadn’t even been plugged in. With a sigh, she removed the other end from her guitar and followed the cord back to the nearest socket. It appeared to have been pulled out by accident. She plugged it back in, and the red light near the power knob of the amplifier blinked on.
There was a second plug that had been pulled out. She couldn’t see where it went, but she figured that she might save someone some time later. She inserted it into the socket.
The room was suddenly filled with the ungodly howl of microphone feedback, knocking her onto her rear and making everyone wince and cover their ears. She cursed under her breath, realizing that it went to one of Duke’s speakers. She jerked it back out, and the sound ceased. Everyone quickly recovered.
Everyone except Duke. He was on his knees, covering his ears and shaking so much that it looked like he was in serious pain.
“Duke?” she heard Cooper ask. He didn’t respond.
Lifting her guitar strap over her head, she let the instrument fall to the ground as she jumped up and ran towards him. The rest of the band followed suit, Joanna even sliding to a halt on her knees.
“Duke,” she said. “Duke, look at me.” When he didn’t comply, she took his chin in her hands. His eyes were wide and the color had drained from his face. “It’s going to be okay. Please, calm down.” She turned to the others. “Dressing room. Right now.”
Maeve nodded, watching as Joanna helped him to his feet. They followed as she carefully guided him offstage and back into the small room, Cooper closing the door behind them. She sat him on the couch.
Sextus crossed his arms, a worried expression darkening his face. “What the bloody hell just happened?” he asked. He looked at Maeve. “Did you say something to him?”
She shrugged, but Cooper elbowed him. “Leave her alone. She’s been through enough today.”
“Sorry. Looks like the beginning of a panic attack to me.”
“I’m sorry,” Duke whimpered. He was shaking his head back and forth. “This is my fault. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, I’m sorry I got mad, I’m sorry that—”
Joanna put her hand on his shoulder. “Shh. It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not! I lied about everything, I’m a liar, I’m a liar and you’re mad and you hate me—” He stood up, but began to sway. Joanna grabbed his shoulders and sat him back down.
“We’re not mad, mate,” Sextus said. “We’re just worried. You’re our friend, that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Duke stared at him. He pulled his knees up to his chin. “Please don’t put me in a hospital,” he said.
“You’re not going to the hospital unless you want to go to the hospital,” Joanna said. “Don’t worry.”
Cooper and Sextus looked at each other. “Hospital?”
“Should I tell them?” Maeve asked Joanna.
“Ask him yourself,” she said with a shrug.
She sat next to him. “Duke, can I show them the letter?”
Without looking, he pulled the crumpled-up note from his pocket. “Thank you.” She beckoned the two men off to the side. After smoothing the note out, she passed it to Sextus. Cooper read over his shoulder. She watched as their faces darkened.
“Well, shit,” Cooper muttered.
“Took the words right out of my mouth.” Sextus’s voice was low. “We have to take him to the ER. We can’t just leave him like this.”
“But what if that just upsets him more? Then we’ll have an even bigger problem on our hands.”
“And what about the show?” Cooper asked. “I hate to sound shallow, but we’ve got an obligation to fulfill in about fifteen minutes that’ll pay next month’s rent.”
Maeve sighed. Why couldn’t these things be simple?
“Look,” Cooper said, “I care about Duke as much as anyone. But if we skip out on this gig, we’re screwed. Monetarily speakin’.”
He was right. Maeve sighed as she thumbed the bridge of her nose. “We need to figure out how to calm him down, then.”
“But how?” Sextus asked. “Look at the poor guy. He’s already on the edge of a nervous breakdown as it is.” He paused. “If anyone’s hiding a stash of beta blockers—”
Cooper cut him off. “Singin’ in general usually cheers him up. You’ve seen how he gets when he’s got a mic. Just stall until show time.
As callous as it felt to do, it was the best option they had at the moment. They needed the money, for one, and it was also true that Duke seemed to relax a great deal when onstage.
She sighed. “Alright, but as soon as it’s done and over, we’re having a band meeting.” The two men nodded. “I’ll go tell Jo.”
She turned and made her way over to the older woman. Duke was still curled up, though he had pressed his forehead into his knees and hidden his face from sight. Joanna had stepped away from the sofa, but was still looking at him, concerned.
“Any brilliant ideas?” she asked in a low voice.
“We get out there and play.”
Joanna cocked her eyebrow. “Excuse me?” she asked, crossing her arms. “We’re still going out there despite our front man being an emotional train wreck?”
“Look, I know it’s a crazy idea,” she said. “But we need the money. And besides, you know how he gets once we’re onstage.
“I know very well how he gets, but that alone isn’t going to snap him out of this funk.”
“Please, Jo. Let me talk to him.”
She stared at Maeve a moment more, as if searching her face for any possible hints that she was joking. When she couldn’t find any, she sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Just don’t be surprised if he’s not up for it,” she said, stepping to the side.
Duke didn’t react when Maeve sat down next to him. If it weren’t for the rapid rising and falling of his shoulders, she would have thought he had fallen asleep.
“Duke?” she asked. “Dukey, please look at me.”
Her heart sank when he didn’t respond to her. It was killing her to see him like this, a cold shadow of his usual self. She silently cursed whatever was plaguing his mind. She would give anything in the world to see him smiling like he used to, before he had gotten the note that began tearing them all apart. Just like he had a few hours before when they hugged in her room.
A thought crossed her mind. Right after he had apologized, Joanna had cut him off before he could finish telling her something else. And just a few minutes before, he had tried to tell her something again. If she could get him to talk about that…
She turned to the others. “Could you guys maybe step out for a couple minutes?” she asked.
Sextus opened his mouth, but both Joanna and Cooper elbowed him before he could speak. She took his arm and lightly pulled him out the door, Cooper close behind. He nodded at Maeve before he closed the door, leaving them alone.
Now that they were alone, she slid a little closer to him. He recoiled slightly, but did not move away. Her voice was low, as gentle as she could make it. “Duke? Can you hear me?” There was a slight bob of his head. “Remember earlier today, when you and I were talking in my room?” Another bob. “What was it you wanted to tell me?”
He went rigid. She held her breath as a long moment crawled by, praying to whatever god would listen that she hadn’t upset him more.
Finally, he spoke. “You…you remember that?” he asked. He raised his head enough for her to catch a glimpse of the shock in his eyes through the hair hanging in his face.
A smile snuck its way across her lips. “It was only a few hours ago, silly. Why wouldn’t I remember it?”
He blinked. “I…uh…”
“And a couple minutes ago?” She couldn’t help but giggle as he racked his brain for a reason, looking for the entire world like a confused puppy. “Never mind. What was it you were going to say?”
It was another moment before he responded. “O-Oh! Right,” he said. “Er…well, I…”
To her surprise, his cheeks pinked. “Well, I…” His voice was low, like he was afraid someone would hear. “I just wanted to tell you that…that I…”
He turned away as he trailed off. She stifled a giggle. “Duke,” she asked. She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Are you trying to tell me that you like me?” When he glanced back, his face was redder than a bell pepper. “As…more than a friend?” He bobbed his head several times in succession, each quicker than the last.
While the news was not unwelcome, it made her stomach drop into her shoes and butterflies flutter in her chest. She had always hoped he liked her in that way, but to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth was another story entirely.
She felt her own cheeks grow warm. “Duke,” she breathed. Her smile widened. “Oh, Duke.”
His eyes grew large. “What?”
Without thinking, she placed a light kiss on his cheek. He froze again, staring at her in shock. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” she asked.
His expression grew blank. “I didn’t… I didn’t think that you’d react like…like this.”
“Like what? Surprised?”
“I expected more yelling.”
She giggled again. “When have I ever yelled at you?”
“Uh…” He trailed off again before shaking his head. “Never mind.”
“Are you feeling better?” she asked.
There was a brief pause before he spoke. “Yeah, actually.”
“Better than before?” He bobbed his head. “Good. We really want you to perform tonight.”
“We’re a band, Duke,” she said. “Of course we do.”
Without warning, he jumped up from the sofa and ran to the door, throwing it open. She followed and made it just in time to see him wrapping his arms around Joanna and Cooper, much to their surprise and Sextus’s chagrin.
“Easy, man!” Cooper laughed.
“I’m so sorry,” Duke said. “I’m so sorry for everything that’s been going on, and–”
Sextus clapped his hand on his shoulder. “Don’t apologize, mate. It’s not your fault.”
“We just want to see you better as soon as possible.” Joanna gently wriggled out of his rip. “And if that means we have to take you to a hospital, we’ll make damn sure to clean you up.”
“You’d do that for me?”
“’Course we would.” Duke released Cooper from the embrace. “What’s a band without its front man?”
Duke looked like he was about to say more, but a man poked his head around the corner. “You’re on in five, guys,” he said.
They looked at each other and nodded. Without a word, Maeve filed in behind Duke as they crept toward the stage, staying just out of sight of the crowd. Judging by all the murmuring, there was a larger crowd than expected that night, maybe two or three hundred as opposed to the significantly smaller audience that was expected.
The MC was just finishing his announcements. “And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…” The crowd started to cheer.
Duke turned. “You ready, Six?”
Sextus grinned. “Hell yeah.”
She rolled her shoulders. “Mm-hmm.”
“Rarin’ to go,” he drawled.
Duke turned to her. There was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Maeve?”
She smiled. “Of course.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, Duke Lethe and the Tangents!”
With that, any sign of the broken young man that had been there but a few minutes before was gone, replaced by the powerful, confident force of nature that was the front man and leader of his band.
Duke grinned. “Showtime.”
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