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       Sustain, p.12

           Tijan
 
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  he was on The Price is Right. “Yes, I’ll admit I might’ve overextended my privileges of being your future head roadie, but these fine folk heard the words ‘river,’ ‘drinking,’ and ‘bands.’ I couldn’t fight them off with a bat. They were salivating over the idea of hanging out with some local bands, especially one that’s going to be famous.” His hand moved back in front of him, and he pointed at us with a finger. “That’s you guys.”

  The river was a specific spot where people were able to camp, barbeque, swim, and fish. It wasn’t known to a lot of people, but a few guys from another band found the spot five years ago. It was spread by word of mouth, and eventually anyone who was in a band, knew a band, followed a band, or were friends with a band knew about the place. There was no parking lot, only a large patch of grass, and the beach was a sand bar. As Dustin was speaking, a group of girls ran past us in their bikinis, wearing straw hats and cowboy boots. One of the girls paused long enough for me to read Grant West University on the back of her bikini bottom.

  It wasn’t a local secret anymore.

  I skimmed the line of cars. “I’m betting there are twenty cars here.”

  Braden scowled, tightening his grip on the cooler. “No outsiders allowed.”

  “Paul’s coming.” Luke pointed ahead of us where a guy had broken apart from the crowd. He was walking toward us, moving in a quick gait.

  Like the last time we saw him, he was gripping a beer in his hand and waved with his other. “Hey, guys. I’m glad you could come.” He pointed over his shoulder. “This was all last minute. A bunch of us thought an all-day party was the way to go today.” He put two fingers to his mouth, making a sucking sound. “You know, we didn’t want the party to stop, but, yeah. Emerson was there. I gave him the invite. He was supposed to let you guys know. When he didn’t show this morning, I figured I should get ahold of one of you guys. You never know with him, do ya?”

  Emerson at a party? I muttered under my breath, “What a shocker.”

  Dustin’s duck squeaked.

  “Everyone looks drunk.” Braden bent down, setting the cooler onto the ground. “There’s no way everyone’s going to be able to drive to Grant West tonight. The Feast is happening here tonight.”

  Just then, someone struck up a guitar chord, and a loud ‘whoop’ filled the air. One of the bands was warming up their instruments. It wasn’t long before a crowd had gathered around them, and people started dancing on the sidelines.

  “Yeah, we’ve been calling everyone today, letting them know the change of location.” Paul saluted us with his beer. “We’ll do it proper next year. It looks like they’re starting up a jam session. You guys are welcome to join, as always. In fact, I know they wanted you guys to come. Bri,” Paul said to me, “some of the new bands were hoping to talk to you. They’re looking for a good drummer, thought you might know of someone.”

  “She’s ours,” my brother growled.

  “Braden.” Luke’s eyes flashed a warning. “Chill.”

  “Sorry,” he said to Paul. “Sorry, man. I just don’t like the idea of outsiders coming in. I liked our tradition how it was.” His eyes skimmed over me, and I understood my brother’s concern. If The Feast was overrun with outsiders, it was no longer just ours. It was theirs. It became about performing instead of playing music. Then his head shot to the right, and he asked, “Is that Avi?”

  Without waiting for a response, Braden grabbed the cooler and took off, heading for a girl who was swaying back and forth. Her hands were weaving in the air like she was playing an invisible cello, her head was back, and her eyes were closed.

  “Braden’s got a thing for vocal chords.” Dustin was petting the duck as if it were a real pet. “Cool. She’s hot.”

  Paul asked us, “He must not be that upset?”

  “He’ll get over it.” Luke stepped forward and clapped Paul on the shoulder. “Braden cares about music and ass. He’ll get both here tonight. It might be fun, doing The Feast like this for the year.”

  “Hey, Paul!” a shout came from the group. A girl was jumping up and down, pumping her arms back and forth each time she launched herself in the air. “Come on!”

  He started heading for her, but threw over his shoulder to us, “I’ll see you guys over there. There’s lots of food and booze, among other things.”

  Dustin moved closer to us as Paul jogged back to the group. “Hey…” His tone was suddenly serious, very unlike Dustin.

  The hairs on the back of my neck rose.

  He added, “I gotta warn you two. I overheard some conversations from some of the people.” His hand slapped against his chest. “Not my people, other people. Like, people I didn’t invite, but aren’t in all your ‘inner musician’ circle, if you know what I mean.”

  “Yeah, yeah.” My unease spiked. “What’d you overhear?”

  “There are dudes here who don’t like your ex.” Dustin’s eyes darted to Luke’s and held there for a moment before swinging back to mine. His hand had a death grip on Hitchcock’s neck. The air was pushing all the way up into the head and was straining at the ends. His duck was going to explode. “Paul doesn’t know any of it, but there’s a group who wanted Elijah called, but they’re acting shady about it. They’re hoping he comes with Emerson for some reason. He’s got competitors, right?”

  I heard the cop again, asking me, “Someone else runs Grant East. Are they the ones moving in?” Braden’s voice overlapped hers, saying, “Paul said some other guys were at the party— guys he didn’t know. He asked Emerson about them, but Em was adamant that he needed to leave them alone.” An image of Paul flashed in my mind, as he walked around the side of his house, “I wanted to call Elijah, but Emerson kept saying in the bedroom we couldn’t call him…”

  I grabbed for Luke’s arm. “Elijah can’t come here.” The words were out of me before I realized I had thought them, but I was right. These guys, whomever they were, were Eli’s competitors. “It’s too dangerous for him to come here.”

  I held still, knowing how that sounded. I was the ex, speaking up for Elijah, but it was the truth. “I’m sorry, Luke. We have to stop Elijah and Emerson.”

  “Too late.”

  Those words came from behind us, and we saw Elijah and Emerson, both standing there. My cousin was already scowling, but when wasn’t he? He was decked out in sandals, swim trunks, and a tank top that had a large fist on the front of it. With sunglasses covering his eyes and a red cooler of beer, he looked ready for a day in the sun. Elijah, on the other hand, was the opposite. He was decked out in his usual wardrobe—a black sweatshirt and jeans over sneakers. However, his hood wasn’t pulled up. He tilted his head to the side, and his hand scratched the bottom of his chin. He asked, “‘Too late’ for what, Bri? What are you hoping to stop us from?”

  Luke and I shared a look. What did we do?

  Luke decided for me. He gestured to the crowd behind us. “We think your competitors are here. Are you vying for new clients? Is that why you’re here?”

  “What?” Elijah narrowed his eyes.

  Emerson stepped to the side. We were no longer two facing two, but more of a circle now. As he did, he glanced behind me and checked out the group, too, before turning so his back was slightly toward them. He lowered his voice. “Those are Brute’s guys. You can’t go over there, Eli. They’ll think you’re here on their territory.”

  Elijah was looking past our shoulders, his gaze firmly trained on the group. I had no doubt who he was looking at. The longer he studied them, the more my alarm rose. This wasn’t Easygoing Elijah; this was Dangerous Elijah. I almost snorted. Of course. This side came out when it dealt with his business.

  His eyes slid to mine. “You got a problem?”

  “What are you going to do?” I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. “Fight ’em? Paul lives in Grant East—”

  “What do you know about Grant East?”

  “I know what the cops told me, you know, when they raided your house, and I got my ass hauled to
the station. They said Brute runs Grant East. What are you doing here, Elijah?”

  “My best friend asked me to come here. I came to hang out.”

  Emerson let out a deep groan, his hands shoving into his pockets. “This is going to suck. They’ve got four guys. Four to one. Those aren’t good odds.”

  Elijah’s top lip curled up into a sneer. “Thanks for having my back, Em. Really appreciate it.”

  “What?” Emerson held a hand out toward Luke. “My band’s here. I’m not fucking that up. I’m not asking Braden or Luke to step in for me either. Look.” His hand gripped the back of his neck. “Let’s just go. We can party somewhere else.”

  All of us regarded Emerson. There was a moment of silence.

  I burst out laughing. “Who are you, and where is my usual-hating cousin?”

  Both of his lips curled up, and he was seething at me. “Don’t start, Bri.”

  “You don’t start,” I shot back. “What the hell, Emerson? You’re always up for a fight. You’re always up for partying. And there are girls here, who, I’m sure, are only too eager to hook up with a musician. It’s like shooting ducks in a barrel here, and you want to leave? Out of the goodness of your heart?”

  “I’m looking out for my best friend.” He stepped closer to me, his neck craning forward as a vein stood out. “Something you wouldn’t know about.” He gave both Elijah and Luke a meaningful look.

  Now my blood was boiling. Crossing my arms over my chest, my chin lowered, setting in place. I was just getting started. “Fuck that. I was being nice just now. I was leaving out the big one, the one that seems to be your only priority. You know what else is here? Your favorite. Dru—”

  “Okay.” Luke clamped a hand over my mouth and pulled me into this chest. He kept his hand there, lifting his arm over my head so he could lead me away from Emerson. His other hand urged me forward, pressing against my hip. “Let’s not do this. We’re going to go. This probably isn’t the best place for any of us to be, considering the circumstances.”

  I pulled his hand from my mouth. “My brother.”

  “I’ll get him,” Elijah said too quickly. He was walking toward the group before any of us could stop him.

  “Oh, fuck.” Emerson released a resigned breath of air. “This isn’t going to end well.”

  “I’ll stop him.” Luke moved around me, and he was off, hurrying after my ex before I could blink an eye.

  “What just happened here?” I grabbed my hair and held on. An anchor dropped to the bottom of my feet, and I couldn’t move.

  “Shit.”

  For once, my cousin wasn’t spewing his hatred at me. He was focused solely on the impending clash that was going to happen as Elijah was already to the group. Luke was right behind him. As we watched like spectators, four guys I didn’t recognize moved forward to meet Elijah. Three were shirtless and wearing swimming trunks. One wore jeans, but was still shirtless. He was tall, too tan, and looked like a bodybuilder. Two of the others had similar physiques, while the fourth was tall and lanky. All four of them were covered in tattoos, up and down their arms, over their chests, and around the necks.

  As we waited, I felt my pulse starting to beat harder and harder.

  Luke got to Elijah, and he pulled him to the side. Braden noticed them and stood. Avi slid off his lap, and he hurried over to them. All three stood in a small circle, having a conversation. Elijah looked over at his competitors. The one in jeans made a show of cracking his knuckles, and he smirked.

  Luke moved so he was blocking Elijah’s view, and he gestured to Emerson and me. Elijah wasn’t concerned with us. He stepped around Luke, raising his chin at Jean Guy. The small gesture was enough of a challenge. Jean Guy started toward them, but then Paul stepped in the middle. He was strumming a guitar and inclined his head forward. He said something to Jean Guy, who was still watching Elijah. As if sensing the impending fight, a group of girls started dancing between the two groups. One girl, I recognized her as Avi, touched Paul on the shoulder and started belting out a song. She began swaying to the music again, and soon the crowd had moved over to completely block Elijah, Luke, and Braden from Jean Guy and his three friends. It was then that I let out an exaggerated burst of air.

  Elijah, Luke, and Braden were heading back to us.

  “What are you so goddamn worried about?” Emerson was glaring at me.

  “You might not want to start with me.”

  “Oh, really?”

  “Really.”

  He folded his arms over his chest, turning the same loathsome focus back on me. “Why do you say that?”

  “Because I’m fairly certain those guys are your drug dealers, and Elijah won’t like finding that out since you’re his best friend.”

  “He won’t sell to me.”

  My body had stiffened again. I expected another snarl from my cousin, but that was all he said. Then the guys were to us, and without saying a word, Elijah went past us, heading for his car. Emerson hightailed it behind him, leaving Braden and Luke with me.

  All three of us waited and watched them go.

  I had a feeling that we had escaped a disaster waiting to happen.

  After driving back, Braden wanted to go to Rowdy’s to see Kelly, but first he headed home to check on our mom. She was still sick. When he got to the bar, he reported that she was sleeping, but it was my turn to check on her before bed. He was looking at Kelly as he said that and added, “And you have to sleep there.”

  I didn’t ask where he was going to be. The answer was obvious. When I tried to help Kelly behind the bar, she waved me off so Luke and I played pool, drank beer, and hung out like we were best friends again. While watching my brother at the bar as he flirted with Kelly¸ I gripped my pool stick tightly for a moment.

  I was happy.

  I didn’t want anything to take this moment away.

  “You okay?”

  Luke was waiting for me to take my shot. I replied, meaning it, “Yeah, I’m good.”

  “Good. Now don’t sink the eight ball.”

  “Smart ass.” I winked at him, then bent down, and hit the white ball. The eight ball was the only one left to sink, but I missed it. As Luke took his shot, I put my stick away. I didn’t need to look to know he had won the game.

  “What? You’re calling it quits?”

  Pointing at the clock, I said, “It’s almost closing time, and Braden said it was my turn to check on our mom.”

  “I’ll go with you.”

  My heart slammed against my chest. The day had been fine. There’d been people around us most of the day so that meant no ‘talk’ time, but hearing his voice as it dipped low, a tingle ran through me. I felt light-headed. Pressing a hand to my forehead, I felt myself nodding. My voice said, “Sure. That’d be great.” The reply sounded like it came from a distance, like someone else had answered for me. But no, it was me.

  Luke’s hand touched the inside of my arm and slid down until his palm fitted into mine. He wasn’t looking at me as he did it, and the whole motion was intimate. My mouth went dry. Feeling my stomach doing somersaults, I followed behind Luke as he led the way out of Rowdy’s and across the street to my mom’s house.

  When we walked into the house, everything was dark. Braden had said she had gone to bed, so Luke waited as I cracked open her door. The room was dark. She was in the bed with the blankets pulled over her. She seemed fine, and I started to step back into the hallway, but a sixth sense pulled me to her bed. I didn’t question it.

  Flipping on the light, she still seemed fine… until I saw the blood seeping through her blanket.

  I stopped, my hand instinctually pressing to my own stomach. Something was wrong. Then my body switched to automatic pilot, and I watched myself moving forward, reaching for the blanket, and pulling it back. There was blood between her legs. So much blood. Her pajamas were coated in it, and she was pale. I might’ve gasped, but I wasn’t sure. Then Luke was behind me. His hands wrapped around my shoulders, and he moved me be
hind him.

  I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away from all that blood, and instead of seeing my mother’s body, I was seeing his again.

  I started trembling as the memories invaded me.

  Luke’s body was on the ground with blood everywhere. He was on his stomach, and his head was twisted to the side. His eye was already swollen shut, and his cheek looked broken. I stumbled into the kitchen and fell to my knees, but I was so scared to touch him. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. My heart was pounding so loudly, I couldn’t hear anything.

  “Luke.” I sobbed, pressing the back of my hand to my mouth. “Luke.”

  “Shit!”

  Dazed, I looked up to see Braden standing in the doorway. His eyes were wide and scared. “What the fuck happened?”

  The sobs were choking me, but I managed to whisper out, “I’m scared to touch him.”

  “Bri.” Braden darted over Luke’s feet and around me. I heard him in the distance on the phone. “I have an emergency…”

  Help was coming. Help would fix Luke. My hand went to his shoulder. There was so much blood everywhere. Where was the wound? I needed to put pressure on it to make it stop bleeding, didn’t I? Stop it somewhere? I wanted to do something. My hands fell to the bottom of my shirt, and I started to lift it off.

  “What are you doing?” Braden had come back to kneel beside me.

  “I don’t know. Something.” I peeled it off the rest of the way,
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