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       Sustain, p.6

           Tijan
 
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  “Oh.” She shrank back in her seat. “Not good.”

  That was putting it lightly.

  “Okay. Shut up.” Braden turned on the radio. “I know no one’s happy about this, but we have to. He’s—”

  “—family,” I finished for him. “I know.”

  He looked up and met Luke’s gaze in the mirror. An unspoken message passed between them. My jaw hardened. I didn’t want to guess what they were thinking. Falling silent, the rest of the ride was like that until we pulled up to Paul Montrose’s house. He was the lead singer of Shifter, a punk rock band with whom we were all friendly. We got out and headed up to the two-story home that looked like it belonged in the suburbs and not on the edge of Grant West. With a natural reserve behind it and a candy warehouse across the street, Paul hosted a lot of parties here because of the privacy. He had no neighbors, and a lot of his friends were in bands. A stage was set up in the backyard where we could hear someone playing. The music had blasted us as soon as we turned down the road.

  Paul came out the front door, holding a beer. He was close to six feet, with a lean build like Luke’s, and dark blond tussled hair. I always liked Paul. Sometimes there was jealousy among the bands, especially if someone left one for another, but not with him. He was even-keel with everyone. As we crossed the yard, he waved. “Thanks for coming.”

  I held back. Paul had called Braden, so I expected him to talk for us, but Luke moved forward. He asked, “Where is he?”

  Paul gestured to the second floor. “Wessler and Nix got him to a bedroom up there, and we’re trying to keep people from going up there. He tried starting a couple fights. After the third one, we’d had enough. He was scaring a lot of the girls, too, and he’s got these friends here. I don’t know how to get them to leave, but I don’t want to call the cops. Because, you know.” He put his fingers together and pretended to smoke a joint. “Anyway. You can use this way to get him out.” He walked around the side of the house. There was a side porch and stairs that wound up to the second floor, leading to a door.

  “How is he?” I asked. If Emerson had passed out, this would be much easier.

  “He’s…” he hesitated, “…a handful.”

  A handful for Paul was a nightmare for the rest of us. “That’s probably putting it nice.”

  “Yeah. Well.” He shrugged, taking a sip of his beer. “I wanted to call Elijah, but Emerson kept saying in the bedroom we couldn’t call him, so sorry, guys. I know this must be a pain.” Stepping back, he took another drag from his beer and waved again. “I’ll let you guys deal with him, but I’m here if you need help.”

  “Thanks for that, Paul, and thanks for calling us and not…” Luke grew quiet. There was no one else to call. Emerson didn’t want Elijah called, so we were it. Realizing that, Luke motioned to Braden instead. “Let’s go and get him.”

  They started up the stairs. Braden told Crissy to wait for us, so she hung back while I followed them. Paul fell in step beside me. He said under his breath, “I do feel bad for calling you guys. I just didn’t know who else to call. He kept saying Eli couldn’t come, and I couldn’t call the cops, so it was you guys.”

  “It’s no problem,” I reassured him. “For real—”

  “Get out, you motherfuckers! Get out!”

  Hearing Emerson’s roar, I corrected, “And I spoke too soon.” Stepping through the second-floor door, Emerson was hunched over with his back to a corner. His nostrils were flaring, and his hands were raised, ready to fight. Braden and Luke were standing in the doorway watching him.

  I said, “We’re going to need weapons.”

  Braden asked me over his shoulder, “You used to have a Taser when we were kids. Do you still?”

  “You want me to tase him?” I just won the lottery.

  He hesitated, “Well, we might need to.”

  Luke wasn’t listening. He walked forward, his hand closing and opening in a fist. He stopped right before Emerson. His shoulders were tense. He was waiting for an attack, but it didn’t come. Emerson looked at him like a feral animal. His chest was heaving, and his eyes were fully dilated, almost pure black, but he still didn’t move. He was watching, waiting.

  Luke glanced back at me, and with a jolt, I realized what he was going to do.

  I nodded and started forward. He’d better protect me, or I swear to god…I stopped thinking and let out a ragged breath.

  As I drew closer, Emerson straightened. The urge to say, “Here, kitty kitty,” was on the tip of my tongue, but I held back. Eyeing my cousin warily, I stopped when Luke held out his hand. Then I waited. I was here. My cousin hated me. He should’ve lunged by now.

  Luke moved so he was standing to the side. He shifted back on his heel, ready for the attack. Oh fuck it, I thought. I looked into Emerson’s eyes and taunted, “What are you waiting for, Emerson? If you’re going to hit me, this is the best ti—”

  It happened quickly.

  Emerson sprang for me. His arms were outstretched, and his hands were open. He was going for my throat, but—Luke hit him. It was a good solid punch to the side of his face, and Emerson dropped to the floor.

  I waited, holding my breath, but he didn’t move. Luke had knocked him out. I swung my gaze to his, my knees shaky. “Well, that’s one way of handling it…” I trailed off. Luke’s eyes darkened before he looked away from me. For a moment, we’d been the old best friends that we used to be. That moment was over, and it was back to him hating me.

  I stepped aside, and Luke bent to grab Emerson. Braden, Paul, and two other guys came into the room. All of them carried him down the stairs. I followed behind them, shutting the door. Crissy was wringing her hands together. She darted to the side as the guys took Emerson to the car.

  “What happened up there?” she asked me in a rush. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead, and she wiped them off with the back of her hand.

  “Uh.” What did happen? “Nothing much.” And that was the truth. Nothing much happened. Emerson was high. We got him out, and now it was back to life as usual. I hadn’t been given a window to my old friendship with Luke. It was a façade. He needed me to act as bait. That was it. Nothing more.

  “Oh.” Crissy’s laugh trembled. “That’s good. I was worried.”

  “Yeah…” I squared my shoulders back. Whatever. I walked away from Luke three years ago. That had been my choice, not his, but even as I tried to make myself believe that, I couldn’t. I missed being Luke’s friend. Getting that feeling again and then having it taken away, I felt something missing inside me.

  They started to put Emerson behind the driver’s seat, but Luke shook his head. “No. Do the middle. If he wakes up, we can restrain him better this way.”

  Hearing those words, Crissy stepped back, bumping into my side. I expected her to move away, but she didn’t. She stayed there. Her arm started shaking, and that told me one thing; she wasn’t going to help much.

  I started for the front seat, but Luke stopped me. “What are you doing?”

  “‘What are you doing?’” I indicated Emerson. “You need to sit next to him if you’re going to be able to restrain him.”

  “I know.” He held his hand out, and Braden gave him the keys. Luke held them out to me. “You drive. Braden and I will both sit in the back.”

  “Oh, thank god.” Crissy darted for my seat.

  She closed the door for me, pulling on it so I was forced to step back. Luke laughed slightly. He asked, “Still want to join the band?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Not much has changed in three years. Emerson gets high. We carry him home, and we do the best we can. This is how it is.”

  I already knew how Emerson operated. Was it worth dealing with my cousin, that’s what he was warning me about, but the real question I needed to ask myself—was this all worth it, to play with Luke again?

  My hand closed around the keys, and I went to start the car, but I already had my answer. Was it worth it?

  Hell yes.

>   There wasn’t much of a reaction from Luke when I told him. All I got was a nod, and he said, “We’re playing Candy Lake’s house party tonight. It’s a good paying gig. Don’t fuck this up.”

  Don’t fuck it up. Sound advice. I smoothed my clammy hands down my pants and nodded. “Sure. I can do that. I mean, I can not do that. Not fuck it up, I mean.” I was already messing it up.

  Emerson rolled his eyes. “Are we sure about this? Chicks bring drama.” His lip curled up into a sneer. “Especially this one.”

  Braden yelled from the van behind us, “One, she’s amazing on drums. Two, even though she’s my sister and it pains me to say this—it really does—she’s hot. We got the girls coming in droves to see us, but guys will come too now. Sorry, Bri. I feel like I’m pimping you out.”

  I shrugged.

  He continued, “And three, she needs to stay busy. We need to keep her away from Turner in her free time.”

  Emerson grunted right next to him in the seat. “That’s my best friend, asshole.”

  Braden shot back, “You don’t agree with keeping her away from him?”

  My cousin lowered his head. My brother had him with that one. Luke shook his head. “Why are you making this same argument? I already said she’s in.” He said to me, “And I mean it, Bri. I know your history with Candy Lake. Be nice. She has two parties every summer and more during the winter. She booked us in the past, and she pays the best. I don’t want to lose this gig. We need the money.”

  Candy Lake? Move over Emerson; she was another admirer of mine. My lips twitched at my own joke. I was lame, and so was Candy Lake. She wasn’t as bad as Emerson with her hatred of me. No one was. The last time I saw her, the two of us ended up pulling each other’s hair and rolling on the ground. It had been a chick fight gone bad and not one of my glorious moments. I could fight better than that, but she got me on a night when I had been drunk, way too drunk. The party loved it. I had not.

  I shrugged. “I won’t start anything with her.” But if she started something like other girls had in the past, she had another think coming.

  “I mean it, Bri. You hated her in high school. Don’t start anything tonight.” He walked around me and went to the driver’s side. As he got in, Braden clapped his hand on the seat. “Come on, Bri. Hop your ass in here so we can go and make some girls’ panties wet.”

  Because that made sense.

  I shook my head and got into the van. As Braden slammed the side door shut, I remarked, “We need to have a talk where you remember that I’m your sister.”

  Braden winked at me. “You are, but come on, you’re going to be treated like a dude now.”

  “For some reason I feel like that’s a compliment, but I have no idea why.”

  Emerson rolled his eyes. “We’re treating you like an equal. Stop complaining about it.”

  “Why don’t you stop complaining?” I gripped my armrest. “Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.”

  He was staring at me. “Keep it—”

  “Shut up,” Luke clipped out, pulling out of the parking lot. “Both of you. Here's the plan. We’re going to the party, we’ll do the set we practiced with Bri in the basement, and then we’ll head back. The two of you don’t even need to talk to each other.”

  “She—”

  “Got it?” Luke barked, giving Emerson a pointed look in the rearview mirror.

  “Yeah.” My cousin lowered his head. “Got it.”

  “Bri?” Luke addressed me.

  “Yeah?”

  “No fighting.”

  I cracked a grin. We’ll see.

  “I mean it.”

  I nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”

  The drive wasn’t long to get to her house, and from what I remembered about Candy Lake, I wasn’t surprised to see the mansion and guest house sitting on the beach, surrounded by trees. Luke drove right up to a stage that was perched in front of the house, facing the ocean. He took off, and the rest of us started to unpack the equipment. No one spoke, which surprised me, but I was grateful at the same time. Emerson still seemed pissed, and Braden kept stopping to check out every girl that walked by us.

  Candy Lake was the popular girl in high school. Luke and Braden had been popular, too, but they never cared or worked for it. People just liked them, and lucky for me, they were content to hang out with me. The popular girls and I never mixed well. They talked about things that didn’t interest me—fashion, boyfriends, and gossip—and I only wanted to play drums. Growing up as a tomboy, I was the most comfortable hanging out with my brother and his friends.

  “Are we ready to go?”

  Luke had come back. He hoisted himself onto the stage in one fluid movement. The athleticism shouldn’t have been impressive, it was one leap, but it took my breath away. He looked like a damn cat. That had been another thing about Luke. He was gorgeous, dark, mysterious, and athletic. He could’ve played sports, been worshiped for just that feat, but he only cared about music and…I swallowed tightly…me.

  “Bri!” Braden yelled in front of me.

  “What?” I jerked back. As I glanced around, they were all looking right at me, and my cheeks instantly reddened. “You guys were talking?”

  Emerson cursed and bent back over his guitar, tuning it.

  “So, you’re ready?” Braden stepped in front of me and took my shoulders in his hands. “I know it’s your first time with us in front of a crowd, but you can do it. You’re a natural. Our practice set was amazing. We didn’t have too many hiccups.”

  “Emerson hadn’t been there.”

  My brother let go of my shoulders, stepping away. “He plays the same as Gunn, better. Em will be fine. We’re good to go.” He cursed then. “Maybe you’re right. Luke, you think we should do a practice set?”

  Luke adjusted the microphone stand, his eyes shifted to me. “Yeah. It wouldn’t hurt.”

  “Good.” Braden clapped his hands together and moved to pick up his guitar. “Let’s do this shit. We’re going to be awesome.”

  Emerson grunted, rolling his eyes. “Are you on something? If you are, not fair. Share it, cousin.” He opened his lips, showing his teeth for a second. “Anything would help to get us through this.”

  He wasn’t talking about the gig. He was referencing me. I got the insult immediately. My eyes narrowed to slits, and without realizing what I was doing, I surged for him. Enough was enough, but Luke stepped right in front of me. He caught me and held me back, throwing over his shoulder to Emerson, “Could you stop? It’s getting old, and I’m likely to kick you to the curb instead.” One of his hands rested on my hip, and I went still at the touch, feeling burned from the slightest pressure.

  I wasn’t paying attention to what Emerson replied. I sucked in my breath and closed my eyes. I never thought he would touch me again, not even a hug, not how he used to throw his arm around my shoulders, or not how he would play with my hands when we were bored.

  Then his hand dropped, and he turned, glancing down at me. “You okay with that?”

  Hearing the gruffness in his voice, my eyes rose to his. I could only nod in response. He went back to the microphone, keeping his back to me, but it was there. I had felt it again. It stung me. The old connection was still between us. Knowing it was there and feeling it for a moment, had my body wired.

  I climbed to my seat and picked up my sticks. I was ready to go.

  The sticks twirled on my palm, and I held them like that, letting them spin in the air. The song had paused. They were waiting for me, but I still let those sticks go. This was my time to shine. Forget Emerson. This was about music—our music. I was the best, and he was going to be reminded of it. No matter what shit he said about me, he’d keep his mouth shut about this. Drumming was what I did best, and this felt so right. I let the anticipation build. The crowd was waiting. Everyone was waiting. My body was writhing with the tempo. The beat poured through my blood, but I savored it, still holding off, and then, it was time. Everything clicked. The song was perfec
t now, and I flicked the right stick up with my finger, caught it with my thumb, and slammed it down at the same time.

  I didn’t hear the crowd.

  I knew their mouths were open. Their arms were flailing, but it wasn’t about them. They were nothing to me. It was about the music. My leg tapped on the bass, and I glanced up, knowing Braden would mold his chord with my beat. He sensed me and instinctually turned. His head bent further down as his fingers played over the strings. He was doing it. There was no contact between us except the music.

  Then Emerson joined, and he held his note. My beat continued, pulsating out. It infected everyone. No one was immune, and we raised the climax all the way up.

  This was what we did.

  This was how we played.

 
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