Slipping Away by Holden Wells

Title: Slipping Away
Author: Holden Wells
E-mail: holden@theartofslash.com
Site: www.theartofslash.com
Category: Sick Puppy, Agonizing Anguish, Purple Bruise
Type: original
Rating: R
Pairing: original characters
Warnings: Violence
Disclaimer: The following is a work of fiction. The events depicted in these stories never happened and the author is not claiming that they did. Similarities to any real persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright Info: Copyrighted C 2003 Holden Wells. All rights reserved.
Summary: There's only one thing holding Long Torment back from finishing their next studio album.

*******

Graham hadn't noticed the van that glided up alongside him--hadn't thought to notice one more vehicle on the already crowded street--so he didn't know what color it was, or even what make, and that knowledge or lack thereof chased its tail endlessly in his brain: a van, maybe light blue, or maybe black? Maybe it was a gray that had looked like a dull blue in the flash of afternoon sun that came before the darkness.

At least they hadn't knocked him out.

Under the hood or pillow case or sack they'd pulled over his head--if he could reach it, pinch the fabric with his fingers, he could say which it was, maybe--his breath skated back at him, warm and moist in the darkness.

Fuck, and just when things had been going good. He'd just done an interview with Rolling Stone for Christ's sake, told them about the new band.

He wondered if this was about money.

Whoever it was that had pulled him into the van had used tape on his wrists, probably for expediency. Who has time to tie a knot?

He sat on the van's floor, grit grinding under his jeans. The back of his head bumped the van's metal wall--an older van, maybe from the eighties? A delivery van with no windows on the sides. Light blue. Maybe not.--and as they took a sharp turn, he started to slide sideways. The back of a seat stopped him.

Never mind the color of the van; he hadn't seen any of the faces that belonged to the arms that had grabbed him, pulled him in, blinded and immobilized him.

He wrenched his wrists, arched his back, tried to slip free, but the tape held. Most of it, thankfully, adhered to his shirt sleeves, but stray bits ripped at his skin and the little hairs on the back of his wrist.

"Hey," he said, throwing his voice out, hoping someone would catch it over the rumble of the engine. "Hey."

The response he got was a sharp blow across the side of the head: fist, foot, baseball bat? He pressed his forehead into the back of the seat he'd come to lean against and squeezed his eyes against the throb as a knot rose up from the point of impact. Something else jarred him, though; something more than the pain. Light broke through, but not light from the van. It came from inside. Light and a child's squeal and the smell of clover.

The van jerked to a stop; not a stoplight kind of stop, but a final one. The engine cut out. There was the sound of activity inside the van; activity without words.

Hands grabbed his ankles. After a quick rip of a knife through duct tape, his legs were freed. Someone hauled him to his feet. Metal scraped against metal and then clanked; the door had been slid open. They pushed him toward it. Unable to see where his next step might take him, he resisted, but a fistful of shirt and skin pulled him along and then his fears were realized; he stepped into mid-air.

And in that split second, the sweet clover scent came back, obliterating the hot, stale smell of his own breath.

He hit the ground on his knees. A second fist caught hold of his arm from the other side and towed him across a sidewalk to a short flight of stairs that he awkwardly managed to navigate before going through a door. His shoulder banged against the wall of what sounded like a hallway. Then he was shoved around a corner. A hand caught his shoulder, stopping him just shy of falling down a flight of stairs.

His heart beat like it was trying to hammer its way out of his chest. He wanted to stop, lean back against a wall, catch his breath, but they pushed and prodded him. He kept to the side of the stairs, the smooth, rounded banister pressing against his hip, giving him some way of steadying himself.

Each stair was a new panic: he would shuffle his foot to the end of it, until the toe of his shoe caught air, and then gingerly step down. The other foot would join the first and then the first would begin its shuffle again. He could have made it calmly down the stairs that way had it not been for the hands grasping him, their sweaty palms leaving moist prints wherever they clung. Suddenly, in a fit of frustration and panic, he snapped and twisted sideways out of their grip. He didn't lose his footing, didn't leave the stair he was on, but he did--free of their hands--manage to cross to the other wall.

His reward was another blow to the head.

He heard someone hiss, the simple sound saying, "That wasn't necessary. Where was he gonna go?"

Something warm and wet--blood, of course--trickled into his eye. This time he was sure he'd been hit by a fist; he had the cut from a heavy ring to prove it.

They were moving again, dragging him down the stairs, their footfalls echoing in the narrow, high-ceilinged space. At the same time, though, he was in the light again. In a field. Bright midday sun made him squint.

His foot made a misstep and his stomach lurched. The darkness and the stifling air in the hood came back to him. Blood, drying on his cheek, pulled at his skin.

He guessed that the one who'd hissed a minute ago had hold of his arm because the grip wasn't as tight as the others had been. In his mind, he imagined that the one who'd hit him walked several paces ahead, angry at being reprimanded by the hiss. That was the sense of tension he felt here. And there was a third player, too, behind him, his footsteps childlike--step, join, step join--just like Graham's and probably because of Graham's, but his demeanor was a different story; he cuffed the back of Graham's ankle with his foot more than once as Graham picked his way down.

Suddenly, he was jerked forward. The muscles in his arms jumped as though to reach out for support, but the tape held his wrists together. He didn't fall, though; they'd reached the lower level.

His assailants shoved him against a swinging door and into the room beyond where they pushed him to his knees. And then they ripped off the hood.

He blinked.

A basement-cum-recording studio, and a familiar one at that.

He twisted his neck. "What the fuck?" he asked. "You fucking assholes. It never fucking stops, does it? Fucking--"

"He's bleeding. It's gonna get on the rug," Jared--Graham's former lead singer--said to the other two. His mouth a pair of red slashes pulled back from his teeth. "Somebody fucking stop the bleeding or get him off the fucking rug."

Graham's mouth opened and closed.

"You heard him," Brian, they're guitarist, said as he rubbed the knuckles of his right hand. His silver ring glinted in the studio lighting. "Get off the rug."

He hadn't put himself _on_ the rug in the first place! Jesus fucking--

Jared heaved a disgusted sigh then grabbed him by the hair and yanked him forward. With a wince, Graham tried to shuffle along on his knees. The edge of the rug was only two feet from where they'd put him, but it was a long two feet to be dragged by the roots of your hair.

When Jared let go, satisfied that Graham wouldn't ruin the expensive carpeting, Graham slouched, panting.

"How long do you think this will take?" came Chuck's voice from the side of the room.

Graham turned his head to look at their drummer who stood in the shadows, his arms crossed over his chest, his shoulders curled forward like he was cold. Uncomfortable.

"Fucking depends on him, I guess," Jared said, jerking his thumb toward Graham.

"What depends on me?"

"How fucking quickly you cooperate," Brian said.

"Cooperate with what?"

"Listen, Graham," Chuck said, coming out of the shadows, his eyes showing concern despite the pinched look of his face. "We just need you to lay down some bass lines for us."

"What about Saul? I thought you had Saul and everything was all set, you didn't need me, could get by without me. What about that?" He'd quit the band four months earlier, and a great four months it had been, too. He'd been in Long Torment since junior year of high school. Long fucking Torment was an appropriate name for the band, too, because that's what being in it was like.

For years, everyone told him he should take off, leave the other three behind. It was _his_ songs that got radio play. _His_ shit that was together. Long Torment was a piece of shit mediocre band who knew Graham was the only thing keeping them from being total fucking flops. Loyalty and friendship and misplaced hoped had kept him with them for six years. Then he'd left, they'd found Saul--who was at least down at their level of musicianship--and that had been that. Sweet freedom.

"Come on, Graham, we were desperate. We needed someone and Saul was around, but you've heard him play. No fucking heart."

_Among other things,_ Graham thought.

"Jesus fucking Christ." Brian pushed away from the speaker cabs he'd been leaning against. "We just need him to fucking play, not feel better about himself."

Chuck gave a little shrug of apology, but said no more.

Graham nodded. "Right. Yeah. Well, I can't play anything with my hands tied."

Jared laughed. "I know: you're hoping that we'll think you're all of the sudden cooperative and we'll let you loose and put a big, blunt object in your hands." He laughed again. "We're not that stupid. Brian?"

The ratchet of shotgun being cocked reverberated in the room. Graham turned to find its double barrels leveled at him.

A whiff of freshly cut clover skated past his nostrils, the scent green and sharp.

Jared came at him with a knife, leering behind its flashing blade before circling to Graham's backside, dropping to his knees, and grabbing Graham's hands.

Chuck, still distancing himself bodily from the other two, said, "Graham, this can go really easy--"

"Like you've made it so far?"

"I know. I'm really sorry. It's just--we're desperate. We don't have time to kiss and make-up."

"We don't want to fucking make up," Jared said, sawing at the tape.

"Graham," Chuck continued. "Just lay down a few bass lines for us, then we'll...we'll make it up to you somehow."

Brian sneered. "Yeah, and then you can go back to your fucking, what's it called? Muckfucker?"

"Fuckmucker?," said Jared.

"Muckraker," Graham muttered under his breath. His new band, one he'd been planning for a long, long time.

His hands came free finally. He brought them in front of him, rubbing at his wrists, trying to stop the shaking. "And what happens next time? You just grab me off the street again? Throw me around? Bully me into producing for you again?" He looked up at Brian. "What happens when you go on tour?"

"Two words: Milli Vanilli. That's the name of our new bass player."

"Shut up, Brian," Jared said.

Brian leaned toward Graham, letting the nose of his shotgun dip toward the floor. "You can't quit us, fucker. You're hooked. Face it. Deep down inside that scrawny body is a little slave begging, 'Make me! Make me!'"

Graham pushed his lips together and shook his head. He pressed his palms to the floor.

Chuck said, "Graham, please, just fucking do it. It'll take, what, an hour? Maybe two. Then you go back to your life, we go back to ours. Please. Otherwise...."

Graham lifted an eyebrow. "Otherwise?" He looked to Jared, then Brian. "Otherwise what? What otherwise?"

Jared shrugged finally and said, "He wants to know what otherwise. We'll show him what otherwise." He disappeared behind a pile of crates.

Quietly, Chuck said, "Fuck."

Jared came back with a sledgehammer. "Otherwise you don't play at all."

Graham curled his finger and felt the ghost of cool grass catch between them. He looked down. His knees felt damp, as though he'd been kneeling on moist earth. He heard the child's squeal again, a bubbly sound, moving away.

He looked up at Jared, a grin forming on his face. He was sinking into something. Couldn't they see?

"So what's it gonna be?" Brian asked, flipping the barrel of the shotgun onto his shoulder. None of them were afraid he'd try to leave. They all thought they'd done a sufficient job of cowing him over the years.

Slowly and still grinning, Graham held his hands out before him.

"Graham, don't," Chuck said, a flinch in his voice.

His lip curled as he said, "I'm not playing for you."

Jared shrugged. He moved behind a speaker cabinet and began kicking it toward Graham. When it was a foot from Graham's knees, Jared raised his eyebrows and nodded his head at it.

Graham spread his hands across its surface and flattened his fingers.

Jared glanced over at Brian who shrugged. Then Jared hoisted the sledge onto his shoulder.

"Graham! Come on. It doesn't have to fucking be this way," Chuck said. "He's gonna--fuck. He's not gonna stop until your finger bones are fucking powder. Graham! Don't fucking do this!"

"Ready?" Jared asked.

Graham couldn't see the black top of the speaker. He had his hands in mid air, the sun warming them.

"Daddy!" the child squealed, running to him and hooking a chubby arm around his neck.

Graham smiled at Jared, who was disappearing just like the speaker. "Whenever you are," he said. He saw the sledge come off Jared's shoulders, but then all he saw was blue sky and green field. Dandelions and butterflies.

"Daddy!"

"What?" Graham asked, rolling to the ground. The toddler grinned down at him, a stream of saliva sliding down his chin. "Come here." He pulled his shirt sleeve down over his hand and wiped the drool away.

"Honey?"

Graham craned his neck back. "Yes, dear?" His wife had her hands on her hips, gardening gloves squeezed in one fist, but her face wore a crooked smile.

"I thought you were getting this lawn mowed?"

"Trev and I decided to flatten it instead. Didn't we, Trevor? Come on, let's flatten the grass!" He rolled away and, giggling, Trevor dropped to his butt and scooted along behind.

"I swear," Denise said, shaking her head. Then: "Don't think I don't know why you're doing this."

Graham, on his stomach, Trevor climbing his back like it was a mountain, propped himself on his elbows. "Oh? Why am I doing this?"

"Because after the lawn gets mowed you know I'll start hounding you to clean out the garage."

Graham rolled his eyes. "Always the garage."

Denise dropped to the ground beside him and pulled Trevor into her lap. "Honey, we can't fit a car in there any more and you know--"

"I know, I know. When the bonus check comes in at the end of the quarter and we buy our first ever new car, you don't want it sitting in the driveway."

Rubbing his shoulder, Denise said, "Besides, when's the last time you even thought about any of that junk? The Atari console--"

"It's a collector's item!"

"It's broken! And the guitar--"

"It's a bass! I used to play that every fucking day."

"When you were what? Fifteen?"

Graham rolled onto his back and folded his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes to block out the sun. "It's a cheerful reminder of my youth."

"Take a picture, then put the thing on ebay."

"But maybe Trevor--"

"We'll buy one for Trevor when and if he ever wants to be the next Cliff Burton."

Graham sighed. "Fine, fine, fine. I'll get to it."

Denise chucked him in the side. "When have I heard that before?"

"Shhh. Aren't I otherwise the perfect husband?"

Denise snorted.

"Perfection's overrated anyway. I'll go have a look at the scope of the job after lunch."

"Good. Sandwiches are in the kitchen." Denise scooped up Trevor and walked off toward the house.

Graham pushed himself up and watched her, her hip cocked to carry their son, her hair swinging across her back, except for the fistful that Trevor was pulling into his mouth. Ah, family life.

The lawn mower was where he'd left it, a path of shorn grass trailing out behind it. He'd shut it down when Trevor had come bumbling out of the house on his stubby legs, his "Daddy" squeal hiccupping with each bouncing step.

Maybe he'd go have a quick look at the garage before washing up for lunch. He grabbed the handlebar of the lawn mower and dragged it behind him, parking it for the time being along the wood-sided wall of the garage. The wall's white paint was worn in places, peeling in others. Another job on his to-do list. He sighed and ducked into the cool shadows of the garage.

Denise hadn't been exaggerating. He had trouble letting go of things, from the old washer with the rust hole through the bottom of it to the space heater with the missing cord that he'd dug out of someone's trash to, yes, the bass. He climbed over boxes of books and Denise's maternity clothes and dug out the black, hard-shell case. Dragging it onto the boxes, he unlatched it.

Inside laid his bass. _The_ bass, the one and only he'd ever owned. The one that was going to make him a rock star, another Gene Simmons. Another Cliff Burton, Geddy Lee, or Geezer Butler.

He pulled it out. He hadn't played in years. The strings would probably snap if he tried to tune the thing. He plucked one.

/"What the fuck happened?"/

He jumped. Someone had just said that not five feet from his ear. What the hell?

/"I don't know. Maybe it's shock."/

/"You didn't have to fucking smash his fucking hands."/

Three voices. Right _there_, right there with him. Where the fuck were they?

"Hello?" Nothing. Wait...there must be a radio in here somewhere and he'd accidentally tripped it on as he'd climbed over all the boxes. He set the bass back in its case and crouched, pressing his ear against the cardboard.

Nothing. Batteries must have finished the last of their juice.

Straightening, he looked at his bass again, wondered how much he'd get for it on ebay. The extra cash would be nice. He ran a hand down the strings.

/"He's not moving."/

Graham whipped his hand away. His heart thudded. What the--? Cautiously, he touched the strings again.

/"What if we killed him? That'd be just fucking--"/

/"He's not dead. There's a pulse."/

/"Almost better if he were dead. Then we wouldn't have to fucking explain his fucking hands to anyone."/

Graham's fingers fell away from the bass. The skin around his ears prickled as he listened.

Nothing.

Fingers on bass:

/"Motherfucker. Motherfucker. We're fucked."/

/"He's not fucking dead."/

/"No, he's fucking mangled though. Fuck. I can't believe I let you--"/

/"Let me? It's my fault?"/

Fingers off bass: nothing.

Graham wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.

"Honey? There you are." Denise appeared at the doorway, the sunlight bright behind her. Her brow furrowed. "You okay?"

"Listen." He grabbed the neck of the bass in his left hand.

/"No, I won't be a part of that. Fuck, we brought him here to play and you fuckers--"/

He let go, flushing at the harsh language, and looked up at Denise.

Her eyes were inquisitive. "Are you going to play me something?"

"You didn't hear it?"

Around a wry smile, she said, "I think I'm beginning to get why you weren't the next Cliff Burton."

"No, the voice. Did you--? Here." He grabbed the neck again.

/"I'm leaving. Do whatever the fuck you want to do. Just...don't fucking tell me about it, okay? Oh, by the way, who the fuck's going to lay down the bass lines for us now? Fuck."/

/"Fucking don't worry about it. We'll figure it out."/

/"You wanna kidnap Mike Inez next?"/

/"Fucking go if you're going already."/

Graham released the bass. "Well?"

"Sorry. Nothing. And your sandwiches are getting crusty. Come on. I left Trevor in his play pen. Lord knows he'll be climbing out of it any day now. If I hang out here any longer, today will be that day."

Graham turned his gaze to the bass once more. He felt Denise watching him, then heard her shoes turn in the gravel and crunch away toward the house. He held his fingers over the neck of the bass. Slowly, he lowered them onto the strings.

/"You do it."/

/"I can't."/

/"You fucking did his fingers, and that was with him staring at you."/

/"Fingers. That isn't the same."/

/"Come on. It's like whacking a coconut."/

/"Take the fucking sledge! I'm not doing it."/

/"Wuss."/

Where was this? What was going on? Graham absently plucked at the strings as he waited for the next clue.

His fingers throbbed suddenly, coming to life with a dental-drill-hit-a-nerve shock. He held his free hand in front of his face, the fingers mashed and crooked. Pulpy. Red. Swelling.

/"Wait. I can't watch."/

/"Jesus fucking--"/

/"Come on. I'm not the fucking he-man hunter here, am I?"/

A scream welled in Graham's throat. Fear gripped him, and some little part of his brain knew what he was afraid of. His scalp prickled, anticipating the blow.

/"You're the fucking horror movie fanatic."/

/"This isn't a fucking movie."/

"Graham!"

Denise in the doorway again, Trevor on her hip twisting a sailboat in his pudgy hands "Daddy!" he said.

"Honey? What's wrong?" She gripped Trevor tighter and moved into the garage, side-stepping boxes.

Graham looked back down at his hands.

/"All right. On the count of three. One--"/

"Honey?"

"Daddy!"

/"Two--"/

"Graham!"

"Sail boe!" Trevor squealed. The toy slipped from his grasp and skittered to the floor.

/"Thr--"/

Graham snatched his hand away and then dropped the cover of the case onto the bass with his elbow. His chest heaved. He wanted to sit down. Throw up.

"Graham, baby, are you all right?"

He shook his head. The pain in his fingers was fading. "I'm...I'm fine. Look...maybe we could move this thing to the attic, huh? I'm not ready to get rid of it yet."

Move it to the attic, wrap it in padlocks, and never ever touch it again, or let anyone else near it, for that matter. He'd just come within a long vowel sound of having his brains smeared on the end of a sledgehammer.

Denise's eyebrows drew together, but she said, "All right. If it's that important to you. But the Atari...it can go, right?"

Graham swiped his hair back off his face. "I'll put it on ebay first thing after lunch." He tried on a wan smile. He didn't know if he'd be able to force down the sandwiches, but ice water sounded good right about now.

"My God. You're shaking."

Graham gave her a weak laugh. "Yeah, well...yeah."

With a shake of her head, Denise bent to swoop Trevor's boat from the concrete floor. When she stood back up, she put the boat back in Trevor's happy grasp, and said, as she ruffled their son's hair, "You boys and your toys. You just never grow out of them, do you?" She threw a smile over her shoulder. The sunlight set her hair on fire. She was an angel. "Coming?"

Graham nodded, his shoulders dropping, pulse slowing. "Right on your heels." Quickly, he snapped the clasps on the bass case shut, lifted it by its handle, and headed toward the house. The chains and padlocks he'd pick up on his way home from the shop Monday afternoon, but for now he could at least get it into the attic.

As he passed Trevor's room he stopped short, backstepped, and swung inside. High up on a bookshelf he found something else he needed: big, fat nubs of sidewalk chalk. He grabbed the first piece his hand closed upon, dropped the bass case on the changing table, and scrawled "Keep Out!" in big lilac letters across its front. He underlined it three times before dropping the chalk back on the shelf.

In the attic--it had been a brief challenge lugging it up the drop-down ladder and through the narrow opening, but with some grunting and teeth-gritting, he'd managed to get inside--he carried it to the far end then, crouching to fit under the slope of the roof and teetering on the beams that were all he had to put his feet on, he stuffed it under a roll of insulation. Ignoring the itch of fiberglass, he pulled more insulation free and stuffed it on top. Then, when he was satisfied that no one wandering through the attic would get even a glimpse of the black case, he brushed his hands (though they would need much more than that before they stopped itching), backed up to the plank that ran the length of the attic and stood.

He'd come so close to....

He'd almost lost everything.

He walked away, twisting his head back every few feet to make sure the instrument was completely hidden from view, and then he climbed back down the ladder. In the bathroom at the top of the stairs, the window was wide open, the curtains billowing in the warm midday breeze. The air carried the scent of clover. Below, a child squealed and giggled. He rubbed soap over his hands, the smell of Ivory mixing with the clover. Somewhere in his brain he had the smell of sweat and beer, pot smoke and fear, but the soap and the grass clippings were sweeter.

He'd gotten free, and they never thought he would. He laughed. His stomach gurgled and he remembered that his wife had sandwiches waiting for him.

Wife. Son. Family. House, kitchen, yard, lawn mower. Home. He cranked off the faucet and looked at himself in the mirror. He'd gotten free. And they'd thought they'd have him forever.....