WARNING: These short stories contain horrific images and extreme violence. For every action, there is a reaction, and because music has reached such an unprecedented level of artistry, the evil in the belly of the world has crept to the surface. Please read with extreme caution. Each month, a different super-star band will be cursed, haunted, stalked, and terrorized by vicious serial killers, demented miscreants, blood-sucking zombies, and hideous demon-spirits. Fear is a disease. You will be infected.
Scott Ian – rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Charlie Benante – drums
Frank Bello – bass guitar, backing vocals
Joey Belladonna – lead vocals
Jonathan Donais – lead guitar
Before you delve into our first-ever MUSIC HELL novelette, we strongly encourage you to enhance your reading experience by streaming Anthrax’s eleventh studio album, For All Kings, released on December 15th, 2017, via Megaforce and Nuclear Blast.
Frank pulled over and ran the front tire up and over the curb, tilting everything. Some of the instruments shifted in the job site container loaded just inside the rear doors, but the amps were good, he’d ratchet-strapped them back there himself. From behind someone beeped, and Frank cursed softly, edging forward, sneaking the van’s back tire up on the sidewalk as well. Scott was just about pissing himself laughing and he almost spilled his Starbucks. Joey sat forward in the back seat and slid his sunglasses to the end of his nose. Next to him, Jonathan was turning his cell all different directions as it recalibrated Google Maps, and Charlie remained immersed in a motorcycle magazine he’d picked up at the airport after the band crushed it at the State Theater in Portland last night.
Frank put it in park, rain drumming across the windshield. The wiper on the right had a shredded piece of rubber dragging, and the one on the driver’s side had formed this white streak that was directly in your plane of vision. For a moment he considered calling the rental company about it, but he’d wanted a lemon to tell the truth. He had recently decided to expand his charity work with “Little Kids Rock” by donating these instruments to elementary school students outside of New York, and well, the shitty van was a part of the picture. You didn’t roll up to a school of needy children in your stretch limo. You had to go punk, and with the KILLTHRAX Tour 2018 going so well…plus the fact that there was such a long break until they were booked May 13th at Papa Murphy’s Park in Sacramento… the guys in the band had agreed to come along before they all hurried home for some family time and well-earned R&R.
Started out great too, like a family outing, happy campers in the van and all that, and they’d been headed for the Bregy School in South Philadelphia, totally pumped. But somewhere around 16th and Bigler, they’d taken a wrong turn, winding up here.
Down by the stadiums.
Lost in the middle of everywhere.
Frank reached down for his cell phone in the cup holder so he could try Waze, and he noticed that there was a strange sound building outside the van, sort of sudden, rising fast and coming hard like a roller coaster car on loose rails. A violent blur shot by the passenger window, and a shopping cart filled with cans crashed hard into their front fender panel.
“Whoa!” Joey shouted.
The cart-pusher was this old, hawk-faced guy with gray hair flattened down to his neck and a tattered, oversized army jacket billowing back in the wind.
He came around front and slammed his open hand hard on the hood.
“What the fuck!” Charlie shouted back, and everyone in the van voiced similar sentiments. It suddenly felt like they were back in New York, hollering through the window at some asshole who’d just cut them off going Eastbound on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, only this guy looked like the jacked-up grand-daddy from Wrong Turn or The Hills Have Eyes or Deliverance.
“You can’t park here!” the old miscreant howled. “You can’t sit dormant! You’ve been infected!”
“Infected?” Scott muttered, and as if the dude had somehow heard it through the glass, he put both palms on the hood and leaned in.
“I-N-F-E-C-T-E-D,” he mouthed, then pointing to their right, toward the lot they’d parked next to. Then he mouthed something else, something really fucking weird before barreling off across Pattison Avenue with his shopping cart of loose cans.
“Haunted…since two-four,” he’d said.
All verbal garbage, crazy-talk, right?
Except Scott hadn’t voiced that opinion, in fact, he’d kept silent through the short conversation they had about it. He was superstitious enough to believe that his Yanks won games depending on what position he kept on the couch as a viewer, so he’d put two and two together in a different way than his band mates.
Right, and after looking out through the windshield, really looking and getting his bearings, Scott had realized that the empty parking lot here just happened to be where the old Spectrum once stood before being torn down. Pearl Jam was the last band to play there, maybe 2010 or so, and he vividly recalled the nights Anthrax rocked the living shit out of that venue, right here on these grounds, back in 1988 with Ozzy and again in 1991 with the great Iron Maiden.
Currently, the lot was abandoned.
Philly was a cursed town and the Eagles had just won the Super Bowl…on guess what…February fourth. “Two-four.” Maybe the homeless guy was telling them that this odd victory had kicked up all the metaphysical waste-product that had been strewn across Philadelphia like powdered poison for decades, and that it settled somewhere, all in one place, right here, where the Spectrum once stood. The boys from Anthrax had crossed unholy terrain, and were now positioned at the brink of an omen.
Scott looked out his window at the dreary gray lot in the rain. Of course, this was ridiculous, cross your fingers, knock on wood sort of bullshit…I mean, there must have been thousands that had cut across that wide stretch of asphalt on foot, or passed by on the sidewalk, or parked here since the Super Bowl. If this lot was haunted, it would have been all over social media. It would have been a national meme.
Unless you only kicked it off and got infected if you were the first to return after actually performing here…
Suddenly there was a boy out there on the sidewalk.
Ten feet away, at the edge of the lot, he’d appeared out of nowhere, and he was strange and he was motionless, standing there with a loose gray poncho whipping around his face in the wind. It was tough to catch his features, but Scott knew that red hair anytime, anywhere. It was his six-year old son, Revel Young Ian, wearing his AC/DC Rock and Roll Train tee shirt, faded jeans, and yellow galoshes.
“Rev?” Scott said. He made to hit the button to roll down the window, but there was nothing in the armrest. The van was old school with crank handles. Outside the window, the boy abruptly turned and ran straight away from them, kicking up splashes. He jumped the grassy border-strip with the small wilting decorator trees, swinging his arms hard like boys did when consumed with the pure joy of a good race, and when he crossed the property line and hit asphalt, everything changed.
There were gasps in the van, and in any other circumstance the guys would have really broken balls over it, no lie. But the fact that they all clearly saw this at the same time nixed the idea that one of them had suddenly become a weak link.
The parking lot was no longer empty.
The old Spectrum was back with its oblong design and red brick façade, but rising from it now from the left end were two massive smokestacks, both heat-scorched and crumbling. The front wall due left was covered with huge window wells shaped like cathedral arches, but some of the panes were broken, all of them darkened. At the foot of the building were piles of broken cinderblock and wood scrap that littered either side of an old loading area, and altogether, it looked like the place they tortured people in the movie Hostel.
They piled out of the van, rain cold and stinging. The idea that they were the only ones who could see all this was a given, and the notion that no one would believe them if they tried to explain, a no-brainer. They raced to the edge of the lot, then down the factory’s entrance road, long and straight and bordered with prison fencing.
They ran hard, but the boy ran faster.
They tried calling out, but their voices drowned in the wind. By the time they got to the halfway point, Rev was already scrambling up onto the loading dock, and when they got there themselves, he’d long vanished into the factory. Through the middle roll gate bay door that was open and darkened inside with black shadows.
They hurried up the side stairs.
They sped across the apron, and plunged straight into the darkness.
It did cross Scott Ian’s mind that one of them might run straight into a forklift or a pile of pallets before finding a light switch, but the minute they crossed the plane of the bay door, everything rebooted. The lights were on, for one, kicking up harsh reflections off the industrial floor tiles, and Scott realized that now he was alone in a long hallway lined with gurneys along the mild curve of the wall to the right. To the left was a series of doors, all heavy steel with peep-windows, and above each door was an LED flood lamp with a nickel mesh bulb cover.
Scott was in a strait jacket. He was wearing leg irons. There was a sign hanging from the drop ceiling down the hall, a long sign with raised letters that said, “Psychiatric Ward / Extreme Therapy,” and Scott started to run when the music started.
It was their song “Madhouse,” but slowed down somehow, off kilter and dissonant, and after the introductory measures when Charlie kicked in the beat and the guitars wailed those signature notes of hanging, live-wire, lunatic vibrato, the lamps over all the doors blazed red, on and off, just out of sync with alarm buzzers that suddenly cranked up so loud the vibrations buzzed your back teeth.
Scott ran blindly, shuffled, did his best not to fall, but the ankle chains gave less than nine inches of play and without the ability to use his arms for balance he was lucky not to pitch forward flat on his face. The strobe light effect of the emergency lamps made it so he couldn’t quite tell when his feet would land, like going down stairs in the dark and forgetting where the bottom came, and the offbeat buzzer blasts fucked his rhythm something fierce.
Someone grabbed him from behind, someone strong. Scott Ian thrashed. He was lifted off the floor and as the rag was pressed into his face, smelling like ammonia and something he couldn’t quite place, he thought he saw the hallway for what it really was for a split second, the old Spectrum concourse area where they had the dank flooded bathrooms and concession stands selling cheap keg beer with too much head and those Broil-O-Dog rotisseries that had the stale Oscar Meyer product looking like fossils under glass. But all that was only a flicker, and after he blacked out completely, he woke up inside one of the rooms with the red bulb over the door.
He was sitting on a hard metal chair. The straight jacket was gone, and he was in a hospital gown, the kind with the drawstring tied up high on the neck and the open slot down the back. The chair was freezing cold and his ass was asleep. The leg irons had been removed, and now he had a belly chain coiled around his torso and snaked through the frame of the backrest. He tried to move, but the cuffs restricted him, keeping his hands and elbows tucked close like Barney the dinosaur.
The door opened, and a man in a lab coat entered, tall enough that he had to duck through the archway. He had a thin face and a long jaw, you could see the bone-lines. He had on thick black architect’s glasses and he wore brown leather shoes, the type that clicked on hard floors and made your toes look long and important. He glanced down at his clipboard.
“Yes?” he said.
“Where’s my son, asshole?”
The man looked up.
“Yeah, asshole. The red head, six years old, I’m his father.”
The man seemed to frown, but it was just the natural indentations at the corners of his mouth, so defined they looked like marionette lines.
“His father,” he said.
“Yeah, what are you, deaf? I’m here for my son. If you hurt him, I’ll kill you. I want my son, I’m his father.”
The man studied Scott for a moment.
“What is a father?” he said.
Scott jerked at the restraints to no avail.
“A father,” he said, “you know, a fucking parent. He’s my boy, I’m telling you…I already told you, what the fuck?”
The man’s expression had not changed.
“What is a father?” he said, taking a step closer. He had a small freckle under the left corner of his lip, and a slight hint of gray creeping in at the bottom of his sideburns.
“All right,” said Scott, “so you want me to spout some family values, partisan bullshit? If you’re a democrat a father is a role model who teaches his kids to appreciate diversity, spread the wealth, and respect women, and if you’re a republican, you teach your kids manners, prayers, and the best way to oil your .32 Beretta.”
The man folded his arms, hugging the clipboard to his chest.
“Once again, he said calmly. “What is a father?”
“Are you fucking kidding me? You want me to talk dirty? What the fuck is this?”
“What is a father?”
“He’s a baby maker!” Scott shouted. “He gets it up, he makes love, he shoots and he scores, now what do you want from me?”
“Are you the boy’s father?”
There was a long pause between them, and Scott did his best to stay calm and measured.
“Yes. I’m his father,” he said. “Now where the fuck is he?” The man’s right eyebrow arced up ever so slightly.
“Prove it,” he said.
“That you’re the boy’s father. That you’re Scott Ian. That you play rhythm guitar and write lyrics for the super group Anthrax.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Scott said with an angry smile. “Prove it, how?”
“By answering questions.”
“These questions, right here on my clipboard.”
“What do they say?”
“They’re questions about you.”
“Why the fuck?”
“To prove you’re his father, that’s why the fuck.”
Scott almost laughed.
“You’re going to test me on myself?”
“Yes, it’s a game.”
“What are the stakes?” Scott said.
Peep this video of the band performing “Among The Living” in 1987.
“Life or death, of course.” He reached into his lab coat pocket and pulled out a gun. “Not a .32 Beretta, I am afraid,” he said, “but we’ll have to make due with this .40 caliber Glock 23.” He gazed at it as if studying a surgical instrument. “Gen4 I believe.” He looked down at his clipboard and tapped the muzzle on it.
“What is your favorite Stephen King novel?”
“Are you kidding?”
The man looked up coldly.
“Ask me if I’m kidding once more and I’ll use the Glock, I’m not bluffing. What is your favorite Stephen King novel?”
“The original, the shorter one.”
“What Anthrax song is based on this novel?”
“Title track of Among the Living. Next.”
“Your favorite Yankee.”
“Thurman Munson. Next.”
“The year you consider the most important in your formative development, and the one thing you feel influenced you the most during this time period.”
Scott’s arms were burning from the positioning.
“Can you loosen these chains?”
“No. Answer the question.”
Scott could feel the sweat on his forehead and dripping down the groove in the back of his neck.
“Because it’s a trick,” he said. “It was three things and you know it. 1977. Game six of the World Series, Reggie Jackson hits his big three. I also saw KISS at Madison Square Garden, and that summer I went to stay with my mother’s best friend in Laguna Beach, skateboarding the days away. You can’t have one without the other two. It was the discovery of my competitive edge, my art, and my freedom.”
“Answer the question.”
The man took the Glock and raised it. Scott held his breath, eyes blazing, but the guy didn’t aim the gun at him.
The guy stuck it under his own jaw.
“What?” Scott had the time to say.
The man pulled the trigger. The sound was bluntly short and shockingly loud in the enclosed space, and the burst through the top of his head was majestic, an exploding party favor, thick red confetti with the meaty back-spray spattering the ceiling in a pattern that looked like a backward capital “C.” The man slumped to the floor, and immediately, the door opened. A woman in a lab coat walked in crisply. Her brown hair was tied back in a conservative bun and she had on respectable heels. She had sun freckles dusted across her nose, soft brown eyes, and tortoise shell reading glasses hanging around her neck on a sports lanyard.
She walked past the body, right through the pool of blood on the floor, and her shoes left diamond-shaped prints that ghosted to outline by the time she bent for the clipboard.
“Right,” she said. “So, which of the three events influenced you the most in 1977 then?”
“KISS,” Scott said, voice shaking, heart racing. “It was always about the music, right? Is that right?”
She gave him a professional smile.
“Of course. I’m your biggest fan.”
“Yeah,” Scott said, “I get it. My biggest fan, reference to Stephen King’s Misery, and “Misery Loves Company,” off our fourth album, State of Euphoria. Let’s finish the category, huh? How about “A Skeleton in the Closet” based on “Apt Pupil” from King’s novella collection, Different Seasons, and the way we linked The Gunslinger series with songs from our albums, Spreading the Disease and For All Kings? How’s that? Can you stop killing yourselves and let me have my son now?”
Again, she smiled. Very professionally.
“In 2009, you finished six hundred and thirty seventh in The World Series of Poker. You won $21,365. Who came in nine hundred and fifty-eighth place?”
“Who came in –“
“I don’t fucking know and you fucking know I don’t know.”
Her professional smile never wavered, and from her lab coat pocket she pulled out a pistol, shorter than the one borne by her predecessor.
She shrugged, raised it to the side of her temple, and fired. The report was a short, muffled “pop,” and the opposite side of her face exploded. There was a gummy burst of red spray and a couple of wet “ping” sounds as some of her shattered bone meal peppered the door. It opened, she crumpled. Another “scientist” made his entrance, crossing through and stepping between the bodies on the floor, picking up the blood-spattered clipboard. This guy had horseshoe dome with the remaining hair covering his ears like a monk. He had horn rimmed spectacles, chipmunk cheeks, and a paunch you could see hanging over the belt of his gray trousers between the flaps of his lab coat.
“Twice and you wear the dunce cap,” he said. He pulled from his pocket a yank-over clown mask, jester bells sprouting from the crown, long blue diamond shapes etched around the eye holes. The painted grin went all the way up to the cheekbones, and when the scientist approached and pulled it down over Scott’s head, all there was to register for a second was the overwhelming stink of the factory rubber. It was also slightly off-center favoring right, and it was like looking through a pair of binoculars before you adjusted, with an obstruction down center and no sense of periphery. From the corner of his eye, he felt the scientist close to his left, and at first it was difficult to determine exactly what he was doing.
Then it came clear.
He was unlocking the belly chain. Next were the handcuffs, and Scott didn’t waste time holding an elbow and stretching and balling his fingers. The moment the restraints came off, he burst from the chair. His legs were cramped and screaming. The scientist had moved to the right, bent over to unlock the last manacle, and Scott turned and grabbed out for the vision of the strange scientist that slashed through the eye holes. Bear hug. Got him; the guy’s breath was hot and smelled like bad medicine. Scott held tight with his left around back and fumbled down with his right for the pocket where there was certainly something other than a clown mask and a set of reading glasses. For a horrible instant, Scott wondered how effective it would be to pull a gun on a man who was going to use it on himself anyway, but this was a “madhouse,” a place where things were based on lunacy and impulse rather than deduction and logic.
He yanked the gun out, and they separated and oh, this was new, you could feel it in the air, in the silence around them.
He raised up the weapon, and he didn’t have to be an expert to recognize the model as he sighted it down through the eye holes. It was long barreled Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, the Dirty Harry gun, a Stephen King “Roland” gun, effectively weighted and perfectly balanced, pure balls, raw rush, real cowboy shit right here in his hand.
He took aim at the forehead just above the nose bridge of the scientist’s horn rims.
Put his finger inside the trigger-guard.
Check out the cover artwork for Anthrax’s studio recording For All Kings.
Jonathan Donais plunged into the darkness like the rest of them, but when the dim lighting came up around him, it wasn’t some industrial stock room or warehouse loading area. It was a large basement storage space for some kind of hospital, the wall shelving stacked with steel carry cases and stackable bins and tote boxes, all with the sign of the Red Cross stamped on them. In the far corner by a grouping of red waste containers that said “Biohazardous Material Only,” there was a scatter of wheelchairs that looked like they came from another century. On the far side, there was a rust-spotted water boiler and triple sink arrangement of industrial splash basins by a silver tray table, ten feet long at the least, littered with surgical instruments. The air was dank, and the room was lit solely by a barn ceiling bulb housed in a steel basket cage guard pitching everything in shadowy checkerboard.
Jonathan didn’t like hospitals. He didn’t like doctors’ offices either, the waiting, the unnatural quiet, the bathrooms with the toilet paper so thin you could see through it, the shitty magazines. He also didn’t like feeling helpless. He was convinced that doctors didn’t know what they were doing most of the time, working it backward, playing process of elimination with the things that weren’t wrong with you rather than having the know-how to make surefire identifications and expedient cures. He hated needles, hated tongue depressors, hated scopes being stuck in his ears, and just as he always preferred a good leather jacket out in the snow as opposed to a bulky fucking parka, he avoided doctors like the plague.
Like the plague.
That was funny. Listening to his own internal monologue was funny. The door opened, and no one was laughing.
It was this duck-footed, chunky doctor in green wrinkled scrubs. He had a wide nose that had the kind of pores that stood out so much they could have been mistaken for blackheads. He was studying his fingernails as he came through the archway, and he looked up with a start.
“What are you doing out?” he said.
“You’re a danger to yourself and to others.”
“The hell I am. Where is Scott’s kid?”
“You know him?”
“Of course, I know him!” Jonathan took a threatening step forward, and his boot sole made an ugly, gritty sound on the concrete. The doctor didn’t flinch, but his eyes widened. Then, he put his hands on his hips and looked down as if to say, “What am I going to do with you,” glanced up, and nodded. Jonathan was about to ask the doctor why he would make a gesture like they were in on something together, when he was grabbed from behind, someone big, someone with a barrel chest and biceps like pythons. Jonathan tried to wrench free, and the beast switched strategies, going up and under and getting what they used to call a “chicken wing” back in middle school wrestling. The beast slapped his other paw over Jonathan’s nose and mouth, and the rag he was palming smelled like turpentine or something.
Jonathan’s eyes rolled back, but just before they did he saw that the room changed, almost like the medical storage area was a thin veil over what the space really was, a basement dressing room under an arena stage. There were a couple of card tables and low sofas where the biohazardous waste containers had been, and the walls were covered with graffiti, signatures and logo sketches of all the bands that had played here. The spotted water boiler was now a fridge stocked with the product of the tour sponsors, and through the glass doors Jonathan could make out a rack of Bud Light, one crammed with Red Bull, and buckets of free KFC at the bottom. The triple sinks were mirror and makeup, and the long silver tray with the surgical implements was really a caterer’s table, complete with Bunsen burners under silver pans filled with Swedish meatballs, creamy pasta, and kielbasa and sauerkraut. There were platters with both veggie and deli, and a crock of good old coconut chicken soup, Jonathan could smell it. Where the wheelchairs had been arranged, there was a mini golf cart now for emergency stage transport, and in the perimeter cabinets, there were first aid kits, open wardrobe closets, and a few combination safes for the valuables.
Then darkness, a turbulent one, where Jonathan felt like he was blindfolded in one of those flying dreams. He was never really “knocked out all the way,” but when things started fading back into view he felt woozy, everything wavering. There was music coming through bad speakers, undulating and strange, as if it was a tape someone was spinning by hand at inconsistent speed, slowed to a moan, and then fast and high pitched like alien chatter. It was “Belly of the Beast,” that’s what it was, and Jonathan was back in the medical storage space.
His throat felt as if it was wrapped in some sort of adhesive, and he was in one of the wheelchairs. It had been altered. There were no arm bars. There were no flip-up footrests or heel loops either. The hand brake was on and the bottom canisters had the wheel locks closed down. Immediately, Jonathan tried to wrench himself out but he was fixed to the chair it seemed, chained to the back rest, he’d heard the short, distinct scrape back there of metal on metal. From the feel, it appeared they had worked the chain through his belt loops, but it seemed firmer than that, like they’d made holes in the tough denim waist band and woven the links straight in and out of the fabric. He struggled again to no avail, and the short pudgy doctor turned to him from the tray table.
“Sit still,” he said. “I’ve hooked you up to two IV’s, taped to your neck and trailing back to the pole accessory. If you rip them loose it’s your own disadvantage.”
“What are you pumping into me?”
“Saline. And adrenaline.”
The doctor shook his head in a subtle quiver as if to say, “Did you really just ask me something that stupid?”
“Hydration,” he said. “And alertness, of course.”
It reminded Jonathan of what the Law-Abiding Citizen dude did in that movie to the crackhead murderer before taking off his fingers and toes with a pair of tin snips. And hey, didn’t he also hack off the guy’s prick? Wasn’t that part of the script? Holy fuck.
But he kept it together. Jonathan Donais wasn’t the type go crying and weeping. He also didn’t know all the rules yet.
“What’s this about?” he said carefully. The doctor had turned and bent back to rummaging through the implements on the tray stand.
“It’s about your buddy,” he said, not turning back.
“What about him?” He’d said it too sharply, showed his hand so to speak, but Frank was one of the best friends he’d ever had, more than just a pal you liked to sit beside at the watering hole (though they did a lot of that to be sure, fucking right). In terms of the grand history, the whole thing had been storybook. As Anthrax had made their statement through the 80s and 90s, Jonathan was initially an impressionable boy, then a middle school fan, a high school fanatic. He’d idolized this band for years, and their friends were his heroes, like the other guys in the “Big Four” comprised of Slayer, Megadeth, and Metallica…and Zakk Wylde, Slash, the Judas Priest boys, you name it, and Jonathan had dedicated his heart and soul to this project. In 2013, when Rob Caggiano had called to say he was going to join Volbeat and they were thinking of Jonathan to replace him, that was one thing. But when Scott Ian had firmed it up on the phone, Jon’s life skyrocketed. Frank had taken him under his wing immediately, automatic connection. He reminded Jonathan of the uncle he never had, just as Frank’s uncle Charlie had brought him along back when Frank was just a kid playing roadie. These ties ran deep and everyone was connected. It was almost Shakespearean, though Jonathan couldn’t remember the play for the life of him.
“So, what about Frank,” he repeated. “You hurt him, we’ll all fuck you up in a New York minute.”
The doctor spun around. He had something in his hand, and it wasn’t a surgical instrument. It was a Mineral Mountain Battle Hatchet, looking like a cross between something “Viking” and a Native American tomahawk.
“Hurt him?” he said. “No. We’re going to kill him. Look.”
Behind the tray table, a flat screen television came on. The image was Frank sitting in a room watching what looked like his own television monitors. He was staring at the screens. There was a prisoner on either side of him. Both had burlap sacks over their heads. Behind them was a monstrous man, hands folded behind, bald dome, built like a linebacker. He was wearing institutional whites, and it seemed to Jonathan that this was probably the guy who had grabbed him and put a rag over his mouth. He was their muscle, an African American Mr. Clean, and he suddenly brandished his own weapon from behind his back, a butcher’s meat cleaver bone axe. He slid behind the figure to Frank’s right and raised it high, both hands, eyes wide, nostrils flaring.
He brought it down hard. There was no sound, but on contact, the prisoner’s head beneath the burlap jerked violently. Then it drooped slowly down, and Mr. Clean left the weapon there, sticking out of the back of the skull, blood spreading into the hood’s rough fabric all around the strike point.
Frank just kept staring ahead.
“That’s a fake,” Jonathan said. “It’s a dummy, a doll, a scarecrow stuffed with Poly-fil.”
On the screen, Mr. Clean suddenly looked up at the transmitting monitor, smiling directly at Jonathan as if he had heard him. He grabbed the hatchet handle like a lever and used it to pull the head back. With his other hand, he reached over and pulled up the front of the burlap. It was a woman, sagging jowls, raised age freckles clustered under one ear, eyes crossed and unseeing like they had “X’s” running through them.
Like his surrogate uncle, Jonathan just stared ahead even though he was roiling inside.
“What do you want from me?” he said evenly.
The doctor laughed.
“I want you to save the life of Frank Bello.”
“By playing a game.”
“Nice reference to Jigsaw.”
The doctor’s smile vanished.
“Yes, but there is no pig mask here, and I am not the puppet in the wheelchair. You are. You’re going to play the game. By participating, you save Bello’s life. On his monitors, he will watch you. My security man, Malcolm, will watch him. If he moves, he gets the same treatment as the poor bitch next to him, and if you fuck up your part, you get a demerit.”
“A fucking demerit…”
“That’s right, a punishment. We’re going to play “Psycho Metronome.” I’m going to give you a guitar. I’m going to flick on the time-marker. I’m going to make a request. You will play the solo, it must be mistake-free, and then I go and speed up the metronome. It’s really quite simple.”
Jonathan looked at his feet. On the floor there had somehow appeared his three favorite Maxon effect pedals, the green Overdrive that he leaned on for the power and crunch, the red Compressor for the rich creamy texture of his leads, and the purple Analog Delay for that big room sound and long bends.
But to his left, he now saw the guitar and amp set up he’d been dealt. It was an old Fender Twin Reverb with the knobs broken off, and a copy of Chuck Berry’s famous red hollow-body, the ES-335, operative word, copy. Jonathan preferred his custom-made Signature Ninja R 300 Pro with the Fishman Fluence pickups thank you kindly, and this clunky Lyle was certain to do him no fucking favors, the action so high it seemed you could almost put a pack of cigarettes between the strings and the fretboard.
“Pick it up,” the doctor said.
Jonathan leaned and the restraints gave him just enough play to reach the guitar in its stand. He brought it up and over and positioned it on his knee. Now the amp was on, and he covered the strings to mute the feedback. He tapped his pedals, but they weren’t going to help much.
The doctor had a white metronome on the tray table. He set the button on the side and flicked the pendulum to start its hypnotic arcs. Jonathan nodded. 60 BPM’s or so it seemed, pretty reasonable. For now.
“What do I play?” he said.
“From the song “Suzerain,” the doctor replied. “First lead solo, the staccato portion up to the first bend and echo.”
“Then you do it faster. And faster again.”
“And Frank lives?”
“Yes, at least temporarily.”
“And if I make a mistake?”
The doctor raised up the battle hatchet, making sudden swipes with it as if practicing, and Jonathan noted that he didn’t look very skilled, in fact, he was downright clumsy with the thing, like one of those guys in gym class that “threw like a girl.”
“Yes,” the doc said, still slashing awkward patterns into the air. “Make a mistake, Jonathan, and you get a haircut.”
“One long tuft at a time,” he said. “And I always try to work close to the scalp when using a fine tool like this one.”
Watch Anthrax’s “Suzerain” lyric video here.
The moment that Charlie Benante broke the plane of that bay door, he knew he was fucked. What was the oldest cliché in slasher movies besides the chick falling down for no reason?
You didn’t split up. Ever.
But nevertheless, here he was, by himself in some sort of operating room, bright as all hell from the overhead surgical lights and the three mobile gooseneck exam lamps positioned at the head of the gurney. There were machines around the stretcher in a loose semi-circle, marked “Heart / Lung,” “Pulse Oximeter,” “Blood Pressure,” and “Electro Cautery,” and the anesthesia cart was parked under the wall suction regulators. The implement tables set up around the small room’s entire perimeter were covered with sterile white cloths, but the shapes underneath indicated that there was more here than scalpels and towel clamps.
The bulges, bumps, and swells under all the cloths indicated that these were the other kinds of operating tools, the ones that did the dirty work. The heavy lifting. On the table closest to him, Charlie recognized the raised outlines of a couple of power drills, the kind with a battery you shoved into the handle, and beside those were the vague shapes of hand saws, both hack style and ripping. Next to that there was something with a top-handle, maybe a circular saw, and over by the drapes sitting long and lethal, he recognized the form, line, and contour of what had to be a chainsaw, the big kind, like they used to clear ranch land or to go fighting wildfires.
There was something on the operating gurney. It was also covered, but the cloth wasn’t sterile. It looked like an oversized mechanic’s rag, paint-blotched and filthy, stiffened in places, and what it covered over had straight lines and squared edges. Seemed about two or three inches high, and slightly bigger than seven inches across both ways, like one of the smaller table games, maybe Trouble or Rack-O.
But it wasn’t a table game, and Charlie knew it.
It was their limited edition 7” vinyl box set: For All Kings, he knew that box-shape anywhere. He reached for the cloth, grabbed it off, and instinctively brought it up to give it a sniff. Immediately, he pulled it away from his nose, making a face. Smelled like industrial floor cleaner, the concentrated shit they used when the job required chemical masks and power washers. For a moment his head reeled, and he backed away from the gurney, raising his arm and coughing into his shoulder. The room tilted, and it seemed for a split second that he had been looking at everything from under his own visual display-cloth, and when it lifted briefly, this was no longer an operating space.
It was a luxury box at the old Philadelphia Spectrum, the medical equipment now food carts on wheels, the tray tables a wet bar and catering. The drapes that made this an operating theater now covered the long rectangular view that was most probably a third of the way back from the stage, second level, and Charlie could have sworn he heard Anthrax cranking up power chords out there. But the sound was faded and tinged with bad echo, unrecognizable like the ravings and whispers in nightmares. Charlie dropped the rag on the floor, and things around him came back into focus.
He stared at the gurney.
Smack in the middle of it was indeed a For All Kings box set, but instead of the Anthrax logo at the top, the customized font spelled out the name, “Charlie.” And bottom center, in place of the title, it simply said,
He ran his hand through his hair, considering. This was a play on the unboxing video he’d stuck up on YouTube. He stepped closer. There was no cellophane wrap. He reached down and thumbed up the box cover.
On the inside of it where they’d had their liner notes and band-thanks, it said,
“Choose a weapon or Frank Bello dies.”
“Motherfucker,” Charlie whispered, looking around, wide eyed, suddenly expecting to see someone watching him. No one. You could have heard a pin drop. He carefully put the cover aside and removed the next item.
The lenticular that was supposed to have the awesome cover art, instead said in black copperplate gothic,
“You will endure thirty seconds of darkness.”
Beneath that was the jumbo card that was supposed to list what was inside the box on the front. On the other side, it was meant to have the original black and white cover sketch by Alex Ross.
But this card said in red cursive, complete with blood-spatter dots between the letters,
“You will kill a man.”
On the flip side it said,
“You will kill the wrong man.”
There were no vinyl records in the box. Charlie had emptied its contents, and he looked at the card, one side, then the other a few times.
Of course, the greater of two evils was killing the wrong man. But since the context wasn’t explained, option “A” was no guaranteed prize in itself. Maybe he would “kill a man” in self-defense. Maybe he’d kill a man in cold blood. Maybe he’d do it by accident or maybe with malice, there were too many unknown conditions and variables, and besides, the idea of killing a man…actually ending him…executing the mechanics, getting real in the moment, getting dirty with it, spattered with it, drenched in it…all of it made Charlie sick in his soul. He’d come along this morning to give instruments to school kids, for the love of god.
“Choose a weapon or Frank Bello dies.”
Right. He didn’t know the circumstances of his nephew’s scenario either.
He turned the card back and forth again, checking to see if he missed something, trying to ready himself for this madness. In truth, except for the carpal tunnel he’d always been lucky, almost charmed. He’d always been good at finding the light at the end of the tunnel, so maybe, just maybe there could be some nobility in this, like killing a rapist or murderer. Maybe he was supposed to be the hero of hospital.
But he didn’t feel like any fucking hero.
He felt like a damned fool.
There was movement all around him, the cloths covering the implement tables pulling up into tent shapes as if by invisible wires. Then they were lifted fast to the ceiling, hanging there now like decorator streamers. And what they revealed all around the room in terms of the table hardware made Charlie’s heart thud. It wasn’t just power tools glinting and gleaming. This was a museum of death, with subsections of firearms on one side, cutting and stabbing implements on the other, and flame and bomb work against the short wall. There were pistols and rifles, semi-automatics and sawed-offs, knives and swords, daggers and ice picks, sling shots, zip guns, cross bows, and recurves…bottle rockets, tear gas, Molotov cocktails, and flame throwers.
In awe, Charlie approached the knife section. In closest reach were the standards you saw in everyone’s kitchen, like paring, carving, boning, and butcher, but then some of the more exotic stock had names in front, printed on cheap label maker tabs, like the array of soldier’s boot knives, the black ops military survival blades, and the white shark tacticals with deep serration and full tang construction. Next to those were the two bladed Indian Bichuwa daggers, the lady daggers with carved ivory handles, and the Celtic blades shaped like slaughterhouse meat hooks. There were Sicilian stilettos and Napoleonic short swords with those fancy French hand guards. Machetes and Ninja swords. River knives and switch blades.
Above the drapes that covered the long, rectangular view window, a flat screen came on. It was Frank Bello, sitting in a chair in front of his own monitors, expressionless and clearly restrained. On one side of him was a dead person in a burlap hood, head lolling forward with a humongous bone cleaver sticking out the back of the skull. On Frank’s other side was another prisoner wearing burlap. The sound was off, but it appeared the hooded figure was pleading, for right behind was an African American dude wearing industrial whites, built like a brick shithouse. He had his feet spread, and he raised up a woodsman’s ax, one hand low, the other high up under the head. His eyes were huge, his grin wide and startling. He brought down the weapon in a hard sweep, and at the moment of contact the monitor went dark.
So did the room.
No matter. Charlie knew where everything was and he knew these guys weren’t kidding. He paused at the knife table for a few precious seconds, maybe fifteen or twenty, then shuffled over to where the guns were. The pistols. Something that would fit in his pocket. He felt around and chose one that seemed as if it was placed around three rows back – compact, big muzzle, modular back strap so he could adjust the grip. He was ready for when the lights came on.
He hoped they’d at least loaded it for him.
Anthrax live @ London Music Hall (London, ON) on January 26, 2018.
Joey Belladonna was in the old Spectrum’s performance arena, on the floor in front of the empty stage. How he got here once he passed through the bay doors was a mystery. Why he’d had this dirty carpenter’s rag draped on his shoulder was another. At first, the cavernous space before him had appeared to have been a storage area for gurneys, a mass of them lined up on the floor before him in rows like a graveyard. But there had been something on his shoulder, something itchy. He’d turned toward it, got a whiff and got woozy. Industrial drain cleaner it was, or maybe floor stripping solution, and he’d cast off the rag in disgust. Simultaneous with the curt motion, the configuration of this old concert space had wavered up like one of those 1970s television sets, superimposing itself on itself.
Now the two visions had merged, both hospital and arena, madhouse and playhouse, and Joey Belladonna was in the orchestra pit behind the safety barricade. The dance floor before him was still filled with gurneys, but now each was occupied, each with a dead body under a sheet, a mass-morgue, and on Joey’s side of the barricade there were wooden barrels and fifty-gallon steel drums filled with throwing spears. There were sabers, broadswords, and bayonets too, and to better get his bearings, Joey looked up straight over his head. Hanging there, he saw the old house PA system, with its speakers clustered in multi-directional cauliflowers, suspended by factory cable. Head still back, he turned in a slow 180, like a child appreciating the way the sky was tethered to the horizon, and all around there were the stadium seats, rising in dark gradation like a Greek Coliseum, and the spotlight rack over the stage was loaded with floods positioned at various angles.
Facing the stage now, Joey reached and put his hands up on the hard edge of it, the space bare for all but a couple of sitting stools, a water cooler jug lying on its side, a few wire spools, and two Rubbermaid dump carts.
But wavering-in like that antiquated television, there was a drum set now positioned on a two-sided stair riser, and walls of amplifiers and smoke machines…background banners and stage monitors, rack mounts and footlights.
Joey sensed movement behind him, and he spun around. There were houselights on in the arena, but they were intermittent, only pinpointing circular areas twenty feet or so in diameter, then leaving the balance of the dance floor in darkness. But Joey didn’t need the full view. The dead bodies were moving, casting off their sheets. A number of them had risen to sitting positions. A few had found their feet, yet some were still zipped up in autopsy bags, wriggling like vermin.
Inside Joey’s mind, something snapped, absolute revulsion and blood lust. The hideous figures pushing off the gurneys and shuffling forward in two makeshift channels were all too familiar. He’d seen their type in cable series fiction and movies galore, but when you had real zombies coming for you, it was like pulling back the fridge and having a swarm of cockroaches run over your work boots.
They were all in hospital gowns, eyes blackened, limp hair dangling, much of the spotted skin dissolved away in layers and patchwork. Many of them had skeletal hands, you could see the bone work and tendons. Their throats looked like twisted dishrags, over cooked turkey gizzard, and many had their teeth and gums exposed, some up one side in idiot rictus grins.
Impossible numbers, impossible odds?
Joey’s eyes blazed. Clearly, the message here was that to find Scott’s kid, he had to first get through this diseased swarm of monsters, and it had always been a fantasy of his to have been a warrior in one of those battle scenes where one dude took out most of the field on his own, like Mel Gibson in The Patriot or fucking Braveheart. He’d never told the guys, but his favorite school book had always been Macbeth, because of that early war-field scenario where the dude, “with his brandished steel which smoked of bloody execution…carved out his passage,” and then facing his great enemy Macdonald, “unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops.”
Joey Belladonna approached the closest barrel and closed his fingers around the grip of a broadsword, a basket-hilted bad boy that just kept coming and coming as he drew it out of the receptacle, forty inches long at the least, and four good pounds, maybe five. He held it – point up with both hands, staring up the tapered shaft, thinking about turkey gizzard, about carving up some bird, about unzipping some of these bastards from their rotted navels straight up to their jaws, and just as about ten of them got their arms hooked over the barricade, there was a distinct change all around in sound and in lighting.
Behind Joey, it sounded like Anthrax was on stage playing a song, a representative Anthrax, wavery like they were fading up through that thematic antiquated television reception…loud as all hell yet sounding as if coming from another room, or more accurately, another time or dimension. Joey recognized Scott’s power chords, Charlie’s introductory “one-two’s”, and Mr. Frank Bello kicking out that thrash bass like no other guy on the planet.
They were playing “Caught in a Mosh.”
One of the zombies had hoisted himself up to straddle the rim of the barricade. He had festering sores, yellow eyes, and no nose, just a cavity with a sliver of cartilage. His lips were gone, so his carnival grin was especially offensive. Joey drew back his broadsword, thinking line drive to left-center. He stepped into it, swung hard, and cut the thing’s face straight in half, the hairy crown kicking up, pinwheeling, spraying thick blood that looked like black snot.
Another one had his elbow pressed over the wood, and Joey shifted, raised his weapon and sledge-hammered, cleaving the bastard down through the collar bone, threads of thick blood hanging in the V-shaped gouging like clothes line. From behind, the vocals came in with a punch, and Joey thought, “Ha. A representative me.”
He didn’t look back.
He climbed up on the rim of the barricade. The zombies before him were a swarming, teeming virus, staring with black rolling eyes, flaps of skin hanging off their foreheads, swiss cheese flesh sagging under their ears.
Joey dove into the mass.
Time to clean out the mosh pit.
The clown mask had shifted to the point that Scott only had a view out one eyehole, and he wondered how serial killers could possibly think these fucking things were practical. The scientist in front of him had his hands up. One of the dead ones on the floor had lost sphincter control, and Scott was trying not to gag.
“I want to know where my boy is,” he said. “I’m not asking.”
The scientist shrugged, gave a little smile.
“You aren’t ready,” he said.
“Whose fucking transformation?”
“Mine,” he giggled. “And sort of…yours too. Ever hear a song called “Evil Twin?”
Scott almost laughed.
“Transformation? You’re going to transform so you can become my evil twin? That’s not even what the song’s about. It’s a metaphor for the way men rise to power…”
He’d trailed off, because the doctor was changing. Into another Scott Ian, the distinctive bald crown, the dark laughing eyes, the trademark squirrel tail chin-beard, bristling and growing right there down his chest. An alarm sounded, those ever-loving basketball buzzers, and the lights started blaring, off and then on in two second intervals.
The door blasted open.
Scott stared wide through the eyehole of his mispositioned clown mask. Then he screamed as loud as he was able, so hard it hurt. The buzzers buried it.
It was his bandmate, co-song writer, and drummer Charlie Benante. He had a gun in his hand. He assessed the situation in a micro-second, and raised his weapon. Looked like he was killing some clown for dammed sure.
Watch the band’s rad “Evil Twin” lyric video just below.
Something on stage didn’t sound right, and Joey paused briefly. Around him was a carnage of bodies, those zombies he’d beheaded, de-limbed, and cut straight in two at the waistline. He was drenched in gore and his breath was electric. He’d killed so many of them, that they’d formed a wide circle, leering and twitching, black tongues lolling out the sides of their mouths, cautious now, afraid they’d soon be clapping with one hand, motherfucker, you see what I’m saying? Still, there were a few pointing back toward the stage, and there was a gleam in their dead eyes Joey didn’t like all too well. He turned.
Above the fray, he could see that a number of them were trying to scale the barrier, to get to the weapons, but that wasn’t the thing that gave Joey pause. It was what was up on the stage behind them, the spirit-band that was playing “Caught in a Mosh.” Oh, it was them all right, ghostly and transparent, all except for Jonathan. He didn’t look like a ghost.
He looked real and he looked fucked up, brutha, fucked up for real. First, he wasn’t playing his Ninja R 300. It was some goofy red hollow body that sounded like shit, clunky as fuck, though he was doing a fair job nailing the “call-to-arms” section at the end of the solo. But besides that, what the fuck happened to his hair and his head? He looked like one of the mosh zombies, his long hair mostly gone, the remaining strands and wisps hanging limply in blood-clotted cross-hatch. He had rips in his skull where the skin had been curled back like whittling shavings, and there were places where you could see bone.
Joey saw a monster, a fucking imposter.
Like a taunt, he took a second, crooking his index finger up to his temple and tapping it, as if to say, “think, asshole!”
Then, he charged.
Charged the barricade, which he had no problem climbing. Zombies grabbed for him and missed. He landed in the orchestra pit, and the moment his feet hit the floor the lights went to black. He yanked out a spear anyway, spread his feet, and took a stance. To throw with all of his might.
Straight at Jonathan, where he knew he was standing.
Straight at the monster, that fucking imposter.
Scott couldn’t point a gun back at Charlie Benante, it went against everything in his fiber his blood and his spirit, and through the eyehole of his clown mask, he watched his drummer approach, pistol raised at eye level, the back of his knuckles working like pistons.
But the gun wasn’t firing. He was pulling the trigger, but the gun wasn’t firing, a wonderful true fucking miracle. Scott ripped off his mask. The alarms stopped and so did the buzzers. The psycho-doctor was no longer a look alike, just a bespectacled, chipmunk faced pseudo-scientist, looking like he’d just lost his puppy. Both Charlie and Scott pointed their weapons at him, but before demanding that his child was returned to him, Scott took a sideward glance at his drummer.
“You look like shit,” he said.
“Never felt better,” Charlie answered. But his face was pale and he’d spoken through tightly clenched teeth.
Joey hurled his spear up at the monster, straight at him in the pitch dark, and when the stage lights snapped back on, Jonathan was doing a strange thing.
He wasn’t finishing his solo.
He was bent over at the waist, so low he could have been kissing his knees.
The spear missed him by inches, shooting just above his bent shoulder blades and straight into the chest of the pudgy doctor standing directly behind him, waist-chain in one hand, the battle hatchet in the other.
Jonathan stumbled forward and behind him, the doctor fell on his side, the spear run through him to the midpoint like a barbecue skewer.
“Serves you right,” Joey muttered. “You’re a sadistic torturer, and that sloppy scalp job is culturally insulting.”
The music had stopped, and besides Jonathan there on his knees, the stage was empty again except for the post-performance trash, a couple of stools, and the Rubbermaid push carts. The house lights came up in full, and on the 9 x 12 ArenaVision screens, there flickered up the image of Frank Bello, sitting motionlessly in front of his own monitor screens, one showing Joey and Jonathan looking back at him up at the arena screens, and the other in the padded room, with Scott in his hospital gown and Charlie standing beside him with his hand in his coat pocket. They had their own flat screen on, and they were watching Frank watching them. Beside Frank, in what appeared to be the Spectrum security office, or hospital security, they’d both look the same, the hooded dead bodies had been removed. Behind Frank was the African American Mr. Clean in his industrial whites. He reached back for the door, and let out Scott’s son, Revel Young Ian, who immediately ran to Frank and as he turned in his chair. Mr. Clean did not seem too happy.
“You won the game,” he said stiffly. “No one in the band killed the other. But I’d like to ask how. We studied Charlie Benante, and we knew he was slave to his impulses, usually good ones of course, but he tested as recklessly passionate just the same. According to our research, there is no way he could, in a pressure situation with the sensory stimuli peaked, control his impulse to kill the clown.”
He folded his big arms across his big chest.
“And Joey Belladonna,” he continued. “We knew he would champion the violence most extreme, seeking out dark blood at God’s speed and a fever pitch. But we blackened the lights before he grabbed the spear, making him execute the mechanics in the dark. If he missed, the band played on, but we knew he wasn’t going to miss and we knew that he knew this. It was a win-win. If he thought Jonathan had turned zombie, our studies showed he would end him, his thirst for gore too explosive for him to control or balance with feelings of loyalty. If he spied the good doctor behind Jonathan keeping him there at bay, the blackout would make it impossible for Jonathan to know Joey knew.” He paused. “So, tell me. How did both Jonathan and Scott survive this?”
Frank held Rev protectively. His long face was a picture of control, of good old New York toughness, but there was pride there too. Pride in his band.
“As for Joey,” he said, “he’d never doubt his own guitar player. No matter what faces we wear, a brother knows a brother, even if he’s not connected by blood. And he communicated to him before your planned blackout. You know how football players use signals when they’re playing away and the twelfth man is so loud you can’t think? Well, it’s the same for arena performers. Even if it isn’t the crowd, the stage volume can be overwhelming, so we have hand signals in case we see a stage move is going to go haywire, or there’s something wrong with the pyrotechnics. Joey saw your boy back there before you even knew that he saw him, and he used the signal Tom Brady uses when he calls audibles, fingers up to the head, like, “think, asshole.” We borrowed the move because we fucking hate Tom Brady, that cocky son of a bitch, and it’s a sarcastic play on what he loves doing the most. Taking a fucking bow. In our case here, it meant, “duck!”
Mr. Clean had his fists at his sides now.
“And Charlie Benante?” he said. “How could he possibly keep himself from shooting the clown?”
Frank’s face darkened.
“You don’t know my uncle. You think that you do, but you can never know him like he knows of himself. Impulses? Yeah. Charlie shoots from the hip. It’s one of the reasons he writes a ton of our riffs. His soul explodes and he catches it in a bottle. The problem with your plan, is that you didn’t account for his own self-study and introspection. See, Charlie is a planner, and you fucked up, leaving him in the dark for so long, letting him choose his own weapon. To you, it was a fear factor making him fumble around getting his bearings, but my uncle Charlie isn’t the fumbling type. See, I couldn’t see him, but I listened for his footsteps. He stayed by the knives for twenty good seconds. Getting the gun afterward was beside the point. He’d already taken the idea of killing a man or the wrong man out of both his own hands and yours. He created a third option.”
“What third option?”
Frank breathed in deep, making his chest rise.
“One notch,” he said.
“Yeah, one notch, one knuckle. He cut off the tip of his trigger finger.”
Anthrax live @ Manchester Academy (Manchester, England) on February 14, 2017.
They were walking out of that place, walking together, Jonathan wearing Scott’s knit cap over the head bandages, and Charlie with his finger taped tight. He had the tip on ice in a pickle jar they’d found. They were walking together with grim faces and their heads held high. They were being released without further consequences. It was because of Frank. The game had been that two of them would die, and Frank had to make a wager on each of their heads. Of course, he had bet both would live, and Mr. Clean had predicted that Frank would play the odds even, a life for a life. Frank was a realist. Of course, he would go one for one in an attempt to save who was left.
But he hadn’t wagered a life for a life. He’d put all their lives on Jonathan and also on Scott, all in, all the way.
They walked out together, and as they approached the gray outside light coming through the loading dock bay door, a soundtrack came up, their out-tro, their exit music like some triumphant Hollywood blockbuster.
It was “Breathing Lightening”.
And God damn…it never sounded so fine.
They opened their eyes, hitting the final note and coming out of one of the best jam sessions they’d had in a long one. Even though they’d been playing electric instruments without amplification, Charlie had started them on a cool riff and they’d gone fucking flying. But that was nothing compared to the third graders. This short girl with pig tails and crud in her nose had been ripping on the music room xylophone, and the curly-haired boy with the close-set eyes had been shaking the maracas so hard his cheeks and his ears had gone scarlet. There were twins, both with bucked teeth and coke bottle glasses, that were still wacking the living shit out of their triangles, and the three bongo players, two girls and a heavy boy with albino splotches on his hands, were gasping for breath. Two kids were standing by the window, crossing their eyes and making bubbles with their spit, but they were the only ones who had been lost on the magic. Five were sitting on folding chairs with brand new ESP guitars and seven of them had basses. All were turned to low volume, but the symphony they’d all just played together was as magnificent a display of artful chaos as Frank could remember. And the most beautiful part was that not one of these kids knew how to play a damned note.
The teacher smiled nervously.
“What interesting music,” she said, meaning of course, “What embarrassing noise.”
Frank smiled to himself. Music wasn’t just about notes. It was about passion, about freedom, about letting go, and to know anything about Anthrax, you had to be pretty clear about that one.
But he understood where she was coming from just the same. Teaching wasn’t easy, and besides, they’d shown up late on account of getting lost down by the stadiums. By the time they’d signed in, unloaded the van, and set up for the music class, it was almost time for first lunch. Since the kids had had to wait around in homeroom so long, they’d gotten rammy, and two of them had stolen the janitor’s broom cart so they could go sniff his painter’s rag in the bathroom. They did it because it smelled like turpentine and they’d read on the internet that it was a way to catch a buzz. When the balance of the class had come into the music room they were still jawing about it, and the teacher did everything she could to settle them down. It didn’t help her agenda, when Malcolm, the security guard who looked like an African American Mr. Clean, brought in a guest visitor, Rev Young Ian, whose mother Pearl had brought for this special occasion so he could connect with the father he missed so badly when he was out on the road for long stretches. Evidently there was a moment of panic down at the sign-in desk when Rev ran off in excitement, but Malcolm had found him in the gym.
Everyone got an instrument.
There were only two boys that didn’t want to participate, and they sat at desks on either side of Frank with their faces down and their shirts pulled up over their heads like burlap hoods. The class had needed a starting point, so Scott began things by telling them that they got lost down on Pattison Avenue, and that they could all write a song, right here and right now, about the haunted parking lot where the Spectrum once stood.
A kid with black hair, pasty skin, and dark freckles put his hand up, going, “Ohhh! Ohhh!” and when Scott called on him, he said his older brother taught him Guitar Hero with the Anthrax song “Madhouse” on it.
The kids went crazy with it!
One said, “It’s a haunted nuthouse shaped like the Spectrum!”
Another added, “But from the outside it looks like a factory, all broken and crumbly!”
A third one said, “Inside, there are red buzzers and torture rooms!” and a fourth spouted, “Yeah! And there are mad scientists who experiment on you with weapons and power tools!”
Then the room went really berserk, and the teacher didn’t know what to do with it, you could tell. On the one hand, the kids were engaged and participating. On the other hand, the impromptu horror story might get out of hand, and there were parents to think of, rules and reports to administration, potential legalities.
But either way, she wasn’t pulling the brake on this train.
They started jamming. They started playing the story of the haunted concert hall / factory / nuthouse, and each and every one of them got lost in it, playing with fury, with passion, inventing their own private mental scenarios, including the unplugged members of Anthrax.
Maybe this particular teacher would never understand that sometimes the horrific visions in your head made for the best creative fuel on the planet. And in the end, the brainstorming and the head space didn’t matter. In the end, no one could judge you on your thoughts or your prep, no matter what dark road you went down to kick up some fairy dust.
Frank Bello crossed his arms, and in doing so, rested his palm over the tattoo on his right upper arm. He often did this, almost unconsciously, in moments that moved him. He looked around the room, taking in the sheer joy and excitement still dancing in the eyes of these children. Today, Anthrax had given them a special heirloom.
And to Frank, it had always been all about family.
Next time in MUSIC HELL:
Volume 4 – something dark is coming…
Previously in MUSIC HELL:
Volume 3: “The Ghost of the Hot Checkered Flag Girl” featuring Asking Alexandria
Volume 2: “The Hiss of the Eliminator” featuring Electric Wizard
Volume 1: “The Sculptor” featuring Trivium