I slouch on a stool at the end of a dive bar, feeding a sticky tumbler of peach schnapps to tomorrow’s hangover. Lucky for me, nobody ever cards in this part of Hollywood. Or maybe I just look more burned out than any nineteen-year-old girl has a right to be.
A twee pop duo are ukulele-and-tambourining their way through their set on a stage behind me. The assembled drunks try their best to tune them out, but the singer’s piercing warble refuses to be ignored. Six acts are performing here tonight, each of us getting twenty-five bucks to show off our talents. Most are being grossly overpaid.
I shoot the rest of my drink and signal the bartender—a rough-edged minx with a shirt cut so low it could double as a tip jar. She shakes her head as she refills my glass. “You might wanna cut back a little, chica. Your bar tab is about to eclipse your gig payment.”
I shrug. “Eh. No money, no problems.”
She raises a pierced eyebrow. “Tell you what, how ’bout I hold onto a few bucks and grab a little something special for you?”
My heart races at her wry smile. Is she . . . flirting? Holy shit, she’s flirting! I sit up straighter and smile back. “A gift, eh? What do you have in mind?”
“Some deodorant. Girl, you smell rough.”
Not flirting. Definitely not flirting. But she’s actually talking to me, so I go for broke. “Well, you know what they say: Girls who smell rough feel the best on your muff.”
The bartender shakes her head. “Hard pass. I’m not into the whole ‘vagrant chic’ thing. Or vaginas. Or, you know, you.” Wow, straight and vicious. I can really pick a winner. “Besides, you already have a girlfriend.”
She nods at the empty stool beside me.
“Your date. Alexis.”
“I, uh . . . what?”
She leans over and points at my guitar propped against the next barstool. It’s an abused old Strat-type thing I stole from a yard sale when I was a kid. A previous owner slathered it in crappy yellow house paint which I’ve spent the past decade covering with stickers—bands I like, banana labels, poison warnings I picked off bathroom cleansers. One night, after a deep and introspective heart-to-heart with a bottle of Baileys, I thought it would be a good idea to scratch my name into it with a screwdriver. You know, so nobody would steal it. Deep black gouges in the wood now scream “ALEXIS.”
“Oh! No. I’m Alexis,” I say. “Alexis McRiott.”
“Why does that name sound familiar?” She sucks a breath and snaps her fingers. “Wait! You’re Sierra Specter!”
Just hearing the name tenses my shoulders and tightens my jaw.
“Uh, no. I’m Alexis McRiott.” I slide my finger along the scrapes in my guitar. “Say it with me now. A-lex-is.”
The bartender hoots and gives her hands a sharp clap. “Oh man! I can’t believe it. Come on, you gotta say it for me. Give me a ‘sheerio bluzdink!’”
Heat bristles through my scabby cheeks as I look away and pick at my guitar’s strings. Apparently it isn’t enough for her to just shoot me down and step on my heart. She has to take a big steamy dump on me too.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I mutter.
“Yeah you do. Don’t lie. It was your catchphrase. You were that wizard kid on That’s My Boo.”
I shrug. “Is that like, a TV show or something?”
“Ugh. Really? You gonna make me bring YouTube into this?”
She taps at her phone then holds the screen in front of my eyes, showing a video bootlegged off an old Whimsy Channel broadcast. Some kind of giant octopus-werewolf thing attacking a thirteen-year-old girl in a purple leather jacket. The kid throws out her hands and screams sheerio bluzdink, and the monster vanishes in a lavender flash.
The bartender holds the phone up next to my face. “The eyes are a dead giveaway. Purple? Come on. That’s you.”
I sigh. There’s no denying it. The kid on the screen and I have the same purple eyes. But besides that, I look nothing like her anymore. Her hair is in perfect blonde ringlets. Mine looks like it’s been used to mop up a gas station bathroom and then stuck out a car window to dry. Her round face is flawlessly camera-ready. My gaunt features are pitted with zits and acne scars. And I’ve long since traded that purple leather jacket for a few regrettable tattoos.
I shove her phone out of my face. “Fine. You got me. In a past life, one million years ago, I used to play a sorceress on a dumb kiddie sitcom. Does that earn me a free drink?”
“Uh, no. I think a big TV star can afford her own drinks. I bet those big Whimsy paychecks got you set up for life down in Malibu. Am I right? Or are you a Beverly Hills gutter punk?”
“Never heard of it. Westside?”
I sip my drink and nod. “It’s a very exclusive community.”
On stage, the twee boy solos on a vintage kazoo while the girl yodels like she doesn’t care if anyone’s listening. The bartender winces and scratches a note on a clipboard.
“Ugh. Jimmy & Sprinkles are officially on my blacklist.” She reaches for the TV hanging over the bar and mashes her thumb on the volume-up button in an attempt to drown them out.
“—unveiling of a new treasure at the Hayes Tower Casino.”
I squint up at the screen. The eleven o’clock news is on, showing some gala event at a Las Vegas casino full of priceless art treasures. So much bling. I feel it calling out to me. Begging me to steal it. My old court-appointed psychologist used to call this the impulse. He said it just like that. In italics. Like my kleptomania is an unspeakable parasite in my brain, forcing me to do evil things.
On the TV, camera flashes flicker against an old guy in a tuxedo. He whips a cover off a podium, revealing a ring with a gemstone the size of a golf ball. The light glints and dazzles off its surface like something Ryan Seacrest should be dropping over Times Square on New Year’s Eve. My guts simultaneously tighten and twist, wringing cold sweat from my pores.
I shake my head. Don’t be an idiot. It isn’t the ring. It’s a ring. The ring is locked up somewhere in Nebraska. And so is the guy who gave it to you. It’s all ancient history, but my hand still trembles as I take a steadying swig of my drink.
“This dazzling gemstone has not made a public appearance since it was entered into evidence during the Simon Fax murder trial three years ago.”
I cough peach schnapps through my nose. It is the ring. The fuse on the bomb that blew That’s My Boo to smithereens. And I had been the one who lit it.
The TV drones on. “With the appeals process closed, the ring went up for public auction, where it was purchased by billionaire casino magnate Cooper Jackson Hayes for one-point-seven million dollars.”
I just stare, frozen. My drink dribbles down my chin and onto my tattered T-shirt.
One. Point. Seven. Million.
A thousand what-if scenarios explode through my mind. What if I hadn’t turned in the ring? What if I’d sold it? That thing would have bought enough studio time to record an album. To record ten albums! I could have bought back everything they took from me. And more. If I hadn’t run to the cops like a little bitch.
I clench my eyes and remind myself I did the right thing. There had been a very good reason to turn over that ring.
And there are one-point-seven million good reasons to have kept it.
The unfairness of it all pulls the pin on a rage grenade deep inside me, and I know there’s only one way to diffuse it. I shoot the rest of my drink, grab my guitar, and jump on stage with the manic pixie dream band. The girl stops mewling and gapes at me.
“Hey! We’re not done yet!”
“Yeah, you are.” I snatch her tambourine and fling it into the crowd like a Frisbee. She squeaks and runs after it, followed by her dainty boyfriend. I plug my busted-up guitar into the bar’s busted-up amp, releasing a piercing squeal of feedback.
“Hey, I’m Alexis. Doing the right thing sucks. Here’s a song.”
Fury surges from my fingers, through the guitar, and out into the world as I grind out the chords of my newest jam, “Champagne (Make it Rain).” My eyes close and the vocals rip through me.
You think you’ve got a good deal, then they tear off the seal.
You’re gonna reach the top, but then the cork goes pop.
You fall down, the bottle breaks. The party turns into heartache.
But I’m not gonna kill myself. Gonna climb right up to that top shelf.
Then I’m gonna make it rain.
Gonna turn my pain to champagne, champagne, champagne!
My set takes on a life of its own, a frenzied blur of noise and sweat and catharsis. I don’t think about what happened before or what happens next. I am here. I am now. My guitar is a shield against all the bullshit of the world, and as long as I keep playing I am safe.
No, I am invincible.
I become aware of barflies whistling and clapping and generally rocking out around me. No big shock. The manic screech of my guitar is a grease fire of ecstasy that scalds everyone in earshot. In this moment I’m not a has-been child star. I’m a goddamn metal goddess, living loud and kicking ass. High on music. High on life.
This high never lasts.