Screams for Stargirl

Sarah Wilson lived in an audio world. She thought in sound, saw in sound. She heard colours and listened to taste; a delicious meal was a symphony; a brilliant view was a concert played out before her eyes. As a child, she had once been mesmerised by the pitch of a dog’s yelp as it was kicked by a small boy. It hit the right note, somehow. Another time, the gasps of a schoolmate who’d just broken his arm falling from the monkey bars, drawing breath for a scream. They sounded to her like gusts of wind down an autumn street.

            As she grew older, an idea began to build up inside her, something new and exciting. This music only she could hear – what if she collected it? Distilled it to perfection in a way that only she, with her unique talent, could? What if she made a symphony to her own taste?

            So, she had cleaned out the basement: piles of leaves and cobwebs obliterated, along with their inhabitants. She’d particularly enjoyed getting rid of the rats – their squeals and chitters had a range and frequency all of their own, especially when tails were cut and legs twisted. When the area was clear of all but the concrete and wooden rafters, she set up a studio. She padded the walls with the highest quality material and crafted every inch to make the acoustics just right. She spent grocery money on microphones, and recording devices of supreme accuracy, which she set up at specific angles and locations around the space.

            Finally, she fitted the rear wall with bolts, cuffs, and loops through which she might thread thin ropes – she didn’t want clinking chains to interfere with the quality of her composition.

‘I wrote a song, do you want to hear it?’ Sarah said.

            Xander didn’t answer immediately. He was standing in the middle of what was supposed to be a living room, but was lacking the furniture to make it worth actually living in. A guitar lay on the dusty floor in the middle of the room, and a single lightbulb hung from a wire above it. Artists, he thought. Can’t live with em

            ‘It’s about a ghost girl who falls in love with a woman – a living one – and then kills her so they can be together.’ She was sitting up on her kitchen counter, watching him the way a cat might: unsure of him and his intentions, sizing him up with one paw raised and ready to run.

He gave her his most charming smile, trying to put her at ease. So far, the night had gone like nothing else he’d experienced. Usually girls like her – aspiring singers or musicians – would gush over him, or themselves, or music, or all of the above. They were always too eager to lay him or get him to listen to their album. Sarah, however, had spent most of their first date cracking the lobster she’d ordered (on his bill) and talking about the ocean. ‘Did you know it goes deeper than mount Everest is tall? There are less people that have been down there than on the moon.’ That was, of course, when she spoke at all – mostly it was just him on a monologue about what he did, as if he was trying to impress her. He supposed he was. For all his chops and status in the industry, even the singers he dealt with didn’t look this good – and she hadn’t even worn makeup for their date.

‘Sure, go ahead,’ he said, thinking, moment of truth, girl.

He expected her to prepare, somehow, to stand up straight and brush her hair back, take a deep breath. Instead, sitting slouched over on the counter and without so much as a pause, Sarah simply opened her mouth and began to sing.

The smile fell from Xander’s face. His hands, always in and out of his pockets, were limp by his sides. He must have looked horrified, because she stopped suddenly, and shrugged. ‘That’s all I’ve got so far. I’m better with instruments, anyway.’

            Holy shit, he thought. She doesn’t even know. She has no idea how good she is. Her voice had a natural depth to it – the passion of an ancient soul. He was awestruck.

            She hopped off the counter and started back toward the front door. ‘Anyway, you should go. I’ve got stuff to do.’

            ‘Hey, hey hold on. You, uh, got anything else?’ She looked back over her shoulder, uncertain. Seeing he was serious, she nodded, and then pointed to the Cello by the fireplace. ‘I can do something with that.’

            ‘Sure. Go ahead.’

            And she played for him again, pulling out one of the chairs from her kitchen table and sitting with legs splayed out and hair hanging down over her face, completely lost in the music. She played with the confidence of a seasoned professional, yet as wild and unrestrained as an enthusiastic amateur. Xander was familiar with all the classics, and he tried long and hard to place the song – a deep rising melody like Hall of the Mountain King – until he realised it was original music.

            When she was done, she looked up at him with a blank face, waiting for his reaction but apparently expecting nothing. She had played so perfectly, she might have won a standing ovation from the philharmonic orchestra.

            Xander took a deep breath and folded his arms. ‘Sarah.’ He paused. He wanted to run at her and hug her, and maybe kiss her once or twice, and then dance all over the room and then maybe marry her, but instead he just said: ‘How would you like to be famous?’

The trick was getting just the right sound. Sometimes it was hard to get them to co-operate, but with Esther, the problem was something else. The girl wasn’t living up to the potential of her vocal chords. It didn’t seem to matter where Sarah stuck the needle, or how deep she cut, Esther couldn’t hit the note.

            The breakthrough came on the fourth night, just after Xander left. She had deprived Esther of water, hoping to add  a husky quality to her cries, but when she tried to elicit a response,  Esther  swore at her. ‘I know you’re not going to let me go, you bitch! I’ve seen your face!’ She tried to spit in Sarah’s face, but there was no moisture. Sarah crouched in front of her, absentmindedly bouncing the tip of the needle in the palm of her hand. At last, it clicked.

            She fixed the microphone nearest Esther’s face, angling it and clicking it to record. As long as the right note sounded, she could edit everything else out. That was the plan: to collect each note separately and then patch them all together to weave her masterpiece. She removed the black ribbon she’d been using to tie her hair back and secured it over Esther’s eyes.

            ‘What the hell are you doing? I’ve already seen you. I’m not an idiot!’

            Sarah didn’t respond. Her heart was beating quickly, a thrill she only ever got when she was really there, right on the brink of True Art. When it was done, she stepped back and then crouched down, holding her breath and remaining absolutely silent.

            Esther pulled her knees up to her naked breast, half from the cold, half from fear. She knew what was coming, but now she didn’t know from which direction. Her skin was covered in tiny red and black dots, dried blood droplets from Sarah’s previous attempts to produce the perfect sound. ‘What are you doing?’ she said again, her voice trembling, the defiant strength wavering.

            Sarah waited. An owl hooted from the pine just outside the basement. A gust of wind made the rafters groan. She needed silence, and a minute later she found it in between Esther’s breaths. She lashed out like a rattlesnake, the needle piercing Esther in the soft part of her thigh, and there it was: a scream that carried just the right timbre, the perfect pitch.

            Sarah lowered the needle and stood up with a satisfied sigh. ‘Thank you,’ she said, and she meant it. Esther didn’t seem to notice – she was crying again, a low moan that wasn’t without value; here and there Sarah heard something she might be able to use. She leaned forward and patted her on the head. ‘There there,’ she said. ‘It’s over, now.’

            This time, the needle went through Esther’s neck.

Xander booked her into a few underground Jazz clubs, late night spots at first, then the more prominent weekend nine o’ clocks. He spared no expense: he put out posters and flyers, got her a stylist and paid for clothes and jewellery. Not that he could afford it, but he wasn’t an idiot – he knew what was coming.

Sarah, for her part, was completely indifferent. Most girls would have preened and posed in front of the mirror; Sarah merely stared while she got a makeover worthy of any supermodel, the stylist chatting away and complimenting her. When she was done, Sarah said: ‘Thanks Julia,’ and then walked out on stage looking like a movie star from the twenties and singing like Billie Holiday. It was magic.

            He tried to kiss her once, after a celebratory dinner of wine, oysters and rare steak, and she’d let him. It was like kissing a dead girl, her lips cold and soft, her tongue unresponsive. Somehow, it only made him want her more. Give it time, my friend. It’s all new to her.

            Later that same night, they walked along the beach in front of the row of nightclubs and casinos known to locals as ‘Sinner’s Strip’. She let him hold her hand, so delicate and smooth, with nails as long and filed as if they’d been designed to pluck strings. She’d sung one of her own songs that night, instead of covering an old hit, and the crowd had sucked in every word.

            ‘You’re gonna be big, you know,’ he said. ‘You’re gonna be the next Lana Del Rey, or Amy Winehouse, or… hell, better – you’ll be your own thing.’

            She nodded absently, as though this was something she already knew.

            They turned down the pier at the end of the Strip, a shonky line of planks that ended in a viewing platform from which the whole bay and the rising hills beyond it were visible. She liked it there, she said. She was obsessed with great voids, and the bay at night was the only place you could see the emptiness of space and the vastness of the ocean at once.

            They stopped at the end and he turned to face her. She ignored him, staring out over the blackness, hypnotised.

            ‘You’ll be famous,’ he said.

            ‘I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want anyone to know who I am. I want to sing quietly in an empty stadium, and have no one hear my words but me.’

            Every time he thought he her figured out, she found a new way to mystify him.

            ‘That sounds… painful,’ he said eventually.

            ‘All art comes from pain,’ she said.

            He couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so he looked out over the bay and said nothing.

Thirty seconds of sound, pieced together from countless snippets, some milliseconds and others several notes long, edited smoothly together by Sarah’s deft touch and impeccable ear. Her working title was “Ode to Misery”. The sounds of suffering, she found, had a very distinct flavour and range – the same way you could always tell a blues song, regardless of what instruments were playing.

            There was a long way to go, yet – she hadn’t even begun to reach the climax of the piece – but she decided to let someone listen to it.

            Not deliberately, however. This was too intense for the conscious mind. It worked best with a subtle approach; it was more a soundtrack than an epic solo, more a dream than a story, like a David Lynch movie.

            So she asked Greg if she could play her own music as the bottle store’s background noise instead of the usual pop songs and ads they usually played. ‘Only on the late night shifts, when I close by myself,’ she added quickly.

            He squinted at her. ‘What kinda music is it?’

            ‘Alternative.’

            ‘Any swearing in it?’

            ‘None.’

            ‘Sure. Knock yourself out. Not in busy hours, okay? The area manager’s a tightass about having those damn jingles every twenty minutes. Makes me wanna hang myself.’

            ‘No problem. Thanks, Greg.’

            He left at five, and she waited until ten, the last hour of the shift, when only the occasional customer came strolling in. She put the volume down by half and, since she only had half a minute of music, stuck it on repeat. Then she stood behind the counter and pretended to read a copy of Women’s Lifestyle, and watched.

            No one commented on the track, or seemed aware of it at all. The music was a mosaic, each note distinct and separate from every other and yet each leading logically to the next, creating a strange patchwork of sound. It had a human quality so unusual in the modern world of autotune and DJ technology, and yet also superhuman – vocal chords stretching far beyond their normal range.

            A young couple came in, smiling at first, then frowning and finally bickering over which wine to buy, their voices taking on a bitter, jarring quality that intrigued Sarah. They hardly acknowledged her at the counter, and by the time they left the girl had mascara streaming down her face and her boyfriend’s face had turned to stone. Sarah wondered, for the first time, what heartbreak sounded like.

            One of the regulars entered a few minutes later, a fat old man with yellow tinged eyes who bought exactly two cans of beer every day. He stood staring at the shelf for five or ten minutes, muttering to himself. He picked up a six pack, then a case, and finally cursing, headed for the hard liquor section, where he picked up two bottles of bourbon, a hundred proof At the front, he ordered a pack of cigarettes.

            ‘Hey Jim. I though you quit,’ she said. He scowled at her, and when she looked into his eyes she was sure she saw something working at him. The voices of his inner demons, roaring for a fresh piece of his soul and having it granted to them.

            ‘One of those nights,’ he said, snatching the bag from her hand.

            Sarah’s bright gaze followed all who entered that night. She saw it happen again and again: customers came in and seemed to get lost somewhere between the entrance and the counter. Lost in time, lost in their thoughts, turning inward, bothered, irritated, disturbed. They were drowning and they didn’t even know it.

            At the end of the shift, Sarah knew she was on to something special. There was a real bite to that music, some vein of raw human power she was tapping in to… but there was a lot of work to do. There was too much still missing.

            She took her time walking home, playing the tune in her ipod and singing lyrics to herself, improvising as she went.

The clubs were getting bigger now, and soon Xander started to book her in theatres. Money came in, and she quit the bottle store. Xander couldn’t sleep most nights. He was obsessed with her. All the more because of her indifference to his advances, which he was compelled to keep making against his friends’ advice and his own better judgement.

            ‘She’s an ice queen, buddy,’ Jake said to him one night, patting him on the back while he nursed a beer. They were sitting out front of their favourite Hawaiian cocktail bar – Heart of Honolulu – feet up on deckchairs while they watched the waves rolling in.

            ‘I know,’ he said. ‘But the queen is worth the ice.’

            The truth was, since he’d met her, everything in his life had become a kind of rocket, speeding up with engines roaring until it was threatening to blow through the stratosphere. Even Jake was in awe of the way she was snowballing toward stardom, but no one was surprised – no one who had heard her sing, anyway.

            The turning point came when he booked her at the Kingdom Theatre, just a few blocks north of the Strip and one of the biggest venues outside of the City. At five thousand seats, the only place to go after that would be the Olympia, and if you were playing the Olympia, baby, you were Big Time.

            He’d broken the news to her just the day before, deciding to surprise her with a bottle of wine. She’d been playing a violin, a hauntingly beautiful song she seemed to be improvising, and didn’t even notice him come in. She swayed, her eyes closed, delicate fingers dancing along the frets with stunning agility, and he watched her for who knew how long before she saw him and jerked upright, the song coming to an abrupt end.

            ‘What are you doing here?’

            He held up the wine, a ten-year-old cellar release cabernet that would have emptied his bank account just a few months ago and was now barely a drop in the ocean. He smiled. ‘Guess where I just got you a gig?’

            ‘I don’t care.’

            And, to his amazement, she dropped the violin and came to him, enfolding him in her arms and kissing him like never before. She smelled like sweat and leather. She hadn’t been cold that night, and he’d left the next morning feeling dazed and drunk on more than wine, his back covered in stinging scratches.

            He raised his glass to Jake, smiling. ‘Hey, here’s to us.’

            Jake smiled and raised his own glass. ‘It’s all you, buddy. The Ravenites are great, but they’re a Strip band at best. No way could I get them a gig at Kingdom. It’s all up from here. I’m just saying though, you gotta be careful.’

            And there it was, at last – that subtle note of jealousy that Xander had never believed he’d ever hear in Jake’s voice. He almost felt bad for him. ‘What, am I gonna get corrupted by success? Spiral downward in a haze of women and heroin like Jim Morrison and die young? Doesn’t sound so bad to me.’

            He was joking, of course, but Jake wasn’t laughing. ‘Oh, you’ll die young, all right,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘But it’s that crazy singer of yours who’s gonna kill you.’

It was late, but not too late, and a freak heatwave from the previous day hadn’t quite surrendered to the rain and autumn cold. Steam rose from the asphalt carrying with it the smell of tar and gravel. Sarah took turns at random, favouring narrow streets, and those with broken windows and graffiti. The sirens of the police and ambulance were frequent here, a kind of night music of their own. Sarah frowned as she ambled along, thinking of nothing in particular – until she heard an unfamiliar sound: The laughter of a small boy.

It seemed so out of place in this neighbourhood she had to follow it. She found the culprit soon enough, a youth of no more than six playing with a tennis ball in the road. His mother sat against a mouldy wall, sucking on a cigarette with sunken cheeks, rocking back and forth. She looked tired and worn out, like all junkies. The kid was having a blast, slapping his ball up against the factory wall and giggling when it bounced back at him at crazy angles. The old lady watched him with a sad smile on her face.

            Then she caught sight of Sarah, watching her. She coughed out her last drag. ‘Haggghh. H… Hey, this isn’t any place for a… are you lost, honey?’

            Sarah didn’t answer immediately. She had her head cocked to one side, the part of her brain that could tell pitch with perfect accuracy working, hearing the unique qualities in the two voices, mother and son, young and old. Another part of her mind, a more emotional part, was thinking about suffering, and about how physical suffering was only a part of it. A small part, really. Some people would prefer to be horribly tortured rather than suffer the agony of grief, or sorrow.

            ‘Are you – Haaaggh. Are you okay?’ The kid had stopped his game and was staring at Sarah now, meeting her curious gaze with one of his own. The mother stubbed out her cigarette and got to her feet, and Sarah snapped out of it at last. She put a hand to her chest. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry I was just, I heard your son and I was worried he might be lost or…’

            ‘Oh. Oh, no, he’d be right at home in a pig sty. Heh, isn’t that right, Denny? Just as happy as a cow in a mud hole, ain’t ya?’

            Denny shrugged, suddenly shy. He went over to his mother and she patted his head. ‘Nah, we’re all right,’ she went on. ‘But you better get on, lady, this place can get dangerous after dark.’

            ‘Isn’t it dangerous for you, too? Don’t you have a place to stay?’ Her voice cracking with concern. She kept her eyes wide and unblinking, a naïve college girl in the big city.

            The old lady shifted on her feet. ‘Ah, we’ll be fine. Wouldn’t say no if you could pass a dollar or two our way though, would we, Denny?’

            ‘No, no. Look, my house isn’t far from here. Why don’t’ you stay one night? My good deed for the day, kinda thing.’

            ‘Aw, honey, you don’t – ’

            ‘It’s fine. Really, it’s not far. They said it was going to rain again, tonight.’

            Something gave way in the old mother’s shoulders and she let out a soft laugh. ‘Well, isn’t that something, eh Denny? There’s good souls out in the world, aren’t there?’

            ‘Does the lady got balloons, mama?’

            ‘Sure I do,’ Sarah said. ‘I got all the balloons you want.’

The gig at The Kingdom was like nothing she’d ever done before. When she walked out on stage they were screaming for her, their voices joining and rolling across the theatre like a wave. Staaaaaaar giiiiiirrrrrllll! Staaaaaaarrrrrr Giiiiiiiirrrrrlll! It was a name she’d picked up as she was getting more popular in some of the bigger clubs. Stargirl. Xander said it was because of the blue flecks in her eyes, but she knew different. It was because they could see who she was.

            They wanted her soul, and they were drinking it in with their open mouths. She stood up in the middle of the stage for a long time, motionless, watching them as though they were the ones performing for her, seeing their manic eyes and their desperate, thirsty need for her, for what was inside of her. They wanted her soul, and she was going to give it to them.

            And so she sang.

Xander was out of his depth, and he was loving it. Out of his league with the girl, with the music, with the business, with the money. He barely slept four hours a night, the phone rang night and day, and he felt himself being swallowed by the machine, swept along by her success. All that stuff he learned in business school about the networking and the advertising and the hustling fell by the wayside – they’d never prepared him for this, this mad hunger for Stargirl. It was all he could do to keep them from finding out where she lived, and thank god he had, because the kind of people who were so nuts for Stargirl were also the kind of people who would tear her to shreds if they could get their hands on her.

            He rubbed his eyes and ran a hand through his thinning hair, thinking for the hundredth time that he was going to have to hire a whole crew of people just to keep him from having a heart attack. Still, pondering the look she would give him when he told her the Big News was enough to bring a smile to his face.

            Until he came down the overgrown walkway leading to her front door and heard the music coming from inside her shaded house. Not that music was anything unusual – but this was something else, some awful new instrument or song that put his nerves on edge and dread in his heart. He pushed open the front door – it was never locked – and braced himself for whatever fresh madness she was concocting.

            The music was not coming, as Xander had expected, from an instrument at all, but from top-of-the-line speakers that Sarah had arranged around the main room. For all his years in the music business, listening to the mixtapes of a million aspiring musicians, Xander had never heard anything so raw and unpleasant as this. He couldn’t discern a single instrument in the strange, jarring melody. There were no lyrics, nor chorus, nor harmony – but there was a kind of pattern to it, a trance inducing fractal made of notes. Xander didn’t just dislike it – he hated it with emotional force. It affronted every possible musical taste; it could appeal to nobody.

            Sarah was in nothing but a black bra and leggings, her back to him and a half full bottle of Jack in one hand, dancing.

            Xander couldn’t help but stare. She was somehow – impossibly – moving in time with the music. Slow now, then faster, arms and legs twisting and waving like snakes, hips sliding, head thrown back as she took another swig, lost in the madness. She simultaneously attracted and repelled him, and at last he couldn’t take it any more and he stepped over to the stereo and pulled the plug out at the wall.

            As soon as the music stopped she spun around, eyes wild, a light film of sweat on her forehead. ‘Oh! Hey.’

            ‘What was that?’

            ‘My backing track for the big song,’ she said, catching her breath. Her starry eyes were bright, but his heart was sinking. No one’s gonna hear that, he thought. No one would want to hear that.

            ‘I’ve written the lyrics and everything. I’m going to blow them away, Xander.’

            ‘Uh huh,’ he said slowly, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. ‘You’d better save it for after… you… play… the… Olympia!’ He stepped closer to her with each word, and just before he said Olympia he put his hands on her shoulders and flashed a smile. He was expecting something, a raised eyebrow or a disbelieving gasp or a kiss, even. But the name of the Theatre hardly seemed to register. She stared at him – with surprising clarity given the amount of liquor she’d just consumed.

            Silence.

            ‘Hello? Did you hear what I said?’ Still smiling.

            ‘I’m playing my song, Xander.’

            He took a deep breath. ‘Sarah. Once we get it all polished up and edited and all that, sure. But the Olympia is at the end of the month and the fans want to see Stargirl, not…’ Whatever the fuck that was just now. His inner voice finished for him. Even though he’d only heard twenty or so seconds of the strange music, it seemed to echo in the room, infusing the very air with menace. He wanted to shake her. No one wants to feel like that, don’t you understand? No one wants to hear music that makes them want to fucking kill themselves!

            But the fact that the words did not leave his mouth made no difference: Sarah heard them all the same. She heard them in subtitles in his tone, the way she could always tell when people were lying, or fake, or sad.

            ‘That music is my soul, Xander,’ she said, and he heard real emotion in her voice then, real hurt. ‘Don’t you understand that? I just want them to hear my soul.’

            His mind was racing, torn between the desire to keep her happy and the sure and certain knowledge that if he agreed both of their careers were going to take a nose dive straight into the asphalt. It’s for her own good. ‘Sorry, I can’t let you do that,’ he said.

            She stepped away from him, a wall dropping down in front of those exquisite eyes, shutting him out forever. He felt it like a physical thing, a blade of ice piercing his heart even before her next words left her lips.

‘Goodbye, Xander.’

            ‘Are you… are you firing me?’

            ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m breaking up with you.’

JAZZ CITY MAGAZINE

October 25th 2018

Ella Shwartz

Rising force of nature Sarah Grant, known to her adoring fans as ‘Stargirl’ makes her debut at the Olympia this weekend, and tickets are selling like ice cream in the Sahara. Any other musician would be in their element, making the most of their newfound fame, but as Stargirl has shown us time and again, she is not like any other musician.

            For one thing, no one really knows what she looks like. We have a version of her, a dark beauty on stage who can bring tears to your eyes with lyrics (all her own) or voice equally. She is, in a word – haunting, and her life outside the limelight is certainly ghostlike. She vanishes after shows, refuses interviews, and even her most dedicated fans (and there are many) know only the most on-the-surface details about her, and much of that is speculation.

            Perhaps she is merely acting the part of the enigmatic artist? I, for one, doubt it. Her lyrics speak honestly of deep pain, grief, and heartbreak and ring with truth that can only be gained by experience. Her skill with the various instruments she uses to accompany her singing is unparalleled by any other working artist. During her last show at The Kingdom Theatre, I personally witnessed her perform with a guitar, a violin, a cello and a saxophone on four separate songs, and in each case she could have qualified as a virtuoso.

            The only valid criticism of Stargirl would concern the fans she seems to attract. Perhaps it is the inherently bleak subject matter of her songs, or perhaps the deep melancholy her music inspires. Whatever the reason, each successive concert has stretched the growing numbers of security personnel to their limits. Fights, vandalism, drugs, alcohol, tattoos, motorbikes, knives, long painted nails, piercings in every conceivable body part, and all-round recklessness: if these things are to your liking, you will fit in very well at a typical Stargirl concert.

            If not, no worries: hang back and enjoy the show: I guarantee you’ll see something special. Mark my words – Stargirl is no less than a legend in the making, this generation’s answer to Jim Morrison, and I would bet my life she won’t disappoint at the Olympia this weekend. See you there!

He stopped by the bottle store she used to work at. Her boss, Greg whoever, didn’t recognize him, and didn’t comment on his purchase of a half-litre of Polish spirits, the strongest stuff they had. Perhaps he thought Xander was going to use it as a disinfectant.

            In a way, he thought as he slid into the front seat of his car and took a tentative sip, he was. It was just that the wound he wanted to disinfect was in his heart. He kicked the car into gear and pulled onto the highway. He had nowhere in particular to go; just one he had no intention of getting anywhere near the Olympia.

            Sometimes it was just nice to drive.

            This time, though, the miles of city road started to get to him. He drove in silence, staring straight ahead, hands tight on the wheel. Normally he had something playing in the car, but there was only one CD in the drive right now – a new pop rock band – and the thought of listening to their sickly sweet upbeat jams made him want to vomit.

He turned onto the Strip and accelerated, winding down the window so the salty ocean air flew in his face and kept him sober. The billboards shot by the opposite window in a fluorescent blur, each one seeming to bring another memory of Sarah bubbling to the surface. Ever unsmiling, dancing with her hands over the head, too drunk on tequila. Walking the pier late at night and seeing the stars. On stage for the first time, killing it like no one ever before and then asking him afterwards, was I okay?

He rolled down familiar streets, where he could cruise the backroads for as long as he wanted, without worrying or thinking too much.

            Thoughts found their way into his mind, all the same.

            Despite the stern voice – Jake’s voice – telling him it was all right, that she’d been poison from the beginning, he couldn’t let go of that empty look in her eyes at the very end, when she’d…

            The memory triggered another: him shutting off the CD player and popping the disc out. He hadn’t meant to take it away – he’d just wanted to make sure she didn’t play it again, that awful nerve torturing yowl. But  he realised he had – in fact he was wearing the same jacket. Sure enough, when he reached into the inside pocket, it was still there.

            He tossed it onto the seat beside him. She’s ruining herself tonight, he thought. She’ll get laughed off stage. Every minute or so, his eyes darted to the seat. The disc was plain silver, with block letters written in permanent marker across the face:

ODE TO MISERY

DEMO

            He ejected the mixtape belonging to the High Street Wranglers and put it in.

Sarah had put the finishing touches at last. For days she’d pursued those elusive notes, the missing pieces she’d needed to string everything together and make it just right, but after some trial and error, she pulled it together.

            There were nineteen bodies buried in the back garden to prove it. Some had died more painfully than others, or more terrified, or more broken. But they’d  all given her their precious sound, in the end, not knowing that they were giving her a piece of their soul along with their utterances. It was the most ambitious thing she’d ever done, the most impossible – and yet, she’d done it. Every note in the right place; the melody tight, the pacing on point, the tone… sublime.

            It was the greatest thing that she would ever do.

After a couple of swigs, he stopped coughing. A couple more and his throat was numb. Another, and his heart and mind were numb, too. He drove faster and put the music up. It was a beautiful thing, this car – he’d bought it after her first really big gig. He remembered the way she’d looked at him after he’d given her the news: her eyes seemed so deep to him, then. So full of meaning and feeling.

            He took another long slug – almost finished now – and despite his nerveless tongue he detected a certain bitterness. Everything tasted bitter, now.

            The music played in a loop. This version was unfinished, of course, and only three minutes long. Every time the loop came to an end he urged himself to slam the eject and throw the thing out the window. He was grinding his teeth like a crack addict, knuckles white on the wheel. But then the track would start again and he’d hear a strange kind of whoop! Like someone surprised, but not in a good way – the kind of surprised you might get if someone curled a knife around your throat from behind – and that was the hook; every note that followed was like someone working under his fingernails with a screwdriver. Like scratching his retinas out, making him see black: death and despair in a dark cocktail.

            At the end of the Strip, he skidded the car around a tight corner, ran a red light, and headed for the city limits.

Sarah always zoned out in the dressing room. The stylists were chatty, so she let them monologue about celebrities and oh my god have you seen that show it’s amazing… and she would glaze over and think of the music.

            Another band was out there opening for her, and she could hear the heavy thump of drums and a good bass player making the building vibrate rhythmically. The crowd was loving it, the cheers and shouts of fifty thousand people rocking the building. But Sarah was late, as usual, and it wasn’t long before the chaotic ruckus solidified into a steady chant. Starrrrrrr Giiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl! Starrrrrrrr Giiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl!

            At last her makeup was done and the stylist, a twenty something with pigtails and a brilliant smile, stood back and made a ta-da motion. ‘All ready, Stargirl! Go get ‘em, baby, I believe in you!’

            Sarah poured herself a fresh scotch on the rocks and the lit a cigarette. She took a drag and faced her reflection. The thing in the mirror wasn’t really her. A made-up queen, a superstar, a smoky-eyed crooner. It wasn’t the real Stargirl.

            ‘That’s okay. They’ll all see Stargirl, soon enough,’ she said.

            ‘Huh? Better get moving, girl! They’re calling for you!’

            Starrrrrrr giiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl! Starrrrrrrr giiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl!

            Sarah stood up, glass in one hand and cigarette in the other, and spread her arms. ‘How do I look?’

            The pretty pigtail girl clapped her hands. ‘You look like an angel baby!’

            ‘Thanks.’ And she pushed the other girl backward, the comical shock registering on her face as she half landed on the dressing table, cracking the mirror behind her.

            Tina, the other publicist, let out a tiny scream and put both hands up to her mouth, but by then, Sarah was already heading through the doubled doors for Stage Left.

Xander didn’t look back: he just kicked into high gear and drove, and thumbed the dial on his radio all the way up to ten. Why, he’d push it to eleven if he could – he’d push it all the way to hell!

            That was where he was going, after all. He knew that, now. It wasn’t that he was heading away from the city – no, it wasn’t that at all. He was heading where the music told him to go. And it had a lot to say, once you really listened. That was what he found, driving for an hour and then two, and three.

            It hurt – there was no mistake about that. The chords and half-screamed moans twanged around in his head like steel wool on a burn… but it was a good kind of pain, and it spoke to him of the future, a future full of blood and rage, and Xander was all too happy to listen.

            It was Xander’s future, and as the road thundered under his wheels and the air blew in through the open window, hot summer air, he found he couldn’t wait to get there.

As she stepped out, the crowds chanting erupted into an ocean of screams and applause, thousands surging toward the line of security at the front. A forest of arms reached out for her, many of them holding bright phones with the camera lights on. Sarah wondered what the sound quality was like on those. Never mind, the show would be broadcast through the best media available all over the country.

            She didn’t so much as glance at the roaring crowd as she walked on stage, just headed over to the stool near the front. It wasn’t meant for sitting, but for holding her glass. She took a long swallow and they loved that, too, hundreds lifting their own drinks in toast.

            Stargirl didn’t care for any of it. There was no How is everybody doing today? Or Hey, what a crowd, you look great. No Thank you for coming out! There were only the three even steps to front and centre, the raising of the microphone to her lips, and the short intake of breath. This was enough to make the whole theatre silent.

            In that brief instant before she began to sing, someone in the tech room flipped a switch, kicking off the first notes of backing music.

            Sarah saw the expressions change on a ten thousand faces all at once, saw the humanity vanish from their eyes in an instant, and she knew this would be a night to remember.

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