Disclaimer: Characters and situations are all from my imagination.
Warnings: Sex and love between women
Author's Note : This includes characters originally introduced in my novel The Rise and Fall of Radiation Canary (now available in ebook and hardcover editions) and includes spoilers for that novel. Nothing huge, but they are there.
Feedback: Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2015 Geonn Cannon
Jesse Maher only met them in person once, but that was enough.
She only discovered the band by accident. Her best friend Hayley had a copy of The Middle Distance in her locker, and Jesse picked it up to look at the artwork while Hayley loaded her bag with the books she'd need for homework. The artwork was funny: the four band members seemed to be standing on water in Puget Sound dressed in suits and hats. When she turned it over, one of the girls was in the process of falling off whatever platform she'd been standing on. She asked if she could borrow the CD, and Rachel said she didn't care.
The first time she listened to it as background music while she did homework. It wasn't her usual type of music, but it was better than whatever pop monstrosity the radio was trying to make happen that week. The Puget Sound cover art was a clue that the band was from Seattle, but it didn't hit home until she reached a song called “The Next Ferry.” About two-thirds of the album had gone by before she realized she was focusing more on the lyrics than her homework. Finally she closed her notebook, stretched out on her bed, and started the album over at the beginning.
The first time through she'd barely noticed there were two vocalists. As soon as that fact clicked, she couldn't believe she'd ever thought it was the same person. The girl who sang on the fewest songs had a great voice, but it was very clear why the other one was more prominent. She checked the liner notes to find out their names and quickly deduced Lana Kent was the lead singer. The other voice was either Karen Everett or Nessa Grace; she couldn't imagine the drummer taking lead vocals on a song.
After she listened to the entire album twice, she went to her computer and looked up their other albums. They had three besides The Middle Distance , so she emailed Hayley to see which of the others she had. The only one she didn't have was the newest, so Jesse ordered that one so they could swap. She downloaded the songs onto her iPod and let it play while she fell asleep.
A few months later she owned all four albums for herself. A few months after that, the band put out a new album called The Amnesia Between Sleeping & Waking and Jesse stayed up until midnight so she could make sure the pre-ordered album began downloading immediately. She had been following news about the band so there had been moments when she was afraid the band would never have another album. First there was the terrifying moment she got a news alert revealing Lana had been stabbed by a crazed fan. Then Lana went missing - even though the band never officially revealed she was AWOL, it seemed obvious to Jesse and everyone else online - and to top it all off, Dash Warren died. It looked like it would be very easy for Radiation Canary to just fade away in the midst of everything.
Jesse stayed up an extra hour after the album finished downloading just so she could listen to it. The title song of the album was one Lana had written in the hospital right after she was stabbed, and it made Jesse cry. That was the moment she realized the power a single song could have. She'd been taking guitar lessons since she was ten, but when she woke up the next morning she sat on the edge of her bed and placed the instrument on her lap with a new reverence.
She strummed a few chords and pushed out her bottom lip as she concentrated on what she wanted to say. There were so many things she wanted to say, thought she wanted to express, but she didn't want to spill them onto some blog or rant in one of a thousand YouTube videos that eight people would click on. Music would be a way to actually feel like someone was listening to her. She played the guitar until her mother appeared at the doorway.
“Jaygirl,” she said, “you're going to be late. Come on down and get your breakfast.”
“Okay.” She put aside the guitar and her mother stepped aside to let her out of the room.
“Why were you playing the guitar so early?”
“Just fiddling around with it. Sorry if it was loud.”
Her mother shook her head. “No, I was just curious. It sounded good.”
Soon she was spending nights and weekends composing. Radiation Canary became more than her favorite band, they became her role models. She learned songwriting from them, grateful she'd gotten swept up by an act that actually wrote their own music. The four Canaries weren't some manufactured monster and they weren't pre-packaged products some record label had dressed up for the masses. They were real, and they were worth emulating.
She taught herself how to play every song Radiation Canary had ever released, even the jokey “Walla Walla Sweetheart.” She got better and then, to her utter surprise, she became good . She spent almost eight months putting together a few songs that she performed at parties and school dances. It was her senior year, and she was shocked when the president of the student council asked if she could write something to serve as their class song. “Most classes just pick whatever pop song is number one that year,” he said, “but we've heard some of your stuff and we trust you to come up with something that really represents us.”
The song she ended up writing, “Forevergreen,” was admittedly heavily cribbed from Radiation Canary. Nothing was outright theft or plagiarism, but she felt bad about the accolades she received for it. She decided that from then on she would find her own sound.
And then her parents surprised her with their graduation present to her: two front-row tickets to see Radiation Canary live in concert. She was so overwhelmed by the thought that she almost refused the gift. The idea of actually seeing the four women who had become like idols to her was a daunting thing. She couldn't imagine sitting in front of them and experiencing the music live. In the end she accepted because her parents had paid a lot of money for the tickets, and because she knew she would always hate herself if she missed the opportunity.
She gave Hayley the other ticket, since it was only due to her that Jesse heard the band in the first place. She spent the week leading up to the concert shopping for the perfect outfit to wear. She knew the band spent hours after every show signing autographs, so she didn't want to meet them in some random outfit from her closet. Focusing on the clothes also helped keep her grounded. She didn't want to go crazy counting down the moments until she was at the venue.
But the day finally arrived. Hayley drove them to the concert hall, they waited patiently with a mob of other fans until the doors opened, and then they made their way to the front row. Hayley grabbed Jesse's hand as they sat down.
“I can't believe I'm here. Thank you so much.”
Jesse could only grin. She squeezed Hayley's hand to keep it from shaking.
And then the lights went down.
And then a row of lights along the edge of the stage came on.
And then Lana freaking Kent, in the flesh, walked out on stage.
She was less than ten feet away when she stopped and lifted her guitar from its stand. She was wearing a sleeveless V-neck shirt under a gray vest and skinny jeans. She smiled as the rest of the band assumed their places and adjusted the mic as the cheers died down. Jesse only then realized she hadn't made a peep; she was too in awe to join in the applause.
“It's always easy to tell when we're home,” Lana said. “How are you doing, Seattle?”
Another cheer, and this time Jesse joined the chorus.
“That's what we like to hear. And we know what you like to hear, so why waste any more time, huh?” She turned to face Karen Everett, who had taken a seat with her cello. Jesse's seat provided her an unobstructed view of Lana's rear end, and she told herself not to stare even as she couldn't take her eyes off the perfect curves of her ass. Karen played the intro of “Away from Shore,” and Lana joined in as she faced the crowd once more. Jesse's ears were burning, and she turned to Hayley to see if she'd been caught staring. Hayley smiled at her, but the smile didn't seem like she was being teased. She realized she couldn't clap if they were still holding hands, but she needed Hayley to anchor her so she didn't completely lose her mind.
Later on she would barely remember the music. She watched Lana, focusing on her hands as they manipulated the strings of her guitar. She'd fantasized about those hands more than she was willing to admit. She also tried to focus on the other members of the band, like Nessa. There were songs where her part was minimal, so she would keep her hands on the edge of her keyboard and leaned closer to the mic for the choruses.
Karen was truly intriguing, though. She was elegant in her stillness, the way she would cradle her violin when she wasn't playing it, or the way she folded her feet together under her stool in between songs. She was wearing a dress, and every time she straddled her cello it seemed as if Jesse was about to get an angle she didn't want to admit she wanted. But Karen was adept enough to make sure nothing got flashed. When she took center stage to sing lead on a handful of songs, Jesse was surprised to discover she found Karen was even more beautiful than Lana. Hell, they were all gorgeous.
Jesse didn't know what to expect from the concert. She was prepared for the band to just come out, sing some songs, and then head backstage. Lana Kent offered more than that. In between songs she would strike up conversation with people in the audience. She would interact with the rest of the band in short exchanges that had to be planned but came off as casual asides. Her favorite moment came when Lana started singing “Scene of the Crime” from the second verse. The rest of the band was so thrown that first Karen stopped playing, followed by the others.
“You might want to sing it right this time,” Codie said.
Lana stared at her. “Those are the right words.”
Karen laughed. “Yeah, for the second verse.”
“Well, how does it start?”
Karen started to respond, but the audience beat her to it. “If I didn't have her, I'd still have my hand,” the crowd sang out. “Not as much fun, but at least I'd know where I stand.”
Lana let them finish the verse, then said, “Oh, yeah. Right. I got it now. Give me a break, it's been a while since we've done that one.”
Nessa said, “You just wanted to prove you weren't lip syncing.”
Lana laughed. “Yeah, that's the ticket. Okay, once more from the top... unless the audience would like to take over. I mean, I could go get a drink or something.”
The audience convinced her to stick around and she smiled as she played the intro again. Jesse smiled and looked at Hayley. People went to NASCAR to see the wrecks, and they came to concerts on the off chance something unexpected like that happened. Despite the fact she had laughed it off and was still smiling, Jesse was close enough to see Lana's ears were red. It was a natural, human reaction to messing up in front of a crowd, and part of her was thrilled to see even someone like Lana Kent wasn't immune to it.
About an hour into the show, Lana pulled over a stool and sat down while Karen sang lead on a song. Lana was positioned so she was facing Jesse and, by sheer coincidence, their eyes happened to lock briefly. Lana smiled, winked, and then lowered her head to watch her fingers move along the frets.
Hayley leaned close. “Oh my God. Did she just wink at you?”
“I... no. No!” She laughed and leaned heavily against Hayley. “That was freaking amazing.”
The concert ended much too quickly. Jesse and Hayley both cried during “Say a Prayer,” and Karen brought the house down by closing the show with “Emerald.” As soon as the band left the stage, Jesse tugged on Hayley's hand. “Come on... I want to be as close to the front of the line as possible.”
It seemed as if everyone else in the arena had the same thought. They ended up with a decent placement in line, but they still had to settle in for the long haul. Hayley slumped against the wall and sank down until she was sitting, and Jesse sat next to her. They both texted their parents to keep them updated on where they were so no one would worry. She took her bag from her shoulder and began digging through it for her CDs. She still hadn't decided which one she wanted signed. She looked over and saw that Hayley was sitting with her hands folded in her lap.
“Did you bring anything for them to sign?”
“No. I didn't want to carry a purse around all night.”
“Well, here. You can get one of my albums signed and just trade me your unsigned version.”
Hayley smiled. “That's sweet, but I don't really collect autographs. It'll be enough to meet them.”
Hayley bumped her arm. “It was a great show, huh? They played your favorite song.”
Jesse beamed. “They did! I mean, it's so popular I can't imagine them not playing it, but I was so worried.”
Once she'd decided to have The Middle Distance signed, she went through the pictures she had taken on her phone to decide which one she would post to Twitter and Facebook. Hayley looked over her shoulder and helped her choose a picture of Lana with her feet spread apart, her weight on her right foot while the other was up in the air. She was tilted back with the guitar almost horizontal on her stomach, her head thrown back and hair wild. The picture was framed so that Karen was visible behind her, and Codie could be seen slightly out-of-focus in the background.
“I wish there was a shot of all four of them.”
“We were too close for that,” Hayley said.
Jesse grinned. “That's an awesome problem to have, huh?”
“It's pretty cool.”
The line inched forward until finally, an hour and fifteen minutes after the concert ended, they were allowed to approach the table where the band was waiting for them. Codie, then Nessa, and Karen, and at the far end Lana Kent herself. Jesse tried to take in everything, every detail no matter how small. Karen and Lana had Dasani water bottles in front of them, while Codie had a Starbucks cup. They had dried off the sweat from the performance but they were still wearing the same outfits. They looked exhausted but completely wired.
“Hey there,” Codie said as she took the CD cover from her. “Did you like the show?”
“Yeah,” Jesse said, well aware of how breathless and idiotic she sounded. “Yes, it was... it was fantastic.” She looked at the others, so real and so very close. She felt lightheaded. “I can't believe I'm actually here.”
Lana said, “If you're dreaming, you owe us an appearance fee. Our boss is a real stickler about that.” She winked as she took a drink of water.
Hayley nudged her. “Name?”
Jesse stared at her friend. “What?”
Codie tapped the album with her finger. “I could sign it ‘to eBay' if you're going that route.”
“No! No, uh... Jesse.”
Codie signed her name above her image on the art, then passed it to Nessa. “You don't have to be so nervous. We're just regular people like you or your friend.” She looked at Hayley. “Do you have something you want signed?”
“Uh.” Hayley grabbed the top album from Jesse's bag. “Uh, sure...”
“I mean, as long as we're here, right?” Codie grinned.
Jesse forgot how to breathe as Karen took the album and added her signature. “What do you do, Jesse?”
“Uh. I'm a student. The show was my graduation present from my parents.”
Lana said, “Oh! Nice of you to share it with all these strangers.”
“She knows what you meant,” Nessa said. “Lana's kind of a smartass. But that is a very cool graduation present. Way to go, parents.”
Jesse said, “I play guitar. I... I mean, I write songs, and I play guitar, and I wanted to know if there were any tips you could... give me.” She cringed and glanced over her shoulder at the line. She already felt as if she'd eaten up way too much of their time. “God, never mind...”
Lana said, “No, wait. I can do this quick. I owe you for the jokes.” She straightened in her seat. “There are ten thousand talented and dedicated musicians out there, and that's just in Seattle. The thing you have to do is make sure the right person hears your song. With us, Nick Young heard us play. And then Naomi Marrow heard us play. They plucked us up out of the mud and put us on the road, you know? So you just have to find the right set of ears. And the only way to find the right ears is you have to play for as many as you can. Just don't give up, okay?”
“Okay. Thank you.”
Karen said, “You can get a license to busk at Pike Place Market. There's no guarantee, but that's the easiest and safest way for you to get a lot of people to hear you.”
“Thank you. I'll look into that.”
“Good luck,” Karen and Nessa said together.
Lana handed back the album art with all four of their signatures crowding around their portrait. “I want one of those from you someday.”
Jesse laughed. “You got it. Thank you again. Thank you.”
Hayley thanked them as well. Someone Jesse assumed was an employee of the concert hall guided them to an exit, and they stepped outside into the cold air. Jesse wrapped her arm around Hayley's and laughed, then ran ahead and threw her arms out to either side.
“We got to meet Radiation Canary! We talked to them! They gave me advice!” She ran back to Hayley. “Wasn't that awesome?”
“It was great,” Hayley said, laughing despite herself. “And sorry for stealing your CD...”
Jesse said, “No, I told you to. I'm glad you did. I can't believe you didn't want to.”
“Well...” Hayley stuffed her hands into her pockets. “I'm... I'm not that big of a fan.”
Jesse stopped in her tracks. “What? You had all their albums.”
“Yeah... but... I mean...” She was looking at her shoes.
“You enjoyed the concert, right?”
“I loved the concert,” Hayley said softly.
Jesse thought back over the night. “No, you didn't. Oh, my God. Every time I looked at you, you weren't even looking at the stage. Hayley... I'm sorry. I thought you liked them as much as I did. I thought you'd enjoy... oh, God, this must have been the most boring night ever.”
“Don't be sorry. I wasn't watching the stage because I was watching you. I agreed to come to the concert because I knew how much you would enjoy it, and I wanted to see you enjoy it. And the idea of spending my night listening to music I think is pretty decent is a small price to pay for that. I don't like Radiation Canary, but I... I like you... and I like spending time with you. And I bought the albums because I knew Lana and Karen were gay and I wanted to support gay musicians because I am, too. I'm gay. And I like you a lot more than I should. And that's why I came, and I'm sorry, Jesse.” She put her autograph in Jesse's hand, then turned and started running.
“Hayley!” Jesse was so stunned that it took her a moment to give chase. Hayley only ran to the edge of the building, where she slumped against the wall and covered her face with both hands. Jesse accidentally slammed into her, but she managed to turn it into a hug. “You should have said something. Please don't cry. Hayley... I...” She moved her lips near Hayley's ear. “I have feelings for girls.” She'd never said it out loud, and she didn't want to label it the way Hayley had. But it was the truth. “And I think that... if you like me... then that pretty much makes this the greatest night of my life.”
Hayley lifted her head. “Really?”
Jesse nodded and cupped her friend's head with her hands. “Maybe even without the concert. You mean so much to me. You gave me that album. You gave me the music. You gave me...” She felt the tears in her eyes but they wouldn't fall. “And you like me? Well... I liked you first.”
Hayley laughed. “You were amazing.”
“Tonight. Watching the concert? I really... I did have a great time. Just watching you.”
Jesse smiled and then, slowly enough that Hayley could stop her if she wanted to, she leaned in. Hayley made a quiet, uncharacteristic whimper right before their lips touched. Jesse didn't know if it was Hayley's first kiss, but it was definitely hers. There had been boys who wanted to kiss her in the past and a few girls she thought might have been responsive, but she didn't want to just throw it away. She knew she would only get one first kiss, and she wanted it to be memorable. She wanted her first kiss to be something she remembered when she was a hundred years old looking back over her life.
It had taken her until she was a senior in high school, but she knew without question that it was absolutely worth the wait.
Jesse tried to quiet the voices in her head and the pounding of her heart as she plucked a few strings of her guitar. She took her place on the red musical note painted on the ground, the symbol that indicated she was an approved and licensed busker in the great city of Seattle. She was only one of dozens out that day, but they were far enough from each other that they wouldn't overlap or drown each other out. She hesitated for just a second as she tried to settle on which song she would play first. “Picture Me” was the first that came to mind, so she played the intro and then began singing. No speakers, no microphone, nothing but the strength of her voice carrying the song out to the people wandering past.
She played Saturday, Sunday, and any day that she didn't have classes. She was studying Music Education at the University of Washington, expanding her knowledge and in the words of Stephen King, “learning what the rules before breaking them.” She still played for her friends if they had a party or a get-together. She provided the music for her friend Stephen's wedding. Every job, every opportunity she had to pick up the guitar was an educational moment, and she refused to let any of them slip by without learning something.
Busking in Pike Place Market taught her a lot of things. Which songs worked, which ones didn't, and how to deal with the fact that nine out of ten people just kept walking without a glance in her direction. She couldn't let their indifference affect her singing and, before long, there would be a few people lingering until the song ended. Sometimes they even bought one of the five dollar CDs in the box on Hayley's lap.
She looked over at Hayley as she sang. She was sitting cross-legged on the ground, dressed in a huge sweatshirt with her hair tucked under a beanie. After high school they officially started dating. When college started they finagled a way to get assigned to the same dorm room. Occasionally they got on each other's nerves, they questioned if they were better friends than lovers, but in the end they found enough common ground to make amends. And Hayley was always willing to pack a lunch and head out to be Jesse's “merch table” at the market.
“It's an hour of just sitting there while I play music.”
“It's an hour of sitting and listening to your music. That's not a hardship, Jay.”
Hayley realized Jesse was watching her and looked up to meet her gaze. She smiled and winked, then went back to watching the crowd to spot anyone who might be interested in buying a CD.
Jesse often thought about Lana Kent's advice, about making sure the right person heard her music. There was another way to take that advice, she realized. It wasn't about playing to a thousand people and hoping one of them could get her to the big leagues. It was about playing for the one person who mattered. She watched Hayley, who was rocking her head to the music, tapping her thumb against the edge of the cardboard box full of her girlfriend's CDs, and she smiled.
She didn't care if they didn't sell any CDs. She didn't care if the entire population of Seattle walked by her without a second glance. The only thing she cared about was keeping that smile on Hayley's face. As long as she did that she would consider herself a roaring success.
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