They were halfway through their second set when Eli saw Martin in the crowd. It was a miracle he could see that much of the crowd at all–the stage lights in the inner-city club were less blinding than usual, although they were still hot enough that he felt like his makeup should be melting off. Lights like that were a side effect of doing a secret show, he figured–and not that long ago that it seemed like all their shows had been secret. Now crowds of people showed up to see them, singing along, wearing their T-shirts and painting their faces in an attempt to match the band’s elaborate makeup. The House of Troubles was just over the edge of success. They weren’t one of the big names (yet, some would say), but they opened for them enough times to be recognizable.
Eli strode across the stage, half-singing, half-yelling the well-practiced lyrics into the microphone as the crowd whooped. This wasn’t exactly planned—normally he and Doug would yell into each others’ faces during the tag of this particular song—but he had to get a better look at the crowd, make sure the face he saw was really who he thought it was. Besides, the crowd, at least, would forgive him a little change in behavior. He was supposed to be the Madgod, right? And how could he claim that name, that persona, if he didn’t break the rules once in a while? Never mind the fact that he was starting to have to hold back flinches when fans called him that. He could still use the persona as an excuse if he wanted to.
It was him. The lighting was bad, and they hadn’t seen each other in years, but Eli could never forget Martin’s face. He’d seen it often enough, first in second grade, then almost daily until high school graduation. Of course, he usually associated that face with his sister’s, as the three of them had been practically inseparable for most of their young lives, but mercifully, he only saw Martin, not Marina. At that point, Eli made up his mind. He had to track Martin down after the concert, just to talk to him. Maybe meeting with someone who knew him before the Madgod and the House of Troubles would help with how he’d been feeling recently. At that moment, Martin looked up, not yelling, not singing, just looking. Their eyes met, and someone looking close enough may have been able to see past the butterfly wings painted on Eli’s face and realize just how tired the Madgod looked.
The club was crowded, loud, and already full of the smell of alcohol and sweat. Eli had been in what felt like hundreds of places like this over the past few years, but this one was different. It wasn’t anything to do with the music or the decor and everything to do with who was there. He’d been watching the door as much as he could after the concert, and as far as he could tell, Martin had yet to leave. All he had to do now was find one man in a crowd of people, most if not all of them his fans. Easy, right?
Eli pushed through the crowd, straining to see if he could find that familiar face, when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around, hoping, only to be met with a young woman, bright red hair hanging about her face.
“Hey,” she shouted over the music, “You’re him! You’re the Madgod, right?” She took his silent half-nod as confirmation–he supposed his face was that recognizable, especially with the butterfly–and continued, “Man, I’m, like, your biggest fan. ‘Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know’ totally changed my life. Can I get a selfie with you?” It was all Eli could do to keep from sighing. Yes, he’d wanted this life once, but now, after so many late nights and hearing the same fannish statements over and over again, it was getting stale. Eli put on his ‘smiling for the fans’ face and positioned himself next to the young woman long enough for her to pull out her phone. However, just as she was about to snap the picture, Eli finally saw Martin walking by.
“Sorry!” he said to the woman, “I have to go. There’s someone I’m supposed to meet…” It was only halfway a lie. He dashed off, leaving the fan with a blurred image of her idol, and chased after the familiar man. This time it was Eli’s turn to put a hand on someone else’s shoulder.
“Martin?” he asked, “That is you, right?” For a split second, he had a sudden doubt. What if he had been wrong? What if this was just someone who looked like his old friend? But his fears were abated as soon as the other man turned around, smiling. It was definitely him.
“Eli Bereth,” Martin said with a smile, “It’s good to see you again.”
“Why’re you here?” Eli asked. He vaguely remembered a conversation where Martin mentioned that he lived in this area, but that didn’t explain how he’d heard about the concert. The only advertising had been on the band’s social media, and far as Eli knew, The House of Troubles wasn’t exactly the sort of music that his friend usually listened to.
“One of my coworkers is a fan of yours,” Martin answered, “he told me about this show when I mentioned I knew you, and I thought I’d try to catch up.” Right at that moment, someone backed into Martin, almost sending him smack into Eli.
“Sorry!” the person yelled, then they looked at Eli, recognition dawning on their face. Eli called, “C’mon,” to Martin and walked away, to a different area of the club. The fans were inescapable, it seemed.
“This isn’t the best place for talking, is it?” Martin commented, “C’mon, let’s go somewhere else. I can’t hear myself think in places like this.” Eli, who was used to not being able to hear himself think, nodded. It was an impulsive decision, sure, and really he should’ve stayed at the club, but what was life without adventure? God knows he needed a moment of escape.
“Go ahead,” he told Martin, “I’m gonna get this shit off my face.” It would take a moment, but it’d be infinitely more convenient to go out without the butterfly. Besides, for the rest of the night, he was going to be Eli, not the Madgod.
A few minutes later, Eli walked out of the club, his smile at the rush of quiet and cold air only intensified when he saw his friend standing on the sidewalk.
“Took you long enough to get out here,” Martin said, “I was afraid you’d gone back to your adoring public and forgotten about me.”
“Nah,” Eli shook his head, a stray droplet of water falling from his hair, “I needed a break from the adoring public.” He wore a hoodie over his shirt, although the tight black pants he’d worn on stage were still there. He had tried to wash his stage makeup off, but the combination of his hurry and the low water pressure of the sinks in the club’s bathroom meant he was left with limited success. What had once been a vivid orange and purple butterfly was now a collection of smears around his face. He looked a mess, but hopefully no one would recognize The Madgod based on just a few smears.
“So, did you drive here?” Eli asked, looking around the street as if expecting a car to just pop up. Martin laughed and said, “With how awful parking is around here? No, I just took an Uber. Anyway,” he added, “you wanna get something to eat? According to Google, there’s a 24-hour diner nearby, and I could really go for something cheap and greasy.”
“That sounds fucking perfect,” Eli answered enthusiastically. It wasn’t quite the adventure he was expecting, but it was the journey, not the destination—even if the destination still sounded really appealing. Cheap, greasy food in the middle of the night with Martin? They hadn’t done something like this since high school, when they were too young to even act like they knew what they were doing. He could think of no better oasis.
“Great.” Martin tapped his phone screen a few times, “looks like it’s within walking distance, if you’re up for it.”
“Works for me. Legs could use a good stretching.” In the early days of the band, his legs would almost give out after a performance, leaving him held up by adrenaline and little else. Nowadays, he could manage it easily and even preferred walking around afterwards, “Which way?” he asked, beginning to move in the direction Martin indicated.
“So,” Eli said after they were moving in the right direction, “How’ve you been? It feels like it’s been a lifetime since we talked.” In a way, it had.
“I’m doing pretty well,” Martin answered, “Finished my Masters last year, right now I’m part-timing at a museum while I try to find someone who’ll hire me for something more substantial. How about you?”
Tired. Burnt out. Not sure if I can keep doing this. Eli thought.
“Fine,” Eli said, “Band’s doing well.”
“I could tell. They really seemed to like you up there. I don’t really do the whole metal thing, but that coworker who told me about the show? He just about exploded when I told him that I know you…” As they kept up conversation about the present, exchanging anecdotes about their daily lives, Eli felt his lips curving upward and settling into a resting smile. He liked the other members of the band. They’d never felt like family, but they harmonized as people as well as musicians, and he couldn’t see himself anywhere but onstage with them for as long as he could manage. But he didn’t have the same history with them that he had with Martin. They didn’t have the same inside jokes, the same shared experiences, and he couldn’t separate interacting with them from the exhaustion of being in the band like he was now. But then Martin had to ruin it.
“So, how’s Marina doing?” Martin asked, “I haven’t seen her since your mom’s funeral.” Eli almost stopped in his tracks. Why, of all things, did Martin have to bring that up? The one thing about home he’d been trying very hard to not think about, and he just throws it out into the open.
“She’s fine, I guess,” he said after a moment, once he could make himself walk again, “We haven’t talked in a while.”
“Since the funeral?”
“Yeah. Since the funeral.” He’d barely been able to look at his sister after they’d seen pictures of the drunk driver that had hit their mother, the man’s House of Troubles T-shirt still visible in the mugshot.
“You haven’t talked to her since then? Why not?”
Because Mom was killed by one of my fans.
“Dunno. Too busy with band stuff, I guess.”
“Oh.” Martin half-nodded, “I guess that would explain why you left so soon after the funeral too.”
“Yep,” Eli said quickly, then pointed at a dimly lit neon sign up ahead of them as eagerly as if he was actually hungry, “Oh hey, This must be the diner. Let’s go on in.” Hopefully Martin would take the hint. He wanted to chat, to take a break from being tired and upset, not become more of both.
The diner’s waitress didn’t bat an eye at the two men, one overdressed for three AM anywhere, the other in black skinny jeans and a hoodie, but instead seated them quickly in a booth by a foggy window, told them someone would be there to take their orders, and went back to the front and whatever was on her phone. Eli immediately opened his menu, blinking a couple of times as his eyes adjusted to the relatively bright light of the restaurant.
“So,” he said, lowering the menu and looking over the top of it, “one of the appetizers is something called blueberry pancake dogs. Wanna see what the hell that is?” Martin hesitated before saying, “Sure. Sounds interesting.”
“You don’t think they, like… flatten dogs, do you? With blueberries in their mouths?” Eli grinned at his own joke, his smile widening when he heard Martin chuckle.
“I doubt it,” he replied, “can you imagine how much of a fit PETA would be throwing over it if they did?”
“Oh yeah, I can see the billboards now.” Eli laughed, back at ease, “So I’m also thinking of trying those chocolate banana pancakes. Sometimes you just need a flavor combination that just doesn’t make sense.” Martin snorted, and Eli could’ve sworn he’d seen his friend’s eyes roll.
“Chocolate and banana isn’t that weird, you know,” Martin pointed out, “You just think it is.”
“I think, therefore it is. Isn’t that how it goes?”
“No. No, that’s barely even close to how it goes. Points for trying, though.” Just then, a different waitress came by and took their orders. After she left, Eli leaned back in the booth.
“Man, this is nice,” he said, “I needed a break from the whole band Madgod thing. It’s fucking exhausting.”
“I’m sure,” said Martin, “having to be on all the time like that must wear you out.”
“Well, I mean, I don’t have to be on all the time. Sometimes we’re just traveling. Then it’s playing cards with the others.”
“So do you ever regret doing it? The whole band thing?” Eli paused, considering, then shook his head.
“Nah. I still enjoy performing, and god knows I can’t see myself doing anything else. But I can’t really talk to any of the other band members, not like I can talk to you, or other people from home.”
“Not Marina, though?” Eli scowled at Martin’s mention of his sister’s name.
“Look,” he snapped, “I promise you she doesn’t want to talk to me anymore than I want to talk to her, so let’s just drop her as a topic, okay?”
“I doubt that she doesn’t want to talk to you, unless she’s changed drastically from the last time we talked.”
“Maybe she has. Or I have. Can we please talk about something else?”
“Eli,” Martin looked down at the table, took a breath, then looked his friend in the eye, “I need to tell you something.”
“What, did you talk to Marina recently?”
“Yes, actually. She’s the one who told me about your show tonight. Not my coworker. She saw on the band’s Instagram that there was gonna be a concert here and she called and asked me to check up on you.” Eli’s eyes narrowed, the purple and orange smears on his face wrinkling into creases as he nearly snarled, “What?”
“She’s worried about you.”
“Oh, is that what she calls it?”
“She said she’s afraid that you might be feeling alone after your mom’s death.”
“And whose fault is that?” Eli’s face was still hidden by the menu, but his grip on it had tightened, his knuckles whitening.
“What are you talking about?” Martin asked, “it’s not anyone’s fault.”
Eli slapped his menu down, “I guess you don’t have the whole story, then.” He sighed, took a deep breath, then stared into his friend’s face.
“Do you know why I left town right after Mom’s funeral?” Eli asked. Martin hesitated before giving his answer.
“You said it was band stuff.”
“That was a lie. As soon as the funeral was over, Marina told me that I shouldn’t go home. That she needed to handle this without me.”
“What? Why would she do that?”
“The drunk driver who killed Mom,” Eli’s looked down at his hands, now resting on the table and clenched into tight fists, “He was one of our fans. One of my fans. He had my goddamn butterfly on his t-shirt.”
“That doesn’t mean it was your fault.”
“Try telling Marina that. Clearly she’s so afraid of what I do that she got you to fucking spy on me.” Eli stood up, bracing his hands on the table, “Well you can go back and tell her that I’m just fine and fucking dandy, although I’d be better without-”
“Elijah.” Eli stopped in his tracks. No one called him Elijah. He hadn’t even heard the name in ages, not since he was a teenager and his mother was scolding him for his latest stupid stunt. Martin continued, a steel in his voice that hadn’t been there before, “Your sister was worried that you might be feeling alone after your mother’s death. Like she is. All she wanted was to know if you’re okay. After this, I don’t know what to tell her.”
“Don’t tell her anything,” Eli growled, sinking back into the booth. He crossed his arms, glaring at the placemat in front of him like it was suddenly the most interesting thing on the planet, “She’ll just use it against me.”
“Is that really what you think?” Martin asked, “Because I don’t think that’s the Marina we grew up with, or the Marina that called me. I think she made a mistake, and she wants to make up for it. I know she misses you.” He leaned down, trying to look Eli in the face, “And I think you miss her too.”
Eli blinked, and if his eyes seemed wetter, it must have been the light, or maybe the sweat from the walk causing some of the makeup to slip into them. After a long pause, he said softly, “She misses me?”
“Yes,” Martin replied, “Enough to talk me into going to a metal concert.”
“Tell you what,” Eli said after another long moment, “I’ll call her, and we’ll talk. You don’t tell her anything about this, because I will. Got it?”
“Works for me,” Martin said with a nod, “Now where do you think our food is? Staff here’s sure taking their time.”
“It’s what, three something in the morning?” Eli looked at his phone, then looked up. If there were tracks in the makeup remnants, Martin didn’t mention them. “They’re probably too busy wishing they were asleep right now. Oh, and speak of the devil,” he added as the waitress arrived with their food.
The rest of the time in diner passed peacefully, as Eli stuffed his face with pancakes, Martin nibbled at a sandwich, and they both discovered that pancake dogs were surprisingly decent. When they finished—Eli insisted on paying the bill—they stood outside, each waiting for their respective transportation and reflecting on the type of Uber driver who would pick someone up outside an inner-city greasy spoon diner close to four in the morning.
“Hey,” Eli said, “let me see your phone. You’ve probably still got my old number in there.” When Martin handed it to him, Eli quickly updated his cell number, then handed it back, saying, “Make sure you text me or something. I wanna keep in touch.”
“Of course.” Martin typed up a quick text and sent it, causing Eli to feel a buzz in his pocket, “In case you get sick of playing cards with the rest of your band.”
“And so you can tell me when you get a better job.” Eli smiled and added softly, “Thanks.”
Eli was surprised to discover that the high from spending time with a friend that didn’t see him as the Madgod hadn’t worn off by the time he got back to The House of Troubles’ RV, which was parked in a tiny lot near the club. The lot was silent, only the RV and a few other cars standing up from the dark ground.
If Eli had to guess, at least two-thirds of his bandmates would be in there, depending on whether Barron had met someone interesting. Either way, he didn’t hear anything as he approached it, so whoever was there was most likely sleeping, which suited him just fine. He had a phone call to make.
Eli leaned up against the side of the RV, staring at his phone. His sister’s contact entry stared back at him, a stupid selfie they’d taken together not long after The House of Troubles’ first show. She had painted a small butterfly on her cheek, a miniature of the face-covering one that had become his trademark. Once someone had asked him why he chose a butterfly motif and whether it fit the ‘Madgod’ image. He’d answered that being the Madgod was all about chaos, and what could be more chaotic than a creature that completely transforms itself? It wasn’t the best answer, but it had been less embarrassing than the truth—his mother had loved butterflies. She had taken her children to a butterfly garden once, and Eli would always remember seeing a massive cloud of the insects, their wings fluttering as they flew around. His butterfly had transformed into a memory of her death after he’d seen it on her killer’s shirt, but maybe now it would transform once again.
Eli took a deep breath, then hit the call button. As the phone began to ring, he realized too late that it was either too late or too early in the morning for her to be awake, but hopefully he could at least leave a voicemail. He leaned harder against the side of the RV, his legs jellylike and held up only by adrenaline until finally, he heard a voice on the other end of the line.
“Hey, Marina, it’s me. Shit, did I wake you up? Sorry. Anyway, I ran into Martin after my show tonight…”