The Sound of Something Breaking

Kerry Cullen

We’d thought it was only a stage trick until Jory sat down at band dinner that night and took a bite out of her wineglass. Pica, she called it, rolling the word around in her mouth, lapping at its contours. It’s a disorder, she said. The glass had been empty.

Anyway, back then all of The Goons, me the newbie and the exception, were obsessed with putting unlikely materials in their bodies. Lord knows Chad had been—not that I’m ready to joke about it, but what else can I do?

 Now Jory chewed with her mouth closed, swallowed, and grinned, baring bloody gums and teeth tinted pink. “Does it hurt?” I asked.

 Jake leaned over to me and in a stage whisper that I’m sure she heard, said, “Don’t encourage her.”

She pulled a shard out of her bottom lip and wiped her fingers on her paper napkin. “So,” she said, “Not a bad crowd, right? Earlier?” We all shook our heads.

 “Not bad at all,” I told her, and she smiled at me. But in truth, it was the same as the rest of the tour so far: a cluster up front, some leaners in the back, the sound in the room half music and half yelling over it. We seemed to have reached a sort of plateau just short of being able to fill any venue, no matter how small.

Jake raised his glass. “A toast,” he said. “Here’s to The Goons.” Richie and I clinked against him. Jory twirled her jagged stem between her fingers.

Jory and I had been sharing a bed for most of the summer tour: two long thin bodies tucked together on a long thin mattress. When there was another bed, Jake and Richie flipped a coin; when there wasn’t, they both took the floor. During the three-week period in which Jory had been on the rebound with Jake, I’d wake up to an unsettling space beside me. I’d peer over the edge of the bed to see her curled up next to him on the off-white rug, his hand resting on her sharp hip.

 Last night, though, she’d stayed in the bed through the whole night again. This morning, I’d watched out the fingerprint-smudged van window while they argued in the parking lot; lots of gestures and no sound. He left, stomping back inside the motel, while she sat on the curb, her head in her arms, still wearing his t-shirt and boxers.

I knew the nice thing to do would be to comfort her, but I have never known how to touch hurting people, and I especially don’t know lately. And I was still sort of unclear on what my role was, here: they were my dead brother’s friends, not mine. I’d only come along to hitch a ride on the scenic route to California, for school, allegedly.

It had been a month into the tour when they’d realized I could sing. I hadn’t known it, either, not really. Chad was always the musician. I was crooning along to a ballad in the car, waiting for them to pack up all the instruments and wires I wasn’t allowed to touch, when they snuck up on me.

“Girl’s got pipes,” Jake said, “Must run in the family.” Then he pointed at Jory and added, “Take note.”

To her credit, she laughed instead of scowling. They put me up on stage the very next night, and I found myself loving it, belting out to the dark blurry audience, dancing like a banshee under the colored lights. I was happy to be part of it: a cog in a machine; inconsequential but contributing. Jory broke the silence, always—with an ear-splitting high note, a growl, a dissonant mess of chords—it didn’t matter. She was the one who started things. The rest of us just fell into place behind her. I could see why Chad had loved her.

The Goons didn’t need much by way of lodging, and we got a lot of free food, mostly from men who were flirting with Jory, and her willingness to make unreasonable demands.

“Buy dinner for my band,” she would say, and then she still wouldn’t sleep with them, but by the time they realized, we were always already gone. We never spent the night in the same town where we’d played a show. We were always thinking ahead. And so, the road trip was, as I’d suspected and even including my occasional gas money donations, cheaper than a plane ticket. I wondered if this trick had worked as well when they were traveling with Chad.

***

My mom had gotten misty-eyed when I had told her that I was leaving Louisiana in June instead of August. “I’m just happy for you,” she’d explained when I put a tentative hand across the back of hers. “I worried; but look, you’re adjusting; you’re living your life,” she said. She pulled her hand out from under mine. “Despite—”

“What?” I said. She shook her head, and that wave of concern surged over her again.       

“What, Mom?”

The way she touched my hand, so kind, made me cringe. I left before I could see any more hurt on her face.

***

Tonight, Jory lies in our bed with her hands clutched around her own waist. When she sees me watching her, she blows a blood bubble of spit, bursting it with her tongue. I don’t react. She sucks saliva off her teeth. “What’s with you?” she asks.

“Nothing.”

She turns to her side, her body as pliant under the sheets, moving like liquid. “Liar,” she says.

“That was creepy,” I say, “What you did during the show.”

“With the water glass?”

“Yeah, and after, at dinner, with the wine one. And now.”

I turn to face her. Our noses almost touch. She swallows, a theatrical gulp, and bares her teeth. Blood runs between them, the streams faint and thin as the tree-branch veins in the whites of her eyes. Up close and in this light, her irises look like something melted. When I blink, I keep seeing her the way she was during our set, wild under neon lights, hunched over her mic, shards falling like glitter, like knives from her mouth.

 “Are you going to die?”

“Nah,” she says.

“How do you know?”

“I can just tell.”

I roll back over, away from her. My back is so tense that the muscles feel stretched to the point of ripping open. Below us on the floor, Richie shifts, mumbles. Jory draws a long, jagged nail down my spine, giving me goosebumps.

“So you’re leaving us when we get to LA?”

“Yeah.”

“Which school, again?”

Shadows crawl over the ceiling as cars creep back and forth outside. The air smells like cheap cleaner, lemony and thick, mixed with the boys’ sweat. I watch their hulking forms breathe in the dark. I imagine my brother sleeping alongside them, laughing with them, singing his throat raw on stage, and then the visions are memories, of him screaming for help in the dark, the sound of something breaking, and then it all stops in a jolt like a door slammed shut.

“I don’t know,” I say to the dark. “I just needed to get out.”

Her nail stops its path and she pulls back: a sudden lightness where the pricking was. “I don’t mind. Stay with us. Keep singing.”

I roll over again. She smiles, her teeth so bright they look fake. “I can’t.”

Her eyes crawl across my face. “Okay,” she says.

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For not asking why.”

She props her head up, her elbow jabbing in the pillow. “Why?”

“Seriously?”

“Don’t flip me off, rude. Who do you think you are?”

She grabs my finger in her whole fist, the way a baby would, lets go before I can react.

“Chad,” I say. She stops. The air is thick. Even Robert’s snores sound as pregnant as a drumroll. The room is like a stage before a show, before the lights go up and make us look like something that’s worth watching. I can still pretend this moment hasn’t happened. “Are we ever going to talk about him?”

At first she doesn’t move, her eyes wide and bloodshot. Something wilts in them, something that passes over her face and makes her skin loose, as if it isn’t as firmly attached to the bone as it seemed.  

She reaches over me to the nightstand, roots one-handed through her makeup bag. She presses something into my hand—a shard of translucence the length of my thumb, curved. She rolls back over, folds her arms across her chest. Her breathing evens with suspicious speed, the sound of it careful and measured.

I stick the sliver in my mouth, just to see how it tastes. I like it: the way it is pure danger perched on the tip of my tongue, and I press it into my mouth with my thumb. I am careful and delicate, toying, gripping it hard with my front teeth. It is cold, or something like cold, between them. I tongue it gently, learning its edges as I fall asleep, as I try not to swallow.

#

Kerry Cullen’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in the Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, One Teen Story, Monkeybicycle, and more. She is an editorial assistant at Henry Holt, she earned her MFA at Columbia University, and she lives in New York. She is currently working on a novel about sex, god, and Christian rock. Find her on Twitter: @kermichele.