Steven Waynick: Steel Strings

There were two things every student at Belleview High School knew: the freshman math teacher, Mrs. Flanagan, was the most unpleasant bitch this side of Nancy Grace; and that Jeremy Steiner played guitar damn well. His close friend, Miles, liked to proclaim that Jeremy could make Eric Clapton sweat bullets.

“I’m serious,” Miles had said one day as the two of them walked home after jazz band practice. “Jimi Hendrix only managed to piss Clapton off a little bit. He’d have shot your ass.”

That got a decent chuckle out of Jeremy as he reached up to scratch the unkempt tangle of dirty blond hair. “Feel like I still got some stuff I gotta work on.”

Now it was Miles’ turn to laugh. He remembered the first day of their band auditions. It was only three years ago, but it felt like an eon separated them from that day. Into the auditorium had strolled this greasy-haired, lanky bastard, with a crooked grin, and swagger in his step. By his stride alone, you’d have thought he had memorized ten years’ worth of winning lotto numbers. Strapped to his back was a muddy-brown and dusty chunk of wood that could loosely be called a guitar. It was practically falling apart, with pieces of wood seemingly gouged from its frame. He drew more than a few curious glances from the twenty or so freshmen who had also shown up to audition. After a pretty decent performance on trumpet from a girl with blue hair, and a short, stocky boy who played sax like there was a hole in his tongue, Jeremy’s name was called.

He sauntered up to the black folding chair in the center of the room, with an off-centered grin. As he sat down, he gave the group of onlookers a quick little smirk. Miles thought he looked a bit like how Jesus must have—about to proclaim that water was no longer the only thing on the menu. As Jeremy positioned his fingers along the guitar’s neck, Miles noticed a small bandage around the tip of his middle finger.

Jeremy began to play. One by one, the jaws of each person in attendance dropped, and easily could have dented the white, linoleum floor. Jeremy’s face might have been cool and confident, but his fingers were those of a man possessed. They danced and fluttered, flying across the fretboard, untethered from the limitations of the flesh. From those steel strings flowed an entrancing melody. Some otherworldly chime that couldn’t be fully captured by human ears. He might have led the Pied Piper himself into the depths of Hell, if only he could hear that sweet song one last time.

When he’d finished, it took nearly a solid minute for the silence to be broken. Finally, Miles found his voice, croaking out what everyone else was thinking:

“Holy shit.”

Word quickly spread about the gawky-looking musical genius with the decrepit acoustic. Mike and Jeremy soon discovered that they lived within a few blocks from one another and became fast friends.

“So, where you thinking for college?”

Miles blinked, Jeremy’s voice rousing him from his reminiscence. “Me? Shit, I don’t know. Maybe . . . Emory?”

“Really?” Jeremy raised an eyebrow. “That’s a little boring, isn’t it?”

“Well, shit, we can’t all get a full ride to Juilliard.”

Jeremy laughed. “Come on man, you could get in, too, no doubt!”

“Yeah, maybe. But then I’m stuck playing trombone the rest of my life. Think I’d rather die, honestly.”

Jeremy laughed again, his hair shaking over his eyes.

“What about you, huh? Sure you don’t wanna give up guitar and join corporate America?”

Jeremy didn’t laugh quite so hard this time. “Think I’d rather die, honestly.”

Miles was fairly sure he was joking.

A month had passed since their conversation that day. The two of them were sitting in their European History class. Miles glanced to his right. Jeremy was drumming his fingers along the edge of his desk, looking about as enthusiastic as a wet sock. Suddenly, Miles frowned as something caught his eye. There were two more bandages on Jeremy’s fingers than there’d been the day before. Most everyone was used to seeing at least one or two bandaged fingers on Jeremy. He’d always said they were from woodcarving, a hobby he’d taken up when he was younger.

“Still pretty bad at it,” he’d say while smiling, twiddling his mummified fingers.

But nowadays, Miles had noticed the bandages appearing in threes and fours. Sometimes they got up to six, spreading from one hand to the other.

“Yo,” Miles whispered.

Jeremy looked up, still drumming his fingers.

Miles gestured to his hand. “The wood start fighting back, or what?”

Jeremy frowned for a second. He stopped drumming his fingers and looked down. “Oh, these?” he laughed. “Yeah, new project I’m working on. Bit of a banger, honestly.” He resumed drumming his fingers, but Miles thought it sounded faster this time. Almost frantic, like they were running away from something.

Another month passed by, and Miles’ concern for Jeremy was grew. His hands were beginning to look more like latex than skin.

“Shit, man, you need to slow down with the fucking wood,” he exclaimed as they were walking home one day.

 Jeremy shrugged and smiled, but it was a colder smile than Miles was used to seeing. “Big project, my dude. Can’t stop now.”

Miles cast another uncertain glance at his taped fingers. “Is everything okay with y—”

“Yeah!” Jeremy blurted out, his voice almost cracking with the force of his outburst.

Miles protested, but Jeremy refused to entertain the subject any longer. They were both silent the rest of the way home. When Jeremy reached his street, he turned without saying a word. Miles stared after him for a long moment before continuing his own way, a sense of unease creeping through his stomach.

The next day, Jeremy did not come to school. Miles stared at his vacant seat during history class, unable to shake a growing tightness in his chest.  

Three days later, there was still no sign.

Some part of him had hoped Jeremy might show up to band practice that afternoon. But when Jeremy did not come to fill his empty seat, Miles had to fight to keep his composure. The knot in his chest grew tighter as he absentmindedly checked his phone between songs. He’d sent Jeremy several frantic texts, each containing different variations of, where the fuck are you?

As the afternoon’s practice came to a close, Miles felt the tightness in his chest becoming unbearable. He was having trouble taking a full breath. He didn’t know what was wrong, but the sense of anxiety that dripped down his back like freezing water refused to subside.

Fuck it, he thought. He was going to find Jeremy after practice. And potentially knock his teeth out, depending on how irritated he felt when he found him.

A half hour later, Miles stood in front of Jeremy’s house. It was fairly small, a one-story with a faded, yellow door between two equally dirty windows. Miles took a deep breath, trying to force air into his lungs. It had been quite awhile since he’d last been here, he thought, reaching out to knock on the door. Jeremy always said he preferred to spend as little time as possible in his house.

A few seconds later, Miles was reminded why. The door swung open, and a thick haze of stale cigarettes hit his nostrils. His nose wrinkled as he looked down at the tiny girl who allowed him entry.

“Hey, Carrie.”

“Hi, Miles.”

Already, Miles felt the knot in his chest throb harder. Carrie usually greeted people with a six-foot smile and a sing-song salutation.   Today, she looked about as anxious and uncertain as Miles felt.

“Is uh . . . is your brother home?”

Carrie gave a quick nod then turned to lead him inside. Closing the door behind him, he glanced into the kitchen. A woman was lying facedown over a small, wooden table. A half-empty bottle of whiskey a few inches from her relaxed fingers. Miles could taste the alcohol mingling with the tobacco that permeated the air.

“Mommy’s asleep again,” Carrie said.

“Uh-huh.” Miles turned forward as they walked through the sliding door to the backyard. It was almost entirely bare, save for a shed in the far corner. Miles was shocked it managed to stay upright. The wood was rotting, with crumbling, chipped white paint up and down its surface.

“He’s in there,” Carrie said, pointing a tiny finger.

Miles nodded. “Thanks, Carrie. You uh . . . you should wait inside.”

“Why?” She bit her lip, nervously twirling one of the golden curls trailing from her head.

“I don’t know.” Miles wasn’t sure he’d meant to say that out loud, but he knew it held at least a nugget of truth. The knot in his chest felt tighter than ever, and it screamed out a pain of uncertainty to his more rational mind. “But it’d be . . . better if you waited inside.”

Carrie nodded, casting another nervous glance at the shed. She retreated back to the house, nonetheless.

Miles approached the shed. His mind was screaming at him, he shouldn’t be here, this was wrong. He ignored it. With a single, swift motion, he reached out and flung open the door.

His mouth dropped wide open at the sight before him.

It was Jeremy. But not quite, Miles thought. This was a Jeremy he hadn’t seen before. There was a wild, berserk expression in his eyes. He was standing, hunched over his old, beat-up guitar. The guitar he’d played since the audition that day during their freshman year. The guitar that he’d refused to part with, despite the band pleading with him to use a plug-in acoustic for better sound quality. He stood there, holding a gleaming, silver kitchen knife. His arm was held aloft, pouring a small waterfall of crimson blood from a deep gash in his arm. The fountain of red fell onto the guitar. Rather than splashing and running over the sides, the blood seemed to be . . . absorbed by the instrument. Vanishing into a plain of invisible pores running along its surface, the blood seeped into the parched skin of its body, the murky brown merging into a distorted pigmentation.

“J . . . Jere” Miles couldn’t quite finish the word sliding across his tongue like a bar of soap.

Jeremy’s head jerked up. “Mi . . . Miles? Wha . . .?” The knife slid from his fingers. “Oh god. . . .”             Jeremy fell back against the wall of the shed, gripping handfuls of his hair while moaning. “Oh god, oh Jesus fuck¾.”   Miles stood motionless as Jeremy collapsed into a sobbing heap on the plywood floor.

“Oh god, I’m sorry. . . .”            

“Dude . . . what the fuck . . . what . . . what is that?”

Jeremy sniffed, clearing a glob of snot in his nose. “It’s . . . it’s the only way I can play.” He coughed out a harsh laugh, devoid of any and all amusement.

Miles was still stunned, trying to process the scene of viscera before him. But he stayed, quiet, and listened as Jeremy spoke.

It was a guitar he’d found the summer before freshman year. He’d been scrounging at the Belleview dump, trying to find a backpack that might be in fair enough condition to use for at least a few months. There it had been, lying atop a pile of plastic bottles and black garbage bags. He’d taken it home, wanting to have something to distract him from his mother, from his life, from anything and everything. He’d stayed up all night, trying to get a few coherent notes to sing from the damn thing. Although he thought it was out of tune, and beyond repair, he kept trying. Trying to learn just a few notes, chords, anything. One day, he’d played long enough that a blister on his finger broke open and started to bleed. The blood had seeped onto the neck of the instrument. As it did, a sudden warmth ran through Jeremy’s body. It was like a set of spectacles for his soul. Suddenly, he could see—the notes on the fretboard, and the rhythm he needed to follow to get his fingers to move. It was all there, before his eyes. But after a few weeks, he suddenly lost the gift. He reverted back to clunkily plunking away at the strings without purpose. Once his finger started to bleed again, the gift returned.

It didn’t take long for him to make the connection. So, he kept bleeding. And he kept playing.

“The guitar’s given me everything,” he pleaded with Miles. “Everyone started treating me like . . . like I was somebody!” He was sobbing again. “But it . . . it stopped working! I can’t get it to play for me! So I . . . I—”

“You started giving it more blood.” Miles didn’t want to believe this was real. This couldn’t be real.

 Jeremy nodded, sniffing back a fresh hunk of mucus. “I had to cut more and more . . . I thought . . . I thought I was going to have to . . .” he broke down once more, sobbing into his arms. “It won’t fucking work, Miles! I don’t have enough fucking blood!” He screamed into his folded arms, like an animal that had caught one of its limbs in a trap, and had no means of escape.

Miles had heard enough. He moved toward Jeremy, gripping his shoulders with shaking fingers. “You have to stop, man! You can’t do this to yourself.”             “But I have to!” Jeremy slapped Miles’ arm away. “I can’t . . . fucking stay here! With her!” He stared at the ground. “I know it’s fucked, but . . . I have to get out of here, man. I can’t do this anymore.” He looked back at Miles. Miles had never seen Jeremy so broken.

“Man . . . I promise you, you will get out of here.” He reached down, grabbing Jeremy’s arm, still dripping with fresh blood. “But you can’t do this to yourself anymore.” He looked at the guitar lying on the ground, still as dry as the day Miles had first laid eyes on it. “You need to promise me . . . promise you won’t use that fucking . . . thing, anymore.”

Jeremy was silent for a long time. He stared at the guitar, his expression filled with longing, a desperation Miles had never seen on anyone’s face, before now. Like a man dying of thirst staring at a puddle in the middle of an endless desert. Finally, he nodded. “Okay.”

Jeremy returned to school, much to the pleasure of his peers. He gave their director, Mr. Jameson, a message in private. He would be taking a break from jazz band to explore his options a bit more before college. Mr. Jameson had accepted this and wished Jeremy the best of luck in his search. To Miles, it seemed things were finally settling down once more.

Two days after their encounter, Miles received a message from Jeremy. He was lying in bed, nearly about to fall asleep when his phone chirped. Yawning, he propped himself up on his elbow. His eyes snapped open once he read the sender.

Jeremy: Miles. I fixed it.

Miles stopped breathing. That familiar knot in his chest returned tighter than ever, pulsing in time with his heartbeat. Bolting out of bed, he ran downstairs, taking care to avoid the creaky step just before reaching the bottom so as not to wake his parents. Slipping through the front door as quietly as possible, he sprinted down the block to Jeremy’s house. His head was pounding, blood pumping through his temples. That unshakeable feeling of wrongness was permeating his brain once again. After a minute or so, he found himself in front of Jeremy’s house. He didn’t bother knocking on the door, running straight to the backyard. He came to a stop, trying to catch his breath.  

There was a light on in the shed. His breathing quickened, air rushing through his ragged lungs. His hands were trembling, a spreading numbness flowing up from his palms. He tried to slow his breathing, fully aware that he was hyperventilating. He slowly approached the front of the shed. Before he could lose his nerve, he reached out and seized hold of the handle, flinging open the door. He peered inside, then froze. Utterly numb.

It was Jeremy, hunched over that dusty guitar, as Miles had found him mere days before. A lamp sat on the floor next to him. The same knife from that day was held in his furiously bandaged fingers. In his other hand, he held something else.

The collar of a limp, motionless body.

It was Carrie. Her bright, blue eyes stared without seeing, as a geyser of blood flowed from a gaping slit in her tiny throat. Her mouth was open, tinged with crimson, as tiny red droplets fell one by one from her cold lips. Below the flowing river of red was the guitar. Carrie’s blood flowed over its surface, splattering against the husk-like frame. But the blood never seemed to touch its form. It simply . . . vanished. Absorbed. As if the guitar were a sponge. A leech engorging itself on her blood. Miles tried to speak, to scream, to make a sound. All that would come out was a strangled gasp, tearing itself from the depths of his throat.

Jeremy looked up, a flash of recognition dashing across his face. “Miles!” He smiled, his grin surgically straight. There wasn’t a trace of life left in his eyes. They stared past Miles, as if he were blind and only sensed his presence. “I think I fixed it.” With a casual flick, he tossed Carrie’s lifeless carcass to the back of the shed. Her body slid across the floor and made a dull thump when it hit the wall. Slowly, he bent down and picked up the guitar by the neck, delicately cradling it like a newborn. With trembling fingers, he ran his hands up and down its neck, caressing the strings.

He sighed, and began to play.

“See,” he whispered to Miles, “It works again! I can play again!”

Miles said nothing, as the sound of the steel strings running under Jeremy’s fingers filled his ears. He stood there for an impossibly long time, letting the sound of the guitar wash over him, pulling the ends of the knot in his chest until it loosened into a single length of rope. He listened to the chime of the rotting, steel-string guitar, playing its unmistakable melody. Only, to Miles, this time it didn’t sound quite so much like music as it used to.

It sounded different. Harsher. Louder.

It sounded like screaming.