27 years, 2 days
Adrenaline pumping down, arms aching, sweat dripping off everything, the Langoliers made their way backstage.
Linda Long, real name Harriet Jones, finished the dregs of her beer bottle and collapsed onto the ragged sofa. The other band members scurried about, laughing, still wired from the performance.
“Who wants some ket?” Max shouted, making his way to the stash. Alice shrugged and nodded in a “go on then” kind of way, and Rob lifted his pre-rolled spliff and said:
“I’m good with this for now, cheers.”
Max jerked a thumbs-up at him, then paused.
“Lin, you? Ket?” He did a little snorty motion, as if it wasn’t clear.
Linda gave him a tired smile and pointed to her beer.
“I’m fine, but another one of those would be great, ta.”
“K,” Max said.
She watched him saunter over to the back of the room where their bags were.
“All right, Lin?” Rob said, sitting down next to her.
“Yeah,” she said, “Just a bit . . . ”
She waved her empty beer bottle uncertainly. Rob took a long drag from his spliff and spoke, his voice still cloudy:
Linda shook her head.
“Nah, not that. I look at Max and think, ‘There’s a guy who won’t make it to thirty.’”
Rob coughed a puff of grey smoke.
“You what?” he asked.
“Couple of lines of coke before the show, one before the encore, ket after. God knows what else. Every night of a month-long tour, that.”
“Didn’t see you turning down that line before we started, Lin.”
“I know,” she said. “It helps when you’re the frontman though. Frontperson. When you’re fronting. You know what I mean.”
They stayed silent for a bit.
“I’m thinking of quitting after this tour, Rob.”
He nearly dropped his spliff.
Before Rob could ask further, a pair of white baggies landed on the table. Max followed shortly.
“It’s just getting too intense,” Linda said. “This band thing. We tour, drink, tour, drink, take some drugs, maybe find some time to try and write a new song, take some more drugs after to celebrate. It’s a hole.”
“Sounds like a life well lived to me,” Max said.
“You’re the last person to take substance abuse advice from, Max,” Alice piped in. “Speaking of which, rack up. That ket won’t have itself.”
“It’s just . . . ” Linda said, “I want to be more careful. You look at people like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix —”
“Oh, here we go again,” Max said.
For a few moments, there was chaos. Rob, Max, and Linda talked over each other, and Alice just laughed.
“I’ve read up on this, Lin, and there is zero statistical basis for Club 27—”
“—you look up Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison and Keith Moon, Lin, and you’ll see they were already circling the drain when they—”
“—the average age when artists would hit peak debauchery. I’ll just wait this year out for things to settle and come back to it when I’m twenty-eight. Hold on.”
Linda frowned. “Keith Moon? Pretty sure he died in his thirties, Max.”
“Same difference. Anyway, it’s not just substance abuse. You look at D. Boon, twenty-seven years old, died in a freak car accident. Perfectly balanced individual otherwise.”
“Likewise, the guy from Viola Beach,” Rob said, “and—”
“That was the whole band, Rob.”
“I know, but my point is, Lin, unless you’re suggesting there’s some kind of mysterious supernatural force killing musicians when they’re twenty-seven years old, I’m not sure how you can defend any of this.”
Linda remained silent for a moment, scowling at the two. Alice cleared her throat and pointed at one of the bags at the center of the table.
“Oh, right,” Max said. He poured a bit and started portioning it out. “You sure you don’t wanna join in, Lin?”
Everybody looked at her. She realized saying “yes” would undermine her entire argument.
“This is the good stuff,” Max said.
Linda was never good at refusing things. She nodded, and Max prepared her a line.
She took out a £5 note, rolled it up, snorted.
As the drug settled along her nostril and Max continued with his preparations, the door behind him opened.
“Hey guys, you know if we still have any of the eyeball t-shirts in small?”
Alice sighed and arose.
“I think so,” she said. “Let me look in the van. Wait for me to get back, Max.”
Max aimed a sour expression at her and lowered the fiver he held. He leaned back against the couch, letting his knee jump up and down erratically.
A couple of minutes passed in silence. A light buzz had already started to radiate upwards along Linda’s spine.
“You know what you said, Lin,” Rob said slowly, “about giving up?”
“Just for this year, Rob.”
“Yeah, but,” he continued, “You’re giving up lots of momentum. Putting us in the lurch, too. We’ve got seven festivals lined up. How are we gonna do those without you as our singer?”
“You give me way too much credit, Rob,” she said. “You guys can pull it through without me. Just find—”
Her tongue had begun to fight back against her, a useless lump of meat in her mouth.
“Hey, Max,” she mumbled, “is this stuff stronger than usual or what?”
Max was on his phone, oblivious to the conversation around him. The light of his screen flowed. Its edges had begun to take on a prismatic tinge.
Rob licked his lips, considering his next words carefully. When he spoke, his voice stretched out into odd nebulae.
“You’ll come back in a year’s time and find everybody’s forgotten about you. In the end, which would you say is worse? Reaching your prime and going out with a blast, or stepping away and spending the entire rest of your life wondering what success would’ve felt like?”
Linda tried to gather resolve, tried to force some words out of her mouth, but before she managed, a bright light illuminated everything and a loud bang echoed through the room. Then everything went dark.
“Fuck was that?” Max’s voice echoed in from a vast distance. “We need to get out!”
An acrid burning smell made itself apparent, even through Linda’s altered sense of smell. Everything was tinted orange.
There was a fire in the room.
Linda shifted about, trying to get herself upright. Her body disobeyed. The best she could do was slide awkwardly onto the floor.
She was no longer a functioning person; she was a meaningless agglomeration of flesh and thought without agency. She could not get out.
This was it. The freak accident. It was happening. She was about to die.
27 years, 24 days
Harriet Jones, ex-stage name Linda Long, shuffled into the living room, dressed in her PJs.
“Morning, Mum,” she said.
“It’s half-twelve, love,” her mother said.
“It’s morning for me.”
“Still living the rock-star life, I see.”
“I’m not a—” Harriet started but then shook her head and went to the kitchen.
“Rob called,” her mother shouted over. “Asked if you’ve changed your mind. You should at least text him and say you’re OK.”
Her mother knew about the fire but, obviously, not why Harriet had to be carried out.
Harriet returned with a bowl full of cereal.
“What are you doing there?” she asked.
Her mother was holding an old, beaten-up guitar. All along its surface were scrapes and stickers of all kind: Dead Kennedys, Crass, even a tiny AC/DC one nestled against the neck.
“It’s your first guitar, love. It’s been sitting in the attic for like a decade. Still usable, just needs a bit of tuning.”
She turned the top peg and strummed the guitar. She nodded, satisfied.
“Mum,” Harriet said, “Why?”
“I just thought seeing it might remind you how much you enjoy making music and how you should get back to it.”
Harriet placed her bowl at the table harshly and ate without saying a word.
“Harriet, you’ve gone from a promising talent to a . . . a neet. What happened?”
“I’ve made a decision.”
“Ok. You’ve made a decision. Let’s see how you deal with the consequences. Your dad and I decided you should get a job and start paying us rent.”
“Fine,” Harriet said with a full mouth.
27 years, 51 days
The recruiter tapped her bottom lip with the end of her pen.
“I’m not sure there’s much we can do here, I’m afraid. Not without previous experience as a carer.”
Harriet sighed. In front of her on the desk lay a form she’d had to fill out a quarter of an hour ago. In the field for her name, she had got as far as “Li” before catching herself, scratching it off, and writing “Harriet” instead.
“Unless . . . ” the recruiter said thoughtfully, performing a little drum solo with the pen against her chin. “You’ve got plenty of experience as a musician. You could help out with music therapy or give music lessons to some of our disabled clients. Yes. I think that might work. What do you say?”
Harriet shook her head.
The woman laid her pen on the desk.
“We’ll call you if anything comes up.”
27 years, 88 days
Second day at the office of a small scaffolding company. The tempo of the day was non-existent. Harriet expected she would have been shown the ropes by now, but so far her responsibilities consisted of endless tea rounds.
She was busy making her fourth batch—three builders, one milky tea with sweetener, one without—when Joan walked in. Joan was an older lady, related to the owner. Melodic voice. She smiled at Harriet, and when she heard Harriet’s concerns about the monotony, she laughed.
“Oh, dear,” she said, “don’t you worry. This is not a very busy office most of the time, and things are a bit slower than normal this week. We’ll get rushed off our feet come springtime, and when that happens,” she looked up into Harriet’s eyes, “you’ll be singing a different tune.”
Harriet wanted to reply but found herself disconcerted by Joan’s stare.
“You will sing,” Joan said, more serious. “A different tune.”
All the warmth drained from Joan’s face then, and she hissed:
“You. Will. Sing.”
Then she walked off, leaving Harriet alone.
Harriet did not return for her third day.
27 years, 164 days
Rob’s laughter was a wheezy smoker’s laugh. It sounded infectious in more ways than one.
“You’re kidding me,” he finally said. “A dog walker?”
“I’m serious!” Harriet said, chuckling. “Turns out I’m absolutely amazing at it. Dogs can’t get enough. Word of mouth and all, we’ve got almost twice as many customers as when I started.”
“That’s brilliant. A rock star dog walker.”
Harriet raised a finger. “I wouldn’t go as far as saying that.”
She regaled him with stories about shih tzus, shar peis, and shepherds for another quarter of an hour. A moment of silence followed as both realized they only had a few sips left of their drinks. Harriet offered to buy the next round.
She came back with two pints and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps hanging between her fingers.
“They’re setting up for an open mic over there,” she said.
“Huh, really?” Rob said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this place doing open mic nights. They tried running a pub quiz a few years ago, but it never took off.”
Music. Tentatively, like prodding a badly healed bone, Harriet asked:
“So how’re the Langoliers doing these days?”
“The Langoliers are no more.”
“Oh? What happened?”
“Max—well—drugs happened. Kind of like you said.”
Harriet looked at him, eyebrows furrowed.
“Oh, no, no,” Rob said, “but I can totally see why you’d say that. We went to a party after a gig, and he made himself a cocktail of like five different uppers and hallucinogenics. Found him in the middle of a roundabout the next morning, throwing eggs and shouting obscenities at commuters. Screamed something about stairs as we tried to drag him away.”
“Sounds like a good night for him,” Harriet said.
“I guess. We shut him in the back of the van until he sobered up. When we opened the van, everything was covered in blood.”
Harriet covered her mouth with her hands.
“Apparently, he started cutting himself with anything he could get his hands on. Cymbals, guitar strings.”
“Is . . . is he ok now?”
“He didn’t manage to do any life-threatening damage. Mostly just made a big mess. After a couple of days—him in the hospital and us cleaning up—we all agreed it would be best if he took some time off.”
“So anyway, we were already planning to get Alice to do vocals as well as keyboards. We figured there’s only two of us left, we might as well get a few new members and start under a new name.”
“What are you guys called now?”
“You sure that’s not already taken by a German psych-rock band? You can do better than that, Rob.”
“Yeah,” Rob said, “Alice’s idea. Not quite the same ring as ‘Linda Long and the Langoliers.’”
“Well—,” Harriet started, and then trailed off. A guy was standing next to them, holding two guitars.
“All right, mate?” Rob asked.
“You guys are Rob and Linda, right?”
Rob looked at Harriet, who remained silent.
“Yeah?” he said uncertainly.
“You guys ready to play?”
“Play? No, sorry, we’re not . . . ”
“I’ve got you guys down on my list,” the guy said. “Asked me to bring some instruments for you. I carried these all the way here, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t decide to chicken out.”
Harriet began to say something, and then looked towards Rob, her eyes wide.
“You can go a bit later if you want,” the man continued, “but nobody else is stepping up so . . . ”
“Rob,” Harriet spoke slowly, “Did you sign me up for this open mic?”
Rob looked at her in horror as the man went on.
“Rob! For fuck’s sake. I’m still twenty-seven. Stop trying to get me back into music!”
“Harriet, I didn’t—”
“What the hell?” the man next to them spoke, waving the guitars. “I got a call from you days ago! Don’t let me down now!”
Harriet pushed her chair back and walked out. Rob, who had begun to argue with the man, didn’t notice her leave. She ran to the nearest bus stop and caught the next bus just in time.
27 years, 212 days
Harriet clicked around a personal ads site, looking for places to rent. She wasn’t having much luck.
Her eye jumped over several ads looking for bandmates. She scrolled down further.
She frowned, uttered a curse under her breath. Scrolled up to double-check she was definitely looking at the property category. She was.
She scrolled up and down, exasperated.
“Local dream-pop duo looking for a female singer.”
“Keyboard player required. Doors, Floyd, etc. No time wasters.”
“Punk guitarist wanted. Must have own guitar. Previous experience optional.”
Harriet assumed the website had broken but looked through a couple more pages. Just in case it decided to fix itself, she thought.
“Local legends reforming, seeking a . . . ”
“ . . . experienced vocalist . . . ”
“ . . . for regular, relaxed jam sessions.”
She lingered at a posting from a band called “The Locator.” “Linda Long and the Locator.” Flowed nicely.
She caught herself and closed the browser window in a rush of guilt. House hunting could wait for a bit longer.
27 years, 287 days
It was Harriet’s first night managing the kennels, and it wasn’t as bad as she had assumed. It was easy, there were no annoying customers to deal with, and she felt quite safe with so many guard dogs around, but they were restless tonight. She heard barks from within their enclosures, and when she came to check up on them, she could see the glint of their eyes and hear the tap-tapping of their claws against the floor.
She hummed a melody as she went about doing odd jobs to pass the time. She stopped by an elderly Great Dane and scratched him between the ears.
“You get to sleep, old man,” she said.
Just then, the Dane and all the other dogs started barking. Harriet stood up and looked around, trying to discern what had spooked them. She saw nothing, so she started walking back and resumed humming her tune.
The dogs went quiet. Harriet was aware of their eyes following her as she walked across the room. She cut her melody short again, then picked it up, went into different rooms just to be sure.
It was consistent. While she was silent, the dogs were uneasy. While she hummed, they calmed down and observed her, rapt.
Harriet felt a familiar electricity run through her. In the dimness of the kennel, surrounded by her canine audience, she sang.
27 years, 364 days
The crowd was large. Bigger than any crowd The Langoliers had ever gathered.
Harriet was pushed to and fro by fans—fans!—who pushed forward, gazing at the stage. She arrived a bit earlier, got herself a spot at the front, far to the side. Close enough to feel all the energy of the performance, far enough to go unnoticed.
Finally, The Sleepwalkers came on stage.
Harriet didn’t know the first two bandmembers to come out—a tall guy at the guitar and a stocky girl at the drums—but then, Rob appeared and picked up his bass. Alice walked up to the keyboard, leaned into her microphone, and greeted the crowd. The crowd screamed approval back at her. The four exchanged a private joke, nodded to each other, and began.
Rob’s bassline grabbed everyone by the guts, and the first guitar riff took over everyone’s feet. Within the first few seconds, the audience erupted. A mosh pit formed. Drinks flew.
Harriet, who had never heard this song before, found herself moving to the music. She grinned, equal parts enjoyment and relief that Alice and Rob had made it despite her departure.
By the time the first song ended, band and crowd all glistened with sweat.
The second song—an old Langoliers song Rob wrote—took Harriet by surprise. Her first reaction was to feel betrayed. It was a subtly different arrangement that somehow worked better. Slowly, Harriet got back into it. She found herself mouthing the words along as the song went.
Then, something in Alice broke. The singing stopped first; the instruments continued for another few seconds before everything ground down to a halt. Everybody looked at Alice. She stood wide-eyed, her hand wrapped around her throat. She coughed, then rasped out an apology: her voice had gone. She wouldn’t be able to finish the set.
The crowd glanced about nervously, and the band members looked at each other in shock.
Before Harriet knew it, before she could think about birthdays and deadlines, she pushed her way to the front of the stage and climbed up. The first person to notice her was Alice, whose jaw dropped. Rob saw her then, bewildered.
Harriet walked up to them, smiling, and asked:
“Do you guys need a hand with this one?”
Rob grinned. Alice closed her mouth, then coughed and nodded, uncertain.
Rob signaled to the security guy behind Harriet that everything was fine and conferred with the guitarist and drummer, who shrugged and agreed. Then, he walked up to the microphone and said:
“Ladies and gentlemen. Please welcome an old friend of ours who’s gonna help us out. At the vocals, Linda Long!”
Moderate cheers. The Sleepwalkers started again from the top.
Linda Long sang. Her inner rock-star, pent up for a year, came out now in full bloom. Her voice resonated throughout the room, winning the audience over. She added embellishments to her part, which were contagious, and her bandmates added their own. The song broke free from its predetermined path and became something new, something unique that would live on in rock history.
Linda had never felt so alive. She was music. This is what she was here to do.
In the midst of it all, nobody noticed a couple of bolts falling down from above. A few people saw the floodlight loosen, but by then, it was too late. It swung off one end.