I slouch on a stool at the end of a dive bar, feeding a sticky tumbler of peach schnapps to tomorrow’s hangover. Lucky for me, nobody ever cards in this part of Hollywood. Or maybe I just look more burned out than any nineteen-year-old girl has a right to be.
A twee pop duo are ukulele-and-tambourining their way through their set on a stage behind me. The assembled drunks try their best to tune them out, but the singer’s piercing warble refuses to be ignored. Six acts are performing here tonight, each of us getting twenty-five bucks to show off our talents. Most are being grossly overpaid.
I shoot the rest of my drink and signal the bartender—a rough-edged minx with a shirt cut so low it could double as a tip jar. She shakes her head as she refills my glass. “You might wanna cut back a little, chica. Your bar tab is about to eclipse your gig payment.”
I shrug. “Eh. No money, no problems.”
She raises a pierced eyebrow. “Tell you what, how ’bout I hold onto a few bucks and grab a little something special for you?”
My heart races at her wry smile. Is she . . . flirting? Holy shit, she’s flirting! I sit up straighter and smile back. “A gift, eh? What do you have in mind?”
“Some deodorant. Girl, you smell rough.”
Not flirting. Definitely not flirting. But she’s actually talking to me, so I go for broke. “Well, you know what they say: Girls who smell rough feel the best on your muff.”
The bartender shakes her head. “Hard pass. I’m not into the whole ‘vagrant chic’ thing. Or vaginas. Or, you know, you.” Wow, straight and vicious. I can really pick a winner. “Besides, you already have a girlfriend.”
She nods at the empty stool beside me.
“Your date. Alexis.”
“I, uh . . . what?”
She leans over and points at my guitar propped against the next barstool. It’s an abused old Strat-type thing I stole from a yard sale when I was a kid. A previous owner slathered it in crappy yellow house paint which I’ve spent the past decade covering with stickers—bands I like, banana labels, poison warnings I picked off bathroom cleansers. One night, after a deep and introspective heart-to-heart with a bottle of Baileys, I thought it would be a good idea to scratch my name into it with a screwdriver. You know, so nobody would steal it. Deep black gouges in the wood now scream “ALEXIS.”
“Oh! No. I’m Alexis,” I say. “Alexis McRiott.”
“Why does that name sound familiar?” She sucks a breath and snaps her fingers. “Wait! You’re Sierra Specter!”
Just hearing the name tenses my shoulders and tightens my jaw.
“Uh, no. I’m Alexis McRiott.” I slide my finger along the scrapes in my guitar. “Say it with me now. A-lex-is.”
The bartender hoots and gives her hands a sharp clap. “Oh man! I can’t believe it. Come on, you gotta say it for me. Give me a ‘sheerio bluzdink!’”
Heat bristles through my scabby cheeks as I look away and pick at my guitar’s strings. Apparently it isn’t enough for her to just shoot me down and step on my heart. She has to take a big steamy dump on me too.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I mutter.
“Yeah you do. Don’t lie. It was your catchphrase. You were that wizard kid on That’s My Boo.”
I shrug. “Is that like, a TV show or something?”
“Ugh. Really? You gonna make me bring YouTube into this?”
She taps at her phone then holds the screen in front of my eyes, showing a video bootlegged off an old Whimsy Channel broadcast. Some kind of giant octopus-werewolf thing attacking a thirteen-year-old girl in a purple leather jacket. The kid throws out her hands and screams sheerio bluzdink, and the monster vanishes in a lavender flash.
The bartender holds the phone up next to my face. “The eyes are a dead giveaway. Purple? Come on. That’s you.”
I sigh. There’s no denying it. The kid on the screen and I have the same purple eyes. But besides that, I look nothing like her anymore. Her hair is in perfect blonde ringlets. Mine looks like it’s been used to mop up a gas station bathroom and then stuck out a car window to dry. Her round face is flawlessly camera-ready. My gaunt features are pitted with zits and acne scars. And I’ve long since traded that purple leather jacket for a few regrettable tattoos.
I shove her phone out of my face. “Fine. You got me. In a past life, one million years ago, I used to play a sorceress on a dumb kiddie sitcom. Does that earn me a free drink?”
“Uh, no. I think a big TV star can afford her own drinks. I bet those big Whimsy paychecks got you set up for life down in Malibu. Am I right? Or are you a Beverly Hills gutter punk?”
“Never heard of it. Westside?”
I sip my drink and nod. “It’s a very exclusive community.”
On stage, the twee boy solos on a vintage kazoo while the girl yodels like she doesn’t care if anyone’s listening. The bartender winces and scratches a note on a clipboard.
“Ugh. Jimmy & Sprinkles are officially on my blacklist.” She reaches for the TV hanging over the bar and mashes her thumb on the volume-up button in an attempt to drown them out.
“—unveiling of a new treasure at the Hayes Tower Casino.”
I squint up at the screen. The eleven o’clock news is on, showing some gala event at a Las Vegas casino full of priceless art treasures. So much bling. I feel it calling out to me. Begging me to steal it. My old court-appointed psychologist used to call this the impulse. He said it just like that. In italics. Like my kleptomania is an unspeakable parasite in my brain, forcing me to do evil things.
On the TV, camera flashes flicker against an old guy in a tuxedo. He whips a cover off a podium, revealing a ring with a gemstone the size of a golf ball. The light glints and dazzles off its surface like something Ryan Seacrest should be dropping over Times Square on New Year’s Eve. My guts simultaneously tighten and twist, wringing cold sweat from my pores.
I shake my head. Don’t be an idiot. It isn’t the ring. It’s a ring. The ring is locked up somewhere in Nebraska. And so is the guy who gave it to you. It’s all ancient history, but my hand still trembles as I take a steadying swig of my drink.
“This dazzling gemstone has not made a public appearance since it was entered into evidence during the Simon Fax murder trial three years ago.”
I cough peach schnapps through my nose. It is the ring. The fuse on the bomb that blew That’s My Boo to smithereens. And I had been the one who lit it.
The TV drones on. “With the appeals process closed, the ring went up for public auction, where it was purchased by billionaire casino magnate Cooper Jackson Hayes for one-point-seven million dollars.”
I just stare, frozen. My drink dribbles down my chin and onto my tattered T-shirt.
One. Point. Seven. Million.
A thousand what-if scenarios explode through my mind. What if I hadn’t turned in the ring? What if I’d sold it? That thing would have bought enough studio time to record an album. To record ten albums! I could have bought back everything they took from me. And more. If I hadn’t run to the cops like a little bitch.
I clench my eyes and remind myself I did the right thing. There had been a very good reason to turn over that ring.
And there are one-point-seven million good reasons to have kept it.
The unfairness of it all pulls the pin on a rage grenade deep inside me, and I know there’s only one way to diffuse it. I shoot the rest of my drink, grab my guitar, and jump on stage with the manic pixie dream band. The girl stops mewling and gapes at me.
“Hey! We’re not done yet!”
“Yeah, you are.” I snatch her tambourine and fling it into the crowd like a Frisbee. She squeaks and runs after it, followed by her dainty boyfriend. I plug my busted-up guitar into the bar’s busted-up amp, releasing a piercing squeal of feedback.
“Hey, I’m Alexis. Doing the right thing sucks. Here’s a song.”
Fury surges from my fingers, through the guitar, and out into the world as I grind out the chords of my newest jam, “Champagne (Make it Rain).” My eyes close and the vocals rip through me.
You think you’ve got a good deal, then they tear off the seal.
You’re gonna reach the top, but then the cork goes pop.
You fall down, the bottle breaks. The party turns into heartache.
But I’m not gonna kill myself. Gonna climb right up to that top shelf.
Then I’m gonna make it rain.
Gonna turn my pain to champagne, champagne, champagne!
My set takes on a life of its own, a frenzied blur of noise and sweat and catharsis. I don’t think about what happened before or what happens next. I am here. I am now. My guitar is a shield against all the bullshit of the world, and as long as I keep playing I am safe.
No, I am invincible.
I become aware of barflies whistling and clapping and generally rocking out around me. No big shock. The manic screech of my guitar is a grease fire of ecstasy that scalds everyone in earshot. In this moment I’m not a has-been child star. I’m a goddamn metal goddess, living loud and kicking ass. High on music. High on life.
This high never lasts.
After twenty blistering minutes I step off the stage, throat raw, fingers numb, heart pounding. I return to my barstool through a thunderous round of applause—the only one the entire sad talent lineup has managed to generate all night. I rake my sweaty hair out of my eyes as somebody leans on the bar at my side.
“That was incredible. You are incredible. I think I’m in love.”
I glance at him. The guy is older, maybe late-forties. Jeans, blazer, collar no tie. Drinking some fancy bourbon. I know his type. A big shot looking for a wild young thing to help him manufacture some secrets to keep from his wife.
“Sorry to break your heart, but I’m not into dudes.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re exactly what I need.”
I snort. “Last guy who said that to me ended up in federal prison. You feelin’ lucky, Rapey Joe?”
“Ooh, grungy little riot grrrl. Love it.” He offers his hand with a grin. “Epic Tom Rush.”
“Taylor Swift,” I say. I gesture vaguely to my ragged clothes and matted hair. “I let myself go after the last breakup.”
“Nope. T-Swizzle has way fresher breath.” The guy messes with his phone and throws it down on the bar in front of me. On the screen is a picture of him with his arm around Taylor Swift, both of them all smiles. Like I’m supposed to be impressed.
“Please. You can get these done at any tourist trap on Hollywood Boulevard. Do you also have one with Humphrey Bogart? How about Shrek?”
I do, scrolling through his photos. This guy and Lady Gaga. This guy and Justin Timberlake. This guy and the Godmother of Punk herself, Joan Jett. A flutter ripples in my stomach. These photos actually look legit. I glance back up at him and he smirks. “Do I have your attention?”
I open my mouth to answer but am cut off by the bartender’s surprised gasp. “Oh my god. You’re him, aren’t you? You’re Epic Tom Rush!”
Epic Tom nods. “The one and only.”
The bartender’s cheeks redden. “This is such an honor!” She rests a hand on top of his on the bar. “I’ve always dreamed of working at Epic Promotions! Maybe you could hook me up with something? I mean, I book all the bands that play here.” She lowers her eyes and purrs. “I’m very experienced.”
Epic Tom shakes his head. “I’m sure you’ve got ins with the open-mic crowd, but Epic Promotions only works with acts who can sell out venues large enough to be visible from space.”
The bartender leans on her elbows on the bar, fully deploying her breathtaking cleavage. Have mercy.
“I know. And I want to be a part of it. Just give me a chance. Try me out.” She nibbles her lip. “I’d love to get down to business with a man like you.”
Her words are soaking wet with innuendo, but Epic Tom doesn’t take the bait. He pulls out a roll of cash and drops a few bills in front of her. “Tell you what. This is for a bottle of champagne. Best you’ve got.” He peels off another Benjamin. “And this says we’re done talking about your career aspirations. Cool?”
The bartender blinks. “But . . . ”
“Great. Thanks.” Epic Tom turns his back on her as if the conversation is over. Because it is. The bartender’s pout accepts defeat, and she scoops up the money and saunters away with the remnants of her pride. Epic Tom sips his drink. “Sorry. That happens. I’m kind of a big deal.”
My breathing quickens and my mouth goes dry. He isn’t lying. This smarmy bastard is a legit music-industry bigwig. And he’s talking to me. I swirl my drink and force nonchalance. “So, if you’re such a big deal, what are you doing in a dump like this?”
“Drinking!” He raises his glass. “It’s been a rough day. But I think it’s finally turning around. See, I was on my way to hit Bar Marmont and my Tesla up and dies in the middle of Sunset Boulevard. Terrific, right? One more pain in the ass in a day full of pains in the ass. So while I’m waiting for the tow truck I spot this place and I think, ‘Screw it. I need a drink, posthaste.’ Then I walk in and see an amazing, filthy little rocker girl. And she’s gonna fix my problem.”
I shake my head. “I’m not gonna fix your car, dude.”
Epic Tom laughs. “No. Listen. Epic Promotions has a little show going on this Saturday at the Staples Center. The Teen Scream concert. Heard of it?”
“Eh. I might have heard something.”
My exterior is so cool it gathers condensation, but inside I am freaking the fuck out. Everybody knows about the Teen Scream concert. The hype around this thing makes the newest Star Wars release look like a secret. It’s a huge, sold-out arena megashow with all the top acts under twenty. Ricky Raskall, Lil’ Drank, the Soup Nuggets. Everybody. And this guy—this guy who is talking to me—is apparently in charge of it.
“So we’ve been putting this thing together for months,” Epic Tom says. “Everybody’s happy. Everybody’s excited. Everything’s a go. Then this morning, Kylie Carter, that germophobic little—” His hand tightens around his glass and he takes a deep breath. “Kylie Carter’s people call with changes to her concert rider. She wants the doorknobs and light switches disinfected every ten minutes. She wants everything she’ll have to touch at the venue shrink wrapped in plastic. She wants her dressing room vented with air imported from Santa Fe, because it has fewer particles and less ozone than Los Angeles air.”
Kylie Carter has been an A-list vocalist since she won one of those singing contest shows last year. She’s like . . . okay, if the fairy from Pinocchio brought an American Girl doll to life, it would be Kylie Carter. A flawless, sexless, sinless plastic teenager with straight red hair and straight white teeth. All her songs are pop ballads about inner beauty and loving yourself and all that fluffy bullshit.
“So we played hardball with her management,” Epic Tom continues. “Things were said. Now she’s out, and I’ve got an arena concert in four days with a girl-shaped hole in the lineup. I head out to have a drink and blow off some steam and fate puts me here, looking at you. A dirty little girl-shaped plug.”
He holds out his glass and smiles—the cocky smile of a man used to getting what he wants. Prickly heat surges up my neck and sparks across the zits on my cheeks.
“Dude, are you looking for a guitarist or a tampon? That’s like the fifth time you’ve called me dirty. Did you actually like my set or are you just into me because I haven’t showered in three days?”
“Little of both.” Epic Tom’s lips twist in a scheming smile. “You’re the anti-Kylie. She’s bleach, you’re grime. Putting someone like you in her place sends a message to her people. Twists the knife.”
“So you want me to be your angry rebound act.”
“Well, yes. But you’re also actually good. Better than good. When you played I felt something. Right here.” He bumps his fist on his chest. “A magical kind of . . . je ne sais quoi. I’m tellin’ ya, you do this show and a recording deal is pretty much a given.”
Half a dozen red flags unfurl and start waving in my guts. Pretty much a given is an empty promise I’ve fallen for before. Bait in the trap for a stupid little girl. And I’m not a stupid little girl. Not anymore.
Epic Tom’s phone chirps and he checks his texts. “Tow truck’s here. So what’s the deal? You gonna spend Saturday night performing in this rat trap for these deadbeats or at the Staples Center for twenty-five thousand screaming teens? Moment of truth: In or out?”
Twenty-five thousand screaming teens. Screaming for my music. Screaming for me. My heart beats fast, pumping sweat out of my palms. The last time I trusted a smooth-talker with promises too good to be true he ended up being a pervert psychopath. All the red flags scream in semaphore, ordering me to say no. To say no and to run. Run as far and as fast as I can. I open my mouth and say . . .
“In! Of course I’m in. This is a dream come true!”
He barely smiles. “Yeah, making dreams come true is kinda my thing.”
I exhale a tremble of adrenaline and anxiety, trying to reassure myself this isn’t a trap. It’s karma. It’s the universe giving me a do-over to make up for how completely and whole-heartedly it screwed me over last time.
The bartender sashays back to us with a dusty bottle of champagne, the wad of hundreds Epic Tom gave her sticking out of her bra like a trophy. “Here’s our best, and only, bottle. Sorry it took so long to find it. This isn’t exactly a champagne kind of place.”
She wipes it with a bar rag and hands it to Epic Tom. Epic Tom hands it to me.
I raise an eyebrow. “What’s this about?”
“Your song. Remember? You’re gonna turn your pain to champagne, champagne, champagne.”
A laugh clucks in my throat. “Not this champagne. This bottle cost more than my . . . everything.”
I try to hand it to him but he pushes it back. “Get used to it, kid. Six months from now you’ll be flushing your toilet with this swill.”
He smiles at me and I smile back. It feels weird, because I can’t remember the last time I smiled and meant it. I might even be blushing. I need to do something before my eyes start leaking. “All right then. Cheers to me!” I turn to the bartender. “Hey, gimme two glasses.”
Epic Tom waves her away. “Can’t. I gotta take off. Listen, you come by my office tomorrow morning. Nine AM, sharp. We’ll do the paperwork and make this official. This is me.” He flicks a business card out of his breast pocket and hands it over. “Now, you take that champagne and go celebrate with your friends. They’ll spend the rest of their lives telling the story of this night and saying they ‘knew you when.’”
And with a wink and a flash of pistol fingers he’s out the door and gone. Once the room stops spinning, I grab the bottle and head out to do as I was told.
I’m going to celebrate with my friends.
A few hours later I’m sitting in a broken lawn chair on my roof, quietly strumming my guitar. Watching the first light of dawn pour over the Pacific Ocean is the best thing about living in Surfridge. The community is so peaceful.
A monstrous shadow screams by overhead, blasting a concussive wake that rattles my chair. My wild hair thrashes against my cheeks as the roar spills over and through me. I just keep strumming, glancing up to see the enormous orange belly of a Southwest Airlines 737 flying way too close to my face. And then it’s gone, its wing lights blinking goodbye as it slips away into the marine layer hanging over the beach.
Okay, so Surfridge isn’t actually peaceful. And isn’t actually a community. Not anymore. Thirty or forty years ago the whole area was bulldozed in the name of airport expansion.
You can still see its remains if you fly out of LAX. Between the end of the runways and the beach there’s this huge swath of craptacular nothing. Just acres of dried-out, abandoned land, surrounded by chain-link fence and marred by crumbling roads and rusted streetlamps like something out of an ultra-low-budget apocalypse movie.
Near the middle of this wasteland is a single building. A corrugated steel shack, painted in a sun-bleached red-and-white checkerboard pattern. Judging from the rusted equipment I found inside, my guess is it was part of some defunct radar system. All I can say with confidence is that I’m the first person to set foot in it since Bill Clinton was president. I’ve been squatting here since the youth hostel got shut down after they discovered asbestos while spraying for bedbugs.
To be honest, the radar shack is a step up.
I grab the champagne bottle, rip off the foil seal, and twist the wire cage off the cork. Epic Tom told me to celebrate with my friends. But that would have required having some. Which I don’t, because of that stupid goddamn TV show.
The insincere starfuckers who claimed to be my friends disappeared the second That’s My Boo got axed. The fans ditched their purple leather jackets and moved on to the next lame-ass, overhyped fandom the entertainment industry waved in front of them. Then it was gone. Poof. Vanished. Like the whole show had all been nothing but a mass hallucination with a prerecorded laugh track.
Sometimes I still stalk the old Boo gang on social media, just for shits and giggles. Of course my co-star Dylan Chase is now a movie star and go-to Hollywood pretty boy. Clive teaches TV writing in upstate New York, and Charlotte and Savannah are doing hair and makeup on some superhero film up in Vancouver. None of them accepted my friend requests.
I push my thumbs against the champagne cork but it won’t budge. Awesome. And all the drinks I had at the bar are doing nothing to improve my dexterity. I blink, trying to clear the boozy haze and focus on the now.
My brain has its doubts about Epic Tom’s scheme, but my heart is all in. It’ll be different this time. There will be no tricks. No lies. No federal trials. The flaming phoenix of Alexis McRiott will finally rise from Sierra Specter’s long-dead ashes.
And that’s worth a champagne toast.
If I can ever get this goddamn bottle open!
My numb fingers slip and I nearly drop it off the roof. Damn it! I crunch down on the cork with my molars and twist at the bottle with both hands. I’m going to pop this cork and celebrate so hard there won’t be a single drop left to—
I freeze and blink, then pull the bottle from my mouth. A sticky loop of drool connects my lips to a cork savaged with bite marks.
What the hell am I doing? I’m about to drink an entire bottle of champagne all by myself. I’m about to get blackout drunk, sleep through my appointment with Epic Tom, and ruin my only chance of escaping the raging fish-market dumpster fire that is my life.
I’m about to screw this up. Like I screw everything up.
No. No, I am not.
I stand up and hold the bottle to the sky.
“Alexis McRiott is turning her life around! Starting . . . now!”
I fling it off the roof.
There’s a thunk as the bottle hits the ground.
A pop as the cork fires.
And a squik as it hits me right in the—