There was some commotion from the kitchen, so I rose, threw on a robe, and went to investigate.
I found her wearing one of my shirts and nothing else. She’d opened several of my frozen dinners and their carcasses lay on the counter next to a family-sized bag of powdered pancake mix.
“You know,” I said, glancing into the pan, “those don’t usually go together.”
She flipped a pancake dotted with cubed liver she’d rescued from a frozen dinner onto a nearby plate. “I usually like a little protein with my carbs.” She smiled and stretched, the motion lifting her shirt. She wore nothing underneath.
Puppies and football and yesterday’s news. We had too much to do to fall back into bed together. Wembley was only a few weeks away, and we still didn’t know how to prevent another incident like what happened at the Broken Doll. Suddenly a few things came together in my mind. Mental wax was the key. We needed the audience to think of something other than her singing.
I frowned inwardly at the ludicrousness of that line of thinking. How could we expect Aura to build a singing career around convincing people not to listen to her?
Maybe, I thought, mental wax works both ways. What if there was a way to stop Aura from “getting hungry”, as she’d put it? If songs about stealing another woman’s boyfriend put her in the wrong frame of mind, so to speak, she couldn’t be a pop singer. But that wasn’t the only genre out there, was it? She could sing punk rock, or ska, or… the blues.
I am a fucking genius. Have I told you that before?
“Can you read music?” I asked abruptly.
She’d just finished tearing off a hunk of liver pancake and popping it into her mouth. She chewed twice and swallowed. “Sure.”
I darted into the bedroom and tore open the bottom drawer of my dresser. Inside were a few newspaper clipping from bands who’d broken through with my help, some emergency cash, and pages of sheet music. I rummaged through them and came up blank. I didn’t have sad music. At last, I grabbed the closest thing I could find.
Aura was curled up on my loveseat with her plate of pancakes. I handed her the page of sheet music. “Sing this. It’s O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Don’t ask me how I have it.”
She read it over between chews and then handed me her plate. The last remaining pancake was turtle-shaped with a brown lump of liver at its center. I set it down on the coffee table as she assumed her position in front of the TV. I would have to stop at a drive-thru on the way into the studio.
“Ready?” she asked.
I indicated with a flourish that she should give it her all. Inwardly, I was terrified. Would I fall back into that black pit? I settled into the chair, my fingers digging into the armrests.
She began with the same magical hum she’d used in the shower last night and then slipped into lyrics. Her voice was as clear and powerful as a clarion bell. I was moved by every word. But when the song was finished, I’d kept control of myself and so had she.
I grinned. Like I said, I’m a goddamned motherfucking genius.
“I think we’re onto something here,” I said with relief, underplaying the whole genius thing. I pushed out of the chair and began to pace. “But we’re not going to build a singing career out of Christmas carols, are we? No. Art is about emotion. Pop succeeds because it’s about personal gratification. Rock is anger. Blues is sadness. More or less,” I amended quickly. “Of those, I vote for the blues.”
“The blues?” she asked.
“Well, blues-influenced. That kind of music has always been popular. The modern incarnation usually focuses on break-ups, but we can work with that. The trick is to take some personal experience that’s really, you know, sad, and then end the song with a ray of hope. ‘I will go on’. That sort of thing.”
“A personal experience?”
I nodded. “Something that made you sad.” Suddenly I remembered exactly what she was. A cannibal. Reformed, granted, but she’d likely spent a great deal of her life murdering people and then eating them. “But not horrifying.”
Surprisingly, she didn’t even have to consider it. “The Cliffs of Moher off the coast of Ireland. The cliffs are tall, sheer things, covered in moss and bare rock. At times migrating birds land there, and their calls can be heard for miles. Three hundred Spaniards drowned on the cliffs in 1588, and it’s been a favorite hunting ground of mine ever since.” She sat in the loveseat and crossed her legs. “But it had been weeks since I’d eaten, and I was starving. The fog was thick and, though I could see nothing through it, I sang until dawn. At last, a solitary rowboat emerged from the mists. A lantern hung from the gunwale, and a man sat at the oars. We were far out to sea by then, almost too far for the man to row back. But there he was, and I was starving, so I swam to the side of the boat and pulled myself aboard.
“It was a fishing vessel, one of the smallest I’d seen, and the man must have been very poor. Nets made from woven reeds were piled in the bottom of the boat, and I could smell rotting mackerel in his bait bucket. He had a scraggly beard, weathered leather skin, and eyes like beaten metal. Old and malnourished, he would not make much of a meal, but still I advanced on him, singing as I put my hands on his throat.
“That’s when I saw the child. Perhaps the man was a widower, or the boy his apprentice. He was a small thing with red hair and a dusting of freckles; he wore clothes that had been patched many times. Too young to be under my spell, he merely looked at me sadly, like he knew what I was and why I was there.
“I twisted the old man’s neck, but stopped before I heard the fateful pop. If I killed the man, the boy would not have the strength to row back to shore. For the first time in my long life, I felt ashamed of what I was and what I was doing. I was not the creature of wonder and beauty I’d thought myself to be. I was something terrible and savage. I was an animal.
“I released him slowly. The boy’s expression did not change, and I could no longer bear it, so I jumped back into the sea. I could find my dinner elsewhere.
“I heard a splash behind me. The old man hadn’t even bothered to remove his jacket before he’d followed me in. He was not a strong swimmer and perhaps the weight of his warm clothes weighed him down. He went under after only a few strokes and did not resurface. Though I was weak from starvation, I worried for the boy and so dove to save his father.
“He’d stopped swimming and hung suspended in the brine, an expression of lust frozen on his face. But he was not dead. His eyes darted and bulged as I swam to him. His arms clamped around me when I got too close, and though my strength allowed me to peel him loose, he caught at me again and we sank still further. He pressed his face to mine and kissed at me, choking as he inhaled seawater.
“By the time I managed to bring him to the surface, he was nearly dead. The boat had gone. Taken by the currents and disappeared into the fog. Though I searched for hours, I couldn’t find the boy. Several weeks later I found the boat at the bottom of the Irish Sea. There was no body, and I like to imagine that the boy was rescued by a passing ship, though I know that to be a lie. Sometimes lies are good, no?”
She looked up at me and I could see that her cheeks were wet and her eyes red. She’d torn a hole in the armrest of my loveseat, but seemed not to notice. “I vowed then to leave the sea and never look back.”
She fell silent for a long while, and the silence soon became unbearable.
“That’ll do,” I said, and realized my voice was hoarse. I coughed and looked at the floor, and then the ceiling. I stood. “Excuse me. I have a song to write.”
This is what I do best. This is my world. I’m king here. I spent the morning putting the emotions I’d felt when she told the story of the man and his son into her song, and then we drove into the studio to record it.
Harvey was waiting for us, and after Aura had practiced the song, we staged a little performance for him. By the end of it, we were all in tears, and I knew we had a hit on our hands. She told me more stories, which I dutifully put to music. By the end of the first week, we had a rough cut of our first album.
This girl could really sing the blues. It was powerful, heartbreaking stuff.
Screw shiny, happy pop. Give me a good bit of heartbreak every time.
It was less dangerous, for a start.
I began putting in a lot of hours at the studio, struggling with the impossible task of getting the backup band –which consisted of the same three members we’d had at the Doll– to play as well as Aura sang. I tried every trick in the book and had to drag Aura back into the studio over and over to sing with them. They had chemistry, but a potato would have had chemistry with Aura. Obviously potatoes have chemistry, you can make batteries out of them, after all, but you know what I mean. She bled into every track, every performance. She seemed to have an unlimited well of sadness to tap into.
It wasn’t until we were three days out from Wembley that Harvey brought me aside. He wanted to talk. His office had started life as a supply closet, and boxes of office supplies were stacked next to spare soundboards. A synthesizer lay on its side near the studio’s only water cooler. Harvey’s desk was IKEA-cheap. A raised circle in the veneer indicated where he rested his coffee mug.
“We’re moving after this Wembley business, Harvey,” I said, feeling charitable. “You deserve better than this office. Dead Records will have its own studio. Think Abbey Road. Think…” I couldn’t think of any more studios. “…of this place,” I finished a bit lamely. I wasn’t good when it came to inspirational speeches.
My round-faced assistant squeezed between wall and desk and then fell into his chair. “Care to have a seat?” he asked, indicating the office’s only other chair.
I have found that situations get more serious when two people sit down to talk about them, so I sat warily. “What is it?”
He laced his fingers and leaned forward. “It’s about Aura. You’ve got her singing all these sad songs, and I know they’re just songs, but I think it’s having an effect on her.”
“What do you mean?”
“When was the last time you saw her smile?”
I rocked back in the chair and tapped the armrest. It was an odd question, but Harvey seemed to be taking it seriously, so I indulged him. That morning had been rough, but productive. We’d finally discovered that the reason the band kept missing their cues was because the magic of Aura’s singing had gotten hold of them. It appeared that Aura’s lust affected only men, but her sadness was universal. I suggested a little mental wax, but Harvey had headphones on hand that would dull the sound of her voice without blocking it out entirely. It would look a little odd to the audience, to have three ladies with large black headphones performing behind Aura, but we’d find some way to spin it that would make sense to the masses. With the headphones on, Aura could channel raw emotion into her music, but that meant she hadn’t smiled all morning.
Had she smiled earlier?
We’d been rushed at breakfast, and dinner the night before had been take-out. I became angry with myself when I couldn’t answer Harvey’s question. Had it really been that long?
“I don’t know,” I finally admitted. “But she’s a blues singer. She doesn’t need to smile.”
Harvey frowned. “But you’ve got her singing about what a monster she is. I think it’s taking a toll on her. I caught her popping pills at lunch.”
I pushed back from his desk and stood.
I really didn’t have time for this, not three days away from Wembley.
“We’ll take a vacation after the performance. I’ll take her someplace nice and we’ll forget about all this for a while.”
“I don’t think–”
I pounded my fist into his desk harder than I meant to. “You’re not here to think, Harvey.” He jumped and his coffee mug tilted, spilling a splosh, but it didn’t overturn. “She wants this, Harvey. She came to me, remember. I’m making her into a star.”
Aura said nothing on the drive home, and I didn’t prompt her.
Like when the past, present and future walk into a bar, it was tense.
I asked her about the pills. She claimed they were diet pills. I decided to believe her, because… it was easier. She didn’t have an ounce of fat on her whole body, so obviously they were working. Look, the big show was three days away. Nothing bad could happen in three days, right?
Okay, okay, yes, hindsight’s great. I was wrong. I know that now.