Excerpt from Leviathan
Chicago, 3 am
Roland woke beneath a heavy weight, a shadow in the dark room, a heavy black motorcycle boot firmly planted mere inches from his skull.
The image that formed in his mind, rising up out of the mucky swirl of sleep, was that old painting, Fuseli’s Nightmare, or some version of it, the one with the woman in the white dress lying on her back, that furry devil-thing sitting on her chest. The look on that devil-thing’s face, it looked like—
“Max?” Roland said, or tried to say, his voice scraping up and out his throat. Still half asleep, disoriented, it took him a few seconds to realize that Max had one hand around his neck, thumb and first finger clamped down.
This is real, Roland thought, strangely calm, resigned to whatever it was that was happening.
Through the windows at the end of the room, the sodium streetlights glowed orange, casting dim light, at play in syrupy pools of darkness—the early morning hours. Winter winds pressed cruelly against the glass, snowflakes caustic, as blinding as TV static. Max’s grip on Roland’s throat loosened slightly. He struggled with his back pocket with his free hand.
“What the fuck, dude,” Roland said, voice pinched and phlegmy. He tried to move but was trapped inside his sleeping bag, bound, kicked his legs helplessly. He vaguely remembered passing out here after untold hours of drinking and smoking, staying up late, playing records, taking a few unmarked pills someone had given him, rolling out his sleeping bag on the floor of Max’s living room, sometime early in the morning, he guessed. Max must have stayed up all night, kept drinking long after everyone else had left or blacked out. Fuck, was Max blacked out? Earlier that night, Roland had heard dozens of stories about this, about Max blacking out, had been warned that he became violent, unpredictable. All this from people who knew him well, or seemed to at least: former bandmates, long-time friends, an ex with murder in her eyes, all people who had been putting up with him, “that asshole,” for over ten long years now.
A long strand of dirty blond hair fell from behind Max’s ear as he brought his free hand forward, a black sunglasses case squeezed tight in his fist. Roland knew that this was where Max kept his works, had seen it come out once or twice the night before. “You’re a poser,” Max said, his voice gnarled from too many cigarettes, not enough sleep, spitting out the insult like a poison, as if it were the absolute worst thing he could say about another person. “All you next-generation posers are pussies. You don’t know your roots. You write songs about death and you don’t know what it feels like to be dead. You don’t know shit.”
Max let go of Roland’s throat and slid to the floor, one leg still extended over Roland’s chest. He quietly sang the opening lyrics to the Beatles’ “She Said She Said,” voice angelic. He was out of his mind. Max unzipped the case and dumped out its contents. Roland quickly got one arm out of his sleeping bag, pulled the zipper down, and struggled out from beneath Max’s heavy leg. Fuck, he never would have even guessed that Max had listened to the Beatles. His head was pounding, though it was difficult to tell if it was from fear or the lingering effects of the booze, the first inklings of a killer hangover.
“Fucking asshole,” he said, rubbing his throat. “What is your problem?” Max looked up from what he was doing and Roland realized how far gone he was. Again, he felt panicked. Max’s eyelids looked inflamed, nearly swollen shut, and his mouth hung open, lower lip glistening with spit. He was only thirty-two, ten years older than Roland, but he looked old, like forty. Max snapped into place a needle on a syringe then picked up a small plastic baggie with two long, dirty fingers; a thin trace of powder lined its bottom.
“Shit,” Max said. “Somebody must have done all my shit. Do you know who did all my shit?” Roland knew for a fact that Max never let his works out of his sight, that he’d most likely shot up whatever he had left, but still he said nothing, just shook his head. Max quickly stuffed everything back into the sunglasses case, zipped it up, and stumbled to his feet, nearly colliding with the couch, an arm against the wall for balance.
The whole apartment smelled like whiskey.
Roland took it all in, the smell. He felt like he could breathe again, his heart pumping in his throat. It made him feel sick. He’d never really believed that Max could be dangerous, despite all of the stories. Even for a black metal band, Angelus Mortis had a reputation for controversy that was legendary: in ten years Max, who always performed under the nom de guerre Strigoi, had burned through nearly thirty hired guns; he’d gotten himself banned from a festival in Florida after it had been discovered that a white supremacist label distributed some of his CD-Rs; been dropped from a well-respected label after he’d failed to deliver an album on time; and most recently, alienated his most ardent fans after he’d pocketed the cash from merch sales online and never delivered the goods–the ultimate betrayal. Musicians should never fuck with their fans.
He was a bad dude, by all accounts, but his music was good–no one could deny that. It was sometimes even great, especially his early albums, which were now considered classics. And his gigs paid good money. Real money, too, not just beer.
Just in case Roland might have doubted his badness, Max took a few long strides across the room, alarmingly quick, and swung his boot, connected solidly with Roland’s thigh. The pain was instant, bone deep. Roland cried out, more surprised than hurt, though it certainly did hurt.
“Get up, pussy,” Max said, looming over Roland, wavering slightly. “Let’s go.” What choice did Roland have in the matter? He’d just arrived in Chicago from Seattle the previous morning, all of his worldly possessions packed into a single duffel bag, and the next day—today—they were flying out to Prague, an all-expenses-paid trip to seek inspiration for the new album, an almost unheard-of extravagance and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He was at Max’s mercy. He had no other friends in the city, no one he could call—didn’t even have enough money to get back home if he wanted to. And besides, it’s not like he had anywhere to go there, either. In fact, there were more than a few people back home he’d rather prefer to avoid entirely.
“It’s freezing outside,” Roland said, his voice weak, sounding every bit like a pussy. Max had him pegged. He didn’t know what he’d gotten himself into. When people asked him why he’d accepted an offer to write material and play drums on Max’s latest album, the supposed comeback album, he’d told them the truth: he liked being employed. The money that Max offered wasn’t bad either. And the free trip to Eastern Europe had sealed the deal.
“Put on a fucking jacket,” Max said.
A few minutes later they were down on the street, waiting for a bus, Roland shivering in his boots, hands stuffed in the pockets of his jacket. Although he was having a hard time walking a straight line, Max seemed to have sobered up a bit.
The night was so cold Roland’s bones ached. The city was dead quiet, blanketed with pristine snow, the headlights of the bus barely visible through the downfall as it appeared in the distance. Roland fed a few dollar bills into the fare machine. Neither of them said a word for the entire bus ride. The interior of the bus was filled with harsh light. Max almost started to nod off a few times, hair hanging down in front of his face. And then they were getting off somewhere on the near south side, just outside Chinatown. They walked a few blocks, still not talking, and stood below the elevated tracks. Max turned and jabbed Roland in the chest with a single finger. “Wait here,” he said. “I’m gonna pick up some rock.” A train roared by overhead, impossibly loud, as Max stumbled off into the night. In the distance, maybe two blocks away, Roland could just barely make out two redbrick buildings surrounded by chain-link fence—projects, no doubt.
Max had found Roland due to this work as a session drummer on a few albums produced in Seattle, one of which had been picked up by a midsize label for European distribution. He’d posed for some band photos that wound up online alongside some favorable reviews, a few top-ten lists on small blogs even. Suddenly his name was everywhere, his Facebook account flooded with friend requests from people he’d never heard of. And then the call from the infamous Strigoi himself. He’d gotten his number from a friend of a friend, he said, a well-connected producer in Chicago. It was difficult to say no. He wanted to ride the momentum of early success as long as he could, and it’s not like toughing it out for an album of two, maybe even a tour, with Angelus Mortis had ever hurt anyone’s career. If anything it would make him some new friends and keep his name in the news, give him a few more credits on Encyclopaedia Metallum. Nothing wrong with that. All he had to do was bang some drums and follow a click track. Write a few riffs. No problem.
A woman’s voice interrupted Roland’s thoughts: “You got any change?” She was older, middle-aged, stepped into the blustery light of the streetlamp as if appearing out of nowhere. Her parka was covered with filth, the once-white faux-fur lining the hood now the color of rotting teeth. “Fuck off,” Roland said. “What do I look like?” He kicked at her, not seriously, just to shoo her away. “Get the fuck out of here.” The woman walked off, muttering, never even looked Roland in the eyes. He’d only been in Chicago for, what, two days? And already he found it a miserable place. How could anyone live here? Or why would they, considering the cold. Where did the homeless sleep at night during the winter? He’d heard stories before of people freezing to death at night in places like this, drunks stumbling home after a night at the bar who fell on the ice and hit their heads, or maybe they got home, couldn’t find their keys, and lay down to wait for morning, only morning never arrived—just permanent night. Not the worst way to go, by any means. Painless. Exactly something a pussy would think, opting for a painless death. Fuck. Max had been gone now for what, ten, fifteen minutes? What if he was passed out somewhere, in an alley somewhere, behind a dumpster, freezing to death? Fuck him. No, wait. How could he explain to the cops that he’d let his friend—his acquaintance, really—walk away to die? Would he even have to talk to the police? Of course he would. He couldn’t live with something like that on his conscience. Because he was a pussy. He’d have to tell them that he hadn’t even searched for him. I mean, Max wasn’t even really his friend. More of a colleague. Roland quickly walked to the end of the block and looked in all four directions. Nothing. Snow everywhere. No sign of Max. No sign of anyone—just the two red-brick buildings down the street. “God dammit.”
Stomach in knots and now, weirdly enough, overwhelmed by a sudden hunger, an acidic pit burning a hole in his guts, Roland made his way over to the projects. The building was four stories, drab, surrounded by a chain-link fence; a few of the units still had their lights on. Roland followed the sidewalk, crunching huge chunks of scattered salt with his boots, as it curved and led to the shitty little courtyard between the two buildings. A motion-sensor lamp clicked on, filling the courtyard with harsh, yellow light.
Roland froze. Ten seconds of silence passed, and then a deep voice immediately echoed from one of the units above: “Motherfucker looks lost.”
And then nothing—just more silence. Roland felt the creepiness of knowing you’re being watched, not knowing who’s doing the watching or from where–it was the kind of thing that made his skin crawl. He looked one way, the cramped lobby of the building visible through the metal door’s small, reinforced-glass window. Nothing. Then the other way: the same sight, only this time there were the unmistakable prints of Max’s motorcycle boots in the snow leading to the door. Instantly regretting his decision, but unable to help himself, Roland held up both middle fingers, raised his arms up to the units above, and turned in a tight circle. He was angry now, angry because he was scared, though he’d never admit that to himself.
“The fuck outta here, bitch,” the voice called back.
The intercom was busted open, scorched black, a nest of multicolored wires pushing out from beneath the panel, and the door was left cracked open. Roland leaned into the door and felt it thump into something in the lobby, heard a grunt, the distinct sound of a body slumping over. Roland quickly slid inside. Yellow light was everywhere, nearly blinding—the thick stench of stale cigarette smoke. Max lay on his side against the wall, one arm splayed out to the side, the palm slicked with bright red blood. One of his fingers twitched slightly. A matching streak of blood stained the tiled wall, curved downward, as if illustrating the trajectory of Max’s fall.
“Fuck,” Roland said, kneeling down. “Max? Can you hear me?” He unzipped Max’s leather jacket. His T-shirt was dry—no visible stab wounds to the abdomen at least. Max lightly patted the back of his head, sucking air through his clenched teeth, his hand coming away freshly slicked with blood. “Let me see the back of your head,” Roland said, batting away Max’s listless attempt to stop him. “Move your hand, dude—I need to see how bad it is.” There was blood everywhere. Roland carefully parted a few long strands of Max’s hair, revealing countless tiny shards of glittering brown glass, but no source of the bleeding. “They burned me,” Max said. “Kids. One of ‘em came up behind me and swung a bottle at my head. Took my money and ran.” Roland ignored him, parted another section of Max’s hair, revealing a thin, crooked gash just over his right ear. “It’s not a bad cut,” he said, “just bleeding a lot.”
The sound of clipped, concerned conversation echoed down the stairwell at the end of the lobby, a woman and a few men.
“Come on,” Roland said, threading an arm under Max’s shoulder. “Time to get up.”
Max groaned. It took him nearly thirty seconds to find the strength in his legs. “I need to get my seven bucks back.” He slurred his speech, tried to pull Roland toward the stairs. Roland didn’t even argue. Max was too weak to resist. He pivoted and pulled Max along with him toward the door.
The voices from the stairwell were getting louder, coming closer, closing in. Roland pushed open the door with his free hand. Already he was sweating beneath his jacket, his face flushed with heat. The light in the courtyard was still on. The sound of a siren in the distance. Already? “Come on,” Roland said. “You need to use your fucking legs. Bends your knees, asshole.” Looking back at how far they’d come, Roland saw a trail of wine-dark droplets of blood in the snow.
Max’s whole body shuddered. The hand he’d been using to put pressure on the bleeding fell slack at his side and the sudden shift in weight threw Roland off balance. The two of them toppled into the snow, Max first, Roland landing weirdly on the arm still wrapped beneath Max’s shoulder.
For a few still moments, Roland actually heard Max softly snoring, as if his body and mind were both intent on shutting down at the worst possible moment. “Jesus Christ,” Roland said, “wake the fuck up.” He managed to extricate his arm from beneath Max’s torso, raised his hand up high—the memory of Max kicking his thigh flashed in his mind, all of the fear, the confusion of the night building into a blinding white light, an unstoppable force—and slapped Max’s open mouth as hard as he could. The sound echoed throughout the courtyard, as loud as cracking ice.
One of Max’s eyes fluttered open, the other stubbornly swollen shut. The outline of three red fingerprints instantly bloomed on his jawline. Max drooled a bit, his one open eye focusing on Roland. His bottom lip was split, a glistening dab of dark blood at its center. “Need to get my seven bucks back,” he said, his voice matter of fact, sounding totally sober.
“I’ll fucking give you seven bucks if you stand up and walk back to the train with me right now,” Roland said. Max seemed to nod slightly. A few moments later, Roland was on his feet, helping Max up out of the snow. They quickly left the courtyard behind, turning out into the street just as a police cruiser flew by, its lights blaring, way over the speed limit. Another car, this one unmarked, lights on the dash, quickly followed. Wherever they were going, whatever was happening, it was more important than what was happening here. Roland released the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding all this time, breathed in deep, and felt suddenly lightheaded as the oxygen hit his brain.
They walked for what felt like an hour, Max slowly gaining control of his faculties, leading the way. Eventually they came across people crowding the sidewalk outside a standalone three-flat on a deserted industrial street, the last lingering dregs of the 4 am bar scene. The sidewalk was flooded with red light. Everyone was drunk, smoking, being obnoxious; no one seemed to notice the stains of dried blood on Max’s face. “I know people here,” Max said. “Wait here.” He quickly ducked in through the front door, leaving Roland out on the sidewalk.
Roland’s hands were totally numb. He wanted nothing more than to be back in his sleeping bag on Max’s living room floor, to take his fucking boots off and dry out his socks. Their flight to Prague was leaving in a little over fourteen hours, plenty of time for Max to clean himself up and get his shit together, for Roland to crash and recharge. There was no backing out now, even if Max was crazy or violent or whatever. There was nothing to worry about, really. They’d be focusing on the music. That’s what this trip was all about—finding inspiration, crossing over into Transylvania, and getting to the roots of what black metal was all about, and then taking that inspiration into the studio in Kharkiv, Ukraine. There would be many strange things. And even though Roland knew something of what strange things there would be, he was still impossibly excited about whatever it was that existed beyond his imagination.
This is what Roland focused on, whatever was beyond expectations, as they piled into the back of a cramped sedan that belonged to one of Max’s friends from the bar, as they climbed the steps to Max’s apartment, exhausted. Max crashed face-first onto the couch, still wearing his boots and jacket. Roland zipped himself up in his shitty sleeping bag once again, fought the urge to cry, because he wasn’t a pussy and he certainly wasn’t scared. This was the life he had always wanted. This is what he’d always wanted, deep down inside. He knew it was true. So what the fuck was he crying about?