Ex-Punk, an excerpt from MP Johnson’s short story collection, Berzerkoids

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“Punk is dead.” Lilly Nelson, formerly known as Lilly Terror, turned the favored cliché of ex-punks everywhere into an impenetrable brick wall. She didn’t even glance at the flyer that had been shoved into her hands, promoting some show by a band she didn’t care about, a show she had no intention of going to. Lilly didn’t go to shows anymore.

“You might change your mind if you come to this show,” said the wannabe punkette who had interrupted Lilly’s smoke break. She took another piece of paper out of the pocket of her leather jacket and unfolded it. “Let me read you some lyrics.”

“Oh fuck. Please don’t.”

The girl cleared her throat and read. The words fluttered around Lilly’s brain, tickling it like the wings of butterflies, but never landing. They flew out of reach when she tried to catch them. If she had been asked to repeat a single one, she wouldn’t have been able too. She felt a tinge of loss. She didn’t like the feeling.

“Shut the fuck up!” Lilly yelled.

“Is your mind blown?” the girl said, carefully refolding the lyric sheet. “So punk.”

“What do you know about punk, with your brand new leather jacket and salon-dyed hair? What are you, seventeen? Do you still live with your parents?” Lilly took a puff of her cigarette. “Go back there and get the fuck out of my face.”

“You know what? Don’t come to the show, bitch.”

The wannabe punkette walked away, disappearing into the crowd of business casuals coming and going on the downtown sidewalk. Lilly knew why the girl had approached her. Even though she had ditched the punk scene, Lilly had held on to the style. Her sleek black mohawk suited her slender face, and she liked the safety pin chic of her slashed thrift store sweater, denim miniskirt and fishnets. The punkette had thought she had found one of her own. Fuck her and her naïve worldview, Lilly thought, finishing her smoke break and going back inside to her spot behind the makeup counter.

Lilly tossed her purse onto her couch, the rattling of lipstick tubes against quarters signaling her return. “Jesse?” she yelled for her roommate as she kicked off her heels.

Happy with the lack of response, she wandered into the kitchen of the small apartment and hung the flyer on the fridge, for old time’s sake. She read the name of the headlining band: Interscissor. It sounded ridiculous. If bands couldn’t even be bothered to come up with cool names anymore, what chance did they have of coming up with cool music? No chance at all, and that’s why she had stopped going to shows more than a decade ago, well before she had hit her thirties.

She had gotten tired of seeing the same bands in the same places and talking to the same people about the same stuff, always about the next show and how great it would be, but it never was, not really. No matter how hard she and her friends tried to build up the next show, it would never be as special as the shows they had seen when they were fifteen.

Jesse, who still clung to the dead husk of the punk scene, would rib Lilly about aging out. That pissed Lilly off. Age wasn’t a factor. If anything, she had grown hotter with age. The last vestiges of baby fat had melted from her cheeks, allowing the swoop of her cheekbones to show through. The new darkness around her eyes added mystery to her gray irises, not the tiredness it added to other women her age. She loved the minute wrinkles that had developed around her mouth. They made her look as though constantly holding back a wicked smile. She hadn’t aged out. She had retired gracefully.

Her cell phone chimed from inside her purse. She walked back into the living room and answered with a terse, “Yes?”

“Hey Lilly, it’s Mario,” the voice on the other end said, diced by static.

“What’s up?” Lilly warmed her words.

“Can I come over?”

“Please do.”

On top of sweaty sheets, Mario said, “I know you’re retired from shows. I am too. But there’s this band playing Saturday that is worth coming out of retirement for.”

Lilly laughed, loud. “Interscissor? You can’t be serious.”

“You’ve heard of them?” Hairspray still held Mario’s sharp green spikes in place. He wrapped his inked arms around Lilly and pulled her on top of him like a blanket.

“Not really. Some wannabe punkette gave me a flyer today. It was cute.”

“They’re not a cute band. People are leaving their shows bruised and bloody, saying their lives have been changed.”

“Come on, Mario. Sounds like bullshit GG Allin shock rock to me.”

“That’s not it. I… I don’t know how to explain it.”

Lilly rolled off him, hating his ineloquence. Did he think he could convince her like this? He wasn’t even trying. That told her all she needed to know. She hated the idea of cigarettes after sex, dinner after dessert, but she suddenly found herself needing one.

“So you absolutely won’t go?” he asked.

“Absolutely not.”

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Lilly stood behind the makeup counter with her face sandwiched between her hands. One after the next, women asked for guidance on what lipstick to get, what eye shadow, blush. With practiced enthusiasm, she guided them toward products perfect for them based on their skin tone, the shape of their face and even their personality. She was fucking scientific about it. Did these women care? No. Nine times out of ten, they ignored Lilly’s advice and went with the tired colors they wore when they walked in. Everyone gravitated toward sameness.

Jesse approached, swinging her ponytail playfully.

Lilly smiled sincerely for the first time that day. “Hey roomie!”

“Purple!” Jesse exclaimed. “I have failed to properly utilize purple!”

“Sit on the stool and let me purp you up.”

Jesse worked nearby, doing business shit that Lilly had never taken the time to fully understand. Lilly liked the idea of Jesse, this hot punk rock chick, working with stuffed shirts on the fifty-seventh floor of the IPS tower, one of the few scenarios that actually seemed punk rock to Lilly these days. Sometimes, she felt jealous though. The job required Jesse to buy gorgeous clothes that covered her sleeves of tattoos, and also paid about ten times what Lilly earned. On the other hand, Lilly was glad she didn’t have to hide her ink. Even though the images spoke of days long past, she took pride in her tattoos. She liked the toxic green wrapped around the logos of bands she hadn’t listened to in years. They never matched her wardrobe but still matched her perfectly.

As Lilly brushed purple powder over Jesse’s eyelids, Jesse said, “I’m going to a show on Saturday and I want you to come.”

“Are you talking about the Interscissor show? It’s a bunch of hype. Remember the last show you dragged me to? What was the band called? Teen Bomb?”

“Teen Bomber, but that was different.”

“How was it different?” Lilly asked, shoving a mirror into Jesse’s hand.

“Interscissor is more of a change-your-life sort of thing.”

“We’re not fifteen anymore, Jesse. Bands can’t change our lives.”

Jesse sighed and inspected her face in the mirror. “Fuck purple.”

Lilly wiped it off and laid a base of Jesse’s fave beige.

The doorbell rang. Daveed arrived exactly when Lilly had asked, which she appreciated. She didn’t appreciate that, upon opening the door, she found Mario standing beside him. Daveed looked confused, with a red rose in one hand and a book in the other. He always brought her books, which she found fabulous, although she only read a third of them. Mario grinned, also bearing a gift. He held a seven inch record with a plain white cover, one word scrawled across it in plain type: Interscissor.

“Whoa.” Lilly considered closing the door and waiting for them both to leave. She had gotten dressed up to see a play called Kill County or Kill Town with Daveed, and she had been looking forward to the night out, but she didn’t know if she wanted to deal with the collision of worlds happening on her doormat.

Daveed meekly handed the flower to Lilly, glancing cautiously at Mario and his green spikes. “I brought you this.” He handed her the book and added, “And this.”

Mario held out the record and mocked, “I brought you this.”

“Do you two know each other?” Lilly asked.

“I don’t think so,” Daveed replied, tucking his hands into the pockets of his khaki pants, jingling his keys nervously.

“No,” Mario said. “I don’t care. I just need you to listen to this right now. It will help you put everything, and I mean everything, into perspective.”

“We really should be going if we want to get to the theater on time,” Daveed said, quietly, focusing more on Mario than Lilly.

“This won’t take long.” Mario slipped past Lilly into the apartment. He waved Daveed in behind him. “You can listen too, dude.”

“Mario!” Lilly yelled. “Please get out of my apartment.”

He pulled the book out of her hand, threw it onto the hardwood floor and replaced it with the record.

“Thanks,” she said as he walked away.

“Who was that?” Daveed asked after Mario had left.

“An old friend.”

Daveed pointed to the book on the floor, hand peeking out of the too-long sleeve of his mauve dress shirt. “That book will change your life.”

“Why the fuck is everyone so insistent on changing my life? Am I living my life the wrong way? Does my life seem so bad to you? Seriously.”

Daveed picked the book up and placed it on Lilly’s coffee table, beside others he had given her recently. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Let’s just go,” Lilly said, stepping out of her apartment.

The play, featuring men in dog suits reading the murder statute, couldn’t keep her mind from straying. She couldn’t understand why people thought she needed some sort of life-changing epiphany, nor did she buy that a band or a book could bring it about.

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She had worked hard to like her life. When she first got into punk, before she could drive, she had needed a life change. She had spent too much time letting boys use her, not sexually, but emotionally. Even then, she considered the concept of love bizarre and fleeting. She had since learned that it was something, it just wasn’t as big a thing as it was made out to be. Small loves were realistic. Finding the love of her life was not. She hadn’t learned that from punk, per se, but from the interactions she had as part of the scene. The world had unfolded for her and she had become empowered to drive her life instead of sit in the passenger seat while life swerved around willy nilly, never getting where she wanted to go, not that she knew where she wanted to go. At least being behind the wheel gave her the opportunity to pick where she turned.

And she felt she had made the right turns. She didn’t care that her job paid shit. It covered food and rent. She surrounded herself with good people. Granted, she had woven an intricate web with her relationships, but she had it under control, which the non-event of Mario and Daveed meeting proved. She chose the path her days followed, and it worked for her. Did she seem unhappy from the outside? Maybe she didn’t smile enough. Maybe that’s why everyone thought she needed a life-changing experience.

At their post-play dinner, Daveed said, “You’re very quiet tonight.”

“I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier.”

“No, I apologize. It’s funny how sayings get thrown around so frequently they lose their meaning,” Daveed said.

“That’s true.”

“I sense you’re wound up about something though.” Daveed put the menu down. “If you’ll indulge me in one last cliché, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’”

Lilly leaned forward, put her elbows on the table and folded her hands under her chin. “You know I used to be into punk rock, right?”

Daveed gestured at Lilly’s mohawk and her tattooed arms, nodding.

“Well, there’s this band everyone is freaking out about. They’re called Interscissor, which is the dumbest name ever. Mario and Jesse and even random people on the street have told me I need to go see them this Saturday.”

“That doesn’t sound too upsetting,” Daveed said.

“It’s just that I’m done with punk rock, and they know it. Every time they pull me back in, I go to a show and I see all these stupid kids feeling what I used to feel, and I’m just bored. Part of me wishes that wasn’t the case, but it just is. I’ll listen to my old records once in a while, but I don’t feel the need to go shake my fist in the air anymore.”

“Do you know why I give you books all the time?” Daveed asked.

“Because you love me?”

He paused. “It’s actually more selfish than that. I give you books that mean a lot to me, that I’ve read countless times, books I’ve read so many times I’ve started to get bored with them. When you actually read them,” he paused to glare playful accusations at her, “and we talk about them, and I hear how you reacted to them, I get to see them through new eyes. I get re-energized toward them. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“Not really, no.”

He leaned in. “I’ve never been to a punk rock concert.”

After dinner, alone in her apartment, she put Mario’s Interscissor record on the turntable. She dropped the needle haphazardly in the middle of an introductory guitar solo and nodded her head to a snare beat that rattled her teeth even with the volume low. Before the song could build to anything she could latch on to, the record slowed to a stop.

“What the fuck?” She flipped the power button on and off, but the record wouldn’t spin. The motor had died. She felt as though something had been taken away, chocolate snatched from the tip of her tongue. She remembered feeling the same way when that wannabe punkette had read the lyrics to her. Maybe Jesse and Mario were right, she thought. Maybe there was something special here. She laughed at the idea.

She called Mario. “I decided to go to the show tomorrow night.”

“That’s awesome. Lilly Terror is back!”

“But I want to listen to the record first. You know, to get psyched up, like old times.” She realized how dumb she sounded. She used to listen to a band’s record for weeks leading up to a show. That had been her ritual. She would wear out the grooves trying to memorize the lyrics so she could sing along. Now she felt silly, trying to recapture the old feeling. Still, she asked, “Can I come over and listen to it?”

“What’s wrong with your turntable?”

“Busted.”

“Now’s not a good time, Lilly.”

“Is Jesse over there?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh. Okay.” Lilly’s feeling of loss suddenly amplified.

“I’ll see you tomorrow night though?” Mario asked.

She sighed. “Yes, you will.”

“So these concerts happen in basements?” Daveed asked as he and Lilly walked toward the Cedar Street address scrawled on the flyer.

“The good ones do, yeah. When bands get mainstream, they might play small clubs. Some of the old bands that are still kicking will fill up a decent sized venue, but those shows are about as fun as a visit to the senior center.”

“Gotcha,” Daveed said.

When they found the house, a trashed bungalow with once-white siding, they walked around back. As Lilly unlatched the gate to the fenced-in backyard, Daveed whispered, “I’m not going to fit in here, am I?”

Punk wardrobe choices were the same as they had always been, the black t-shirts, the torn jeans and bondage skirts, the ripped fishnets, the hair charged or mohawked or shaved or just indignantly unkempt. Daveed wore the same outfit he wore to the theater, just in different colors: khaki pants and a blue button down shirt that looked simple and fancy at the same time, possibly because it was actually clean and relatively new, which could not be said for most of the clothes in this backyard.

“No, you’re not,” Lilly replied. “Do you care?”

“No,” Daveed said.

“Then you’re already more punk than most of these kids.”

Bass and guitar belched from the back door. The crowd moved toward the sound. Lilly led Daveed away from it. She leaned against the garage and pulled out a cigarette.

“Aren’t we going to miss it?”

A girl in a shiny leather jacket ran past, the wannabe punkette who had handed Lilly the flyer. “Hey!” Lilly shouted. “What band is this?”

The girl smiled in recognition. “Magnus Carter.”

“Opening band,” Lilly said to Daveed. She took a long drag. “Let’s skip them and enjoy the night air.”

“Works for me,” Daveed said. “When did you start going to punk shows?”

Lilly laughed.

“What?” Daveed asked.

“It’s just the way you said ‘punk shows.’ I don’t know how to explain it.” She did know how to explain it though. He said the words with too much care and just enough hesitancy for her to catch the hidden question, “Am I saying this right?” She remembered when she used to call shows “concerts” and laughed again.

Daveed giggled self-consciously.

“To answer your question though, I went to my first show when I was fourteen.”

“Wow. You really are a veteran.”

“You make me sound old.”

“That’s not my intent. What’s that over there?” He pointed to a folding table near the back of the house.

“Merch,” she replied. “Let’s take a look.”

She tossed her cigarette and led the way. A big, bearded punk manned the table, a beer in each hand. She nodded at him and scanned the bands’ wares. Seeing nothing from Interscissor, she picked up a Magnus Carter seven inch and inspected the crude drawing on the cover, a skull with black dreadlocks. Very original, she thought.

“I didn’t know they made records anymore,” Daveed said.

The merch guy laughed so hard he dropped one of his beers. Lilly hit him with a cold stare until he stopped. Hypocritical bastard, she thought. A year ago, he had probably been going to college and listening to jam bands. Now he considered himself such a part of the scene that he could laugh at newcomers. She wanted to call him out, to ask him about the fresh ink on his arms, and how he had paid for it, to make him think about exactly how punk he really was, but she didn’t. She knew and Daveed didn’t seem to give a shit, which impressed her.

“For these bands, records never really died,” she explained to Daveed. “I’ll have to show you my record collection sometime.”

“I would love that.”

The cacophony from the basement died suddenly and the crowd reappeared, Jesse and Mario among them. Jesse hurried to Lilly, dragging Mario by the hand behind her.

“I’m so glad you came! Both of you! It’s so good to see you again, Daveed. Are you psyched?” Jesse clapped her hands.

Mario rolled his eyes.

“I am psyched,” Daveed said. He added, “This is my first show,” and looked at Lilly with a playful and confident smile, clearly proud of himself for saying “show” right.

“Yay!” Jesse added. “This band will totally change your life.”

Daveed replied, “Let’s hope it’s a change for the better, shall we?”

If anyone had any hope of having his life changed, Lilly realized, it was Daveed. He came to this with eyes untainted by the peaks of punk rockdom she had seen so many years before, peaks she knew would never be topped, not by Interscissor or any other band. The cheapest chocolate bars are the best if you’ve never tasted another.

A sound – the bastard brood of a guitar chord and a truck dropping rocks into the Mississippi – pulled the crowd to the basement once again. Punks fought to get in first.

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“Holy shit,” Jesse said, eyes wide, pulling Mario by the hand. Mario grabbed Lilly’s hand. She shook free and walked casually at the rear of the crowd, Daveed by her side. The sound blew the dust off feelings she hadn’t felt for a long time. She wanted to run, to push and shove with everyone else. Her body ached to accelerate. Perhaps Mario and Jesse’s energy, the energy shared by everyone in the backyard, had infected her. She forced herself to walk slowly.

She stomped down wooden steps, greeted by body odor so thick she had to blink to get her eyes used to it. A man stood at the bottom of the stairs with a cash box and a marker. Lilly walked past him. She was not going to pay for this bullshit. No way. Daveed paused and looked at the man, then followed Lilly’s example.

Punks packed the basement from wall to wall, so thick she couldn’t see the band on the other side of the room.

“Is there a stage?” Daveed asked.

“No…”

The aptly nicknamed Rat Hole epitomized punk basements. Empty beer cans and bottles had accumulated in every corner like snowdrifts. Despite layers of graffiti depicting everything from minotaurs with mohawks to crossed out crosses, the gray of the brick penetrated the room. Rusted pipes crisscrossed the ceiling, sweating. Hands pounded on them, anxiously awaiting Interscissor’s first song.

The discordant drone gave way to the guitar solo Lilly had heard before her record player died, warm and wet and so fast. It rushed past the ears in front of her and made its way to hers, making them buzz as it echoed off the basement walls. The drums kicked in, beats chasing each other down, leaving no space in between. The crowd exploded. Battered black boots cut a circle over the concrete floor.

Lilly joined in, one piece of debris caught up in the tornado of bodies, stomping and swinging her arms so hard her spiked bracelets threatened to fly off her wrists. Her razor sharp black mohawk scraped the wet pipes above. She hadn’t thrown her body around like this in more than a decade. What was she doing? Before she could find an answer, she lost her mind in her body’s acceleration, in the music that caused it.

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She had never heard music like this. It was fast, almost too fast to keep up with, but every chord rang clearly in her mind, in her heart, telling her to move. It told her other things too, but she couldn’t grasp what, so she moved faster, hoping that maybe then she’d be able to understand.

When the singer stepped up to the microphone, she stopped in front of him, raising her fist and joining the crowd in singing along. She didn’t know how she knew the words, but she did, only in the most fleeting sense though. If she had been asked to repeat any single lyric after it fled her lips, she wouldn’t have been able to. But for every word she lost, she found another to scream at the top of her lungs.

Bodies tidal waved over her, stacking themselves on top of each other in an effort to become one voice. Lilly sunk under the weight, cracking. She found herself pressed against the concrete floor, at the bottom of the pile of punks. When the bodies receded, someone dragged her to the side of the crowd. She looked up and saw Daveed, panic on his face. He shouted something. She shook her head, unable to understand him over the music. He simply pointed at the band and Lilly looked at them for the first time.

The singer stood perfectly still behind the microphone. No words came from his mouth, because he had no mouth. His pale porcelain face had no features at all, except where his mouth should have been. Two thick tubes emerged from that spot. Pink fluid leaked from the base of the tubes, dribbling over his chin.

Mouth or not, the singer had a voice. Lilly heard his words. She could mouth along to them, release them into the dank basement air, but she couldn’t keep them in her head no matter how hard she tried. She desperately wished she could grasp their meaning.

Ribs had grown outside of the singer’s torso, and they had not stopped growing. Perfectly white, they ran together, looping around and around, over and under, forming a shell that broke only to make room for joint-less arms and legs, and more tubes.

Ribbed with veins and nearly translucent, the singer’s tubes throbbed in time with the music. The two facial tubes reached out several feet, culminating in wet, star-shaped protrusions that Lilly now saw had locked on to Mario and Jesse’s foreheads.

Lilly squeezed Daveed’s hand. Why had they been chosen? Why did they get to become part of the band, part of the music? Why did they get to hold the words she so desperately wanted to hold? Why did they get to understand? They seemed so happy as the singer lifted them off the ground. Lilly wanted to be that happy.

She slapped Daveed’s hand away, shoving through the swirling mass of bodies. She stood in front of the singer and felt powerful as she screamed along. She felt like she had so many years ago, when she would tax her lungs and let herself fade away and become one with the music. No, she felt better, because she knew this feeling could last. She could sink into it permanently and never have to worry about anything else. She could become the words she sang.

Mario and Jesse blurred, film melting in a projector.

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The singer’s sleek forehead liquefied, bubbling like boiling milk, and another tube emerged. Lilly reached for it, elbowing others out of the way as she wrapped both hands around the tube and pulled it to her heart, tearing her already threadbare T-shirt. It kissed her flesh and raised her above the ground.

Still singing, she started to grasp the lyrics. Ideas about the fleeting nature of life, about the conflict between the smallness of it as a whole and the largeness of every fully-realized moment. Her voice grew hoarse. Blood sprayed from her lips. That blood meant more than any words she had ever spoken. It spattered across the singer’s pale face.

She felt as though she floated above the crowd, as if there were miles and miles between her and the world she had come from. Then the sound of the guitar disappeared, then the bass, then the voice, and she crashed back down to the basement in silence.

Daveed stood at the PA, situated beside the band in the cramped basement. He flicked knobs, hit buttons and pulled cords mercilessly.

“No, you fucker!” Lilly screamed. Her words came out with briars, bringing more blood to her lips. The singer dropped her and she tumbled backwards to the cold concrete. The impact knocked the breath out of her.

The singer stood, silent and still, gripping Jesse and Mario… or what remained of them. Their pants hung loose and their arms dangled from their short sleeves like dry, brown leaves that had been crumpled in massive hands. They moaned in unison, coughing out a bare, wordless melody.

“Holy shit,” Lilly said. Pink goo dripped from the lesion on her chest. The singer’s free tube reached for her, trying to latch on again, but it was knocked aside as the crowd emerged from its trance, saw what she saw and ran for the door.

Daveed picked up a guitar case and smashed it over the singer’s head. The case shattered with a hollow sound, but the singer didn’t move. Undeterred, Daveed pulled the tubes out of the backs of the other band members, who Lilly now noticed were humans, attached to the singer and controlled via tubes. They passed out, expressionless. The drummer fell face first into his drum set. Scattering cymbals clanged against concrete.

The singer’s newly released tubes careened aimlessly. He dropped the husks of Jesse and Mario, who continued moaning, singing. He reared back, as if readying himself to pounce on Lilly. She curled up and Daveed tossed himself on top of her to protect her. The singer didn’t attack though. He drove his tubes into the floor. They knocked concrete aside to get to the dirt below. Behind them, like an earthworm retreating from the sun, the singer disappeared into the ground, soundlessly.

On hands and knees, her mohawk hanging limp beside her face, Lilly crawled out from under Daveed, after the singer, reaching into the cold earth where he had vanished. It was no use. The dirt poured into the hole and he was gone. The lesion on her chest dried up suddenly. All of the blood in her veins might as well have dried up with it.

Daveed attempted to help her up, but she shoved him away. He had taken something from her. She didn’t know what exactly, but she knew it had been important and she felt a surge of hatred toward him. It passed quickly because she realized everything would be okay. She would be able to regain what she had lost.

She just had to find out where Interscissor was playing next.

//

MP Johnson is the Wonderland Book Award-winning author of Dungeons & Drag Queens and several other books. His short fiction has appeared in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Dark Discoveries and many other publications. He is the founder of Weirdpunk Books, the creator of Freak Tension zine, a B-movie extra and a drag queen AKA Maddy Manslaughter. He has been a Razorcake contributor for many years. Learn more at www.freaktension.com.

Berzerkoids is available on Amazon.