A Summer Soundtrack for Falling in Love
What he wanted was a music career. What he needed was love.
When Kris Golding leaves his dusty Kansas hometown for a fresh start in New York, he thinks an apartment and a job are waiting for him. But when he finds neither, rather than admit defeat, he takes his chances busking—and meets Rayne Bakshi of international rock band The Chokecherries. Rayne needs a new guitarist, and gives Kris his first break since leaving home.
Rayne wears makeup and glitter and thinks nothing of kissing Kris in front of twenty thousand screaming fans for the attention. Instantly infatuated, Kris begins to question whether he might have a crush on Rayne—could he be bisexual? But since Kris originally claimed to be straight, Rayne’s wary of getting involved offstage.
As their tour gains momentum, Kris’s sexuality becomes the least of his troubles. Between his conservative brother hell-bent on “rescuing” him from his life of debauchery, a peacock that may or may not be the avatar of a cult god, and a publicity stunt that threatens to upend the band, Kris is definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:drug use, explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), acceptance, angst, bisexuality, celebrity / fame, cheating, coming out, commitment, duty, first time, fitting in, found family, friends to lovers, gender expression, homelessness, homophobia / transphobia, marriage of convenience / fake relationship, mysticism, pining / UST, religion, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues, workplace romance
New York, New York
Kris Golding wasn’t the kind of person to fly across the country without a plan. His was foolproof, or at least fool resistant—but, like most plans, was quickly crushed by circumstances outside his control. When his plane took off from Kansas, he was content in the knowledge that he had a job and a couch, if not an apartment, waiting for him. By the time he touched down in New York, everything had gone terribly wrong.
“What do you mean she kicked you out?” he asked his cousin as patiently as he could. The cell connection was choppy as he stepped off the bus in Manhattan after two hours on public transport.
“Well it’s her place, right?” Marty said, his voice wheedling over the line. “It’s her name on the lease. So when she found out about me and Maria, she called it quits. Threw all my stuff out in a garbage bag on the street.”
“Wait, who’s Maria?”
“Somebody I work with at the club.”
“The club where you said you had a job lined up for me,” Kris clarified.
“Yeah, man, but I got fired today.”
“Cuz Maria, she’s the owner’s girl—”
Kris held the phone away from his ear to keep from throwing it into traffic. He took a deep breath before returning it to hearing range.
“So I don’t have a job,” he said, cutting off whatever his cousin had been saying. “And your boss won’t introduce me to his music-industry guys.”
“I’m sorry, man, the timing, it’s just—”
“And I don’t have a place to stay.”
Marty made a helpless noise.
“Great. That’s amazing. Thanks.”
“Hey, I’m in the same boat, okay? You could be a little more sympathetic.”
Kris ended the call and shoved his phone back into his pocket.
“Well fuck,” he said, to no one in particular. He slung his duffel bag of worldly goods over his shoulder, his guitar case secure on his back, and set off into the streets of New York to figure out what to do next.
The misfortune of his situation didn’t detract from New York’s beauty, even as his nerves started to gnaw at him. The whole city looked glittering and pulsing with possibility—the place where dreams came true. The buildings loomed high, scraping the clouds in endless panels of polished glass. Sure, everything was huge and impressively daunting, but Kris hadn’t come all the way out here to admit defeat, no matter how intimidating the city proved.
He had two hundred dollars in his bank account and a pocketful of loose change. It was barely enough to buy a plane ticket home, but his parents would spring him one if he asked. He would work in his dad’s garage to pay them back, and he’d have to keep his tail between his legs for the rest of his life because the one time he’d tried to get out and make something of himself, he’d come crawling back barely six hours later. His parents could be as supportive as they liked, but it wouldn’t change the fact that he’d tried and failed. And then there was his brother, Brad, who had told him New York was a bad idea.
“What’s wrong with Kansas?” Brad had demanded. “You can make an honest living here. All those big-shot music-industry guys you look up to, they’ve never done a real day’s work in their lives. There’s nothing but freaks in that line of work, Kris. You’re better off steering clear.”
Kris couldn’t bear Brad’s smug face if he went back defeated.
If he had to be homeless, at least the weather was good. The June air was warm, the bits of sky he could see between the buildings were blue, and the sun was aggressively bright, like it had something to prove. There were a few hours left before sunset, and even if it cooled down overnight, he had a coat in his bag. He could weather it. He had enough money to stay at a hostel, but only for a night, and he was loath to spend more than he had to. Two hundred dollars and change wouldn’t stretch far. No, he would sleep on a bench, and scour the streets for any hiring signs. He could work retail or fast food; he could find a shelter or a friendly couch to crash on until he’d saved enough for a place of his own. He wasn’t going to wind up freezing to death on a street corner, gnawed on by rats, as soon as the season changed. He was going to get a job, and he would be fine.
It wasn’t a great plan, but it was something.
He started walking.
One problem in applying for jobs was that they wanted an address on the application form. The bigger stores did background checks Kris couldn’t pass without a permanent residence, and if they didn’t, they weren’t hiring anyway. The smaller shops didn’t offer more than a few hours a week, and unless he wanted to juggle three conflicting schedules, he’d never make enough to feed himself, let alone get an apartment. His desperation mounted as store after store turned him away, leaving his stomach a knot of anxiety and his palms itching with sweat.
He ended up on a bench at the edge of Central Park watching the pigeons. They were fearless in the way rural birds never were, flashing their colors and strutting back and forth. They quickly determined that he had nothing of value to offer, and ignored him in favor of accosting passing pedestrians for crumbs. Rejected by one of the lowest of the city’s inhabitants—though a step up from the rats—Kris again weighed his options.
He still couldn’t go home.
Instead, he texted his parents to tell them he’d landed safely, and he’d call them in a few days once he got settled. He was safe, after all; he might be close to panic, but they didn’t have to be. He was an adult and he could look after himself. In theory, anyway. He had a bottle of water from the plane, an apple, and a granola bar. His nerves were like a guitar string wound up too tight and liable to snap at any second, and that put a damper on his appetite; what he had would last him till morning.
He settled in for a night on the bench. It wasn’t the most comfortable place he’d ever been, but he couldn’t say it was the worst, either. He didn’t want to lie down in case someone recognized him for a vagrant and called the cops. If he looked like he was just resting a moment, or waiting for someone, he should be fine. He was dressed well enough. No one could tell that he didn’t have anywhere else to go.
He crunched through his apple, more for something to do than out of hunger. It tasted sour, but it kept him awake. The sky slipped into pink as the sun sank behind the buildings, lighting them up in a warm glow as it passed. Kris couldn’t hate the city. He had chosen New York partly because his cousin was here—working for a guy who had so many connections in the music industry that Marty had sworn he could set Kris up with a gig in no time—but mostly because it was as far from rural Kansas as he could imagine. He loved his parents and he loved his town, but it had been stifling. He didn’t want to work in his dad’s garage until he was sixty. He might not know exactly what he did want to do with his life, but he was determined to find out.
So far he was finding out that park benches were uncomfortable, and city pigeons were more intimidating than any bird had the right to be.
As the sun went down and the crowds thinned, Kris wrapped himself in his coat and prepared for a long night. The smaller shops locked up for the night as the streets finally emptied. The moon blinked out between the buildings but the stars stayed hidden behind the haze of clouds and the solid blocks of skyscrapers. He paced for a bit, exploring the park with a measured gait, his hands in his pockets as he tried to keep his blood moving. When he couldn’t stop his feet from dragging or his eyes from closing, he found another bench and huddled down to roost again.
It didn’t get cold, exactly, but it got cool, and the hours dragged into eternity and back. He drifted off once or twice, but the park was never fully deserted and he didn’t trust that he’d wake up to find his bags still on him. He wouldn’t particularly miss his clothes if the duffel bag got stolen, but his guitar—he couldn’t bear the thought of losing that, even if Marty had lost him his chance at a career with it.
He watched the sun rise from the wrong side of the morning for the first time since he was a teenager. The sky lightened in strips: silver, then pale yellow, before making room for blue. The pigeons cooed and rustled their wings, waking one by one and then all at once, and the subways rumbled underground, a constant churning noise. Straightening, he stretched his back until it gave a satisfying crack, and shuffled to his feet. The coffee he bought from a street vendor was black and bitter, and he was ready to shoot the caffeine straight into his veins if he had to. He was tired in a way that made everything feel thin and slightly unreal, like the world was hidden behind a film he could see through, but couldn’t quite part.
After his first swallow, he crossed out of the park to the nearest café, busy enough in the morning rush that he could slip into the washroom unnoticed. As he splashed cold water over his face, he hoped he didn’t look too haggard. He could stretch it another day before needing to shave; his stubble always took a while to show through, and he was fair enough that it never gave him much of a five-o’clock shadow anyway. Coffee in hand, he returned to his bench, sipping the drink and trying to make it last.
Today he would find somewhere to work. Twenty hours a week in retail might not be his dream of making a living off his music, but it would be better than nothing. He wasn’t going to sleep on the bench again.
The pigeons looked skeptical.
He flipped them off and resumed drinking his coffee. The caffeine hit him like a ton of bricks, slamming into him all at once and setting his heart kicking behind his ribs. He took a deep breath and flexed his fingers. It was a drastic way to start the morning, but he was definitely awake now. The film separating him from reality peeled back and left him blinking into the sun like a newborn fawn, all wobbly-legged and uncertain.
Find a job, he told himself. Take the first one you can. This isn’t rock-bottom. This isn’t even close.
All he had to do was wait for the stores to come back to life. Most would probably open around nine—it was just past dawn. He had a few hours to kill. The coffee place across the road wasn’t hiring, but maybe he could find a record shop or a music store that needed help.
He took out his guitar.
He couldn’t say why he did it. There was no conscious thought behind the action. It was like the hand of some divine entity had reached down from the clouds and prodded him, right between the eyes, and said, Hey, you. Play me something. Music had always been like that for him, talking to him the way gods spoke to prophets: in the pure, undiluted language of the universe.
His guitar was a big acoustic thing, the wood polished until it glowed warm and gold. He’d bought it from a pawnshop for fifty bucks when he was thirteen; it had taken him all year to save up his allowances for it. In high school, he’d used to dream about his band making it big and playing in Madison Square Garden. It had been a couple of guys from his year and his little sister on drums. It fell apart before graduation and he’d put that particular dream aside, but he’d thought he could try his hand as a session musician, if nothing else. All he needed was one lucky break to get his foot in the door. He wouldn’t call himself a prodigy, but he was good, and even if he’d never left Kansas to seek his fortune in the industry, he would have kept playing for himself.
As he tuned his guitar by ear, he ghosted his fingers over the frets, and gave it a strum. The chords rang out clear and true, and he drew in a deep breath as his nerves started to knit themselves together again.
Back home he had played in front of live audiences, albeit small ones—barbeques or house parties or just sitting out on the porch with his family in the summer evenings, strumming out chords overtop of the crickets. He had never busked before, though; his hometown was too small for it, and he’d never been as desperate for quick money as he was now. Easing into a bluegrass riff, half-remembered and half-invented, he kept his eyes down as he played. The song petered out after a few minutes, finding its natural ending like bluegrass always did, and he let the city eke back into his consciousness.
Someone tossed a crumpled bill into the case at his feet, and he smiled reflexively at the young woman who vanished back into the crowded street. He took a swig from his coffee and adjusted the guitar in his lap. Maybe one more song wouldn’t hurt. One more song, and then he would start looking for music shops in the area.
By 9 a.m. he had thirty dollars in his case and a steady stream of attention from the park’s passersby. By ten he had as much as he would have made from a day’s work at any minimum-wage gig. His fingers ached and he was so hungry his stomach nearly drowned out the music with its complaints, but no one had yelled at him for loitering, and the pigeons hadn’t tried to make away with his money. He couldn’t stop smiling.
He laid his guitar down in the nest of bills and loose coins and closed his case. The little gathering he’d attracted gradually wandered off, one or two people pressing a last offering into his hand as they left. It was only when the path was clear that he noticed the one man who had yet to depart, leaning against the broad trunk of a tree, his arms crossed as he watched Kris unabashedly.
Kris tucked his last few bills in his pocket, raised his brows, and met the man’s gaze head-on. In response, the man peeled himself from the tree and approached. He was tall, dark, and handsome, almost ridiculously so, with legs that went on for miles, and a wild mane of deep brown hair that stopped just above his shoulders. He was dressed all in black, chic rather than goth, his shirt open at the collar to reveal a hint of tattoos against the brown skin of his chest.
“Hi there,” the man said. He slung his hands in his pockets and smiled, bright and easy. “I was watching you play—you’re amazing.”
“Thanks,” Kris said. “It wasn’t a planned performance, but these things happen.”
“Do you mind if I sit? I’m Rayne. Rayne Bakshi.” Rayne offered a hand. He wore a ring on nearly every finger, and when Kris took it, his grip was warm and firm. He had a little mercury tattoo on the base of his left thumb.
“I was about to go find some food, but sure,” Kris said. His stomach whined but he ignored it. There was something about the man that demanded his full attention, and a tingly feeling swept through Kris’s veins, suggesting he was perched on the edge of something momentous. He didn’t get that feeling very often; it felt careless to disregard it, especially in so strange a time as this. “I’m Kris.”
Rayne grinned and slid onto the bench beside Kris. “I’ll be quick,” he promised. “I wanted to ask you about your music, if you have a second.”
“Okay,” Kris said. Up close, he could make out a smattering of freckles across Rayne’s nose.
“You’ve been out here for hours. Are you a busker?”
“I’m between jobs,” Kris said. “Technically.”
“Are you a professional musician?”
“Not exactly. I was a mechanic. The stars didn’t align when I tried to change tracks, so now I’m . . .whatever will have me, I guess. It’s kind of a long story.”
“But you’d like to be? A professional musician, I mean. I happen to need a guitarist, and here you are, so.”
Kris stared at him. Rayne stared back. His eyes were the color of sea glass, a perfectly clear, pale green, startlingly light against the rest of his features. His eyelashes were unreasonably long. His face held no trace of insincerity; Kris must have misheard him.
“Also a long story. Do you like burgers? There’s this great place a few blocks over—it’s a bit early, but let me buy you brunch, and we’ll talk.”
“Sure,” Kris said slowly.
“No pressure,” Rayne assured him. “But the food is really good.”
Kris’s stomach howled like a coyote, right on cue. “Burgers sound great.”
He wasn’t one to turn down a free meal, especially not now with his money situation being what it was, but more than that, he was intrigued. Hope sparked in his chest; maybe he hadn’t lost his chance after all.
Kris let Rayne carry his duffel bag, counting on him not to make a run for it. Rayne kept up a steady stream of chatter as they walked, which Kris, sleep-deprived and overcaffeinated, mostly tuned out. It didn’t seem to matter to Rayne whether Kris joined in; he was perfectly capable of carrying the conversation by himself, which Kris appreciated. As the streets grew busier, Rayne slipped through the crowds like a fish, with Kris floundering in his wake.
When Rayne had said “burger place,” Kris had not pictured anything like the restaurant Rayne took him to. It was long, with ambient lighting and private booths lining the walls. The entire back wall was an aquarium; the fish inside shimmered and flickered back and forth, lit up in purple and green. It was classier than any burger joint Kris had ever seen, and he faltered as he walked in. The rest of his body was preoccupied with getting fed, and didn’t care about his insecurities. Rayne seemed oblivious on all counts, and led him to a secluded booth without letting up his one-sided conversation. Kris slunk in after him, trying to avoid eye contact with the staff. At the table, he stuttered as he read over the menu before settling on an innocuous-sounding cheeseburger and fries, and tried not to look at the cost. Unless they hand-reared the cows themselves, there was no reason for the prices to be so high. Rayne ordered a veggie burger with a salad, and returned the menus to the waitress with a smile that had the girl blushing and scurrying to the kitchen.
“So I have this band,” Rayne said, twirling his straw between his fingers. “And due to unfortunate circumstances involving a lot of heroin and some even worse life choices, our guitarist is out of commission.”
“I’m sorry,” Kris said.
“Don’t be. His mom had to call us to explain that he’s in rehab—a week before we leave for tour. Don’t get me wrong,” Rayne added, “I’m glad he’s getting help, but his timing leaves a lot to be desired. Anyway.” He took a sip of his water. “Don’t do heroin.”
“Right,” Kris said. “No, that wasn’t high on my list. When you say band—”
“The Chokecherries,” Rayne said, as if that clarified anything.
It sounded vaguely familiar, but not enough to bet on.
“We’ve been auditioning people for the past six days, but no one’s worked out yet. The label’s threatening to send a session musician on tour with us, which would be fine, but only as a last resort. We’re a band; we should have chemistry, you know?”
“Right,” Kris agreed. “Of course. How popular exactly is your band?”
The waitress arrived with their plates, blushing furiously again and unable to meet Rayne’s eye. Rayne smiled like he was used to it, thanking her before she fled the scene. Rayne was attractive enough to cause that kind of reaction anyway, but Kris suspected he might actually be famous. Kris filed that away to deal with after eating. His cheeseburger was huge, nearly the size of the plate, and his mouth flooded with drool the second he smelled it. He chomped down a fry before returning his attention to Rayne, who looked amused.
“We’re international,” Rayne said. “Where are you from?”
Kris’s breath caught for a second before he swallowed. International was a lot bigger than Marty’s club owner could have offered. “Kansas. I don’t think I know The Chokecherries.”
Rayne took a bite of his burger. He didn’t seem in the least offended. “Do you want to?”
“I’ll be honest with you: I don’t have a lot else going on right now.”
Rayne flicked through his phone for a second before handing it to Kris, who reluctantly set his burger aside. There was a video on screen, waiting for him to press Play.
“We have two albums out now,” Rayne said. “Our second went platinum; we’re heading out on tour the day after tomorrow. The shows are already sold out. All we need is a guitarist.”
Kris frowned and pressed Play. He could tell the music was good right away: the production quality was high, the guitar slick, and the bass throbbing. The band was dressed in leather jackets, torn jeans, and bright T-shirts, caught halfway between punk and impossible glamour. Their instruments caught the studio lights and flashed them around; their hair gleamed; and their makeup demanded attention. But it was the vocals that stood out above everything else, twining through the music, perfectly on key. Kris couldn’t catch any hint of auto-tune on the track, but no one had that kind of range anymore, not since Mercury. The Rayne in the video closed his kohl-lined eyes and purred into the mike, his fingers wrapping around the stand as he sang about a satisfaction just out of reach.
“That drumbeat is really familiar,” Kris said. “I think my sister listens to you.”
“Then she has good taste. So? Are you interested?”
As the video ended and the screen went dark, Kris put the phone back on the table. The Chokecherries were a far cry from his old high school band, in aesthetic and musical talent both. They looked like a pantheon of young gods, and Kris was wearing a flannel shirt and worn-out converse sneakers. They also sounded different than any contemporary band he’d heard in a long time, seductive and aggressive all at once. Rayne sat across the table, watching him with an impossibly hopeful expression.
“I feel like this is a weird lucid dream or something,” Kris said. “Maybe I fell asleep out there after all.”
“What can I say to convince you you’re awake?” Rayne asked. “Actually—what can I say to convince you to play guitar for us, too?”
“I watched you play for an hour this morning. You’re miles beyond anyone we’ve auditioned so far.” Rayne leaned forward, his hands folded before him on the table. He looked so earnest that Kris squirmed under the attention, and then immediately pretended he hadn’t. “You’ve got talent, Kris. Real, raw talent, the kind most people practice lifetimes to get close to. Whatever you want, I can give you—just audition for my band.”
“Whatever I want,” Kris echoed dumbly. His day couldn’t be more surreal if one of the fish leaped out from the tank and offered him three wishes.
“Fame? You got it. Money? I promise, we will get you a really nice contract. You want to travel? Meet your favorite band? Whoever it is, we can swing it, I guarantee.” Rayne drummed his fingers against the table. His rings glinted in the low light of the restaurant. His nails were painted black, matte and immaculate. “Whatever it takes to get you to drop everything else, I will make sure you get it.”
Kris’s head spun and he held up one hand. Rayne’s mouth snapped shut instantly, and Rayne waited, all ears, for Kris’s bargain.
“You pretty much had me at the burger,” Kris said. “Even if I had something else to drop, this is— You’re serious? You want me in your band?”
Rayne broke into a broad grin. “I can keep buying you burgers, if that’s all it takes. I can buy you a burger every single day. Ultimately, it’s up to our manager to accept new members, so this isn’t a legally binding arrangement just yet, but I think you could be the one.”
“You might have to switch it up with pizza like, once a week or so. I wouldn’t want to get sick of them.” Kris ate another fry to give his heart a chance to return to normal speed. “You don’t even know me, though. You just saw me playing on a bench. I could be anybody.”
“I can tell you’re not a junkie; I’ve gotten pretty good at reading those signs, unfortunately. Am I wrong?”
“No, I’m not into drugs.”
“Are you an ax murderer?”
“Then I’m not going to worry too much,” Rayne said. “Tell you what—we’ve got a private show tonight, before we hit the road. If you’re interested, come meet the rest of the band, audition and charm our manager, play with us, then sleep on it. Okay?”
“About that,” Kris said, carefully studying the sesame seeds on his burger bun. “Sleeping on it.”
“I know it’s short notice, but it’s just a little show. We’re only playing covers, so you don’t even have to learn our songs.”
“No, I mean, I’m kind of technically homeless? At the moment? So I don’t really have anywhere . . . to sleep. As it were.” Kris bit his lip and glanced at Rayne.
Rayne looked at him for a long moment, his expression intrigued. “You did say it was a long story,” he said eventually.
“On the plus side, it doesn’t involve heroin?” Kris offered. He tried to drink his water too quickly and nearly choked.
“How about we finish eating and you tell me all about it,” Rayne suggested.
Kris shoved the rest of the burger in his mouth and nodded. “So I have this cousin . . .”
None of These People Are Cannibals
“I’ve never auditioned for a band before,” Kris said. “I played with some guys in high school, but we were just messing around. You guys are legit.”
“Yeah, but unless you try to murder our manager or start spouting conspiracy theories about the music industry to the people who sign our checks, you’ll be fine.” They were sitting side by side in the back of a sleek black cab that matched Rayne’s outfit as if it had been hand-picked for that reason. He smiled reassuringly at Kris from across the seat. “Just play like you were doing back in the park, okay? You’ve got this.”
Kris nodded. His stomach twisted itself into knots and set itself on fire. He fidgeted, lacing his fingers together and undoing them again. Rayne reached over and patted his knee. The touch sent sparks zinging up and down Kris’s leg, and while it did nothing to loosen the Gordian knot inside him, he tried to leach a little comfort from it anyway.
He hadn’t been this nervous when he’d planned to audition for that club owner, but there was something distinctly different between that imagined scenario and going to meet an actual international band. Kris didn’t know The Chokecherries; he wasn’t suddenly terrified of meeting his idols. This was just a bunch of musicians getting together to play some music—and if they didn’t like him, he’d go back to sleeping on the streets and begging for loose change to keep from starving to death. Or, somewhat less drastically, he’d go back home to live with his parents again. It was a totally no-pressure deal. Rayne had only met him an hour ago, and he believed in him. Kris could do this.
“You look like you expect them to eat you alive,” Rayne said. “They probably won’t. Being a cannibal is on that same list as ax murderer and Republican, you know. Breathe.”
Kris nodded and curled around Rayne’s borrowed phone. Tucking his earbuds in, he skimmed through the music collection. He passed playlists of foreign music, their titles long and with more syllables than he was used to, as well as lists of more familiar punk and indie bands, before he found The Chokecherries. As they headed out of Manhattan to the studio in Queens, he focused on memorizing their singles. Kris watched every video, running through the playlist from start to finish, studying the faces until he could recognize all the band members at a glance. Rayne stood out first and foremost, with dark makeup on his eyes and glitter on his cheekbones, his nails black as he played with the mike cord. There was something dangerous about his stage persona that Kris couldn’t see in real life—something dark and predatory that made Kris’s stomach flip, half-excited and half-terrified. Rayne could be an entirely different species, he was so far removed from anyone back home. Beside him, Rayne drummed his fingers against the door in a soundless beat.
The rest of the band was just as captivating. A Japanese girl with ashy hair played keyboards, her eyes and lips and nails all painted gold, her expression never wavering as her hands flew over the keys. On drums, a black dreadlocked man sat shirtless, tattoos dancing over his body as he moved like they were alive. Bass was taken by a slight, dark-haired figure nearly vibrating with energy, wielding the instrument like a weapon. And last—there: the former guitarist who had landed Kris the opportunity in the first place. He was tall and lean, almost gaunt. Kris couldn’t tell he was a junkie just from looking at him, but makeup could cover a multitude of sins. The man kept his eyes down, either rapt in the music or a million miles away.
Kris’s gaze flickered back and forth between the Rayne on screen and the one beside him, trying to reconcile the two. It was disorienting, but no more so than the rest of Kris’s time in New York so far. He could roll with it.
The songs slipped from sultry to sexual to aggressively upbeat and back again, and no matter what Rayne did with his voice, Kris wanted more. He didn’t try to focus on the guitar just yet. Instead, he let the music wash over and through him as he tried to figure out what the band was all about.
They weren’t going to eat him alive. They weren’t. Rayne wouldn’t let them.
Kris took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and let himself imagine being someone famous. He rekindled his old fantasy and pictured a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, the heat from the stage lights, a roar of adulation—nothing between him and the oblivion of a million screaming fans but his guitar.
He opened his eyes and tugged one earbud out to dangle around his neck. “Rayne? I don’t have an electric guitar.”
Rayne glanced over. “You can play one though, right?”
“Sure, but I can’t afford one unless your record label wants to give me an advance on signing.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll get you one this afternoon.”
Kris’s mouth went dry. “Business expenses?”
“It’s all budgeted in,” Rayne assured him. “Don’t worry about a thing. I got you.”
The studio was a little building with a burly security guy at the door, who seemed to be doing his best to come across as a more intimidating feature of the brickwork. He nodded to Rayne and looked Kris up and down with an impressively impassive expression. Kris waved.
“This is Butch,” Rayne said. “He’s our guard dog.”
“Hi, Butch,” Kris said.
Butch sighed. “Get inside, Bakshi. They’re waiting on this big surprise you said you had.”
“Please don’t say that’s me,” Kris whispered as Butch held the door for them.
“That’s you! Hey guys, look what I’ve got!”
The Chokecherries turned their heads as one.
“Is it a guitarist?” the bassist asked.
“Got it in one! Everybody, this is Kris. Kris, this is everybody.”
The band let out a chorus of hellos as they crowded near, inquisitive and smiling. Rayne caught Kris’s hand and tugged him over to meet them halfway.
“This is Maki, Stef, Lenny, and Brian,” Rayne introduced. “Maki on keyboards, Stef on bass, and Len on drums. Brian’s our manager. Guys, Kris is going to audition for guitar. I picked him up off the street and promised him none of you are cannibals.”
“Hey,” Kris greeted. He offered them an awkward wave, his other hand still trapped in Rayne’s, which no one was commenting on. “For the record, I never actually thought anyone was a cannibal, but it’s nice to know for sure.”
The band was less intimidating in real life than they were in the videos. They were dressed casually, hair down, without the flashy stage makeup. Stef wore a pair of thick-framed hipster glasses and a beanie. Everyone was in jeans and T-shirts. Only Brian, the manager, looked skeptical, his arms crossed as he eyed Kris over the tops of his glasses.
“You picked him up off the street,” Brian said. “Rayne . . .”
“He just arrived in the city! Listen to him play before you judge me for adopting strays.”
Brian sighed and dropped his arms. “It’s not strays I’m worried about, it’s getting involved with another Fink. Kris? You want to play us something?”
“Fink?” Kris asked.
“The last guy,” Rayne supplied.
Kris slipped away from Rayne, missing his warmth immediately—there was comfort in having his hand held, but he needed to focus—and took his guitar out. He slung the strap over his shoulder, fiddled with the tuning one more time just to have something to do, and shifted on his feet.
“So what do you want to hear?”
“Whatever you want,” Rayne said.
“Anything but ‘Wonderwall,’” Stef said. “If you play ‘Wonderwall’ I’m vetoing Rayne’s vote to bring you in.”
“You don’t have veto power,” Rayne said, “and we’re only pretending this is a democracy.”
“Ignore them,” Brian cut in. He had a patient, long-suffering air about him that must have come from wrangling rock stars all day. “Play anything.”
Kris nodded, blew out his breath, and played.
As he played, everything else stopped. He didn’t worry about money or employment or how his future hung on this one audition: there was nothing in his head but the music. His hands flew over the frets, the strings biting into his fingertips with every touch, and the music swelled to fill the studio with a rich, heavy sound.
“That’s ours!” Rayne exclaimed as Kris moved into the chorus. “Did you learn that in the car ride over?”
“It’s not perfect,” Kris said, letting the notes peter out. “I didn’t have time to memorize it; there are bits I had to make up as I went along.”
“But you got all that by ear in forty minutes,” Rayne said.
Kris shrugged. “I guess?” he offered sheepishly.
He transitioned to a seventies medley of Bowie, Queen, and T. Rex, and Rayne flung his arm around Brian’s shoulders, beaming ear to ear. “We can keep him, right?”
“He’s not high and he’s not jonesing,” Brian said reluctantly. “I can tell that much just from looking. Kid? You got any bad habits we should know about? Anything likely to interfere with the band?”
Kris shook his head, hugging his guitar like a shield.
“You know I wouldn’t take that kind of risk this close to the tour,” Rayne said. “We’re desperate, not suicidal. I’ve got a good feeling about him, Brian.”
Brian grunted. “Kris? You want in?”
“Please,” Kris said. “Not to guilt-trip you or anything, but the alternative is moving back in with my parents and embracing my Midwest heritage. Or living under a bridge somewhere. Just so you know.”
Brian winced. “Let’s try to avoid that. Here’s what I’ll do.” Everyone else quieted. “We’ll take you on for a trial period. We’ve got sixteen shows between New York and the Nevada festival. If you make it through all that without a hitch, we’ll talk about signing you on for good. But you make one wrong move, and I’ve got a session musician on speed dial who already knows all the tracks, and is just waiting to jump in and cover for us. All right?”
“Okay,” Kris said quickly. “I’ll be on my best behavior, one hundred percent. No wrong moves.”
Brian seemed skeptical, but he nodded. “I’ll get a contract drawn up tying you to the tour as far as Nevada.”
Kris’s heart skipped giddily and he tried not to let it show.
“Everybody on board?” Rayne asked.
“The kid can play,” Lenny acknowledged.
“Of course we’re on board,” Maki said.
“You’d pitch a fit if we weren’t,” Stef concluded.
“They’re all thrilled to have you here,” Rayne said, fixing the band with a stern look. “Right?”
“Yeah, we’re just fucking with you,” Stef said. “You sound great. Not that Fink was a tough act to follow, but whatever.”
Maki shook her head. “Fink was always a mess. I’m surprised he lasted this long.”
“He could play guitar but he was no prodigy,” Stef agreed. “And all that fucking heroin was a pain.”
“You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” Rayne said mildly.
“He’s not dead; he’s in rehab.”
“Yeah, but he’s dead to me. So, Kris—no drugs.”
“No, of course not,” Kris promised. He glanced at Brian. “Uh. Weed?”
“Doesn’t count,” they all said in unison.
“No hard drugs,” Rayne amended. “Weed and party drugs are okay. Partake responsibly.”
“I’ve never done anything besides weed.”
“He’s cute,” Maki said decisively, and just like that, Kris was accepted into the fold.
* * * * * * *
“I’ll pay you back for it as soon as I can,” Kris said.
They stood on the sidewalk in front of the music store. The neon letters in the window read OPEN, and the display was full of bright, shiny new instruments Kris didn’t have a chance in hell of affording anytime soon.
“Shut up and let me buy you a guitar,” Rayne said pleasantly.
Inside, the store was low-lit but spacious. Aisles of cords, cables, speakers, and amps filled the front half of the room, giving way to keyboards as they moved farther in. Rayne steered him to the left side near the back where, tucked away in a little nook, the electric guitars and basses were covering every inch of the three walls. They were glossy and bright and came in every size, shape, and color, and Kris’s eyes glazed over with want just looking at them.
Rayne nudged his shoulder. “Find one you like.”
They both glanced at the double-necked beast on the back wall. It had to weigh more than Kris.
“Maybe not that one,” Rayne amended. “Anything else.”
Kris stepped into the nook with the sensation of stepping into a whole new world. He reached out to touch the nearest guitar. Rayne waited in the main body of the store, letting him explore on his own, for which Kris was grateful. The one-eighty degree spin his life had taken since landing in New York was still catching up to him, as dizzying as a hurricane and keeping him off-balance. Right now, looking at the wall of guitars and knowing he was going to take one of them home—or out of the store, anyway, wherever “home” was—he was nearly in tears.
He checked the nearest price tag and swallowed. His acoustic had cost him fifty bucks. These were significantly more.
“Pick one up, try it out,” Rayne said. “Play me something.”
Kris forced his attention off the numbers and onto the guitars. He landed on a Squier Mini Strat in the back corner, and had lifted it from its hook before he was aware of his actions. The body was a dark cherry red, wood grains showing through black near the base. Rayne hummed in approval. The Fender was smaller than the others—Kris was short and needed a guitar with a shorter neck to match. He knelt down, balancing it across his lap, and gave it a strum. Unplugged, the sound was faint, but the notes were true. He closed his eyes and plucked out a scale, skipping up and down the frets.
“You like it?” Rayne asked. “Plug her in and play me a song.”
There was an amp waiting in the corner beside a stool and a pair of headphones. Kris plugged in and spun out a riff to match the Green Day song on the overhead speakers, and Rayne grinned in return. The guitar felt warm and alive under his hands. He liked the look and the feel of it—it was just the money niggling at him.
“You want to try any others?” Rayne asked.
“This one’s talking to me.”
The longer Kris sat with it, the more attached he got. He played until Rayne wandered off to look at something, and as soon as his back was turned, Kris snuck a peek at the price. It wasn’t the most expensive guitar on the wall; maybe it was even the cheapest. That didn’t make it affordable.
The cherry-red finish glinted up at him.
“You sure you don’t want to get me a used one somewhere?” Kris asked, calling Rayne back.
“You looked at the price, didn’t you?”
“You make it hard for people to buy you stuff, you know that?” Rayne said. “You like it, right? Best out of all the ones they’ve got?”
“No buts.” Rayne nudged him until he stood. “You’re in the band; you need a guitar. I promise, the label can afford a decent instrument or two.”
Kris shifted, cradling the guitar in his arms like a baby, and relented.
Rayne grinned. “You’ll get used to the whole rock-star thing. Wait till we hit LA. You’re allowed to be a diva there. Hell, you’re expected to be.”
“I’m from Kansas. We don’t have divas or rock stars there. We have wheat. And cows.”
“Yeah, you look like a cowboy kind of guy.” Rayne held out his arm, beckoning Kris in. Kris stepped up and Rayne caught him around the shoulders, steering him out of the nook. “Come on. We’ve got a show tonight.”
They ended up at the register with the guitar, a hard case, a strap, and a pack of extra strings—Rayne said that Fink had left behind his old amplifier, and Kris was more than welcome to inherit it.
“Hey, Rayne,” the cashier greeted them. “Find everything okay?”
“This is baby’s first electric guitar,” Rayne said, ruffling Kris’s hair.
“Your boy’s got good taste,” she said, ringing up the instrument. “You guys have fun?”
“I think I’m in shock,” Kris said. “Should I wait outside while you pay for this?”
“Don’t be dumb,” Rayne replied as the girl punched the numbers in. “After this I’m buying you coffee—one of those fancy ones with the ridiculous names and ten hundred toppings.”
“Thanks,” Kris said helplessly.
“Get used to it, babe. You’re living in the fast lane now.”
The total flashed up on the register, and Kris broke out in a sweat and had to look away. Rayne paid with his business account without batting an eye, and Kris was only allowed to carry the stuff to their car after fighting Rayne for it first. Butch, who’d been waiting patiently behind the wheel of the ’66 Mustang, put the top down and drove them around the block to the nearest coffee shop. Kris bolted from the car, vaulting over the door before Rayne had undone his seat belt, and flung himself into the shop, adamant that he would get in line and pay before Rayne could.
The barista spelled both their names wrong, and Rayne laughed at him the entire drive back to the studio. Somehow, that didn’t stop Kris from enjoying his drink, though he suspected the caffeine was going to fry his nerves. They could get fried—the important thing was staying awake to play the show.
“You good?” Rayne asked as they pulled back into the studio lot, twisting in his seat to look back at Kris. Butch killed the engine and disembarked, warning them not to linger too long.
Kris rolled his cup between his hands and breathed. “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m just trying to wrap my head around everything. I feel like I left Kansas in the real world, and I landed in some parallel dimension where everything is just . . .” He met Rayne’s gaze. “Wild. Unbelievable. And good? But like.” He let the condensation from the cup drip over his fingers. Rayne smiled encouragingly. “I have no idea what I’m doing,” Kris finished.
“I didn’t give you a lot of time to think about it—” Rayne began, but Kris cut him off with a shake of his head.
“I want this,” he said firmly. “This could be the best thing that’s ever happened to me. You met me a few hours ago, and you’ve already bought me a guitar, man! This isn’t how real life works. I should be working twenty hours a week as a cashier making minimum wage in some crappy convenience store, not—” He gestured up and down to Rayne.
“The guitar suits you,” Rayne said. “You look good with it.”
“It outclasses me by a mile.”
“You wouldn’t have picked it if you thought it wouldn’t work for you, and you wouldn’t have blown that audition out of the water if you weren’t meant for this.”
“I want it to suit me,” Kris said. “I think it could, but . . . maybe a version of me that doesn’t exist yet.”
“It will,” Rayne promised. “Maybe you think I’m nuts for offering you all this when I barely know you, but listen—I have a good instinct for people. When I saw you in the park, even before I heard you play, I knew you were worth taking a chance on. You’re pure potential right now, and we’re going to shape you into something incredible. Besides, Brian won’t let you fuck up too badly.”
Kris thought about the little red guitar in the trunk of the Mustang and tried to imagine himself onstage with The Chokecherries, in leather and makeup and too much glitter, playing for a crowd of thousands—his old dream, glimmering on the brink of coming true. His head spun at the thought of it.
“That,” Rayne said. “Whatever you were thinking right there. That’s what we’re going to make you into.”
“I’m in.” Kris’s mouth was dry and his heart beating too fast. “Just tell me what to do.”
Word Count: 84,600
Page Count: 318
Cover By: Shayne Leighton
Release Date: 10/29/2018
Release Date: 10/29/2018