Chapter 12

The show had ended. Numerous concertgoers were still milling about, discussing what they thought of the show. Steve was sitting in her barstool, glowing. Zap had gotten a little bit shy after the kiss and had eventually wandered off, but Steve still wore a triumphant, self-assured smile.

Steve’s shell buzzed in her pocket, and she fished it out to take a look at who was contacting her. She found an e-mail from Alan waiting for her.

3 blocks east, 1 block north. The Good Old American Diner.

Steve nodded and looked up to where To’mas and his new friends were cooing at each other. She walked up to them and prodded To’mas in the arm, who seemed surprised that anybody other than the elven couple existed.

“The Good Old American Diner,” Steve said. “Should I assume you’re a lost cause?”

“Yes, I’m being kidnapped for the night,” To’mas said, smiling broadly.

“If I’d taken the bet,” Steve asked curiously, “would I have had to pay twice?”

“Yes,” To’mas replied, and then turned his attention back to his couple.

Steve laughed and turned from the amorous triad. She turned and saw Matt, still with the same three girls as when she had last checked. She walked up to them. “Hey Matt, you want to bring your harem to The Good Old American Diner? We’re meeting Alan there.”

Matt shook his head. “No, I have to spend a little bit more time with these ladies before I vanish mysteriously from their lives, leaving them to pine and wonder whether they will ever be able to find me again.”

Fleur, the green mutant, put on a mock pout. “Don’t joke!” she said.

“I think he’s serious,” said Sarah, frowning.

Steve shrugged and turned away. Her eyes roved once more and she spotted Zap, who was sitting at the bar staring at his drink.

“Hey, Zap!” she shouted. Zap looked up at her. “We’re going to The Good Old American Diner to meet the band.”

“Um, okay,” Zap said.

The two left the bar and started walking toward the diner. Zap was quiet almost the whole way, speaking only when directly asked a question. Steve found it a bit strange but didn’t comment.

The diner was modeled in the style of pre-Snowfall American diners, with a bar where they didn’t serve alcohol and lots of booths. The band was arrayed at a long table in the corner of the room, sitting on the long seat against the wall. The chairs across their tables were empty.

Alan and Nalley sat at the end of the line. The drummer sat in the center, still in his fedora and suit jacket. The fire-element mutant was next to him, and the tall, buxom keyboardist (still wearing her cute white bear-hat) sat at the far end, a huge maul leaning against the wall next to her.

Steve and Zap sat down across from the band. “Hey!” Steve said. Zap threw in a quieter “Hey,” as well.

“Hey, kids,” Alan said, smiling and clearly still high on the endorphins from performing. “Where’s To’mas?”

“He and Matt were preoccupied with some playthings,” Steve said. “They both saw the show, but stayed with their new friends.”

“Aw,” Alan said. “Well, okay. So, introductions. Guys, these people here are Zap and Steve, two of my employees at the afternoon shift.”

Various ‘heys’ were exchanged.

“This is Nalley, my girlfriend,” Alan said with pride, indicating the black-haired girl next to him. “She’s also a superb mechanic and bassist.” She gave Zap and Steve a shy smile.

“This here’s Animal Jake, my drummer. I’m pretty sure this is all he does,” Alan said, indicating the guy in the fedora. Animal Jake saluted to Zap and Steve.

“The gentleman in red,” Alan said, pointing to the mutant (who nodded in response), “is named Roger. And the lovely amazon on the end of the line is Michelle-Bear,” he said. Michelle-Bear gave a toothy smile to the two.

“Good to meet you guys,” Steve said.

“Hey Zap, you all right?” Alan asked. “You look a little queasy.”

“Been drinking, you know?” Zap said, his tone wan.

“Ah,” Alan said.

“So how did you guys meet?” Steve asked the band.

“Well, it started with me and Rog,” Alan said, nodding to the red mutant. “We were friends in secondary, and we always thought rock was an underappreciated genre.”

“We were both in the choir,” Roger said, running a hand through his bright red hair. “So we knew how to sing harmony. We tried to make a band but it really didn’t work with just two guys. I didn’t even know how to play guitar then.”

“So anyway, we both went on to NWU,” Alan said. “Me as a business major and Rog as a political science major.”

“You kids want to eat anything?” a waitress asked, approaching the table.

“Uh,” Steve said, looking down at the menu in front of her.

“We need a little more time,” Alan said. The waitress nodded and left.

Zap and Steve took a few moments to peruse their menus. Once they had decided, they set the menus down and Alan continued.

“We met the rest of our first band in uni,” Alan said.

“Animal Jake was always hanging out at a local rock club that we went to regularly,” Roger said. “We didn’t know what he did for a living then, and we don’t know what he does now, but that doesn’t really matter so much, does it AJ?”

Animal Jake smiled.

“We also met this guy who went by Face,” Alan said. “We never really found out why. We took him on as a bassist, and there was our band. The Sixteenth Street Crazies.”

“Only problem was,” Roger said, “we didn’t have a keyboard, we only had two singers and our bassist was shit. And anyway I was still picking up the finer points of rhythm guitar.”

“We didn’t get far,” Alan said. “It wasn’t long before we had to kick Face out of the band because he was a terrible bassist and an asshole. But now we had no bass at all and we still had the same problems as before. By the time we graduated from NWU, we were still no closer to making it big. It was looking like the band was going to fall apart. But then our rescuer found us.”

“Aw,” Michelle-Bear said sweetly. “You guys rescued me.

“You kids ready?” the waitress said, suddenly having appeared again.

“Yeah,” Zap said. The waitress looked at him, and he responded, “I’ll have a stack of pancakes and a glass of milk.”

“I want the All-American Breakfast Platter and orange juice,” Steve said with relish.

The waitress looked at Alan, who said, “The young lady and I will share a plate of cheese fries, and I’ll have a coke,” he said.

“And a cup of black coffee for me,” Nalley added meekly.

Animal Jake held up the menu and pointed at the chicken fried steak. The waitress nodded and looked to Michelle-Bear, ignoring Roger. “Miss?”

Michelle-Bear looked confused for a moment. “Um, I’ll have the half-pound burger with fries and a chocolate malt.”

“Okay,” the waitress said.

“I’ll have the number one skillet,” Roger said.

“Anything else?” the waitress asked the table.

“Number one skillet,” Alan said in measured tones, “for the gentleman in red. And water all around, please.”

The waitress left.

“There goes her tip,” Alan said. “Racism tax.”

An uncomfortable pause slunk by.

“So! You want to take over here, Michelle-Bear?” Roger asked.

“Sure!” Michelle-Bear chirped. “I was living with one of my boyfriends at the time, and I had big dreams of being a musician. I was pretty much totally self-taught. When I got my SEC, my parents made me get enough martial cert to take care of myself and turned me loose. I stopped my formal education there and lived on my own for a bit. I kept practicing singing and keyboards and writing songs, and I paid the bills by waiting at the Reynaldo’s near NWU.”

“The Reynaldo’s,” Roger interjected, “where Alan and I became regulars after we graduated.”

“So, I started dating this guy named Arnold, and he was encouraging, he said he believed in me, he thought I’d go places. He was monogamous but I really thought that he and I had something special, so I let my other partners go and just dated him,” she said, her smile fading. “He sort of mooched off of me. I had to work extra hours to support him because he was between jobs, and his encouragement dropped off a little, but I thought it was just the relationship getting comfortable, you know?”

Michelle-Bear suddenly looked up, a little mortified. “Oh geez, look at me going on about my personal shit…”

“No, it’s okay,” Steve said, and Zap nodded.

“And anyway it’s relevant,” Alan said. “In case you hadn’t picked it up, this guy was a serious piece of work.”

Michelle-Bear cleared her throat. “So it all went down one day when I was at work. We were in trouble financially so I was going to take another waitstaff’s shift to make a little bit of extra cash. I had sort of forgotten that I was supposed to lend Arnie my datasoul so that he could use some of the programs that I had. He showed up at the restaurant and just started yelling.”

Michelle-Bear bit her lip, clearly affected by the memory. After a moment, she went on. “He showed up and just started yelling. He was saying that he was waiting for me to succeed, and at first he thought I was gonna be somebody, but I wasn’t going anywhere, I was just spinning my wheels. And he said that he was just hoping I’d go somewhere professionally, and he never loved me in the first place. That I was too big to be human, and how could anybody be attracted to someone with a body like a half-orc, and he was tired of waiting for an ugly freak to make it big.”

“He probably would have gone on,” Roger said, “but Alan and I had decided we’d heard enough.”

“I think you’ve got a very nice body, Michelle-Bear,” Nalley said, smiling.

“Thank you, Nalley,” Michelle-Bear said, smiling broadly. “I know it was bullshit. He was just jealous that I could bench almost twice what he could.”

“Anyway,” Roger said, “Michelle-Bear was obviously in no psychological shape to defend herself, so Alan and I decided to intervene. I berated the guy for his unacceptably callous treatment of his girl. He responded, naturally, with racist nonsense that failed to address any of the points I had made. I smiled at him and replied with a full dressing-down based on everything he’d said, as well as a few key points regarding his appearance and how he must be in bed.”

“And then he drew his pistol,” Michelle-Bear said coolly. Steve and Zap gaped.

“Iyesu!” Steve said. “In a restaurant?! That’ll get you killed in some precincts.”

“Yeah, well, I snapped his limb,” Alan said. “Idiot locked his arm. Must have forgotten all of his C-Rank training, so a few kilos of pressure was all it took. I knew I’d get away with it, too, because I’d been studying business law that semester. I’d been doing research on local businesses and their responses to armed action. Because Shithead drew first, he basically lost most of his rights right there.”

“Once the police had carted Arnie off and I took my leave, the boys talked to me for a little while,” Michelle-Bear said. “We hung out for a while and talked about ourselves, just to take our minds off of what had just happened. The boys were really interested in the fact that I was a singer and songwriter.”

“And that pretty much did it,” Roger said. “We decided to let the band sit quiet for a while and prepped. Alan and Michelle-Bear put their heads together and started writing songs and I started auditioning bassists. Nobody else was able to pull off the bass sound that we wanted, unfortunately. It was around this time that Alan started spending a lot of time with this Nalley girl.”

“That’s me,” Nalley said, smiling. Alan smiled and kissed her on the cheek. She made a pleased ‘mmm’ noise.

“At one point, on a lark, I lent her the bass that Face had left behind and jokingly suggested that she should be our new bassist,” Roger said with a grin. “It turned out to be the best thing I ever did for the band.”

“I took to it like I took to fixing cars, kinda,” Nalley said. “It just made a lot of sense. And I liked how it was heavy, and the strings were heavy.”

“She became our new bassist and we renamed the band,” Roger said. “We were actually able to go on tour for the first time around July of last year. Since then we’ve gotten this little cult following that’s just growing and growing.”

“And Nalley and I started dating around Christmas,” Alan said. “There you go. The story of Sixth Gear.”

“Awesome!” Steve said.

“Seriously!” Zap added, seeming to have gotten over his malaise.

“Look, I want all of your contact info,” Steve said, holding up her shell. “You people are too cool not to see again.”

“Oy,” Alan replied. “Worlds collide.”

“There’s nothing to be done about it,” Steve said triumphantly as the other members of the band produced their shells and pinged their contact data to Steve.

Steve looked at her shell, then up at Nalley. “Lumia?” she said with a smile. “That’s a really pretty last name.”

Zap looked up, his expression a bit surprised. “Lumia?”

Nalley nodded. “Yes, that’s my last name.”

“Huh,” Zap said.

“Honestly, you guys are really good,” Steve said. “I’m so glad that we came to the concert.”

“Thanks!” Michelle-Bear said, her smile radiant.

“I’m really glad you guys all got to come, including To’mas and Matt,” Alan said. “Zap, it’s seriously too bad that your girlfriend had to miss it.”

Steve and Zap both suddenly stood very still.

“What’s her name again?” Alan said. “Pazu?”

“Pazi,” Zap said quietly.

“Girlfriend?” Steve said, her voice quavering a bit.

“Yeah, you didn’t hear?” Alan said, smiling. “You remember that customer you foisted off on Zap while you and To’mas were arguing about music a few weeks back? The one with short blonde hair?”

“The one who was looking for genmai-cha,” Steve murmured.

“Yeah! She and Zap hit it off, and started dating recently! The girl sounds great.”

The waitress showed up during the awkward silence that followed with the food. “Here you go. Pancakes, All-American, Cheese Fries, Chicken-Fried Steak, Burger, fries and shake. Did somebody order a skillet?”

“The gentleman in red,” Alan said coldly. The waitress grunted, set the platter down and walked away. Animal Jake gave her the middle finger as she walked away, and Roger and Alan simultaneously did the cast-off gesture, holding a fist to their chest then splaying their fingers away quickly.

“Excuse me,” Steve murmured. “I don’t feel well.” She stood and hurried to the bathroom.

“Huh,” Michelle-Bear said. “She looked like she was doing pretty well with her liquor.”

Zap put his face in his hands.

“You okay, Zap?” Alan asked.

“Yeah,” Zap said, standing up. “I just gotta go call my girlfriend real quick. Back in a second.” He walked toward the exit.

“What was that about?” Alan asked once they’d gone.

“Ohhhh,” Michelle-Bear said, her eyes wide and one hand flying to her mouth. “Oh dear.”

“What?” Alan said.

“I don’t get it either,” Roger said.

“Don’t worry about it, sweetie,” Nalley said to Alan, exchanging a significant look with Michelle-Bear. “They need a little space.”