Melo sat in her dust-caked Honda Civic, listening. The engine was turned off, so the air conditioning was too. Sweat trickled down her neck and rib cage.
She played the tape in the tape deck, again and again. Sometimes she talked back to it.
Mostly she just heard waves of overlapping noise. But once in a while, a voice broke through. Melo tuned up her senses, turning herself into a machine for absorbing every bit of auditory information she could.
“I’m so tired,” moaned a familiar voice. “Please. Please, God. Let me out.”
Melo repressed a twitch in the fingers of her left hand, an impulse to reach across her waist, probe under the oil-stained rag in the passenger’s seat, and feel the comfort of the grip of the Ruger LCP MAX against her palm. But that might cause a rustling of her shirt, or a strain in the plastic of her seatbelt, or, worst case, a discharge from her weapon. And Melo wanted to hear every sound, every syllable that she could from Kelly.
“I don’t want to hear it again,” Kelly moaned. “Please… I can’t hear it again… It’s tearing me apart…”
Kelly’s voice faded as the conflagration of sound resorbed her into its throbbing mass.
“I’m sorry. I’m coming, trust me.” Melo mouthed the words without making a sound, watching her lips form the M in her rearview mirror, feeling the T tap against the roof of her mouth.
Melo wrapped her sweat-slick fingers around the steering wheel and looked at the palace of mirrored glass across the parking lot.
Why did everyone who tried to help her have to end up getting flushed into Hell?
Melody Olsen and Kelly Mitani were the founding members of Rapidly Decaying Orbit Girl.
Starting the band had been Melo’s idea. She had gotten into Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill and The Descendents in 8th grade. She wrote lyrics, filling notebook after notebook with streams of consciousness. Sometimes the lines even rhymed.
But she had zero musical talent. That was where Kelly came in. Kelly took guitar lessons through church, where she played during services. (Melody found that out when her family made one of their bi-annual treks to Incarnation Catholic for a Christmas service.)
“We could give it a try,” Kelly said when Melo approached her on the first day back from break. “But I don’t know how to play that kind of music.” Her voice was fragile and whispery, and she clutched her elbows while she spoke.
“Come hang out this weekend,” Melo said. “I’ll teach you everything you need to know.” Back home, Melody had already prepared a stack of mixtapes for her, copied and labeled and organized by genre.
Kelly smiled, flashing the chrome brackets of her braces.
It’s tearing me apart.
“I’m so sorry Kelly,” Melo mouthed, her sweat slick hands gripping the wheel, fighting off the shakes. “I’m coming.”
The tape ended and Melo shuddered. She ejected it, flipped it, reinserted and hit play
Another familiar voice surfaced.
“Melo?” Felix gasped. “Fuck. I don’t know how long it’s been. Smash the tape Melo. Break it. It doesn’t matter if we die. You have to smash it.”
“’I’m trying,” Melo mouthed, unintentionally letting the words escape her lips in a whisper. “I swear.”
The sound of a car door slamming cut through Melo like a cold knife. The jolt of adrenaline brought with it a sudden awareness of the clammy sweat covering every inch of her skin. She froze, her eyes glued to the rearview mirror as the two men in the spot behind her emerged from a car.
Enormous rictus smiles were carved out of their faces, eviscerating their lips and cheeks, revealing infected red flesh beneath. Their teeth were rowed and jutting like a shark’s, but still human in shape, complete sets of molars, incisors and canines.
“If they’re going the startup route that’s one thing, but he’s talking about doing it with his own money,” said the man getting out of the passenger’s seat in a normal voice. He was husky and short, wearing jeans and a SpaceX t-shirt.
“So he’s self-funding?” said another man climbing out of the cockpit. He was taller, with long hair wrapped up in a platinum-blonde top-knot. “That’s balls.” He pointed his keys at the vehicle and Melo flinched again as the locks engaged with a beep.
“I wish I had that sort of confidence.”
Melo’s heart steadied as they made their way toward the building. The smiles meant they had heard the song. Like Kelly. Like Felix.
“Melo?” Felix said. “Melo, if you can hear me right now, just know I don’t blame you, O.K.? But you have to destroy the tape. We… We can’t die Melo. I don’t think we can die until you destroy it.”
There was a rare spell of calm, near silence on the tape save some distant sobs and retching. Felix spoke again.
“I don’t blame you,” Felix said again. “For any of it. Really. We’ll always be RDOG Melo. Always.” Melo swallowed hard and rested her head against the steering wheel.
“I don’t blame you,” said Felix. “But you need to let us die.”
Melo first met Felix through his brother, Harley. Harley was their ticket to the world of basement shows and statewide tours. He knew everybody, from the Spanish metalheads to the lesbian crust-punks to the Dreaded Laramies. Melo sought him out to try to get gigs.
“We have 12 songs,” Melo said, doubling the actual number and making a mental note to crank out a few more when they got back to her place. “We can stretch that to 20 minutes.”
Harley leaned back in the deck chair and folded his hands together like a petty monarch. His brothers sat below him on the porch steps, smoking cigarettes. They were in 10th grade, two years younger than Harley, one year older than Melo and Kelly.
“Are you any good?” Harley asked.
“Yes,” Melo said immediately. “Kelly’s our secret weapon. She’s a shredder.” Felix fixed his gaze on Kelly, who flinched.
“You play guitar?” he asked her.
“Guitar, yeah” Kelly muttered. He stared at her analytically and she shrank further, clutching her elbows. He turned back to Melo.
“I sing,” Melo said. “And play bass.”
“Don’t need one.”
Harley snorted. “You need a drummer,” he said. “You can get by without a bass, but even a basement-show punk band needs a drummer. Otherwise you’re not really a band, and if you’re not really a band, you’ll get torn apart. Nuke the South is headlining this show. The guys who push their way to the front at these things are vicious.”
The sun dipped behind the mountains and the last splotches of blue disappeared from the sky. With an insect whine, the sodium lights flickered on, bathing the alley in a greasy yellow glow.
“We’re late,” Kelly muttered.
“Can you play drums?” Melo asked.
“While I play guitar?” Kelly said. “I’m not an octopus.”
“I can play drums,” said one of the brothers, tossing his cigarette butt into the grass.
“I’m good too,” he said.
Neither of his brothers contradicted him. This was how Melo and Kelly met Felix Sanchez.
Twenty years later in a sunbaked parking lot, a ripple of laughter shuddered through Melo. She was thinking of the moment Felix came back for them on the night Rapidly Decaying Orbit Girl was born. There was still a scar on her temple from that night.
The can exploded on impact with her skull and Melo lost her footing, landing sprawled on the lawn.
As she tried to catch her breath she dabbed the blood from her temple with her sleeve. Then she reached around to feel the neck of the bass strapped to her back and to check the portable amplifier on her arm. Her equipment was in one piece.
A few of the punks that had ejected from the basement had followed them upstairs, chucking trash and beer cans. Apparently they hadn’t been satisfied with the violence they’d managed to inflict downstairs.
“Man, you guys suck,” Felix said, spitting into the grass. He bled from both nostrils and his eye was swelling up.
“It’s not my fault,” Melo hissed. “I didn’t realize we were showing up at a basement show with a drum and bass set.”
“I’m… I’m sorry…” Kelly croaked, staggering after them, her hair dripping with beer and human expectorate. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“How about play the song we practiced 20 times?” Felix barked. “You just stood there! Half those guys are on bathtub-crank and they’re crammed into a basement to see Nuke the South. What did you expect to happen?”
“I said I’m sorry,” Kelly said through gritted teeth, her eyes flashing with tears. For once she let go of her elbows. Her hands balled into fists.
“Great,” Felix said. “I’m glad you’re sorry. I’ve got a broken nose, they’ve got my drumkit and we’re not getting paid. Wave that $100 goodbye.”
“$33 each,” Kelly muttered.
“Shut up,” Felix snapped.
“You shut up,” Melo snapped back, wiping away the blood dribbling into her eye. “Lay off her. It was a viper pit in there.”
“I can’t believe this,” Felix said, digging out his cigarettes. “I’m catching the bus. No sense in waking my brother up for the van anymore. Come with if you want to. Or call your mommies, whatever.”
The house’s windows rattled. Nuke the South had started to play.
“This is how bands die,” Melo said.
“Uh huh,” Felix said, lighting up.
“No, I’m serious,” she continued. “The bands you hear about are the bands that survive this first bad show. Then they get good. That’s the only difference. Not talent, not money, not fucking music lessons. I want to be in a band, and you guys do too, and if we don’t fight our way back into that basement and get the drum kit right now we never will be.”
“Good speech,” Felix said, blowing smoke from the corner of his mouth. “Go try it downstairs. See if they like it better than our drum and bass set.”
Kelly was wringing beer from her hair.
“I have an idea,” she announced, the shivering-quality gone from her voice.
Ten minutes later, Melo and Kelly had positioned themselves in the center of the lawn, opposite the house.
Melo turned on her portable amp and cranked the volume to its highest setting. She played the three note bass riff to Crashing, the best song on their setlist, over and over. For a while, nothing happened. Then, the music from the house stopped. Her stomach lurched as the shouting began. She kept playing as they spilled out onto the lawn. Men with tattoos, men with shaved heads, men with long, greasy hair, men with drugs in their systems. Kelly reached for her shoulder-amp.
“Not yet,” Melo mouthed. “Wait. We need to buy him as much time as we can.”
The booker in charge of the show broke through the crowd as they advanced. He finished a beer, spiked it and took a drag of a cigarette. He was coming right for them. And he looked pissed.
“’Scuse us!” Melo said, screaming to be heard over her own amp. “I think you forgot to pay for our performance!”
The booker reached for the neck of Melo’s bass, a smouldering cigarette wedged between his fingers. Kelly flicked the switch on her shoulder amp and tore through a version of the opening riff from Crashing that Melo had never heard before.
Kelly’s black hair hung over her face. Her eyes flashed white, surging with a power that Melo had only ever seen in flickers. The booker froze.
Years later, Melo would tell the story in interviews for zines and blogs, tweaking details here and there for drama.
For instance, sometimes she would say that Rapidly Decaying Orbit Girl was born the moment that the booker’s cigarette slipped from between his frozen index and middle fingers, fell to the yellowed grass of the lawn, and went out.
Other times, she would say that RDOG emerged at the moment it became clear the crowd was on their side. Or when the guys from Nuke the South staggered out the front door in a daze, looking like they’d wandered into their own funeral.
When she was trying to flatter Felix, Melo would say that she dated the band’s existence from the moment she heard him dump his drum kit in the grass behind her. They had bought him enough time to escape with his kit. But he came back.
Nothing ever topped that night. None of the big festivals, or the shows in New York or Chicago came anywhere close. It was the best night of Melo’s life.
For seven years after that, they did it the old way, the hardcore, DIY punk way. Felix booked the shows and Kelly designed the posters. They pressed records and stayed off social media. They skipped Lolla and sold their albums on tape. They even toured and made a little money on merch. Not much, but enough for ramen and peanut butter. It wasn’t much in terms of creature comforts, but they were a team. They were Rapidly Decaying Orbit Girl.
Melo had grown up poor, so drooling pipes and stale refrigerators were nothing new to her. She could have lived with it forever. But when Felix went to work and Kelly went to college, she knew she shouldn’t hold it against them. Even on those long, hot nights when her window-unit air conditioner broke down and she couldn’t sleep, she knew. Even as she sat on the tile floor of her bathroom with a guitar and a tape recorder trying to generate some semblance of that magic Kelly had shown her, she knew. Even on those nights under supervision in the hospital, she knew.
Melo lifted her head from the steering wheel and looked into the mirror. A pink stripe ran across her forehead.
She ejected the tape and crushed it in her fist, feeling the jagged shards bite into her hand. Then she dropped the mess of magnetic tape and shattered plastic to the floor of the car and reached for the gun.
As she slammed the car door and took her first steps toward the building, someone called her name.
She stopped her in tracks and turned slowly and saw a man she had met before. He wore mirrored sunglasses, dark pants and a white shirt with the top button undone. He was drinking Diet Mountain Dew Code Red. His light blonde hair was almost white, and his eyebrows were invisible against his translucent skin. Melo’s eyes were drawn to the boiling sun. He didn’t burn.
“I haven’t seen you since brunch,” he said.