“This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

Content Warning: MENTION OF RAPE, GRAPHIC STIMULANT USE, HOMOPHOBIC/MISOGYNISTIC LANGUAGE, GORE

Rory was starting to fucking hate cartoons. He’d used to be a fan of them, especially the Cartoon Network lineup. But lately something about the nonstop deluge of color and noise made him feel like he was at the bottom of a lake struggling upward, flailing his limbs with every ounce of his strength, never getting any closer to the light.

Max was still in the bathroom, so he changed the channel. Three’s Company was playing again on TV Land. He switched away from that, too, and finally landed on the ten o’ clock news. Tossed down the remote, flopped back on Max’s bed, tucked his arms beneath his head. Stared blankly at the ceiling.

“John, I’m standing outside the Cook County Jail, where former Northwestern University football player Bryce Archer is scheduled to be released on good behavior Wednesday, after serving six months of jail time. Archer, along with then-teammates Ethan Kirkpatrick and Jordan Knight, was convicted of raping Archer’s then-girlfriend, a freshman Northwestern student, at a campus fraternity party in September of 2007.”

“What are you watching?” Max frowned as she emerged from the bathroom.

“News,” said Rory.

“Why?” He felt the mattress stir as she settled next to him.

Because it’s real.

“I don’t know. You can turn it off.”

The reporter’s droning was replaced by the manic voice-acting and wacky sound effects of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.

Max scooted toward Rory, rolled on her side to face him. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Rory sighed, turned his head to look at her. She had on one of Jules’s old shirts and nothing else. The dark rings around her eyes were seeming deeper these days. Her hair was stringy, unwashed. 

Her hand slid over his naked torso; lingered in the hollow of his hip where he was ticklish. He twitched.

“You didn’t come earlier.” Her palm passed over his shaft.

“That’s okay.” Rory drummed up what he hoped was a smile. “It happens.”

He shifted as she started to massage him. The soft flesh stirred, rallied under her touch.

He closed his eyes—frowned as cartoon sound effects started bouncing around in his skull.

Opened his eyes. “Can we turn off the TV?”

Max hesitated. “I’m…not great with quiet lately.”

Rory chewed his lip, exhaled, nodded. “That’s…fine.”

Max sat up on her haunches. Looked at him.

“What?” said Rory.

“You’re sick of me,” Max murmured.

“No. Jesus. Everything’s just kind of a bummer lately, all right? It’s not your fault.” He touched her hand.

She was quiet a moment. Then, “I bet you think sometimes how great it would be if you could walk out of here and forget I ever existed.”

Rory sat up. “Max. What the fuck?”

“How you’d actually have a life outside this room if it wasn’t for me.”

“I never said anything like that.”

“You didn’t have to.”

Rory ground his teeth. “Fine. You wanna get real? The only problem I have with you is how you won’t quit saying stuff like that—about how I’m not into you anymore, and how I don’t want you, and how I’m probably gonna leave you someday. I fucking hate it, okay? It makes me feel like nothing I do for you even matters.”

“It doesn’t.” Max’s lips curved in a hollow smile. “No matter what you put into it, a void is empty. It knows—it feels—it is—nothing.”

Rory spaced out on her gaze for a moment. The room around him seemed to bleed, grow dim.

Finally, he gave his head a shake. Winched his eyes shut. “Goddammit. God-fucking-dammit. I suck.”

“Rory.”

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” Rory cuffed himself on the side of the head. “I hate when I do this. I hate when I make you sad. What the living fuck is wrong with me.”

“Stop. Rory, don’t. You didn’t mean to.”

He stared at her, loathing himself, then shoved his anger aside, pulled her into his arms. “I’m sorry.” He lay down with her, nose to nose. “I’m an asshole.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I don’t know why you like me.”

“Rory, come on. Now who’s being a super-bummer?”

“I think you’re too fucking cute. I really do.” He kissed her. “I don’t know why I can’t keep it up lately. But it’s definitely not because I’m not into you.”

She edged one of her thighs between his, rocked her body gently. He closed his eyes, sighed. Started to rut, kissing her cheek and her neck. “See? There it is,” he murmured, a few seconds later. “Look how bad I want you.”

Max rolled on top of him, took him in. Rory tried to tune out the TV, focused instead on the sounds she made; the motion of her body; the drooping-petal shape of her lips.

He mumbled a warning a few minutes later, when he was getting close. She lifted off, sealed her mouth over his cock, jerked him off till he emptied his load in her throat.

“Wow.” Rory blinked sightlessly as Max curled up by his side; folded her to him and kissed her repeatedly, tasting his cum on her lips. “How’s this for sick of you?”

After several seconds, he sighed, rested his head on top of hers. “I’m not going anywhere, okay? I’ll be right back here, every damn day, till Jules and his team get your shit figured out. Then we’ll finally get out of this goddamn hotel and—Iunno—go to the fucking lake.” He kissed her ear. “How’s that sound?”

He felt Max’s cheek bend against his—an honest-to-God smile. “I really like the fucking lake.”

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Rory drained the rest of his rum and Coke, stared blankly into his glass, noticed the tiny rough bumps on each small cylinder of ice. Ricky and Randy’s was busy for a weekday night. A hot local band, The Natural, was headlining tonight’s show. Episode Four hadn’t played this one. They’d just come to catch The Natural’s set and hang out after.

The show had ended just a few minutes ago. Chillie, Kyra, and Drew were clustered around Rory at the bar, raving about The Natural’s new music. All Rory could seem to do, all he’d really done all night, was meditate on that sad, loud, filthy room at the Alfheim, and how nothing he did ever seemed to make Max happy anymore—and what a selfish asshole he was for resenting the lack of validation from a girl who was fucking sick so of-fucking-course everything isn’t fucking about me right now.

“You all right, buddy?”

A meaty hand swatted Rory on the shoulder. “Hm? Yeah.” Rory glanced up at the towering shape of Chillie, then shoved his hand in his pocket as his phone buzzed, signaling a text. 

“Who’ssat?” Chillie grinned broadly. “Yo’ girrrlfriend?”

Rory squinted down at the screen. wuttup b, read the new message from F. Sosa. u still at ricky n randys?

“No, it’s Fabi.” Rory perked up a little. 

“Oh, that Fabiana girl?” Chillie’s tone was suddenly neutral. “She, uh. She coming?”

Fabiana Sosa was the girl with the funky-colored hair Rory’d met the night he’d debuted his new song. She liked good music, and she liked Rory’s music, a lot, which was a nice ego boost. They’d hung out a bit that first night, exchanged numbers. Rory had ignored her calls and texts for a few days after that, wary of his fascination with her shitty tattoos and her choppy two-tone hair, her boyish laugh and fuck-it attitude and dreamy dark eyes. But she’d kept hitting him up and hitting him up, and he’d finally decided he could use the shot-in-the-arm of hanging out with someone new and fun, so he’d agreed to meet up—though this time he’d made a point of telling her he was spoken for. Which, fortunately, she’d been cool about.

“I think so.” Rory texted back: yeah. you coming?

Rory realized his bandmates had gone silent. Looked up, saw them all exchanging glances.

Chillie wrinkled his nose slightly. “Really? Her?”

Rory felt himself bristle. “Yeah. Why?”

Chillie shook his head, shrugged with his face. “Nothin’.” He glanced off. “She’s just, uh, maybe a bit much. Don’tcha think?”

Drew and Kyra averted their eyes.

“What, do you guys all not like her?” Rory’s phone buzzed again in his hand. He ignored it. “You hardly know her. She’s extremely cool.”

“Whatever you say, man,” said Chillie.

“She’s actually a lot like me.” Rory knew even as the words were coming out of his mouth it was a stupid thing to say: “So you guys don’t like her, maybe you don’t really like me that much.”

“Come on, man,” said Chillie. “You know that’s not true.”

“I’m gonna go smoke.” Rory got up from his stool, fumbled in his pocket for his Marlboro Smooths. Stumped off without glancing back, not wanting to see the looks on their faces. The gang meant well, he knew, even if they couldn’t be more wrong about Fabiana. He knew perfectly well he was being shitty. But lately, he couldn’t seem to turn that mode off.

He read Fabiana’s last text as he stepped out into the parking lot:

already here 😉

A pair of lanky arms wrapped around him suddenly from behind.

“Oh, shit.” His heart turned a cartwheel in his chest.

Fabiana cackled delightedly in his ear.

Rory spun to face her as she released him, broke into a shy grin. “Jesus fucking fuck! You scared the shit out of me.”

“You’re, like, the most skittish person I’ve ever seen.” Fabi grinned, eyed his cigarettes. “Ooh, can I bum one off you?”

Rory obliged, offered her a light. 

“C’mere.” She flashed her trademark sly grin, ambled ahead with long strides, disappeared around the corner of the building.

Rory followed. The alley was damp from a recent rainstorm. A nearby dumpster stank of rot.

Fabiana turned to face him, shrugged her backpack off her rangy shoulders. Plunked it on the asphalt, crouched to dig in one of its pockets. “Looky what I got.” She surfaced with a tiny plastic bag of white powder dangling from between her forefinger and thumb.

“Uhhh.” Rory laughed. “I don’t do that stuff anymore. But thanks.”

“You’re such a Boy Scout.” Fabi grinned up at him from under her drooping forelock. Her hair was a different color tonight—royal blue, with lipstick to match. She reminded Rory of a boy king from some civilization past, with her thick eyeliner wings, her haughty mouth. “It’s not even that much. We split it, it’s two bumps per person at most. I got this just for you, you know.” Fabi fished her keys out of her pocket, tapped a little of the powder gingerly onto the tip of one. “’Cause you always seem like you could use a pick-me-up.” She eyed him with a crooked smile. “Had to go down on a guy to get it. His balls smelled like cheese.” 

“Ew.” Rory laughed again, nervously. He was pretty sure she was joking when she said stuff like that, but part of him sometimes wondered. The thought made his stomach churn.

Fabi took her hit, then tapped a second bump onto the key. “It’s super pure.” She straightened, held it out to him. “Pleeeeease? It’ll be way more fun for me if you do it too.”

Rory looked her in her loamy eyes.

God—I’m sick of feeling miserable all the time.

He took her hand in his, leaned down, snorted. Straightened, inhaled deeply as the familiar acid taste trickled down the back of his throat.

“Don’t tell my bandmates—okay?” A couple minutes later, they’d finished their cigarettes, were on their way back inside. Fabi hadn’t been kidding about the stuff being pure. Just a minute or two in, Rory was already feeling amped. “They’re gonna wanna stage an intervention or some shit. No joke. They’ve done it before.” 

Fabi laughed loudly. “Where’d you even find that bunch of prudes?”

Rory laughed too. “They’re actually super cool! I’m the youngest, so I think they just think of me as like a little brother or something. Like they have to protect me or something. It’s actually really sweet. But I’ve always been totally fine taking care of myself, you know? I mean, fuck.”

“I fucking hate people telling me what to do.” Fabi showed her ID to the bouncer, got a wristband, headed into the barroom. Rory flashed his own wristband and followed. “I’m like, please. I’ve been on my own since I was eight. I don’t take that shit from nobody.”

“On your own?” Rory asked.

“As in orphaned,” she shot back over her shoulder, threading her way through the crowd.

“Oh, fuck. That sucks, man.”

“It’s whatever. I get by.”

“Yeah, I was eight when my dad decided to fuck off to New York,” said Rory. “It took my mom years to get over it. There were times at first after it happened when she’d hardly come out of her room for days. I mean, not that that’s anywhere near as bad as your thing. My parents aren’t dead. I’m just saying I didn’t have anybody telling me what to do for a while there. Me and my sister ate Froot Loops for dinner for like a year.”

“I don’t know how that’s less bad. Your parents didn’t fucking take care of you. That’s rotten as shit.”

“My mom was just having a hard time. I know she loves me.” Rory shrugged, felt a spike of annoyance. “My dad, whatever. Fuck ’im. We don’t talk.”

“Isn’t that the worst thing, though?” Fabi shot back as they reached the bar, raising her voice to be heard over the crowd and the music. “Your mom loves you, right, but she still couldn’t get her ass out of bed to feed you. Even the people who say they love you never love you enough. They never love you anywhere near as much as they love themselves.”

Rory laughed harshly. “That’s dark.”

“Think about it. Think of one person you know who’s ever given up anything for you that really mattered to them. Who’s never let you down when you really needed them, not once. If you can honestly come up with one person like that—just one—I wanna know.”

A face popped into Rory’s head.

Then the words, I think we should quit while we’re ahead.

“Maybe you’re right.”

Fabiana drummed her fingers on the bar. “PBR, pretty please.”

Rory ordered another rum and Coke, still turning Fabiana’s claims in his head. “It’s not like I’m any better,” he shrugged at last, thinking of Max, and stubbornly avoiding thinking about certain other things. “I don’t think I’ve ever given up anything major for anyone. If anything, I always end up fucking everyone over.”

“Exactly. We all use and abuse each other as we please. Maybe we help each other out when we feel like it; when it’s easy; when we think we can get something in return. But in general, human beings are just shit. You’re no exception. I’m no exception. It’s just the way it fucking is.”

Rory felt the truth of this in his bones.

“Nothing fucking matters!” Fabiana raised her can of PBR.

“Nothing fucking matters!” Rory bumped his rocks glass against it.

“So…what’s up with this girlfriend of yours?” said Fabi, after they drank. “Why doesn’t she ever come out with you?”

“She’s a shut-in.”

“What? For real? How’d you even meet someone like that?”

“The Internet,” Rory lied readily. It was the same story he’d been telling his bandmates for the past few weeks.

“Is she, like—agoraphobic?”

“Yeah…something like that.”

“Dude. Why would you date someone like that?”

“I don’t know.” A laugh bubbled out of Rory. “She’s cool. She’s funny.” A beat. “She likes to fuck.” He pounded his drink.

“Aa sou.” Fabiana eyed him wisely. “You got pictures of her? Or is she camera-shy and agoraphobic?”

Rory got out his camera phone, toggled his photos. He found one of Max just waking up from a nap, cuddling her pillow with a drowsy smile on her face…one where the rift was well-hidden beneath the sheets.

Fabi peered at it. “’Kay. Aiight, brah. I’d hit that. Super fuckin’ cute.”

Rory stared at the picture. “Right?” He opened up an impulsive text to Max: ay grrl u so flyyyyyyyy. Sent it, jammed his phone back in his pocket. “I should introduce you two,” he said, before remembering there were about a million reasons that was a bad idea.

“Oh, yeah? You’d like to see me hit that, huh?” Fabi shrugged. “She’s down, I’m down. She into spankings?”

Rory cursed fate. “I meant you two might have stuff in common. But, uh…yeah.” He chuckled. “You, uh—you like to top, huh?” He leaned back on the bar, screened a raunchy music video in his head.

“Depends. I’m up for anything, anytime, as long as it is fucked. Up.” Fabi gestured emphatically with an overhand, downward-pointed forefinger.

Rory again cursed fate. There was no denying he found Fabiana sexy, even if it wasn’t in a remotely conventional way. There was something in the medley of it all—her giraffe-like limbs, her long fey face, her big drowsy eyes. He liked her shitty tattoos, her fucky fashion sense, the careless way she slouched in her seat. And he liked her gruff voice, and the way her gaze always seemed to ramble around a room like she was looking for trouble.

She met his eye, leaned her elbow on the bar, smiled. One of her devilish eyebrows tipped knowingly upward. “What’s on your mind there, killer?” Her head tilted slyly. Her long torso was on display in a flimsy white tank top, her braless chest plain to see through the gauzy cotton.

Rory didn’t miss a beat. “What I’d do to you if I were a free agent.” He looked her over suggestively. “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes was playing over the sound system. His knee was jiggling manically.

What am I always holding myself back for? Fabi’s right—we’re all out for Number One. Why shouldn’t I get mine? Max is a down girl. She gets it. If she weren’t stuck in that room she’d be doing the same.

Fabi’s grin widened. “Go on.”

“I’d start with your neck. Biting. Sucking.” Rory’s gaze roved between her body and face. “Then those little titties of yours…play with your clit, get your pussy nice and wet.” He looked her dead in the eyes. “Then I’d bend you over and fuck you till you couldn’t see straight.”

“Oh, Daddy.” Fabi squirmed.

Rory’s erection chafed against his jeans. “God—I’m sick of having to be gentle.”

“Abuse me,” Fabi crooned.

Rory leapt to his feet. “Come on.”

I’m fuckin’ back. 

He slid an arm around Fabiana’s waist as they made their way together toward the restrooms at the rear of the barroom. Toyed at the waist of her little pleather skirt; slipped his fingers beneath it, traced the bare slope of her ass. She wiggled seductively as she walked, stretched her arms high over her head, did a little turn to face him, brought her arms down to drape around his neck. Writhed against him briefly, staring hypnotically into his eyes, then turned and pranced off ahead, throwing beckoning glances over her shoulder. Rory sprinted to catch up; grabbed and crushed her against him, pressed his lips to her ear.

“I am so gonna waste you, you horny little—”

He turned to start forward again—and found himself face-to-chest with Chillie.

“Hey, buddy.” Chillie’s gaze switched from Rory to Fabi. “Hey there, Fabiana, Who Is Definitely Not Rory’s Girlfriend. Where you two crazy kids off to?”

Rory felt a spike of irritation, but shook it off, grinning fiercely. “It’s all good, man. I got this.” He reached up to pat Chillie on the shoulder, sidled past him.

“Me and Drew and Kyra were thinkin’ ’bout grabbin’ some fro-yo.” Chillie jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “You guys wanna join?”

“I’m good, man, okay?” Rory could hear the harshness in his tone but didn’t care. “I know what I’m doing. You guys go ahead. Go wild.” He started off again, Fabi in tow.

At that moment, another patron backed into his path. Rory smacked into him, hard. The drink in the guy’s hand spilled all over the girl he’d been talking to.

“What the hell, bruh?” the guy exploded, whirling around. He was big with black hair and stubble and a broad, square face. Rory recognized him as Jason Cheong, the lead guitarist for Sophomore Slump, one of the bands that had opened for The Natural that night. Rory knew Cheong all too well from the local music scene. He was in his late twenties, but more or less an overgrown grade-school bully.

And, at the moment, he was visibly three sheets to the wind.

At the sight of Rory, Cheong’s eyes narrowed in recognition. “You need to watch where the fuck you’re goin’, Navarrete.”

“Fuck off, Cheong. You backed into me.” Rory moved to step around him.

Cheong shifted to block his path. “You better show some respect, faggot.” His bleary gaze turned on Fabiana. He bared his teeth in a grin. “Who’s this, Navarrete, your boyfriend? This mean you’re finally outta the closet?”

Rory grabbed a stool from the nearest table and swung it at Cheong full-force. Bystanders scattered like mice.

Cheong seized the stool, wrenched it out of Rory’s grasp, and hurled it out of the way, then charged. Rory lunged to meet him with a snarled, “I’ll kill you, bitch!” 

Suddenly, Rory felt his upper chest crushed in a vise. The ground dropped away underneath him. He hung suspended in the air, thrashing, senseless with rage.

“Calm the fuck down, Rory! Come on!” Chillie’s voice boomed in his ear.

Rory subsided, his heart going like a jackhammer at his ribs.

His feet touched the ground. His bandmates were gathered around. So were the other members of Sophomore Slump, who were combining their efforts to restrain Cheong.

“I’m gonna break you in half, you fuckin’ pussy!” Cheong bellowed at Rory.

Rory overturned a nearby table loaded with drinks. “I could murder you, bitch! You don’t even know how fucking easy it would be!” He surged forward again, but Chillie’s grip on his biceps stopped him fast.

“Enough, dude! Enough!” Chillie spun Rory around, stared him in the eyes, gripped his shoulders hard. “What the fuck’s going on with you? Huh?”

The crowd parted, murmuring, as the bouncer and Ricky, one of the proprietors, came hustling over. “Out!” Ricky glared at Rory, pointed firmly at the exit. “Now. Or we will throw your little twiggy ass out.”

“What about him?” Rory jabbed his index finger at Cheong, seeing scarlet, feeling heat in his skin. “You’re gonna throw me out, but not this shitstain-waste-of-space-date-rape-douchebag motherfucker? You bitches should let me bleed his fucking hide. Fucking public execution. I’d be doing you all a public fucking service!”

Ricky and the bouncer came at him.

“I got ’im!” Chillie stepped in, grabbed Rory firmly by the shoulders. “I’ll get ’im outta here. Just leave him to me.”

Rory barely held his temper at bay as Chillie steered him through the crowded barroom toward the front. Other bar-goers backed frantically out of his path, staring in awe.

That’s right, bitches. Fear me. I’m the motherfucking reckoning.

Chillie dragged Rory down the front steps into the parking lot, released him with a shove. Kyra and Drew formed up behind him. Fabi came scurrying out after them and skidded to a halt at Rory’s side, her eyes wild.

“Tell me the truth. Are you fucked up right now?” Chillie loomed over Rory, looked at him hard in the eyes.

“What the fuck, Mike?” Rory shot back. “Why is that the first thing you think of when I try to give a fucking sleazebag piece of shit what’s coming to him? You’re gonna go and make me the fucking bad guy? You could have fucking backed me up, man!”

Chillie set his jaw, shook his head. “The whole scene’s gonna know about this in an hour. It’s gonna be all over social media. No promoter’s gonna wanna book us after this. Don’t you get that?” He sighed heavily through his nose. “Look, man, I love you like a brother. But you have got to understand that your actions have consequences.”

Think of one person who’s never let you down when you really needed them. “So, what, I guess I’m out of the band?” Chillie raised his palms, but Rory cut him off before he could answer. “You guys have just been waiting for this excuse, haven’t you? You don’t fucking like anything I write lately. I know you’d love to take over lead vocals and guitar, Drew. And I know you’re still pissed off about the thing with the van, even though I fucking said I was fucking sorry a million fucking times. Fuck! I don’t know what else you want from me.”

Drew shrugged helplessly.

“You know what, I’m calling it.” Chillie gave a hands-off gesture. “We talked about this before, didn’t we? We talked about what happens if you start this shit up again. I’m sorry, Rory, but you’re out. And it’s nobody’s fault but your own. Whenever you clean your act up, give us a call.” He glanced at Fabiana. “He’s all yours. Hope you’re fuckin’ happy.”

Chillie turned to go back inside. Kyra and Drew cast regretful looks over their shoulders as they moved to follow.

Rory stared after them, saw red. “Fuck that,” he erupted. “And fuck you. All of you. I don’t need you. You’re all just fuckin’ holding me back anyway. And you’re gonna fuckin’ be sorry when everyone sees how you’re all pathetic as shit without me. Fuck.” He kicked at the ground and stumbled, which just pissed him off more.

His blood started pounding in his veins. His hands flexed at his sides.

An image flashed in his mind at that moment, of a boy who looked like a girl—a boy whose eyes brimmed with shock as his quiet dignity was ripped away.

No. Not my friends. Never again.

Rory seethed in silence as Chillie, Kyra, and Drew disappeared inside. He was dimly aware of Fabiana staring at him, rapt.

Seconds later, Cheong came storming out of the bar, shoving away two of his bandmates who were grabbing after him. “Good. You’re still here,” he said, seeing Rory. Cracked his knuckles. “I’m gonna fucking finish this.”

You.

Rory’s hand convulsed arthritically at his side.

Cheong’s legs collapsed out from under him. 

He went tumbling down the front steps of the tavern and sprawled on the pavement, shrieking in agony. A dark pool of blood spread under his legs, which were bent at zigzag angles, shards of white bone protruding through fresh tears in his jeans.

“Jason!” screamed his bandmates, their faces slack with horror as they crowded around. 

“Call 911!” someone yelled.

Rory stood there, forgotten, feeling sick to his stomach.

… Forgotten by everyone, that is, except Fabiana.

“Rory,” she whispered. Took his hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

Rory staggered backward, his eyes glued to Cheong’s face. The hefty guitarist was in tears, howling like an infant.

“Rory.” Fabiana gave his hand a sharp tug.

Rory turned, stumbled after her, static roaring in his ears.

NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
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