VIII. This Broken Feeling
"...everybody got this broken feeling
like their father or their dog just died."

They pulled over at a hotel just inside the Ohio line, a motel really, just a low one-story building where they could park the van right outside the door, because Ray was too tired to drive anymore and no one else felt up to it. The far end of the parking lot was crowded with cars, late model Pontiacs and small pick up trucks, and Ray said "Frankie," in a low voice so he didn't wake up Pete, who'd had finally stopped rocking and humming to himself about an hour ago and was passed out in Mikey's lap.

Frank clambered up to the front. "What?" he said.

Ray nodded out the window.

It was a crowd of kids wandering and out of the rooms near the cars, plastic cups in their hands, the guys in jeans and t-shirts, the girls in halters and denim skirts. They didn't seem to notice the van. "I think they're okay." Frank murmured back.

"You sure?" Ray asked.

"I'll check," Frank said.

"What's going on?" Gerard asked. His hand on Frank's back was hot and sticky.

"I'm going to check it out," Frank said. "Wait here."

Outside the van, the air was fresh and light and smelled faintly of autumn even though it was only the end of July. Frank paused for a moment and looked up at the clear blue sky. He couldn't see the crowd of kids from this side of the van, but he could hear their shouts of laughter, the hum of their drunken conversations. It sounded like summer and Frank was surprised to realize that he thought of summer as something that had already ended three days ago, the day they left the tour. He went in to the office.

There was a girl at the counter, maybe a little younger than him, her badly- streaked blond hair pulled up in a high ponytail. "Y'all need a room?" she asked, smiling.

"Two," Frank said. "Do you have connecting rooms?"

"Sure," she said. "How many people?"

Him, Gerard, Ray, Mikey, Pete. And then there were five, he thought. "Five."

"Sure," the girl said again. "We got plenty a rooms right now, for some reason. Normally, we'd be all full up with truckers and tourists and shit, but seems like it's pretty dead around here today."

Frank fought the urge to laugh as he handed over his credit card. "Well, um. There's a bunch of kids ..."

"Oh, them." The girl laughed. "Those are my friends. It's Kenny's birthday, so they're having a party. Don't worry. I put you all at the other end of the building. Numbers 127 and 129," she said pointing out the door. "Right down at the end."

"Thanks," Frank said.

"You and your friends can come if you want," the girl said. "It's nothing, you know. Just some beer and some other shit, but it could be cool. You all could come."

Frank stared at her hard, scanning her arms for bite marks, her throat, the bare knee he could see over the counter, but she seemed to be fine. She didn't have the strange slyness Frank had begun to associate with them, the feeling that they were laughing at him from behind their skins.

"Well, we'll see," Frank said.

"Sure, no pressure," the girl said. "I'm Alexis, if you need anything. Alexis Lee."

"I'm Frank," Frank said, holding out his hand. The girl, Alexis, shook it.

"Cool," she said. "Maybe I'll see you later."

Frank walked back out to the van and climbed in. He felt strange, like his normal conversation with the front desk girl was precious and valuable. "Everything okay?" Gerard asked, curling a hand over his shoulder.

"Yeah," Frank said. "Yeah, I think so."

The rooms were dingy and smelled like mildew, but they weren't the worst rooms Frank had ever stayed in, so he didn't mind. There was a single king- sized bed in one and two in the other, so they divided up Ray, Mikey, Pete in one and Gerard and Frank in the other, opening the connecting door and turning on the televisions in both rooms. It was starting to become a habit again, settling in to a strange motel, pulling back the bedspreads, turning on the televisions, washing up.

"There's a party," Frank said, leaning into the room that Ray and Mikey and Pete were sharing. "That's what those kids were."

"You think, um," Mikey said. He glanced at Pete, who was watching them intently.

"They're fine," Frank said, although he didn't know why he felt that way. There had been something so normal about them, in their t-shirts and flip- flops. Maybe everything was going to turn out okay. "I was thinking about going down."

"Really?" Mikey asked, standing up, shaking off Pete's hand. "I'll go."

It turned out they all went, because Ray didn't think it was a good idea for Frank and Mikey to go alone and Gerard wanted beer and Pete wasn't about to stay behind without Mikey, and Frank felt ridiculous walking down to the other end of the parking lot with four other guys like they were some sort of stupid gang or something. Still, he stopped them all when they were still four doors away, holding his hand out like he was their mother coming to a quick stop in a minivan. "Stay behind me," he murmured. "Don't let them surround us."

He approached carefully, trying to look cool and curious instead of freaked out. He hadn't really thought about what this meant, walking up to a group of fifty kids in the middle of the afternoon and he was suddenly reminded of the bar in Chicago, the bikers yelling out "Andy!" so happy to see them.


Frank blinked. It was a guy in a white t-shirt and a backward baseball hat. He looked annoyed, but only a little.

"Alexis said we could come. We're staying here," Frank said. "I'm Frank."

"Oh." The guy scratched his head up under his hat. "Okay, cool. I'm Randy. Beer's over there," he pointed into one of the open doors. "And the other stuff's in the next room."

"Cool, man," Frank said.

"So, you guys friends of hers?" Randy asked.

"No, we're um. We're in a band," Frank said.

"No shit!" Randy took a step back, looking impressed. "Really? What're you guys called?"

"My Chemical Romance," Mikey said, stepping forward, ignoring the flap of Pete's hand against his wrist.

Randy looked confused for a second. "Wait a minute," he said. "Do you guys do that 'I'm Okay' song? The one with the 'I'm not o-fucking-kay'?" He sang a little, bobbing his head. Frank smiled.

"Yeah, that's us," Mikey said.

"Cool!" Randy said. "Hey, Ken!" he called. Some tall guy turned around, a cup in his hand. "These guys sing that song you like!" He grabbed Mikey's arm and Frank tensed up, but Mikey followed willingly, stepping into the crowd like nothing was wrong.

Nothing was. Mikey walked up to the other guy, who put out his hand and smiled a normal smile and leaned down to say something in Mikey's ear. Then Mikey was shouting "hey, Gerard, come here!" and there was a small crowd around them all talking a girl touching Gerard's arm curiously and handing him a beer, and Frank felt his hands relax.

"It's fine," he said to no one, but Ray turned and looked at him.

"You sure?" he said.

Frank shrugged. He wasn't sure. But the other attacks had felt different and these kids seemed. Like just kids.

"Mikey," Pete said softly, behind them. Frank turned. He was standing with his hands balled in the pockets of his tight jeans, his greasy hair slick across his forehead, a two-day growth of beard smudged along his jawline. He was watching Mikey stand in the center of the crowd, his eyes mournful. When he noticed Frank looking at him, he spoke. "All birds fly away," he said.

"Come on," Ray said, throwing an arm over his shoulders. "You want something to drink, Pete?"

"Sure," Pete said.

Frank followed them into the first hotel room and over to the keg, surveying the room while Ray poured foaming beer into plastic cups. There was nothing to see. A couple of kids looking at them curiously, a couple more too busy with their own shit to notice at all, just a typical motel party like a hundred Frank had been to before.

"Hey," a girl said, touching his arm. "Are you Frankie Iero?"

Frank took a step back, reaching behind him for Pete. "Why?"

"Are you him seriously?" she asked, stepping forward, her eyes alight with excitement.

"Ray," Frank said. If they could get against the wall he could hold --

"MCR is totally my favorite band!" she said, her hands forming little starfish of excitement out in front of her. "Seriously! I drove all the way to Columbus to see you guys on Warped! What are you guys doing here?"

"Um," Frank said.

"We're taking a roadtrip," Ray said. "You know. Just hanging out together on our way home from the tour."

"Wow," the girl said, her attention shifting from Frank to Ray. "That's so cool. I would love to do that, but my mom is, like, totally against it. I had to sneak out to go to Columbus, which is the most boring place ever. I can't believe that you --"

"How do you feel about birds?" Frank blurted.

The girl squinted at him. "Birds? They're okay, I guess." She turned back to Ray. "So are you guys here for a while or just a night or something?" she asked, lifting her face to his in a signal Frank had seen a thousand times before. She was fine. Young and pretty and trying to get fucked by a semi- famous rock star, but not anything else.

"I'm going go outside," he told Pete, who was still leaning up against the wall and sipping his beer.

"Okay," Pete said. "I'm going to find Mikey."

"Great, fine, yes," Frank said. "Do that. I'm going to get drunk."

Four maybe five hours later (and six or seven or eight beers later), there he was, drunk, slumped in a lawn chair in the field behind the motel, watching the flickering flames of the bonfire and listening to the drone of cars passing on the highway.

Someone's fingers touched his hair, burrowed into it, slid down over his cheek. Gerard.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey." Gerard crouched next to the chair, a can of Milwaukee's Best in one hand. His smile was sloppy and sexy. He pressed his face into the crook of Frank's arm and kissed the sweaty skin at the corner of Frank's elbow. "We should go somewhere," he muttered into Frank's skin.

Frank stood up. "Yeah," he said. Gerard was so beautiful in the firelight, the orange-burnished flicker of his skin, the dark sparkle of his eyes. This is how vampires should look, Frank thought. This is what the books say. Gerard caught him around the waist and pulled him close, smiling, but it wasn't safe outside, not for that, so Frank pulled away, squeezing Gerard's hand as he did.

They walked back into the sodium light of the sidewalk that circled the motel. "We're going back to the room," Frank told Mikey, who was leaning up against the wall.

"Sure." Mikey sniffed, wiping his nose with his hand.

"What?" Gerard said, dragging Frank to a stop. "What's wrong?"

"Fuckin' Pete," Mikey said. "It's nothing." He pushed off the wall and stood up straight, squaring his shoulders. "Fuck it. I'll see you guys later."

"Okay." Frank slapped him on the arm and watched him head into the beer room. "He'll be cool, right?"

"Sure," Gerard said, cupping his hands over Frank's shoulders and pushing him backwards down the sidewalk, his smile close enough to kiss. "He's fine."

Gerard had the key, but he was too drunk to work the old-fashioned lock properly, so Frank took it from him and opened the door. They didn't even bother to turn on the lights. Gerard tumbled him to the bed and then there was nothing but skin and heat and Gerard's beery breath whispering "fuck me, god, fuck me" in his ear, while Frank fucked him, his knees up against Frank's shoulders.

Frank fell away finally, gasping, reaching for Gerard's hand. "God," he said.

"Hmm." Gerard rolled over, pressing his cheek against Frank's shoulder. "Do you think there is one?"

Frank's skin went cold with dread. "What?" he said.

Gerard nuzzled him. "Do you think there is one?" he repeated. "A god. You know, after all this shit."

Frank closed his eyes. For one brief second he'd forgotten that this was happening. He'd been just another guy getting drunk at a party and nailing his boyfriend in a cheesy hotel room and not thinking about anything important like life or death or fucking god and then Gerard had to go and bring it up again in his postcoital bliss. Gerard always did think too much. Did he think there was a god directing him, looking out for him, guiding his hand. God sees the fallen sparrow, he thought suddenly, the line from the Sunday school song floating through his head on a ribbon. "I don't know," he said.

"Mmm," Gerard mumbled.

After he'd fallen asleep Frank slipped out from under his arm and groped around on the floor for his jeans. His cell phone was in the front pocket. He cupped it in his hand like an egg and crept into the bathroom, shutting the door firmly before clicking on the fluorescent light over the sink. Then he sat down on the edge of the tub and pressed *4 on his speed dial. It rang. Rang. Ra-

"Frankie!" Bob sounded the way he always did, surprised and pleased to hear from him.

"Bob," Frank said. "How you doing, man?"

"Oh, you know," he said, which was the same thing he always said.

"You okay?"

There was a pause on the other end of the phone. "Oh, I'm fine," Bob said, finally, his voice neutral and cool. Oh, I'm fine. "How are you?"

"Not so good," Frank admitted. "I just. This thing is so fucked up and we left you in a Wal-Mart parking lot, man, and I just --"

"Frank," Bob said, his voice slicing cleanly through Frank's rising panic. "You did what you had to do, right?"

"Yeah." Frank sighed. "I guess. I don't know."

"I don't know," Bob said, his voice high and squeaky and insulting. "Fuck you, Frankie. I killed four people tonight. Four. And I imagined they were all you. So you better know."

It was as if time had stopped. Frank could still see the loose threads in the weave of the floor mat, one of them almost curled around his little toe. He could see the orange rust stain in the sink, its teardrop shape the echo of each drop that had created it. He could see the next drop beginning to swell on the edge of the faucet. He could hear nothing. Four. Four.

When he pressed the phone back to his ear, Bob was no longer there, just silence and then, suddenly, a scream as if someone had a television on far away, a horror movie maybe. A fiction.

Frank pressed the "End" button, quickly, before he could think of anything else.

Jamia was next, since it was too late to call his mom, but the phone just rang and rang and rang. On the sixth try, he let it go through to voicemail because maybe she would call him back and he could tell her, warn her, but a recording came on and said that her voicemail was full and disconnected him. It wasn't like her -- Jamia checked her messages and opened her mail every day -- and for a second Frank thought of trying her again, but the thought of listening to it ring again, his call going out into the air and disappearing... it was too much. So he didn't.

He brushed his teeth instead, opening his kit and pulling out the toothbrush and the paste and squeezing the exact amount out onto the bristles and turning on the water and making sure to get every tooth individually, especially the back ones where so much bacteria could build up.

He was on his second upper canine, working from left to right, when he saw them in the mirror.

God sees the fallen sparrow.

He'd had them done a million years ago, it seemed, while the jack-o-lantern tattoo was still tingling in the final throes of healing. He'd walked into the shop on Bernard Street, just browsing, thinking of getting another one somewhere his mom wouldn't see it and freak the fuck out. He'd still been living at home, so that was before Pencey really got going, before he'd met Mikey. Before anything. He'd been looking at skulls when the design caught his eye, down low on the next wall underneath a bunch of flowers and butterflies and other girly shit. The birds hadn't been girly though.

There were two of them, facing each other, plummeting toward the earth, the design catching them mid-fall. One had Xs for eyes and a little star over its head. He didn't know exactly why he liked it so much, since he'd never had a bird or anything, but he did. It seemed meaningful to him.

"I want this one," he'd told the guy at the counter.

"The falling sparrows," the guy had said. "Very cool."

Later, while Frank had been lying in the chair, his jeans open and pulled so low that he could see the faint edge of his pubic hair if he looked, the guy (Hector, Frank remembered suddenly. His name was Hector.) had asked him if he was religious. "'Cause the birds, you know, sign of God's love and all that."

"No," Frank had said. He hadn't known and he didn't really care; he was distracted by the press of Hector's fingers on his belly. It was strange having someone touch him. More than the buzz and prick of the needle low on his abdomen, it was strange having a guy lean over him and put his strong hands on Frank's skin.

"Cool," Hector had said. "You want a blowjob?"

Now, standing in the sickly light of the motel bathroom, Frank put his hands over the tattoos, the fallen sparrows inked on his lower belly. He'd never known what they meant. When people had asked his about them, he'd just shrugged. "I just liked them," he would say if pressed. A sign.

A sign of God's love.

He bowed his head and covered his face with his hands.

He woke up from a dream about sitting in a tree to an angry pounding, the noise so loud that he thought the door might burst open, and tried to get off the bed, but his feet were tangled in the sheets and he ended up face first on the carpet, his cheek scorched with rug burn.

"Gerard!" he shouted, struggling free, kicking the sheets away. "Get my pants!"

He crept over to the door, one hand on the frame, and was just about to peer through the peephole when the banging started again, furious and fast. Frank jumped back.

"Here," Gerard whispered. He tossed Frank's jeans over the bed. Frank caught them one-handed and yanked them on, balancing by pushing his shoulders against the wall between the door and the window.

"Okay, get down," Frank whispered. "I'm --"

The banging started again, but this time there was another noise, a soft cry of something being hurt. Frank jerked the door open.

Mikey was there, still in the clothes he'd worn yesterday, his hair standing up over one eye in a point. "Where is he?" he shouted. "Where the fuck is he?"

"Oh fuck," Frankie said. "You don't know where he is?"

"No. NO!" Mikey wailed, shoving Frank out of the way and falling onto the bed, curling himself up into a little ball, his arms wrapped around his head. Gerard stroked his shoulder tentatively.

"Mikey," he said softly.

Frank stepped out onto the sidewalk. There were still a few cars at the end of the parking lot, looking dingier and more used in the morning sun than they had last night, but no one else seemed to be up. He stepped back into the room, shutting and locking the door behind him. "Did you check the other rooms? The party rooms?"

Mikey, who was breathing noisily into Gerard's bare shoulder, nodded. "Yeah," he said. "I checked everywhere. The rooms, the field, people's cars. He's not fucking here."

"Jesus." Frank sighed. "Okay, we'll go find him, okay? Just. Um, stay here." He grabbed a shirt off the floor and pulled it over his head, then his shoes without socks. "Lock the door after me."

He went back outside, pulling the door shut and waiting until he heard the snap of the lock behind him before stepping away. The door to the first party room was unlocked so Frank eased it open slowly.

The bodies were everywhere, on the bed, on the floor, in the far corners of the room, but none of them were Pete and none of them were dead, as far as Frank could tell. The room reeked of beer and sex. Frank stepped over them carefully, peering into the dark corners and around the corner into the bathroom, where the keg floated in a tub of melted ice. Nothing.

The door to the other room was ajar. There were fewer kids, and more trash, and for a second Frank thought he saw Pete curled up in a blanket on the far bed, but when he got closer he could see that it wasn't him, just some other kid with badly cut brown hair.

The field was next, the remains of the bonfire still smoldering in the gentle morning sun. Frank stepped gingerly through the long grass, but his shoes and jeans were soaked with dew before he'd gotten ten feet. It was cool out and his skin prickled up in goosebumps, but it was going to be a beautiful day. The air held the promise of warmth.

A kid was crashed out in the dirt next to the fire pit asleep on fire duty, but it wasn't Pete.

Frank walked back toward the cars, the full glare of the sunrise in his eyes. He stopped on the edge of the pavement and looked at the brightening sky and thought about going back into his dark room and telling Mikey that he couldn't find Pete, that Pete wasn't coming back. The sun glistened on his wet face.

[ Now or Never ]