“We were a secret?” Izzy asked. “What was the secret? What was the secret, Will? You never told me.”
Jeff faded faster. William ran harder, lean legs flying under him, feeling like he could soar like an eagle. The walls faded into the distance, as if running in reverse. With a final scream, Jeff was gone.
Axl bolted awake with a violent jerk of his legs. A warm body shifted beside him. A sleep-heavy, paw-like hand brushed his cheek clumsily, mumbling reassurances. Looking down, he found Duff’s newly opened eyes filled with concern.
In a way, Axl was happy to wake up with someone’s arms around him. Someone who would hold, and touch him, but his pious mind still rejected it. He hated the idea of another man coddling him. He was a guy for fuck’s sake. This wasn’t right, but the lightly toned arms felt good around his waist. If he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend the arms belonged to…No, he wouldn’t. Not ever again. It wasn’t right. Shaking his head, to eradicate himself of that horrendous thought, he heard a voice.
“Are you okay?” Anxious sienna eyes questioned him, from behind matted blonde hair.
“Mm fine,” Axl grumbled, pushing Duff away. The blonde watched Axl stand stumbling slightly from sleep. He winced when a shot of pain tore up his skin, as he pulled on a t-shirt.
“Do you know who it was?”
Duff let the subject drop. Then he beamed brightly, as he ruffled his bed head.
“Oh! Here.” Duff passed him a napkin. Axl opened it, finding a blueberry muffin. “Helped out at a lunch rush over at Canter’s, and they gave me a muffin.”
“And that was all you got for your work?” Axl asked, taking a huge bite.
“No, they paid me too.” Duff grinned sheepishly, pointing to a full bottle of vodka. “Just wanted to treat myself, and I also got some guitar strings.” His face brightened even more. “Speaking of which, I found this band! They seem cool, and they need a bass player, and a singer. I told them I’d swing by this afternoon, for an audition, and said you might be interested too. Want to come?”
“I don’t sing,” Axl replied, around a full mouth, chucking the wrapper aside.
“But you told me you did?” Duff cocked his head, confused.
“Did. That’s the opportune word there.” Axl whipped his head around, and then pushed his hair over his shoulders. “Where the fuck is my bandana?”
“It’s in the sink. There was a lot of blood on it,” Duff said with trepidation.
“Don’t ever, fucking, touch it again, asshole!” Axl screamed, ripping the sopping wet fabric from its water bath. He wrung it out, pausing slightly. “There was already blood on it.”
“I’m sorry I touched it,” Duff said sadly. Axl sighed, looking at the tall lanky blonde. Duff’s eyes drooped, as he tucked his chin into his chest. How could someone so big and powerful look so beaten, Axl wondered. He rolled his eyes, but placed a hand on Duff’s shoulder, causing the blonde to jump.
“Hey, man, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you.”
“I am sorry, dude,” Duff replied, then held out his hand. “I swear to you, I didn’t take this. I found it beside the dumpster in the alley.” He dropped Axl’s silver cross in his palm. “Must have slipped off your neck when the fighting started.”
Axl’s fingers danced along the silver chain. He wasn’t even a month old when he was baptized. Yet his parents gave him the silver chain, a persistent memory of the silver coins that betrayed Christ. He wore the reminder since he could remember. The cross…the cross came later. It was a present at his Confirmation, from the one person he never thought would give him something like this. Jeff.
Jeff had made it for him with his bare hands; made it to show respect for whom William really was, and that he accepted every aspect of him. Unfortunately, it only added to his guilt. He shook his head, placing it back in Duff’s hands. “Thank you for finding it Duff, but I’m done with this. I’m done with my past.”
Duff looked from Axl to the necklace. The silver rope dangled carelessly from his fingertips, the pendant piercing his palm.
“So, uh,” Duff began, pushing away his immediate questions. “Do you want to come with me, to check out the band later?”
“Naw, you go, and report back to me if they’re really cool, or just a bunch of lame ass posers. I’m gonna go make some money.”
The bright and shiny sunset strip still didn’t glimmer like the beacon, that had illuminated the TV screens back home, but it was bright nonetheless. Random rockers lined the gutters watching, waiting for a suit to stroll up, and offer them a contract, or someone to buy them food, or give them head, whichever came first.
Nobody needed workers, again. The stores were walls of cold reflective windows that bore nothing but streaks from window cleaner. Axl shuffled along, getting bored and more agitated with each step until he came to a telephone pole, littered with paper graffiti. Rancid colors encircled the wooden column, flashing garishly in the harsh afternoon sun. One pamphlet stuck out to him. Pristine crisp typeface, set on a pungently white paper, perfectly straight, meticulously stapled to the pole.
Frowning slightly, he tore it off the pole to read it. UCLA’s medical school was conducting a study on smoking, and needed human test subjects. Axl was sold on the promise of money, and a free lunch. Not because of the immaculate achievements of graphic design the flyer exuded.
Walking into the sterile clinic was like venturing into an uncharted jungle. Clammy and stuffy, the waiting room was bare save for a couple med students studying quietly. The receptionist, though nice, was formal and stiff.
Axl hated the lingering presence of death that wafted in the air. People entered hospitals, but only a few could navigate their way back out again. Trying to push the unease out of his mind, he set to work filling out the medical form as best he could. He grew bored of that and decided to make most of the shit up, including his name.
Once done, he walked around the waiting room, staring at the dreary sand colored walls that attempted to bring some warmth in this god-forsaken place. Poorly designed abstract paintings draped lifelessly on the decaying walls. When he first got to L.A., he was told the city was a jungle, and he was going to die. Biting his lip, he wondered if the premonition was coming true. Was he dead? No. Shit, he didn’t believe that voodoo shit. He was a Christian...no he couldn’t be that either, could he? His hand flew to his shirt collar. He wasn’t wearing his cross anymore.
Tracing his fingertips along the barren flesh, his gaze fell to the children’s corner. Two little boys sat next to each other, building block structures before knocking them over with their trucks. They were nestled amongst a canopy of vivid primary colored walls and exciting paintings.
He liked the paintings in the children’s section better, pictures of safaris, and rainforests. Animals roamed the canvases in their sheer, raw beauty, untouched by human hands, or society. This was art he could relate to. The world was a jungle, he thought. Sometimes, all he wanted to do was drift away into the secluded underbrush. In a way he had done that when he left home.
One of the boys playing laid his head against the other’s shoulder, coughing slightly. The other patted his head, as he tried to distract him with the fire engine. Their moms smiled at the pair as they talked. The boys were so happy together. No one ripped them apart.
“Fucking shit!” Axl yelled. The room turned on him, alarmed.
“Bill Bailey?” He stood up. The med student nodded. “This way please.” He followed her to room number 101.
A small gathering of people were scattered about the room. Some were glam rockers, UCLA students, and still others looked like reputable members of society. Axl glanced over the people with little interest save for one.
A cobalt shadow gleamed in the thick sterile air. The thin figure leaned thoughtfully against the floor-length window. A cigarette dangled at his skinny thigh. A sheen of blue danced in his black hair beneath a cowboy hat.
Axl nodded intermittently at the med student who explained the case study, but his focus kept drifting to the cowboy. Smiling to himself, the man looked like something he and Jeff used to dress up as to get sent home from school early. The black pants were tight and disappeared into heeled silver boots. A loose thrift store blazer hung over his thin frame. When he shifted his weight Axl saw a flash of a pink scarf, and a black and white Marilyn Monroe t-shirt.
“All right Mr. Bailey, do you need anything else?” Axl shook his head. The med student nodded and left.
Axl hit the box against the palm of his hand before pushing one up, catching it with his lips. Flicking the lighter, he inhaled the sweet tobacco. The rail thin brunette appeared beside him, silent as the night wind. Reaching out a slender hand, he took up a box tapping it three times against his thigh, before tearing the box open with his teeth. The simple gestures of his movements eradicated any doubt from Axl’s spinning mind.
“Jeffrey,” Axl said, low.
Cold umber eyes flickered up meeting Axl’s, body tensing. Turning, he looked at Axl curiously. His jaw clenched. This was a good sign. He recognized me, Axl thought.
“William.” The voice was still the same sultry ragged voice he remembered, but different. A smile spread like a bolt of electricity. The smile flew to Axl’s lips, as he suppressed a whimper. Those dark eyes warmed sparkling with flecks of sienna.
“Well, fuck dude, you know I don’t bite.”
Izzy laughed softly, throwing his arms around Axl’s neck, drawing him into his chest. Axl hugged back feverously, running his hands through Izzy’s dyed hair. The cowboy hat fell to the ground. Axl’s dream had come true. Finally, he saw Jeff’s reaction. Burying his nose deeper in the wild dyed mane, cheek brushing a large hoop earring, Axl exhaled. Izzy didn’t smell like fresh air and stolen bourbon. His scent was harder, more powerful, but he could pick out a small trace of his Izzy. Axl did not just say that.
Izzy pulled away to flip off the person who cleared their throat at them. Axl’s eyes flickered between the two slightly bewildered.
“I know. Couldn’t do that back home.” Izzy smirked.
“Hell no,” Axl mumbled, not letting his grip slacken from Izzy’s biceps. He yelled loudly, “Go fuck yourself!” Turning back to Izzy. “You look… different.”
Izzy smiled. “I like it.”
“You look like a chick or a gypsy.”
“That a compliment?” Izzy teased. Axl shrugged, closing his eyes for a second in mock annoyance. “Hey, let’s grab those recliners.” The two quickly jumped into the sagging leather chairs draping their limbs over the arm rests like kings.
“So when did you become a cowboy?” Axl asked, knocking Izzy’s cowboy hat off again with a swift kick. Izzy grinned, leaning down to pick it up. His smile illuminated his brown eyes, removing any grim from the porcelain orbs. Axl liked that. Izzy smashed the hat down over Axl’s head to his nose. Axl didn’t like that.
“I was going for a sort of glam Jungle Jim.”
“I remember that show,” Axl said, pulling the hat lower over his face. Dropping his voice to a low southern grumble, he said, “We used to watch it at your house, since my Dad hated TV. Always sucked when the electricity went out though.”
“Those were some of my favorite times, Will,” Izzy said. When you were in my bed, and no matter how hard the thunder pounded the house, you remained at my side, curled against my hip. In my arms, we made each other stronger, happier. “Bet you loved the paintings out in the children’s area.”
“Yeah, they reminded me a lot of that show. I watched you playing…there were kids playing with some toys and shit.”
“I don’t remember the toys, but I remember you did love animals. Well, except snakes. You still want kids, William?”
“Don’t call me William anymore. That fuck’s dead and gone. I’m Axl now, Axl Rose.”
“I like William.” Axl glared hard. Izzy rolled his eyes. “Fine. Then you have to call me Izzy Stradlin.”
“That’s a stripper’s name,” Axl commented. Izzy cocked a curious brow, the whites of his eyes illuminating in the glow of his lighter. “Did you just make that up?”
“Nope. A cowboy I found did.”
“Aw, still seeing imaginary people, Izz?” Axl sniggered, pushing Izzy’s shoulder. Izzy kicked him, laughing.
“Haven’t been in L.A. long, have you? Seeing a cowboy is pretty normal, seeing a nun, now that is unusual.” Izzy grinned mischievously.
“I think I’ve found my permanent home. Those nuns were damn scary in school with their fucking yard sticks.”
“High school wasn’t much better. Same fucking kids, same fucking attitudes, same fucking rules,” Izzy said. “Anyone burn it down yet?”
“The school or the church?” Axl asked with a sly smirk, unaware his fingers kept tugging at the top button on his shirt.
Izzy’s fingers touched the base of Axl’s neck, creeping under his shirt collar. Axl pressed his lips together harder, stilling the soft moan that danced on the tip of his cherry mouth.
“You finally gave up on religion?” Izzy withdrew his hand.
“The fuck you care!” Axl snapped.
“I don’t. I told you I don’t.” Izzy sighed. Axl pulled the hat down lower, trying to shield himself from the outside world again.
“I still have it, somewhere. You can have this back.”
“My bandana?” Izzy murmured, fingers traversing the fabric. “I thought I’d lost it.” He pointed an accusing finger at Axl. “And you claimed you hadn’t seen it, asshole!”
“I’m a liar, baby. I’m telling you the truth.” Axl laughed, kicking Izzy off the chair with his boot. Izzy leapt into his lap.
“Get off. You’re heavy,” Axl moaned.
“Not until you take this back.” Izzy held out the bandana.
“Fine, whatever. Now get off!” Axl wiggled his legs, sending a cackling Izzy to the floor again.
“How did you pick this dump to move to, anyway?”
“It was far from home, and I’ve always liked the ocean,” Izzy said, stomping out his cig.
Axl nodded, puffing on his cigarette.
“What made you come here?”
“Just did,” Axl responded. The pair fell into a charged silence. Neither knew exactly what else to say. Both grabbed for another cigarette. Fingers brushing the other’s, each pretended not to notice. Their blushes told otherwise.
“So, you have a place to live?” Izzy ventured.
“Yeah. I’m staying with a musician I met when I first got here.”
“Tall, gangly, blonde guy,” Izzy mused, his fingers flicked the ashes from his cigarette.
“How did you know he was blonde?” Axl frowned.
“Peroxide is plentiful on the strip. That, and aqua net.” Izzy shrugged. Axl rolled his eyes. Something had visibly shaken Izzy. He could tell, especially when the wise ass was sarcastic. It was usually a dead giveaway.
“So, are you a drummer in a rock band?”
“No. My kit got stolen out of my car a year ago. I play rhythm guitar now.”
“Good, you can start writing.”
“You always wrote decent shit in English when we had poetry.” So did you. You just never turned your shit in, Izzy thought with the faintest smirk. He remembered sneaking peaks at the poems when Axl had fallen asleep.
“I don’t want to know what you’re thinking.” Axl shook his head, knowing that trace of a smile.
“You still sing?” Izzy asked, trying to get back to their favorite subject. Music.
“I’m in a band. We need a singer.”
“Where do you want me?”
Izzy cocked his eyebrow puckishly. Before Axl could groan, Izzy said, “Gimme your arm.” Axl glared. Izzy smirked. “You always lost your school papers, so why the hell would I trust you with a piece of paper?”
“I never wrote a paper,” Axl pointed out. Izzy grinned, holding the cigarette away from his hair. Axl mumbled something incoherent.
“Secrets, secrets, are no fun,” Izzy teased.
“That’s all we were, Jeff.”
“We were a secret?” Izzy asked. “What was the secret? What was the secret, Will? You never told me.” Izzy studied Axl, but the red head’s face remained poker straight. Tapping his arm, Axl huffed impatiently. Izzy rolled his eyes, quickly pricking Axl’s arm with the point of the ink pen. Axl looked over the address imprinted on his arm.
Izzy leaned back, draping a long leg over the arm of his chair, exhaling smoke from his cigarette. Axl knew Izzy would fade into the calm silence. The kind of silence the quiet Axl loved to envelope himself in. The serenity of it was the ultimate escape from his home.
Watching Izzy lounge sedately in the chair, he bit back a smile. The tight t-shirt hugged his friend’s chest snuggly. Starring harder, he could almost see Izzy’s tiny nipples poking out…No. Axl wasn’t going to check out his friend’s nipples, again.
“Tony and Jill got hitched right out of high school,” Axl said, breaking the silence. He had been in silence for too long. He wanted more from his life. He wanted light, and piercing cries of passion, to escape the haunting phantoms of his pass.
“I give it a year,” Izzy said, exhaling a puff of smoke.
“She got his house, the kids, and his brand new car, a week before I left.”
“Well fuck, I should have put money on that one.” Izzy laughed, slapping his knee. With that encouraging laugh the silence lifted, and the two friends continued talking about old times.
At the end of the day, they stood outside the clinic. Izzy kept his hands in his pockets. Axl kept the black cowboy hat low obscuring his face from view.
“Well, man, I gotta split. See you around, okay?”
Axl nodded, not realizing Izzy was literally leaving again.
“We’re using our real names, now?” Izzy turned. An amused smile pricked his lips.
“I’ll see you around,” Axl said smugly. His dream had come true again. A few quick steps, and his arms were hugging Izzy’s angular body to his own. Izzy patted his shoulder, rubbing it slightly.
“Yeah. I hope you do, mama.” He whispered the last word. Axl drew away as the two walked in opposite directions. Izzy descended into the cold forbidden underbelly, Axl wasn’t a part of yet. Axl treaded into the unglamorous barren streets of the sunset strip. Each not yet seeing the vines they had tangled themselves in, but they felt it. The web of strings were pulling them back to the other, stronger than before.