Johnny slept in a T-shirt and pajama pants, spread in a haphazard eagle-like position in his bed. His sheets were curled around his legs and on his body in a way that showed that he was a reckless sleeper. His room was completely empty with the exception of the bed and the bags he'd brought in. The walls were white and there was beige carpeting on the floor. It seemed unbearably boring and bland, crying out for decoration, which Johnny was sure to provide whenever he got the chance to wake up from his deep slumber.
The door flew open and his Uncle Chuck stepped through bearing a bitter expression. He walked up to Johnny's face, the faint sunrise from the window beside his bed reflecting off of his slick skin. Chuck was literally centimeters away from Johnny's face as he took a deep breath and shouted.
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF THAT BED RIGHT NOW BEFORE I BEAT YOUR FUCKING ASS UP AND DOWN THE FUCKING STAIRS, BOY!” He screamed at the top of his lungs into Johnny's ears. Chuck stood there and looked down at Johnny, who didn't even budge. Chuck slapped his face around several times with no response. He checked his pulse. It was still going strong.
This kid must be in a coma, Chuck thought. I'll get him out of it. He walked into the next room and came back with a large blow horn held tightly in his right hand. He put it right next to Johnny's ears and pressed the button on top, turning his head and plugging the ear that faced him with his finger.
The horn blared with tremendous sound, echoing throughout the house. Chuck looked back at Johnny who was still inanimate and unphased. He tried the horn several times, but with no luck. He even covered Johnny's ear with the surface of it. If I have to blow his ears off and make him deaf, I will, Chuck thought.
Nothing. Chuck looked around the room, then suddenly got a better idea. He spotted the Night Bird leaning on the wall by the end of the bed. Chuck walked to Johnny's guitar and grazed one of the strings as he started to grab it.
“Don't touch that!” Johnny shouted, shooting up from the bed at the sound.
“Get up then,” Uncle Chuck said, turning and walking out of the room. “I'll be waiting. You have 30 minutes.”
Johnny rubbed his eyes, stretched, and yawned with the gracefulness of a cat as he climbed out of bed and walked to the bathroom. First day of school. Just like in Kindergarten. Only back then, he was scared to death of whether the other kids would like him or not. Now, he didn't give a fuck. No use in searching for friends, he'd let them come to him, if at all.
Johnny finished washing himself and changed into a long-sleeved beige flannel shirt, unbuttoned with a t-shirt underneath and the sleeves rolled up to his forearms, then put on some jean shorts and a pair of Nikes. He felt very comfortable physically, but mentally, he was exhausted. He looked down at his watch. 6:30am. He grabbed a couple of notebooks from his bags, those of which were mainly used to jot down ideas for songs he'd accumulated over the past year and put them in a thin drawstring backpack, which he threw over his shoulder. With everything else in hand, he picked up the Night Bird, hung its strap over his other shoulder, and brought his amp with him as he walked down the stairs. Down here, he could get a better glimpse of what the house actually looked like with the sunlight shining through. The interior was abnormally large for a house with only one occupant, spanning into a den with a nice plush couch and a plasma screen TV, an adjacent kitchen with a dining room table, and a living room with a large state-of-the-art computer. Johnny was impressed but barely had time to take in his surroundings for as soon as he stepped on the bottom floor, his Uncle was back on him again.
“Come on, boy, I don't have time to play 'look around like a dumb ass' with you all day. Let's go.”
Johnny held his tongue, knowing that if he spoke up, the only outcome would be his body in a world of pain. He headed for the door that Uncle Chuck was holding open for him.
“You bringing that guitar to school?” he asked with confusion. “With the amp?”
“You need a case on that thing,” he said, “unless you want kids fuckin' up the tuning pegs and tearing it up.”
“If we have time, I don't care.” The two walked outside to Uncle Chuck's Honda as Chuck closed and locked the door behind him. “Can I drive?”
“How old is you?”
“I is 17,” Johnny responded, mocking Chuck's semi-country/proper accent.
“17?! How long you been 17?”
“Since I turned 17.”
“Shit, I thought you were 13 or something,” Uncle Chuck said as he got into the driver's seat. “But yeah, hell no. I'd rather my car not be fucked up, thank you.”
“Whatever,” Johnny sighed, as he got into the car. “How old are you, Uncle Chuck?”
“Old age isn't so bad when you consider the alternative.”
“Yeah, you've got a point,” Chuck agreed, starting the car and pulling out of the driveway. The ride to the music store was slightly tense for Johnny as he hadn't been to one since the hit-and-run incident involving his father. He'd done most of the modifying to the Night Bird with the help of kits and supplies he'd ordered from magazines. In fact, as they pulled into the strip mall where the store was located, he made it clear that he would remain in the car, much to Chuck's frustration. He told him the appropriate size for the guitar case and asked him to pick up an extra Pick for backup, should he lose his current one.
Johnny sat alone in the car and took this time pulling off his shirt and carefully peeling off the bandage on his right arm. Slowly, he revealed a stylish tattoo of a black Fender wrapped in a wild vine. It was still sore and red around the edges but it was now absorbing the open air it had been deprived of. It should have been taken off much earlier, but it still looked fine, even though it had been deprived of air for a day. Johnny slipped some tat wax over it delicately as Uncle Chuck came back with a silk guitar case and a black lion-shaped guitar pick. He helped him zip the Night Bird up and once it was set, Chuck pulled the car out of the parking space.
Immediately after pulling out, the Honda was T-boned recklessly by an oncoming SUV from the right side. The car lurched violently, shifting Chuck and Johnny in their seats from the force. It caught them both off-guard and took them a second to react to the accident.
“Shit!” Chuck exclaimed after a second of breath.
Johnny looked into the SUV and saw two females sitting in the front. The driver opened her door and hopped out. She was a middle-aged white woman with brown hair and perfect posture, wearing summer-appropriate clothing and a pair of sunglasses that hid her eyes quite well, although Johnny could still see the angst in her face. Chuck approached her furiously. Wait a second, Johnny thought. He looked beside him and realized that Chuck had gotten out of the car before he hadn't even noticed.
“What the fuck?!” were the first words to fly from Chuck and the woman's mouths, almost in an intentionally quick baritone/soprano harmony. This instantly set off a reaction between the two; a torrent of screaming, fussing and child-like arguments echoed throughout the parking lot. Johnny sighed, holding his head in his hand, fingers covering his eyes. So much for getting to school early.
Johnny split his fingers slightly and looked through the crevice between them at the girl in the passenger seat of the SUV. Wow, he thought. He was surprised at the fact that he hadn't noticed her earlier. This girl was beautiful. She sat, looking down at the thick novel held in her hands just above the dashboard. Her hair was slick and black, but curled at its ends. Her face was shadowed from the nose up by the roof of the SUV, but her pretty pink lips glistened off the sunlight that was exposed on her mouth. However, what stood out the most were her eyes. The hollows of them were completely black with make-up, so much so that Johnny could only tell that she was looking down by the sight of the book.
Opportunity, opportunity. Without thinking, Johnny got out of the car, ducking low behind the collision so the bickering parents who were letting profanity and insults fly with the velocity of bullets, wouldn't notice him. When he was at the passenger window, he tapped on the glass twice. The girl looked up at him curiously, pushing down the button to her window until it was inside the door.
“Hello, Ma'am,” Johnny greeted smoothly.
“Hey,” the girl responded, making eye contact with him. Her big brown eyes sent chills down his spine, but he refused to break his nerve.
“They're really goin' at it over there, aren't they?” he chuckled, directing her toward the arguing adults. “Your mom?”
“Yeah, your dad?”
“No, Uncle,” Johnny said. The girl nodded and went back to her book. “I'm Johnny B.”
“Maybelline,” she responded, her eyes still on the pages. “May for short.”
“Cool, cool.” Johnny leaned on the door trying to take advantage of the awkward silence.
“So whatcha readin', Twilight?” he joked.
May looked straight ahead, closed her eyes, and took a deep heavily annoyed breath. “No.”
“Hey, I was only kiddin',” Johnny said, attempting to do damage control. He could tell that he had agitated her in some way.
“I'm sure you were,” May said, going back to the book.
The silence grew even more awkward. “So....” Johnny started, trying desperately to break the tension. “What school do you go to?”
“Garfield,” she said simply.
“That's where I'm headed too. It's my first day. Gonna be late though, looks like.”
“Well, have a good day,” May said, pressing the window button up, effectively cutting herself off from him. Wow, Johnny thought once again. What the hell?
“Bitch,” Johnny muttered loud enough for her to hear before walking away. May was not phased by the insult and continued to keep her attention on her precious book. As Johnny walked back to his car, he noticed that the argument had died down considerably. They were both writing down information, most likely insurance related, and as soon as Johnny was back in the Honda, Uncle Chuck waved at the woman and entered the car once again.
“Got that bitch's number,” he said triumphantly, just as he started the car.
“What?” Johnny was very confused. “After all of that, you walked away with her phone number? What about insurance information?”
“Man, fuck insurance. I'll pay for the repairs myself later. I was plannin' on giving this baby a makeover anyway. Why didn't you go over there and talk to her girl?”
Johnny glanced over at May as her mother pulled away from the scene. She still had her dark eyes glued to the pages of that book. “I don't know. Maybe she's a bitch.”
“Well, don't judge a book by its cover. That's how you miss out on things.”
“I didn't even get to see the cover,” Johnny muttered.
Johnny felt a little embarrassed that he’d been outdone by his own uncle, who was able to get a girl’s number even after arguing with her for five minutes in the middle of an empty parking lot, while he struck out during a simple conversation. Nevertheless, he kept his mouth shut about it until they pulled in front of Garfield High School at 7:42am. Johnny asked if Chuck would come in and get the tardy affair and registration deal situated, to which Chuck replied, “You're old enough to drive, right? That means, you're old enough to handle that shit on your own.”
“Whatever,” Johnny said, opening the door. His guitar case had a strap that was wrapped around his shoulder as he got out with his amp also in hand.
“I love you,” Uncle Chuck muttered before Johnny fully exited the car.
“What?” he said confusedly, turning toward him.
“I said, I love you,” Uncle Chuck repeated.
Awkward. “Um...Okay,” Johnny said turning to exit the car. Chuck grabbed his arm and pulled him back in.
“You not leaving this car without saying you love me, boy!”
“All right, I love you, Uncle Chuck,” he replied with irritation.
“All right...I'll pick you up at 2:15.”
“Okay. See you.” Johnny closed the door and watched the Honda drive away from the school. Time to get this over with, he thought. He walked into the large high school building and emerged within the empty halls of his new daytime habitat.
Nothing particularly special stood out about this place; It was just your average-looking high school, complete with orange and black designs for the school colors, trophy cases holding various achievements made by the alumni, and the familiar scent of drama and chaos lurking in the deepest corners of its classrooms. Johnny walked into the office just in front of him and confirmed his presence as they handed him a schedule. First period: World History. Fair enough. He left the office and followed the map he'd been given to the classroom. It barely took him any time at all before he was standing outside of the door knocking and the teacher came to let him in.
“Ah...” the blonde teacher said with a smile as she opened the door. “You must be the new blood. Come on in.”
Friendly teacher. Off to a good start. Johnny walked into the classroom and looked around. The teacher came over and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Class, this is the new student that will be joining us today. His name is Jonathan Goode. Do you go by another name?” she asked him with a little too much enthusiasm. Johnny hadn't had a teacher this perky since 1st grade. There was no real problem with that though. She wasn't hurting anyone with her attitude and that was all that mattered.
“Johnny B or just Johnny,” he replied.
“Okay, Johnny B. Where are you from?”
“New Orleans,” he lied. He hated telling people that he was from an enormously small town, very close to New Orleans and it had been a debatable subject whether or not it should be annexed in as another territory of the city, but to this day had not achieved this. It was better to skip the details. All they needed to know was that he lived in the state of Louisiana.
“Oh, how nice,” the teacher said with a large smile. “Well, I see that you're a musician by your equipment. Are you in a band?"
"No, but I'm thinkin' about startin' one," Johnny said, to which a few students in the class snorted in quick laughter. Johnny spotted them out of the crowd quickly.
"Well good luck to you with that, Johnny B. I'm Mrs. Alter and this is my class. You can take that seat over there by the window. Class, make him feel welcome.”
By now, Johnny's perception of this school was changing rapidly. He had never seen a class so segregated. Not racially, but rather socially. Pockets of different social groups stood out to him like mold spots on bread. A group of preppy white teenagers whispered amongst themselves as soon as they saw him, acting as if they couldn't be seen, even though they were in the front row. In the back was a group of black people, the guys wearing loose baggy clothing with sagging pants, the girls wearing their hair colored and wild with tight clothing. They stared at him sourly. Another group of punk rock-style students paid him absolutely no attention and the occasional loners that might have found him remotely interesting neglected to show it in anyway. This is the 21st Century, he thought to himself, there's no room for this kind clique bullshit.
As Johnny took his seat, one of the students from the group of preppy teens turned to him once finished chuckling amongst the group and asked, "Where are you from again?"
"So why are you here, because of Katrina?"
"No. That happened years ago, of course that's not why I'm here."
The student snorted as he held back laughter and turned back to the group who began to snicker as if they couldn’t be heard by him. One of them was imitating his accent. Johnny stared at them with a dangerous look. He gazed around the classroom and saw the rest of them giving him the same smirks, conversing among their friends as they silently passed judgment against him.
He might as well have been looking at the entire school in that one classroom. One year in this place. It was bound to be a long and tedious one. He had to find some way, any way to entertain himself while he endured it and starting this band was the best way to do that. Unfortunately, based on what he was seeing now, it looked like that would be harder to accomplish than he'd originally thought.
He went through his first and second classes as if he were invisible. He said nothing to no one unless spoken to. A couple of random people asked him questions about his guitar and about where he came from. It seemed like the idea of a black guy playing guitar or having such a peculiar style was daunting for such a low class of people that thought so highly of themselves. Johnny saw no evidence of diversity within this place. So many cliques, so many divided social groups; much worse than his old school. At least they were diverse enough in style to get along, even if they were all mainly the same race. It was grotesque but nothing disgusted him more than the way they seemed to look down on him every time they laid eyes in his direction.
Disparaging sneers and stares of disdain fell on him like rain from the storm of conformity. As he walked to lunch, nothing about this stopped; it was like the Anti-Christ had stepped foot in their sacred school. They couldn't keep their eyes off him, couldn't refrain from talking about him. Johnny got his food, ate it quickly, and made use of his spare time by walking around the campus to get away from all of the negativity.
He made his way outside and walked behind the school, somewhere near the football/soccer field. He needed to clear his mind of his bitterness for the place, or else he'd find himself lashing out against one of them. It was amazing how quickly the infectious repugnance of this environment was able to make itself noticeable. This school alone was worst than all of Louisiana combined. It didn’t seem as if he would even be able to survive a year in a hell like this. After a few minutes, he realized that he stopped thinking about it. He decided to focus his mind on something else, his only solace in a situation like this: music. As he walked, he found himself humming a tune that had just come into fruition in his mind. He walked to the rhythm of it and began to hear an entire band play his selection at maximum volume. The lyrics of it were nothing but muffled gibberish but the way it blended with the music made it beautiful and Johnny could still feel its impact. He'd had feelings like this before; it was the feeling of a new song idea swimming in his mind. He needed to get this down before he forgot it.
His plan was to go around the left corner of the school, take out his guitar and notebooks, and record what he was hearing in his head at that moment. Unfortunately, since Johnny had entered another frame of thought, he had not anticipated what happened next. As he prepared to round the corner of the building, someone from the other side drove their fist directly into Johnny's stomach, knocking the wind out of him. He doubled over and dropped his things, but recovered quickly as the figure proceeded to send another blow directly into his face. Johnny grabbed the fist that was coming toward his left side, yanked it back with his right hand, and spun the guy around, pinning him against the brick wall with his forearm at the back of assailant's neck.
“Dude, chill!” the guy grunted, his cheek pressed against the brick firmly.
“What the hell was that?” Johnny exclaimed. “You punched me in the stomach!”
“I thought you were somebody else!”
“You were about to hit me again! You didn't see that I wasn't the person you were lookin' for?”
“I thought you were one of his friends, now ease up, man!” the guy yelled.
Johnny grabbed the guy's shirt from the back and threw him to the ground to get a better look at him. The guy was just as tall as Johnny but a little thicker. His hair was jet black, his skin was pale, and thick bags rested under his eyes from lack of rest but he otherwise seemed relatively healthy. He was wearing a green sleeveless shirt, tight green jeans, a couple of dog tags on a chain around his neck, and a pair of sandals on his feet. It was the first view of interest, first glimpse of individualism Johnny had seen here, seeing as his appearance didn't immediately reveal what type of clique he might have been affiliated with, that is unless this guy just decided to be a little tacky for a day.
“Hey, I know you,” the guy said in wonder. “You're the new guy, Johnny B. Goode.”
“How do you know that?”
“Everybody knows you by now,” the guy said with a smile. “Word spreads like wildfire in this school, especially word of a newcomer who everyone thinks is a loser.”
“What'd you say to me?” Johnny said threateningly, drawing in closer to the guy. He swung down and punched him in the face violently then snatched him up by his shirt. The guy spit blood on the ground beside him and laughed.
“I don't know exactly what you're trying to accomplish, my friend, but you won't build any kind of reputation by beating me up,” he said with a chuckle. “I'm just like you, at the bottom of the food chain with the nerds and the other losers around here.”
“You're not like me at all,” Johnny said forcefully. “If you were like me, you wouldn't determine your social status on other people's opinions.”
“Social statuses aren't an opinion, they're fact,” the guy said formally. “Otherwise, it wouldn't be a social status. But I never said that sociality was important. I'm just stating what others think.”
“Do you think I care what others think?” Johnny replied with anger, getting up to grab the Night Bird's case and the amp. He began to walk away. His idea was long gone thanks to this guy. A potentially amazing song was now lost in the back of his mind.
“For the record, I'm not your average bottom feeder,” the guy said, getting to his feet. “Guys like me don't actually fight back like I was trying to do.”
Johnny turned back to him. “What, so you think you're the king of the fuckin' world just because you hit me?”
“No," the guy said, circling in front of him. "I'm saying I'm the king of the fucking school, disguised as an average guy, because I don't let other people tell me what to do or think. I don't fall into a category and I don't try to fit in. I just do my own thing.”
Johnny stepped up to the guy and stared him in the face. “Right.”
There was a long pause as Johnny kept his eyes glued to him. “You going to kiss me or something?” the guy asked playfully.
“You're a joke,” Johnny said shaking his head as he bumped past him, heading back to the cafeteria. “You're one of those guys who think they're so awesome because they're independent. There's almost nothin' more deadly to the world than an ego-driven maverick.”
“I agree,” the guy said following behind him closely, “with that last statement only. An ego-driven maverick is usually one who thinks they can rule the world by themselves. They think they can make it all by their lonesome, without any form of assistance, armed only with their personal belongings and their own arrogant attitude, judging the judgmental, unaware of the fact that they are sticking themselves on the same level as the people they despise so much. Yeah, that's an ego-driven maverick, all right. Sound familiar?”
Johnny stopped in his tracks and whipped around. “Are you tryin' to say somethin'?”
“Only when I have something to say.”
Johnny sized him up once again. He wasn't sure what to make of him. “What's your name?”
“Some call me the Prophet. Some call me Tran which is short for Transcendentalist-”
“What the fuck is your name?!” Johnny repeated, losing his patience.
“Joseph. Joseph Flits.”
“Well, Joseph. Joseph Flits. What's the point of you stayin' here and botherin' me?”
“All I'm trying to say, is that your decision to remain on your own in a dog-eat-bitch world is a bad idea. You're just asking to be swallowed whole by these social sharks. You'll never get anywhere with the attitude you have. But there is strength in numbers, my friend. If you want to, I can help you find the people you need to have your back and make your stay here at Garfield High an enjoyable one.”
“I don't need people to have my back-”
“I know, Johnny B, I know. You're the tough loner that wants to be on his own, but I'm only trying to help. Maybe you don't need people to have your back but trust me, you will need people on your side nonetheless and I can make that happen for you. You can trust me on that.”
Johnny thought about it for a moment. Last time he'd put his trust in someone, they'd let him down horrifically, as such with everyone else he'd trusted, which was why he had become a loner in the first place. But now this guy, Joseph Flits, was asking him directly for his trust, a guy he'd never seen in his life before this time. If he declined, he'd be on his own again, gritting his teeth as he went, day by day through the halls of this school, facing the horrors that it possessed alone. But if he chose to accept Joseph's offer, he'd make the first friend he'd had in a number of years as well as opening himself up to new opportunities that would, hopefully, keep his mind off of the negative energy given off by the school. Unfortunately, he'd also be opening himself up to being betrayed once again. Should I risk it? He thought.
“Well?” Joseph pressed.
Johnny sighed and paused in thought. “I need to find at least 3 to 6 people.”
“For what, if you don't mind me asking?”
“I want to form a band.”
“In your senior year? You don't feel like its a little too late?”
“It's never too late to make music,” Johnny said proudly.
Joseph chuckled. “Well you're in luck, Johnny B, because you've just become friends with the greatest bassist in the entire school. And yeah, I know exactly the people you'd be willing to work with.”
“I have requirements though,” Johnny said sternly. “I need people I can trust. I need people that are passionate about all music but particularly my kind of music. I need people that are easy to get a hold of and I need people that can play their instruments as good as I can play mine.”
“I need a little more to go on if you want me to find the best. What kind of music are you aiming for and what kind of instruments? And do you mind if they all play by ear?”
“That's fine with me, I actually prefer it. I'm goin' for a Classic Rock sound with any kind of genre influence we can add. I need a rhythm guitarist, a drummer, someone on keys, and a lead singer.”
“All right, I know the right people....wait.” Joseph's face lit up. “You didn't mention a bassist.”
“Well you were just flaunting your skills just a second ago, so I figured you were already on board,” Johnny said with a mostly apathetic shrug, but it spoke much more to Joseph. He held out a hand for him to shake. Johnny looked at it for a moment, then finally shook it firmly. Joseph smiled.
“You won't be sorry, my friend,” he said with excitement. “I'm going to make sure you make it out here.”
“You let me worry about that,” Johnny said, walking off with his new friend by his side. “I want you to make sure we make it where it really counts.”
Stone Free by Jimi Hendrix