The crowd at the Swivel Spot the following Wednesday was pretty much what Rory had expected it to be: mostly in their thirties, mostly white. Some probably listened to WABB, though likely not on Sunday nights—they’d be catching up on their reading or binging on whatever British period drama had recently started streaming. He looked and saw a certain weary optimism reflected in the lenses of their oversized glasses.
“I feel sorry for them,” Mary murmured. “Being twisted around like this just because they like good music.” She leaned close to Rory’s ear. “You think they might get dangerous?”
Rory surveyed the standing grove of skinny jeans. “This crowd? Could you really see them turning violent? Even under a spell?”
“A room full of young, urban intellectuals suddenly picking up hand axes while gentle acoustic pop plays in the background?” Mary blinked. “Obviously you haven’t been watching horror movies for the last decade. You know what First Song Magic can do.”
Rory sighed. “I know. Mostly, I think they’ve just been lulled into acceptance. Which is its own kind of dangerous.”
They made for a spot on the far right side of the room, where the metal railing at the edge of the floor riser met the wall and a shadow fell like a curtain from the ceiling. Rory saw the two of them through the crowd’s eyes: one more faded old rock-and-roll duo pawing at each other in the corner while the tide of youth pulled away from them toward the stage. That, to him, was fine. They took care to keep their palms turned away from the rest of the audience while they ran their fingertips over them. When Rory traced a pattern behind Mary’s earlobe, he kept his movements small, and Mary did the same for him. Nobody needed to see those symbols who wasn’t ready to carry their weight.
“Maybe this won’t be what we think it is,” Rory said.
“That would be nice. So it’s probably exactly what we think it is.”
The lights overhead dimmed, and a person with tattoos climbing both their arms jumped onto the stage. “All right, thank you all for coming out tonight. How you all doing?” they said into a microphone, to light applause. “We’ve got a great show for you tonight. In fact, we’ve got a lot of great shows coming up, but—nah, you don’t want to hear about all that right now, right?” Agreement and encouragement rippled through the audience. “So check out our flyer up front before you head out tonight, check out our website, and right now, please give it up for Mister… Jules… Horace!”
The emcee stepped away from the column of light as the curtain opened, revealing the minimalist setup that Rory knew well from decades of small club shows. There was a drummer, curled like a mad scientist with a quarter-moon back over a kit that had probably spent at least one decade since 1968 in the back of someone’s garage. There was a bassist, her head already swaying and keeping time to a song that had yet to play.
And in between them, on the edge of Rory’s view of the drummer, was Jules Horace, the supposed music mage. The chub that had yet to drain away from his cheeks was that of a third-grader on school picture day. His glasses had the same overzealous dark frames worn by people throughout the audience. His hairstyle featured bangs that appeared to be slicked down with spit.
“How’s everyone doing tonight?” Jules’s laughter quivered over the sound system. “I guess Jain already asked you that question, huh?”
Mary didn’t turn her head. Rory knew she could see his raised eyebrows anyway. “I still don’t trust him,” she whispered as the opening chords of “What I Lose Now” rolled through the audience.
The band played “What I Lose Now” fourteen more times after that. Throughout each iteration, Rory and Mary stood with their arms crossed and watched the members of the crowd, who danced on the balls of their feet through one go and held up phones with images of lighters flickering on their screens through another. “Funny story about this next one,” Jules said. He told an anecdote about his dog, who used to get confused whenever he and his brother hid her favorite squeaky toy behind their backs. “This one’s for her,” Jules announced. “It’s called, ‘What I Lose Now.’” And he strummed his way through the same six chords he’d been playing all night, to eager applause.
Not once did he ask his audience to do anything. “He didn’t even mention the merchandise table,” Rory said to Mary after the show. He knew that his expression matched hers and that their faces were hanging long with confusion as they nodded to Nic, the Swivel Spot’s manager, and made their way backstage.
The door to the closet-turned-dressing room was halfway open, but Rory knocked anyway. “Mr. Horace?” he called.
Jules Horace stood just inside, next to a folding table, clenching his hands together so tightly that he seemed to be trying to tie his fingers in bows. He glanced from Rory to Mary and back, and back, and back again. “Yes, hi,” he said. “That’s me. Hello. Um. And you are?”
Mary cleared her throat and sniffed while Rory extended a hand. “Rory Reed, Ninety-Eight Point Three, The Force.”
Jules’s shoulders released about twenty-five pounds of tension. “Oh, WABB too, right?” He laughed. “I listen on Sundays. Can’t, um, imagine anyone from The Force being interested in my music.”
Mary stepped forward. “Mary Midnight, ten to one weeknights on The Force.” Her voice skated across black ice.
“Oh. Well.” Jules laughed again, more quietly this time. “There’s that, then.”
“We’re actually both interested in your music,” said Rory.
“Very interested,” said Mary. She stared at Rory, and they stepped to either side of Jules like players taking positions on opposite sides of a tennis court. Mary nodded, and Rory understood—the first serve was his.
“‘What I Lose Now’ is a great song,” he said.
“Yeah, so was your first one,” said Mary. “What was that one called again?”
“In fact, if I remember correctly, those two sound a lot alike.”
“A lot alike, sugar. Kinda sounded like your last song tonight.”
“And your first song.”
“And every song in between.”
Jules’s gaze had been bouncing from one to the other, slammed by the power in their voices. Now, it came to rest on Rory. “You know?” he said. “You can hear it?”
“We can hear it.” Rory was about to break open the lecture he had prepared: about how they had seen this before, how he understood, how he knew why so many artists tried so hard to cling to the magic of that debut single. But something in the look Jules wore stopped him. It wasn’t just the tears, he realized. Those he’d seen before, too. It was what he saw beneath them: a smile, clean and joyful.
“Then you can help me,” Jules whispered. “How do I make it stop?”