From the author: It's Mr Bad Man's most popular download - so why don't they remember recording it?
"Debs, where'd you get this?" Steve Summers, rock legend and coolest step-dad ever, is looking at me like he's seen a ghost. Not the reaction I'm expecting.
"The internet," I tell him. "It's on all the download sites."
"And it's listed under our stuff?"
I nod. "Isn't it you?"
Steve doesn't answer, just reaches out and hits play again. He frowns as he hears the muffled voices, and I know he's trying to work out what they're saying. Someone growls out bitter-sounding words, and then out of the pause that follows comes a long slow sound. It sends a shiver down my spine, just like it did the first time I heard it. Steve jabs a finger at the speaker as the cello works its way through a sequence of notes.
"That's Jonathan, I'd put money on it. And that," he gestures as a soft voice joins in, "is Adam."
I nod again. The voice that whispers silkily over the cello is definitely Adam Wynne. That or an imitator so good it's scary.
"That'll be Nick on cymbals." Steve explains for my benefit as a hissing sound comes in, and then the bass erupts into the song like a gatecrasher. "Sounds like me on bass too," he remarks thoughtfully.
"So it is Mr Bad Man then?"
It's a moment before he replies. "It's definitely us," he confirms. "Trouble is, we never recorded it."
"Oh, come on Steve," I protest. "You just said it was the band!"
"It is," he tells me soberly. "But like I said, we never made it."
"Then who did? You mean it's a tribute band?"
"No." Steve is dismissive. "I've heard a lot of tributes. The one thing they never get right is Adam."
I know what he means. There's something special about Adam's voice, like he's singing just to you. When he sings about love you find yourself falling in love, and when he sings about breaking up you feel like your heart is breaking too. With that and his looks it's no wonder half the girls in the world fell in love with him. I would have too, except I was too young to understand what all the fuss was about. I only got into them later, when Steve married my Mum.
"Maybe it's just Adam, recording with someone else?" I suggest tentatively. The look Steve gives me says it's not quite the stupidest thing I've ever said.
"It's us. It's the band," he insists. "When you've been in a band you just know." He shrugs. "Adam wouldn't have sat on something like this. It's good. Besides, he hasn't been anywhere near a studio since our last album."
The song builds to a climax and Steve stops rather than talk over it. Adam's voice is raw, like he's shouted himself hoarse, or he's crying or something. Even the instruments sound strained. Steve looks uncomfortable as the bass and drums drop out until it's just Adam and the cello. I feel the same. It's too personal, like reading someone's diary or walking in on your parents having sex. It makes me wonder if they know it's one of Mr Bad Man's most popular downloads.
Finally the cello fades out, its last note dying away in time to hear Adam's harsh whisper as he goes over the chorus in a rush of breath.
"If I could forget your face,
Deny the love that left a stain,
Lose the warmth of your embrace,
Lose the love to lose the pain,
I wouldn't mind.
I wouldn't mind,
To lose the love to lose the pain."
The CD player whirs as the laser goes back to the beginning. In the silence I realise I have goosebumps on my arms. Steve sits quietly for a long time.
"Mind if I keep this?" he asks finally.
"Sure. It's on my i-Pod anyway."
"Thanks." There's a frown on his face that means he's trying to puzzle something out, like when him and Mum are doing the crossword. He's as hooked as I am, and I hope it means what I think it means.
A fortnight later and it's obvious Steve's forgotten all about it. The CD sits on his desk gathering dust and he doesn't mention it again. I take matters into my own hands, switching it for the one he's got in the stereo because he never checks. Sure enough when he gets home, instead of the Rolling Stones he gets an earful of Adam angsting at him. He gives me a look, because I'm not supposed to mess with things in the study what with it being full of guitars and awards and stuff, but he doesn't say anything and he doesn't turn it off.
I start playing it in my room after that, loud enough that he can hear. So long as he doesn't forget about it the mystery will bug him, he's like that. Normally I play Mr Bad Man stuff while he's out, because it embarrasses him to hear it on the radio, but now I start being a pain on purpose. Maybe if he remembers how cool it was to be in the band he'll call up one of the others and they'll figure out what's going on.
It only takes another two weeks of playing the song at top volume for Steve's curiosity to get the better of him. He's off to see Jonathan, and he's taking me along. Mum doesn't mind for once. She doesn't normally like me meeting Steve's rock ‘n' roll friends in case they're a bad influence but she met Jonathan at the wedding and liked him, and anyway he's a teacher so you can't get much more respectable than that, right?
"Are you sure Jonathan won't mind me coming? He's around kids all week, he probably wants the weekend off."
"Better not ask him to teach you anything then," Steve replies. "He probably had enough of teaching kids to play the spoons at the wedding reception." I blush and he grins. "Don't worry kid, I checked with him and it's fine."
We get in the car, which long ago stopped being a disappointment. When Mum introduced me to Steve I was expecting him to drive something classy and expensive, or one of those camper vans. Something quirky. Not a regular road car like thousands of other people drive, a few years old and never quite clean. I put the radio on, not the CD, because the one place Steve can't stand to hear his songs played is in the car and that goes for all the stuff he's been a session musician in too.
He can't escape the good old days though. Less than ten minutes later a familiar, urgent-sounding bass line comes on, matched note for note by the guitar.
"Ch-ching," he mutters, like he always does whenever something's on that will get him royalties. I've always wondered how much he gets, because it can't be much with it being split four ways and all, but Mum says it's rude to ask.
I sing along. Scream Blue Murder's one of their earlier songs, back when Jonathan mostly just played guitar. You can always pick the early tracks, because they didn't start using the cello and piano and things until later.
We drive for most of the morning. We're meeting Jonathan at his school, some rich boys' school in the middle of the countryside. It's so posh they've even got their own mini recording studio. When we get there I gawp like I did when I met Jonathan and Nick at Mum's wedding. The school's huge, all grey stone like a castle, and it's got its own chapel that's bigger than the church in our town. Steve's been here before, so he goes straight in like he owns the place. We don't go to the studio though, but to the canteen where Jonathan said he'd meet us. I nearly laugh when we get there, because even though they're rich they've got those crap plastic chairs like everyone else, all bright orange and clashing with the décor.
Jonathan's sitting at one of the tables, looking all teachery with his cup of coffee and pile of marking. He looks up as he hears us coming, and smiles. He's got glasses now, which he never did in any of the band photos, and he looks a lot nicer with them. I blush as I realise I'm staring but it doesn't look like he's noticed. Maybe he's just used to it, because I bet even rich kids listen to Mr Bad Man.
"Steve, Debbie, hi." He gets up and shakes hands with us and it's a bit like being at school, but then Steve pulls him into a hug and there's a lot of grinning and back-slapping. Nick comes in then, and there's more of the same. He gives me a kiss on the cheek and looks around.
"No Adam?" he asks.
"Not yet," Jonathan replies mildly. "Give him time."
Steve snorts but doesn't say anything. Jonathan said the same thing at the wedding, and Adam didn't turn up. I was gutted, but at least I got to meet the rest of the band. Steve was really upset, even though Jonathan said it was probably because of the press. Photographers came to the reception and hung around outside and I got my picture in a few magazines, which shut up the people at school who didn't believe the legendary Steve Summers is really my step-dad. Adam's avoided the media like the plague since Mr Bad Man split, he's even been in court for punching a photographer a couple of times. Steve always says the last album took it out of him, but I think it was the car accident while they were recording. Some girl died in it, and none of the songs on that album sound like his heart was really in it. Steve won't talk about that though.
We get some drinks, then wait in the canteen for a bit. Steve, Jonathan and Nick talk about when they were in the band and all the things they got up to. Mum doesn't let Steve tell those stories at home so I'm listening really hard, and then all of a sudden this voice says, "Steve, I swear your groupies are getting younger every year."
Everyone goes quiet. Adam's in the doorway, looking so different from the album covers that for a moment I'm not sure it's really him. His hair's longer, kind of hanging in his eyes like he hasn't bothered to cut it, and he hasn't shaved in several days. Steve's looking towards the door with a strange expression on his face, and I'm staring and just know I'm bright red, and then Jonathan gets up and extends his hand.
"Adam. Late as usual," he teases and they shake hands. There's no hugging and it looks like they prefer it that way. Nick gets up and shakes Adam's hand as he steps into the room. Steve goes over and there's this moment like when cats meet for the first time and aren't sure if they like each other, but then they shake hands as well.
I'm still trying not to stare when Adam glances over Steve shoulder and spots me. My stomach does this quivery thing like butterflies then, because Adam's still quite good-looking even though he's old enough to be my dad. Not that old though, it's not like he's wrinkly or anything.
"This is my kid, Debbie," Steve introduces me. "Debs, this is the elusive Adam Wynne."
Adam comes over to me and shakes my hand. "Hello Debbie."
I've got all this stuff I want to say, that I've spent ages practising so it sounds cool and mature. But the instant Adam's hand touches mine I become an idiot fangirl. All that comes out is a squeaky little "Hi!" and I blush so hard my ears go hot.
Jonathan gets some more coffee and leads us out of the canteen. I wander along with Steve while Nick makes smalltalk with Adam at the back. The rest of the school is as posh as the outside, with shiny floors and loads of trophies in cabinets. We end up in the music department, in this classroom that's at least twice the size of the ones at my school. There's a piano in the corner, all glossy and black. At the other end of the room there's a drumkit set up, and a guitar and bass on stands next to amplifiers.
"What's going on?" Adam's hanging back in the doorway looking wary like he expects someone to jump out at him.
"Sorry. Some of the boys had practise this morning." Jonathan's casual about it but Adam doesn't look convinced, especially when Steve wanders over and starts checking out the instruments.
"Nice," he says. "I wish we'd had some of this at my school."
"And miss out on the working class rock musician scene?" Nick jokes.
"Yeah, ‘cos the cello got that across so well," Steve replies ironically. He picks up the bass, glancing across at Jonathan to check it's okay. He shrugs the guitar strap over his shoulder then checks the strings are tuned and picks out a few notes. Nick's already set himself up at the drums when Steve picks out the bass line to my favourite song, Dark Circles. Jonathan picks up the guitar and before I know it they're all playing. Adam's still hanging back, looking nervous like he's the new kid in class. There's no way he's going to sing, so before things get awkward I head over to the mike.
My voice is a bit croaky at first, but it's mostly nerves – I'm actually performing with Mr Bad Man! Well, most of them anyway. The sound is raw because they've not played together in a long time, plus I'm no diva, but it washes over me and I get a buzz that feels like I'm floating. I glance over my shoulder and Steve gives me a wink.
Then I see Adam and nearly choke. He hasn't moved and he's watching us with an expression that's caught somewhere between hunger and loathing. It hits me clear as day that he hates the whole thing, being in a band and all. It makes me wonder why he came.
If the others notice it doesn't show in their playing. Maybe they're just used to him being weird. I close my eyes and get into it again, and when we reach the end of the song his expression is closed up and unreadable like it was when he arrived. He waits until the others have put down their instruments before he speaks.
"What's this about, Jonathan? You didn't drag me all the way out here for a jamming session."
"No, I didn't." Jonathan's as unruffled as usual. I guess he'd have to be, being a teacher. "There's something I wanted to show you." He goes over to the CD player. "The voices are barely audible, but I managed to find a cleaner version." He presses play and everyone goes quiet.
The first voices are still too muffled to make out, but then Steve's voice comes out clear enough to hear the words even though he sounds like he's underwater.
"Ad, you sure about this?"
"Let's get it over with," Adam grates bitterly and then the song starts.
Adam and Nick look shocked, like Steve did the first time he heard it. Jonathan sits down and watches, while Steve's looking everywhere but at the rest of the band. The sound of the cello freezes them and Nick shoots Adam a startled look as the singer's voice whispers and then soars.
Halfway through, Adam sits down. He sounds like he's tearing himself apart with heartache: in real life he's gone pale. No one makes a sound, or even moves, and Steve exchanges a glance with me as the instruments fade out and the harsh whisper croaks out of the speakers.
Adam's gone very still, looking at the floor. Someone says, "Ad?" very softly and he looks up.
"What the fuck was that?" he growls, but he doesn't look angry.
"Debs found it on the internet," Steve tells him. "She wondered why we never released it."
"We never recorded that."
"But it's us!" Nick interrupts. "I can hear it even if you can't. And on the beginning, that's you and Steve. How can we not remember a song like that?"
"It's a hoax." Adam's voice is flat and angry. He turns away and starts towards the door.
"How?" Steve asks. "The instruments, yeah that's possible, but the voices? Did you record it with someone else and not tell us?"
Adam turns back, looking trapped. "You know damn well I haven't recorded a thing since the band broke up."
"No I don't. We've hardly heard a word from you. How are we supposed to know anything?"
"Is it you?" Jonathan's voice, calm and reasonable, breaks in. Adam stares at him. "It's a fair question. If you recorded it just tell us so we can all go home with the mystery solved."
"It isn't me. It can't be anyone else, but it isn't me." Adam sounds frustrated, and maybe a bit scared.
Steve sighs and rubs his eyes. "I don't suppose anyone fancies playing it, see if it jogs a memory?"
They all go quiet at that. Adam breaks first.
"Don't give me that," Jonathan chides gently. "You could sing it note for note right now."
"I don't know the words."
Jonathan hands Adam what can only be a lyrics sheet, crushing his argument. I can see a little-boy look on his face, and just know he's about to say he doesn't want to, but Nick's already nodding.
"I'm in. It'll be interesting."
Adam glances over at the instruments and the fight goes out of him as he realises how neatly Jonathan set him up. He slouches over to the mike and waits for the others to get ready, which takes a few minutes as Jonathan has to get a cello out from a store cupboard. I creep over to a chair in the corner, trying not to draw attention to myself and break the soap bubble moment. It's like a dream. I'm so busy watching Adam I don't notice when Jonathan's ready. The first note of the cello makes me jump. I've never heard one played up close before and it's louder than I was expecting. For a moment it doesn't look like Adam's going to sing, but Jonathan begins the sequence again and this time the singer joins him.
The music drifts through the room like smoke. It sends shivers over my skin, better live than it ever was on CD. Something's missing, though. Adam's singing the words but not the meaning. His deadpan delivery makes it sound seriously creepy. Nick and Steve start playing and I don't think they've noticed. The smell of rain comes in the open window. The downpour overlays the song, sounding like it's a part of it. There's the sound of a car going fast on a wet road. A note of desperation creeps into Adam's voice just like on the recording.
Tires screech, people scream.
There's the twisting and crunching of metal and the sudden stink of petrol. Adam's staring out the window like he's seen a ghost. I follow his gaze and go cold. All I can see is the lush green grass right outside and a blue, cloudless sky. The band is still playing. Steve looks like he wants to throw the guitar down, and the cello sounds ragged. Adam's voice is almost lost beneath the instruments. Tears are tracking down his cheeks.
Someone's still screaming. It sounds like they're right in the room with us.
"Kate! Kate, no!" It's Adam's voice but when I look at him he's still singing, sort of. His lips are barely moving and his eyes are wide and staring at nothing, like he's stoned. Steve looks the same, his fingers moving automatically on the strings even though he looks like he's gone somewhere else. They all do.
"God, Kate, no," the other Adam says. He goes quiet and there's nothing but the music and the rain, and underneath them a quiet sobbing. The rain washes the smell of petrol away and I feel a sudden stab of relief as I hear sirens in the distance.
I'm the only one who feels it. Steve's crying, something I've never seen before, and Jonathan's face is twisted with grief. Nick gives a sob and throws down his drumsticks. They clatter against the wall like old bones. Steve stops playing a moment later, turning away and tearing the guitar strap from his shoulder as if it's burning him.
It's just Adam and the cello. His voice rises to meet it, cutting it off in a scream of rage and grief as he sinks to his knees. He's rocking back and forth singing the chorus one last time, and I realise through his sobbing that he's singing different words.
"I wouldn't mind," he whispers, "I wouldn't mind, to keep the love and keep the pain."
Steve's the first one to him, dropping to his knees and holding him tight. A moment later they're all there and it's like I'm invisible. I'm about to creep out, give them some privacy, but then Adam speaks.
"I lied about the accident. About what happened." His voice wavers as he chokes out more words. "We'd got engaged. Kate had just told me she was pregnant. We were going away, to celebrate. I was going too fast. I lost control."
"Oh God, Adam. Why didn't you ever tell us?"
"I couldn't. I… I lied. About afterwards. I lied when I said I was unconscious. We knew what was coming. We talked about it. She was badly hurt, bleeding. We couldn't get out. I sat there and watched her die. Her and our child. And then I waited until the sun came up and someone found us."
He's crying again. Before I know it I've put my arms around him.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry I made you remember."
"I wanted to forget so badly. I wanted it and I made it happen."
"We all forgot," Steve says softly. "I don't know how you did it, but that song…" He shudders. "I didn't even remember her name until today."
"I wanted it," Adam repeats. He clings to me like a child and we stay like that until he's cried himself out.
After a while Steve sends me outside. They've got a lot to talk about, the four of them, and I'm glad for the excuse to get away. It's a long time before they leave.
Steve comes out to the car looking drained. He turns off the radio and for once I don't complain.
"Will he be alright?" I say into the silence.
Steve nods, then thinks better of it and shrugs. "I guess. As well as he can be. Jonathan's going to make sure he gets home."
"Do you remember it properly now, what happened?"
Steve negotiates his way out of the school grounds before he replies. The sun's going down already.
"After the crash we wanted to take a break from recording, but we were bound by contract to deliver another album. The record company started putting pressure on us. Adam went on a four-day bender and when he came back he wasn't the same. He was so angry. That song was the first one we did, the first and only time we ever played it together. It was never meant to be recorded."
I don't say anything. I wonder what would have happened if they'd never written it, and what would happen now. After a while Steve turns the radio on quietly, and we don't hear another Mr Bad Man track all the way home.
This story originally appeared in One Step Beyond.