Hello again. It's been a while.
I have an announcement to make, but first I'd like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all the fans and constant readers. Without you, this blog wouldn't even matter. Over the years, I've brought you all the news, the headlines, the videos, everything you could possibly want to know about Billy Strat. I've been his number one fan and number one promoter, and now it is only fitting that I am the one to break the news.
Mycah Mills put his pen down and his hands behind his head. It had been two hours since he began drafting the blog entry and all he had managed to do was create a small mountain of crumpled-up paper. Maybe it was the deadline getting to him. He'd never had a deadline. But then again he'd never had to announce something so important either.
He got up from the table, went to the fridge and took a sip of orange juice that desperately needed some alcohol. On the fridge door he spotted the picture of Strat singing and dancing on stage, his fingers seemingly moving along the high frets of his guitar even in the still shot. Mycah put his hand on the picture, as he had done a dozen times that week.
A gentle buzz came from his pocket and drew him from the picture. He reached for it quickly, hoping it was Allen calling with good news, but it wasn't his phone ringing. Instead the alarm app was chirping and an onscreen message flashed the words '93% completed.'
"That can't be right." He slipped the phone back into his pocket, glanced once more at the picture on the fridge, then made his way across the room toward the basement stairs.
Both he and Billy had been skeptical when Billy had bought the old house, but after recording Billy's debut album, "Beneath the Lights," in the basement, Mycah knew it had been the right decision. It had ambiance, an underground feel that always inspired good rock music. Mycah could remember Billy standing on the very step where he now stood, looking around the cavernous basement and saying how every band starts in the dark. They practice in garages, write lyrics late at night, get discovered in dingy little bars and clubs. Then he would smile and say "Man that guitar is calling my name. Let's get to work."
Those memories held Mycah on the stairs for some time. There were a lot of memories down here, and they all seemed to rush to the surface, dozens at a time, exciting him and putting him on the brink of tears. If he had been a musician himself, all these feelings would make an incredible song.
He dismounted the stairs and headed to the soundboard. With the flip of a switch, the lights on the other side of the recording booth glass blinked to life. Inside, where the drum kit and mic stand used to be, was a large cylindrical tube, filled with blue-green liquid and surrounded by a jungle of wires. In the corner was a set of monitors, thin white lines slithering across one of the screens, occasionally arching into a half N shape, only to fall back flat. Another machine, like a hydraulic accordion, hissed into the air, then shushed back to the ground.
Mycah hit another switch and the booth glass itself was turned into a monitor. First came the big V-shaped emblem for Veros Inc., then a spinning blue arrow with '93%' blinking beneath it. The final scan had already begun and the estimated time of completion had jumped from eight hours to four.
He stood up, needing desperately to call Allen, but instead touched the glass screen of the booth. He cleared away the images and looked past the clear glass into the tube in the middle of the room. The accordion machine kept opening and closing, in the slowest rhythm possible, but inside the booth it still sounded musical. Tiny bubbles swam in the blue-green liquid, rising as the accordion fell.
While he stood there, the spinning arrow switched to '94%'. Excitement rose within him, only to mix with a wave of panic. He flipped the switches, climbed the stairs with his phone at his ear, and prayed Allen would answer.
Are you ready?
Mycah paused, considered how it would be best to break the news. He looked out the truck window at the dingy alley and the heavy metal security door he was parked by and wondered how many times Billy had come to a place like this to score dope. It dawned on him that he was doing the same thing, only his score came with a much bigger prize.
He turned back to his notebook, exhaled, and wrote the words that had been on his mind for weeks.
Billy Strat is dead. He died on April 4th, 2016 from a drug overdose. He had been battling both cancer and addiction for months and in the end it was the latter that took him. For nearly a month he has been gone and I have missed him sorely. I tried to get him in rehab, tried to get him in chemo, tried to reach out to him, but he wouldn't respond. His body had betrayed him and though his mind was still intact, it was all but useless. He didn't trust himself to live, didn't believe he could overcome his own lies and problems, and didn't think anyone could help. He was trapped by his bones and his pain and the only release, at least in his mind, was death.
I believe some part of him, the human part, knew that he was pushing his body to the limits. I won't label it a suicide, but then again he'd been killing himself for years.
But now that his body rests in peace, his mind can finally be set free.
And, with the help of his music and his fans, he will live forevermore.
The big security door opened with a groan loud enough to draw Mycah from his thoughts. A small man wearing glasses appeared in the doorframe and judging by the struggle in his face, the door wasn't meant to be opened too often. Mycah placed his notebook on the passenger seat and stepped out of the truck. The truck was one of Billy's, a jacked-up Ford with a big engine, bigger tires, and plenty of cargo room in the bed.
He went around and unlatched the tailgate before going to help Allen in the doorway. There was a large rectangular cardboard box covered in a plastic tarp by his feet, but Allen had yet to secure the door.
"Come on, we're running out of time," Mycah said, putting his shoulder to the door and regretting it instantly. It was thirty-six degrees outside and the metal door was already catching frost from the crisp night air. He hated the cold. "Clear the door so we can get the box in the truck."
Allen's arms were about the size of pool sticks, but he managed eventually to pull the box free of the door. Once it was outside, Mycah let the door slam, rubbed his hands for warmth and stooped to pick up the end closest to him. They lifted on three and between the two men the box came up easily.
Gently, they set the box on the tailgate and Mycah climbed in to make sure it was secure. Everything seemed to be going smoothly despite the sudden leap in urgency, and the last thing he needed was to have the box sliding into the road and being run over by a transfer truck.
Once the box was strapped down with bungee cords, Mycah felt the knot in his chest loosen a bit. It was still there, wound tightly between his heart and lungs and tied off around his rib cage, but just knowing Allen had come through and that the final piece of the puzzle was in his truck gave the knot a little slack.
He hopped out of the truck and grabbed Allen's tiny hand. "Great work, Al. I know it was short notice but you really nailed this one."
Allen blushed. "Thanks. Do you still need me to help with the relocation?"
"Do I still need you to? of course I still need your help. I wouldn't have made it this far without you, man. You have the Infinidrive, right?"
Allen nodded toward the box. "I already installed it before you called. Hopefully no one will know it's missing."
"My man. Come on, let's load up and get to it," Mycah said.
"Now?" Allen said.
"Yes now. I would have thought they taught you the significance of something being ninety-five percent complete here. We have to be there when it's done or God knows what will happen."
"But, Mr. Veros just called. He's on his way to inspect the new prototypes and I need to be here to greet him."
"Seriously? He's like the Steve Jobs of robotics. Can't he check them himself?"
"When the man whose name precedes the word Inc. calls and says be here, you have to be there."
Mycah put his hand on Allen's shoulder. He looked at the box as he spoke. "Allen, when he sees what you've done, he won't have a thought in his head about the prototypes. He'll be too amazed. He'll be too proud. We are on the precipice of history, Allen. I need you. And more importantly, Billy needs you."
Allen's head turned and Mycah met his gaze. "He does?"
"Mycah nodded. "He does."
"You know, Billy got me through some tough times. You can check my browsing history for the last ten years and you'll see his videos and music everywhere. He's like my hero."
Mycah smiled. "I bet a thousand people have told me that. Billy loved the music, but he knew what it meant and knew what people would feel when they heard it. I think that's why he did it so well. He wanted the pain in his voice to keep that same pain out of the people listening."
"Is it true? I know you've told me and I know it's why you're doing this, but it just seems so surreal. Is he really dead?"
"Come with me," Mycah said.
The two went around and got in the cab of the truck. Once they shut the doors, Mycah grabbed his notebook, turned on the overhead light, and flipped to the last page of writing. He showed it to Allen, a whole page of scribbles and cross-outs and inkblots under the title The Blog: Gone too Soon. And at the bottom, a rough draft for another blog entitled, Posthumous Speech.
"Billy had the voice," he said. "As you can see, I don't. That's why I'm doing this. Billy wasn't done talking. He still has things to say. Things only he can say. And maybe without the drugs, he'll be able to say them."
Allen read the few legible words on the pad before closing the book and sitting it in his lap. He checked the time on his phone, paused for a moment with the glow of the screen obscuring his face, and said, "Let's do it. For Billy."
The dreams came suddenly and with a trace of nostalgia laced between the fabric of the visions. At first he saw a young version of himself, maybe eight or nine, playing on the monkey bars at school. He sat at the top while the girl, arguably his first crush, ran around the bottom shouting magic spells in hopes of dislodging him from his perch. Then he was older, the girl was gone and the position had changed. This time he was on the ground while the sandy-haired blond bully sat on his chest and held his arms down. He remembered struggling to break free and the dread that the bully would punch him in the face again. Finally, one of his friends came to his rescue and knocked the bully to the dirt. That was the day his friend had taken him to the music room to calm him down. He saw the old nameless acoustic guitar in the corner, waiting for him like a beacon on a stormy night.
Then he was in the mosh pit. His first concert, his favorite band, his favorite song. Even then he'd had a pick behind his ear, a habit he'd formed from the very first time he strummed a chord. That acoustic guitar in the corner of the music room had been out of tune (if a guitar that crappy could even be said to have a tune) and before ever thinking about it, he had stuck the pick behind his ear in order to try and tune the guitar. That was also the first day he popped a string, the low E. He'd wound it so tight, it cut the air with that cartoony twang all musicians know.
Next came various shows, concerts he was actually a part of and after-parties he attended but was not entirely there for. There was the first concert, the nerves making his fret hand cold and shaky. The second which was a little easier. One of the much later ones where he discovered weed made things a lot easier. His last performance came into view like a dream screensaver, shifting into view long enough to see the needle pricks on his forearm, then fading away to nothing.
And that's what he saw last. Blackness and a strong sense of confinement. He felt as if he were a mime, trapped in an invisible box. He could never tell the limits of the box until he tried to move and bashed his elbow on the edge of it. It was like the diagnosis all over again. Cancer. Terminal. A year, maybe more, maybe less. His life had become an invisible box. He might have enough room, or he might whack his head on the hidden ceiling when he stood up. The only certainty: he wasn't getting out.
Then Billy Strat did something nobody would have ever expected him to do again. He woke up. He saw his studio, the couch in the corner. He saw the light of the lamp beside it, blurry at first, but growing stronger as he woke up. He tried to sit up but found his body felt like lead. Across the room, he saw his recording booth, shut down in his absence, nothing more than an empty box from the looks of it. A dark glass box. If he could get over this hangover-like disorientation he might be able to play back the last thing he recorded in the studio, the closing track to his last album.
"Billy?" a voice asked to his left. Billy tried to turn his head, but couldn't, so instead he cut his eyes. It was Mycah. Mycah Mills, his best friend. He wished he could feel the tears in his eyes.
"Mycah," he said. The sound of his voice startled him very badly. It was not the strong, gruff voice that he sang with, but a hollow, toneless one. It reminded him of the acoustic guitar from his dreams. "What's going on?"
"Oh my God, it is you. For a while we thought we had lost you, Strat."
"It's hard to explain. Maybe it's best if I just show you." He held out his hand and Billy fell in line behind him. He still couldn't feel his legs, but he knew he was moving because the studio was getting closer.
"This may shock you," Mycah said, taking a seat behind the switchboard and reaching for the startup switches. "But just trust me, okay?"
"I always have," Billy said.
Mycah nodded curtly and threw the switch. The recording booth filled with light and Billy looked up expecting to see a microphone and his Fender leaning in the corner. Instead he saw a great vat of liquid hooked up to a number of machines and a body floating in the goo. His body. He looked upon his own face, blank and lifeless, suspended in the goo like a man with cement shoes at the bottom of a river. His mouth was slightly open. There were no bubbles rising to the top.
"Is this a joke?" He meant to sound angry, but instead he sounded flat and out of tune. "Christ, Mycah, what is this?"
Mycah dimmed the lights and turned to face his friend. "That's you, Billy, or at least it was. You overdosed thirty-eight days ago."
"This isn't funny, Mycah. What kind of sick..."
"Billy, your body was eaten alive. It's gone, dead. But your brain was still functioning. So before you could knock on heaven's door, I put you in that tank, which is basically a cryogenic life support system, and I started mapping your brain."
"You remember I was a professor when we first met at the campus rager? We never really talked about it, but this is the kind of thing I've always dreamed of. Anyway," he held up a hand to silence Billy's oncoming questions," I kept your heart beating just long enough for my computer to map your brainwaves and upload the information to an infinite hard drive. Once it was done, I relocated it to a new host."
"Host? Are we having the same conversation?"
Mycah sighed, took out his phone and snapped a picture of Billy. Once it saved, he turned the screen to face his friend.
Billy nearly fainted. The picture of him wasn't of him. Instead a sleek, white body stood where his pale, thin frame should have. Where his long blond hair had once draped over his face was nothing more than a plain metal head with a synthetic mask of his face over it.
"I'm...you made me a robot?"
"Billy, I gave you a second chance."
Billy wasn't sure if he fainted or not, but the room went black and everything got very quiet. The last thing he saw was Mycah reaching for him and the studio spinning into view. After a while, the dreams came back and Billy found himself back in his box.
To all the fans of Billy Strat.
I know you're still hurting. I am as well, more than you can ever know. But there is a purpose for this pain and please believe there will be some good to come out of it. If we believe that, not even death can stop us.
In the midst of everything, I will remind you that Billy's last album is almost here. The first single, "Paralysis," has been receiving an enormous amount of attention and I have it on good authority that it is a sure thing for Song of the Year at the Billboard Awards. That being said, I believe "Paralysis" to be the fifth or sixth best song on the album.
And if twelve new songs aren't enough, there will be a B-side to the album which will contain seven covers of some of Billy's favorite songs, which he recorded during his six-year hiatus. Without giving too much away, I will advise you to expect some grunge, some metal, and a truly kickass rendition of the Country classic, "You Will Never Leave Harlan Alive."
Suffice it to say, this album will be well worth the wait and hopefully put an extra-large exclamation point on what should be considered one of the greatest performers of all time.
There was a memorial. A benefit concert whose proceeds were split between St. Judes and an Addiction Awareness outreach program. A week after Mycah posted the blog that announced Billy's death, he found himself once again staring at scribbles and horribly written paragraphs inside his notebook. The last week had been a blur, what with condolences, the funeral, and keeping the coroner from finding Billy's new body when he came to collect the old one.
Allen had all but moved in after the relocation. Everything had been successful, but the hard part was just beginning. Billy's mind was there, digitalized and stored on the Infinidrive. Allen had programmed it specifically for Billy's new body and it worked flawlessly. It was the most important piece for the relocation. But for Mycah, and for Billy in the long run, there was nothing more important than the small heart-shaped device that Mycah kept on him at all times.
It had been an entire week for Billy inside of his new body and he had slowly come to accept it. He hadn't spoken since the day of the relocation though, and that was becoming a concern for both Mycah and Allen. They sat together on the couch across from Billy, who was in a recliner, his metallic fingers laced in his lap and his synthetic face aimed at the floor.
"Billy, are you alright?"
He didn't answer, his sleek body unmoving.
Mycah got up and went to stand beside him. He asked again and this time Billy stirred, looked up at him. His first cognizant words as a machine were, "Robots can't sing."
The words, though spoken in the same automated tone as before, packed an emotional punch that caught Mycah off guard. He had been expecting Billy to ask why. Why had he done this. It was lucky in a way, as he had no answer to that question. Not a rational one anyway. But there was an easy response to what he had said.
"No, they can't. But you're not a robot."
"Then what am I?" Billy said.
Allen sat up and cleared his throat. "Technically speaking, you're a sentient cyborg made out of an android's body."
Billy shrugged his shoulders. A soft whir came from inside of him when he did. "What's the difference?"
Mycah grabbed a chair and sat down next to his old friend. From his pocket he brought the heart-shaped device with the single red button in the middle and held it out so Billy could see. "This is."
"What's that for?"
"There's a part of you that didn't get activated when we relocated your conscience. It's still there, just separated from the rest. When I switch this button, it will connect you to that part of your brain and you'll be able to feel everything again. It will be as if you never died."
Again Allen chimed in, "Technically he won't feel anything. Once we activate the "heart," he will just think he feels pain. Think of it as a large-scale phantom limb sensation."
"That sounds horrible," Billy said.
"It will be," Allen said, "should you choose to partake."
"Way to stay positive," Mycah said.
Allen dropped his head to hide his reddening cheeks. To his lap, he said, "But it will also activate your emotions. Your voice will change, your face will show feelings, the rest of your memories will return. As far as you know, you will be human again."
Billy was quiet for a long time, the only sound in the room the soft whir that came every time he clenched or unclenched his fingers. After a long moment, he said, "I was in a lot of pain. The last thing I remember is pain. The itching in my veins. I don't know what the cancer felt like, but I know it couldn't be any worse than the heroin. Will I feel it again?"
"Yes. Your brain will revert to the last emotions and the last thing you felt, and it will begin quickly. But it will wear off eventually."
"I won't be able to do anything about it until it goes away?"
Mycah nodded. "You just have to ask yourself what's more important. Right now, without the drugs influencing you, without the cancer scaring you, you have to ask yourself what's more important, your life, your music, your passion, or running from the pain."
The question was as sharp as a hypodermic needle and it stuck all three of them. They waited for the heaviness to go away and for the question to take effect. Once it did, Billy sat up straight, shook his hands as he always used to before he went on stage, and said, "Push it."
It was like detonating a bomb. As soon as Billy saw Mycah's finger release the button, his world went from gray and cold and simple to one of pain, fire, and bright white light. He could never have imagined such a feeling, like a million fire ants crawling beneath his skin. Biting him, scratching, eating him alive. Despite his metallic frame, he felt his skin peeling, his hair being yanked from his scalp, his chest and stomach searing in pain.
He collapsed from the chair, instinctively crawling towards the basement where he used to keep his vices. But with every move he made, his body ached worse until eventually he rolled to his back and stayed there.
He felt tears coming to his eyes and even they seemed to burn. Once they started to spill, he screamed aloud.
It was all Mycah could bear to see and he pressed the button on the heart-shaped device again. Almost immediately, Billy's new body relaxed and settled onto the floor. He had started to spasm just as he screamed for Mycah to make it stop. Allen was petrified, his face frozen in a twisted grimace.
"Billy, are you okay?" Mycah asked. He put his hand on Billy's chest and felt it was burning hot.
Billy sat up, the soft whir sounding more like a strong wind howling during a storm. His face, which had been tight and drawn in agony, was smooth once again. Once he climbed to his feet, Billy said, "Did you hear me scream?"
"Yeah, are you okay?" Mycah asked again.
Billy placed his hand on Mycah's shoulder and pulled him into a hug. "I'm alive."
A week before the award show, Mycah was working on his final blog post when the door opened and the clinking sound of Billy walking across the hardwood floor filled the room. Mycah turned to see his friend carrying a shot glass filled with brown liquid. Around his neck was the heart-shaped device. There was a soft red glow coming from the button, meaning it was activated.
"I love you, Billy, but you do understand you're walking around naked,right?" Mycah said with a grin.
"You act like that's something new," Billy replied. His voice was the one Mycah had grown to love over the years. If Mycah closed his eyes he could imagine himself back on campus, hearing Billy speak for the first time live over the microphone.
Billy sat down next to him and offered him the shot. "Take it, you always write better when you're hammered."
Mycah started to argue but there was no need when you were up against the truth. Besides, this next blog made the Gone Too Soon post look like a knock-knock joke. So he took the shot and tried to think of more ways to say the impossible was possible.
The two sat in silence until Billy switched his heart off. "Don't worry," he said in his automated voice. "It will come to you eventually."
Mycah put the pad down. "I suppose. How long are you up to anyway?"
"Three minutes at a time," he said. "Rest for an hour or so, then another three minutes. That's barely long enough for one song."
"It's a lot better than fifteen seconds. You're doing great, Billy."
"I feel like I'm addicted all over again. Except this time, it's feeling that I want instead of numbness. After that three-minute mark, I hold my breath until I can't take it anymore. But I always keep wanting more."
Mycah nodded. "I couldn't even imagine." A pause. "Have you given any thought to the award show next week?"
"If you're not ready for people to know what we've done, then you're not ready. I won't force you to go."
Billy shrugged again. Then his robot voice said, "You already have forced me. You forced me into this body, forced me to press this button. Forced me to live."
"I was ready to die, Mycah."
"Don't say that."
"It's the truth. Why do you think I pushed so hard to get the album done? I was ready. I decided to put that second needle in my vein before the first one ever came out. Decided not to call for help when I knew you were right upstairs. I decided to die instead of letting the cancer decide for me. But you decided not to let me."
"If you had known there was another option, surely you would have taken it."
Billy stood up then, calmly but Mycah knew he intended anger. This would have been a completely different situation if he'd pressed the heart button again. Instead, robotic Billy gestured at his new sleek body. "You call this an option? This isn't an option, it's...it's cold."
Mycah stood. "Come on, don't leave. I did this for you, man."
He was at the door, the soft padded tips of his metal fingers gripping the heart-shaped device so hard Mycah worried he would crush it. Just before shutting the door, he said, "You wouldn't have chosen this for yourself. I know how you hate the cold."
He was late to the award ceremony and had contemplated not showing up at all. Had he not have been spotted as soon as he arrived and been rushed through the backstage door, he might have turned around. But he was spotted and once he was backstage there was no escape, he would have to go on.
His notebook was still on the table where he left it the day Billy disappeared. He never finished the blog that would have announced Billy's posthumous survival. He hadn't posted the new chapter for the history books and worse, he hadn't heard from his friend since the argument.
Maybe he had gone too far. Overstepped not only the boundaries of science and biology, but the moral boundaries of his friendship as well.
These thoughts entered his head as he was escorted to his seat in the audience. He tried to focus on the show, but couldn't. Despite some impressive performances, Mycah was too worried about Billy to enjoy it. There were too many things that could have happened him. The image of him spasming somewhere in the cold, the heart-shaped device too far away to reach, or broken, kept playing in Mycah's head. He wondered, if the body couldn't die, how much agony could Billy's mind take? It was a haunting idea.
Once the show started to wrap and the Song of the Year category was on deck, Mycah started to worry about what he would say on stage. Should he make the announcement here, in person? Would anybody believe him if he did?
There were no answers to these questions and worse, there was no time. In what felt like a blur, the presenter, a long-legged blonde singer, had come on stage with her envelope and said in an excited voice, "And the winner of Song of the Year is...Love to Hate by Deja Lune!"
The crowd cheered but Mycah was so stunned, he barely heard them. Vaguely he saw a woman walk on stage and accept the award, thanking God and her friends and family and producers and wishing everyone a good night. Then the curtain fell and the audience started to stir and pack their things to leave.
Mycah sat in his chair, blankly staring at the curtain as people shuffled past him. He thought he should be disappointed, relieved, upset even, but what he really felt was hollow. He felt he had lost everything, including his best friend. Worse, there was no point to what he'd put Billy through. The lights were dimming and nobody was even thinking about Billy Strat. The show was over.
Until feedback from a microphone pierced the speakers and the curtain started to move. Those that were still in the audience got a clear view of the man coming from behind it, carrying a microphone with a guitar strapped over his sleek shoulder. When they saw him, there was a collective murmur of confusion, followed by a hushed silence as the man on stage placed the microphone in its stand and adjusted it to his mouth.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. If I could please have your attention. This may come as a shock to some of you but hear me out. My name is Billy Strat. I am still alive."
The voice was so human and vulnerable that no one listening could doubt it was real. Mycah saw the heart-shaped device around his neck, the red light shining bright. Goosebumps crawled at the base of his spine and arms.
The crowd however, was a tougher sell. When they realized what he had said, they began to boo. One man yelled, "I saw him buried, asshole!" Another said, "Get that tin piece of shit off stage!"
Billy grinned and a soft laugh escaped his metal lips. "I thought you might say that." There was a splice of noise as he hooked up his guitar and then a distorted harmony that came when his fingers struck a chord. "So I guess I'll have to prove it to you."
He played a few more notes that sounded like his signature style, then muted the strings. "My producer, Mycah Mills, made this body for me when I died. He kept me alive, and put me in here. But we can discuss how incredible that is later. You people came here for music...at least I hope you did. I know I did. And Mycah, if you're out there, don't worry, you made the right decision. This one goes out to you."
He struck another chord and let loose the gruff, wailing voice that made him famous. Whether they believed him or not, the crowd stayed until Billy was on his knees twenty minutes later, screaming his heart out.
They didn't notice, but Mycah could see the tears in his eyes.
He hadn't pushed the button on the heart-shaped device in nearly half an hour.