Wes Slade knew it was time to make the phone call when they forgot to fix his goddamn in-ears for the third time in a row. They’d had a week to fix them and they didn’t.

The earbuds hadn’t worked in Philly, they hadn’t worked in Baltimore, and now they didn’t work in Cleveland. Scratchy noises whenever he’d sing too loud or go for a high note. As a result, his performances were stunted, and the crowds knew it.

The show had been a clusterfuck, everything going wrong. Heiney kept missing the fucking beat, Jonesy was fucking around with his solos again, and Reese barely even looked like he wanted to be there. It wasn’t worth it anymore. The crowd didn’t care. They just stared up at Wes, begging him with their eyes to remind them of when they were younger. Their applause was muted. Their actual cheers were few. The wild noises of his youth had been numbed into nothing.

At one point, they had started to play their biggest hit and the crowd barely registered it. Even five years ago, the intro to the song would’ve elicited pandemonium. Now, they just kept watching.

“Are you even out there?” Wes had snapped and immediately regretted it. This wasn’t the audience’s fault. They just wanted him to make them happy for an hour or so. Some of the people in the front row looked at him like scolded puppies and Wes felt pangs of guilt.

Later, Wes sat in his hotel room with his acoustic guitar on the chair next to him. He mulled it over one final time.

He’d be leaving the life he’d built behind forever. His wife, his kids. But they’d be set. He’d bought them a multi-million dollar home and they’d have all his money to live on.

He would be an ordinary person again, for the first time since his band’s second album broke the mainstream in the early 90’s.

Ordinary people didn’t know what they had going for them. Fame and fortune had its obvious perks, but there was always a trade off. And Wes missed what he’d traded.

He’d be dead, essentially. Everyone would consider the legendary Wes Slade dead.

The program was called Gone & Out. It was like witness protection, only it was for celebrities that were tired of the lifestyle and wanted to start over. You got the number once your net worth stayed above a certain threshold for a certain number of years.

It had been brought up to Wes by an executive at his record company at a party one night, some fifteen years ago. The executive was a stereotypical cokehead d-bag that everyone called The Freeze for some fucking reason.

Wes had made an off-hand comment about wanting to eventually get out of the lifestyle.

“Too bad you can’t get un-famous,” he’d said. In truth, he didn’t really mind being famous. The attention and amenities aside, most people that wanted to meet him were considerate enough. The occasionally psycho or rude grease monkey were more than outnumbered by the polite, adoring, fawning types.

“Hey, man, you know, there’s a way,” the Freeze had said. He’d taken Wes aside and explained everything to him. Wes had accepted the phone number the guy offered, half of him believing he was getting punk’d.

“Maybe I’ll go to Canada,” Wes thought. “Way up north somewhere. Or Europe, deep in the Alps. Or Australia, out in the bush. New Zealand is really popular nowadays, too. Just somewhere where I’m not recognized, where people don’t want my attention anymore. I want a quiet life, a farming life. I’ll learn how to farm, like Pap Pap did when I was a kid. Potatoes or corn or something. Nice, honest living. Great way to spend the last couple decades of my life.”

He’d get a new name, new identity, new look, everything. A complete and total restart, all at the age of 47. Half his life left to enjoy, most likely.

Yeah. It was time.

Wes held his phone, dialed the number, took a deep breath. There was no going back now.

It rang twice, then a voice answered.

“Hello?”

“This is Wes Slade, and I’d like to exercise my gone and out rights, please.”

“Stand by,” said the voice.

There was a pause and Wes, for a second, reconsidered his decision. But then he remembered the roadies smoking after the show and the utter contempt on their faces as he’d attempted to ask why the hell his in-ears were still not working. He’d asked politely for them to be fixed at the last two stops. Insecure bastards. Let them be jealous of him. It was their problem.

Wes smiled as he thought of the roadies actually maybe expressing remorse, given the news they’d wake up to the next day. Lazy peasant assholes.

The line clicked as the person on the other end returned.

“Wes Slade. Love your work. Had enough, eh?”

“Yeah,” said Wes. “I’m ready.”

“How would you like to execute our exit plan?”

“Whatever’s easiest for you, man,” said Wes, rubbing his forehead. He could feel a headache coming on. He had pills for them but he was fucking sick of pills. He knew what the real problem was — stress. Get rid of the stress, get rid of the headaches.

“I’m assuming you want it done tonight?”

“Yeah, man, as soon as possible.”

“Well, you have a history of substance abuse and depression. Suicide would be the easiest way for me. Are you comfortable with your loved ones living the rest of their lives thinking you took your own?”

“Yeah,” said Wes without hestitation. “They’re strong. They’re wealthy. They’ll be just fine.”

In truth, he’d never loved his wife. His kids gave him that special feeling that came with fatherhood, but he craved his freedom more. They barely saw him as it was.

“Suicide it is then. It’ll most likely be hanging, since I’m assuming you don’t travel with weapons.”

“No,” said Wes. “But I don’t need to know details, man. Just make it happen.”

“Whatever you want, Mr. Slade. I’ll be picking you up in a green minivan behind the casino in exactly half an hour. If you are late, or you change your mind, never call this number again.”

“K,” said Wes.

They hung up.

Wes looked around the hotel room. He didn’t feel very different, but his heart was beating a little faster.

It was so simple. It seemed like such a monumental change should be spurred by a greater action than just dialing a phone number.

20 years of mega success, platinum albums, multiple awards and all the trappings that came with it. A trophy wife and gifted children acquired after years and years of drunken debauchery on the road, more women and girls and drugs and drink than Wes could remember, literally.

And all of it added up to this — him in his hotel room with his pills and his acoustic and a small bag of clothes that he took with him when he toured.

He thought of the better years, when he’d been on the up and up, his band getting signed and then that unmistakable swell of momentum, the wave of demand sweeping them up on a beautiful crest of commercial bliss and economic dominance. And now here he was, faded and middle aged and getting pissed off because the roadies wouldn’t do their fucking jobs.

He sighed. It was time to go.

======================================

The next morning, a man stepped off a plane at Wellington airport and inhaled the winter breeze. He smiled for the first time in years. His head was shaved, he wore normal, nondescript clothes with sunglasses and a baseball cap. He carried a small bag.

Inside the terminal, numerous people were all on@ their phones and gathered around TVs.

“Did you hear the guy from Grey Shemps died?” someone asked him as he passed. “Hung himself in his hotel room.”

The man looked up at the nearest TV. Indeed, there was a picture of the old him — with long, greasy hair and a goatee, dressed like a circus act. Beneath his picture was a set of dates.

Wesley Slade, 1970- 2017. The headline read, “Grey Shemps rocker found dead of apparent suicide”

“Yeah, it’s a shame,” said the man. “But you know what?”

“What?”

There was absolutely no recognition on the face of the guy who’d addressed him. That hadn’t happened in years and years. For the first time since he was a young man, Wes Slade was just a guy. A free, unattached, unencumbered guy.

He couldn’t help but smile as he thought of the years ahead, completely unplanned and uncharted.

“It’s good to be alive.”

in memory of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington

Everything is a work in progress.

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