AN: Hi! First FictionPress submission, but I've been writing for myself for a while. Let me know what you think, please. :)
Finally, it was time for the last song. The concert had taken an abnormally long time, both in reality and in my mind. With extra songs and extra musicians, the time seemed to stretch interminably before me. Knowing that I – introverted, blend-into-the-background, can't-string-more-than-three-words-together-without-extreme-discomfort me – would be playing a solo just made it all the worse.
The composition in which my solo resided contained many solos. At the end, when the performance of said composition was finished and any soloists were recognized, there would be exactly seven others standing with me. This fact alone would allow me to stand and be recognized, for I could maintain my anonymity among those seven.
I played well. I knew I did; I took lessons, I practiced every day, and I had the heart to play, the drive and the need to make music, and the desperate desire to move, to touch people's hearts. But did I? Never. I kept to myself, I never tried for a solo, never challenged for a higher chair. The reason I was playing this solo was because the girl that initially had it was sick, and no one else bothered to learn it. A middle-school-combined concert, at the end of my junior year, was not anything most of the musicians were excited about, especially when final grades were turned in the day before the concert. But I had learned the solo, for the simple pleasure of playing it. So when our director asked if anyone else could play it because our first chair player was ill, I unthinkingly raised my hand. Unfortunately, I was the only one who had.
The first movement went well. I blended my sound in with the other sounds, not having to stand out, not having to push myself to be anything that I was not. Soon, however, the second movement began. It progressed as many second movements of three do, slowly, searchingly, building to a climax that in some movements signal the end. This particular piece, however, merely seemed to end, before the solo. Rising from the cessation of chaos, a simple melody would weave its way from my instrument, before being joined by other instruments' voices, combining to create something true and pure.
If a particular composition's story or subject matter was unknown to me, I often made up my own little story or explanation. From the chaos came a single . . . entity? A thing or an idea or a truth. Once this . . . thing was recognized as what it was, as the truest expression of itself, the rest of the instruments – the chaos – joined in harmony.
And I suddenly realized that, as I played, the song was my life. Not literally, of course, but it was like my life, a symbol of what my life could become. If I could simply become my truest self. But it wasn't simple. At all. To do that, I would have to go contrary to over seventeen years worth of certain action and thought and being.
Not now. Maybe after a year, when I would go away to college. But not now, not surrounded by people from whom I'd hide by blending in with them, people who – if they noticed me at all – all expected me to be unnoticeable.
The solo, my solo, for me, was a claiming of who I could be, who I kept hidden. I knew that I would never be that in real life, so I decided that for one night, for the ten and one-quarter measures that I played without any other instruments, I would be myself. My solo would be a true expression of who I was, of what I wanted to be.
It was only through years of musical training that I was able to force even breaths of air through my instrument when the reality of what I was doing struck me. For the first time in my life, I laid bare my soul on that stage. I doubted that anyone would pick up on that, or that anyone would actually be touched or moved by my performance. But as I played, I felt so free and open and true. I became me. And I delighted in it.
Chapter One: Partners
Finally, it was here: Senior Year. All I had to do was get through this year, graduate, and I could finally be free of the breeding ground my parents dared to call a home. I love my parents, but seriously? Did they really need to display to the world how completely crazy they were for each other by having seven kids? Oh and I guess bringing seven incarnations of their love into this world wasn't enough. My mom told us last night that she is once again – wait for it –pregnant. Ugh. I in no way need to know that my parents have done it often enough to conceive eight children.
Because of their multitude of offspring, they've forbidden me from getting an after-school job so that I can focus on my grades and sports, in hopes that one or the other – or both – will get me a scholarship to pay for college. It also keep s my schedule free for babysitting and carting younger siblings around. That's the only reason, by the way, that I have a car. Lucky me.
After dropping my thirteen-year-old twin sisters Mary and Martha at the middle school, my brothers and I headed to Henry Fielder, the high school. Jonah was sixteen and a Junior, while Ezekiel had just turned fifteen (the day after I turned eighteen) and was starting his Freshman year. Yeah, my parents had named us boys after Old Testament prophets and the girls after women in the New Testament. After the twins, my mom and dad cooled off for a few years before having Tabitha, who was five, and Phoebe, who was two.
At school, I stashed my stuff in my locker, then met up with my friends. A chorus of "Dann-ay!" sounded as I walked over to their table. I felt a grin spreading across my face at their moronic pronunciation of my name.
Before I could say any more, a blur of blonde, purple, and gold launched herself at me, threw her arms around my neck to pull my head down, and began attacking me with her lips. I kissed her back, my hands loosely draped around her waist, until she tried to deepen the kiss. I pulled back with one last kiss on her cheek, with a "Good morning to you, too, Rachel."
"Hey Danny. Why'd you have to stop?" she pouted as her whole self, rather than just her face, came into my view. Her cheerleading outfit fit perfectly and I was reminded why I asked her out to begin with. Hormones.
However, I really didn't feel like having her cause a scene on the first day of school. "Rache, baby, you know I'm not into PDA at all."
"Even with your own girlfriend?" she continued, pouting. Again. Ugh, that was getting old.
"Especially with my girl. I don't want anybody in my business." I leaned closer, allowing a small grin onto my face as I raised our intertwined fingers and pressed a kiss on her wrist. I hoped it would pacify her.
"Okay, sweetie." She grinned back at me. Good, situation diffused. "Well, I have to go like meet someone, so I'll see you later, m'kay?" She walked off, waggling her fingers and her hops as she went. The tension I hadn't even realized had gathered in my shoulders drained away as I watched her leave.
I made my way over to a chair at my friend's table and took a seat. We chatted for a bit, Jace and Luke joking about Pearce being MIA from the table before Adam started doing his quarterback thing and discussing the team we were playing today. Yeah, first day of school was on a Friday.
We had block scheduling, which, basically meant we had classes every other day for twice as long. I didn't have to go to boring English as often, but when I did go, it'd be for twice as long. Fridays were combined days, meaning that we went to every class for half the time. That was why we started on a Friday: shorter classes, since the teachers would only be talking about nothing. Then after we'd gone through all our classes, we'd have homeroom (really? Homeroom at the end of the day?), then a pep rally to get people ready for the game tonight – first one of the season.
"Hey, Danny!" called a cheery feminine voice, breaking me from the discussion of our competition's weaknesses. I looked over to see Ashleigh Winters approaching the table.
"Sup, Ash?" I greeted her. When she motioned me over, I stood, fist-bumped the guys, and followed her to the hallway that branched off of the common area. I think it went off to the music wing or something – not sure.
"Not much." Ashleigh's eyes took on a teasing glint. "How's Rachel?"
"Ugh, don't go there."
Ashleigh's parents and mine attended the same college and were all really good friends. She and her little sisters practically grew up with my family. Ashleigh was like a sister to me, which is why she knew I was considering breaking up with Rachel. Yeah, that reminder of why I'd asked her out? I really did need it.
Rachel was . . . incredibly popular. And in reality, she had plenty of positive traits, besides her looks. The problem was that her flaws were so bad that I couldn't see the positives anymore. She constantly flirted with other guys – she called it "being friendly." Being friendly my foot. She was PDA-ing all over me, which I couldn't' stand. Sure, hold my hand. Let me kiss you a little so other guys know you're my girl. But heavy making out in the hallway? No thanks. This summer, she had canceled last-minute on my for more than a few dates. Annoying, but not a deal-breaker.
All these things I could handle. But Rachel also had a habit going off about my family. See, I complained about my rabbits of parents, but all the guys knew I'd punch them in the face if they said one word against my parents or any of my brothers or sisters. And no, I was not typically a violent guy.
"Alright, alright," sighed Ashleigh. "I won't go there." She grinned conspiratorially at me then, and leaned closer. "But I do have some information for you regarding a certain soloist you've been obsessing over."
"More like you've been obsessing over," I mumbled, but still waited attentively for her to spill.
"Ha! Only because you actually joined a band because of this person!" Ashleigh's brown eyes were bright as she spoke, her hands accentuating her words and her head jerking excitedly and causing her blonde hair to swing in its ponytail. "You've actually made changes because of that solo."
Confession time. At the end of the year last year, the middle and high school bands had combined in a sort-of mentoring concert. My brother Zeke (he freaks if actually addressed as "Ezekiel") was finishing eighth grade and participated, playing trombone. They practiced together three times a week for a month, then gave a concert. I, being the excellent big brother that I am, had gone to his concert when my parents couldn't make it, dragging along Ashleigh.
I enjoyed the songs. Having been forced to take piano for three years in elementary school before convincing my parents to let me learn drums instead, I had an appreciation for music. One song in particular, however, caught my attention. The first section – I guess it was called a movement – was like some sort of march and was all upbeat and whatnot.
But the second movement was what really got me. It was slower, but not boring. It started quietly, swelling to this blasting, bombastic wall of sound that just crashed over the audience. I was fixed in my seat, the pounding drums and blasting notes vibrating in my ears, my head, my chest.
Then it stopped. On a dime, it was silent, with only echoes of what had been left bearing witness to the sound's existence. Quietly, out of the fading sounds and approaching silence, came another sound. A lone instrument played, soulful in the intonations, melancholy and haunting, alone and lonely, as a sole survivor rising from wreckage.
But it was true. It was pure. It was me.
Slowly, other instruments joined in, gradually swelling their sounds to surround the first, but my ears still followed that first instrument. Soon the second movement ended and the third began, but I didn't hear it at all.
". . . Danny? Danny!" I felt something shaking my shoulder. "Daniel Alexander Greyson!"
"What?" I snapped.
Oh gag me. Soloist, as I'd come to think of whoever played that solo, had turned me into a stinkin' pansy. And I should know, as my mom kept plenty of those dopey little flowers in pots on our back deck.
Ashleigh sighed. "Seriously? I've been trying to get your attention for the past five minutes." She rolled her eyes at me. "If this chick is single, I think you should definitely dump Rachel's crazy self and snatch Solo Girl up ASAP."
"She's a girl?" I blurted, feeling my stomach clench. "What? No! If I break up with Rachel, it will be because –"
"You can't stand her?" quipped Ashleigh.
"No! I'm breaking up with her because –"
"She's annoying?" Ashleigh cut in again.
"Yeah. No!" I paused, raking my fingers through my brown hair, hoping the motion would soothe me. It did when I was little and my mom's fingers would play with my hair while I fell asleep. Best feeling ever! Well, one of, at least. The hair thing didn't help, though. I was still stuck on Soloist being a girl. Can I fall in love with someone I don't know?
Ugh. See? A total pansy.
"At any rate," continued Ashleigh, checking her jewel-encrusted watch – yeah, my parents had studied social work and nursing while hers had studied medicine and chemical engineering, "why haven't you dumped her yet?"
"Who? Solo Girl?"
"No! Focus, Danny. You aren't with Solo Girl . . . yet. How could you dump her?" Ashleigh rolled her eyes . . . yet again. "Rachel. Why haven't you dumped Rachel yet?"
"Oh." I cupped the back of my neck with my hand, squeezing slightly. "Heh. That. Uh . . . I'm not looking forward to the drama?" Seeing that Ashleigh was about to launch herself into another scolding session, I accused, "But you're friendly with her and secretly can't stand her, so who are you to question my timing?"
"Uh, yeah I'm friends with her. But I'm not dating her. And, Daniel Greyson, do you know how wretched life here at school would be if she and I weren't on friendly terms? She's the type that can't stand competition, real or perceived, so she'd set herself up against me, all our friends and some who aren't would have to choose sides – ugh, it'd be a hot mess here. I'm sacrificing for the greater good."
"Hm." I looked sheepishly at Ashleigh. "So am I?"
She laughed at me. This time I rolled my eyes at her. "Whatever, Danny. Just make sure you break with her before you fall in love with Solo Girl, whose name, by the way, is –"
"Wait!" I almost yelled. "Don't tell me yet. Suppose I do sorta start to like her. Won't Rachel blame her whenever I do break it off with her?"
"Wow, Danny, a good idea from you."
"Yeah, it is – Hey! Don't sound so surprised." She grinned at me and reached up to pat my cheek. I rolled my eyes at the condescending gesture. "Okay, Ash. How about I tell you when Rachel and I are through, and you tell me who Solo Girl is two – no, too short, three weeks after that?"
"Sure, sounds good. And now," as she checked her watch yet again, "I gotta scoot if I'm gonna get the latest gossip before my history class."
I waved as she skipped off, then decided to head to class as well, even though the first bell had not even rung yet. I chose to take the long route, heading to the stairwell in the back of the school rather than the more populated front one. As soon as I opened the door to the echoey space, I heard low moans, both male and female, as well as a few quiet smacks of a couple's lips.
"Lovely," I muttered under my breath. "At least they have the decency not to be going at it in a more public place." When I reached the landing between the two sections of stairs, I saw why they chose a more clandestine location for their activities. The guy, Pearce Beaumont, uttered a curse when he saw me, but it was the girl, Rachel Warren, who had my full attention. My girlfriend.
The first day of my senior year began in much the same way that I expected it would. It followed the pattern of every other first day of school since I entered Henry Fielder High School. I awoke promptly at five with my alarm clock, hit snooze and dozed off until the blaring alarm sounded again fourteen minutes later. I rolled out of bed, went for my morning walk, showered, dressed in shorts and a black D.A.R.E t-shirt from elementary school, ate smiley-face pancakes made by my dad (one of his few specialties in the kitchen), and ran out to meet my ride to school. I had a car, but some other students and I took turns driving to save on gas.
At school, I gathered with my group of acquaintances, sitting around on the floor of the common area closest to the music wing. The group, consisting of fifteen to twenty seniors with a junior thrown in here or there, chatted and greeted those who had not been seen all summer. Most of them, however, had been together all day for the past two weeks for band camp here at school, myself included.
I sat between two sub-groups of the larger collective, hoping that each thought I was a part of the other. If they did not buy my ruse, someone would try to draw me into conversation. And if there was something I did not want, it was that.
Yes, unfortunately, I was a closet loner. I was struck by awkwardness with people I didn't know very well (anyone besides my mom and dad). The clammy hands, pounding heart, and choked-up throat were not conducive to socializing. So I chose not to socialize. Instead, I hung around a group of fellow band members at school, attempting to put off the illusion of having friends.
Sitting there before school, I covertly observed the people milling about the common area. They seemed fresh, rejuvenated from summer, and ready to tackle another school year. Yipee. Two people, Daniel Greyson and Ashleigh Winters (both fairly well-known at school), made their way over to stand by a potted tree in my line of vision, still too far away to hear. He wore a button-down and a tie, like all the football players did on game days, and she sported her cheerleading uniform. Afraid they'd think I was observing them, I turned my gaze to the group to my left, hoping to appear engaged in their conversation. I noticed the two students part after a little while, but as she skipped away, Ashleigh locked her gaze on me for an instant, a slight smile playing about her lips. I snapped my eyes away from Ashleigh's retreating figure just as a girl in the group to my left turned to talk to me. Fortunately, two seconds after that, the first bell rang. I popped up from my seat, send a general wave to no one, and took off for my first class.
In the hallway, I walked with my shoulders straight, my head only slightly lowered, and my eyes on the ground. Avoiding eye contact was essential in avoiding conversation or having to greet people I knew. However, walking with my shoulders hunched, head down, eyes down was not a good idea from a safety perspective. At my mother's insistence, I had taken a self-defense class my sophomore year. The instructor, a hulking, muscled woman, had drilled a fear of being assaulted into me. It was not that I particularly believed that anyone would attempt to steal my messenger bag or lunch here at school, but I couldn't ignore the discomfort that her words brought.
"A woman who looks like she has no confidence, who won't fight back, is more likely to be attacked than a woman walking alertly, head up, shoulders back, aware of her surroundings."
So I had struck a compromise with myself, between correct and comfortable. My shoulders were correct, my head's position was between correct and comfortable, and my eyes were comfortable. After all, if I couldn't see people's faces, then I wouldn't have the whole awkwardness thing mentioned earlier.
Reaching my first period History class, I checked the front board for a seating chart and, thankfully finding none, took a seat in the second row, next to the near wall. Not too close to the front to be in the line of fire, but not too close to the back to be noticed by the "cool kids," thereby keeping to my goal of escaping high school unnoticed. I was rather early to class, evidenced by the otherwise empty room, so I pulled a novel from my bag and proceeded to lose myself in Elizabeth Bennet's dance with Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield ball.
Several pages later, a single voice rose above the hum of voices that had risen while I read. "Class! Please quiet down, time to get started."
I reluctantly withdrew from the world of Austen and carefully folded down the tip of the page. Bookmarks constantly fell from my books, so even though I despised desecrating a book by bending the paper, I could find no other effective method of keeping my place.
The teacher, a man younger than my parents but older than a recent college graduate clapped his hands once, rubbing them together as he said with too much enthusiasm, "Okay, let's get started." He introduced himself as Mr. Links, then proceeded to call roll, noting cheerfully that no one was missing. "This is excellent, because we can get started on our first project of the year right away."
What? My internal gasp matched the audible ones of my classmates. I glanced around to see that I had class with a few from band, who had sat beside me, as well as a handful of others that I did not know well enough to identify. The majority of the class, however, consisted of them.
Before proceeding, it must be understood that my school was rather atypical in regards to the stereotype presented in books and movies. Students were not exclusive to their groups – they could not even be called cliques. Many band and choir members went out for sports. Many athletes were also in an art – music, or theater, or . . . well, art. And many of these people did well in school and were members of academic or service clubs. Henry Fielder High had many well-rounded students. The elite consisted of those who did it all. Ashleigh Winters, for example, was a cheerleader, ran track, sang in choir, was the student council treasurer, and was on the Homecoming Committee every year. Adam Tollbrook, another example, was the football quarterback, maintained a 3.9 grade-point, always landed a lead role in at least three of the school's plays in a year, and was the president of Service Club. There were many others, but these two were the epitome of the elite.
Turning my eyes (I had kept my head relatively motionless in my perusal of the room) back to our teacher, I noticed that he was speaking again. ". . . so in that spirit, you'll be comparing one activity now, with how it was performed during the time that the colonies were forming." It seemed that he wanted us to feel more involved in our learning by identifying more directly with the time periods we would be studying by putting ourselves into the shoes of the people who lived then.
"So take grocery shopping, for instance," he continued. "If you didn't have your own garden, how would you get vegetable and other foods? Could you barter? Haggle? What about now? What do you think that the cashier would say if you tried to trade them a bushel of apples for the groceries you were buying?" Mr. Links began to hand out a stack of papers, sending them down the columns of desks. I took mine and passed it back without looking behind me.
"Alright, you can read the assignment sheet yourselves. As you can see, the internet does not count as a source. Use the school or public library. You need three sources. And this is a partnered project. Before you get too excited, I already chose your partners."
I was glad; choosing a partner implied that I possibly wanted to be working with him or her. That was never the case. If, however, we were assigned to work together, there was a reason for me to be associating with someone. After some time, Mr. Links said, "Leanora Porter and Ashleigh Winters." I forced myself not to react, because I did not know how I ought to react. I was not happy, even though I knew Ashleigh to be an intelligent student who would not blow off this assignment as others might. On the other hand, she was Ashleigh Winters. And I was . . . me.
Ashleigh grinned at me as she perched on the seat beside mine. I allowed myself a brief smile and one glance at her honey blonde hair and light brown eyes set in a smooth-skinned face before fixing my gaze on the assignment sheet.
"Hi, I'm Ashleigh," she chirped. I saw her wide grin from the corner of my eye as she waited for me to introduce myself. Of course her own introduction wasn't for my benefit. There was no possibility that she knew who I was, and an almost sure-fire way to find someone's name was to offer yours. Or so I'd heard, as I had never tried it.
I allowed my head to turn to her, though my eyes only made it as far as the desk in front of hers. "Nora," I managed to force out before my eyes and face snapped back to the assignment sheet.
"So, what do you want to do?" she asked.
I hadn't thought of that aspect of this project – only being forced to work with someone I didn't know. But, like usual, my mind was quick, whereas my voice and body were not. Band, being always on my mind, led me to offer, "Uh, maybe something with music?"
My incomplete sentence was more than enough for her to take charge of the conversation again. "Oooh, like a concert or something?" I think she actually bounced a little as she spoke, but as I was staring at my paper, pretending to read it as I trailed my finger over the words, I only saw her in my periphery. "I'd love to be able to tell my parents that I have to go to a concert for a school assignment," she said, laughing loudly and drawing the eyes of more than a few of her friends. I sank further into my seat, hoping I wouldn't be noticed, even though I was sitting with her. "But," Ashleigh continued, "they'd probably still make me pay for my ticket and I don't have extra money right now because of this party that Rache and I are throwing."
I nodded a little, glad she had ruled out that one; I had no extra money for a concert, either. Though the concert I had been envisioning would have been free, seeing as my father was in the orchestra.
"Oh, hey!" Ashleigh burst out almost before I had finished nodding. "What about the party? Like how teenagers entertained themselves then and how we do now!"
That seemed right up her ally, considering how outgoing she appeared to be. "Um, okay." Good, then she could do the party research and I could do the book research.
"And you should totally come. It's gonna be awesome! Tonight after the game. I can give you a ride, of course. Ooh! I'll help you get ready and –" but she was prevented from further speech by the shrill sounding of the bell. "Oh shoot! Give me your phone number, Nor!" She thrust her pink phone into my hands before starting to throw things haphazardly into her bag. "I gotta scoot, there's a student council meeting during second. Can you believe they have elections for the academic year before it starts? What if someone new moves in? They have no chance to be on student council."
I nodded again, punching my name and number into her phone. Taking a deep breath to steel myself for speaking without prompting, I hurriedly blurted out, "You do know who I am, right?"
She paused in the middle of zipping her bag and stared at me. "Um, you're Leanora Porter."
"Well, yeah, but I mean, you know I'm not, um . . ." I wasn't sure what to say. I mean, I had been declining any invitations received for so long that they had stopped coming and I really couldn't think how I had gotten out of going to things in the past. So now that Ashleigh was insisting that I come to her party, and for a school project, no less, I had no idea how to respond. "I'm not really into parties," oozed lamely from my mouth
"Oh, don't worry about that. I do not have crazy parties, like Logan or Chase or Pearce do. And I'll be by your side the whole time. No worries, okay?" She smiled brightly, shouldered her bag, and walked jauntily from the room.
With a defeated sigh, I packed my own things, threw the top flap over the bag without zipping it, and made my way to the door.