The familiar rusty pickup was nowhere to be found when we walked up to Adam's house, an odd fact since Adam, being almost three years older than me, didn't work or go to school full-time like the rest of us. I could only think he must have stepped out for a minute, surely he wouldn't bail on a practice, not with a new guy coming by. One advantage to his apparent absence, it bought me a few more minutes to come up with a good reason why Kayla was making a surprise appearance at Chez Adam.
What are you so afraid of? I asked myself, walking up the driveway with Kayla by my side. You haven't done anything wrong, and so what if Jason doesn't like her, what happened to not judging a book by its cover? If that was true, then how come it was hard to believe my own words?
"Rich? Hello?" Kayla's small hand gripped my shoulder and gave me a good shake.
"Are you feelin' alright?" she asked, tipping her head. "I just asked you if we were early, twice."
Good God. Had I been so obsessed over this, I tuned out that much? It was time for a little damage control before more questions were asked. "Oh yeah, sorry, I'm good, just a long, stupid school day," I lied. Not the smoothest one ever put together, but it would have to do. She seemed satisfied with this bluff, making a disgusted face and grunting; apparently school was a curse word in the Kayla Morton Dictionary.
"School, indeed. The only thing they teach is mindless obedience and conformity." She made no attempt to hide the resentment in her voice. "Even the guitar classes are a joke. I signed up to learn technique and skills, not just how to play Polly Wolly Doodle' and Rockin' Robin.'"
"Oh jeez, don't get me started on the horrors of Bloody Obvious 101, aka Beginners Guitar; if I hear My Dog Has Fleas' one more time, I'll scream." At this, Kayla stopped in her tracks, throwing her head back in a shrill cry of laughter. Her case swayed in her tightly gripped hand like a cradle in a windstorm. It was impossible not to smile watching her stand half crouched at the foot of the driveway, slapping her thigh with her free hand in a belly-rolling fit before slowly fading into a few quiet titters. Nothing I'd ever said before made anyone laugh that long or hard for such a simple joke. I didn't quite know what was so funny but it was a nice feeling all the same.
Kayla dabbed at her eyes with the back of her wrist then slapped me on the back, not hard, but enough to make a sound like someone cracking a slapstick against a brick wall. "Damn, I haven't laughed that hard in a long time," she said with a giggle or two. "You're alright, Rich."
"Thanks. Oh, and Richard, please." "Huh?"
"My name, just call me Richard, please. I've never really liked Rich."
"Oh, okay. Guess you're not crazy about Richie then, either?"
"Even worse," I groaned, trying to keep the grimace from spreading. "Just Richard, please. Not Rich, Richie, Rich-o, or Ricky."
This only made Kayla laugh again. "Ricky? Hmm, I don't know. Ricky Demin...it has a certain groove to it." I would have objected to this if her arm hadn't popped up and pointed in front of us like a copperhead poising to strike. "Nice!"
A brightly polished two-door sat parked at the foot of the steep gravel driveway where the truck normally resided, with a large white stripe down the middle. It looked like a domino with wheels. I let out a low whistle and moved closer to it, taking in its sheer beauty. I'd never seen it around the few times I'd been over. It couldn't possibly be Adam's either; no way could he afford something this nice. Perhaps it was that Mitchell Guerin's, although he didn't look too wealthy to me.
"Hot damn, you never see a Caprice looking this good!" Kayla walked around the car with hungry, excited eyes to match the beaming grin on her face like a lion encircling its fallen prey before tucking in. I decided to let Kayla drool over the car and went to knock on the door, still expecting to see Adam open up. A shorter, middle aged man greeted me instead. The impending excuse I'd thought upalong with any other words I may have thought uprushed out of me in a single breath. The man looked at me with a kind face and greeted me with a hearty "Hello there."
"Hello there," I repeated. My mouth moved but no words came out. That I wasn't turning a deep red right there on the stoop was nothing short of a small miracle. "Uh, I was...that is, we were...expecting to see Adam." Kayla managed to pull herself away from the Caprice long enough to look at us. Her expression was a perfect mirror for how I felt inside. "Oh you must be the friends he was talking about," the kind-faced man said, looking me up and down. "Now ah, which one might you be?"
"Are you the bass player or the singer?" He pointed at my case.
"Oh. I think I'm the singer, though I bring my guitar with me anywhere I go. Jason's the bassist. I'm Richard. Richard Demin." We shook hands. "So you're Richard! Nice to meet you! Martin Merritt, Adam's father," he introduced himself. "Adam's told me a lot about you."
"Yes, he says you're quite the shredder as well as singer." It was admittedly strange hearing older people using metal colloquialisms like shredder," I didn't know how to reply other than "Thank you."
"He's just in the garage setting up his drums, I think. He said something about preparing something, I remember that much." Mr. Merritt stepped out of the doorway while making a sweeping gesture to welcome us inside. "He's home? Oh. Only I didn't see his truck out there."
"Yes, it's in the shop for its quarterly overhaul today," Mr. Merritt explained. "Good thing you guys can carry your instruments here or he might've had a bit of a problem."
"True. Well whatever garage it's in, they gave him one hell of a nice courtesy car."
"Oh no, it's only in for a few hours. The Caprice belongs to me."
"Yes sir. I've had that baby over ten years. She's my pride and joy."
"Nice!" Kayla squeaked again as she passed by. Mr. Merritt turned to look at her with interest. "Well now, I don't remember Adam saying anything about any girlfriends."
Kayla turned the color of a ripe strawberry and hid her face. I think she was wishing she could vanish at that moment. Mr. Merritt seemed to find this very funny, laughing through his nose as he closed the door behind us. "Just kidding, I'm sorry. Just kidding," he said with a hint of laughter still clinging to his voice. "It's ok." Kayla didn't look too forgiving, but she did at least offer her hand. "I'm Kayla. I'm a...friend of Richard's." I didn't dispute this, though I did silently question the hesitance in her voice.
"Do you play guitar, too?" Mr. Merritt asked her. She said she did, five years and counting, then he asked her age. Parents, I thought with a tiny smile.
"Sixteen," Kayla said. I was stunned. Kayla may have looked small but her demeanor lent a year or two.
Mr. Merritt looked surprised too. Surprised yet pleased. "How about that, then," he said. "It's nice to see Adam doesn't mind making friends with the younger kids." That remark did not seem to impress Kayla too much. "You can go straight through to the garage, past the laundry room and around the corner," he said, pointing the way. I thanked him even though I already knew my way. "No problem," he said with another smile. "You kids have fun out there."
"We won't be disturbing you, will we?" I asked.
"Oh no, those walls are thick enough to mute even the most bloodcurdling scream, I'll be fine." I took a moment to mull that one over before Mr. Merritt wished us luck and walked up a flight of stairs while we made our way through the hallway. I pulled the door open a crack and a thunderclap of crashing cymbals and rocketing bass drums exploded out from the garage, causing both of us to jump, then quickly climb the steps into the garage and close the door before more noise escaped.
Driving drumsticks into the multiple cymbals in front of him, Adam seemed to miss us coming inside, taking to this impromptu drum solo with speeds that would rival a cheetah. I watched from the side, astonished by the pace at which he moved. I knew he'd been playing drums for years, but his highly technical skills and lightning speed never ceased to fascinate me. Kayla stood close to me with an equally amazed look. "What is he, part robot?" she shouted over the din.
"I know! Crazy, isn't it?" I yelled, my own voice sounding no louder than a whisper. "He could out-drum a damned metronome, I swear." Perhaps it was our shouting that got his attention, or maybe he was simply content with his performance, because Adam's solo came to an abrupt end as if somebody had thrown a switch to make him stop playing. He sat there, sticks still poised; looking at us as though he'd seen a bug crawl out of my nose.
"Hey Richard," he said with hesitation. "I didn't know Kayla was going to be joining us today." I knew what he was really thinking; "what the fk is going on?" I looked at Adam and he looked back at me. "Well? I'm waiting," his eyes seemed to say.
All right Richard, I thought, the spotlight's on you, no more timeouts. What's your excuse?
Before I could get the first words out, Kayla spoke. "I'm sorry I didn't mean to be an inconvenience, only Richard just happened to pass me on the street and he mentioned you guys wanted me to try out again."
"Oh did he?" Adam set down the sticks and stood up, going for an open water bottle on the workbench, never once taking those accusing eyes off of me. "That's quite a coincidence." He did a good job hiding whatever anger was stirring away inside him, Kayla looked none the wiser.
"Yeah, I mean I didn't have anything else to do, so he suggested I tag along. If this is a bad time"
"No." Adam crumpled the now-empty bottle and threw it over his shoulder. It struck the wall and bounced into the small black tub that served as a garbage can. "Stay. I'd hate for you to come all this way for nothing. Why don't you go ahead and set your gear up. Richard, I could use your hand getting those bags of ice for the cooler."
"Sure. Thanks dude," Kayla said. "You're alright, too."
I shared nowhere near as much optimism following Adam back into the house and upstairs to the kitchen, where he turned to face me with folded arms and a glare that would make even the most resilient baby cry. "What are you doing, Richard?"
All I could do was shrug. "It just sort of happened," I said, feeling dumber for even trying to justify it.
"I see. So you just happened to see Kayla while you were walking to practice, knowing full well that we're auditioning Mitchell, and you bring her along anyway." Adam shook his head, the glare seeming to turn more sinister. It felt like his eyes were burrowing into my stomach and setting it on fire from within. "Man Richard, I didn't think even you would be this passive-aggressive."
"Hey, that's not fair!" I said, pointing a defensive finger at him. "I really did pass her on the street, though it wasn't all that casually, if you must know I found her crying her fking eyes out on the corner of Kendrick Ave., and I didn't even know who it was until I spoke to her and don't tell me I should've just let her sit there and not do anything, even you wouldn't be that callous."
Adam tried to interject but I was having none of it, not yet. "Oh, and on the subject of passive-aggressive, way to not tell me we were having another audition. What were you just gonna wait till I walked in and be like Oh hi, Richard. Meet Mitchell, he's our new guitarist'? Come on!" If the little voice in my head was preaching caution with my words, it wasn't loud enough.
"Richard, all I'm saying isWait what do you mean, not tell you? Jason said he was going to tell you at school. Don't tell me he didn't."
"Well. He did, sort of. The way he said it though, it sounded like you two had this planned out for a while."
"What? No!" The glare broke at once. "You've got it all wrong. He called me earlier from school. Apparently they met in the band room while Jason was dropping off a Weather Report tape Mr. Maxwell lent him."
I thought that over.
"Besides," Adam continued. "I thought we agreed Kayla wasn't going to work out."
"No Adam, you and Jason agreed based on that one stupid fuking incident about his tuning!" I yelled, before taking a deep breath. Thankfully, Mr. Merritt didn't come in to ask about the noise. "Look," I spoke quieter while trying to be calm, "surely you of all people can be reasonable about this. You never had a negative thing to say, that was all Jason. In fact now that I think about it, you barely said a word on the phone last night. Can you look me in the eye and tell me you're willing to pass up whatever potential she could bring to the band over one trivial disagreement? Hell, the three of us have had worse arguments over dumber things."
Adam stared at me for a long time before letting out a long whistling sigh through his pursed lips. "Okay. Say I agree with you, we give her another try. Jason's due to arrive any second, he takes one look at Kayla, shit's going to hit the fan; I think we all know there was no dentist appointment planned for yesterday." I agreed. "And never mind Jason, there's this Mitchell to deal with. What if he feels ambushed?"
"That's ridiculous," I said, while deep down, I knew Adam was right on all points. My face began to feel like a warm and meaty tomato. If there was a can, bottle or even a small rock lying nearby I would've kicked it out of sheer awkwardness by now. "I don't even know what all the fuss is about anymore," I admitted.
Adam tried to commiserate. "Hey, every band out there has its rough patches, the chart-toppers, the openers and the struggling wannabesthey're all the same, regardless of genre. We're no different. Maybe Kayla really is that kick in the ass Systex needs, or maybe it's Mitchell. Or maybe it's someone different entirely."
I heard myself mutter "God, I hope not," just loud enough that both of us were sure to hear it. The auditioning process was beginning to wear thin on me. "Dude, there's just something about Kayla; the way she put herself into each of the songs... well, you saw it. Watching her play with such passion, such enthusiasm, it's like the guitar ceased to be just another instrument and became a part of her. It's an energy we've been missing for a while." The penny dropped as soon as I finished talking, a much needed epiphany. "That's it!"
Adam didn't seem to follow my little soliloquy. "What is?" he asked, looking eager for some clarity.
"That's the problem with us. We're wasting so much time trying to find the right person that we've let the creative process simmer away on the backburner till it's almost gone, leaving us all frustrated. We're a band for God sakes. We need to be making music, not fighting like little kids in the sandbox."
Adam's eyes lit up with understanding. "Start building the sandcastle," he said, continuing the metaphor, "let everyone add their own tower; worry about the finishing touches later." He started to glow as if someone had turned the fountain of inspiration on to full blast. "That's what we need to do today. To hell with covering Sepultura again, let's all just go and play!"
"Yes!" I couldn't help but yell, feeling the excitement beginning to shoot through my veins like little bolts of electricity, before another reality check popped up, ready to burst the balloon. "I only hope Jason will listen to reason."
"Ah, Jason's a good guy. I'm sure with the proper words, he'll warm up to it," Adam said with that reassuring trust me' smile. "He and you are a lot more alike than you realize." I wasn't sure whether to laugh or not and was especially puzzled by his next reaction when his eyes moved past me and the smile turned itself upside down, the corners of his mouth straightening out.
I turned my head to see what he was looking atand felt my own smile ebb, seeing Jason standing at the top of the stairs, hands on hips, peering at us from underneath the brim of his hat. "We're here."
"Hey Jason," we said in near unison. Despite lacking any psychokinetic abilities, it was safe bet Adam was thinking the same thing I was at that moment. How long had he been standing there? There wasn't a single noise made, no creak of the stairs, thumping of boots or even the slightest whisper of breath, though judging the less than impressed look in his eyes, the safe answer was long enough.'
"Hello Adam. Richard." Jason gave us the barest of nods. "Mitchell brought his own amp along, even though I told him we had one here, but I guess it's a good thing he did, since that one seems to be spoken for." Adam looked more stumped for words than me. "Do you have an extension cord?" Jason asked. He didn't blink once.
"Oh yeah, inside the big container by the workbench, I'll show you." Adam started to move but Jason was already turning on his heel, descending the steps without another word. So much for optimism, I thought. Adam looked grim, yet still hopeful, shooting me a look before heading for the stairs. "Can you grab the ice, Richard?" was the last thing he said.
So the ice wasn't just an excuse to take me aside. I made sure to take my sweet time grabbing the large cold sack from the freezer and carry it down to the garage, leaving behind the shattered remains of my excitement.
I was halfway down the stairs when I felt the bright flash of pain in my ear make its unannounced return.