Monday Afternoon: 20 Minute Miracle

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Practice started in hell and got worse from there.

“Stop!” Trix bellowed. “Again, from the end of the chorus.”

Stifled groans held the tension of the room. Trix counted us in for the millionth time to the exact same bars of the exact same song. Same ten bars, then: “Stop. Again.”   I felt like her “again” was a delayed beat in a dance track on repeat, the same snip of song, stop, again, snip of song, stop, again. What did she want? What was this about? The rest of the band looked warped to me; for a moment I fell into an acid trip moment and they were lava-lamp material, gooey. By this point it was almost funny, but I didn’t dare think that or I might laugh. And, I really had to pee. As she said the word “again” again, Trix looked me right in the eye, and I couldn’t disguise my state of mind. She raised an eyebrow like she’d reached the boiling point.

“Enough!” she shouted.  Trix paced the room.  “Work with me here, people! We are not leaving this song until we have it down. Just dig in. If you’re waiting for this to end, it’s not going to end until we get it right. We will do it again, and again, and again until that word feels like a whip. That’s what today is. This is a technical practice. The details matter. I’m sorry if you don’t love this. I don’t love this. But we’re gonna do it, so let’s stay together and try.” She looked around at us all, and I knew exactly what she felt – she felt totally alone. She sighed, and gave up. “Fine. Go refresh yourselves. Come back ready. Twelve minutes, not thirteen.”

I ran for the bathroom, but I was too slow to escape. “Mouse!” Trix called behind me. I couldn’t ignore it.

“Be right back!” I threw evasively over my shoulder.

I barely made it. I struggled against my stupid pants, fumbling with the button, holding like crazy to keep those first drops from soaking my underwear. Finally, I shoved the whole mess of clothing out of the way and fell on the toilet seat without even checking for drips. My pee flooded out of me for so long I started to wonder if it wasn’t the sound of the toilet running. It wasn’t. I just really, really had to pee. I’m sure I must have groaned my relief out loud, because outside the stall, I heard Trix laugh. I couldn’t believe she’d followed me in here, and to acknowledge what she’d heard of my personal hygiene moment, well, that went beyond rude. I felt embarrassed and affronted.

“You pee like a racehorse!” she laughed. I couldn’t help but respond, even though I hate talking from a toilet stall. It’s supposed to be private.

“Only when I’ve had to hold through two hours of practice,” I retorted.

“I didn’t say you couldn’t pee,” she responded mildly, but I knew she knew she was bullshitting. I flushed, buttoned and exited the stall in time to give her an eyeroll of sarcastic disbelief as I moved to wash my hands. I looked at her in the mirror, elongated. She leaned against the wall casually, hands extended like she was giving me a point.

“Okay, I admit…culturally, it might not fly to disrupt practice…but you’re responsible for yourself. You might piss me off, sure, but better than pissing yourself.”

I didn’t buy it for a minute. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, to let her know I knew the truth.

“Do,” she replied simply. Then, a quick-switch. “You’re having a hard time today. You want to talk?”

So there it was. I decided to hit things head-on.

“I didn’t want you to notice. I kind of hoped I was being hard on myself.”

“You probably are. But I noticed.” She smiled but I could tell this was a serious conversation. “You gotta take your cue from the other guys. Be with us, you know? Yes, it’s a lot of percussion, but hold with Noodle on the kit, keep Bash in sight, work with John to round each other out. You’re too focused on your fingers and the notes, not enough on playing music with the group.”

I couldn’t listen any more to what I already knew. “Okay, already! I suck. I know! Do you think I don’t know? I should just go home.” I made for the door, but Trix grabbed my arm, hard, pulling me close to her with a little shake. I stumbled, then stood straight and looked her in the eye. She didn’t let go.

“No you don’t,” she growled. “You stay. This is your test, Christine, and your chance. Sucking is no excuse at all to leave us hanging here.”

“Let go of me!” I cried in indignation, and she immediately released my arm. We each took a step back. “It’s humiliating!” burst out of me. “How can I look any of you in the eyes? How can I be with you?”  I looked up at her in angry despair, laid bare at last.

“You just will. And when you do, you will get stronger, and you will know yourself better. You’re not here to be perfect, little darling. You’re here to play with us. Let’s play!”

I felt something let go inside, something nameless but dense that had been tying me up tight. I felt understood, but that didn’t make me judge myself any less harshly.

“I don’t know how. An orchestra just isn’t anything like this. And my band, the only band I really played with, I knew those guys better than I know myself. This is too much.”

Trix smiled her gentlest smile, the one reserved for when people reminded her of herself. The one she smiled just before demanding you step up.

“Good reflection. So figure out what that means, how this is different, and how you must be different with the circumstances as they are. We have a few minutes, get a breath of air and some water. I have an idea. Chin up, Mouse!” She tweaked my chin like I was a four-year-old and exited the bathroom, leaving me to digest the situation and conversation as best I could.

“Fuck.” Alone, I said it out loud. Immediately my mind corrected me with a cry of “Language!” How quickly we humans adapt.

I snagged an apple from the fruit bowl out front, then slunk back into the theatre, sitting unobtrusively in one of the back-row seats. No one approached me or even seemed to notice I was there, which was fine with me. I looked around. I saw Lizard working on a section of damaged wall near the stage, but I didn’t want to go over and talk with him there. No sign of Milo or Moffat. Jamie and Trix were also nowhere to be seen. Trace and Bash stood talking with a formally-attired man near the lobby doors. I tried not to be hyper aware of them, but I couldn’t help noticing that it was the same man who had looked me over twice the time I snuck in the front doors as he and his besuited friends were leaving. If I wasn’t paranoid about being paranoid, I could have sworn they were discussing me.

As Trace, Bash and Mr. Suit moved out of view, my phone rang. Rekha. A big, angry gong went off in my belly, echoing through all my nerve endings with the guilt and embarrassment of having lost her ring. I did not want to answer, but this was actually a pretty good time, since no one was paying attention to me anyway. Plus, I owed her.

“Hi, Rekha,” I said, to avoid the whole introductions part.

“Christine.” It sounded like a statement, or a verification of facts.

“Yes,” I answered. “It’s me.”

“How are you?” she asked. The most mundane question in the world, and the hardest to answer. How am I? Like, what how? Am I breathing? Am I cancer-free? Am I happy? Am I tired? Suicidal? In love? Introspective? What is the measure, what is the criteria, for “how” I am? I just am! But, I had learned the hard way that there was no point in saying any of that to people. I knew the safest bet was always, “Fine.” So that’s what I said.

“I caught the end of practice in my stream, a little brutal. I hope you are not daunted?”

“I’m doing my best,” I replied cautiously

“Yes, I can see. Very good. You mustn’t read any of the comments, of course.”

My stomach dropped out. “What comments?”

“Surely you of all people know, the constant stream of trolls who comment on everything and everyone. You must promise me you won’t read any press.”

“I won’t promise. But I also might not read it – why screw myself up?”

“Good girl,” she approved. That got my back up. Where did she get off? I wanted to go reading comments just to spite her, but I also recognized that I did not have thick enough skin, if what she was intimating awaited me on the web. I honestly didn’t know if I would look, now that she’d alerted me, and I wondered about her intentions in bringing it up.

“Listen,” she continued, “has Trix said anything about your stunt for the show?”

“A stunt?” I asked. I noticed that people were straggling in, making for the stage. Time was almost up to get in or get out.

“Yes, I think she may be planning something for you. She is an acrobat, after all, she usually incorporates some showmanship in that vein. I must caution you against participating yourself, however.”

“Why?”

“Safety standards simply cannot be met in the Timeless facility. I did the research myself, pro bono, and I concluded that the venue is not secure enough for what she is planning. Not to mention that it would certainly take anyone several weeks of practice to learn. ”

“Well, I doubt anyone would want me to do anything dangerous. Besides, I’m all left feet and thumbs, so…”

“And Trix? Is she…have you noticed any odd behaviour?”

“Odd, like not giving a shit if a girl gets raped?”

“Pardon? What do you mean?”

“I ran into a girl in the ally, running away from this guy, Flank. Trix says it’s none of my business.”

“And for once, she is correct. You shouldn’t be there, Christine, not at all. Please, reconsider participating. This is not a good time or place.”

“I think you’re right. I’m not adding to the music, that’s for sure. I just…I don’t know. I feel like…”

“It’s okay, Christine, it’s good to feel like you are part of a big idea, but this is just a bad time. Many, many months of hopes, dreams, aspirations and hard work, all are coming to fruition this week. It may not be safe for you to continue. Shall I come and pick – ”

At that moment, my phone went dead. Shit. Stupid battery. I stood up. Maybe she would come anyway. I could sneak out and wait out front for awhile. But before I made the door, I found myself flanked by Milo and Moffatt.

“Come on, pretty lady, show’s ’bout to start!” cried Milo triumphantly, as they shepherded me bodily towards the stage.

“Jamie says Trix flipped her switch, could be fun ya know,” confided Moffatt. I knew, then, that Jamie had sent them to make sure I didn’t escape. That thought warmed me up and made me feel like maybe things could be okay, after all. Trix hadn’t wanted me to go, so maybe I could still pull it off. I just needed to relax, stop caring so much. Easier said than done, of course. Trix’s stance about Flank and the girl from the ally had knocked her down a notch in my estimation, which in a way made me feel like maybe I could care a little less about her opinion. Maybe.

Trix stood before us, not the General, all of a sudden, but more like Camp Director. With a big smile, she clapped her hands together.

“Alright, brothers and sisters, that last set sucked, so, we’re about to change things up. Everyone get yourselves up here,” she called to the theatre-at-large. “We’re playing twenty minute miracle!”

I could tell from the general excited approval noises that this was a popular game. Jamie held an upside-down blue velvet top hat, which he presented in turn to Pratt, Bash and Trace. Each took a slips of paper and passed them to Trix, who called the groupings out.

“Pratt, you have Mouse, Paul and…Stan. Bash, you’ve got Noodle, Duggan and Ruby, and take Trumpet with you. Mr. Al Roy, you will join Trace and Miser over there. You too, Seth. All the rest of you out there, you wanna play? Find a home with those groups or make your own. The clock starts in 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1…NOW!”

I felt relieved to be with Pratt, and not Bash or Trace. Chia, Milo and Moffatt attached themselves to our little group as Pratt headed with purpose to a door at the back of the stage. “Grab a guitar, let’s move, follow me, time’s a wasting!” he called back. I snatched up the guitar and followed behind the others through the door, which led to a hallway. We packed into a small practice room, amps ready.

“I’m gonna sing. I always sing. Are you gonna sing?” Chia asked, turning suddenly to me.

“I hope not!” I cried without thinking. “What is this game?”

“Twenty minute miracle! We got 20 minutes to mix up whatever song they gave us an’ make it double cool. Winners get the cake,” explained Moffat.

“You mean, take the cake?” I jokingly corrected.

“Yeah, they take it all and eat it is what they do! Adelaide’s chocolate cake an’ you know we want to win that!”

“What song we got? What song? What’s the song?” Milo bounced around like a six-year-old. Stan turned a glare on him, annoyed. Milo and Moffat were probably only sixteen, but Stan was a bit older, bigger, more weather-worn and world-weary. He looked at the rest of us through eyes already narrowed. Milo’s puppy-jumping got on his nerves.

“I didn’t hear you two called in this group,” Stan stated bluntly. If he wasn’t very welcoming, it didn’t bother Milo.

“Trix said! She said attach ourselves so you gotta let us come! Ha!” he crowed. “Yeah!” agreed Moffat, and the two high-fived. Paul shot Stan a look that told him to leave it alone. Paul was about Stan’s age but with softer eyes and a lighter touch – he seemed like a guy who kept the peace.

“You guys are cool,” Paul assured the boys. “You playing skins?”

They answered in unison. “Duh, yeah!”

Pratt looked up seriously. “Pay attention! Look, we got (songname)”

Milo stopped bouncing and deflated. Moffat made a face. “Too slow!” he complained. “I wanna beat the drum!”

“At least I know it, basically,” I mused.

“Well,” Paul started carefully, “I’m not sure you should even be on guitar. We’ve got Pratt, and anyway, it’s just what she’s expecting. You play something else?”

“No.”

“So maybe you sing?” he tried.

“No.” So far, this wasn’t as fun as I’d been promised.

“You don’t get it,” Stan sighed at me. “We’ve got to change it up. Make it interesting, different, something to surprise her. The bigger the surprise, the more likely we win…if we pull it off.”

“I don’t see how my singing is going to surprise her. Why can’t we play with the music, maybe the speed, or octave or something?”

“It’s gotta blow them away,” Paul almost pleaded. “I NEVER win this!”

Moffat laughed. “Well, don’ worry. Me ’n Milo, we ALWAYS win! We’re gonna kick a…butt.

“What about just down and dirty, punk style, triple time, the boys banging hard and fast. You think you can keep up with that? asked Paul.

“Yeah, I’m with you!” I tossed off a quick little punky-sounding riff. Chia crowded in close behind me, making it hard to play.

“Your fingers go fast!” she breathed in my ear.

“So who’s singing?” asked Pratt.

“Do we need to sing it?” I asked.

“I always sing!” Chia cried. She shot me a look, insulted and hurt that I’d forget.

Stan snorted. “Chia singing punk-style? Now that could be surprising.”

“Lay off her, man,” warned Paul quietly.

“You know what she sings,” countered Stan. “It’s always the same thing. Either we play to that, or we don’t.”

“I think it’ll be cool,” decided Pratt, clearly the leader. “We’ve got 15 minutes, let’s run it through 3 times. Chia, you and Stan’ll both sing, okay?

“I like Stan,” she replied with a smile at the man himself. To his credit, he didn’t roll his eyes, and he pulled away gently when she pawed at his arm.

We played, and not too badly, I thought. We went hard and fast. Chia intoned a wordless, haunting melody behind the music, out of time but somehow weaving in and out of our playing in a way that created a slow pull for the ear. She vocalized with incredible subtlety and depth. She wasn’t singing – her voice was another instrument and Pratt was right – it worked. Then, Stan started singing the main lyrics of the song, but he sounded more like a Jonas Brother than a punk singer. I stopped us to see if I could help him.

“Stan, what if you try it like this?” With my inexpert voice, I sang the first two lines with an edgy, Joan Jett bite, then stopped, a little embarrassed at my key. Stan frowned.

“You know better, you do it.” Aaak! I hadn’t meant to piss him off, and I certainly didn’t want to sing. Humans are so hard to help, sometimes!

“Sorry! I wasn’t trying to…I mean, I just thought you could really blow it away if you put an edge on it. Like, way better than me. You know?”

“No, I don’t know,” he grumbled.

“Cut off the last word with a little…I don’t know…spit. Or something. Like you’re so just over it you can hardly sing it out fast enough. Sneering at your own need to express. Or…something. ” I saw this last hit him, and his resentment face broke into revelation.

“Like this?” he asked, and gave it a shot. So much better, I could hardly believe it. He’d really changed his mind! I played a happy little riff in congratulations, and we all smiled, tension broken.

“Okay,” he admitted half-grudgingly. “Maybe that’s better.”

“You can really get into it! See if you can be another person, like nothing to do with Stan, but just this punk-rock glowery dude who’s totally had it with everything. That’s how we win with Trix – be totally what we’re doing. If we’re going to go hard and fast, we get to be hard and fast guys. Or…girls.”

“So, if we’re giving unasked for advice,” he returned in a friendly way, “how about you play with Pratt instead of overtop of him? ” Ouch! I hadn’t thought that was what I was doing. I felt like he was returning a punch.

“I… ”

“Tick tock,” Pratt interrupted, annoyed. “Can we try it again?”

“What about me? Did I sing okay?” Chia asked me, and only me.

“You sing like an angel,” I told her honestly. She smile big, then shyly, then looked down, twirled around, and laughed. So cute. I saw Milo and Moffat exchange a glance and wondered if they made fun of her when they were alone.

We tried the song a few more times, but really, we had it down. I couldn’t believe how quickly it had come together, despite my faux pas of giving Stan advice. I was glad I did, because he was a thousand times better on the vocals, which made all the difference. I loved how Chia’s sounds blended in complementary contrast.

“Time’s up!” called Jamie from the doorway. “Two minutes, be ready!”

As we entered the theatre, I saw that Trace’s group was dressed in a theme I assumed supported their song, with full makeup. They looked awesome. I nudged Paul.

“Those guys have COSTUMES!” I stage whispered. He shrugged helplessly – it was too late to think about stuff like that now. I wondered if I should rip off my shirt sleeves or something, but really, what good would that do?

“Who’s up?” asked Trix. Jamie pulled a slip from the top hat.

“Lucky us, it’s the Dream Team: Pratt, Purnell and company.”

Paul leaned over to me. “Maybe first is good! No one to compete with yet. But last would have been better. Last usually wins.”

Trix clapped her hands together once, impatient.

“Well, get up there, quick like bunnies, you only have two minutes to get us rocking with you.”

We were already at our places by the time she finished speaking, and Trix nodded her approval. Chia leaned into the mic, her voice distorted-loud. “We’re gonna go hard and fast!” she cried, completely innocent that anyone might find that suggestive.

“Right now!” agreed Pratt, and we dropped into the song. Right away I saw some smiles of recognition and appreciation for our take on the music. The crowd was with us by the second verse, and people started joining in on their own instruments, mixing with us and expanding our little band through the song. This felt so much closer to the sing-along that first charmed me than anything I’d experience since, that I almost felt reassured. The applause at the end seemed enthusiastic.

Jamie stepped up to the mic to announce Bash’s group – he had Noodle and Trumpet, and his singer was announced as Ruby – I did a double-take. Ruby was the spitting image of Chia, but skinnier. Not anorexic, but gaunt compared with her full-bodied doppelganger. Even still, they were unmistakably twin sisters. Unlike Chia, Ruby belted out her lyrics with confidence and bravado. The set was good, but I smugly felt that we were better.

“And finally, Traceroy – our final act…” Jamie gestured to the costumed bunch, who efficiently took centre stage. When they crashed into their version of (songname) I knew they had us beat. They didn’t just look better – they sounded better, with more variety and surprise, and a whole different take. They were less serious, more tongue in cheek, and way, way bouncier. The whole crowd laughed and played along. I’d never yet seen Trace look so relaxed and happy, so into what she was doing. If I hadn’t known better, I might have mistaken her for the star of the place. If I’d been more open minded, I might have admitted to a glimpse of what Trix saw in her.

“Well, I’m pretty sure that you guys take the cake!” cried Trix herself. Adelaide stepped forward with the prize – a gorgeous chocolate cake dripping with icing – they kind that makes your mouth water just looking at it. Trix ceremoniously presented the cake to Miser, who smiled big as he accepted. All around the room people reacted, either cheering in agreement or grumbling in disappointment – sometimes, both. Adelaide smiled big.

“Lucky I made enough for everyone!” she called out, whisking away the cover to reveal two more cakes on the trolly. A cheer went up around the room.

“Hey,” called Milo, “if everyone gets cake, then what was the point of a contest?”

Moffat elbowed him in the ribs. “You complainin’?”

“Well, I mean…winning’s gotta mean something.”

“That’s really interesting, Milo.” Trix joined the conversation from across the room, drawing everyone’s attention. “Thanks for that. But let’s step back from some arbitrary idea of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and think about the facts. The facts are: we had a contest, and Trace and her bunch kicked your little butts. Why should you partaking in cake in any way diminish what winning means for them?”

“It just…well…” Milo stammered.

Stan jumped in. “The market value goes down when supply increases. So it does make the prize less valuable, objectively.” Trix focused her laser-beam eyes Stan’s direction.

“And so you would not have cake? On the principle that it devalues the prize of winning? Well, I admire your strength of conviction. No cake for Milo and Stan. The rest must choose their conscience.”

This statement met with silence, and the shuffling of general discomfort. You know how they say, “you could have heard a pin drop”? Well, you could have. Jamie settled back on the wall, arms folded. Every eye stayed glued on Trix. and she knew it.

“When we set value by the market rather than the common good, we let ourselves down and we let each other down. What did this competition really do? It got musicians creating together in different ways. It got us grooving to each other’s grooves. It gave us an excuse to have cake together! Prizes are secondary, irrelevant. Value isn’t just economic. The value of the prize is the respect of our peers, the knowledge that our best is as good as we think it is. The value is how much better we are all going to play together when we get back to the set. Tell me what that’s worth! And you’re here, thinking the cake is the prize. I obviously failed to make things clear somewhere along the way. But I hope you understand now. The good will from equitable sharing of profits can only help our goal of being AMAZING on Friday! So eat your cake and quit being a baby about losing.”

Trix turned her back on us all and disappeared into the lobby. I got the feeling she needed to be alone with her impatience for a minute. As everyone else slowly returned to quiet conversations, I turned to Jamie.

“Wow, she really knows how to put a damper on things.”

He looked down and away, not comfortable meeting my eyes as he shook his head. “I don’t know, I think she’s right to call it when she sees it, and not put up with anything.”

“But she didn’t have to call them out like that. Look at Stan, he’s not even having any cake. He looks pissed but I bet he’s embarrassed and hurt. And Milo? I didn’t think anything could dampen his spirits, but getting raked over the coals by Trix, that did it. Look at his face.”

“How’s she supposed to teach all of us what things mean if she takes those guys aside and talks to them quietly? I know I didn’t get it before, I never knew that 20 minute Miracle was about all that stuff she said, and I’ve been here ages. I needed to hear it, too. I’m learning, too.”

He wasn’t wrong, but somehow I felt like it wasn’t right, either, to give people shit in front of a crowd.

“Well, you did hear it. And so did everyone else,” I stated to end the conversation. As I spoke, Trix made a low-key re-entry to the theatre. She took a slice of cake, and brought it over to Stan, speaking with him quietly. He held his shoulders and jaw hard and cold, but slowly his face softened and he even nodded once. To my surprise, he took the cake. I noticed he didn’t eat it, though, as Trix moved on.

“If she’s going to do the correcting part in public, she should do the apology part in public, too,” I mumbled quietly to Jamie. He shrugged, eyes on his lap so hair framed his face like blinders.

“Who says she apologized? Listen, I’m not saying she’s perfect. I’m just saying, out loud is how we do things, and those guys know it. They speak up, they gotta take a correction if it comes. That’s how we learn.” To me, he sounded pained, like challenging me hurt physically. Even as I noticed that, I found myself continuing to push my point.

“Doesn’t that just discourage people from speaking up?” I countered.

“Well, it makes us make sure we can back it up before we speak.” He flicked his hair so he could see me sideways. “That seems like a good thing?”

“Hmm. Maybe. Well, at least she made up with them, she didn’t leave them hanging.”

“Look, sorry, Mouse, I gotta go.” Again with the abrupt pull-back, even after the time we’d spent together this afternoon. I was starting to wonder if my differences would leave me feeling outside with him for good. I couldn’t keep it out of my voice.

“Oh, okay.”

He turned back with the softest face I’ve ever seen on anyone but a child. He reached out and touched my cheek briefly, trying on a grown man’s gesture. I felt tender towards him. “Hey, I really do have to go,” he said quietly, trying on grown man’s tone, then dropping back to kid by kidding, “I’m critical around here, you know!”

“Yeah, I know,” I replied seriously to his already-departing back. But I knew he heard me.

I looked around and saw Stan still brooding. He scared me a little and my first instinct was to avoid him, but since my first instincts tend to leave me lonely, I try fighting them to see what will happen. Plus, I was curious.

“Can I sit here?” I asked.

“Well, it’s empty.” Not the most encouraging response, but now walking away wasn’t in the social contract. I sat beside him. I decided to ask what I really wanted to know about everyone at Timeless.

“So, Stan, how did you get here?”

“My own two feet.” I couldn’t blame him for his mood, so I pressed on.

“I mean, how did you come to live at Timeless? What’s your story?”

“I don’t owe you my story just because you’re curious.”

God! why did he have to be so unfriendly? I’d had enough of being talked to this way.

“Hostile, much?” I asked.That got his attention, and even a little corner-of-the-mouth smile.

“Sorry. I’m still a bit jammed. She doesn’t even give you a chance to have a conversation, just one swipe and you’re done and she’s the queen.

Where a minute ago I’d been on his side, now I found myself taking the position of defending Trix.

“I don’t know if she’s trying to be queen,” I mused. “She has a particular way of looking at things, and she’s asserting it.”

Stan turned to actually look at me, now completely engaged, determined to convince me of his point.

“I wasn’t wrong. I’m not stupid, I read. Human nature makes us compete, and everyone getting cake means I might not work so hard next time. That’s just the truth.”

“For you,” I pointed out gently. “Anyway, it’s done now. It was nice of you to stick up for Milo like that.” Stan looked confused.

“What? Oh, Milo. Yeah, well, I was sticking up for his point because he was right, he just can’t express the words.”

“Maybe he just needed more time to think about what to say.”

Stan laughed a bit meanly.

“Yeah, right! Well, I’m going to the can.” He hefted himself up and abruptly departed. One moment later, Moffat plunked himself down in the vacant seat.

“Oooh, still warm!” he crowed. His plate teetered precariously on his knee, piled high with three pieces of cake. Each bite he took completely filled his mouth, which didn’t prevent him from talking with cake-muffled enthusiasm, oblivious to the crumbs escaping down his shirt.

“Can’ believe we didn’t win! We rocked it! At least we get cake. Milo’s just pissin’ in the koolaid, complain’ ‘bout prizes an’ sh-stuff.”

I laughed out loud at that. “Pissing in the koolaid? I have to remember that one!”

“You like that? I got a thousand more where that come from!”

“I’m sure I’ll hear them all!”

“You bet! Gotta stick ’round long enough, righ’?”

“I guess we’ll see! Hey, Moffat, how come you’re here? At Timeless?”

Moffat’s eyes bugged out and he almost spit out the cake.

“You been goin’ ‘round askin’ people that? Sheesh! No wonder yer popularity’s droppin’! Look, you can just be expectin’ it’s bad an’ we don’ wanna talk ‘bout it. Don’ ask!”

“But…I mean, it’s their own story, right, so maybe they want to tell it? I really am interested. I know I’m totally ignorant about the people here, but how can that change if I can’t ask them where they come from? ” He scratched his head, his bottom lip pouted out while he thought about what I was saying.

“Huh. Well, I don’ mind, eh? So, me, I skittered off track stealin’ an’ ended up in juvie, but after, then what? Back to school? No way, man, fuc..forget that noise! An’ Ma too busy wit’ lil’uns ta make me, ya know? What ta do but play my skins on the street for change and try stayin’ outta trouble? Me ‘n Milo, we drummed up big crowds on a good day. Pyro an’ everythin’, an’ sometimes friends ta jam with. We just wanna bang on de drum all day! But not enough coin for a roof an’ good food. Then Bash threw us a twenty an’ his card. The rest is histry.”

“Sounds like you got lucky.”

He’d been smiling a dreamy, wistful smile, remembering drumming up the crowds, but that dropped at my words and he again looked thoughtful.

“Yeah,” he answered slowly, “sure, yeah, but ya know. Gets hard, no swearin’, watchin’ every little word comin’ outta my mouth. Trix, jus’ there, ta Milo, makin’ him out a fool. Jus’ for expressin’ hisself!”

“So why do you stay?”

“‘S not so easy, not knowin’ where ta sleep at night. Got beat up a coupla times. See, los’ a tooth,” he said, pointing to a hole where his upper incisor should have been. “That never happened here. We’s tight, here, we take care a each other an’ this place. Feels safer. I do miss drummin’ up them crowds, jus’ the mix a people, seein’ who threw coin an’ who din’, who got the beat wit us an’ who jus’ stood, an’ who looked away like we was bugs on the road. Gotta know the species we up again’, righ’? Try bein’ a street playa for awhile! Winnin’ over the hol-outs, gettin’ ‘em drummin’ or dancin’, amazin’! A-maze-ing! Can’ remember the last time I played the street. Been forever!”

“You’re talking like you’re in jail again. Can’t you just go play and come back after?”

“In or out! Two nights out pas’ curfew, an’ yer out, thassit. We got work days. Anyhow, here’s better than the street, all’s considerin’. Here’s the opposite of prison, here’s paradise, ya know – I’m jus’ a li’l devil so I whine!”

I laughed with him as I took in his words. Not prisoners, but not really free, either, if they wanted the protection on offer. That put the labour I saw around me in a new light.

“Thanks for telling me your story.”

” ‘Cordin’ ta Trix, we all got the same story. Listen, how come you so stiff today? You ain’t feelin’ the beat. You gotta get it or we all sink. I could rub yer shoulders, loosen you up?” At this moment Milo appeared, leaning against the back of my seat just in time for this last bit of conversation.

“No way!” he cried. “I am the king for backrubs, don’ let this neandertal touch you!”

“I’m fine. Thanks.” The boys didn’t move. “Um, looks like we’re getting back to work,” I tried.

“What? That means we’re late!” Both boys scampered off like squirrels.

“Oh, wait,” I called, and Milo turned back, all eager.

“Knew it! You wan’ that backrub after all?”

“I’m just wondering if there’s a charger where I can plug this in?”

Milo’s eyes lit up. “Yeah, definitely, no problem, giver here!” He dashed forward and grabbed my device right out of my hand, sprinting off in the opposite direction. My phone was gone. I felt untethered and vulnerable without it.

I made my way back to the stage. I smiled to see Miser and Seth still in costume. Trix entered from the stage door with Trace, in deep conversation. Trace stoodin plain disbelief and frustration, then turned and stomped backstage. Trix, meanwhile, strode to centre stage, having shed all traces of the General and Camp Director in favor of some new persona – as she opened her mouth, I wondered who we were about to meet next.

“Okay, brothers and sisters, let’s take it from the top,” she said simply. Huh, just Trix, after all.

We began again. The 20 Minute Miracle had, it seemed, brought some level of improvement. Maybe not quite miraculous, but I found myself pleasantly surprised. I had more ease with this group, more sense of where I fit in the songs, and I’d become more capable of sloughing off the self consciousness that kept me tight. I felt like I’d had a hit of pot. It wasn’t just the chocolate cake, though a sugar rush never hurts. Playing a game made the whole endeavor feel more playful in general. I wasn’t the only one who’d improved, either. The increased interaction I felt from Pratt, Noodle, Seth and others reminded me that I love to play. I had to admit, Trix really knew what she was doing. By the time she asked me to teach The Weight of It to the crowd, I felt confident enough to do it well.

I wasn’t exactly transformed, but I knew I had improved a lot, and every single person got noticeably better in the space of one very long afternoon. Or possibly evening – I had no idea what time it was. If someone tried to convince me we’d been practicing for 24 hours straight, I probably would have believed them, I felt so disoriented in time. Where was my phone? I headed for the lobby, quelling panic, only to spot my precious device in the hands of Milo, surrounded by a gaggle of boys. They all looked up as I approached, elbowing each other and quieting down.

“Um, is that my phone you’ve got there, Milo?”

Unabashed, Milo smiled big. “You bet, Mouse!” he enthused. “You seen this? I bet you never saw this yet!”

I approached warily as most of the boys scattered, less certain than Milo of my reaction. He turned the phone so I could see the screen, but I held out my hand in demand. He made a face, reluctant to return my property, then handed it over with an air of performing a feat through sheer will. A video was already playing – I felt a little jarred to see Ethan, playing with our old band on stage at our old bar, The Status Quo. What was he wearing? I clicked the back button to start the video over, while Milo, Moffat and three boys I didn’t know by name leaned and draped all over each other trying to see over my shoulder. On screen, I saw Ethan dressed in what looked like a prison costume, giant black and white stripes, grinning, holding that sexy black Gibson like it was part of his body. I jolted with recognition, remembering when I thought he was amazing.

“What are all you guys doing out here?” cried Jamie from the doorway to the theatre. “We’re trying to start the calibration! Get in here. You too, Mouse,” he said seriously, stepping up to take me by the elbow.

“Hold on, let me stop this at least,” I protested irritably, shaking loose and stopping the video before following. Everyone else was already sitting, ready to talk, and Trix raised her eyebrow at us, annoyed, as we slid into the back row. She waited until she had everyone’s attention.

“Still not very good, but so, so much better, thank you,” she announced. “Amazing what a little competitive play can do for camaraderie. We’re running over, so we’ll just take five minutes for what’s really important. Who’s got something important?”

Trace did – my heart sank as she turned those lightening-blues on me. “It’s coming together, but Mouse, really, it’s a big band. You don’t have to try to carry the show, and frankly, you’re not ready anyway.”

My main man, Stan, decided to chime in. “Yeah, it was the same problem in the practice room for Miracle,” he agreed with her. I shot him the look a traitor deserves, and he shrugged, turning his eyes away.

Then, my biggest fan, Duggan, of course had to jump in. “I was actually going to say the opposite. Sometimes she goes so background I don’t even know if she’s with us.”

“Guys, speak directly to Mouse, please,” Trix directed, like that was even slightly helpful.

“Sorry, Mouse,” conceded Duggan, actually sounding a little sorry. ” I mean, I guess you’re a little – hot and cold. Like, when you know it, you want to run the whole stage, and when you don’t, you just hide.”

At least he wasn’t gloating like Trace or grumpy like Stan. But still, though! I did my best to respond in my most conciliatory tone.

“I, um, well I guess I’m more confident on some songs than others. I…I don’t mean to do that. I’m…sorry.”

Duggan smiled, relieved. “Hey, that’s why we talk out loud, so you can think about it at least. How can you think on it if we don’t say it?”

I’d almost pulled it off, but as usual, I had to make an attempt at humour, and thus accidentally revealed my defensiveness.

“So do I have to do pushups, like punishment and atonement, to make up for how bad I suck? Is that how things work around here?” I found myself asking it against my own advice to me. Trix sighed her disappointment.

“Whoa, little sister, hold that defensiveness in check, you were almost there, humble acceptance of a gift from people who want to play music with you. Keep with it. The only punishment is your own misplaced shame and fear. Let it go.”

“Okay, I get it already, I’m not ‘with you.'” I felt hot under the collar. “I’m trying, okay? I’m doing my best!”

“Are you?” came Trix’s mild reply. “You know, that’s often a tricky question. Listen, you’re quite good. These are points of process, ideas to watch for. Just say thank you and we’ll move on, right?”

Of course she was right and I was wrong. What else was new? I turned to the others.

“Thank you for the feedback.”

Trix lead a brief, smiley applause for me, which only fused my discomfort to my already-stiffened spine. She turned to the group.

“Anything else so pressing it can’t wait for tomorrow?”

She looked around, waiting, but no one responded.

“Okay then, dismissed!”

I made for the lobby, fast, and smashed right into Rekha in the archway. Seeing it was me, she changed her angry face to friendly.

“Ah, Christine! I was downtown, and I thought from our conversation you might need a ride?” Again with her hand on my arm, her breath in my face, all up in my personal space. There was no going sideways in the archway, so I stepped back, only to bump into Trix behind me. I was trapped between them like the meat in a sandwich as they stared each other down from either side of the arch.

“I will give her a ride,” Trix stated possessively. Rude with impatience, I elbowed Rekha out of my way and power walked away from them both, calling over my shoulder,

“Hey, no, it’s okay, I’m taking the bus.”

“There’s no need, Christine, I’m parked right outside,” Rekha asserted, hurrying in her high heels to catch up. I could tell she felt annoyed despite her smile.

“No, really, look, I need the time alone to clear my head. That’s all. I just…”

“You heard her,” Trix shot at Rekha. “Mouse is taking the bus. So you can go.”

The two women no longer even pretended friendliness. I hated the energy between them, feeling like it was related to me and knowing it went way beyond me.

“Fine. I’m sure you’ll let me know if I can help you in any way, Christine.” Rekha pushed by me and through the doors, trying unsuccessfully to hide her huff. Trix watched until the big double-doors closed behind her, then addressed me.

“I can still give you a ride, if you just weren’t into a trip with the Queen of Sheba.”

“No, really, I want to take the bus,” I insisted.

“You okay?” Trix asked me seriously, stepping forward with concern. Her hand on my arm felt warm and a little electric.

“I’m fine. Just peachy.”

“Well, let me walk you to the bus stop. It’s getting dark, and you got the attention of some shady characters today.”

She was right; I knew it in spite of myself. Part of me just wanted to escape her as fast as I could, while the saner side knew that I should have company on the streets after dark. I’d almost lost track of the events of the afternoon until she reminded me, and I felt a twinge of guilt for having let that little girl out of my thoughts.

“Okay,” I agreed reluctantly.

We walked in companionable silence, Trix thinking her own thoughts and me thinking mine – mostly about how stupid I’d been. I had imagined myself improved, only to discover the band still found me wanting. I brooded all the way to the bus stop. When we arrived, Trix turned to me as though she’d been listening to my thoughts the whole walk. Her eyes held mine in place so I didn’t dare flinch.

“I know it’s hard, when people seem to be criticizing you, but you have to know that we do this all the time, it’s not personal. We all want the best show, and we all have our own special ways of sucking, not just you. You’re new, so you stand out right now, but you were really coming along today. I saw it, and so did everyone else. Don’t be discouraged because Stan gets in a mood and Trace decides to be a brat. It’s got nothing to do with you, really. Stay with that feeling you had after Miracle, that feeling you had the first time we played together. Stay with us, okay?” Her charm was not lost on me.

“I do my best,” I sighed, still bummed.

“Well, okay then!” she agreed with a smile, case closed. I felt very relieved to see the bus headlights approaching. I didn’t want to talk about this anymore.

“So, there’s my bus. Thanks for…walking me here. And everything.”

“No problem,” she smiled, leaning down to give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Without meeting her eyes, I climbed the steps, paid my fare and found a seat facing the sidewalk. Outside my window, a streetlight flickered off, cutting a sudden shadow across half of Trix’s body and face, giving the illusion that she was only half there, where she stood watching me. I lifted my arm to wave to her lit half, but in that same moment, she turned to go.

NEXT

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