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The white van door slid open, bouncing as it crashed against its worn stopper. I caught it as it started to slide shut again, pulling it back again gently until it clicked and stayed open. I ignored the hand that reached to me, wagging its fingers.
“Come on, Jen, just pull me out. I’m stuck,” Andy said from the back seat.
“Get out yourself. My hands are full.”
“I would, but uh… this amp…” His voice trailed off and his fingers wagged again.
I snatched his hand and yanked, hard, sending Andy flying out the open van door and stumbling a few steps before he found his meager balance and turned back to haul the amp from the back seat where it had blocked him in, with only a withering glance in my direction. I left the rest of the equipment with the band, and walked to the stage where an open cooler was sitting with ice melting inside onto water bottles with soggy labels. I pulled one out and waited for the ice water to stream off, looking at the sky. It looked like it might rain. We’d be screwed if it rained.
“Jen! Want to help me with these mics?” Jared yelled when he saw me by the cooler.
“I don’t do setup.” I unscrewed the cap off the water bottle and took a sip.
“Then what do you do?”
“That’s a good question.” I only came to Andy’s concerts because if I didn’t stand there looking totally calm he would freak. I call it calm by association. “Have you seen Patrick?”
“No.” He started to walk away. “But he’ll show.” I just shrugged and looked at the sky again. If it rains it won’t really matter if he comes or not.
Andy strolled up to me and dumped a bunch of cords in my hand.
“What do these go to?” I asked.
“No idea.” He squinted up at the sky. “Think it’s going to rain?”
“Nah. I’ve seen worse. Have you heard from Patrick yet?”
“No. But I’m seriously starting to wonder if we’d be better off if he didn’t even show. I mean, the kid sucks, but he’s supposed to have this kick ass solo in one of our best songs.”
“Why don’t you just take the solo?” I asked.
“Because I have a solo in the song before that.” Andy slid the water bottle from my hand and gulped half of it down before handing it back. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and go help Jared set up the mics? You know he’s useless.”
“I don’t do setup Andy.”
“Why do I even bring you?” he said with a sigh.
“Because without me you’d fall to pieces,” I said, which is true.
“That’s hard to believe. You never do anything.” I smiled. Also true. “Why don’t you at least ask around and find out what those cords go to? I feel like they’re important.”
“Yeah,” I said, but he was already gone.
Half an hour later, everything was set up and ready, people were already gathering, the noise was already overwhelming… and Patrick still hadn’t shown. The band was sitting on the stage; Brad tapping his feet and banging out random beats on his drum set, Jared sprawled out on the ground, Andy standing at the edge, alternating between squinting into the distance as if he’d see Patrick come running through the crowd, (although by this time I pretty much knew he wasn’t coming,) and squinting anxiously at the dark, looming clouds.
“Andy,” I said as he took half a step forward, “you’re going to fall off.” He looked at me.
“Did you try calling Patrick?”
“Yes. Five times.”
“Well, try again.”
“He’s not going to answer,” I said. Andy turned back to the clouds, and started to ask me another question, but I beat him to it. “It won’t rain.”
“Are you sure?” he said. “Because it looks like it’s going to rain.”
“It won’t rain.” He sighed and squinted harder into the crowd. “Just do it without Patrick. You don’t need him. You have plenty of songs that you could do with one guitar. And no one’s going to care if you do two solos in a—”
“You can play.” He spun around, his face lit up with this huge revelation. I froze and my stomach dropped.
“What?” I said.
“What?” Jared and Brad said.
“You know all the songs, right?” Andy asked, watching me expectantly.
“Well… yeah…” I reluctantly admitted.
“And you brought your guitar with you, right?” he asked.
“Yeah it’s in the van, but—”
“This is perfect, Jen, you have to play. This is our first concert. If you don’t play we’ll never get anywhere.”
“Uh, Andy?” Brad said. “Jen can’t play guitar?”
“Yeah, she can,” Andy said.
“She’s good, and I know she can play our songs, way better than Patrick ever could.”
“Jen. You have to.” I looked at him. He stared at me with pleading eyes that I found really hard to resist… but come on. He knows how I feel about this.
“Andy I can’t do this,” I said.
“Yes you can.” And for some reason he took this as a yes on my part, and jumped off the stage. “I’ll go get your guitar from the van.” Brad and Jared both turned to me.
“You can play? Why didn’t you save us from Patrick like, ages ago?” Jared said. I didn’t answer. I just stared out at the crowd. Andy and my parents are the only ones that know I even own a guitar. I don’t know why, but just thinking about this sea of faces made me completely nauseated. It never bothered me before, but I realized just then that I didn’t know any of those people. They were all going to see the deepest part of me, a part that I haven’t told anyone about. Andy found out completely by accident, and I swore him to secrecy. My guitar playing was mine. It was the one thing I had that no one could demean or judge me by. It was the one refuge I had. I mean, I could go home, write anything into a song, play it a couple times, sing it to myself, and no one had to know; it was like a diary. I mean, some teenage girl going through all those “confusing” teenage years is not going to share her diary with her entire school, plus like three hundred other strangers, right? So why should I have to? But Andy was coming back, swinging my guitar case around carelessly but with, like, hope, on his face. And come on, how mean did I have to be…. So I closed my eyes, and tried not to upchuck all over the front of Andy’s shirt.
“You’ll be fine,” he said and slapped me on the shoulder. I nodded once, trying to breathe as he shoved my guitar into my clammy grasp. How do I move my fingers again? Oh, like that. He jogged to the back of the stage and grabbed his own guitar, and Brad leaned over to shout in his ear.
“She’ll be fine,” Andy shouted back. “She just… has really, really bad stage fright.”
“Can she play with her guitar like that?” Brad said. I looked down. It was backwards. I flipped it around stiffly and looked at Brad. “Better.” He nodded at me, then turned around to slide behind his drum set.
“Come on,” Andy said, standing between the crowd and me. “You’re not plugged in yet. Just play something, anything.” But standing there, I couldn’t remember anything at all.
“What do I do again?” I asked weakly.
“Oh man,” Andy said, then grabbed my hands. “Like this, okay? Up and down.” He put the pick between my fingers and strummed up and down. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But what about the other hand?” Andy sighed again.
“You’ll figure it out.”
“Jen. You’ll figure it out.” I took my left hand off the guitar and flexed it a couple times before putting it back on and, closing my eyes again, I played a song that I’d written recently in the privacy of my room and was now sharing with the world. It instilled in me a weird sense of vertigo, and I thought that I might, at any given moment, fall over and not be able to get up until the show was over. Or at least until Andy agreed that I didn’t have to play any more.
But one look at Andy’s face when I opened my eyes told me that wouldn’t happen. He was smiling the biggest smile I have ever seen on his face. And something else about that smile made me wonder if Patrick was ever supposed to show up at all.
“I hate you,” I yelled at him.
“What?” He cupped his ear.
“I hate you,” I screamed louder.
“I’m sure you do. Ready?”
“Good.” He turned to Jared and Brad. “Ready?”
And then Brad was counting off, and I was playing without even realizing it. My brain was frozen, but my fingers were moving, playing a song I learned by hearing it over and over for weeks. Was that his plan all along? Drag me to every rehearsal so I learned the songs by heart, and then force me to play at his first big concert? I can’t believe I was ever his friend. This is definitely the end of our friendship, no matter what he says.
I averted my gaze from the crowd and stared at the fingers that were moving on their own. Wow. Did I know they could move that fast? I stared at the clouds. Maybe it will rain, after all, looks pretty bad, getting colder, too. I stared at Andy, playing his guitar and singing. I hate him. A lot. And finally my gaze fell on the people jumping, swaying, standing still, falling, laughing, drunk and disoriented. Stumbling over everyone else. But they were listening, whatever they were doing. And I was playing.
Slowly I started to hear the music. I heard Brad keeping the pace, Jared coming from underneath, Andy almost drowned out but still just able to be heard, and me, building up to a solo right from the start. And I heard myself play it flawlessly. I heard my guitar rip up the notes and spit them out across the ocean of writhing bodies. And I loved it. In that moment, I absolutely loved it.
Oh. My. God. The lights went out, the music stopped, the last song finished. And the supreme rush of the moment I’d had playing my guitar started to fade. Did I seriously just do that? Did I really just play in front of, like, a million people? I was horrified. Embarrassed. I felt raw, exposed. Everyone knew. Every single person that I had hid this from for seven years and more now knew my deepest secret. How did Andy ever talk me into this?
Just as I thought this, said traitor jogged up to me, laughing and smiling. It disgusted me. He knew how I felt about my guitar. It was the only thing I had that was all mine, and that was all gone. Why would he do that to me? And was I really supposed to believe that Patrick just didn’t show up? Who would do that, come to every rehearsal (albeit late) and just blow off the actual concert? Ever since he found out that I could play, he’d wanted me in his band. He’d chased after me every second, but I kept telling him no, and as he jogged up to me after my first and last concert, he looked triumphant, like he’d proved something.
“Hey, Jen, that was—” He stopped as he saw my expression.
“Don’t ever do that to me again, understand?”
“Com on Jen, you loved it!”
“Does it look like I loved it, Andy? What were you thinking? There was a reason I never wanted to play in front of other people.”
“Oh yeah? And what reason is that?”
“You don’t know?”
“I told you no, Andy.”
“Look, you don’t have to do it again. We’ll make sure Patrick comes next time.”
“It’s not about next time Andy, it’s about how you always wanted me in your band and now Patrick just happens to blow off his big break? I don’t think so Andy.”
“Are you seriously saying I planned this just to get you to play?”
“No way will there be a next time, Andy. This is it.”
“I saw you during the concert, Jen,” he said, looking me straight in the eyes. “You loved it.”
“How do you know? Sure it was great when I was up there, but what about now?”
“What do you mean? People will love you!”
“They’ll love me for something I never wanted them to know! That’s all they’ll ever see when they look at me now.”
“Why is that so bad?”
“Because now they’ll have expectations for me, Andy! They’ll have an image that they all want me to fit into but I never will, because nothing’s ever good enough for anyone!”
“You don’t have to be perfect, Jen.”
“Tell that to everyone that will want me to be.” I gripped my guitar tighter and turned. I walked away.