I'm (Not) With the Band

by Kristen Bealer

"This is way better," Jesse commented after he and Trent finished the last power chord of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--almost at the same time, too.

"You mean louder?" Trent asked him, one eyebrow raised. The acoustic guitars they'd borrowed from his dad had been okay for practice, but he had to agree with Jesse that the newly-purchased electric guitars had a lot more raw volume. Okay, maybe their technique needed work, but he was working on convincing himself they weren't too bad for sixteen-year-olds.

"Yeah. Like I said. Better." Jesse shrugged as he set down his guitar. They'd spent half the summer before their junior year working grueling jobs to save up for the guitars. The Lawndale Diner had actually expected Trent to come in eight o'clock in the morning. Still, their hard work (or at least not slacking off too badly) had paid off and they were now on their way to stardom.

"It's gonna happen, man," Trent told his friend.

"Cool," Jesse said, nodding. Then he looked up. "Huh?"

"The band," Trent reminded him. "We're finally going to start up a band and get rich and famous. We're almost there, you know?"

"Oh. Yeah." Jesse leaned back on the Lanes' living room couch and stretched. "Almost there." He frowned up at the ceiling. "Wait. Don't we still need more guys?"

Trent winced at the reminder. They needed a drummer, a bass player...and a band name they could both agree on. "Details," he reassured him. "We've still got, like, a month and a half before school starts. That's plenty of time to find some bandmates, get some awesome gigs, and bust the music world wide open!"

"Huh. Totally." Jesse shifted to make himself more comfortable. "So what do you wanna do when we make it big?"

Trent smiled. "I've always wanted to go to New Zealand," he said.


"It's about the only country the rest of my family hasn't been to yet."


"What about you?"

"Nah. I've never been there, either."

Trent was never entirely certain if Jesse was joking when he did that or not. He was becoming concerned that he might actually be serious. "I mean when we get rich and famous. What do you want to do?"

Jesse stared up at the ceiling and thought about it for a long time. Just when Trent was starting to think he'd forgotten the original question, he finally spoke again. "I could use a new Walkman."

"That's it?" Trent asked incredulously.

"Yeah, good point," Jesse agreed. He thought some more. "Maybe I'll pick up a new pair of boots, too."

"Dream big, man," Trent said with a small chuckle. "Anyway, first we need some gigs. We'll be raking it in once we get our name out there."

"What name?" Jesse asked. "Did we pick a name and I forgot?"

Trent groaned. "Look, let's worry about the gigs first, okay?"

"Hey, we're The Nameless Band--"

"--dude, I thought we decided on Ear Poison--"

"--whatever, and this is our first gig." Trent cleared his throat and began to play. Jesse joined in a beat or two after. Calling it a "gig" might have been a bit generous; after putting an ad in the classifieds, handing out flyers, and even begging had failed, they decided to just set up on Dega Street with an open guitar case and hope for the best.

They were halfway through "Even Flow" when a crowd began to form. Pedestrians stopped and stared at them, shoppers drifted out of the stores, and even some employees were coming out to see what was going on. They reached the end of the song and a man near the front pulled out his wallet. Trent was about to point out the guitar case when the man spoke.

"What'll it take to stop you from playing?"

The smiles dropped from Trent's and Jesse's faces. "What?" Jesse asked.

The man pointed at them. "You're driving away my customers! How much do you want? I've got fifty here."

"I'll throw in another twenty," a woman offered, digging into her purse.

"I have about thirty bucks here," someone else called out. "You can have it if you promise never to come back."

Before long the guitar case was stuffed with bills and Trent and Jesse were packing up their things. "Well," Trent pointed out as he closed the cash-filled case and slung his guitar over his shoulder, "on the bright side, I think we made more money playing one song than most groups get for a whole gig."

"Still sucked," Jesse grumbled as he packed up his own guitar and hefted the amp.

Trent picked up both his case and Jesse's and they started walking. "Man," Trent wheezed, struggling under the weight. "This is gonna be a problem when we have to travel for gigs."

"Yeah," Jesse said, still lugging the amp.

Trent looked down at the case holding all of the money. "Guess I know where this is going, huh?"

Later that day, Trent and Jesse pulled out of Happy Herb's car lot in a dark blue Plymouth Satellite. The boys had been surprised that the money in the guitar case had been enough to cover the down payment, but not nearly as surprised as Herb had been to find out someone was willing to part with actual money for the car.

"Let's take this baby for a spin," Trent suggested proudly. He had won the car fair and square with Rock, Paper, Scissors--he figured that knowing Jesse always picked Rock wasn't technically cheating.

Trent and Jesse cruised the streets of Lawndale, Trent revving the engine at every stop light while Jesse played around with the radio. After a while they drove out of town to test the car out on the highway and the conversation turned, as it always eventually did, to possible band names.

"Music Salad?" Trent offered as they started to head back toward town.

Jesse wrinkled his nose. "I hate salad. What about Noise Producers?"

Trent shook his head. "Producers. Too much like The Man and selling out."

"Hmm. Is that a hitchhiker?"

Trent considered this new suggestion carefully. "Well, I guess it's unique, but it might confuse the audience. Maybe something like The Hitchhikers? Hey, maybe we could spell 'Hitchhikers' with a Y--"

"No," Jesse said, pointing, "there's a hitchhiker. Up ahead."

Finally noticing the young man standing by the road, Trent slowed down and steered onto the shoulder. The hitchhiker, a blond boy about Trent and Jesse's age, trotted over with a slight wave. "Thanks for stopping," he said as he climbed into the backseat and set something down next to him. "My name's Nick."

Jesse looked over his shoulder at him as Trent pulled back onto the road. Eyes widening in surprise, he pointed at the object he'd brought in with him. "Hey, you play guitar?"

Nick shook his head as he patted the case lovingly. "No, bass. Why?"

Trent slammed on the brakes. The car's engine made a noise that didn't sound healthy, but he and Jesse were too busy staring in utter amazement at the guy in the backseat.

"What?" he asked. Then he nodded with understanding. "Oh, you want I should chip in for gas? That's cool." He started to dig in his pocket for money, but Trent stopped him with a raised hand.

"Ever thought of joining a band?" he asked.

Nick looked from Trent to Jesse and then from Jesse to Trent. A slow smile spread across his face. "Only every minute of every day of my entire life," he replied.

Jesse smiled back. "Cool."

Trent nodded his agreement and resumed driving--or would have, if the car had started moving. He tried again, but nothing happened. After a few attempts to get the engine to turn over, the boys gave up and started walking. Luckily, they were less than a mile outside Lawndale, so they didn't have too far to walk before they reached Trent's house.

"I'll call a tow truck and OOF!" That was as far as Trent got before he walked inside and suddenly had the air knocked out of him by an enormous bear hug.

"I'm so glad you're home! I got here and couldn't find anyone, although I think Jane might be in her room but the door was locked and she didn't reply when I asked if she was in there but I'm just so happy to see you!"

Trent grunted to Jesse and Nick, "Guys, this is my brother, Wind."

At last Wind finally released him and took a step back before gesturing to a bored-looking woman standing behind him. "I want you to meet my wife!"

Taking a few gulps of air, Trent tilted his head in confusion. "I already met her a couple months ago. Denise, right?"

Wind violently shook his head. "No, we're...um...not together anymore. This is Claudia! We've only been married for a few days, but already it feels like we've spent a lifetime together!"

"Tell me about it," Claudia muttered, rolling her eyes.

"Wait, that came out wrong," Wind quickly amended. "I mean, the short time we've spent together has been so great, it's like we're known each other all our lives!"

"Uh huh," Trent said, well accustomed to Wind's string of short-lived romances built on nothing but blind optimism.

"No, really!" Wind insisted. "Ours is a love that will stand the test of time!" Giving Trent an infuriatingly smug smile, he patted his younger brother on the head and said, "There's really no need to feel jealous. I'm sure with time and patience, you'll find a relationship as wonderful as mine." He chuckled condescendingly, and Trent resisted the urge to punch him. "Well, maybe not quite as wonderful, but I'm sure you'll find something good enough, anyway."

Claudia frowned. "Wait a minute. Who's Denise?"

"She, uh, she's just...nobody," Wind answered, although his voice was shaking a little as he said it.

"No, seriously--" Claudia started to say, but Wind quickly interrupted.

"I haven't introduced you to everyone yet!" he yelled. "Claudia, this is my brother, Trent. And this is his friend, um, Jerry?"

"Jesse," Trent corrected.

"Jesse, right, sorry."

"I don't care who any of these people are," Claudia cut in. "I want to know about this Denise person and why you haven't said anything about being married to--"

Wind barreled on with his introductions, pretending not to hear. He pointed at the third member of the group. "And this is...I'm sorry, I don't think we've met." He glanced at Trent, waiting for an introduction.

"Uh, he's...." Trent, distracted by everything going on, had forgotten his new friend's name.

"I'm Nick." Looking a little annoyed, he held out a hand for Wind to shake.

"Right, Nick...?" Wind shook his hand and glanced at Trent for help again.

Trent, realizing he had never even asked what Nick's last name was, just shrugged.

"Campbell," Nick supplied, looking downright angry now.

"Yes, Nick Campbell! He's...also friends with Trent?" Wind guessed.

Claudia snorted with laughter. "From the sound of things, he's a random stray they recently picked up out of pity."

"Hey!" Nick snapped angrily, although everyone else was laughing.

"She's sort of right," Trent pointed out, trying to hide his smile.

"He's our new bandmate," Jesse told Claudia.

"Cool, you guys are in a band?" Claudia asked with unexpected delight. "Any chance you need a drummer?"

"Yeah!" Trent and Jesse both replied enthusiastically.

"No!" Nick cried at the same moment. Leaning in toward his friends he murmured, "I don't think this is a good idea. I mean, she's kind of...uh...rude."

"Only to Wind," Trent clarified. Anyone who picked on his older brother automatically went up several points in Trent's opinion.

"But--" Nick continued to argue.

"Dude." Jesse just shook his head at him.

"Yeah," Trent said. "Besides, you only just joined. Me and Jesse kinda should get more of a vote here."

Fuming, Nick just threw his hands up and looked away.

"Welcome to the band," Trent told Claudia. "Um, any chance you can write songs, too? We mostly do covers--"

"Only do covers," Jesse muttered.

"--but if we're gonna hit the big time we need original material."

Claudia shook her head apologetically. "Sorry. But I have a friend in town that does. She's a killer singer, too. Want me to ask if she's interested in joining?"

"Sure," Trent replied, amazed at the day's good luck.

"Hey, what happened to new bandmates not getting a vote on adding members?" Nick complained.

Claudia smirked at him. "That only applies to random strays." Looking back at Trent and Jesse, she said, "Cool. I'll give Monique a call tonight."

"Hey, we're Minimum Rage," Trent said into his microphone. "We're hardcore, we're serious about our music, and--"

"And we're desperate for gigs," Claudia added. Nick threw her a dirty look, but the others chuckled quietly. Claudia just shrugged. "What?" she whispered innocently. "We are!"

"We've got a gig right now, if you hadn't noticed," Nick hissed back.

Trent glanced at both of them, then looked back at his audience. "Anyway, welcome to the grand opening of Planet Necktie, Cranberry Commons' newest store!"

"Our first real gig, and we're already selling out," Nick sighed as Claudia started up the opening beat.

The first song of the set was one of the new ones Monique had contributed. She and Trent sang the vocals together, and Trent had to admit they sounded pretty decent together. The song was a little more ballad-y than he usually liked, but the audience seemed to like it.

Well, they weren't booing them, anyway.

Admittedly, hardly anyone actually stuck around to listen--for the most part the audience wandered off to start shopping about three chords into the song. Still, Trent had to smile as he sang along with Monique. The band was playing a real gig, and no one was asking them to leave.

As they finished the song, an elderly gentleman shuffled up to them. "Not bad," he commented.

"Thanks," Trent said, pleased. "We always appreciate a new fan."

"Eh?" the man asked, tilting one ear toward him.

Trent's face fell. "Uh...never mind."

"Listen," the man continued, "d'you take requests?"

"I guess so."

"Play 'MacArthur Park,' would you?"

Trent exchanged a look with Jesse. When they were learning how to play, Trent's dad had sat down with them and taught them a ton of old songs from the sixties to help them practice. "MacArthur Park" was one of the first songs they'd ever learned to play, but...they absolutely couldn't stand it.

At a very slight nod and shrug from Jesse, Trent sighed and started to strum and sing. The other bandmates gamely improvised as they tried to follow along. Trent felt sillier with each verse, but took comfort in the fact that only the old man was listening to them--and it was highly unlikely that he could hear them, anyway.

"...Oh nooo!" Trent finally finished, trying without success to force some emotion into his voice. The man nodded his thanks to the band and wandered off. Trent glanced around and saw that whatever audience they'd once had was long gone. It was just as well--the store owner had only paid them for two songs, so the gig was over. "Let's go hit the food court," he told the group.

Fifteen minutes later, the five bandmates gathered around a dozen orders of fries--half of them Jesse's--to talk business. It was hard for Trent to feel like a real up-and-coming rock star while sitting at a plastic table next to the kids' play area, but he tried his best. It helped that the band was already having their first big fight over artistic differences.

"I just don't think Minimum Rage is a good name for a band," Claudia was saying. "I mean, 'minimum'? I makes it sound like we're inferior or something."

"Well, I like the name," Nick insisted, crossing his arms and staring down at the table.

She smirked at him. "Of course you do. You're the one who came up with it."

"Which is the only reason you hate it!" he snarled.

"Look, how about we drop the whole names subject for now, okay?" Monique pleaded, looking back and forth between Nick and Claudia. "We've got more important stuff to discuss."

"Yeah," Jesse commented. "We need more fries." He started to get up.

Trent put a hand on his friend's shoulder and gently pushed him back down. Nodding at Monique, he said, "I think I know what you mean. The requests thing?"

"Yup," she said. "We're probably gonna keep getting requests from people if we keep playing gigs like this."

"God forbid," Claudia muttered.

"Anyway," Monique continued, shooting her friend a small frown, "We'll keep working on our original stuff but I'll try to figure what songs people are likely to ask us for and we'll start adding those into our practices. Sound good?"

"Sounds good," Trent replied. The others nodded or shrugged. Jesse crammed another fistful of fries into his mouth.

"Cool," Monique said with an easy grin.

Trent tried to look at Monique without seeming like he was staring. She was fun, she was hot, and she could sing better than anyone Trent had ever heard. Suddenly he wanted--no, needed--to spend more time with her. So instead of taking his time and coming up with a cool line, he just blurted out, "Can you teach me to write songs?"

She looked at him with brief surprise before the smile returned and she nodded. "No problem. Wanna meet up at my house next week?"

Trent was too relieved to speak. He nodded eagerly.

Once the fries were gone and the band had convinced Jesse he didn't need to buy more, they divided up the money from the gig and piled into the car to leave.

"Red-letter day in music history," Trent announced to the group as he slid behind the wheel. "First of many gigs."

"Yeah!" Nick cheered. "The future's right in front of us, man!"

"Where it always is," Claudia remarked. "That's why it's the future."

Nick's face turned red, and Trent sighed as yet another argument began to brew.

"Wait, so you don't know how to read music? At all?" Monique asked Trent a few days later. They were sitting in her parents' living room, Trent with his guitar and Monique with her song notebook.

He shrugged, glancing around at the ornately-decorated room drowning in pastels and knick-knacks. It didn't fit Monique at all, yet somehow she looked cool even when surrounded by frilly lampshades and paintings of big-eyed children. "I know how to make the chords," he replied. "Okay, some of them, anyway. And I know where they go in the songs we play. Never needed more than that."

Monique shook her head with a smile. "I guess that's not so bad. I mean, if you were a pianist you'd be screwed but I think you can get by okay without." She flipped open her notebook. "Okay, so writing songs isn't really as hard as you think. The hardest parts for me are coming up with rhymes and making sure I use the right amount of syllables."

"Syllables?" Trent was already starting to get the feeling he was in over his head.

She laughed, and he bristled for a moment before relaxing when he realized that she wasn't mocking him. Plus, her laugh was really, really cute. "Now, obviously writing songs is about more than just rhyming words and counting syllables," she was saying, but Trent was quickly losing focus as he became suddenly incredibly aware that her parents weren't home and they were alone in the house. His face grew very warm, as did a few other things.

Trying to stop thinking about what he was thinking about, he changed the subject. "Wanna try playing my guitar?"

He immediately blushed as he realized how much that sounded like a double entendre, but Monique's face lit up. "Sure!" she said, reaching her arms out. Trent took a moment to remind himself she was reaching for the guitar, and handed it over without a word.

"Okay, so I've watched you and Jesse play, and you put the fingers of this hand up here and strum with the other hand, right?"

Trent was transfixed, unable to believe how incredibly hot she looked holding a guitar. "Um, yeah. You put your fingers like this," he said, reaching over and arranging her fingers on the frets and oh God she smelled really nice, "to make a C chord." Monique strummed gently, and the note that emerged was almost perfect. Trent was simultaneously jealous and enamored. "You're a natural," he said in awe. "Maybe I could give you lessons in exchange for teaching me to write songs?"

"Sure," Monique replied with an easy smile. "That sounds great."

"Great," Trent echoed back, then became aware that he was grinning back at her like a doofus. He scrambled for something to say to break the awkward moment. "So, uh, how did you and Claudia meet?"

She handed him the guitar and leaned back, her shoulders squeaking slightly against the plastic furniture cover. "A few years ago, when I was in middle school, I had a crush on this guy. A high school student. A senior." She paused here and grinned at Trent. "Never underestimate the appeal of an older guy." She continued, "His name was Jason. I was too nervous to actually talk to him, but when I'd see him around town I'd smile or mumble 'hi' or something, probably making a total idiot of myself." She blushed a little, and Trent found himself feeling jealous of a boy he'd never met.

"If he didn't see how great you were, then he's the idiot," he said without thinking.

Monique looked at him in surprise, then smiled and went on with her story. "So one day I was walking home from school and happened to pass him and his friends hanging out in the Pizza Prince parking lot." Trent saw her shoulders hunch slightly and she looked down at the couch as she spoke now. "He said something to them and everyone laughed, and then he called me over. He started complimenting me, saying how pretty and mature and smart I was. His friends were all snickering and smirking at me, but I just ate it all up."

Trent frowned. He'd never met this Jason guy, but he'd met enough guys like him to feel very nervous about where this was going.

She glanced up and misunderstood his frown. "I was young," she defended herself with a sigh. "Naïve. Stupid. So when he invited me to go for a ride with him and his friends, I actually had one foot in the car before this girl came running out of the restaurant screaming her lungs off at him." She smiled a little, remembering. "It was Claudia, and she was in his grade. She knew exactly what was going on and she grabbed my arm and half-dragged me, half-carried me back out of the car."

Trent's opinion of Claudia suddenly went way up. "I'm really glad she stopped you."

With a sad smile, Monique said, "I wasn't, at least not at the time. Then she took me inside, bought me a slice of pizza, and gave me the lecture of my life."

"Remind me to buy her a slice one of these days," Trent said, relieved that the story had ended better than he'd dreaded. Sometimes Wind's relationship choices were a little out there, but it seemed that for once he'd picked a good one.

"She's freaking Yoko," Nick complained. Just two minutes before, Trent had been napping peacefully on the couch when someone had started pounding on the front door. Trent had groggily opened it, half-expecting to see a police officer, but he'd found an irate Nick instead.

"You mean loco?" Trent asked him, confused.

"No, Yoko. Yoko Ono." Shaking his fists in frustration, Nick cried, "Dammit, Claudia's gonna break up the band!"

"Only if you don't stop arguing with her all the time," Trent pointed out.

"Me?" Nick stared at Trent with wide, innocent eyes. "She started it!"

"Whatever, man." Trent had long given up on this particular topic, as Nick was deaf to the suggestion that he was anything other than a blameless victim of the evil Claudia.

"Just kick her out before it's too late, okay?" Nick begged.

"I can't," Trent replied. "She's my sister-in-law. Wind'd be pissed." The truth was, Trent didn't care even the slightest bit about upsetting Wind. Claudia was a better drummer than Nick was a bass player, and he didn't want to lose her. He didn't really want to lose Nick, either, but, well...Claudia was a really, really good drummer. Plus, he felt like it would be betraying Monique to kick her best friend out of the band.

Nick groaned and shook his head. "She's going to screw everything up," he warned. "Don't say I never warned you."

"No one's screwing anything up," Trent reassured his friend. "In fact, we're doing better than ever! I just got a call this morning: we got another gig!"

Instantly wary, Nick asked, "It's not at the mall again, is it?"

Trent shook his head. "Nope. We're moving up to the big time!"

"Hey everybody, we're Claustrophobic Brainfreeze and we just wanna say congratulations to Mark and Kimberly!"

The band started up their most romantic original song, "Love is Like Death (Only More Painful)," as the bride and groom took the floor for their first dance.

"This is the big time?" Nick grumbled after the song ended.

Trent shrugged. "Last gig was two songs. This time it's two hours of songs."

"Niiice," Jesse said, although he was eying one of the bridesmaids as he spoke.

"Think we've got enough material for two hours?" Monique asked nervously. "I mean, between practicing and summer school and everything else, I haven't had a whole lot of time to write--"

"Excuse me, would you play 'Mack the Knife'?" a middle-aged man asked them.

"Uh...." Trent stammered, buying himself time to think of a good way to turn him down.

"Of course we will!" Monique answered for him. The man nodded his thanks and walked away.

Trent looked at Monique in horror. "Why did you say that?" he demanded. "I don't know 'Mack the Knife'!"

She rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a thick folder, which she thumbed through briefly before taking out some sheet music. "You do now," she said, handing it to him.

He looked down at it and saw the words "Mack the Knife" at the top of the page. "Okay, well, I don't want to do 'Mack the Knife,'" he protested.

"That was the father of the bride who just asked us to play it. The man who's paying us. We're going to play it," Monique replied stubbornly as she gave more pages to the rest of the band.

Trent moved closer to her. "I can't read music, remember?"

She shook her head with a smile. "Most of the people here are already too drunk to pay that much attention to us right now anyway. Just sing the words on the page, follow along with the others, and you'll be fine." She frowned. "Oh, wait. Do the others know how to read music?"

In answer to her question, Jesse started playing the opening to the song and the others joined in. Trent sighed in defeat and began to sing. When they finished, other people came up with their requests and somehow Monique had each of them tucked inside her folder.

The band had just finished a lackluster version of "New York, New York" when Trent decided it was time for a break. His throat was beginning to hurt and he suspected he might kill the next person who asked for "What a Wonderful World."

The band found a quiet corner to rest in and Wind, who had crashed the wedding under the pretense of being the band's manager, wandered over. "Aren't they a lovely couple?" he asked, sounding weepy and just a tiny bit sloshed. "That's what weddings should be. Love, happiness, and a commitment that lasts forever."

He said the last word so emphatically that Claudia glanced at him with an eyebrow raised. "You regretting our trip to The Wed Shed?"

Wind looked at her as though he'd forgotten she was there. "Oh! No! Nonononono! It was the happiest day of my life and I wouldn't change it for anything!"

"Yeah," Claudia agreed with a nod. "It was a good day. The wedding took longer than fifteen minutes, so we got free onion rings."

The rest of the band eyed her, confused about whether she was being serious or sarcastic. Claudia just hummed quietly to herself and ignored them.

Nick shook his head and changed the subject. "So, 'Claustrophobic Brainfreeze'? Not feeling it."

"Why not?" Monique asked in surprise. "I think it's kinda cool. Weird, but not too weird. You know?"

"No," Nick stubbornly replied. "It doesn't even make sense."

Trent sighed. "Could we at least wait until after the gig to talk about this?"

"The only reason he doesn't like it is because it was my idea," Claudia cut in, sounding bored.

"What?" Nick exclaimed. "It was your idea? I didn't even remember!" He was a terrible actor, and even Jesse gave him a skeptical look.

"Whatever," Claudia snorted. "Look, change the name if you want to; it doesn't matter. Until we start getting some real gigs, no one's ever going to hear of us anyway." She smirked. "I know. Change it to 'Nick Campbell Sucks.' That one makes perfect sense."

Nick narrowed his eyes at her. "Or better yet, how about 'Claudia Lane is a Bit--"

"Hey!" she snapped, glaring at him. She nudged Wind, who had joined Jesse in ogling bridesmaids but now pretended he was admiring a centerpiece.

"What? I wasn't doing anything! You look really pretty today!" he yelped.

Trent just shook his head. "Time to head back," he said.

As the band stood up, Trent noticed that there were already four people waiting to give them their requests. He groaned.

"So let me get this straight. You're a band, but you have no fans, no gigs, and not even a name?" Trent's eleven-year-old sister Jane smirked and crossed her arms. "I guess that's one way to distinguish yourselves from the competition."

"Thank you, Janey," Trent replied through gritted teeth. He and the others were trying to hold a practice session in the basement, but Jane had decided to come downstairs to watch. And offer commentary. "Isn't there something else you could be doing? Somewhere else?"


"Aw, let her stick around," Monique argued. "She can be our first fan." Seeing Jane's raised eyebrow, she quickly corrected, "Or critic."

"You know, Jesse's little brother actually appreciates us," Trent grumbled.

Jane snorted. "You mean Danny? He also appreciates the clanging of the school boiler on cold days." She tilted her head appraisingly. "It'll take some practice, but I think someday you guys could sound that good, too."

Trent glared at her, but Monique chuckled. "You're all right, kid," she said, giving Jane a playful nudge.

Jane glanced toward Monique with a tiny smile, one that Trent didn't see often on her, and his anger faded. Jane never let on, but he could tell it bothered her that both Summer and Penny had largely ignored her for most of her life, then moved out with hardly a goodbye. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to let her hang out with them, he decided, if it meant she finally had something like an older sister around. One who wouldn't walk out on her.

"All right," he said with a sigh. "She can stay."

"Teach her to play drums and she can join the band," Nick muttered, but not quietly enough. "I'm sure we could make an opening."

"Oh, you did not just say that," Claudia snapped at him.

"Want me to repeat it for you?" he asked, crossing his arms defiantly.

"Don't overexert your poor little brain cells."

Nick shot back something that ended in "you," but the first word wasn't "thank." Trent resisted the urge to cover his little sister's ears.

Claudia smirked. "Not even if you begged me."

Nick just sputtered.

The basement door slammed open and Wind came flying down. "You'll never believe what just happened!"

"I know; I never thought I'd be happy to see you, either," Jane remarked. Trent gave her a nudge to quiet her, but she just shrugged.

Either not hearing or not caring, Wind continued, "I just talked to my friend Gus? And he said he's been looking for new bands to play at his club."

"What club?" Trent asked.

"The Zon. Have you heard of it? I guess it's downtown somewhere."

Trent stood up abruptly. "Wait a minute. You have a friend who owns the biggest grunge club in Lawndale--"

"--only grunge club in Lawndale--" Jane chimed in with a grin.

"--and it never occurred to you to mention that to us?"

Wind blinked at him in confusion. "I didn't think you'd be interested."

"You didn't--" Trent started to shout, but then shut his mouth before he said something he'd regret.

"Trent," Monique gently said, "I think you're missing the important thing here."

"Which is?" he asked through gritted teeth.

"We've got a gig!" Nick shouted, pumping his fist in the air. "A real, serious gig!"

"So I should probably call him back and tell him you're interested, then?" Wind asked.

"Brilliant deduction, Sherlock," Claudia said sarcastically. "You never cease to amaze me."

The insult flew straight over Wind's head as he kissed his wife on the cheek. "Aw, thanks, Pookie Pop!" He grinned at everyone else. "See what the love and support of a good woman can do for you?"

"Just go make the call," Trent said, struggling not to sound as irritated as he felt.

As Wind ran back up the stairs, Trent looked around at his fellow bandmates. "We're on our way, guys."

"Cool," Jesse commented. "So the gig's right now?"

Trent's smile didn't even waver; he just clapped his friend on the back. "I'm calling it right now, though," he said, "we are not going to do any requests. No more 'MacArthur Park,' no more 'Mack the Knife,' no more covers, period."

"Definitely," Nick agreed. "They're violating our artistic integrity and interfering with our creative potential!"

"Right!" Trent said in surprise.

"Yeah," Jesse added. "Plus they suck."

"Well, that too," Trent admitted. "But mostly it's the integrity thing."

"Riiiiight," Claudia snorted. "Because as a band that plays for store openings at the mall, we're just full of integrity."

"Tell you what you're full of, 'Pookie Pop,'" Nick grumbled.

"Okay, let's go back to practicing our music," Trent interrupted quickly before things got out of hand. "We got a gig coming up, remember?" He glanced at Monique, realizing his new "no covers" policy meant they were going to need some new material. "Can you stay and hang out after?" he asked her quietly.

She nodded, the expression on her face showing that she'd had the same thought. "No problem."

"...so if you remember just one thing, it should be this," Monique was explaining.

"Uh huh." Trent was having trouble paying attention again. Monique was trying to explain something about writing good song lyrics, but she was sitting so close to him on the couch their arms were touching and he couldn't focus on anything else.

She was still talking, and Trent tried to listen again, although he was pretty sure he'd missed most of the really important thing she'd just told him. "...because if you let yourself become a slave to stuff like rhyme scheme or whatever instead of focusing on the actual content of your lyrics, you can end up with some pretty goofy songs. Just use some common sense and I'm sure you'll figure it out."

Try as he might to take in her advice, all he could think about was how ridiculously soft her skin felt against his. So far he and Monique had spent a lot of time together, but most of the time it was gigs, practices, or songwriting lessons. Nothing that could really be called a date. Making his decision, Trent leaned even closer to Monique. "So, I was thinking, if you're not doing anything--"

"Ooh la la!" interrupted a very unwelcome voice. "Do I smell romance in the air? Or is my brother just overdue for his semiannual bath?"

Both heads turned to see Jane smirking at them from just a few feet away. "I thought you were upstairs painting," Trent grumbled.

She shrugged. "I ran out of inspiration and decided to take a break. Now I'm thinking about a new painting." Tilting her head thoughtfully, she said, "Maybe I'll call it 'Love Notes.'" She grinned at them. "Get it? Like musical notes?" Tilting her head the other way, she considered again. "Of course, that would only work if you guys were actually working on music. Something distract you?" she asked Trent with a raised eyebrow.

Trent could feel himself starting to blush. He loved his little sister, really he did, but she could be a gigantic pest at times.

Monique, oblivious to his embarrassment, just laughed. "I guess we decided to take a break, too," she told Jane. "So what's your latest painting?"

Jane looked mildly startled, and Trent realized that it had been awhile since he--or anyone else in the family, for that matter--had taken a real interest in what Jane was up to. "Yeah," he chimed in, eager to both rectify that and change the subject. "Anything good?"

Eyes still on Monique, Jane nodded in reply. "I'm trying to do a scene from the perspective of a serial killer, but it's just not menacing enough. I tried adding more blood and guts, but it just looks...silly." Jane drooped sadly, frustration evident in her expression.

Monique nodded in understanding. "I know what you mean. I get that when I write songs, too. Like I know what I want to say, but the words aren't fitting right."

Jane looked up at her again with new interest. "Yeah, kind of like that."

"Hmm. Can I come look?" Monique asked.

Jane grabbed Monique's hand and practically dragged her up the stairs toward her room.

Trent hesitated, not having been invited, but then trailed after them. As he reached Jane's room he heard Monique saying, "I think some jagged edges, even where you'd usually see rounded or smooth ones, might help get across that element of danger."

He peeked inside and saw Jane nodding thoughtfully. "I can see that. And maybe leave more of the scene in shadow, so you can' just see a suggestion of the gore instead of the whole thing?"

"Oooh, great idea!" Monique said, giving Jane a thumbs' up. "You're a pro!"

Trent was about to speak, but the adoring gaze on Jane's face was too beautiful for him to interrupt.

"Hey, we're The Ubiquitous Cheese," Trent said into the microphone at the Zon a week later. He looked at the band. "Let's do this," he said with a grin.

Claudia tore into her drum set without hesitation, knocking out a fast-paced beat that got Trent's heart pumping even faster than it already was. Next stop, the big time, he told himself as he started strumming the opening chords of their first song.

The club's owner hadn't been too picky about how well the band could play. He was more interested in whether or not any of them had ever been in jail (they hadn't) and if they were willing to play for an insultingly low amount of money (they were). When Trent asked him if most of the band being underage was going to be a problem for playing in a bar, the man just shrugged and said, "The hell do I care?"

The first set flew by in a flash. They played some of Monique's best songs, and even threw in a few of Trent's new attempts. The audience seemed to enjoy their music, or at least they didn't seem to hate it. They swayed or moshed along to the songs, and while the band didn't get any cheers or applause they also didn't get any jeers or insults.

Or requests. That was Trent's favorite part of the whole gig.

They took a fifteen minute break in the middle. Everyone was in a good mood--so good that Nick and Claudia didn't snipe at each other even once.

The second set went as well as the first, and by the time they were done the band was beyond pumped. They talked Wind into buying them a round of drinks...and another...and another. They lost track of how many around the time Trent threw up on Jesse.

"Sorry, man," Trent said woozily. "I, uh, owe you a shirt." That was the last thing any of them remembered from that night.

The next thing Trent was aware of was waking up on the couch in his own living room. Squinting his eyes in the bright morning light, he glanced out the front window and was relieved to see that there were no cars parked outside. He had no idea how he'd gotten home, but at least he hadn't driven in his condition.

He swung his legs down and just barely missed stepping on Jesse, who was asleep on the floor next to the couch. Stepping carefully over him, he made his way toward the kitchen to look for something to wash the rancid taste out of his mouth. Seeing Wind sprawled in front of the refrigerator, he decided not to risk waking him up and instead headed for the stairs.

He had to step over Monique, who was curled up on the bottom step. In spite of his fierce headache, he had to smile at how cute she looked when she was sleeping. Continuing up the stairs, he started down the hall toward his room and stopped dead as he passed Wind's room.

The door was open, and Wind's bed was occupied.

At first he only saw Claudia, who rolled over in her sleep, letting the sheet covering her shift enough that Trent quickly averted his eyes before he could see more of his sister-in-law than he wanted to see. His eyes therefore fell on Nick next, who was cuddled up against Claudia.

A quick glance at the clothing strewn around the floor confirmed what Trent really already knew, and he started to walk away in shock. As soon as he turned around, though, he ran into Wind.

"Ugh," Wind groaned. "I don't know about you, but my head is--" He stopped there, gaze frozen over Trent's shoulder, and it was clear that he had seen everything. "What..." he started to say. "But that can't be...." Again he trailed off, and turned pleading eyes on Trent as though begging him to explain the situation in some way other than the obvious.

Much as Wind irritated Trent, he couldn't help feeling sorry for him at that moment. His expression was of pure pain.

"Come on," Trent said softly. "Let's go back downstairs and--"

Claudia chose that moment to wake up. She stretched and sat up, fortunately, holding the sheet to her body as she did so. Yawning, she looked to the side and noticed Nick. She frowned and looked down at herself, and then at Nick again. Confusion shifted swiftly into horror.

"What. The. Hell?" she shrieked, clutching the sheet even more tightly around herself and pulling as far away from Nick as she could without falling out of the bed.

Nick's eyes slowly blinked open and he looked around. He saw Claudia first. "Oh," he said in sleepy surprise. Then he saw Trent. "Er," he added, starting to wake up now. Finally he saw Wind. "Uh oh," he finished.

"'Uh oh'?" Wind exclaimed, now starting to sound angry. "Is that all you have to say?"

"Uh...sorry?" Nick asked.

That's when the room exploded. Claudia began screaming at Nick to get out of the bed, Nick started screaming about his lack of pants, and Wind started screaming about betrayal, but that quickly dissolved into anguished wails involving his utter inability to find true love.

Trent heard footsteps pounding up the stairs and ran to intercept Jesse and Monique before they could make an already-catastrophic situation worse. He herded them back downstairs and briefly updated them on the situation while muffled, unintelligible shouts drifted down from above.

"Whoa," Jesse commented with barely any real emotion. "Not cool."

"Yeah," Monique agreed with a nod. "I mean, what was Nick thinking?"

"Nick?" Jesse shook his head. "Claudia cheated on Wind."

Monique frowned. "Okay, but Claudia would never do something like that. Nick must have, I don't know, taken advantage of her."

Trent had a hard time believing Nick could get away with anything when it came to Claudia, but wisely chose not to say anything about it out loud. "Look," he began diplomatically, "they were really drunk. We all were. They probably weren't thinking straight, or else neither of them would have...you know."

"I guess," Monique said reluctantly.

The three of them sat in awkward silence for the most part, with someone occasionally making a half-hearted comment about how much the situation sucked and the other two agreeing just as half-heartedly, until they heard the footsteps coming down the stairs. They stood up as Wind, Claudia, and Nick entered, all now fully clothed.

"You guys are probably wondering what's going on," Wind began.

Claudia cut him off with a disgusted snort. "They all know what's going on already," she pointed out.

"I don't know what's going on," came a sleepy voice from the stairs. Jane was making her way down, rubbing her eyes and looking at everyone in confusion.

Everyone exchanged glances, and then Wind leaned toward Jane with big, fake smile. "Hi there, little Janey," he said in a voice more suited for a toddler. "Big brother Wind and his friend Claudia are just having a teeny-tiny little argument, 'kay? Don't worry about a thing!"

Jane looked at him with disgust. "I'm pretty used to you having fights with your girlfriends by now," she pointed out.

"Wife, actually," Wind said, deflating slightly at Jane's bored tone.

"Ex-wife," Claudia corrected.

Wind's head whipped around to stare at her. "What? No! We'll get through this! Our relationship will be stronger than ever! I just know it!"

"No, it won't." Claudia didn't sound sad or angry; just tired. "This relationship was never strong, and it's never going to be. On some level, you and I knew it wasn't going to last."

Shaking his head, Wind replied, "Of course I knew we would last." His shaking voice and slumped shoulders said just the opposite, though, and he suddenly let out an enormous sob and ran back up the stairs.

Ignoring the faint sound of wailing, Nick stepped over to Claudia and slung an arm around her. "I'm sure that wasn't easy, baby, but at least now--"

Claudia grabbed Nick's wrist and twisted it away from her, causing him to yelp in pain and leap away from her. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded.

He rubbed his wrist and looked at her with wide, confused eyes. "I thought...after last night...you and me--"

"There is no you and me," she snapped. "We hate each other, or did you drink away your last remaining brain cell and forget that part?"

Nick flinched, but didn't reply.

Trent scratched the back of his head, feeling awkward but unable to hold back the question any longer. "So...what about the rest of the band?"

Every head turned his way, then everyone began looking warily at each other. Jesse spoke first. "I didn't forget they hate each other," he helpfully offered.

Trent resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "I mean, are we still in this together or what?"

"I'm still in," Nick muttered with a shrug.

"Me too," Jesse added with a nod.

Monique just bit her lip and looked at Claudia, who was glaring at the floor. At last Claudia looked up and shook her head. "Nuh uh," she said. "No offense, Trent, but it would all be too weird. Weird with Nick, weird with Wind...just weird."

Even though he was devastated by the news, Trent nodded in understanding. He looked at Monique, the silent question in his eyes. She looked at him, then at Claudia. "Sorry," she finally told him. "She's my best friend. After all the times she's been there for me...."

"Yeah, I get it," Trent said sadly. He glanced at Jesse and knew that he'd probably make the same choice in her situation.

Monique put her arm around Claudia and the two girls turned to leave. "I'll call you later, okay?" she said over her shoulder to Trent.

"Yeah, that'd be great," he said, smiling even though his dreams were falling apart.

Jane, who had been watching silently as everything unfolded, took a few steps toward Monique. She reached out her hand and opened her mouth to speak, but as Monique closed the door behind her Jane turned around and ran back up the stairs instead. Her face was a blank mask, and Trent realized with a sinking feeling that yet another sister had just walked out on her.

A few weeks passed. School would be starting again soon, the band was still struggling to get any decent gigs, and Trent still hadn't learned to read music. At the moment, though, he didn't care. Monique had come over to hang out, and although she seemed more awkward and quiet than usual he still enjoyed having her around. Jane had refused to come down from her room, and Trent hoped she'd eventually come around. Knowing Janey, though, he wasn't going to hold his breath.

"So Claudia and I are thinking about starting up a band of our own," Monique was saying. "I took your advice and started learning how to play the guitar. We've been talking to a couple of other girls who seem interested, and we're going to see how things go."

"You really should," Trent said. "You're a great songwriter, you're the best singer I've ever heard, and...well, you're just really good." Trent looked away, cheeks burning.

"Thanks," she said gratefully. "Of course, I'd never have gotten this far without you." Trent looked at her again and they exchanged a smile. "Funny thing, though," she continued. "We're having the worst time coming up with a name."

Trent chuckled. "Don't look at me for ideas," he said. "Right now we're calling ourselves the Vomit Comets." He laughed again. "Oh, yeah, that reminds me. I still owe Jesse a shirt."

Monique laughed at the memory, but then her expression grew serious and she was very quiet. "Trent," she finally said slowly, "I should probably tell you something about--"

That was when the front door flew open and Nick and Jesse came in. Nick was chattering happily to Jesse until he saw Monique. "Hey!" he shouted at Trent. "What's she doing here?"

Trent felt instantly defensive. "We're hanging out," he said, frowning at Nick.

Nick grunted and crossed his arms. "I don't know if that's a good idea," he said. "Fraternizing with the enemy, you know?"

Before Trent could tell him to shut up, Monique stood and glared at Nick. "You'd know all about that, wouldn't you?" she asked. "Constantly insulting and complaining about someone right up until you've got 'em good and drunk, and then the next thing she knows you're--"

Wide-eyed, Nick put his hands up as if to ward off Monique's rage. "Whoa, whoa! Look, that's in the past, okay? No harm done, and it's better if we all just forget it ever happened!"

"Easy for you," Monique snapped, growing even angrier. "You didn't end up pregnant!"

"What?" cried all three boys at the same time.

"You heard me." Monique scowled at Nick. "Still want to just forget it ever happened?"

"Hey!" Nick took a step forward and pointed accusingly at Monique. "Who says I had anything to do with that? I mean, it's probably Wind's kid anyway!"

Monique shook her head. "That'd be a miracle," she snorted. "Wind can't."

Trent, though reluctant to get involved in the conversation, had to agree here. "It's true," he told Nick. "He once told me that's why his first marriage didn't work out." He cringed at the memory of all the unnecessary--and overly personal--medical information Wind had shared with him that day.

Nick looked at him, then at Monique. The blood slowly drained from his face, and he staggered over to the couch and dropped onto it. "This can't be happening," he muttered. "It just can't."

"Well, it is, so man up." Monique wasn't letting up for a second. "This is all your fault."

Trent hesitantly put a hand on her shoulder. "Claudia had something to do with it, too," he pointed out cautiously.

Monique turned toward him, eyes flashing, and for a moment Trent feared she was going to hit him. Then she relaxed, closed her eyes, and reached up to squeeze his hand with her own. "I know," she replied quietly. "I know." Sighing, she stepped toward the door and, without looking at Nick, said, "I should probably go. I'm meeting Claudia in half an hour for band practice, anyway."

"Say hi to the harpy for me," Nick muttered.

Monique's gaze slid to him, and her eyes narrowed. Trent groaned internally as he braced himself for another round of arguing, but then she blinked a few times and smiled. "Harpies," she said to herself as though trying the word on. "Yeah, that'll work. Thanks, Nick!"

She left, shutting the door behind her as Nick stared in confusion. "You're...welcome?" he said to no one in particular. He looked at Trent. "What just happened?"

"Chicks," Jesse grunted.

Trent was torn between laughing and crying now. He just shook his head. "I don't know, man," he said. "The whole thing just kinda...spiraled out of control." He looked sadly at the door, where Monique had walked out just moments before. "I guess it was meant to be, though," he added.

"Whoa," Jesse remarked. "That was deep."

Nick's eyes lit up in understanding. "I get it," he said slowly. "It's all kind of...mystical. You know?"

Jesse looked from one to the other, puzzled. "So it's like a...mystic spiral?"

Trent and Nick looked back at him and then at each other. "Hey, think that would work as a new band name?" Nick asked.

Wrinkling his nose, Trent shrugged. "I dunno. Kinda lame."

"Yeah," Jesse said.

"I guess," Nick agreed. "But it'll do for now, right?"

Trent considered it, then nodded. "Sure. But just until we come up with something better."

Thanks to RLobinske for beta reading.