Chapter 1 - THE PRIZED BOOK
Flailing his arms about as he lay on the school grounds, helpless and in pain, everything was blurry from his angle. He had no clue how he ended up on the losing end. Crap! He reached down to grasp his crotch. Bystanders could not decide whether to laugh or feel sorry for him.
The guilty one was a short crew-cut boy who looked uncharacteristically menacing at that moment, staring down at his fallen enemy. There was a quiet commotion as the curious crowd dispersed, staying as far away from the scene as possible. His eyes locked on his enemy, clenched fists and forehead sweating, he didn’t notice the school teacher behind him, who wasted no time tugging on his shirt and physically pulling him out of this objectionable spectacle.
“Ah… sir, it wasn’t my fault!” he shrieked in a girlish high-pitched voice.
“Uh-huh… obviously it wasn’t your fault…” the teacher grunted sarcastically as he shifted his gaze to the boy sprawled on the pavement.
Not letting go of the boy’s shirt, the teacher picked up the bag from the ground and the book lying next to it. This man was no ordinary teacher, and the frail boy knew it. As he was being dragged across the grounds to the detention room, images of the teacher’s past encounters with other students flashed before him. He tried to fight off the creeping fear, remembering all those who stopped coming to school, never wanting to meet his gaze again. Catching a glimpse of his now-tattered clothes he felt nothing but shame. For some reason he held on to his shirt’s front buttons firmly, as if shielding his chest. Then he fixed his gaze at the book on the teacher’s hand. The irony of it all was unbelievable. He has always been the good guy, never in trouble. Not a record of deviancy; not a minute spent in detention. This was unchartered territory for him. He was always the “tortured”, never the tormentor. Now sure as hell he was going to be tossed into the bully pit. His heart was pounding, his head numb with fear.
Tennessee High on a Friday morning is like any other High School. The school grounds second home to students clustered in groups camped in marked territory. The elite group, the self-proclaimed kings and queens of the lot, always sit under the willow trees, shielded from the sun and separated from the rest. This particular Friday, nothing was out of the ordinary. Everyone stood still at the sight of a small-framed kid being dragged across the schoolyard. They all knew the teacher, and they knew better than to get in his way. This was not something they hadn’t witnessed before. In fact, it happened so often they all learned to go back to their own business after about a minute or two of free entertainment. It would have been more amusing if the teacher just hurled the kid into the garbage bin. Unpopular kids were far too many, for the elites to give a hoot. Who cares about those losers? Is there anything more important than last night’s football game, or the latest arm candies the girls recently purchased from the shops? This was the unfortunate story of High School – the geeks and the unwanted were laughed at, the beautiful and the rich ruled. Everybody boxed into a stereotype. The few who had brains remained unnamed and unknown and were even ridiculed.
Misfits were the invisible, not as pathetic as the geeks, but close. They had their own world, their own “box”. Only the teachers mentioned their names, but only to check attendance in class. Except of course for Mr. Robert Handler.
Mr. Handler was the school’s P.E. instructor. The man kept the bullied ones at arm’s length, not to protect them, but to “toughen” them up, he said. He despised the weaklings. He was an athlete in High School and an ex–military private, who served during the Korean War. He lived almost entirely in the past, spoke of nothing but his athletic feats and heroic endeavors. But none of his stories were actually verifiable. He had neither medals nor merits to prove them, except for a yearbook photo that showed him as a linebacker on his High School’s football team. Nevertheless, no one dared to question his credibility. While other teachers avoided mundane duties in campus, Mr. Handler always looked forward to detention duty. He seemed to take great pleasure in watching students suffer, subjected them to his punishment.
He dragged the boy and shoved him into one of the forgotten rooms of the school building. He looked at him witheringly and said in a stern voice, “You pesky little boy. I see you have some potential for trouble, eh? You and your type are like tiny roaches… but don’t be too confident. I’ll crush you in time.” Then he yelled, “Wait here for the other dimwits!” and threw his bag and book at him.
The boy was alone. He grabbed the small book and hugged it close. He knew how to be alone, all too well. Here he was unafraid. He was a bit anxious, though, as he looked around the dark, dingy room. The floor was littered with dead insects and vermin’s feces. It reeked of decomposition and dejection, yet he could see musical instruments resting in the far corner. The instruments were covered in dust and webs. Curiosity led him to inspect them. The piano caught his attention. Even in its present state of dilapidation, it triggered a pang of sorrow and suddenly he was overcome with anger and fear, tears welling as he moved towards it. Halfway across the room, he halted as the door flew open and five students he did not recognize entered the room.
“Hey guys! It’s Mr. Handler’s new victim,” called one of the boys to his pals. Scott was the podgy kid who couldn’t care less about misfits. “Hey, you! What are you doing here? The sixth grade classes are on the other building!” he snarled.
Out of pride he wiped his tears, trying to hide his fear from yet another batch of tormentors. He felt a little scared now, knowing he was no physical match for them. He scurried into a dark corner clutching his book, braced himself for the inevitable beating and wished the darkness would devour him and make him disappear.
“Leave him alone,” Peter barked at Scott. Peter was the plain looking, long-haired kid in the yellow and white baseball jersey. The third kid, John Silver, or Fox to his pals, scanned the room. “What a waste of room this is.”
Fox was the good-looking one of the five. And although he had a hint of kindness about him, he was obviously the leader of the group, and therefore, the instigator of decisions that brought harm to misfits like him.
A fifth boy smacked Fox on the shoulder. “This your new smoke room now, Fox?” asked the red-haired boy.
“Nah, Joey. We have a newbie. A devil from sixth grade, I think,” said Scott, pointing to the weakling in tattered clothes hiding in the corner, clasping a red book.
“Come here kid,” said Fox. “What’s your name? Are you in junior high? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.” They all looked at him, studying him, trying to make out his face. “What are you here for?”
He didn’t budge, clung harder to the book. For a minute he forgot where he was, held the book open and started reading in the dark.
I am tired. I just want to be invisible.
Fox made the first move. “Okay. If you don’t wanna be bothered… we’re off. Just makin’ conversation, ya know.”
They were teenage misfits, but they were not the toughest ones.
“Music room my ass. This room stinks!” Joey yelled, covering his nose and mouth. “They don’t even clean this shit. What a waste!”
Fox sniffed in disgust, walked over to the piano, wiped off some dust and sat down. “Hey, have you heard of Queen? Their sound is sick! You’ll love it!”
“Sick sound… really?” Scott was curious.
Fox tapped the keys of the piano. “Shit… it fucking works!”
“Cool, man!” blurted Andy, and all five boys huddled around the old piano, leaving the kid in the corner alone.
“It goes a little something like this…”
Fox began to play. For a moment music dominated the room, and not a sound was uttered by the group. Fox played so perfectly, out of character, it seemed. And then, Fox started to sing.
“Mama… I just killed a man.
Put a gun against his head… pull my trigger now he’s dead…
No one moved. They all listened spellbound. Even Paul closed his book, and listened. It was the first time he heard such music, such a voice.
Mr. Handler heard Fox singing as he approached the room. The teacher was not a fan of rock music. Nothing but the sound of the devil.
He slammed the door open. “Mr. Silver, this is not some music studio, or a concert hall! This is detention. I didn’t send you here to have fun! Besides, you have nothing to be proud of, with that terrible voice. You degenerate youth are all a waste!” Looking at each of them with loathing, he added, “You are here to get some serious corporal punishment—from me. Miss Marquez handed you over to me. Apparently she trusts a military man when it comes to disciplining scoundrels like you.” In truth, he volunteered to take over the duty of a teacher who hated detention duty. Scanning the room, he gave the frail boy in the far corner a sharp look. “You too! Come here, you midget!” The kid stood up and walked over to the chair in the middle of the room, his head low. “Ah, Mr. Paul Andrews, you brave little dwarf. I didn’t know you had it in you. Why do you fight with giants? Why do you bother at all? Are you trying to prove something?”
Paul did not want to fight at all. He was actually trying to get away from Tom Crawford, a bully who had the habit of getting the weaklings’ lunch money. Paul had no money that morning. Not for lunch, not for any crap. And when Tom could not shake a nickel out of him, he chose to trample on Paul’s treasured book: J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. That resulted into the commotion that brought him to this hole.
That morning on the way to school, Paul already caught sight of Tom and his gang harassing another kid. Paul knew this scene only too well. He has always been Tom’s favorite weakling. He didn’t have any money on him, so he was quick enough to plan an escape route to avoid attention. He crossed the street, crawled under a parked car, onto another, and another. He almost made it past the tormentors undetected. But it wasn’t his lucky day. One of the bullies saw him and chased after him. Of course he wasn’t a match for their preying skills. They caught up with him and grabbed him by the scuff of his neck.
“Hey, you dumb ass!” Tom shook him like a rag doll. “Where’s my money?”
Paul struggled to break away, but to no avail. He decided to remain silent as Tom’s minions frisked his pockets. When they realized he had nothing on him, they snatched his bag and ransacked it, hoping to find anything of value. One of the taller scoundrels pulled out a small book, which he tossed into the wet muddied ground. Useless, he scoffed. It was then that Paul found the inexplicable strength to kick Tom in the groin and swing his right fist at him. The punch barely touched Tom, but the bully fell down and grimaced in pain. He remembered the advice of Tony Lee, the newspaper boy he worked with. “Kick ’em in the groin and throw the first punch. The fight will be over once you hit ’em. And if you don’t, you’ll likely take a beating anyway. So what is there to lose?” Paul heeded his advice and Tom’s minions fell dumb at the unexpected sight of their leader crumbled down on the ground and as they had no Plan B they scurried away like rabbits during hunting season. And that was how Mr. Handler caught Paul standing above bully-boy Tom, who was almost crying in agony.
Mr. Handler chose to play a little game of Q&A with Paul.
“Mr. Andrews kindly explain to us, why you are here? All of these losers are repeat offenders and frankly speaking, you are nothing like these boys.”
The ex-military man marched back and forth, feigning indifference. “These petty criminals are cowards. They are merely seeking attention. Delinquents who had nothing better to do. But you? Tell me Mr. Andrews, you want to be a star? A big criminal, you think? Are you the new big shot here in detention?”
Paul remained silent, hardly daring to move.
“Mr. Andrews, are you testing my patience today? Do you think you are tough enough to ignore me?” He glared at Paul. “You… alone… will make sure this filthy floor is cleaned. I don’t care how you do it, but it had better be the cleanest floor in this school by the time I get back.” He took one more disgusted look at the rest of the lot and barked, “As for the rest of you… clean this useless music room and all the instruments in it.”
Paul picked up the damp rag and basin and started to clean the floor absent-mindedly, oblivious to the teacher’s cruelty. He was thinking about how Fox played the piano. Before Mr. Handler left the room, he reminded the boys; “Sparkling clean… you understand? The Principal wants to impress the new Arts Department Head, so let’s not disappoint… Sparkling—understand?”
Paul walked home covered in filth and stinking like hell. Fox’s song was still stuck in his head. It played over and over and he could not seem to stop it. He paused and refused to take one more step forward. He looked down and stared at the book he was holding. He did not want to enjoy music. It was wrong to like music, he thought. To do so would be betraying the book.
But “I have to have that record… I will get that record once I have my money,” Paul told himself. He delivers newspapers in the morning before going to school and collects the payment every Monday. It was Friday, so he will have money in three days.
Monday came and still his zest to get hold of the record did not wane at all. He grabbed onto his newspaper money like he was holding on to life itself. He was so excited that for the first time, he had left his prized possession—his precious book.
Paul went straight to a record bar in the mall. He had never been to a music store in his life. He stood there, staring at the big posters of rock stars and famous musicians. Some of them he recognized, like the Beatles, Leif Garrett, Peter Frampton, and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, but others he had no idea at all who they were. Most of them vaguely looked like Fox: handsome, blonde, a look that can charm anyone. Still, he couldn’t care less about anyone else. That day he was there for a particular song. He looked around and searched for a record by the Queen, but on a wall, he saw a poster instead. It was not close to what he had imagined.
The lead vocalist did not look like any of the rock stars on the other posters. This one had short, dark hair, a mustache, deep-set eyes and an intense, mysterious look about him. This group is different, he surmised. He dashed and stumbled toward the counter, but stopped to a halt when he saw the sweaty, heavy set, cigar-smoking man sitting behind the counter. Fear took over his senses, and stopped him from walking any further.
“What are you lookin’ at, dumbass? This ain’t the candy store. Scram! Beat it!” the man bellowed.
Paul hesitated for a moment, but finally found the courage to say his piece. “Nnn-oo, Sir,” he stuttered, then went on. “I wanna buy a record….” His voice nervously faded away.
“What? What record?” He waited for a reply, but got nothing, so he barked at him once again. “Go and get whatever it is you’re gonna buy!—Dimwit,” he sighed disgusted, then turned his back, puffing a cloud of smoke from his cigar, and went back to watching his TV.
“I want to buy a record—by the Queen?”
The man gave him a tired look and went back to watching TV. “Everything in the store is labeled and arranged alphabetically. Go look for it yourself. I am not your wait-staff and this is not a restaurant. Help yourself.”
I can do this, he told himself. “S-sir, I’m looking for a single… I don’t know the title…” He was trying so hard not to annoy him any more than he already did.
The man sneered at him and said, “Now that’s a mess, eh? Do you remember the song then? Can you sing it?” The man was approaching him now. He was clearly messing with the kid, and he was enjoying every second of it. It was one of the perks of his job and his looks. He knew the Queen, of course. Who didn’t? Their records were top sellers, for crying out loud. But he just could not let a chance to taunt this loser of a kid pass. “… Sing it! So that I can help you look for it…”
Paul stepped back, fidgeting relentlessly in grave fear. The man placed his huge hand on the little boy’s shoulder, still waiting for him to hit a note. He was sweating profusely and Paul can already feel a trickle spraying on him. The little boy struggled and tried to remember the line he heard from Fox, but no voice came out. His mind started playing a trick on him instead, as the sweet voice of a girl singing dominated his memory and his eyes quickly turned misty.
He turned around and decided to just walk away.
“Hey, I was just joking…” the man walked back to his post. “You don’t have to sing it, boy. If you’re embarrassed, we can find another way to find your song,” he grinned, feigning concern.
Paul wiped off his tears and tried to look brave.
“Actually, I think I know what you’re looking for,” he finally said, walking over to an aisle close by. He grabbed a record and showed it to Paul. “Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, eh? Everybody wants this song—including me. Coulda’ been really entertaining if you belted out a line for me…” he snickered. “Hell, I coulda’ given you discount for it!” He started laughing like crazy, and then tossed the record onto the counter.
“So what… are you going to buy it? A lot o’ kids ha’ been goin’ back for that record, reservin’ it and all, but never got back to buy it.”
“Yes, sir, I’m going to buy it. But… can I listen to it first? Ya’ know, test it?” he requested.
The stocky man replied, “Sorry, but no. Just like I said, there are kids who keep comin’ back and keep on testin’ it, but never actually bought it. Pay up, and then you can test it all you want. If it’s broken, I’ll replace it.”
As the man was giving his speech, Paul realized one thing; he didn’t have a player at home. Crap. He really wanted that record. The few lines he knows were now embedded in his mind. The longer it takes to get his hands on it, the hungrier he gets. He took the money out of his pocket and paid up without saying a word. He popped the record on the testing booth at the far end of the shop.
He listened, shutting out everything else around him. He must have played it a thousand times, standing there for maybe hours. Even the storekeeper left him alone. He tapped him twice on the shoulder only when it was time to close the store.
That night, Paul’s bedtime ritual changed for the first time. A chapter from The Catcher in the Rye always puts him to sleep, except tonight. This particular night, Queen’s music dominated his consciousness. But how can he listen to it now? Where in hell will he get a phonograph? Not soon enough did he doze off, while repeatedly asking himself these questions.
Tuesday morning, in school, the darn music was still taunting him. “I wasted money on that stupid record… and there’s no way I can listen to it again.”
He beat himself up in frustration and much regret.
Seriously considering going back to the record store to listen to it again, he weighed the situation. But fear won over will. Walking down the corridor, he bumped into Fox, who was surprisingly warm and friendly.
“Hey, you kid! I know now about the fight. You are something, eh? I’ll see you again in detention?” Paul nodded awkwardly at him, but was secretly delighted that one of the “cool” kids actually talked to him.
His joy was short-lived as he stepped into class and realized he has no homework to submit. Crap! He spent all his time after class in the record bar yesterday.
“Detention, Mr. Paul Andrews. You must know where it is by now, having been there just last Friday,” said the teacher, who was obviously disinterested.
Why wasn’t he surprised to see Fox and his friends in the detention room?
“Hey pal… you’re back! Who did you kill this time?” Fox was the first to welcome him. “Next time you decide to kick someone’s ass—or groin—,” he paused snickering, “Call us over, okay?”
“No,” Paul replied, with his head bowed low. “I had no homework.”
“Oh. I thought you were a fighter,” Fox said with a hint of disappointment.
“I wouldn’t mind having a toughie in the gang. These idiots know nothing but a little music; they’re not even good at it. Especially that one…” Fox told Paul, throwing a piece of rug at Scott. “This one here thinks he’ll be the next ‘Michael Shrieve’ of the group,” he gave out an insulting laugh. “The nerve, huh? Santana’s drummer, are you?” He grabbed Scott by the neck and rubbed his head with his knuckles. They all snickered and went back to doing nothing.
Paul smiled and laughed along, trying so hard to hide the fact that this was the first time he heard of Santana or Michael Shrieve.
“Hey Fox, ya’ have that Queen’s record already?” Peter asked. “Throw it my way, will ya? My Dad’s old stereo is rottin’ in our basement. It’s gonna sound awesome there in full blast.”
“No, I haven’t got it. Ya’ know what I do? I go to the store to listen to it in one of those listening stations.”
Now Paul was listening intently. So Fox was one of those who have been going back to the record shop, like what the storekeeper was telling him. But that was not what keyed him in. Did Peter Cook just say he has a stereo, a record player in his basement? Paul was looking at Peter. He didn’t know how to ask Peter more information about the record player. He was still trying to act cool and be like one of them, he didn’t want to sound so eager and stupid. He’s not even one of them yet. And, does he even want to be friends with them? Paul kept all these thoughts to himself.
A loud, commanding voice startled them. “Here you are—again.” Mr. Handler has a thing about dramatic entrance. He looked at Paul, not expecting to see him here again.
“Mr. Andrews, hello,” his tone was sarcastic as always. “You are progressing really well into the ‘dark side’, now, aren’t you? You’re starting to love these losers, eh?”
He walked around like a NAZI Gestapo inspecting his men’s bunk. “I don’t think this detention business is working. No, not at all,” he breathed in disgust. “I think you need some smack on the back to keep you on your toes. And I think I know just what to give you.”
He scoffed, never losing his arrogant stance even for a minute, and signaled to the boys to follow him. “This way.”
They were all outside, in the football field, clueless as to what the teacher had in mind. “Now guys, you will love this? You will be useful for once,” he began.
“See this field?” They all followed his gaze. “I want you to clean this. Not a speck of litter when I come back—in an hour.”
The poor boys were struggling for words to utter, but nothing came out. Is he kidding? This was the morning after their school won the best football game so far, this season. Last night’s celebration left nothing but rubbish all over the place. We were not even here last night, they all thought in unison, admitting to being outcasts in their minds.
They spent all day cleaning the field. Mr. Handler did not come back after an hour as he “promised”, so they just kept with the labor until they’ve covered every inch of the ground. Fox sat down in the middle of the field, and all the rest followed suit, including Paul.
Scott looked at Paul in scrutiny, and Paul felt his gaze from his peripheral. “Fox, did ya’ know this kid is now quite popular?” Scott pointed to Paul.
Paul was not expecting to be the topic of discussion all of a sudden. What was he talking about?
“Pal, everyone hates that Tom character,” Scott finally said, as if in response to Paul’s silent question. He intentionally stressed the word ‘everyone’.
“Even the popular kids hate him. They say Tom and his pals are bad news. Spoiled bastards. Always up to no good. All because they’re rich?” Somehow the topic upset Scott more than usual.
“And when you—” pointing a finger at Paul, Peter butted in, “beat the crap out of him, you ruled!” They all laughed and high-fived. “You were a game changer, pal!” They all chorused.
“Yeah, kid. Everybody’s talkin’ about the ‘small guy’ who smashed Tom’s balls with a single kick!” Tom chimed in.
Joey was practically yelling and laughing at the same time, “You are legendary now, pal! Pulling off that karate kick? Martial arts genius!”
Paul sat in a still more awkward silence. He wasn’t used to this kind of positive attention. He started fidgeting.
“Hey, kid, we are not hustling you here. We’re all in the same boat here… we just want to learn a thing or two about your moves. It might help these idiots, ya know,” Fox was trying to appease Paul.
Paul hesitated, and then replied, “I don’t know karate or any martial arts.”
“No kidding? Then how did you beat up that drat of a bully?” Joey asked.
Paul was staring at his worn-out sneakers, as he explained, “A friend told me about it… a trick, he said, that never fails. He called it the tae kwon do kick.”
“No… tae kwon do,” he tried to stress every syllable. “It’s Korean martial arts. My friend is Korean, and he taught me how to kick—but it doesn’t mean I know tae kwon do,” Paul tried to explain.
“Oh, what a waste,” Joey sighed.
“No—it’s not a waste,” Peter butted in. “We all know that he kicked the hell out of that prick. So if we learned that move, who knows what we can do to every prick in this school?”
“Well… what are you waiting for? Teach us that move. Wait—what’s your name again?” Fox asked, and then looked away. “No, no, don’t bother. I’ll call you ‘karate kid’. Suits you, he-he,” he laughed, as he stood in front of everyone, gesturing to the others to follow suit.
Reluctantly, Paul walked over to the center of the circle the group formed. He felt powerful, somehow, standing in the middle of that field for the first time. He imagined the crowd in the bleachers, watching them—him. He can see the popular kids, the bullies, some of the teachers who barely know he exists, sitting in different rows. He tried to savor that fleeting moment, even though it was a “dream”.
Some of the jocks were over at the far side of the field, doing their exercise routines. They were focused and intent, but they were beginning to notice—and get distracted—by the circle of dorky kids in the middle of the athletes’ turf. Paul went on to show the other boys how to do the “kick”, but froze the minute he felt Mr. Handler’s presence from a distance. How was it possible to feel his piercing look from so many feet away?
The teacher has been observing them for a while now, actually, and finally decided to approach the group.
“Mr. Andrews, you have found yourself some minions now, haven’t you? You are enjoying this new title, eh? ‘Martial arts King’…” He paused and looked at them in scrutiny. “Let us see how far this notoriety will take you…and how long it will take before someone kicks your butt.”
Mr. Handler didn’t have to tell them to scram; they all knew better than to stand there any longer. As they were running back to the old building, Scott patted Paul’s back and whispered, “Thanks, karate kid. Now I can kick some bully ass when I have to.”
“You created a monster, now did you?” Joey teased him, laughing.
“Guys, use the move for good, not evil, okay?” Fox warned them.
“Seriously, man. Can we learn tai… th-that thing, from your friend?” Joey prodded him.
“Tae kwon do—,” Paul corrected him. “Y-you mean with my Korean friend?”
“Hey, hey, hey… Wait guys, are you serious? You want to do this tai thing karate?” Fox stood there, still confused, but trying to figure out if his friends were just fooling around.
Paul smiled, and corrected him; “It’s tae—kwon—do.”
“Whatever. That could seriously mess up our plan… and our dream,” said Fox.
“Actually, Tony Lee can’t teach us. He’s also just a student, still just learning from his master—his dad. They have a gym, you know,” Paul tried to explain. Then an idea hit him, “You can enroll there, but it’s not for free.”
“No way, man. Now all deals are off. I’m sure no one here has extra bucks for any lesson of any kind. Besides, we’re already preoccupied as it is,” Fox grunted.
“Preoccupied with what?” Paul thought to himself, but dared not say anything.
“Hey, karate kid. Do you know how to play any instrument?” Fox asked.
“I-instrument…?” Paul stuttered, as he was caught off guard by the question. “Musical instrument?”
“Yeah, duh,” Fox looked at his dumbstruck new friend.
Paul took a moment to answer. He remembered taking piano lessons when he was much younger, but it was if something was blocking that memory from his malfunctioning brain. He settled with a safe reply, “A little piano, yeah.”
“Cool. So I guess you know a thing or two about keys and notes. We can use you, after all. I hope you are a fast learner,” Fox figured out quickly.
Paul now understood that he had just been unofficially inducted into the group. He was finally accepted by a group, however unconventionally the circumstances were.
He took a breath and asked Peter, “Are you still interested in hearing the new record of Queen?” Fox overheard this and looked up, with much interest.
“Yeah, man. Why? Are you plannin’ to score one?” Peter asked back.
“Actually…” Paul hesitated for a second, and gave Fox a long look. “… When I heard about it from John…”
Paul is now the center of all the four boys’ attention. Fox held a look that could instantly blow someone’s brains out. This moment, it was Paul’s brains in danger. “Don’t. Ever. Call me John,” he could not stress it any more seriously. “Only my mother calls me John.”
After what seemed like a zillion seconds of complete silence, Fox grinned and said, “I forgive you, kid.”
Paul breathed in, and found the words that got caught in his throat a while back. “When I heard Fox—,” this time he made sure he said it correctly, “play and sing that Queen song last Friday, I can’t get it outta my head…”
“So I bought the record yesterday,” he announced, excited yet nervous.
“Whoa… Can we borrow it, then?” Peter’s is now overly excited.
“Actually, I was—er—hoping if you can let me hear it with you… at your place? I—I don’t have a stereo and the only time I was able to listen to it was at the record bar.”
“So, you were actually doing my gig at the record bar?” Fox smiled, somewhat glad that he’s not the only dork doing it.
At Peter’s basement, Paul reveled at the posters of music legends that covered the walls. A timeworn sofa stood in the middle, paired with scruffy furniture and fixtures. A stack of old books and magazines decorated the center table. The place was apparently soundproof, so they could make loud noises and the neighbors will never complain.
The boys were frequent guests at this place, and only Paul was a first timer. Musical instruments were lying everywhere. Signs of usage were noticeable.
“What are you standing there for? Come on. Feel at home, man,” Peter practically dragged him to sit down on the sofa. “No one will bother us here. My folks are music buffs, ya know. This—,” showing off the room proudly, “is their collection. They’re cool about us playing music here.” Peter then walked toward the object of Paul’s attention, “Here”, Paul stood in awe, like a caveman seeing fire for the first time. He ogled not just only at the player, but also at the stacks and shelves of vinyl records behind it.
He had obviously never seen a record player like this. It was multi-deck and had four sets of speakers.
“I told ya, my parents are into music. This set is older than the one upstairs, but this is far louder and better sounding. The one upstairs is the smaller model. So nope… the neighbors won’t give us flak for playing loud music here.” Peter smacked Paul on the back of his head to wake him from his momentary coma. “What are you waiting for? Play your record now!”
Paul walked closer to the player, looking like he was going to kneel and pray before a church altar. He almost stumbled, but composed himself quickly, and paused. He realized he didn’t know how to operate this thing. Embarrassed, he said, “Peter… I don’t know how to make this work.”
The group laughed after realizing he wasn’t joking. Peter went over to show him how to use it. “Don’t worry; it’s as easy as pie.”
Peter saw Paul almost drooling at the shelf of records to the left. “Feel at home, man. You can check ’em later. Pick one or two and play ’em. But only, after we listen to your ‘treasure’.”
Paul was already scanning all the vinyl with his eyes. This was a rare collection, he surmised. Later on he learned that most of the records were like new, some not even opened. No scratch, still in plastic… amazing, he thought. The Beatles dominated one row, a few Rolling Stones, some Elvis Presley, Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Santana, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, James Taylor, and even the classics like Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin. He lost count, and lost in awe. “I wish I lived in this basement. I could listen to all these records forever,” he exclaimed, not realizing he was thinking out loud.
Lost in thought, Fox had to give him another smack in the back to wake him up; “The record, man… play it now.”
When Bohemian Rhapsody started to play, everyone in the room fell silent. Paul sat still, listening and observing his newfound friends. They played the record three times over, before finally standing up, walking over to where the instruments are. Each of them picked up an instrument and began tuning it. Paul was still sitting on the couch, not having any clue what’s happening. He dared not move.
Peter took the lead guitar, Joey was on bass, Scott on drums, Andy on rhythm guitar, and Fox stood behind the keyboards. Paul could not keep his excitement. They are going to play, he thought.
Fox raised his hand and signaled a ‘go’. “You ready guys? Let’s kill this!”
“One, two, three—,” and the music revved up the room. Every one of the boys transformed into rock stars, or at least that was how they looked like, or felt like. Not one of them knew what he was doing, Paul thought.
For a moment, Paul had to shake his head discreetly to ward off the screeching sound one or two of them were making. The music—no, the noise was terrible. He could not believe they could sound that bad. It was pure chaos.
What are they doing? He thought of leaving, seriously, but of course he did not want to offend his new friends. But his head felt like it was going to explode. Oh please make them stop now.
Paul couldn’t control himself any longer. He was trying so hard not to laugh, but his efforts were now in vain. This is really bad, man.
Fox yelled, “Stop, stop, stop—everybody stop!”
“Guys, Queen is in trouble. We nailed it!” Fox announced, and everyone lets out hysterical laughs. “Yeah!” the rest of the boys chorused. They all laughed, knowing how awful, they sounded. Paul laughed along; relieved to know they were not clueless about their “musical prowess”.
Then out of the blue, Peter suggested, “Guys, maybe it’s not too late for us to learn Taekwanfoo instead.”
Paul corrected him again, “Tae—Kwan—Do.” Everybody laughed hysterically again.
“Hey, you, karate kid. You’re enjoying the circus, eh? You’re not even playing anything. Why don’t you try handling one of these… Come on!” Fox teased him. “Here…” handing him the keyboard. “You said you can play piano, remember? Impress us.”
“No!” Paul panicked and almost fell off his seat. “I’m not good at all. I think it will be in your best interest if you will never hear me play,” he begged.
“Guys, this kid can kick a bully, but the thought of playing the keyboards is freaking him like hell,” Scott laughed while taunting Paul.
“What are you worried about. You heard these idiots play. Ya’ think anything could be any worse than that?” Fox laughed along.
Paul hesitated and the room was quiet for a moment, but what seemed like forever for him. He braved up, and approached the keyboard. As he neared the instrument, his heart was beating so hard and so fast, he felt like it was going to explode. Then he stopped. An image of a girl playing the piano happily distracted him. His forehead broke into a sweat. He shook the image out of his head and walked on.
“Start playing. It’s just a jam, not a recital,” Andy yelled out, expecting him to fail, like they all did.
Paul sat down and stared at the keyboard. He was trying to remember the last time he played the piano. He doesn’t remember the last music he played.
“I think karate kid here lied about playing a ‘little’ piano. Okay, man. Will let you off the hook,” Joey teased him more.
“Don’t worry, man. Will keep you in the band. There may be something else you can do, like to be our bouncer, or errand boy. Go fetch us some snack!” Scott joked, and everyone laughed out loud again.
Paul sat in silence. The word “lie” annoyed him. I never lie, he thought. He gathered courage and placed his hands on the keyboard. Then, he started tapping Do-Re-Mi.
Scott broke into a loud laugh again, “Wow! You are a genius! He knows Do Re Mi, guys!” Everyone joined in except Peter.
Paul looked at Peter and Peter gave him a thumbs-up. He looked down at the keyboard again, and started playing. He remembered the notes to Over the Rainbow, a piece from one of his lessons. He kept playing on, forgetting for a moment where he was. He felt happy, than sad… it was confusing and disorienting. Then he stopped.
His heart was heavy. He stood up covering his face, asked Peter where the restroom was, then grabbed his bag and walked out of the room. He couldn’t control himself anymore. He sobbed relentlessly. It was an unwelcome memory, which was flooding his mind right now. He pulled his prized book out of his bag, and held it against his face. He wept quietly.
None of them knew what happened, or what to do next. Nothing of this sort has ever happened to any one of them. Fox broke the silence; “There is something about him that is off. He’s different. I don’t know how to explain it, but he is…”
“What was that song he played? Sounds—old,” Andy sounded confused.
“And girly…” Scott added in jest.
Fox ignored Andy and turned to Scott. “But he can actually play real music. He knows his notes,” Scott commented.
“Problem is… I play the keyboards. Maybe he can be a substitute, or something,” Fox said.
“What about he play the keyboard, and you concentrate on vocals? That makes sense?” Peter suggested.
“He can play, but he’s not that good yet. I mean… not to brag, but he’s not even close to my skills,” Fox explained as he walked over to the keyboard. “Besides, he seems to know only basic piano stuff, not rock music.” He’s tinkering with the keyboard now, trying to play some random notes to purge the growing tension inside him.
“You’re right, man. Maybe you can teach him?” Peter suggested. “We all know, somebody should be a ‘leader’, ya know what I mean? Nobody else can take on that role here ’cept for you. Maybe, if you take on lead vocals, you’ll be able to listen to us much better, and tell us what’s wrong or what’s working. Let’s face it, man, we need improvements.”
“Yeah,” the group agreed.
“We’re definitely not gonna have time to learn Taekwonfooo or whatever it’s called, anymore,” Scott jibed in, and everyone laughed again. Paul was about to rejoin the group, but he stopped at the stairs. He thought his new friends were laughing at him.
“Speaking of the devil. Well, man, you think you can be our keyboard player?” Andy offered.
Surprised, Paul stuttered again in response, “Fox is already playing—and he’s awesome.” And he’s the only legit musician in this group, for God’s sake. He’s nowhere near his skills. Not forgetting the fact that I freak out when I play, Paul thought.
“That’s it. Even karate kid knows I’m the keyboard man,” Fox said.
“But Fox, think about it. We will never learn to play well if nobody leads us. You already know you are great, but what about the rest of us?” Peter was practically begging. “Let us learn first, so we can eventually catch up with you, and be better at this.”
Fox was in deep thought. There were times he actually wanted to give up and leave the group. No one here knew how to play, really. But they are his friends, his group. He grew up with them... so he never left. He decided to stick it out with them, no matter what. “Okay, man… but you have to promise you will listen to what I have to say.”
“No problem, man,” everyone in the room agreed.
“Or else, I’ll leave you. No kidding man, I’m outta here if any of you play tough with me,” Fox warned them.
All five boys grabbed their instruments and waited for Fox’s go signal. Fox stood back and began to take over. “Maybe we should do this differently,” he began. “Let’s hear each of you play, first. Peter, let’s start with you.”
Each player did their thing individually at first, now having a chance to listen to how one sounded. It was okay, Fox thought. But it did not sound any better when they tried playing all together again. “Guys, if any of the Queen members will hear us, they will definitely send us to jail. We just murdered that song.”
“Why don’t we try an easier song first,” Paul suggested.
“Yeah, karate kid is right,” they all responded in unison.
“Let’s try an easier song, songs we actually can play,” Peter said.
“Beatles… let’s do Beatles guys,” Scott insisted.
“Okay, let’s try Beatles,” Fox said, shaking off a hint of nervousness brewing up. They all began browsing through the stack of records, looking for a Beatles song that they could easily play. Andy suggested Hey Jude; Scott said, Let it be; Joey suggested Yesterday, while Peter opted for Help. Fox broke the chaos and said, “Okay, guys—we’ll practice all the songs you suggested, one by one. We’ll pick the first by—spinning the bottle.” He grinned and began to relax. They picked up a bottle and formed a circle.
The first spin pointed towards Scott, so Let it be was the first song to be played. They played the record for maybe five times over, before they all geared up to play their first round.
Fox reminded Paul, “Karate kid, sit back and listen carefully. You will play keyboard in the future… or maybe next year if you’re lucky.” Everyone gave a quiet laugh and began to play.
It was, just as before, a disaster.
“Stop, stop—stop!” Fox yelled in frustration. “Let me try it first, alone… with keyboard and vocals.” Fox played, and everyone in the room fell silent once again. As he hit the last note of the song, he motioned for Peter to start playing, too. It sounded good, surprisingly.
“Good, good. Now let’s do it together, Peter,” Fox instructed. “One, two, three…” and only the sound of the piano and guitar dominated the room, with Fox’s voice leaving the teenage boys mesmerized. Even a minute after the song was over; no one moved and said anything. Peter asked, “So, what do you think guys?”
Andy was the first one to volunteer a reply, “Actually, it ain’t bad at all. But—,” he paused and looked at Peter, “it’s not as good as when Fox was playing solo. Just saying, man.”
“Are you saying I played badly,” Peter asked, not sure how to react.
“No, man, it’s not that. Come on… you played well, too, when you play alone,” Paul butted in.
“So what are you saying? We should all fly solo now?” Fox said half joking, half serious.
“But think about it. Even soloists have to play with back-up. So if we can’t do it here, in this basement, I don’t think we can cut it anywhere… even if we go solo,” Peter tried to explain.
“Well, that taekwonfoo is looking great now, eh?” Scott tried to break the tension with a joke.
“Tae. Kwan. Do,” Paul insisted.
“Peter, it’s late now. Your friends’ parents might be worried by now,” Mrs. Cook reminded her son, as she peeked down from upstairs.
“Hi Mom! You know these guys... Ah, except one,” pointing to the newbie. “Mom, this is Paul Andrews, the new addition to our group.”
“Paul Andrews? Aren’t you too young to hang out with these guys? Are you on the same grade as they?” Mrs. Cook inquired.
“Mom, looks can be deceiving. This one is a tough guy, despite his size,” Peter boasted.
“Yes, Mrs. Cooks, he is the karate kid in the group now. He’s quite popular in our school now, too, aren’t you?” Scott joked again, while Peter worriedly signaled for him to stop.
“I sure hope this ‘karate kid’ title denotes something positive,” she surveyed the new boy and went on. “Okay, you boys, I’ll leave you now. But you all better get going. I’m sure your parents are worried about you. I know I would be. Be careful on your way home, will ya?”
“Okay, now. Let’s go find the taekannnn… whatever—Karate gym tomorrow. Maybe we’ll have a better future doing that,” Fox announced, before they all left for home.
Paul walked home, still digesting what had transpired that day. He was in detention again, only the second time in his entire life. He has always been a very diligent kid and never got into trouble, especially anything that might involve his parents. He knows that trouble, or any attention drawn toward his family, was the worst thing he could do.
But he has been seriously perusing on something. Why was it, that in his entire teenage life, this was the only time that he has felt this excited...and happy? For once, he has something to look forward to when he wakes up tomorrow. He was in detention, but something good came out of it. He made friends, and he shares a common passion with them. Suddenly he’s talking about Queen and the Beatles, and he is playing music. Why is music so important to him now? Why does he feel really connected to it? He was aware that he had been consciously avoiding it for quite some time, as if there was a bad memory he associated with it. But he couldn’t deny now that it has brought him to a natural high, listening and playing. Feeling the keys on his fingertips...
The piano? The next minute he stood dead stiff. He could not bring his foot to make another step. He stopped walking completely. An unwelcome vision disrupted his thoughts: A girl in front of a piano, playing some kind of music, a dirge, but weeping inconsolably. While a man watching her, grinning.
Paul remained still, impassive, not noticing the time passing by. A tap on the shoulder woke him up from the trance.
“Paul, are you alright?” it was his friend Tony Lee. Tony quickly noticed the tears streaming down Paul’s pale cheeks. He saw the deep sadness in his eyes. “Paul, Paul, Paul! Are you alright, man?” Tony shook him by his shoulders.
“I’m... o-o-o… okay. I’m o-o-o… ow... right,” Paul stuttered as he snapped out of his momentary coma. But the agony he felt was still holding him.
Tony decided to walk with him the rest of the way. Curious, he asked his friend, “So, how was your day, pal?”
Paul was now more alert, “Well, I got detention again.” He smiled coyly.
“Again? I didn’t even know about your ‘first’ detention.” Tony knew him too well, that he was a good kid. Now he’s sensing a deeper trouble than he thought.
“So, why were you in detention?” Paul told him all about the fight with Tom Crawford, and the reason for his second detention, and having met new friends that he met, and about the band he now belongs to. He excitedly told him about Queen and the Beatles, and how his new friends played their songs.
“So you’ve enjoyed your time, despite the detention?” Tony asked and was glad that his friend had seemingly recovered from his pain, from a while ago.
“Well, somehow... yeah, I think,” Paul hesitated, trying to make sense of it, too. Tony thought about asking why he was in tears, looking terrified and all, but decided not to. He didn’t want to bring back the “bad memory”.
“Good evening guys. You are surprisingly late today,” Mrs. Jackie Andrews cheerfully called out, as the two boys reached the front yard of the Andrews. Tony felt awkward, but Paul greeted back, “Hi Mom. I was over at my classmate’s house, working on an assignment.” Then he glanced at his friend and added, “I ran into Tony on my way home.”
“Oh, okay, sweetie. Tony, thanks for walking with Paul. Now be on your way. I’m sure your dad is expecting you any time now.” Tony bid Mrs. Andrews a good evening, and headed home.
The Andrews lived in a modest bungalow. Mrs. Andrews stays at home and her husband works as a carpenter in a neighborhood construction company. They live a very simple life, always low profile, and careful not to attract any kind of attention as much as possible. Neighbors rarely see them in festivities or any gathering, unless necessary. They have lived quietly in a low-income neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee for some years now. It was not a particularly safe address, but the Andrews have thrived here somehow, as a quiet and happy family. Paul’s parents were loving and supportive of their only child. Paul grew up lacking the trappings of luxury and material things, but he surely was smothered with parental love. His parents didn’t want him to work as a newspaper boy, but Paul insisted. He knows his parents are not well off.
“Honey, you’ve never been this late for home before. Just because of an assignment? What’s the assignment? Maybe your dad can help you,” Mrs. Andrew was obviously worried.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I meant to call. I didn’t know that it will take us that long. I didn’t even notice the time,” Paul hesitated, not feeling good about his half-lie. He paused for a moment, and then decided to tell the truth. He didn’t want to lie to them.
“Actually, Mom, I met new friends in school. And they were into music! They let me tag along to listen to them play and I let them listen to this new record I bought...”
“You bought?” his mom interrupted him. “You used your newspaper money?” Mrs. Andrews was not very happy. “Honey, I know it’s your money, but I hope you spend it wisely. And... we don’t even have a record player. Why would you buy a record?”
“That’s why, Mom. That’s why I went to Peter’s house... to listen to the record,” Paul explained.
“Honey…” she didn’t quite know how to make her son understand her qualms. “It still doesn’t explain why you’ve come home this late.”
“Mom, my new friends are…” he paused, trying to think how to describe his new friends more accurately.
“They are musicians…” he paused again, doubtful that he could actually call them ‘musicians’, knowing they could not even finish a whole bar of notes without hitting off-key.
“Well, trying to become…. Musicians, Mom,” he corrected himself.
“So, what’s that got to do with you?”
“They invited me to join the group.”
“What do you mean?” Mrs. Andrews was seriously confused. “You want to be a musician, too, honey?”
Paul was about to reply, but somehow, the words didn’t come out. He began to think; what do I really want?
“Huh? Thanks for what, honey? You didn’t answer my question?”
“I’m going to be a musician, Mom. Thanks for helping me realize it just now.”
She smiled. “As long as it will make you happy honey, are you going to sing?”
“No, Mom. I’ll be on the keyboards.”
His Mom paused. “Keyboards? Y-you mean piano? It’s like a piano, isn’t it?”
“It’s smaller... yeah, yeah... like a piano, but electronic.”
“Is it expensive?” Mrs. Andrews asked cautiously, already thinking how they’ll be able to support their child’s new dream.
“Don’t worry about it, Mom. My friends are letting me use their instruments.” Paul knew what his Mom was thinking. No, he wouldn’t let them buy him a set of keyboards. They don’t have that kind of money.
“Okay, honey. Now go eat your dinner. Your Dad is already asleep,” she quickly changed the topic. “Sleep early, honey. You still have work tomorrow.”
He was wide awake all night, thinking about what he just told his mother.
I’m going to be a musician.
It was an important declaration... the most important one by far, in his teenage years. All he could think about was Queen and the Beatles. He smiled as he imagined being up on stage, playing the keyboards in front of thousands of screaming fans. He is famous. He is a rock star. Completely forgetting his nightly ritual of reading a chapter from his most precious book, he dozed off.
He opened his eyes and he was in the middle of what looks like a concert. He could hear a little girl’s voice, pleading, begging for something. Her voice was familiar. He felt strange. He walked toward the girl, but as he gets nearer, he saw the full image of a young girl, in tears, on stage, singing naked in front of ogling older men. He started to panic. He squeezed his way into the crowd, wanting to snatch the girl and take her away from the sleazy mob of lustful old men. He was fighting so hard to get to her... until he felt heavy, his breathing almost stopped to a halt. Something huge was being pressed on his chest.
He was being trampled by the crowd. He was now frustrated and angry. He could hear the men shouting now, chanting her name: “Sarah… Sarah…. Sarah…” He kept struggling, but found it harder to breathe every minute and went along shouting. “Sarah… Sarah… Sarah…”
“Honey, honey! Wake up!” Mrs. Andrews shook him awake. Paul opened his eyes. “You’re having a bad dream again, honey,” Mrs. Andrews told him, sounding terribly worried.
“Here’s a glass of water kid,” Mr. Andrews came into the room, handing their child a glass of water.
Jackie was holding Paul’s hands as he took a sip. His hands were shaking.
“Are you okay, honey?”
“I’m okay, Mom… Dad... it’s just a stupid dream,” Paul tried to be brave. He was still gasping for air.
“You seem to be really upset, honey… and angry,” Jackie tried to tell him, indicating how worried she is.
“No, Mom. It’s just a stupid dream,” he repeated. “I was being chased by a dog… a rabid dog,” he lied desperately, not wanting his parents to worry any more than they already are.
“Really? But you were shouting a name... Sarah.”
“Eh…?” he struggled for more lies. “She was being chased by the dog, too.”
“Okay then, kid. Back to sleep. You need to wake up early,” Mr. Andrews tried to keep everything light. “Come on, Jackie. Let’s leave the sleepyhead alone.”
As they stepped out of Paul’s room, Mr. Andrews whispered to his wife, “Stop inquiring about the dreams. The poor kid, have not had a dream like that for quite some time. Just... let it go. Jackie gently nodded her head in agreement, but she couldn’t help herself from worrying about her only child. It’s been a long time since the nightmares have happened. Why is it suddenly coming back?