Melodies of a Tattered Shadow

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Chapter 4 THE FIERY BIRTHDAY

After spending some time practicing Let it be and Your Song, the group studied the rest of the songs in their repertoire. They sounded ‘okay’, Fox was thinking to himself. Fox was becoming more intense in his singing, and everyone else has gotten more serious in mastering his own instrument. They practiced all night and did not waste time fooling around. They’ve come farther than they all thought possible, after laboring with the songs for days and hours.

Mrs. Cook now frequents the basement to bring some snacks and hear them play. She is so proud of how her son and his friends have become better in no time at all. “Maybe you can start playing in clubs soon. But you have to make sure you won’t take school for granted,” she lamented. “Oh, I sure won’t allow that to happen on my watch.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. We’re nowhere near that.”

“Just please promise me you’ll never neglect your studies, or you’ll lose this basement,” she warned them.

“We promise, Mom,” Peter replied respectfully.

“What about the others?” Mrs. Cook asked, expecting everyone else to promise her the same thing.

“We promise, Mrs. Cook,” they all chorused.

“That’s good to hear,” she paused and said, “It’s late and it is time to go home.” Everyone smiled as she winked at them.

It was Friday, one more day to the dreaded Saturday. They were hanging out at the school grounds, talking about their ‘progresses’.

“There’s not enough time for us to do Bohemian Rhapsody, so what are we gonna do? They’re definitely expecting us to play it,” Andy said, throwing an angry look at Scott.

“Don’t worry about Bohemian Rhapsody. I’ve told you, we just have to further refine what we’re already doing,” Fox tried to appease his friends.

“But Fox, they’re expecting it from us,” Andy insisted. “Expecting us to be good.

“That’s why I’m telling you we have to pull off the other songs really well,” he explained, “to make them forget about that song.”

“Fox what if they still insist on it,” Scott asked seriously, truly worried this time.

“We’ll find a way to tell them, that we play it only on special occasions. We don’t show it on ordinary gigs. It’s a special song for special occasion…” Fox sat back, satisfied with his alibi.

“Ah… that’s genius. You will ‘hook’ them up so that Cindy will have no choice but to invite us to her birthday party… and have us play Bohemian Rhapsody there,” Joey analyzed.

“That’s the plan. But in order to make it happen, we have to play exceptionally well tomorrow. If not… you can forget about everything,” Fox warned them.

That afternoon, Mrs. Cook was already there in the basement, waiting for them to practice. She was, as always, in awe at how great they have become. So she looks forward to every afternoon when the boys convene and play.

“You really sound good from upstairs,” Mr. Cook said to them that day. He just arrived from the office and he chanced upon the boys’ rehearsals. “Your Mom is right, Peter. Your group seemed to have risen from the depths you’ve been buried in for a long time. You’re doing well, young men,” Mr. Cook stressed the words ‘young men’. He’s impressed, but more importantly, he wants his son and his friends to realize that they are not little kids anymore. That it’s high time they get serious.

“Okay, enough with the talk. Why don’t you let me hear what your mom has been bragging about,” Mr. Cook insisted.

The group played for Peter’s parents, who were quite thrilled at what they have heard. “Oh, I’m sure the girls will go gaga, screaming your names,” Mrs. Cook said with an almost shrill voice.

“You think so, Mrs. Cook?” Scott was excited at the thought.

“Yes Scott… you are that good,” Mr. Cook assured him.

Then it hit Peter. “Dad…”

“Yes son?”

“Dad, regarding girls…” he paused.

Mr. Cook’s eyes were wide, bracing himself for some confession from his son about girls.

“It’s not what you think… whatever it is you’re thinking. It’s just that… we might bring girls here tomorrow. Here”

“Are you having a party?” Mr. Cook asked nervously.

“No, Dad. Uhm, these girls wanted to see us play… They sort of wanna see us practicing. Ya know,” Peter felt like he was just spitting out words, not making sense to his parents.

Feeling proud and confident for the boys, “So… it is already starting. Ooh, you are getting famous,” Mrs. Cook was too giddy.

“No, Mom. Just some friends coming over, t’s all.”

“No problem, son. If your mom says okay, I’m okay with it, too.” Mr. Cook threw a sideway glance at Mrs. Cook.

“How many girls, son?” Mrs. Cook asked, trying to keep her excitement.

“The truth Mom is, we don’t know…” Peter responded awkwardly.

“Peter? You don’t know? You invited friends over and you don’t know how many are coming?” Mrs. Cook suddenly turned a tad cross.

“Well, Mrs. Cook. We didn’t actually invite them. The girls sort of invited themselves over. They tricked us,” Scott explained. His friends shot him a very angry warning look.

Feeling proud for the boys, Mr. Cook joked, “Ha-ha. This is it boys. Fame is here. You should know your way with the ladies now.”

Peter tried to come up with a number, “Mom, it’s between… four to fifteen?”

That pretty much caught Mrs. Cook off guard, “Fifteen…? Between four to fifteen? Why are your numbers so far in between? Are you trying to play with me, young man?”

“Mom, we only talked to two of them. But the two said they’ll be bringing over the whole cheerleading squad,” Peter squealed, and choked after realizing what he had just said.

“Squad…?” Mr. Cook asked, almost in a yell.

“They’re… the cheerleaders in school, Mom.”

Mr. Cook gaped, and said, “I’m impressed. Cheerleaders, no less.”

Mrs. Cook scowled at her husband. He just grinned back at her.

“I’ll prepare some snacks for you tomorrow. But you have to do something about this basement. You cannot impress the ladies this way.”

Mrs. Cook frowned, looking around the basement. The boys nodded timidly. They understand what she was talking about. They have to clean the place.

“Your music is good enough. But we have to clean the place. Put down your instruments and pick up the broom and vacuum,” Mrs. Cook ordered the group. The rest of the hour, the boys swept the floors and vacuumed the couch and carpet, and dusted off every nook and cranny in the basement under Mrs. Cook’s tight supervision. By the time the cleaning crew was finished, it was already time to go home.

*****

The following day, the boys were at practice earlier than usual. They tuned their instruments and further inspected the place, to make sure everything is impressionable. Upstairs, a knock on the door startled Mrs. Cook. A very pretty and very blonde young lady, backed by several more young ladies, all cheeky and cheerful, greeted her. “Good afternoon. We are looking for Peter Cook?”

“Oh, yes, yes. Good afternoon. I am his mother, you can call me Mrs. Cook,” she gleefully introduced herself. “Come in, come in. They are expecting you, young ladies. Be seated, please. I will just call them.”

Mrs. Cook showed the cheerleaders to the living room and went down to the basement to call the boys. She was a bit worried that all the teenagers will not fit in her basement. She thought there were far too many girls.

Peter and Fox said ‘hi’ to the girls and showed them to the basement. Peter was particularly worried, too, if they will all fit in the basement. Why are there so many of them? True enough, Cindy and Kim were the first ones to fidget and frown as soon as they reached the rehearsal place. But when they spotted Paul fixing his keyboards, they elbowed each other and sat down quickly on the couch. They seem to be very fond of the cute, baby-faced boy.

“At least you have instruments to prove your claim,” Jane said aloud, making sure everyone heard her comment. Still, Cindy and Kim remained suspicious and didn’t trust the boys. Cindy threw Jane a stern look, warning her to shut it and let the “pretenders” do their thing.

Cindy tugged Kim to talk to Paul. This cute boy is suddenly the school’s man of the hour, and they couldn’t wait to get their hands on him.

“Hi,” Paul said reluctantly. He was the least bit interested to talk to the girls. All he’s thinking of now is to play well.

Sensing that Paul was oblivious to the girls’ presence, Andy stepped in, “Hi, Kim. Cindy. Thanks for dropping by…” He suddenly stopped and was at a loss for words. He doesn’t have any ‘cool’ words to say.

“Hi. And you are?” Kim asked sweetly.

“I’m… I’m… Andy,” of course he stuttered like a 2-year-old.

“Andy, hi. I’m sorry I don’t remember your name,” and after a short pause and a smug look at his face, “Oh, you were the one who talked to Jane?” Kim asked.

“Yeah, that’s right. That’s me,” Andy kept still, trying to keep his whole body from shaking. Kim turned to Paul again showing no interest in Andy at all. Cindy was already trying to make conversation with Paul. “So, Paul, what do you play?” she asked, flipping her blonde hair.

“Keyboards,” Paul replied, with a bit of a condescending voice. Duh, he wanted to say. I am standing in front of it, you know?

But the cheerleader was bent on getting the conversation going. “So do you sing? Are you singing today?” Cindy asked again.

Paul was about to reply with sarcasm, but Fox interrupted. “Hi, ladies. I hope you understand… We are practicing here. This is not a concert or a gig. So we cannot tolerate noise.” Fox was trying to sound strict, and implied this is serious business. “We don’t normally allow an ‘audience’ during practice...” he trailed off.

“Girls, take your seats, or, er—your place, please,” looking at those who do not have anything to sit on, Fox announced. He is beginning to feel uncomfortable. Mrs. Cook stood by the stairs, observing. She was impressed with the way Fox was handling things.

Fox took position. He looked like a real rock star, and felt so for a moment. “Are you ready, girls?” he called out. The cheerleaders yelled “Yeah!” and Fox raised his hand signaling them to stop. “I was talking to my girls,” he said, pointing to his band members. Everyone laughed. It was a clever way to break the ice.

“Okay girls, are you ready?”

The band made faces at him, “Yes, ma’am!”

“So you admit you are my girls?” he said then laughed. “Okay now, are we ready?” Everyone kept silent.

“On your count, Fox,” Peter called out.

“Let’s do this. One, two, three…”

When the band started playing, the girls’ eyes were locked on Fox. They were not expecting this. These boys are good; especially that cute blonde who was singing. Jane was smiling, but was vaguely disappointed. She wanted to embarrass these losers.

After the first song, there was a resounding applause that took a while before dying down. They actually impressed the cheerleaders. All of ’em. By this time, Cindy had completely forgotten about Paul. She wanted Fox now, to Kim’s delight.

Mrs. Cook remained standing where she was the whole time—and she was in pure awe. She was in doubt, still, but she was truly proud of the boys. She was convincing herself, she’s not biased at all. They can now be called a legitimate “rock band”, she thought. She’s both worried and excited.

Fox turned to Paul and whispered something to him and pointed to the music sheets. Then he turned to the audience, “I hope you liked that first song.”

The girls giggled and some even blushed, “We loved it!” They all agreed.

“Thanks, thanks. I hope you’ll like this next one, too.” Fox looked at Paul. He started to play the intro of Elton John’s Your Song on the keyboards. Fox arranged a special intro to this song to highlight Paul’s skills. The crowd was now impressed with Paul, too. As soon as Fox mouthed the first words to the song, everyone was taken away. Fox and Paul tandem was working with the girls.

After playing three songs, Fox decided to call it a night. “I think that’s all for today, ladies. I hope you enjoyed the session.”

Jane interjected, “But you have not played what we came here for.” She cannot leave this dump without getting what she came here for. Cindy and Kim gave her a warning look, which she ignored. Besides, Cindy and Kim wanted to hear them play Bohemian Rhapsody, too, so they let her comment slide.

“We are really sorry. It’s a special song, and we only play it on special occasions. We just don’t just ‘casually’ play it on a regular day. We only play it at gigs. I hope you understand,” Fox explained, trying to stay cool and hiding his nervousness. Mrs. Cook was really impressed at this point. She knows what he was up to.

Jane was about to complain, but Cindy stopped her. “Guys, you are right. We apologize for imposing. Thank you very much. We really enjoyed your music.”

“No problem. Thank you for coming over, too,” Fox replied.

“All the time, Fox,” Cindy stressed his name flirtatiously. “So, do you have a regular gig? We’d love to see you play in a club.”

Fox tried to keep his cool. “Missy, were in high school. We can’t really play at clubs, you know?”

“Oh, okay. But we can come over any time? Here?”

“Well, yeah… sure,” Fox nodded, looking at Mrs. Cook.

“What if I invite you?” Cindy threw him a sweet look.

“Sure, why not?”

“So it’s a deal, then,” she confirmed.

“Yes,” everyone agreed, nervous as they are.

Cindy stood up and flipped her long blonde hair again. “By the way, my favorite song is Bohemian Rhapsody.

The band looked at each other and smiled. Yes! It worked.

“Oh wait. Before you go, we wanna play something for you,” Fox pointed to the music sheets. Andy, Scott, Joey, and Paul were all surprised as they looked at the last page. And then it hit them; this was why Fox has been staying later than everyone else during practice. These two cooked up something exactly for the cheerleaders. They didn’t have a chance to get mad or to complain. All they could, was to follow suit.

“This is something new to us, so please bear with us.”

It was Peter’s turn to show off his guitar skills. He revved up the notes and to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Fox started singing, and they were all blown away one more time. Everyone kept quiet and listened to every single word coming from Fox. It was breathtaking.

“Oh, wow,” was all they could say after the song.

The cheerleaders thanked the boys and Mrs. Cook, and they left with wide smiles and only praises for the “band”.

*****

As expected, word spread about the rehearsal, and people began to talk about the D’ Kickers as a rock band and its hot male vocalist named Fox. Even the teachers weren’t spared of the ‘news’ that went around. The new Arts Department head, Miss Samantha Keys was intrigued. She’s always on the lookout for fresh talents and wanted to meet these boys she heard so much about that morning. Miss Keys asked around, and personally checked their schedules. She wanted to make sure this is for real and not just gossip. In her “band hunt” that day, she finally chanced upon the keyboard player, Paul Andrews.

“Are you Paul Andrews?” Miss Keys asked. Paul gave her a quizzical look and didn’t know if he should respond. Am I in trouble again?

“Mr. Paul Andrews? You are with D’ Kickers, right? Or you are just the karate kid everyone is talking about?” Miss Keys teased him, hoping to get even a syllable from him.

Paul blushed and looked down. “No… I mean, yes Ma’am. I am Paul.” What did I do now?

“Hi, I’m Miss Keys. I heard about your group, and I’d like to talk to all of you,” Miss Keys explained.

“Our group…?”

“Yes. Come over to my office, at the Arts Department. We can talk there after class,” Miss Keys instructed him. “If that’s okay?”

Still puzzled, Paul nodded in reply to the teacher, “Yes, Ma’am.”

“That’s good. I’ll be expecting you later then. See you then!”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Paul said again.

Paul relayed the invitation to his group later, which was met with mixed reactions.

“Miss Keys? The Arts Department head? Why would she be interested in us? Are we in trouble again?” Scott asked.

“Scott, do you have anything inside that brain of yours, aside from foam?” Fox paused, trying to keep his temper down. “She’s the Arts Department head. She’s in charge of music. Get it now?”

“Oh. Okay,” Scott nodded, but was actually not sure if he got it.

Andy smacked him at the back of the head. “Scott, wake up. Use your brain man!

“Miss Keys is one of the nicest teachers around. And you’re right. It might have something to do with our singing,” Peter figured.

As they stepped inside Miss Keys’ office, the teacher welcomed them cheerfully and asked them to sit down. “So I heard you are famous now. Or ‘infamous’ for some… D’ Kickers? Right? How are you today?” Miss Keys did not waste time asking.

“We’re good, Miss Keys,” Peter was the first to reply.

“I heard a lot about you guys. The past weeks all I’ve been hearing is the trouble you have been deep in,” she paused. “Now—all I’m hearing is how fantastic you are as a band. Now tell me, which one is the truth?”

“Well, Miss. To be honest, we’ve been in a lot of trouble before...” Peter began.

“Lately,” Fox interrupted.

Peter nodded, and then continued, “But we were just defending ourselves, and one thing led to another…”

“Okay. Honest and modest. I like that so far,” Miss Keys commented. “I also heard about your mini-concert last Saturday. You surely made a lot of girls giggle, eh?” She winked at them. “And that’s what I’m interested in. May I have the ‘privilege’ of hearing you play, too?”

The boys were left speechless. Did she really say what we thought she said? They didn’t know how to respond. They all started mumbling indistinctly.

“Okay, wait. Calm down, guys. I’m not saying immediately, like right now. Only when you’re comfortable… and ready.”

“Yes, Miss Keys, We’d love to play for you,” Fox cleared the air.

“So, who is the singer named Fox?” Miss Keys asked.

“I am,” Fox raised his hand as if in class.

“It’s a privilege to meet you, Fox. From what I’ve heard, you’ll be going places as a rock star. Why Fox, by the way? Your name is John Silvers, right? That’s not a bad name.”

“I—I like the animal. Foxes are clever. They always find their way around,” Fox explained.

“As are you, Mr. Silver. Early on, you know you’ll find your ways, I wish I could be part of that” Miss Keys acknowledged.

Confused at the teacher’s statement “Ma’am… I’m sorry I didn’t get you…?” Fox asked Miss Keys.

“Look, I want to help you. Isn’t that what being a teacher is all about? You might find it hard to believe, but many of us genuinely want to help our students. It’s just that sometimes, we have different ways of doing it,” Miss Keys explained, almost as if she was addressing an auditorium audience.

“My office is always open for you, whenever you need help, especially about music. From what I’ve heard, if the rumors are accurate, you are unique. You have potentials. With proper guidance, you can succeed. I don’t want your talent to go to waste.”

“Okay, I think that’s all for now. You can go now. You all look like you just listened to your death sentence,” and before she let them out, “Make sure you let me know when I can come over to your practice?”

*****

“Is Miss Keys for real?” Andy asked.

“I think so, man. I’ve heard good things about her. Haven’t heard any ‘horror’ stories yet, if you know what I mean,” Scott said.

“She supports those who are good in music, performing arts, that kind of stuff,” Fox added.

“It’s because the Arts Department has the least support from the administration. So she puts extra effort in taking care of talented students,” Peter explained.

“How can she help us?” Joey asked curiously.

“You think she can really help us? Like, how?”

The boys fell silent.

Sleep eluded Paul once again. Tonight he was perusing over the progress they’ve been making, and deciding whether Miss Keys will really be a good influence to their band. He does not trust too many people, as he has only known very few who have been genuinely kind. He does not trust anyone who is too nice to begin with. There is always a hidden agenda or a vested interest lurking at the back of their minds. There is always a catch—and it is usually negative and ‘harmful’. No one treats you well just because; they often just need something from you. And like before, he dozed off before he can come up with any resolution.

The girl. She’s here again. A man was offering the girl a doll and a handful of candies. She smiled and reached out for the presents, but the man grabbed her by her fragile arm and pulled her so hard she fell over. He was dragging her now, into the woods. Paul panicked. He could now hear a woman screaming, calling out a name: “Sarah… Sarah… Sarah!” But Sarah was nowhere in sight. Paul didn’t know what to do… so he yelled, too, and called for Sarah.

“Wake up, honey. Wake up! You’re having a bad dream again,” Mrs. Andrews tried to shake Paul as hard as she could.

Paul opened his eyes and stared at his mom disoriented and bathed in sweat. “You were calling that girl again,” she told her son

“I-I’m all right…” he assured them, his hands covering his face. “It was the same dream—from before. We were being chased by dogs again,” he lied. It was a lame one, but his parents accepted it, if only to calm him down and lift the pressure somehow.

“You must be stressed, honey. We’ve been telling you to stop delivering newspapers now. You need all your free time for rest,” Mr. Andrews stood by the door, and then walked over to his wife.

“Okay, Dad. I’ll think about it. Seriously,” he tried to reassure his father.

*****

A week from Cindy Cummings’ birthday party, the cheerleader paid the boys a surprise visit at their corner in the school grounds. “Hi, Fox. I haven’t forgotten your promise…?” He tried to remain calm and cool, yet his hands were shaking.

“Yes, Cindy,” Fox began. Truth is he sort of outgrew the desire to play at Cindy’s birthday party. They have been practicing double time and progressing really well. Even Peter’s neighbors and the Cooks’ family friends have heard about their band, and would frequently drop by to hear them play, even only from the Cooks kitchen, which was right above the basement. People in school know them, too, and they have been the talk of almost all the groups. They’re popular now. And what they want is to try booking a gig at a club.

“You must know that my birthday party is next week. Exactly a week from now. So—you know what I’m getting at?” Cindy batted her eyelash so gracefully, hoping to get on Fox’s sweet side.

“Oh,” Fox answered, obviously disinterested.

Cindy was becoming impatient. “Fox and D’ Kickers are expected to play on my birthday. You promised me,” she sounded like a flirtatious little girl, which was now awkward and annoying, not to mention ineffective to Fox. Sensing that she was not getting through, she shifted to the domineering and dismal version of herself, “I’m telling you, my father is against it at first but I insisted. So don’t embarrass me. You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

Fox put on a straight face and said, “No problem, Cindy. We’ll be there… to sing along your favorite song.”

Cindy walked away, furious. She hated begging. She hated Fox now. Cindy Cummings never had to beg a man for anything, anything at all. Men give me what I want, without even having to ask for it. Yet, she could not deny the fact that she was impressed. He was not only good-looking, he sings in a way that melts her—and every girl’s—heart, and… he stood up to her. He did not beg. He did not ogle at her. It was—hot, the way he played it cool and calm. The way he made her almost beg.

*****

“I think you’re right Fox. The gig at Cindy’s birthday party is not interesting anymore… it’s not—necessary,” Joey said.

“Did I say that? I don’t remember saying that,” Fox said in contrary.

“You did not actually say it, but it showed. Man, the way you reacted to Cindy,” Peter told him.

“But guys, a promise is a promise. And, if it were not for them, nobody will even know about us as a rock band,” Paul reminded them.

“Deep,” Scott teased him.

“Shut up, Scott. Anyway, karate kid is right; a promise is a promise. We don’t want to start breaking promises now. It might backfire someday,” Fox said.

“Fox, can I ask you something?” Paul asked in a serious voice.

“Anything, karate kid.”

“Can you please stop calling me ‘karate kid’? It’s old now. Very old. I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to call you John, right?”

“Hah! That’s a legitimate demand, Fox,” Peter seconded.

Fox frowned. “Your name is… boring. It doesn’t have a history, unlike ‘karate kid’.” He smiled by the end of his rationale.

“It’s true, man. If not for your karate chop, we wouldn’t be D’ Kickers at all!” Andy added, half-jokingly.

“Okay then… Can I just call you ‘kid’? ‘The kid’? So we won’t forget our history,” Fox suggested.

“Yes! ‘The kid’,” everybody cheered.

The Cummings foyer and garden was decorated with glimmering lights and a spray of flowers here and there. Even the night sky was perfect, with stars scattered across the deep blue heavens. The mansion was dressed in pink and purple, and the swimming pool was well-lit, with candles and flowers floating about.

Cindy was both excited and uneasy. Despite her last bad encounter with Fox, she still insisted on having him and his band as a special guest. She was standing in front of the stage, she had it built for their performance tonight. She wanted it to be ‘cool’ and perfect. Impressive to Fox. She wanted them to be comfortable. The lights people were now testing the spotlights and disco lights. Most importantly, she wanted this night to be unforgettable for Fox, too. So she will be unforgettable to him.

It was a lavish spread, all in all. The media were even there to cover the birthday event of the year. Important guests started to arrive. The Mayor and his entourage of local government officials were there on early, to everyone’s surprise. Miss Kristine Marquez, the school principal, and other school faculty members came in their Sunday’s best. Business acquaintances, political connections, and so many other people from the big cities were there to mingle and be seen.

It was a royal gala, to say the least. Cindy walked down the majestic stairs in her couture gown, as everyone applauded and stood in awe. She greeted her guests, with her parents on both her sides. People admired her and made sure she and her parents heard their praises.

But she was oblivious to all this.

She wanted to enjoy, but she couldn’t. Why does she care so much about this guy at this moment? She hated herself for feeling this way about him. She was waiting for him. She wanted him to see her and admire her. She glanced at the stage and the instruments lying idly on it. Everyone’s here… where are they? Where is he?

Even as the music boomed and the party began, the stage remained empty. She was angry now. Anxious. She knew he would embarrass her. He enjoyed playing her for a fool.

Just then, a van pulled over on the front driveway entrance. Fox was the first one she saw, who was waving at her, smiling like the rock star that she believes he is. Her heart melted away as she saw what were on his hands.

He handed over a gift and a fresh bouquet of white roses to her as he flashed the sweetest smile. She wasn’t able to control herself. Was she crying? Oh good Lord, she was welling up. He bent down a little to give her a gentle kiss on the cheek. She was swept away. The feeling was magical, like a dream. “Happy Birthday, Cindy.”

She frowned and looked at him, gritting her teeth in anger. “I hate you. You kept me waiting.”

“I love… I love your dress. You look very—pretty.”

Cindy was quiet. She was not quite sure what she was feeling. She was not ready for this. To feel like this. She wasn’t used to being weak. She tried to calm herself down and put a proud smile on her face, the kind that Cindy Cummings is known for.

To their surprise, the boys easily warmed up after a few minutes with the A crowd. They were seated beside the cheerleaders and they were actually welcomed and ‘accepted’. Cindy strutted back and forth, from the VIP tables to the band’s table, and she was floating in glee.

At last, D’ Kickers took center stage. They assumed position and breathed in before they hit their first note. Paul puts his favorite book on top of the keyboard. A lucky charm, he thought. It was still his prized possession, and he wanted it to be with him when he plays for the first time in front of a big audience. The young crowd looked on in excitement, while the VIPs were curious. You’d think this huge set-up was for some big shot superstar on one of his world tour. So they waited for someone famous. After all, this is a Cummings party.

Cindy went up the stage, first. “Good evening, everyone. I am so happy that you have graced this occasion. This is a special night for me, of course. And to make this evening even more memorable, I invited some special friends to play for us. Put your hands together for Fox and D’ Kickers!” There were timid applause from the older audience, and a shriek of high-pitched cheer from the high school crowd. The boys tried so hard to focus and tune out that initial reaction.

Although Cindy’s Dad and his colleagues were not particularly excited about the music, Mr. Cummings was glad to see that the younger crowd was enjoying. Especially his daughter.

D’ Kickers played eight songs, and to wrap up the set, Fox thanked the audience. “You are a wonderful crowd,” he said. “This last song is the birthday girl’s favorite, she says. So this one’s for you. Happy Birthday, Cindy!”

Is this the real life,

is this just fantasy?

Fox’s voice was enthralling. He sang in a Capella and it was straight from the heart. As if on cue, the crowd jumped in frenzy and cheered on. Of course they know the song. Cindy’s tears were synced with every beat of the song. It was a dream for the sixteen-year-old. A dream come true for any girl her age.

The wild clamor for the song ensued, and Cindy stood in awe as she was trying to enjoy every second of this dream. Until, she was rudely awakened by a loud blast coming from the right side of the stage where the amplifiers were set. Electrical sparks began to flare up from everywhere, and then all the lights went off. There was a deafening silence, followed by a huge blaze on stage. The commotion broke out as soon as everyone realized the fire was real, and it was spreading quickly. The whole pavilion was enveloped in smoke, the crowd dispersed immediately.

Cindy climbed up the balcony looking over the venue. “Fox! Fox!” She kept yelling and screaming while tears streamed down her cheeks. “Where are you?” Mr. Cummings caught her by the arm as she violently struggled to worm her way back to the now smoky garden. She was crying and yelling to no avail. The smell of burnt wire and plastic covered the place. The dream was suddenly over.

“Let me go!”

“You can’t go there, honey. The firefighters are coming. Everything’s going to be all right,” Mr. Cummings tried to calm his daughter.

It didn’t take long for the firefighters and the ambulances to arrive. A few were injured, some were in shock. No one was severely harmed. When all was cleared and the lights were turned back on, Paul and Scott were the only people that emerged from the back of the stage. They, too, were in shock, their clothes partly burnt and covered in ashes. They had minor bruises and burns, too, and they were still coughing badly. The medics rushed to treat them, but Paul refused to be touched, saying he’s all right.

Cindy ran into Paul asking where Fox is. When Paul shook his head, saying he doesn’t have a clue, Cindy was hysterical.

“I’m sorry… I really don’t know what happened. The last thing I remember was when the canopy collapsed on me. I was thrown out of the stage.”

Cindy turned to Scott. “Have you seen Fox?”

Just like Paul, Scott was still in a state of shock. “I don’t know. I was thrown out, too. Then it was pitch dark afterwards. I didn’t see anyone.”

She was crying so loud that one medic approached her, asking if she was in pain. “Miss, are you alright? Are you hurt?”

“I’m looking for my friends,” as soon as she spoke, she spotted the rubble near the stage area. “They might be under there!” she pointed to the firefighters.

“Ma’am, there were four teenage boys that were brought to the hospital because they need immediate medical attention,” the medic explained.

“What hospital?”

“Tennessee General Hospital, ma’am.”

Cindy dashed to her car, with Paul, Scott and Kim running behind her.

The hospital scene was chaotic. Several guests from the party who were hurt from the stampede were being attended to by doctors and nurses. They searched the emergency room for their friends, finally getting word that two teenagers were critically injured, one was female and the other one was male. The other two were under observation, and all four were in the operating room.

“One female... This doesn’t add up. There should be four male patients. Wait---” Paul was now deeply worried.

“You said four of your male friends are missing? We only have three male patients here.”

Kim spoke, “We’ve got to find out who are here.”

They all went to the nurse’s station to check the names of those admitted to the O.R.

“We have an Andy Stewart and a Peter Cook. They’re in the orthopedic ward. They suffered some broken bones and very minor burns. We don’t have the other two patients’ identification, I’m sorry. They were unconscious when they were brought in. The male suffered massive head injury while the young lady suffered a chest injury.”

Nothing was sinking in. Paul and Scott were both in shock and can barely understand what the nurse was saying. They heard their friends’ names, but they kept thinking, why only two? Why is this happening?

Cindy was frantic; Kim tried to calm her down. Of the four, she was the only one who was actually thinking straight. “Maybe we can tell who they are if we see their clothes. Can we see their clothes?” Kim asked the nurse.

“We were all wearing the same rented suits,” Paul said calmly, as if in a daze.

“What about the female patient?” Kim asked again.

The nurse led them to the clothes that were taken off the patients. Paul was right. The suits were identical and they could not find anything that would help tell who it belonged to. Kim checked the female patient’s clothes and instantly recognized it.

“Dear God, it’s Jane’s,” Kim screamed.

The four teenagers could not do anything more than wait. As he was trying to replay the night’s events in his head, Paul suddenly remembered something. My book.

He felt restless, and didn’t waste time. He left the hospital and hurriedly went back to Cindy’s house the scene to look for his precious book. He searched everywhere, but most of the area was already cleaned up. He found himself weeping in frustration.

“Where are you…? I’m so sorry… where are you? Please be here.”

He searched everywhere but could no longer find it. When he finally accepted its fate, he wept like a little boy. “Dad… I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…”

*****

News of the tragic party was on national TV. There was more than one version of the story; all of it was purely speculation. Anchors talked about an aspiring rock band composed of six young boys, about Cindy Cummings and her lavish sweet sixteen party that literally “burned to the ground”, and about the number of people injured or just plain traumatized, and so on.

Mr. Handler and Coach Randy somehow managed to make it to the 6 o’clock news, giving out interviews about the notoriety of the band called D’ Kickers. They shamelessly demanded that these boys be kicked out of school or at the very least, be investigated. They were so sure they had something to do with this tragedy. Rumors spread throughout the school, of course. By the day’s end, the truth, everyone believed was that D’ Kickers were finally kicked out of school.

One of the two patients in ICU was still impossible to identify. Meanwhile, Jane’s condition was turning for the worse. She needed more blood as she was suffering from internal hemorrhage. Cindy and Kim volunteered to donate blood, but not one of them was a match. Scott volunteered, too, but he was not a match, too.

“Paul... Paul!” Scott and the nurse were shaking him. “Will you be okay to donate blood to Jane? You’re the only one left,” Scott explained. Paul nodded absent-mindedly, still thinking of his book, after all this time. It turns out; he was the only one who was a match. Finally, snapping out of his own nightmare, he quickly said yes and willingly approached Jane’s mom.

“Mr. Andrews, you’re a little underweight for your age. I’m afraid we cannot let you donate blood. We’re not allowed to.” the medical technician said.

“But why? Is it dangerous?” Mrs. Curtis, Jane’s mom asked, tearful and desperate.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. He will be put to risk if we do. It’s hospital policy. You will have to look for other donors.”

Mrs. Curtis could not do anything but wail in agony. Paul stood beside her to console her. That was all he could do now.

“I believe one of your friends is at Mercy Tennessee Hospital. He was brought to their emergency room by a different ambulance. He is in a stable condition, don’t worry,” a nurse informed the group.

“What’s the patient’s name?” Kim quickly asked.

“His name is... Joey Parker,” the nurse announced.

For over two weeks, Cindy, Kim, Scott, and Paul visited Fox. They stood beside his parents every day, taking turns watching him as he lay still on the hospital bed, in a deep coma. Peter and Andy were in casts, and Joey was finally sent home from the hospital. Jane Curtis’s condition had significantly improved. She learned about how Paul tried to help her, but was not allowed to.

As for Fox, no significant change has been observed. He was in a coma for more than two weeks now, and the doctors offered no positive feedback to the Silvers.

An investigation was carried out, mainly due to Mr. Handler’s and Coach Randy’s prodding. The four boys were under scrutiny, aside from being hated once again by most of the school population. One by one, they were subjected to closed-door interrogation, sometimes without any of their parents present.

They were asked to recount every detail of the fateful night, however difficult it was for them. A few facts were set straight: the initial spark was near Paul’s keyboard; the fire was deliberate; and actual fireworks were installed to set off the fire.

Paul was in trouble now, it seemed. It was not a petty school deviancy, but a real crime - arson. Paul couldn’t defend himself. He honestly didn’t know what happened. His parents believed him, as did his friends, including Cindy, but none of that mattered. The police believed the evidence and it all pointed to Paul.

He was suspended from school indefinitely, pending the final result of the investigation. The other band members were also suspended as accessories to the crime. But there were still two people involved who have not given their statement to the investigators. The first one was Fox, who was still in a coma. The other one was Jane Curtis, who had just recovered from her injury.

Jane Curtis initially refused to talk about the case, but she didn’t have a choice. She was found in the rubble next to Fox, near the blast. She was particularly quiet and timid during the questioning. She said she couldn’t remember anything, but the school principal, Miss Marquez and Miss Keys have grown suspicious.

“Why are you on the stage when the incident happened, Miss Curtis?” Miss Keys asked.

Jane remained silent. But as soon as Cindy, Kim and Paul entered the room, something in her mind snapped. A memory. Jane looked at Paul, and then Cindy, and suddenly remembered the whole incident. She shut her eyes tight. She can see Fox, jumping on top of her and covering her, saving her from the wires.

Still, she refused to talk. Jane’s mom walked toward her and hugged her. She whispered to her, reminded her to be thankful for her second life. Jane cried, looking up at the people inside the room. She began to talk,

“I was on stage to stop the fire… the fireworks,” she muttered under her breath.

“Fireworks?” the principal asked.

“Yes, ma’am. Fireworks. It was tied to the wires of the keyboard.”

Everyone cringed, afraid of what they were about to hear.

“Who put it there? Why do you know about this? Is it Mr. Andrews?” Miss Keys inquired.

“It wasn’t… Paul... who put it there,” Jane answered.

“Who is it then and why were you there?”

“It was me... who put it… but I changed my mind and I--was, was trying to remove it… But I don’t know how,” Jane was crying in agony now. “That’s why the fire started...” she sobbed on her mother’s shoulders.

“Why did you do it then?” Miss Keys pressed on.

Jane looked up. “Because I hate them… We hate them!”

“Who’s we? Please elaborate.”

“My cousin… Tom…Tom Crawford. He instructed me to do it just for fun. For kicks. We wanted to embarrass them, but I changed my mind. I decided to pull it out, but I don’t know how it works,” she broke down in louder sobs. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry... I’m sorry, Cindy. I’m sorry Paul…” Mrs. Curtis held her daughter tight and wept with her.

Everyone in the room was moved by her admission and apology, not knowing that this was all just for show. Her sobbed was a farce.

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