Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
It is six a.m. and I am debating the opposite of frozen with Reid Callahan.
“It’s ‘melted,’?” I mumble into my pillow, salty, because how dare he wake me up before the sun on a Monday? In my current state of bleary-eyed rage, I throw a pillow vaguely in the direction of my doorframe, where Reid is standing.
“No way. The opposite of frozen is definitely boiled. I’m serious. ‘Boiled’ is the only valid title if you’re going for parody. ‘Melted’ is fundamentally flawed.”
“You’re fundamentally flawed.”
He snorts, and I hear the clink of metal against ceramic. A spoon swirling in cereal. By now, I’m used to Reid in my house in the early hours of the morning, mastering complex arpeggios on the clarinet under the instruction of my father. Reid is pretty much the only person in the entire universe who matches Dad’s intensity for a musical instrument. Which means he’s always here.
It’s kind of unbearable.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“It’s Monday,” Reid says slowly, as if I don’t know the days of the week. Monday morning lessons have been a thing since school started two weeks ago—and will continue to be a thing that makes Monday even more Monday for the duration of my junior year.
“I mean here, Reid. Why are you in my bedroom?”
“To pay up,” he says.
He nods toward my desk, where a large iced chai from Kiskadee sits on top of an elephant coaster. Of course, he decides six a.m. is the perfect time to deliver my Wow, you actually wrote a play chai. Winning a bet against Reid Callahan is still always losing, in a way.
“Your timing is impeccable.”
I fall back onto my mattress and roll over, facing the wall and closing my eyes in an attempt to return to my dreamscape. Before Reid woke me up with three staccato knocks, I was sitting at a table read for my big-budget Broadway play featuring the Chrises. We were staging a fight scene between Pine and Evans. Hemsworth leaned over to whisper in my ear, You’re bloody incredible, Jacobson. And I didn’t brush off his praise or downplay my talent—I owned it. Thor called me, Natalie Jacobson, incredible. I felt incredible. In my dream, playwriting is more than a high school hobby. It’s possible.
Reid flips the switch next to my door and my eyelids twitch as synthetic light tries to push through them. “Don’t want you to oversleep!”
“Thanks,” I deadpan, sitting up because I am now officially awake and Reid has Won. I reach for my glasses while my eyes adjust, already plotting my revenge for his ruining of the epic Pine-Evans fight scene.
“You’re welcome.” Reid’s hazel eyes meet mine. They seem to change color depending on what he’s wearing. This morning, they pick up his green button-down. “The least you can do is be on time, considering you’re wasting Mrs. Mulaney’s.”
It’s so elementary, I almost laugh as I move from my bed to the adjacent desk and start weaving my disaster curls into two disaster braids. Any other day, I’d fire back a snarky retort. Not today. Because today is the culmination of an entire summer writing with my best friend, Henry Chao. Before homeroom, we’ll enter scene and deliver a dialogue to Principal Mulaney about why Melted deserves to be our fall play—a performance that has the potential to shift the entire fate of Lincoln High School’s drama department.
I can’t afford to be distracted.
“Bye,” I say.
I shut the door on Reid and reach for the chai on my desk. Straw between my lips, I take a long sip. It doesn’t quite taste like victory, but it’s still a Kiskadee chai. Therefore, delicious. I enjoy it, unfazed by Reid’s basic insult because with Melted I have a chance—a real chance—at convincing Mrs. Mulaney that keeping LHS’s drama department intact is just as valuable as new band uniforms.
Seriously, Reid’s biggest problem is being an outfit repeater. When the school committee announced that “significant budget cuts” were coming for extracurricular activities at the end of sophomore year, the drama club had an emergency meeting. It was initiated by me and our former advisor, Miss Bryant, who quickly jumped our sinking ship of a drama program for a full-time faculty position teaching theater at Boston Arts Academy. But when Reid heard about the cuts, he didn’t flinch. It’s that obvious the band is relatively immune from total destruction, thanks to a passionate band director who, over the course of a decade, revitalized the music program from the ground up.
That teacher? It’s none other than Aaron Jacobson. Reid’s teacher. My dad.
I pick up the pillow I launched at Reid and toss it on my bed on the way to my closet. Today’s aesthetic is comfy and confident, like how Mom would style herself for meetings with her publisher. This is that important. I pull a new floral T-shirt dress off its velvet hanger, rip off the tag, and pair it with a denim jacket and white sneakers. To complete the look, I swipe a clear pink gloss over my lips.
Satisfied, I stuff my laptop into my backpack and I’m on the move. Downstairs, the kitchen smells like raspberry hazelnut coffee and burnt toast, the scent of creative anxiety.
I pause at the bottom of the stairs when I catch sight of the kitchen table scene.
Mom sits at the head of the espresso wood table, staring intently at her laptop screen. Reid’s next to my mom, his button-down now unbuttoned to reveal a white graphic T-shirt that says MUSIC IS MY FORTE, with a spoon in one hand and The Fundamentals of Musical Composition in the other. Dad sits across from Reid, sipping on coffee and sorting through papers that spill out of his Band Bible—a three-inch blue binder with his certified nonsensical organization system. Last year, I created the most beautiful color-coded filing system for his monster binder. He was not pleased. How Dad transformed Lincoln High School’s concert band and orchestra into a nationally recognized, award-winning program—yet cannot accept the convenience of alphanumeric order, page numbers, and labels—is beyond me. But no matter what, he’s always in band mode, his back-to-school haircut still slightly too short, his salt-and-pepper beard slightly too long.
My stomach clenches, witnessing the comfortable quiet that is the three of them together.
“How’s the solo coming?” Mom asks Reid.
Reid’s eyes flicker up from his reading. “More work ahead. How’s the book coming?”
Mom closes her laptop and smirks. “More work ahead.”
He nods and raises his coffee mug. “Solidarity, Aunt Shell.”
Reid is the only person who can get away with calling my mom any variation of “Shell.” Aunt Michelle was one syllable too many for toddler Reid. I wish he dropped the “Aunt.” It makes me feel like we’re related—which, no, we absolutely are not.
Being the children of dads who were childhood best friends does not a family make.
“You’re too hard on yourself,” Dad says, looking up from his “organized” chaos. Is it the new music for the homecoming game? Is it a set for his jazz band, Lincoln Street Blues? Who knows! “Both of you.”
Reid brushes off Dad’s words with a shrug and looks up, his eyes meeting mine from across the kitchen. “Hey, Nat.”
Enter me, the girl who always seems to arrive before her cue.
“Morning,” I say, reaching for the box of blueberry Pop-Tarts above the stove. I take the entire box and slide into the chair across from my mom.
“You’re up early,” Mom says. Her hair is a messy bun of curls, now two shades darker than my own from the dye job masking her gray roots. Beside her laptop are a half-eaten apple and an elephant mug filled with what I’m sure is lukewarm coffee. Plastic purple reading glasses are perched on the tip of her nose as her eyes remain trained on her screen. “Nervous?”
My eyes focus on the apple, its exposed flesh already brown. Better than yesterday, when there was nothing left but seeds and core. On Mom’s best writing days, the apple stays untouched, her fingers dancing on the keys, no chance of breaking their rhythm for a bite. On those days, Mom is Michelle Jacobson, New York Times bestselling author of The Lola Diaries.
I can’t remember the last time Mom forgot to eat her apple.
“So, can I read it now?” Mom asks.
I perform the shrugging girl emoji.
If she reads it, she’ll encourage me. She’ll critique. She’ll call me a playwright.
“You can read it when it’s real,” I say for the thousandth time. “That’s what you’d say.”
“I know, Lee.”
Mom’s voice begs me not to press further, so I don’t. Before the pressure to follow up Lola, Mom was a force in publishing and proof that writing could be more than a hobby.
Now, I see my mom stare at a blank Word doc for hours. I hear the defeat in her voice when she says, I know, Lee.
And even though my stomach dips, everything inside of me is relieved to not love writing like that, to not be following in her footsteps. I love theater, but writing and directing are hobbies, and that’s all they will ever be. I’m not sure what Adulting looks like for me—I don’t even know what I want to go to college for—but I do know it won’t be my parents’ life. Dad’s symphony orchestra dreams landed him as an overworked and underpaid high school band director. Mom’s burnout is so intense there are days she doesn’t get out of bed.
I’ve seen firsthand what art can do to a person who loves it too much.
The mental toll of tying your financial security and self-worth to a creative pursuit.
“Well I read it,” Reid interjects. “The title needs work.”
Mom’s eyebrows shoot up. “Reid read it? Wow. That hurts.”
I swallow a piece of my Pop-Tart. “It’s not like I had a choice.”
“You bet that I couldn’t name every Survivor winner,” he says, closing his book. “You basically handed it to me.”
He even named them in order. It was bizarre.
I mean, who still even watches that show? It started before we were born.
I roll my eyes, but honestly? It wasn’t the worst bet to lose. Last week, when he was reading my script at breakfast, he didn’t even hear me come down the stairs, he was so absorbed in Melted. Before I made it across the kitchen, he laughed. Genuinely laughed. Like he got it.
It honestly did not compute. Because we do not get each other, Reid and me.
It’s actually funny, Reid had said, his mouth full of Froot Loops. You’re funny. Then he smiled at me and I almost forgot how much I hate him.
When I reached for the box of Froot Loops and it was empty, I remembered.
Mom stands. “I guess I’ll have to take Reid’s word for it.”
“Off to do some productivity sprints?” Dad asks.
“More like prep,” Mom says. “Now that my syllabus is approved, there is so much prep.”
Dad waves at his chaos binder, like exhibit A. “Relatable.”
It’s going to be Mom’s second year teaching creative writing at Emerson College, a side hustle that pays the bills while she impatiently waits for inspiration to strike. And bills we do have. Mom spent most of June in Ft. Lauderdale looking for a caregiver for my bubbe, after she fell down the stairs and broke her hip. In July, our air conditioner busted in the middle of the hottest Massachusetts summer in, like, two hundred years. And a few weeks ago my dad learned that his budget for new supplies got cut in half—forcing him to purchase new music for the fall Harvest Festival out of pocket. All summer, it has been one unexpected expense after another.
Mom always says bad things happen in threes.
I say don’t pick a career that relies on creative whims to pay the bills in the first place.
“All romance writers this semester?” I ask.
Mom nods. Romance is her brand, the literary space where she has made her career. Readers have been waiting nearly four years to see how she follows up The Lola Diaries.
“Maybe it’ll be inspiring,” Reid says.
“That’s the hope,” Mom says.
“Nirvana always gets me through a long prep session,” Dad suggests. “Just don’t forget Delia has lessons with Rabbi Sarna at three.” My twelve-year-old sister is in full bat mitzvah prep mode, eating, sleeping, and breathing Vayishlach 36:40.
Mom waves away his reminder. “We have a tasting with the caterer after.”
Dad nods. “Four-thirty.”
“Good luck today, Lee.”
Mom squeezes my shoulder then tucks her laptop under her arm and retreats to her office in the name of class prep, leaving me alone with Reid and my dad. Pretty much the worst combination. Before I have a chance to form words, they’re in their own musical world.
“Six weeks until the Harvest Festival,” Dad says.
Every fall, the concert band performs at the Lincoln Harvest Festival in Pine Hill Park. The Harvest Festival is a community event filled with hayrides, farm stands with local produce, and so many cider donuts—pretty much peak fall in New England energy. A few years ago, Dad proposed that it also be a performance opportunity for the band, where the marquee event is a classic film score. Past performances have included Casablanca, E.T., and The Wizard of Oz. It’s an event that the town has come to anticipate and is excellent—both in terms of the local media attention it receives and the boost it gives to small businesses that participate.
Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope is this year’s Harvest Festival score. The hype is already building, thanks to Aaron Jacobson’s local on-screen news debut in a piece highlighting how the band’s participation has increased Harvest Festival turnout.
The screen time has absolutely gone to his head.
It’s a cool story, objectively.
But the school committee does not need another reason to obsess over the band.
Neither does the town, for that matter.
Because as a town, Lincoln is as average as it gets. Our sports teams are mediocre. We don’t have a marching band. Our drama club is small. Our entertainment options are a movie theater, ice skating, a roller rink, and a mall with every store that’s in every town.
But Lincoln’s concert band and orchestra program?
They are exceptional.
Reid shifts the conversation to his current role: recruitment for the jazz ensemble.
“We need more percussion,” Reid says.
“Makayla’s—” I start.
“Rosalind Levy is sick on the snare,” Reid says, cutting me off. “Which will make up for losing Tricia, I think.”
Dad nods. “Cool. Good to know.”
I wait for Dad to ask me about Makayla’s sister, who is an incredible drummer. He doesn’t. He continues talking to Reid like I didn’t try to speak, like I couldn’t possibly contribute something valuable to this conversation.
Like I wasn’t once a musician myself.
“We won’t know for sure until we hear how everyone meshes.”
I am invisible.
Finally, after another Pop-Tart and what feels like endless band chat, Dad closes his binder and heads to his studio in the basement to set up for Reid’s lesson. Reid stands and brings his cereal bowl to the sink, so I reach into my backpack for my laptop, ready for thirty sweet minutes of alone time, just Melted and me.
I open the file.
“It’s not too late for Boiled.”
I jump, my fingers jamming into my keyboard. “Why are you so fixated on this?”
“Imagine if Adina could instantly boil anything she touches. She’d be unstoppable!” Reid says. “Think about it. Artists need to be open to criticism, Natalie. Collaborative.”
“Right. Except we’re not collaborators.”
Reid’s jaw tenses. “I know.”
“So why are you still standing here? Don’t you have a clarinet to blow?”
Reid nods and takes a step backward. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
He descends the stairs, not missing a beat. His cheeks don’t flush, not even when I emphasize “blow.” Reid woke me up before the sun and co-opted my parents… and I couldn’t even make him blush? Everything makes Reid blush! I’m seriously off my game.
What a waste of a line, honestly.