I’m on my way up the stairs to my locker Monday morning when Abe comes down the other direction. He sees me and goes, “Trip’s out of the band,” over his shoulder, halfway past me on the staircase already.
“What?” is all I say back. Really, I’m thinking three things at once:
1. Oliver is such an asshole for not discussing this with me first.
2. I knew I should’ve gone to practice on Saturday. And,
3. Why didn’t Trip call me?
Abe sees my face and points down the stairs. “I know. But I gotta head.”
“Later,” I holler. Only his leather satchel, flapping behind him, hears me.
I get to my locker and spin the combination. What the hell? What. The. Absolute. Hell? Has Oliver forgotten he never could have started a band without Trip? Or that I don’t have anyone else to— Which is when Lish walks by. She doesn’t stop, and she’s wearing the same noncommittal, straight-lipped smile she’s been offering me since that lame phone call of hers last weekend. But I can’t think about her right now. Trip, Trip, Trip, is the main thing. I’ve got to find out what happened between him and Oliver over the weekend, and how he feels about it. Unfortunately, though, I’ve also got to get to homeroom and then class, while simultaneously finishing last night’s reading assignment.
“I know, I know,” Trip says when I round the corner after first period. His hands are automatically up at the sight of me, like I’m going to arrest him. “But it’s no big deal, I swear,” he assures. “Creative differences is all. It was mutual.”
He’s so smooth, it’s like he’s selling cars. Or, more, like he practiced telling me this. Which makes me feel even more left out of the decision.
He shrugs. “We were getting stale together.”
Which isn’t true. Sure, they’ve been low-energy since school started. Even I told them so Thursday. But that doesn’t mean the band has to break up.
“But what are you going to do? What are we going to do?” I squeak.
It’s impossible to imagine Trip and Oliver not being together during 100 percent of their free time, and me with them 80 percent of that. Now Trip will need to find new ways to avoid his father too. But, more importantly, there’s the Halloween dance we’re playing at. Coming up. In not much over a month.
“I’ve got my own stuff,” he tosses back, pretending to adjust his glasses.
I know he doesn’t. Not, at least, from what he’s been telling me in the notebook. He has the band. And his music obsession. And talking to me on the phone or online. And sometimes a dense Russian novel.
“Yeah, but what about Sad Jackal?” I can’t keep my voice from rising even higher.
“Everybody in the band will manage. Manager.” He tries to make me smile, but I just can’t right now.
“But we—” My thoughts are racing.
“Hey.” A hand on my shoulder. “I’ll reassure you all about it while I’m in French, I swear.”
I reach in my satchel, give him the five-subject spiral notebook we’ve been filling with notes to each other since August. This morning in English all I wrote, in really big letters, was WTF? Are you okay? And Why didn’t you tell me? Standing here with him in the hall, my alarm feels both exaggerated and appropriate.
“Okay, but—” I start again.
“Okay, Mom.” He pats me on the head. “Get yourself to inferior algebra.” He raises his eyebrows toward my class door. “And here.” He holds out a CD for me. “A little more old-school electronica, since you liked a few on that last mix.”
It’s amazing how easily this makes me unmad at him. “Thanks, I—”
“Eh.” He shrugs. “It’s all part of my self-serving plan, convincing you you can’t do without me.”
“I already know I can’t do without you. Because without these”—I lift the CD—“I’m stuck listening to my stepsisters’ crap all the time.”
He points to the ceiling and winks, right as the late bell rings over our heads. I watch him stroll off, unconcerned, in his dopey splayed-foot walk.
All I can think, before opening the door to face my fellow math torture companions, is I am going to kill Oliver.
After a month of school, most of my teachers have already figured out my deal: I am the definition of an average student. I am who they need to keep the grading curve in check. This is my second round of Algebra II, though, because apparently, being too comfortable with “average” can lead to failing if you’re not careful.
Still, I can’t focus, even more than my usual amount of not being able to focus. I’m steaming about Oliver making this decision without talking to me about it first. I mean, if you’re going to cut out the guy who creates the tunes, shouldn’t you tell the girl who writes all the words? Not to mention who coordinates practice, handles PR, schleps equipment, and makes sure there are enough energy drinks around? Couldn’t I have had a hint? And seriously, why is Trip out? He’s a great guitarist. There’s no way we’ll find someone as good as him in time for the dance, even if we have auditions every day.
I honestly can’t imagine how Trip and Oliver have gone from “We have to spend every weekend together and even dress alike” to “Yeah, well, we’re not doing the band anymore.” I mean, bad couple of rehearsals or no, they can’t have both forgotten the awesomeness of Our Golden Summer. All we did was hang out at Oliver’s house. They’d play and I’d help them play better. It was so perfect, I didn’t care that Lish was gone half the time in California. I didn’t care that my sister was busy with college dorm shopping, texting her new roommate, and having farewell experiences with her high school friends. The guys stopped caring about their stupid nights in the cemetery and neighborhood pranks. They almost stopped caring about girls. After that last gig at Nimby’s went so well, Trip was so ramped up about the future that you could practically see the sparks coming out of his ears. It was all happening, and we all felt it.
And now this. Now Trip is out. And if Trip won’t tell me what really happened, I’ll make Oliver do it.
Unfortunately, today I only see Oliver at the end of the day, in the hardest class I have. There won’t be any good conversation until later, because our teacher is merciless. Sometimes she asks for our notes without any warning, so if we’re just writing bullshit or drawing pictures or whatever, trying to make it look like we’re concentrating when we aren’t, we’re totally screwed. She’s tricky and scheming like that. But, as a result, I think I’m doing better in her class than anyone else’s so far.
Still, I can’t resist sneaking glances at the notebook again while Ms. Neff starts class with a short film. Trip’s new entry is long: a lot of it a goofy list of Things Charlotte Can Do When Not Taking Care of Sad Jackal (including a pottery class, which could be cool), but also he insists I don’t need to worry, and nothing will change between me and him. Which would be reassuring if I halfway understood what changed between him and Oliver, and how I didn’t see it coming.
When Ms. Neff turns the lights back on, it’s time to fake my interest in those class-participation points that she says will count so much. In between people raising their hands (me included), I scrawl a note to Oliver: What were you thinking? I pitch it expertly to his desk, which is one over and one behind mine. When it comes back it says: I just want more options, man. We need to have auditions. This weekend. You do a flyer?
And you didn’t tell me, why????????? I shoot back as soon as Ms. Neff’s not looking.
It takes him a long time to answer, and when he does, I’m at first angered and then embarrassed by what it says: Because I knew you would freak.
As calmly and clearly—and not freaking—as I can after class, I explain to Oliver all the ways in which this is a terrible decision. I tell him he’s crazy and we need to ask Trip back.
“It wasn’t like I fired him or anything,” Oliver says when I’m done. “And is it so wrong if I don’t want to sound like everybody else?” He bangs the back of one shoe against the toe of the other.
“But Trip is just so good at coming up with the melodies and—”
Oliver’s face twists for just a second. “Maybe it’s because you always show him the words first.”
I cut him with my eyes. This is so not about that. It’s not my fault that Trip asks me questions about what I’m doing more than Oliver ever has.
“Or maybe,” I huff, “it’s because he’s been playing guitar for longer than you have, I don’t know.”
He presses his stick-up bangs back from his forehead and yanks his fingers through them. “Don’t you trust me? Trust Trip if you don’t. He’s the one who left.”
Because if you gave any indication that you didn’t want him anymore, he’d sense it and take off, I want to say. I’ve learned at least that much about Trip in the last eight months. But then I see Oliver’s let-down face, how disappointed he is that I’m not automatically taking his side. How, since summer, I’ve been doing more of that lately. Siding with Trip. And I do need to give Oliver more credit. I wouldn’t be involved in this at all if he hadn’t liked those poems I did in English last year, and then asked me to help coordinate. Plus, he is great on rhythm guitar, and without him there’s no singer. I mean, Abe’s wicked on drums, but he can’t sing to save his life. And Oliver is . . . well . . . Oliver is the face, too.
“You’re not out, are you, Charlotte?” For a second he looks actually worried that I might be.
I snort. “Of course not.”
“Good. Because just me and Abe, decisions will never get made.”
We both laugh. Kind of at ourselves, kind of at each other.
“I still don’t like it.” My arms are crossed in front of my chest, like some housewife with a rolling pin. I drop them to my sides.
He hooks his arm around my neck and steers me down the empty hall. “I’m telling you, it will be okay. This is the right thing to do. Even Trip said so, right?”
I think about the calm, even tone of Trip’s stuff in the notebook today. Of his hand on my shoulder, squeezing lightly. “Well, he just said that—”
“I know what he said, because I talked to him. It’s not like we’re not friends anymore. So it’s all cool, okay? Now let’s get out of here. There are lists to be made! People to call!”
He pulls me out into the blinding sunshine, down the walkway to the parking lot. I’m grateful to be squinting, so he can’t see in my face that I both love and hate how he was right about me freaking, and also right about how maybe things aren’t going to be as bad as I think they will. How we both know this but aren’t saying anything about it. More than that, I love and hate that I’ve already got ideas for this audition flyer.
By the time my stepsisters and I get home from school, though, some of my enthusiasm has gone out the window. Darby and Gretchen tried to outcomplain each other in the car, and then halfway home Gretchen got in another fight with her wrestler boyfriend, and we almost drove off the road when Darby reached over to turn off Gretchen’s phone. Home still feels strange, anyway, even though Jilly’s been off at college almost a month. I make myself a bowl of chips and onion dip and go upstairs, pretend I might do my homework, but our room—my room—isn’t any good, because I’m not used to Jilly not being in here. Not used to her bed being made and empty instead of crowded with her, splayed out, talking on the phone or, more likely, studying. I’m not used to my sister sharing a room with someone new off at college: someone cooler and crisper and who won’t fight about whose turn it is to do laundry.
The sun slants in through my blinds and I stretch my hands out into it, making my arms into zebras. If I’m honest, Lish is missing from this afternoon too. I don’t know if there’s volleyball practice right now. I just know that if I try to call my former best friend, all I’ll get is a couple of rings and her voice mail.
To fill the room with something, I put in the new CD from Trip. How did I spend my afternoons, before? Before Lish came back from her summer with that slanty bob, and then school started and she was suddenly talking about her volleyball friends D’Shelle and Kiaya all the time and plans she never involved me in.
It wasn’t that much of a surprise when Lish ditched me for real, actually. She’d been quiet on the drive to school for days, and had bailed on sleepover plans two weekends straight. When my phone trilled my ringtone for her that weekend, it was only so she could tell me her mom was uncomfortable with her driving so many people around, since she’d just had her license a few months. Lish didn’t even pretend not to still be driving Bronwyn to school, and I felt a small pang inside that I didn’t want to feel. The three of us had been talking about Lish getting her license (and her mom’s old convertible) since last October. We planned stops at the QT to get creamy cappuccinos, and blaring the music with the top down, even in winter. While she was talking, all I could think was how we’d yet to do anything like that.
It’s not like she was mean. She was just—not the old Lish. I could’ve tried to argue with her or beg, but I know—better than anyone—that once someone’s made up her mind to leave you, there’s nothing you can do to make her stay.
Not having any classes with Lish this year makes her even more invisible. But this whole semester has turned out weird, anyway. I don’t have classes with Abe or Trip, and just the one with Oliver, plus lunch. I don’t understand, exactly, how everyone’s kind of evaporated—not just Jilly, off at college. I mean, even if I do catch sight of Lish in the halls, it’s like she’s a different person. She’s got her equestrian boots and her skinny skinny jeans, her shiny hair. And then there’s me: twice as big as her, in my thrift-store pants; my untucked, unironed button-downs; my long, tangly hair. Sometimes she truly doesn’t even see me. It’s like a giant wall has been lowered down between us. We’re not, apparently, going to talk about it. There’s no crowbar to pry it up. I’m glad I have Trip, and the notebook, and band practice with Oliver, but now even that’s messed up.
Before I can truly sink into despair about it, though, my phone chimes from the depths of my bag.
I drop down on my bed to answer. “Usually, by this time of day, we’ve hung up the phone and moved to the computer.”
“Yeah, I know,” Trip says. “But when I got home, Dad was all like, ‘Son, I feel like we haven’t spent enough time together lately. Here’s these flies I tied and these new rods, and what do you say we do some fishing?’”
“Yeah, right. So then you reminded him you’re a vegetarian?”
He tries to hide his chuckle from me. “Are you suggesting the love of my own father wouldn’t be enough to convert me to carnivore?”
“Well, my love of chicken wings and cheeseburgers hasn’t seemed to convince you yet, so yeah, maybe.”
He clears his throat. “Just giving you enough time to talk to Oliver.”
“Oh. Well, that was thoughtful.”
“So, did you?”
“Okay, then, so?”
I am not sure what he’s asking me. “So, what?”
“So, you going to abandon ship and form a band with me instead?”
I laugh. “What, a band of one guy on guitar and a silent girl with a tambourine?”
“Well, or a cowbell. And you sing, don’t you?”
“No way. Not like that, anyway.” I shift down to the floor, put my back against the bed frame. “You’re going to be on your own, I’m afraid. At least while I’m busy trying to keep Sad Jackal afloat.”
“Ah. Well, maybe I’ll take up needlepoint to pass the time. Let’s ponder that together, while I play you something.”
This is my favorite part of our phone calls. Talking to Trip is great, but when we stop talking, stop thinking, and just listen, I feel really . . . connected. To him. And maybe even the rest of the world. Usually he picks the songs, but sometimes I’ll find something too. We turn up the stereo, put the phone on speaker, and then just sit there (or, often, in my case, lie there), not saying anything during the music. Thanks to Trip, I’ve discovered all kinds of cool bands and have a giant playlist full of all the stuff he’s given me.
“Okay, ready,” I tell him when I’ve muted my own stereo and stretched out.
“This one’s a good one.”
I lie quiet, waiting. Soon the phone fills with simple drums, and then a strumming guitar and a bass line—repetitive, basic, sweet. The singer comes in, British and a little emo. But good. Full of a lot to feel. I focus on the words, and it sticks in me how sad it all sounds. Lost. And resigned, in a way. I’m listening to the way the drums are light but carrying everything, how the guitar provides the rhythm. I picture Oliver playing it—his eyes closed, his head slightly back. There’s a lull, and then things crescendo, driving you to the end, and the singer’s just repeating “It’s all mixed up” over and over until the song disappears.
When it’s finished, I feel the way I often do after Trip plays something for me: inspired, open-eyed, and sad in a way I can’t quite explain. I say, quiet, “Oliver wants auditions this weekend.”
There is barely a pause. But still there is one. “Well then, you’ll have to take notes. Tell me all the nasty details.”
“You better not hog the notebook all weekend like you usually do, then.”
“I could give it to you on Friday night. If you come help me spend some Scoutmob Dad got for a Mexican place in Little Five.”
I smile. “Nachos sound like a fair exchange for spying on your former band.”
“You’re so easy. You didn’t even let me get to the part about Zesto after.”
“Damn!” I pound my fist on my thigh. “I knew I should’ve held out for more!”
“Yeah, well. Lesson learned. I’d better go, though. Shipshape around here before dinner and all that.”
“Yeah, go shine those shoes of yours,” I tease. “I couldn’t see my face in them this morning. I would’ve said, but—”
“So kind to me, as usual. But—” His voice switches to serious. “Lemme know if you ever want to play sometime, really. We could be good, you and me.”
No way he honestly thinks this is a good idea. “I think my invisible-songwriter act suits me better.”
“Going to have to work on my bribery skills a little more, I guess.”
“More than a Zesto cone, that’s for sure.”
We laugh and click off.
I stare at the clock. Hannah won’t be home for another hour and a half, Dad maybe not until seven. Because of Dad’s massage therapy schedule, Hannah says we have no excuse for not getting a good handle on most of our homework before dinner. Sometimes I regret telling her, when she and Dad got the house, that it was kind of nice, having a stepmom with some rules.
I turn the volume back up on Trip’s CD. I wonder if Jilly’s doing homework now, what she’s listening to, what kind of books she has to read. I postpone homework a little longer to give her a call, but her voice mail right away means her phone is off. She could be in class or studying in the library, maybe. Possibly she’s already at dinner or coffee with her suitemates, or in chorus rehearsal. When Dad and I visited campus with her last spring, I was amazed how big everything was, how much there was to do. Jilly could be anywhere right now. It’s unsettling not being able to picture her, not having her in my face all the time. I put homework in my face instead.
When Dad gets home from his last client, he and I go grocery shopping. Hannah’s making Italian tonight, which means she needs—on top of other things—one of the baguettes they bake fresh at Your Dekalb Farmers Market. It also means Dad and I buy another one for us to eat in the car on the way home.
Chewing the soft bread, Dad asks, “You girls have fun this afternoon?”
I snort. “What? Listening to Darby’s whining and Gretchen fighting with the Wrestler? Not really.”
“No, I meant Lish. Bronwyn. Joyriding around town, waving to boys and all those other things I don’t want to know about.”
His attempt at Hey I’m a Cool Dad is irritating. “Why’d you ask, then?”
“Um. Because I want all my insecurities reassured that even if you’re doing things I don’t want you to be doing, you’ll tell me instead of making me find out about it in a police blotter?”
He’s kidding. Sort of.
“Lish has practice,” is all I say about that.
“The band is good, yeah?” He tries again. “Oliver seems to be doing a great job of promoting it.”
Dad is one of Oliver’s friends on Facebook, which is how he knows anything about the band.
I rip a big piece off the baguette, to keep him from eating all of it.
“It’s pretty good, I guess. I think we’re going to get some new members.”
“You still writing lyrics?”
I forgot I told him about that. “Yeah.”
He nods, swallowing. “Good for you. And them.”
When we arrive home, we just sit in the driveway with the engine off.
We finish the baguette, staring at the house. Looking at it, I picture some of the loud (in a good way), tangled-up-energy moments that have gone on inside with Hannah and Gretchen and Darby lately. Underneath those are dreamier, farther-away memories from our old place—with Mom.
“What are you thinking about?” He is looking at me now.
“I was thinking how nice our house looks from the outside. How it seems like, I don’t know, a place with a real family.”
His face is soft. “I’m glad you think that now.”
There are a lot of things I could say. I don’t.
He pats my knee, then wads up the plastic bread bag and shoves it under the driver’s seat. “All righty, then. Thanks for coming with me.”
I shrug, pleased. “The grocery store is our thing.”
I miss Jilly again. But it’s not like I can leave a second message, especially not a lame one that goes: Dad and I went shopping and it made me wish you were home.
Dad is clearly also debating whether or not to say the embarrassingly mushy thing that just occurred to him, so I reach for the door handle, push my way out.
“I’ll get the bags, you get the door,” I tell him, starting to unload without waiting for his answer.