Semi-Sweet: Chapter 1-L
The defective machine was about to perform.
I felt my face burning. Relax. It’s no different from practicing at home. But with all eyes on me in a run-down apartment.
“You got this, Layla!” Iris shouted. She was a redhead today, matching mine in celebration of my ‘debut performance’. But the color was too strong, like her head was sprouting flames. Sid just brushed the dark mop of hair from his eyes, leaned back in his chair, and raised his glass.
The sight of my fellow misfits cheering me on was enough to make me smile. Trying not to notice my sweating palms, I took one more deep breath… and struck the first chord.
I played the old song, the one I had no name for. I didn’t want to give it a name, or to even have those words staring back at me. These notes and words were mine, out of tune and out of time and only belonging to each other. Every now and then I’d change them. I could never throw away this twisted little piece of myself. So I made it beautiful.
And at some point, it was over. A round of applause met me on the other side.
I narrowed my eyes at Sid. “You don’t get to like it.”
Iris laughed. “Yeah, what happened to ‘bet she sucks’?”
“Call it a pleasant surprise,” he said, downing the rest of his drink.
Iris ran up and crushed me in a hug. “Oh my God, I’m so proud of you!”
“Yep,” I choked. “So much pride. My bones are breaking under all of it.”
She backed off to spare my life, then slung her arm over my shoulder. “Your phone was blowing up the whole time.”
“Was it you-know-who?” I asked.
“All twelve calls,” she said as she handed it to me.
I scrolled down the call history. A dozen from Mom. She left quite a few messages, the usual ‘where are you?’ and ‘you’re dead when you get home’ and ‘I have no daughter anymore’ business.
“Ugh, when will she ever learn?” I said, pretending to gag.
Sid couldn’t hide the telltale smile before a horrible joke. “Yeah, when will she... get the message?”
Iris groaned. “I’m going to kill you.”
“Not if I do it myself first,” Sid said. “Is Layla gonna have to stay at your place forever now? Because honestly, if I had to put up with that I would- hold on.” He pointed at my phone. “There it goes again.”
Another call. I resisted the urge to throw it across the room.
Iris shook her head. “That’s lucky number thirteen. Look, maybe you should head home. There might be a reason why she’s so persistent today. Besides, my folks will be back in a few hours.”
Sid sighed dramatically. “Guess we’re getting kicked out.”
Under the clouded moonlight, I took the long way home. The one radio station I liked was eventually overtaken by static as I crossed the lone bridge separating Cedarvale from the rest of the world. The drab town rushed by me, its generic houses and small shops a blur. At least one road was always under construction, and any new developments still left the town surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of trees. Cedarvale was a black hole of normalcy, where all its victims succumb to stagnation with no hope of escape.
As I turned into the driveway, I saw a familiar black car parked next to Mom and Dad’s dark blue van. My heart skipped a beat. A chill of excitement and dread crawled under my skin. As I lifted my guitar case out of the trunk, I could feel my resolve weakening. I wondered how long I could stay determined to break the silence and make my world implode. With an unsteady hand, I stepped through the door.
“Where have you been?” Mom’s voice rang out from the living room over a late night television program.
After a moment, she replied, “Don’t stay out so late. Answer the next time I call.”
And that was it. I lingered there in the entryway, waiting for her to follow up with something more. But nothing came, and I made my way upstairs. I should have known this was how she would act now that Caleb was back. With her perfect son back, she didn’t need to bother with the troublemaker.
I stopped at his door. A small sliver of light leaked through. The icy lightning rushed through me once more, but I steeled my nerves and willed it away. I closed my fist and raised it to the door.
A face I’d sorely missed greeted me. Caleb’s dark blue eyes squinted as a smile crept across his lips.
“Welcome home,” I said, the heaviness in my chest lightening a bit.
He chuckled. “It’s good to be home. Although, I was actually a little worried since you were gone for so long.”
“I was over at Iris’s. I’ve been practicing and she wanted me to play for her and Sid.”
“Really? Wish I could’ve been there,” he said, fidgeting with his short brown hair.
“Even after all the times you had to hear me practicing?”
“After going months without it, I think I’ve come to miss it.”
I smirked. “And here I thought you liked your quiet little college dorm.” We always kept in touch, but this semester came with a new common topic: He’d had the misfortune of obnoxious new neighbors who found a way to make any activity louder and, even worse, had terrible taste in music.
“Ugh,” he grimaced. “The sooner I can forget about that, the better.”
“Well, if I can find a break in my incredibly busy schedule, I could play for you sometime.”
His eyes lit up. “You really wouldn’t mind?”
“I’d love to! I’m not expecting to sell out stadiums… yet.”
Caleb practically beamed. He threw his arms around me before I could even process what was happening. “I’ve missed you so much.”
And for a moment I didn’t feel out of tune or out of time, but something must be wrong with me to find this sound so beautiful. His arms around me made me feel perfect and defective all at once. I’ve been singing this song for months and I’m ready to start screaming. But all I could do was hug his tall, lean frame and choke out a pathetic, “Me too.”