Chapter 1 – Idris
Tension tickles my neck as I swing my backpack over a shoulder and slam the locker shut. I don’t like being late. For anything. A habit my dad ingrained in me years ago.
Another steel door clangs as I head down senior hall. “C-sharp,” I murmur, thanks to my curse. Perfect pitch.
“Hey, Id, wait for me.” Marek catches up.
I throw my best friend a glance. “Gotta move or I’ll be late to Public Speaking.”
“You’re a freaking alien, bro. Who cares about being late to clubs?”
I resist an eye roll. “Like Hendricks wouldn’t fry my ass for being tardy. Besides, don’t you have Chess Club?”
“What?” The. Hell. I stretch my stride down the corridor.
Marek has no trouble keeping up. His legs are longer. College basketball material, if he had the passion. Even has the Beasley look. Straight nose and pencil stache.
I can’t believe he quit that club though. “Thought you were Emperor o’ Chess.”
“Was. Got bored. Figured I’d check out Public Speaking.”
I rake a hand through my wiry curls. “You and public speaking are like a long top Afro on Pat Burke’s head. Just doesn’t sit right, man.”
Marek chuckles. “Figured I’d spend the first couple of meetings observing.”
Observing. Right. As in Brianna Jones. I throw him a sideways glance. “Why don’t you just ask Brianna out?”
“Because I’m not Idris Williams.” Marek says my name like it’s posted on a billboard. In lights. “Son of motivational speaker extraordinaire, Brandon Williams, and soon to be clone.”
Clone? In Dad’s dreams. Yeah, his dreams at the expense of mine, but I don’t go there.
Before I shove open the door to Mr. Hendricks’ class, I turn to Marek. “I’ll ask her out.”
“Like hell you will.”
I grin and burst into the room.
“Jeez, bro,” he mutters as he follows, no doubt hunching his shoulders and lowering his eyes to the speckled linoleum floor, trying to appear shorter, less noticeable, a shadow in the wake of my dramatic entrance.
While I — pause for effect — capture everyone’s attention and smile.
Hendricks crosses through the ring of seats where the club members are assembled. He puts a hand up to high five me and I slap his palm. “Congratulations, Idris.” His salt-and-pepper eyebrows waggle. “Hopper High School’s first winner of the James Baldwin Go Tell It Public Speaking Competition.”
Marek straightens and smacks me on the back. Hard. But I don’t show the pain. “How come you didn’t tell me?” he murmurs.
I flash him an apologetic shrug.
The other students rise and applaud. Smiles ripple and grow wider.
Danny Torres whistles. A-flat. Can’t help the internal note-taking.
Wanda Briggs catcalls in F-sharp.
Discomfort spreads into my cheeks like the onset of flu. Why am I not lapping this up? An inward sigh. Because every competition I win feels like a loss, another fragment chipped away from what I want.
Even so, winning has its advantages. Brianna steps up and hugs me. Tight. She smells like gardenias. “We’re so proud of you, Idris.”
I order myself to let her go and pull away. She’s on Marek’s Most Wanted List, not mine. Though if it weren’t for Rebecca, she might be.
Yeah, Rebecca. Those glossy black eyes and the waterfall curls that tumble around her perfect face.
Brianna studies my features, eyes narrowing. “Are you okay, Idris? You look kind of green.”
Wanda belts out a laugh. “That’s called overexposure to the limelight.”
I grin. Wanda’s half right. “Gotta be the overhead fluorescents. I’m fine. Hey, Brianna…” I tilt my head in my friend’s direction. “You know Marek, right?” Kidding. Of course she knows him.
Brianna’s golden eyes turn to Marek and she laughs. Soft, like the rustle of silk. “Uh, yeah, Idris. We’re in band together. Remember?”
I glance at my best friend meaningfully, trying to give him an in, but he isn’t taking it.
“Hey,” Brianna adds. “Speaking of, my mom wants to talk to you. After clubs, in the music room. Can you meet her?” Her mom’s the band director.
I nod as something digs into my side. I envision a hot knife burning out my right kidney, but it’s only Marek’s elbow.
Wanda breaks the awkward silence by gripping my arm with her dark brown hand. She’s from Senegal and her skin is as close to true black as you can get. Beautiful.
Her full lips turn up into a sweet smile. “Come on, Idris. We want to know how it felt being up there in front of all those people. When they announced your name, did you freak out or what?”
“I freaked.” Nah, not really. Dad trained me too well. I accepted the trophy with perfect aplomb. Self-assured, totally composed, like I was doing the awards committee a favor by allowing them to present me with first place.
A sideways glance at Marek tells me he’s pissed. I flash him a Why-are-you-just-standing-there?-Don’t-make-me-ask-Brianna-out-for-you look and almost hear his responding growl.
Then he says, “Hey, Brianna, heard you practicing last week. Mozart, right? Awesome strings.”
A snicker almost escapes me. Brianna’s a talented cellist, but I know what Marek’s thinking. You can play my strings, anytime.
Wanda drags me over to the other students, leaving Marek to struggle with small talk. I lean a butt cheek on Hendricks’ desk, hands in pockets, and answer every question my classmates throw at me.
My eyes find Marek’s as he and Brianna wander over. Judging by the look he’s returning, he didn’t make any moves on her. I shake my head. Maybe Public Speaking Club is right where he needs to be.
* * *
Marek pushes me out of Mr. Hendricks’ class at the end of Club. “What is up with you? You’re always looking to stir things up. You open your mouth and you’re like Magneto. Brianna practically asked you out. I don’t need you stealing her just when she’s within touching distance.”
Stealing? He is totally wrong. I straighten my backpack as we head down the hall. “Asking me to talk to her mom is as far from asking a guy out as you can get.”
“Maybe she wants her mom’s blessing.”
I laugh. “Mrs. J knows me about as well as she knows Brianna. Bet I spend more time in music lab than Brianna spends at home.”
“What’re you saying?” Marek’s voice drops a full octave and grows hard. “That she’s out with other guys? I know she hasn’t got a new dude on the roster, and Jacob Flinn is so far in the outer reaches he’s a walking black hole.”
“I’m saying she’s a girl with a social life. She’s got girl friends. If you’re hoping to win her, you’ll have to play it smoother than complimenting her on her strings.”
Marek’s Nike Swoosh eyebrows bump into each other. “What I said was the truth. Brianna’s out of this world on the cello. Any fool can see that.”
“Hear it,” I correct.
“Mr. Semantics,” he mutters. “What’s happened to you, Id? You haven’t been the same since you started winning all those stupid speech competitions. Now you’re all Mr. Slick.”
Mr. Slick? “If you took the time to polish your one-liners, you’d have Brianna hanging on your every word.”
Marek shakes his head. “Nah, that’s you, bro. But you’re barely you anymore. You’re like an Almond M&M, all shiny color coating but hardly any chocolate inside.”
“I love Almond M&Ms.”
“Yeah, exactly what I’m saying. You’ve got all sophisticated. I liked the other guy better. The normal one.” His eyes narrow. “The one who’d settle into a bag of regular M&Ms and enjoy ‘em for the chocolate.”
I roll my eyes, not sure what else to say to the King of Metaphor. Brianna’s attention on me must have seriously freaked him out.
The hallway hits a tee. One way heads to senior hall, the other to the music room.
“You coming with me?” I ask.
“Nah. Too much work tonight and Ma’s threatened to drag me to the mall. Christmas shopping for the cousins.” A stab of laughter shoots out of Marek’s mouth. “She’s talking about buying my cousin a sweater. Haven’t decided whether to save his ass or leave him to be slam-dunked into one of Tommy Hilfiger’s latest nautical stripes.”
I grin and throw him a see-ya nod.
Opening the door to the music room, I spot Mrs. Jones straightening music stands along rows of raised seating. Two clang together, hitting a middle C.
Moving down the line, the teacher chats to a skinny blonde who plays clarinet. Um… Melanie. The second Mrs. J spots me, she wraps up their conversation. I lean against the wall and watch Melanie’s eyes widen as they stray my way.
She’d be attractive if it weren’t for the stammer. It’s possible Public Speaking Club would buy her back some confidence. But then again, it might break her into a million tiny pieces.
A contemplative frown twitches but I smooth it away. Why should I care about fixing her stammer? She’s totally not my type.
I pull in a deep breath, thinking of Rebecca. Can’t wait to see her over vacation. Man, I’ve missed her.
Melanie approaches, watching me as she clutches her clarinet case to her chest. I sidestep and open the door.
A tentative smile creeps onto her face. “Th-thank you,” she squeaks.
“Welcome,” I answer, and let the door swing closed behind her.
Mrs. J smiles, wide enough to make me nervous. She’s dressed super professional in a pencil-gray jacket and skirt, but her eyes are generous and kind. She isn’t going to give me permission to go out with her daughter, is she? Marek would slit my throat.
“Idris, I’m so glad you stopped by.” Mrs. J circles her Formica-topped desk and picks up a sheet of paper. “I heard about your award. Congratulations.”
I bob my head and thank her.
“And I have to say, it got me thinking.” She crosses her arms, the sheet of paper curling in her hand, trapped behind an elbow. “You need two things to win in competition. Adequate preparation and confidence. Take Melanie…”
My breath hitches because I’d prefer not to. Melanie sweats fear. Please. Please… Oh god, please, Mrs. J, don’t ask me to help Melanie Mills with her nerves.
“She’ll practice, practice, practice,” Mrs. J continues, “but the moment she gets in front of an audience, all preparation takes flight.”
Yeah, like a flock of seagulls. I’m still holding my breath.
“Idris, I’d like you to consider entering a music competition. One for an original music score. I’ve heard you practicing your compositions in music lab and… Well, your pieces are beautiful, evocative. I’m impressed. Your music coupled with your confidence tells me you have every possibility of taking home a prize.”
In my mind, my lower jaw hits the floor. For the first time, ever, I stutter. “I…Um, I-I’m really not sure.” Of course I want to do it, but…
Mrs. J offers a sympathetic smile. “Performing your own work in front of an audience is a big step, but you’ve already proven yourself. Audiences don’t intimidate you and your music is worth sharing with the world. You should go for this, Idris.”
Honestly, I’d love to, but Dad would have a fit if I entered a music competition. He hates me playing as it is. Thinks music is for layabouts and singing is for girls.
“Man, I’d love to play my music to an audience, but the preparation… It’s senior year. I’ve got a lot going on, and more speech competitions lined up in the spring. I appreciate you thinking of me, Mrs. Jones, but… I’ll need to think about it,” I finish, lamely.
God, where’s that Mr. Slick Marek was talking about when I need him?
She nods, but her eyes tell me she’s disappointed. She’s not the only one. The idea that my music might be valued by other people is pretty awesome, but Dad would ground me for the rest of my life if I entered.
The teacher holds out the sheet of paper. “The entry deadline is December 31st. There’s an online application. Details are on this flier. If you’re accepted, you’ll attend the competition late January.”
I rattle my head and the smooth-talking me makes a comeback. “That sounds really exciting, Mrs. Jones. Thank you so much for sharing the entry details. I’d love to compete.”
Mrs. J’s eyes soften like she’s hypnotized.
I snatch the sheet from her outstretched fingers and hightail it.
* * *
I’m in the living room, contemplating the music competition, or more precisely, the impossibility of it. A sigh escapes me as I finger a new tune on the piano. A glossy black grand. Only the best for Mom.
She practiced on an electronic keyboard as a kid and always dreamed of owning the real thing, so Dad bought a Steinway for her fortieth birthday. Every morning, she practices scales and her favorite classical pieces, but the afternoons are mine.
I glance at the clock on the mantel. Mom’s usually home by now, but she said something about a manicure or whatever. What is it with women and nails? The girls at school are the same, flashing their talons like eagles about to dive in for the kill.
Does that make guys their rodent prey? Hmm. Guess I know a few who’d qualify. Red-eyed night-dweller types.
The front door slams. Too loud for Mom.
“Janice?” That’s Dad.
Uh-oh. My gut tightens. He’ll find me here, and there’s no way to fake that I was doing anything else but playing. The living room is pristine. Wood floors, antique rugs, black marble fireplace. A space for visitors. Not somewhere I’d hang out, except to practice piano.
Dad’s not supposed to be home until tomorrow. He knows about the used guitar in my bedroom closet, but doesn’t know I play the grand every day he’s away.
Mom’s a saint and she thinks Dad’s insane giving me stick about playing, so it’s our little secret.
He passes the living room entry just as I twist on the piano seat.
Act casual. “Hi, Dad.”
He frowns. One of those deep v-shaped brow deals. “Idris, shouldn’t you be doing homework?”
“Done.” A light day at school, thank the God of Excuses.
His frown doesn’t lessen. “Have you seen your mother?”
“Nail salon. Should be home soon. Don’t think she was expecting you back today.”
Dad nods. “That was the plan. Today’s the anniversary of the day we met. I decided to surprise her.” He’s holding a huge bouquet of long-stemmed roses. Purple. Her favorite color. “How’s the Toastmasters’ speech coming along?”
Yeah, I know where this is going, but that doesn’t stop me stumbling into the quagmire. “Figured I’d use the one from the Go Tell It Competition.”
Dad’s eyes narrow.
“Just…you know, tweak it a bit.”
His fingers tighten around the rose stems. “If you’re going to be a great speaker, Idris, you’ve got to keep creating new work.”
What if I don’t want to be a great speaker?
What if I don’t want to spend my life motivating people? I gave up with the protests a couple of years ago, because Dad doesn’t give a crap about what I want.
“But I haven’t had enough hardship in my life to make a compelling story,” I argue.
Dad crosses his arms. His disapproving parent pose. “Then talk about someone who has, someone you know who’s won against amazing odds.”
“I don’t know anyone who’s overcome anything more complicated than a twisted ankle.”
“Then make one up.”
My eyes widen and my jaw drops. You’re kidding, right?
The cogs turn in Dad’s brain. I can almost hear them cranking. He nods as the idea mill starts to churn out creative nuggets. “A girl. Your age. Bookish. An introvert who gets bullied in school for having one leg longer than the other. But she overcomes her oppressors.”
I roll my eyes.
Dad doesn’t notice because his mind’s in that innovative space he goes to when he’s writing his books. Makes me wonder how much of what he writes is based on truth and how much is invention.
“How does she overcome the bullies?” I ask.
“By becoming a supermodel.”
I’m tempted to slap my head. Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?
A smile erases the frown hanging over Dad’s features. “And creates her own designer shoes for women with similar disabilities.”
That’s pushing invention a little too far, Dad.
“Daniella Marino Lombardi,” he says like he’s announcing the Oscar winner for best actress in a leading role.
“Look her up. And put the fallboard down before you go. That piano cost forty grand.”
My head drops backward. Argh.
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