01. Playing Dead
In a hazy state, I stood with my lips brushing against the cool surface of the microphone. I tightened my grip around it, feeling the butterflies soar around in my stomach. It was enough to excite me but enough to make me feel sick to my stomach too.
This was the first time I’d ever performed in front of an actual audience. I usually sang in the shower with an audience of just one. A yellow rubber ducky that had soulless black eyes. Well, at least it didn’t judge me. It didn’t exactly give me a round of applause either. But unlike Lady Gaga, I didn’t live for the applause. I lived for the moments when people weren’t throwing tomatoes at my head.
“Testing! One, two, three.” I whispered into the microphone to ensure that it was working. My heavy breath brushed against it, echoing through the grim room. “My name is Lilith, but you can call me Lily! This is my first time-”
“You’re a virgin?” A man that looked like a wildebeest interrupted me, causing my stomach to turn upside down. His granite colored eyes were dropped shut as drool collected at the corner of his slanted mouth.
He looked drunker than hell, so I excused his actions, even though I wanted to throw the microphone at his big ugly head. I’d been warned about the kind of people that gathered at River’s Rock House. Alcoholics, drug abusers, drug dealers, criminals, but mostly music lovers. I pretended the music lovers balanced the other questionable people out.
“Don’t listen to him, Silly Lily!” Connor, my best friend, replied from across the small stage. He was tuning his acoustic guitar at the last minute, but I could see the underlying support shining through his hazel eyes. The two of us always wanted to perform in front of people. He was a good singer, but an even better actor. I wish I’d known that back then.
He held the guitar pick in his mouth as he joined me on the compact stage. He somehow managed to make a few kissy faces at me, causing my cheeks to redden with blush and unwarranted embarrassment. “We can do this. I promise I won’t mess up any chords as long as you don’t mess up any notes.”
“Deal.” I smiled, holding out my itsy-bitsy hand. He side stepped me, giving me a hug, instead of a handshake. I laughed as I wrapped my arms around him, returning his sweet but unexpected gesture. “Thank you for being here. I couldn’t do this without you.”
“Always.” His lips quirked into a grin and he began strumming the strings on the guitar, playing a melody that was almost as lovely as he was.
This was the moment I’d been waiting so long for. I was going to sing in front of a real crowd. My heart sped up and my palms were beginning to get clammy and sweaty.
His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy! There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti!
I needed to stop thinking about Eminem and start remembering my own song before I started to spit bars like Lil Wayne or Tupac.
I took a breath and begun doing the thing I was always afraid of doing- singing. I prayed that it wouldn’t end with people throwing rotten tomatoes at me, booing me off stage, like I was Squidward Tentacles. My music abilities weren’t the best, but they weren’t that bad either.
I continued singing, but my curiosity got the best of me- like it always did. I had to know what people were thinking, so I looked to the crowd that was basked in dim lighting and gray cigarette smoke.
I could see the tall, lengthy silhouettes of men and a few women. Most of the men were wearing ripped jeans and leather vests, aside from the select few who were wearing suave business suits. They were probably mobsters or criminals- I’m kidding- they were probably just slimy businessmen who didn’t want to go back to their loving housewives because they were too dumb to appreciate them.
I tried to focus on their facial expressions, although it was too hard to see in the faulty lighting. I could only tell that most of them had black sunglasses on, shielding them from view. That was enough evidence to prove that they were, in fact, douchebags. I mean, honestly, who the hell wore sunglasses inside?
We need some Fashion Police up in here.
In the middle of the second verse, there was a cracking sound, then the lights went dark. Even in the new found darkness, Connor played the background music perfectly. I continued singing along, unsure of what else to do. I imagined that the lights cutting out was a part of the special effects- or maybe they forgot to pay the electric bill. You never knew with underground places like this.
Just near the end of the song, the lights shot back on, like hot fireworks blasting through the July skies. There was a sizzle as one of the lighting fixtures sparked back to life, causing me to jump backwards.
I tripped on something cold and heavy, falling down onto the glossy stage. The cord of the microphone tangled around my body, locking me into place. I expected the crowd to laugh at me, but there was only an eerie silence. I scanned their faces in embarrassment, but I only saw mortified eyes staring back at me. They all looked sick to their stomachs.
Was I really that bad at singing? Maybe it was time to rethink another career path. I probably sounded like Ice JJ Fish.
I hurriedly yanked the cord from around my legs, cursing underneath my labored breath. A few moments later, I was able to stand back up on my own two feet. I’d hoped the crowd’s surprise would die down as the minutes passed, but their eyes were still glossed over in terror. It was really starting to make my stomach churn. The soaring butterflies that were in my chest turned into vicious bees, stinging every part of my confidence.
“Call 9-1-1 now!” A man with an unkempt beard yelled at the top of his lungs, shattering the uncanny silence.
What was happening? I felt completely fine. The fall only hurt my ego, not my actual body. I didn’t even have a single bruise or anything. I glanced around frantically, searching for some sort of explanation. That’s when my eyes connected with it. I had found what made me trip only moments ago.
Lying lifeless on the stage was Connor with a single gun shot wound to the chest.
He wasn’t hurt. He was dead.
Now, the bearded man wasn’t the only one that was screaming. I was too. My eyes scanned the crowd in a panic, looking for someone to help him. People were already starting to clear out of the venue, leaving him lying there. No one was going to help, but that’s because it was already too late to help.
The men in the business suits were the first to leave and it left an odd taste in my mouth. I knew they were responsible for it somehow, but they disappeared into the cloud of cigarette smoke that danced through the stale air, evaporating into the night once it hit the ceiling.
In the blink of an eye, my best friend died and so did my dreams.
“Get up, kiddo!” A familiar voice ran through my head, relieving me from my terrible nightmare. I tightened my grip around the white comforter as I batted my tired eyes open. “It’s just another bad dream.”
“It’s not a dream.” I ran my fingers through my tousled red hair, fighting back a suppressed yawn. “It’s a real memory of something that happened. It’s not pretend or make believe.”
“I didn’t mean that it was.” My mother gave me a supportive smile, but it didn’t make me feel any better about the situation. If only sympathy and pity could resurrect the dead. Lots of people would still be alive. “It’s been two years now and I know how you get around the anniversary of his death. It brings the memories back.”
“Don’t be my therapist.” I stifled an ironic laugh, getting up from the bed. My head spun from getting up too fast, causing me to lean on my wooden dresser for support. “I already have Elisa for that. She judges me enough for the both of us. I don’t need you judging me too.”
“I’m not judging you.” She raised her eyebrows, crossing her arms in an “I’m offended that you would say that” fashion. “I’m observing you. I just want to know that you’ve come to terms with everything. I want to know that you’re doing okay, Lily.”
“Thanks, mom.” I bit down on my bottom lip, walking towards the bulletin board that was lined with pictures from my childhood and other sentiments. Looking at it was like taking a walk down memory lane. The photos of Connor left a sour taste in my mouth, along with the photos of my father. A man who was more like a ghost than anything else. “I’m really fine. I just need to divulge in a book with a cup of green tea in my hands.”
“Well, I may have something for you to read right here.” Her gray eyes brightened with excitement as her thin lips curved into a full on smile. It was nice how my mom could go from being serious to silly in the matter of ten seconds, but it was also like whiplash sometimes. She had more energy than I did half the time.
“Did you already go to Barnes and Noble?” I creased my thin eyebrows, putting my light carrot colored hair into a disastrous bun. Strands were sticking out in every direction, but I didn’t really care. It wasn’t like I was planning on seeing anyone that day. I didn’t like to do anything on the anniversary of Connor’s death. It just seemed wrong to live while he was withering away in the ground somewhere. “I needed to get some books and an application. I need a job, so I can help out around here.”
“You know I never go to the bookstore without you. If I did, I would never hear the end of it.” The eagerness in her eyes didn’t seem to die down at all. She moved her hands from behind her back, revealing a small blue letter with my name written across it in velvet ink.
“It’s not my birthday.” I tucked a piece of loose hair behind my ear, letting my lips curl into a small smile. “That better not be a gift of any kind. I won’t accept it. You know how I am.”
“Yes, I know how you are, but it’s not a gift.” She walked closer to me, handing me the blue envelope eagerly. “It’s something a lot better than that. It’s an invitation!”
“Great.” I took the letter into my hand, twirling it around. “Whose birthday party did I get invited to this time?”
“It’s not that kind of invitation.” My mom pursed her lips, looking impatient. “Hurry up and open it! It’s something special.”
“If this isn’t my acceptance letter to Hogwarts,” I began peeling it open. “I’m going to be very disappointed. I mean, it’s already several years late. Did it get lost in the mail or something?”
My mom rolled her eyes as she watched me like a hawk. Whatever was in that envelope, it had to be pretty amazing. Maybe we got some free coupons or something. My mom was always an avid couponer, trying to save as much money as she possibly could. We didn’t have a lot of money, but she managed to save up a good amount for us to survive on. I blamed my father for our lack of cash, but that was all in the past.
As I peeled the envelope back, I cut my finger on the ridges of it. My finger shot to my mouth, trying to stop the blood before I got the chance to see it. I was squeamish around blood ever since the whole thing that happened with Connor. It reminded me too much of him. It reminded me too much of death.
“This is why people don’t send me any mail. ” I continued opening it, ignoring the paper cut. “I’m so embarrassing. It doesn’t help that I’m antisocial either.”
After a few seconds of prying and ripping at the paper, I got the blue envelope separated from the actual letter that was buried deep inside it. The first thing I noticed was a decorative S that was an in a circular emblem on the front of the crisp white sheet. Wow, it looked fancy. It wasn’t until I saw the curved C that I realized where this little paper had come from. Salem’s Court.
Salem’s Court was a prestigious private school that was on the outskirts of Burlington, Vermont. A small, cold town nestled in between Canada and The United States. It was a few hours outside of New York City.
Our town was sat in between the mountains and boarded by Burlington Bay. That made for a lot of scenic views, but Salem’s Court college was the most beautiful architectural building in our town. It reminded me of the mesmerizing skyscrapers in the neighboring state New York, making me feel like I was in a whole new world. Call me Jasmine if you want, but that’s really what it felt like to me.
“What would they want with me?” I cocked my head back to look at my mother, as if she could answer a question like that. “I didn’t apply there. It’s too expensive.”
“Read it and see, Lily!” She was practically jumping up and down. My mom needed to take a chill pill or two. It was probably just an invite to check out the campus. They did that a lot, trying to reel people into their grasp, so they could nickel and dime them to death.
I unfolded the letter quickly, ready to get this whole thing over with.
“Dear Lilith James,
Upon recommendation, we’ve decided to schedule you an interview for the internship program. Our internship program is unlike any other in the state of Vermont. It’s a paid internship. Upon being accepted, you will also get a full scholarship to our college, if that interests you. For all deals to be ensured, you will have to work for an entire year and sign a contract with us. This contract cannot be broken under any circumstances, or the above promises will no longer be guaranteed. We hope you consider this amazing offer! Enclosed below is the time and place of your interview. We hope to see you there!
-Margo Wallace (Director of Employment)”
The paper fell out of my hands, but my mom was quick to swoop it up before it hit the ground.
“Wait- just a second.” I clasped my chest, feeling my own heart beat pounding with newfound excitement. “Is this a scam?”
“No!” My mom erupted with excitement radiating in her voice. She was really jumping up and down now, almost hitting the ceiling. Unknowingly, I joined her too. We shook the whole house from jumping up and down so much. “Why didn’t you tell me that you applied for this program? I had to find out from the mail man.”
“I didn’t apply for it.” My smile couldn’t be tamed. “I thought you did it for me.”
“It wasn’t me, honey.” She shrugged, biting down a laugh. Her gray eyes seemed so alive with happiness. “Maybe it was a gift from God!”
It was more like a gift from the devil, but I didn’t realize that then. I thought I was walking on sunshine, but little did I know that I was about to burn up.