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Authors: Noelle August

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BOOK: Bounce
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Skyler

I
drag Beyonce out onto the apartment's cramped balcony, to serenade the parade of random folks passing through our little alleyway on their way to Venice Boulevard. The night sky has a reddish hue, with lacy clouds drifting above the brightened windows of the surrounding buildings. Palm trees lose their dimension in the darkness, become flattened silhouettes in the amber beams tossed up by ground lights.

Sam, a homeless dude who's gathered up our recyclables for as long as we've been here, gives me a thumbs-up as I play the opening notes of “Say Something,” letting the low sad notes fill and soothe me. He sways and I smile, and we lock into a moment together that almost—but not quite—settles my nerves. Still, I can't shake free of this feeling—like my insides want to fly away without the rest of me.

“Nice job, maestro,” he calls. I smile and keep playing, watching him sway, his bags stuffed full of bottles that rattle their own tune as he trudges off.

My thoughts shoot out in every direction. Part of me feels elated, almost giddy, at how well the audition went. And that kiss. Grey pulling me against him, his mouth covering mine. It keeps coming back to me, over and over.

But then came the ride home. Mia chattering at us—nervous and excited. And Beth and me, awkward suddenly. Not
ourselves
. Her audition went well, too. Mia had only great things to say. She promised they'd want us both back, but that feels so weird. It should be
Beth
.
Only
Beth. She's the star, ready to rise. I'm the barista. The cute one behind the counter with three lines. I'm not a lead. I play the cello. I don't act.

Only I guess I do. Or at least that I can. And that is mind-boggling and exciting and terrifying all at once.

I move into “Bittersweet Symphony,” a favorite of Mia's, though it always makes me wish I had a band, something that could produce the Verve's broad, sonic sound to prop me up as I play. Alone, it sounds even more plaintive and so, so sad, even when I kick it up to a harder rhythm.

My phone brightens beside me. Mom calling. I hit a weird sharp note and stop playing to answer.

“Well, he's off again,” she says, after the hellos.
He
being my dad. “A European tour, whatever the hell that means. I don't know what we're going to do.”

It's always the same. My poor mom, trying to hold things down on the horse farm she inherited from her parents. Mom, who has anxiety attacks in grocery stores. Who can be fine one minute and paralyzed the next. And my dad—never able to settle. Never able to just
be
in any place for long.

“I've got the road in my bones, love,” he told me about a million times when I was a kid. And I always imagined it literally—like his bones and organs were actually overlapping highways that wove through his body, filling him with this endless desire to be somewhere else.

When he came home, it felt like Christmas. He'd bring toys and postcards, matchbooks from clubs all over the world. But while he was gone, everything dwindled. The food. My mom. It would all go from sunny to shadowed to bleak until he stepped through the door once again. And we never knew, not exactly, when that would be. When he'd come or when he'd leave again.

“You'll be okay,” I say, lamely, hauling Beyonce back into my room and shutting the sliding glass door. I'm done for the night.

“How?” she asks. “I need help, Skyler. I can't do it again. Not this time.”

I flop onto my bed, cramming a bunch of pillows behind me to settle in for a while. Part of me wants to rush in and tell her about the audition, to assure her that I'll be able to send money soon. That I can take care of her. But I don't know that yet, and I don't want to make a promise I'm not sure I can keep.

“What about Scotty?”

“Your brother's got enough troubles,” she tells me. “Three boys and no mom to help care for them.”

“Maybe he could pay you to take care of the kids?” I suggest. He's got a great job, and he gets some of Jordan's benefits. “They're over at your place all the time. Couldn't you help each other out?”

I hear a harsh exhale, which means she's started smoking again. Crap. She went a year and a half this time.

“I'm not going to ask your brother to pay me to watch my own grandchildren. That's ridiculous.”

“But he'd be happy to, I'm sure. If you just asked.”

“Can't you just come home, Skyler?” she says. “I'm asking
you
. Help me make something of this place. It could be just like it was when I was a girl, if I just had a little help.”

“Mom, I don't know anything about running a place like that, and—”

“That's not true. You're so smart. You can do anything.”

Anything but avoid this conversation, which plays out once a week at least, and a hell of a lot more often when my dad's gone.

“Mom, I have my music.”

“So? You can still have your music in Lexington. You can do all of the same things here. Teach. Play clubs. It's no different.”

“It's completely different.” But I can't tell her how, not really. I can't say it's different because here I can breathe. As cruddy as things can be, as uncertain, it's all mine. My own solo project.

We talk at each other for a little while longer, neither of us really getting what we want from the conversation. It's almost painful not to talk about the audition, to rush in with the excitement of it all. But again I can't. Not until I know it will amount to something. And besides, she doesn't want to hear it. She just wants to be heard.

So, I stay on the line, and I listen, interjecting at all the appropriate places. I stare out at the deepening evening and find my fingers moving along to a song that begins to weave through my brain. Not a song I know. Something of my own creation. Something new and original that belongs only to me.

I enter the kitchen the next morning to find myself hug-tackled by Mia, who seems to be transporting her possessions to Ethan's one box at a time.

“You got it, Sky!” she exclaims, surrounding me with a tangle of springy flower-scented curls and very nearly knocking me on my ass. “I mean, you and Beth. And someone else. A girl named Lydia Weitz, but who gives a crap about her? You got it! I'm so happy! And it's crazy, isn't it? You and Beth, I mean. The two of you.”

Ethan laughs. “Hey, Curls, maybe you ought to let Sky breathe a little.”

He's sprawled at our little dinette table, his long legs and broad shoulders filling half of our dinky kitchen. It's a little distracting how gorgeous he is, and paired with Mia's ridiculous beauty, it's like they're some kind of perfect relationship sun that you can't stare at for long for fear of searing your retinas. More than that, you just
feel
the way they love each other beaming at you, so bright and intense. Just being around them makes me happy and nostalgic for something I've never had.

“I'm just so psyched!” Finally, she lets go. “I'm sure you'll get some part, which is great. We'll get to work together all the time!”

Even though there are three other perfectly good chairs available, she plops down on Ethan's lap and helps herself to a bite of his breakfast burrito, which, much to her chagrin I'm sure, is a little too complicated for her to dissect before eating—one of her favorite pastimes. “You really surprised them, Sky. And me. I didn't want to make a big deal of it in front of everyone. But you slayed it. You just brought so much to the moment. Like a buttload of heart.”

“Thanks,” I say, heading for the coffee. A buttload of heart feels like an anatomical impossibility, but I get it.

I pour myself a cup and try to get a handle on my emotions. I'm excited, though part of me wants to tamp down that feeling, to underplay it. Maybe it's because I'm happy but not really surprised. I
felt
the energy in the room. I knew I'd done something extraordinary.

“Did it feel awesome?” Ethan asks, giving me that laser-focused look I've come to identify as his game face.

“What? The audition? Or finding out about this?”

“Either. Both.”

I wave a hand. “I mean, I guess the audition felt pretty good. It was . . . ​It was . . . ​unexpected like Mia said. Like I didn't know I had it in me.”

“Well, I knew,” Mia says, smugly. She slides the burrito in my direction. “Want some?”

“Hey,” says Ethan. “That's mine.”

“Like you didn't have two on the way over!”

“I know, but”—he smiles a sly little smile and whispers something in her ear that ends with “made me hungry.”

“Sorry.” She giggles and kisses a spot beneath his jawline. “Not sorry.”

“Where's Beth?” I ask. “Did you see her?”

Something flashes across Mia's face. I can't quite read it. Concern, maybe? “Yeah. She just went out for a run. I told her before you got out of the shower.”

“Was she . . . ​excited?”

Mia nods. “Totally. And she was . . .” She takes another bite and chews for a second. “She was super happy for you, too.”

“Really?” Why can't I believe that? I know Beth wants good things for me. She's the one who got me into acting in the first place. But I try to imagine how I'd feel if Beth spent six months taking music lessons and then got called in for principal cello at the LA Philharmonic.

“Of course, Sky,” Mia says. “How can you even ask?”

I shrug.

“What's bugging you?” Ethan asks in the same tone I imagine he uses on the little kids whose soccer team he coaches. It's direct and full of concern, which makes me immediately want to blurt everything. Between the two of them, I stand not a chance in hell of keeping my thoughts to myself.

“I know it's dumb, but I feel like I'm taking something away from Beth. She's worked so hard, and I . . . ​I've literally been acting for like five and a half months. I don't know a frickin' thing, and she's been training since she was fourteen.”

“And she's amazing,” Mia says. “She killed the audition, too. It's not like your talent siphons off hers. You know that.”

I nod. “I know. But it doesn't seem fair somehow. I feel like I should bow out or something.”

“You can't do that,” Ethan says. “First of all, it's condescending.”

“Ethan—” Mia starts.

“No, I mean it. If you pull out, it's like you're saying she couldn't get the part any other way, and you don't know that.”

He has a point.

“I just can't stand the thought of competing with her,” I say. “Especially not for something that means so much to her.”

“Obviously, it means something to you, too,” Ethan tells me. “Or you wouldn't have auditioned. Right? It's not only about the money, is it?”

Good question. I think about that moment with Grey, that feeling of strength and mastery, of taking possession of another person—Emma—and bringing her to life. It felt so good, like filling myself with sunshine. It made me feel almost the same way as playing the cello does—that pleasure of being good at something, of giving other people pleasure with my skill.

“No,” I concede. “It's not all about the money. But—”

“No buts. Do you want it? That's the one and only question.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I want it.”

“Then that's it. Not competing is a cop-out. It's beneath you, and it's not fair to Beth, either. You're in it. If you don't go all in, you're half-assing it, and you don't want to play that way.”

“Jesus, Ethan.” I look at Mia. “Is he always this intense?”

“Pretty much. And you know he's right. Right?”

I look at the two of them, and what else can I say? “Right.”

  
Chapter 11
  

Grey

I
t's Saturday night. The guys in the band are all going to a show at the Whiskey a Go Go. And I'm still working for Adam.

BOOK: Bounce
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