“Why are we here, again?” I moaned.
In front of me Lewis continued shoving his way through the crowd. “To see what we’re up against.”
By we, he meant our band, Ballistic Battalion. Lewis was our lead vocalist, Nigel the bassist, Nate the drummer, and me, Cameron, the lead guitarist and song-writer. He’d dragged us out to The Box, a local venue where a lot of us up and coming bands perform. But we weren’t performing tonight. Tonight, we were here to see The Black Socks.
The Battle of the Bands was in two weeks, and The Black Socks were the only thing between us and the biggest win of our careers. The Socks were our stiffest competition.
“We already know what we’re up against,” I mumbled. “It’s not like they changed their lineup.”
“Not what I meant,” Lewis said flatly.
“Pretty sure they all play the same instruments.”
“Not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
Suddenly the lights dimmed. The crowd whooped as the bass line began, building into a surging melody. A guitar screamed, and the lights flickered in time with the drums.
The Black Socks were on.
The Black Socks were Tommy on bass, Jon-Jon on drums . . . and Aggie the vocalist and lead guitarist.
Aggie blazed through the opening riff as she stalked leaped toward the mic stand. She grabbed the mic, swung it and began to sing, her voice velvet one moment, sweet as nectar, then chilling, electric. Tonight her hair was blonde with pink and blue streaks running through it. Which to me was a great improvement from last week’s lime green.
They hadn’t been around as long as us, but The Black Socks had amassed a substantial following. Everyone knew the real reason: Aggie. Charismatic, with a powerful voice and a mean stage presence, she was everything a lead singer was supposed to be.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Lewis scoffed. “They’re really not all that good. Right, Cam?”
“They totally suck, ”I agreed without an ounce of conviction. I stared at Aggie, and I watched the way she writhed, how she glistened with sweat and her bright bangs spackled against her forehead when she shook her head, the way she held the mic so close to her face that her lips brushed it. She was graceful, she was chaotic, she was . . . perfection.
I was supposed to hate her. For a while I did. Our first encounter had been during a talent show our senior year of high school. The guys and I had just come together and settled on our name. It was our unveiling as a band. We covered Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ and set the place on fire. First place was ours, we knew it.
And then Aggie had strolled on stage with her keyboard and microphone, all bright pigtails and braces, and belted out a bone-rocking rendition of ‘Paranoid Andriod’. She left with the trophy that night, and thus began our glorious rivalry, a rivalry that defined our relationship, and had only intensified when she’d joined The Black Socks.
Aggie was the enemy. That was that. I was supposed to feel animosity when I saw her, gag at the very mention of her name, enjoy the off chance she hit a note wrong. But lately all I could conjure was the same stupid warm fuzzies when I thought of her. I imagined myself as her microphone, inhaling her sweet breath as she sang to me, tasting her soft, trembling lips. I wanted to run my hands through her wild hair; I wanted to kiss her until we lost consciousness.
I shuddered. Enemy, she was the enemy. The irresistibly sexy enemy.
Their set lasted fifteen minutes. When it was over I clapped like everybody else. But I was really clapping for Aggie.
“I’ve seen enough,” Lewis said. “Let’s blow.”
The guys started filing out towards the door. I looked once more at the now empty stage before following them.
“Is it just me or are they getting better?” Nigel asked to no one in particular.
“Jon’s pocket is tight,” Nate answered.
“I don’t speak drumkit.”
“Yes, they’ve gotten better.”
“What are you doing here, Cameron?” I knew that voice. I turned around to find Aggie staring at me with her hands on her hips. Aggie and I had never kept our distaste of each other a secret. There was a time when I would have ripped off something witty with a sly grin, but now, I couldn’t infuse the venom into my voice.
“What does it look like I’m doing here, Agatha?” I always called her by her full name in real life. Before it was mostly because she hated her full name, but now because it was habit. I couldn’t bring myself to really insult her.
“You come to see what a real band sounds like?” Aggie, it seemed, had no such reservations.
“Yep. The guys that were on before you were great.”
Her eyes narrowed. She was so sexy when she was irritated. But I was sick of this game, sick of pretending to hate her guts. But that was how she felt about me, as it always had been.
“Well look who it is …” Tommy sauntered over and draped a lanky arm over Aggie’s shoulder. “Why didn’t you boys play tonight? Oh, right, you have to be in a real band.”
He laughed, and Aggie nudged away from him. While I couldn’t bring myself to insult her, Tommy was a different story.
“Hey Tommy, you know if you tune the guitar before you play it doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Whatever,” Tommy said blandly. I glanced one more time at Aggie, trying to memorize her features, then left.
The next day Ballistic Battalion assembled in Nate’s garage. We had thirteen days until the Battle, and Lewis was becoming more uptight and less tolerable the closer we got to it. We all crammed on Nate’s beat-up couch with a family-sized bag of Doritos while Lewis paced the garage like a drill sergeant.
“You know what I see when I look at this band?”
Nigel snickered. “The League of Nations?”
Nate and I chuckled. Lewis ignored him. “Cross-over appeal. Look at us! Black guy, white guy, Asian guy, and,” he gestured at me. “—whatever it is you’re mixed with to make up the rest. We’ve got it all.”
“Except a girl,” I noted.
Lewis rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mr. Equal Opportunity, except a girl. But unless any of you have a sex change operation that won’t be happening.”
“I’m just saying, musicianship and one’s gender are totally unrelated. I mean we’ve all seen some amazing female musicians, haven’t we?”
Everyone groaned. Lewis scoffed. “I hope you’re not referring to the Banshee.” The Banshee was Lewis’ nickname for Aggie.
“No, I wasn’t! And technically she’s got more range than you do.”
“Yeah,” Nate agreed.
“Anyways . . .” Lewis hated when I compared him to Aggie, because he knew what I said was true. “As I was saying, the battle is in less than two weeks, and we’ll once again be facing off against The Black Socks. Probably. This time we have to destroy them, so c’mon, Cam! We need lyrics, I can’t sing without lyrics!”
“Shouldn’t our focus be the music? I mean what is this, Bring It On?”
“Good point,” Nigel piped.
Lewis glared at me. “Did we enter this contest to lose? We’re a band. Bands perform songs. Songs don’t write themselves.”
“How about you write the stupid song!” I jumped up, tossed my guitar in its bag and slung it over my shoulder.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Don’t worry about it.” I slammed the door behind me.
Whenever I was pissed off or depressed, I always did the same thing. Go home, turn off the lights, and blast Jimi Hendrix. Right now I was addicted to the Axis: Bold As Love album, which I’d bought a few months back. I had it on my iPod, but it wasn’t the same as owning the physical copy to me. So instead of heading home, I went to The Treehouse, the go-to spot for all things music. I’d bought my entire catalog from them.
Unfortunately someone had snapped it clean in half a few days ago, and so I headed to the Treehouse, the go-to spot for music, to buy a new copy.
“Hey Bruce,” I called to the bearded man behind the counter. Bruce was the co-owner, I’d known him for years.
“Sup’ Cam. Killer set last week.”
I glanced at my phone. Six missed calls, all from Lewis. I ignored them and went to and flipped through the H’s. The one vinyl I wanted was gone. I groaned and turned around. To my horror Aggie was standing in the aisle, wearing a Rolling Stones tee, a studded belt and multi-colored calf-high socks, staring down at her iPod in the other, holding a copy of Axis in one hand. The last copy.
She paused her music and slid her bulky Skull Candies off. She looked at me, then the CD, then me again and smirked. “You weren’t looking for this, were you?”
“Yeah, I was.” It was easier to slip into battle-mode this time. “I need my Jimi fix.”
She laughed. “That’s too bad, because I do too.”
“Bruce,” I hollered. “Any more copies of Bold As Love?”
After a moment he called, “Nope. Sorry, bro.”
“Perfect.” I started for the door. I wasn’t in the mood for this. Not today.
“Wait a second.”
I froze, bracing myself for another quip. “You can listen to it with me,” she offered. “If you want to.”
It took me a second to process what she’d said. “At your house?” I’d never seen Aggie’s house before, but I’d imagined what it might look like plenty of times.
“In my car.”
“Oh.” I hesitated. Was this some joke? If it was I was about to be royally duped. “Sure. . .”
She bought the CD and I followed her out to her old beat up Park Avenue, still wondering if she was serious. I slid inside the passenger side while she fell into the driver seat and popped the CD in. She skipped to Little Wing and leaned her seat back, stretching out her legs until her sneakers were pressed against the windshield.
I stared at her legs and fought the urge to caress them. “Nice system,” I said to distract myself.
She shrugged. “Eh, it’s okay.” I made myself stare out the windshield and count the clouds to keep my eyes off of her.
“Shouldn’t you be rehearsing or something?” She asked.
“I was. The guys were driving me nuts, so I bailed.”
“I know how that is.”
I didn’t breathe another word. I couldn’t believe what we were doing. This the closest thing to civil any of our interactions had ever been.
“Who writes your lyrics?” She asked suddenly.
“I never knew that.”
Sitting there with her so close to me, I was lost in the moment. “At the show yesterday, you were pretty good.”
She stared at me like I had just insulted her. “Excuse me?”
“I mean, not you as a band; they still suck. But you as in you . . . you were good.” I cleared my throat. “You’ve always been good though. At least, I’ve always thought so.”
I risked glancing at her. Her expression was wary. “Thanks?”
We went back to sitting in silence as Bold As Love blared from her speakers.
“Your lyrics are . . . okay,” she said.
“Thanks.” I said it casually, but inside I was glowing. Okay! That was something, and I was taking what I could get.
“Dang!” She exclaimed, jolting upright and stopping the music.
“What?” I was still dizzy from her quasi-complement.
“Get out, now.”
The urgency of her voice snatched me out of my daze. “What, why?”
“Just go.” I threw the door open and climbed out. She was already starting the car, and as soon I was out she sped off, nearly running me over.
“What gives?” I turned around and saw her bandmates crawling out of a gigantic van. She didn’t want her bandmates to see us together? Since I’d known Aggie she’d never been one to give a rip about what other people thought, especially her bandmates. Why now Maybe, just maybe . . .
A melody came to me. Words came too.
I raced back to Nate’s garage. “Guys, I’ve got it!” I yelled.
“The prodigal returns,” Lewis muttered. I unzipped my guitar bag.
“Seriously, I’ve got it, the song!”
I sat on the couch and tossed open my notebook, scribbling furiously as I tried to keep up with the words in my head. I finished and brandished my guitar. “Listen.” Everyone gathered around as I played, singing as I did.
“You can hate me all you want to/But I’m still gonna want you/I’m a glutton for punishment/oh I can’t get enough of it . . .”
When I finished I glanced around. Nate was nodding, Nigel was smiling, and Lewis was staring at me with his mouth open.
“Where did that come from?”
I shrugged. “I dunno.”
Nate raced to his kit. “Play that again!” Everyone else ran to take up their posts, and soon we were jamming. Within the hour Lewis had learned the lyrics, and we were on our way to polishing our best song.
The big day finally arrived. Six bands and a substantial crowd gathered at The Box for the musical showdown of the year. We were there bright and early to set up and squeeze a few minutes of rehearsal in.
Nobody was surprised when the competition was narrowed down to Ballistic Battalion versus The Black Socks. We were up first.
We all nodded solemnly. And then it was time. I searched the eager faces in the audience, hoping to find Aggie’s. She wasn’t there.
“Why do we play this game/why must we fight this war . . .” Lewis sang with everything he had. “I will put down my shield/if you lay down your sword . . .”
It was just like we’d rehearsed. But my heart just wasn’t in it.
And then I saw her. Standing all the way in the back, Aggie was perched against the wall. Seeing her infused me with new zeal. I ripped through my solo like a madman.
We finished our set and the crowd lost it. Lewis gave me the thumbs up, and I thought that maybe, just maybe, we would win this one. We bowed and filed backstage, where everybody breathed a sigh of relief. It was over; all we had to do was wait for the Socks to finish and we would hear the results.
“I’ll be back,” I yelled.
“Where you goin’?” Lewis asked.
“Nowhere,” I called over my shoulder.
I hurried out and found a place as close to the stage as I could get. There was an electricity in the air as The Black Socks took their places. All was still as Aggie slid the mic out of its holster like she was pulling the sword from the stone. She scanned the crowd, and her eyes found mine.
“Good luck,” I mouthed to her. She winked at me. I nearly fainted.
Aggie whipped her hair, and The Black Socks exploded into a brand new song. I swooned as she belted out the words, swaying and twisting to the rhythm. Goosebumps prickled my skin. I stared in awe as her hands moved nimbly across the frets, coaxing melodies from her axe. She was lost in the music, and I knew in that moment that we had lost. There was no way we could compete with Aggie in all her glory.
When it was all over, we joined them on the opposite end of the stage for the moment of truth. The judges deliberated, and the announcer took his place in front of us with the results.
I didn’t hear the words, only saw the trophy carried onstage and placed in Tommy’s hands. He held it over his head as The Black Socks jumped and screamed in celebration as the crowd hollered. My bandmates reluctantly joined in the applause. Lewis gritted his teeth. “Bull,” I heard him say. “Utter bull.”
“Hey,” came that all too familiar voice. Aggie grabbed my wrist and I turned to face her. “Sorry.”
“You guys should’ve won.” There wasn’t a hint of sarcasm in her words. “That song you wrote was amazing. Seriously.”
She laughed. “Of course! It was awesome. When you record it I totally want a copy.”
I stared at my sneakers. “I’m glad you liked it . . . because it was about you.”
Silence. I looked up and she was staring at me. “Me?” Her voice was hoarse. “You wrote that . . . about me?”
“Yeah,” I admitted.
The next thing I knew her arms were wrapped around my neck and her lips were pressed against mine. She kissed with as much ferocity as she sang with. Our teeth were grinding together and I could hardly catch my breath, but it didn’t matter. I had waited for this moment my entire life. I pulled her closer. Our bodies melded, inseparable from one another. Her strawberry scent consumed me; she tasted like mangoes and watermelon. This was exactly how I’d imagined it, only infinitely better because it was real.
She pulled away from me right before I suffocated. We stared at each other, both struggling to catch our breath.
“I’ve . . . been waiting . . . to do that,” she said.
“Me too,” I huffed.
She stared at me in surprise. “Really?”
She took my hand and interlaced her fingers with mine. “C’mon,” she smiled. “Let’s bail.”