Hallelujah

Five Years Ago

"Ashley, wait up!" Aiden dodged a huge senior as he dashed down the hall, bookbag swinging from one arm and barely missing some girl's head. Ashley stopped in front of the open classroom door and turned around to see the brunette boy sprinting toward her. He finally caught up, panting a little, chest pushed out. Ashley smirked.

"It's probably a bad sign for basketball tryouts that you're panting after running five feet." Ashley smiled up at her best friend, eyebrow raised. Aiden chuckled, flashing pearly whites and bracing his hand on the door beside her.

"Because you know everything about basketball." He smirked, shifting his bag on his shoulder. Ashley rolled her eyes and stepped into the classroom they were standing in front of. Aiden followed her inside. "You know, maybe if you went to one of my games, I would take that comment into consideration. But seeing as you-" Ashley cut him off.

"You know how many basketball games I've played with you? Shouldn't that count for something?" Ashley countered, crossing the huge classroom to get to her other best friend/half-sister. She climbed over a bench to sit down beside Kyla, who was staring intently down at her cell phone.

"No. I mean- no." Aiden took his spot on the other side of Kyla and dropped a kiss onto her head.

"Hey babe." Kyla siad, not glancing up from her phone. Aiden looked around her to Ashley.

"Promise if I make JV you'll go to, like, one game." He said seriously. Ashley looked up from where she was reading whatever was on Kyla's phone. She gave Aiden a look.

"Fine, I promise I'll go to, like, one game." She said in a mocking 'Aiden-voice', rolling her eyes.

"Good." Aiden said, leaning back against the wall and strectching his feet out. Outside, the late bell rang loudly. Their teacher was no where in sight, but no one else save a few other freshmen noticed. "Where's...what's her name?" Aiden asked, pulling his schedule out of his back pocket.

"James. Ms. James." Kyla said, finally putting her phone away. "And I don't know, she wasn't here earlier."

"How are you always so early?" Ashley asked, matching Aiden's slumped position against the wall. Kyla raised an eyebrow her way.

"I don't know, because I don't stop to talk to everyone I know on the way to class?" She asked, giving her sister the look she was known for. Suddenly, the lights shut off, leaving everyone in grey darkness. A semi-short woman- about the same height as Ashley -appeared in the middle of the classroom.

"Hi. I'm Ms. James. Welcome to Advanced Chorus."

IOIOIOI

The room was big- bigger than most of the classrooms at King High -but with good reason. It was long more than wide, the size of a small dance studio and had the same feel- relaxed and creative. There were floor to ceiling windows lining one of the long walls, looking over the quad, and letting in clean white light. It washed over the light grey cement floor, drawing white squares on the floor and littered papers, over seats and counters.

The room was split in half. One side was obviously the teacher's domain- shelves and filing cabinets lined the walls. Cases and stacks of CDs- half of which were mislabled - towered dangerously on the edge of these. A counter against the back wall- starting where the door stopped and ending with the room- was smothered with so many papers that you couldn't see the actual formica beneath. Posters and sheets of music were taped, tacked, plastered all over the wall space avaiable. But, the most important part of the room was a large, square box of a thing, placed in the center of that half.

An electric piano.

Also smothered with sheets of paper.

When you walked in the door, the classroom stretched out before you. The teacher's half came first, cluttered and kind of dark. Sheets of music everywhere. But once you reached the middle, it all just stopped. Against each of those three walls was a platform. A platform with three steps, and on each step, a long black bench. They formed a semi-circle of sorts, two facing each other, the third facing the other half of the classroom. Nine benches; enough space for about seventy people.

Enough for a chorus.

Ashley stopped in the middle of the room. Rested her hand on the familiar piano behind her. She glanced out the windows. Gazed at the familiar benches before her.

She never thought she'd be back.

The chipped black benches had barely changed, save a few new names carved into the worn wood. Her own name, scribbled in bright silver sharpie, took up a long stretch of bench and ran over a few other names in the middle bench of the middle platform. Ashley Marie Davies. She remembered doing it, three years ago, while Ms. James was out of the room. Kneeling down before the bench and etching her name, huge and unable to be missed, across a piece of her history. This had been her home away from- no, this had been her home during her four years at King. She had sleep here enough for it to be labled that, and she loved the people she had been in this room with.

She had spent more time here than anywhere else those four years.

She was glad she had beaten Ms. James here, because she liked looking over her past in private. But when the door clicked open behind her she was thankful for the distraction in the form of her high school mentor. She had started remembering why she was there and she was tired of crying to be completeley truthful.

"Goodness, child. When did you grow up?" Ms. James stood in the door, still the same roly-poly woman she had always been. She hadn't changed a bit and that just made Ashley feel even more different. Ashley smiled though, and meant it.

"About the same time I figured out the Easter Bunny wasn't real." Ashley smirked, sharing an inside joke involving a junior year play and a giant Easter egg. Ms. James chuckled warmly, crossing the room to hug Ashley.

"That, Davies, is why I like you. Always with the funny." Ms. James said, in that honey sweet voice of her's- the one that had earned her so many Broadway plays. She pulled back and looked Ashley up and down. "You're looking a bit on the skinny side." She said disapprovingly, and Ashley was reminded of the woman's tirades on anerexioa and all the pressure in show biz. Rumours that Ms. James was so roly-poly just to spite the teeny girls on tv. She had a better voice then twelve of them put together and people knew it.

"I know. It's just stress." Ashley explained, taking a seat on one of the benches. Ms. James nodded sympathetically.

"I know hon. You wanna talk?" She took a seat beside the young brunette, who shook her head shortly.

"Nah. Maybe some other time. So, what'd you ask me here for? You said something about helping out?" Ashley looked over at the blonde-haired woman who had taught her almost everything she knew. The woman was like her mother, no exaggerations, and they both knew it.

"Well, I know you're back in L.A. for a while and I thought maybe you'd like to come help out here while you're in town." Ms. James explained. Ashley stood up slowly and stepped off the platform.

"Like as a T.A.?" Ashley asked, walking toward the familiar piano. She glanced back toward Ms. James. The woman nodded.

"Yes. Just..to take a break. Maybe get back to who you were?" Ms. James watched Ashley sit down at the piano, fingers sliding over the keys noiselessly. "You look tired sugar." Ashley looked up, meeting Ms. James' eyes and nodded.

"I am." She admitted, then looked back down at the black and white rectangles before her. "I think I need a break...but maybe I can break here." She added. She was starting to warm up to the idea. Maybe meeting the poeple she, Aiden, and Kyla had been while they had gone here, less then two years ago, would bring her back. Maybe helping people the way Ms. James had helped her. "Yeah. I think I can do that." She looked back up, meeting Ms. James' eyes and flashing one of her signature nose-crinkling smiles. Ms. James grinned back, one of her signature dimpled smiles.

"Good. You start Monday." She stood up. "Now get off my piano before I beat yah." Ashley opened her mouth in fake shock.

"Ms. James, I paid for this piano. I think I can play one song on it-" She was cut short by Ms. James hitting her in the back of the head with a rolled up piece of music.

"Girl-" Ms. James started, but Ashley, ducking, had already made it to the door. She grinned again.

"Monday? At nine?" She was already backing through the door.

"Eight!" Ms. James called after her.

"What? Nine?" Ashley called from down the hall. She passed the windows and held up nine fingers, nodding and frowning, pretending to ask for agreement. "Nine?!?" She mouthed. Ms. James smiled and shook her head.

"Eight!" She yelled again, holding up eight fingers toward Ashley. The girl just smirked and kept her nine.

Ms. James shot her a different finger.

IOIOIOI

Monday morning, bright and early at 7:50, Ashley slid into her parking spot at the school. Balancing a Starbucks coffee in one hand and her purse and keys in the other, she stumbled out of her car. She was still tired from her gig late yesterday afternoon, and the early morning today wasn't helping. She kicked her door shut and somehow managed to lock it with the keys dangling from her left hand.

As she started across the quad, she heard a wolf whistle ring out from the corner. She rolled her eyes. High school boys. Not that they get much better in college. Finally reaching the door to the chorus room -why couldn't they just put a door on the other side of the classoom?- she found that she did not, in fact, have a third hand to open the door with. She sighed and kicked it with her foot.

A few seconds later and a millisecond from another kick, the door opened and Ms. James stuck her head out. A smile lit up her face.

"Oh, Ashley! Good, Mr. Peterson wants to meet you." She opened the door wider to reveal a balding man in a drab gray suit, and although Ashley had never seen him before, she knew he was a principal. He had that feeling around him. The one that made her want to get as far away as posisble and hope he hadn't found out what she had done. Even when she hadn't done anything, that feeling stuck.

"Ms. Davies." The man said, his voice deep and gravelly with sleep. Ashley placed her coffee and keys on a stack of papers and paused as Ms. James leaned closer.

"Vice principal. Play nice." She muttered, taking Ashey's purse and placing it in a drawer beside her's. Ashley stepped forward and offered the man her hand.

"Mr. Peterson, good to meet you." She smiled, shaking his hand enthusiastically. He seemed a bit put off, but smiled back shakily.

"You too, Ms. Davies. Just checking in." He glanced over at Ms. James nervously, as if he had been expecting something completely different.

"Well, that's good." There's was an awkward pause, while Mr. Peterson studied the brunette before him. Ashley shoved her hands in the back pockets of her jeans, rocking back on her heels. She glanced out the window and bit her lip, waiting for him to finish whatever it was he was doing.

"Well, that's all then, I suppose. Good luck to you." Peterson said, and started around Ashley. "Beth, we have a meeting today after school. Ms. Davies, you are welcome but not required to attend." He stepped out the door and shut it behind him. Ashley raised her eyebrows toward Ms. James.

"Freak." She said, hands still shoved in her pockets. She turned around and sat down on one of the benches, looking out the wide windows. Kids were spilling into the quad, phones in their hands, keys being shoved into pockets. They all looked almost her age, to be truthful, and it felt weird that she would be teaching them.

"Nervous?" Ms. James asked from behind the piano, looking down at a few papers.

"Kind of." Ashley admitted. "But if they hate me I'll just go back to..."

"That's a great attitude!" Ms. James said sarcastically, not looking up. Ashley rolled her eyes and smiled.

"Yeah, whatever."

IOIOIOI

Spencer followed Glen through the quad, a few of books balanced in her arms. Her bookbag hung from her shoulder, but it was almost empty save some lip gloss and a couple pennies. She was carrying Clay's books. He hung back a little, loaded down with more texts than he could handle, even with Spencer carrying three herself. Glen had refused to bring any books and "look like a nerd", because apparently school had nothing to do with books. Though, in Glen's world and maybe even Spencer's, it really didn't.

They stopped beside a tree and Glen turned to the two.

"Meet me at the car ten past three." He looked over their shoulders and grinned. "I'm gonna go score some hotties." He pushed between them and headed toward a table where a few cheerleaders were perched. Spencer rolled her eyes and looked over at Clay.

"Where's your locker? The bell's gonna ring and we should probably-" The bell rang through the quad, echoing loudly through every hallway. Spencer raised an eyerbow. "-get going." She smiled. "We're new, late's allowed." Clay smiled back.

"True. It's this way." He gestured with one elbow, trying not to topple his precocious pile of books, and they started toward the lockers, straining under Clay's AP books. The hallway was dark and quiet and each step echoed loudly. They hadn't made it five feet when a voice called out from behind them.

"Hey! Are you new here?" As if it wasn't clearly evident. Both the Carlins turned around to see a pretty African American girl walking toward them, smile playing across her face. "Cos, you look a little late and maybe I can help you out." She offered, stopping in front of them, smile still on her face.

"Yeah, sure, that'd be great." Clay said nervously, struggling with his books. The girl reached out and took a few off the top of the stack.

"I'm Chelsea, by the way." She said, as she started with them down the hall.

"Spencer." Spencer said, shifting her load of books and smiling happily.

"I'm Clay." Clay said, smiling swiftly. His eyes hadn't left the other girl's face since she had walked up. She pretended not to notice, but there was more than one reason for her pleasant smile. They reached his locker quickly, after admitting that they were from Ohio and were related to the big blonde jock she would probably see later that day. She had laughed, not understanding, but they both knew she would by the end of the day. Hell, Glen would proabably hit on her by then. She was a girl and...she was a girl, so Glen was going to hit on her.

Clay shoved the last couple of book into his locker and stepped back to admire his work. Nothing fell out, which was a feat in itself considering the massive number of books in there.

"What class do you have now?" Chelsea asked.

"Uh.." Clay pulled his schedule from his pocket and glanced at it. "AP English Lit. And I need my Lit book." Spencer raised her eyebrow.

"That one?" She asked, pointing to a slender book crammed under about nine other ones. Clay sighed as Chelsea laughed. "I've got to go to class, but good luck big brother." Spencer said, patting him on the shoulder. "It was nice meeting you Chelsea, I'll see you around." Spencer smiled. The girl grinned back.

"I hope so." She said, but she was looking at Clay. Spencer left the two alone and hoped her brother wouldn't completley mess it up. Halfway down the hall, she realized she had just passed her classroom. She turned on her heel and walked back. Taking a deep breath, she put one hand on the knob. She was just about to turn it when it flew open and a short- vertically challenged- woman stepped out. She stopped short when she saw Spencer.

"Can I help you hon?" She asked, smiling warmly. Spencer smiled back nervously.

"Uh, actually I'm supposed to be in this class." She said, glancing up at the fifteen or twenty people lounging around the room.

"You're a bit late." The woman glanced down at her watch. "About fifteen minutes, not to mention two weeks." She grinned through her words though.

"I know, I'm new, I just-" Spencer started to explain, but the woman cut her off, chuckling.

"I'm just kidding sweetheart, come on in. I'm Ms. James. Welcome to Advanced Chorus."