Lorna knocked loudly on the changing room door. "Callie? What's the verdict?"
"No luck." Callie heaved a gigantic stack of jeans over the top of the door into Lorna's arms. "The sevens are too tight at the joints, and the nines hang funny."
"Picky, picky," Lorna commented sardonically. "I hate to play Captain Obvious here, but what about the eights?"
"Butt-ugly slash too long." A bundle of hangers peeked over the door. "Still, closer than the others."
Lorna took the hangers and began to re-organize the stack. "Good. I'll find you some more eights."
"Hold on a sec." Callie opened the door a crack. "You see that pair on top?"
"Yeah…" Lorna picked up the jeans between two fingers, examining the distasteful graffiti inked on them by the previous owners. "I can see why you used the phrase butt-ugly."
"Yeah, well, those fit near perfectly."
Lorna checked the tag. "Petite, size eight." She nodded to herself. "Makes sense." She flung them in Callie's direction. "Keep these for now. If I can't find any more that fit you, we'll take these and fix them somehow."
"Really?" Callie picked up the jeans as she closed the door. "How does one rid clothes of permanent ink with no known access to a washer?"
"We'll cut all those bad parts out and patch 'em." J.J came out of the changing room and stationed herself in front of the mirror directly to Lorna's back. "That or we could make the holes look like they're s'posed to be there. Your choice."
Callie snickered. "Great. And we welcome you to yet another episode of Lorna's great adventures with needles and thread!"
J.J pulled her light sweater-jacket around herself as she crossed her arms. "Do I wanna know?"
Lorna grimaced. "I sewed my sampler to my skirt once, and Callie here won't let me forget it."
"'Cause it was so damn funny!" Callie howled. "And she didn't know she did it until she tried to pick it up to show Sister Catherine and showed her something else instead!"
"I'm sure glad you think the story's worthy of the intercom, Callie." Lorna picked up the final pile of castoffs. "But please, until you've at least found an outfit, shut up." She took the clothes out of the changing area and hung them on the nearby "to be shelved" rack. As she did so, her hand brushed the lone item there before her: another pair of jeans.
"What're the odds…?" She peeked inside the waistband at the tag which read, as she suspected, petite size eight. "Son of a -!" Lorna exclaimed in surprise. She grabbed the jeans and barged back into the changing area.
"Guess what, kid." Lorna planted herself outside Callie's stall and waited for an answer.
"Beats me," came her friend's voice from inside. "What?"
"I'm magic." Lorna tossed the jeans over to her. "Try these on."
There was a brief rustle and then a zip. "You're right!" Callie said in an awed voice. "You are magic, Lorn!"
"How'd you get back with those so fast, anyway?" Jezebel asked her.
Lorna rolled her eyes. "You wouldn't believe my dumb luck today."
"I would." Callie strode out of her dressing room sporting the new jeans and a white graphic T-shirt with a picture of notes flying off a music staff.
"Finally," Lorna and J.J chorused.
"I'm glad you approve," Callie responded amiably. "And I'd like to say that I approve of your clothing choices as well, life campaigning and otherwise," she commented, acknowledging Lorna's baggy 'Save Carrie White' top.
J.J smiled. "Thanks Cece."
"All right you kids, let's blow this Popsicle stand!" Lorna looked at J.J. "Would you mind too much picking up your un-wearables while Cece and I get ourselves scanned and paid for?"
"Unless you need us to pay for you as well…" added Callie.
"Nah, that's fine," Jezebel assured them as she headed back in the direction of her door. "I planned fine for myself 'fore I found you two. I'll pay for my own clothes, don't you worry."
"But we could if you-"
"Okay, J.J!" Lorna called, grabbing Callie by the arm and dragging.
"Let me go, I'm not your five-year-old," Callie rather loudly griped.
Lorna halted between the 'used adult book' shelves and put herself in Callie's path. "All right, Callie. You and I need to have words."
Callie frowned. "Why? Isn't everything going more or less passably?"
"Not exactly! Which by the way is my first and least pleasant can of worms."
The odd phrasing caught Callie's attention. "There's a second, non-objectionable can of worms?"
"Yes. Namely this." Lorna pulled the crumpled-up flyer from her purse. "Take a look."
"Call for R+B tribute bands: Battle of the Bands Contest," Callie read, slowly taking the paper from her friend's hands. "Winner will be seen by representative of Atlantic Records with intention of business." She stopped, her hands shaking the tiniest bit, but she cleared her throat and went on. "Auditions and final contest to be held at the Chicago House of Blues. Auditioning bands will be seen on the 28th and 29th of July, with the final contest on the 31st." Callie did the math in her head. "Exactly two weeks away." She looked at Lorna. "But we don't have a-" Callie suddenly stopped short. She turned her head partly away. She furrowed her brow, then nodded to herself. She began to pace, murmuring, deep in interpersonal conversation: first nodding, then shaking her head, tipping it to the side, then nodding again, all with her impassible "game face" on. Lorna, feeling incredibly lost, finally put a stop to the charade.
"Callie, what in the world are you thinking about?"
"You, man." Callie had made her way back over to Lorna as she was speaking, and now gave her a tight hug. "You are magic."
Lorna grimaced. "As much as I'd like to say thank you, I'm choosing instead to ask why."
"Because you saw the light, and I didn't." Callie pulled away, still giddy in a new plan and discovery. "I was about to say that we could never conceivably do this thing on our own. What would we even call a drum kit and baritone saxophone duo?"
"I don't know," Lorna admitted. "But I didn't grab this so we could enter." She looked carefully at her friend. "I took it so we'd know the time and place and just watch. I thought you'dve caught onto that."
"Oh." Callie blinked. "But that's not important now," she said quickly. "What's important is that it is possible now."
Lorna frowned. "What's possible?"
"Entering as a band of course!"
"How is that more possible now than it was five seconds ago?"
Callie shook her head, smiling. "It was possible ever since Maury Sline gave us those clubs to find."
Lorna made another face. "I don't see your logic here, chief."
"All we have to do is play the next generation game. If J.J exists, it's definitely possible that-"
"Whoa there, Callie." Lorna held her hands out in front of her. "I know where you're going with this, and it's just plain creepy."
"It's not creepy if we make it seem like a coincidence."
"But if it seems like a coincidence, it'll be creepy."
"Noted." Callie was pacing again. "We'll just have to make sure none of them figure it out."
"That seems logical." Lorna crossed her arms. "And how do you propose to do that?"
"The best way there is." Callie stopped and turned around. "By not telling any lies."
"Oh?" Lorna raised an eyebrow. "So are you going to tell Jezebel your last name?"
"Hell, no!" Callie exclaimed, looking shocked.
Lorna shrugged. "Why not? If you're getting out of the lying business, you may as well clear your record from the beginning."
"I wasn't lying." Callie gave Lorna a dirty look. "Blues isn't any real last name. It's not even my dad's real last name."
"Wrong," Lorna informed her. "The town of Joliet has record of an Elwood Jacobs and a Jake Evans together changing their last name to Blues. Given of course, the previous last names they gave the record-keeper were most likely crap, but the law system in this case holds. Try again, babe."
"Fine, I lied to her. But I'm not lying to anyone else." Callie put her hands in her pockets. "I just won't bring that topic up."
"Lying by omission's still lying, Callie."
"No it's not." Callie flicked a glance at J.J. "And even if it is, I can't tell anyone I'm a Blues. Especially not if I want to recruit them. If they knew anything at all about their old men or whichever relevant relations, they'll know the name's nothing but trouble." Callie lifted her right shoulder in a shrug. "I don't know. For me, it's a turn-on to the situation, but other might see it as, you know, a deal breaker."
"No kidding." Lorna sighed. "Is this really the route you want to go?"
Callie winced, looking back at her. "I'm not sure there's any other way to go."
"Just answer me one thing," Lorna said.
Lorna looked at her best friend as seriously as she could. "What happens to the band when you find your uncle Elwood?"
Callie made a face, faking a short laugh. "What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean." Lorna furtively looked in J.J's direction and then pulled Callie over into a corner. "I'd be an idiot if I didn't know you were figuring on finding him at this Battle of the Bands shindig. If all your plans go to hell once he's in the equation, fine. But I have to know. What happens if and when you find him?"
Callie uncomfortably scratched the back of her neck. "Would you be mad if I said I don't figure on going much further than auditions?"
"Hey, that's not my problem." Lorna caught the eye of a salesperson and waved him over. "But if you're planning on pitching this to our stowaway, I'd recommend at least the appearance of a genuine plan."
"Okay, okay." Callie conveniently broke off as the Goodwill employee approached them. "Hey, we'd kind of like to wear these duds out of here. Can you scan us?"
"Uh, sure." The blue-vested man pulled the price gun from his belt. "Start with the coat?
"Oh no, that's mine." Callie corrected him right away, removing it and holding it up. "I had it on when I came in. See? No tags." She gingerly draped it over a freestanding secondhand chair. "So, can we do this?" She stretched the corner of her T-shirt with the tag on it towards him. 'This one I got from here."
"Good deal." The laser scanned with a high-pitched 'beep!' "Jeans?"
Callie swiveled a hip. "Got 'em!" After that beep, she lifted a shoe. "Tag on the bottom." 'Beep!' went the scanner.
"Uh, here, scan me too." Lorna somewhat guiltily gave the salesperson a handful of tags. "I took the tags off as soon as I had the stuff on. It's a bad habit."
He shrugged. "No problem."
Callie tapped her friend on the arm. "Lorna?"
Lorna looked down at her, frowning at the tone of voice. "What's up?"
"I know this is a really bad time to bring this up, but I totally forgot how we're paying for these."
Lorna rolled her eyes. "Do you think I'd have let you lead the charge inside if I didn't know how we were paying for whatever?" She shook her head. "I've got it covered, kid."
Callie nodded. "Deadheads leave you a trust?"
"A bank card, actually." Lorna began to follow their scanner person over to a checkout station. "A few hundred dollars on it, too. Not much, but enough to at least get started with pulling this gig off."
"Thanks, Lorna," Callie murmured. She chuckled. "I have a feeling I'll be saying that a lot in the near future."
Lorna shrugged. "What can I say?" She grinned at Callie. "Lucky for you, I never get tired of hearing it."
The salesperson handed them a receipt and a wad of bills and coins. "Here's your change. Have a nice day."
"Thanks, you too." Callie tried to walk away, but Lorna caught her by the collar.
"Sir?" Lorna addressed the salesperson as she held on to a struggling Cece. "How is it that we have change? We didn't pay you."
"He has his reasons," Callie said, impatiently tugging forward. "Let's go."
"Actually, someone else paid for you." The man looked at them. "Do you two know a Jezebel James?"
"Yes," they chorused.
He gave them another strange look, then continued. "She handed me a fifty dollar bill for her things and aid that the rest and change were for the blond-brunette duet behind her." He shrugged. "I'm holding out my best hope she meant you two."
"Yeah, let's go with that." Callie tugged again, almost hard enough to rip her jacket. "Come on Lorn, let's go find her."
"Have a nice day!" Lorna instinctively called over her shoulder. The man waved, still with a strange look on his face.
"What do you care?" Callie asked her when they got outside.
"What do I care about what?"
"About whether he has a nice day or not." Callie took long strides into the parking lot, scanning for the vehicle. She pointed to the left. "Over there. And I think that's J.J leaning on it."
"You'd better hope that's J.J leaning on our car." Lorna shook her head in wonder. "Can't imagine what would happen if a sane person was waiting for us."
"About time," J.J called out as she spotted them. "I thought you two was gonna settle and raise a family in there."
"Nope, we're out." Lorna held up her hands in innocence. "Homesteading was the farthest thing from our minds."
"Yeah, she speaks for both of us," Callie confirmed with a half-shrug. "Raising a family? Not even thinking about it."
Jezebel smiled politely at the intended humor. "Yeah, well count yourself lucky for that one, Cece."
"Okay then!" Lorna spoke up loudly, willing the icy silence to discontinue its course. "Shall we get this show on the road?"
"Uh yeah, sure thing." Callie shook off the tension. "You got the keys?"
"Right-" Lorna paused, worming her hand around in her purse. "Um, Callie? Are you sure you don't have them?"
"Positive," Callie said slowly. "I didn't have any pockets before now, Lorn."
"Looking for these?"
Callie and Lorna looked up to see Jezebel casually twirling the key ring on her finger. They shared a short, dumbfounded look before J.J spoke again.
"What, you think just because you gave me a ride to some clothes store that I trust you?" She nodded to Lorna's purse. "Had 'em out before we even got in the door."
"What was the point of that?" Callie snapped, snatching the keys. "You weren't just going to drive off in a stolen police car, were you?"
"You two think you know everything about- wait, stolen?"
"That's right." Callie unlocked the doors and got in. "You thought this car belonged to us?"
"Sure, now it's us," Lorna griped, sliding into shotgun.
Jezebel climbed silently into the back. "So…you really meant it about the 'runaway, like us' business."
"Guilty." Callie started the car and shifted to reverse. "Consider yourself honored." She looked behind her as she backed out of the space. "You're spending our first day on the run and what's turning out to be the longest day ever with two unsung amateurs. Namely us."
"Yeah, sure. Honored." Jezebel looked out the window.
Callie heard the sad twinge in J.J's voice. "Hey, what's wrong?"
"Oh, nothin'." J.J settled back. "Nothin' I can't handle."
"It's okay," Lorna said reassuringly. "You don't have to talk or anything."
Callie flicked the turn signal. "So why'd you run off?"
"What did I just say, Callie?" Lorna rolled her eyes and put her hand over her face. "What did I just say?"
J.J sighed. "It's all right, Thorn. You two might as well know. My folks want me to get married."
"Well, that's not-" Callie started in before Lorna elbowed her. "How soon are we talking?"
"Soon as I complete my senior year of high school."
Callie whistled. 'Pretty straight succession, isn't it?"
"Yeah. That's why I ran." Jezebel sat forward again. "So while we're on that, why're you two on the run?"
Lorna gave Callie a wary sideways look in the pause, but her friend seemed calm and assured as ever. "They were holding us back."
J.J winced. "What? Who?"
"Everyone. The nuns, the church, the boarding school, our sheep of classmates, the establishment in general." Callie looked at J.J in the rearview mirror. "We wanted to do something with our lives that was all but forbidden by our environment."
"Hm." J.J nodded once. "And that is…?"
"Starting a band."
"And here we go," mumbled Lorna.
Jezebel raised an eyebrow at Callie. "I get the feeling this band thing is more of your bag than hers."
"That's true." Callie turned a corner. "But we're partners in crime, right Lorn?"
"Always," Lorna agreed amiably. "By the way, as a point of order that is, does my partner in crime know where she's going?"
Callie was silent for a moment. "Oh crap, no," she said finally. She scanned the upcoming streetsides for an empty spot. "Lemme pull over a sec." She clumsily pulled the Monaco up beside and empty curb. "Hey Lorn, can you get a GPS function on your phone?"
"No, but I can access Google Maps." Lorna began navigating the screens. "And where were we trying first?"
"I don't know." Callie casually lifted a shoulder. "Which sounds more inviting to you, The Backbeat or The Blue Note?"
"The Backbeat." While the two up front had been talking, J.J had positioned herself to see over Lorna's shoulder. "The Blue Note's closed on Sundays."
Lorna grinned. "Well you just made my job a whole lot easier." She typed 'The Backbeat' on her keypad and poked the screen. "Well I'll be damned."
"What is it?" Callie leaned over to see. "Are we close?"
Lorna, still dubious, pointed ahead of them. "Two blocks straight ahead and its on your side of the street."
"Yeah, that's about right." Jezebel sat back again. "My friends and I used to hang out there and hide from our parents." She looked ahead. "What's you guys' business in there, anyhow?"
Callie shifted the car back to drive. "Scouting and recruiting."
J.J blinked. "Okay, I get that I'm outside the situation here, but what?"
"We told you we were starting a band, right?"
Jezebel nodded slowly. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure I got that part…"
"So we're going around to talk other people into joining us," Callie finished, pulling into the road. "We just had The Backbeat and The Blue Note recommended to us recently as places to find other musically-inclined people, so we wanted to give them a go."
Lorna chuckled. "Nice cover, champ."
"In fact," Callie said, raising her voice to distract Jezebel from Lorna's comment, "how would you like to be our first recruit?"
J.J did a double-take. "Me?"
"Why not you?"
"Why- I mean, what would I do?"
"You sing, right?"
"And damn well too," Callie added.
Jezebel blushed. "I mean, I still don't understand worth anything what's going on with you two."
Lorna looked back at her sympathetically. "To be honest, I'm not sure I know what's going on with me and Cece here." She faced forward again. "All the same, if you've managed to put up with both of us thus far I think you'll survive and hey, who knows? Maybe at some point we'll both figure out what the heck's going on."
"Oh, quiet you," Callie muttered.
J.J giggled. "All right, let's say at least for right now I'm with you guys. What kind of music would you be doing in this band?"
"So glad you asked." Callie took a hand off the wheel only briefly to fish the Battle of the Bands flyer out of her pocket and toss it at the back seat. "Read 'em and weep."
Jezebel smoothed out the colored paper, and then frowned at it. "Hey guys, call me crazy, but déjà vu."
Lorna winced. "Yeah, I kind of stole it from the bulletin board at the Triple Rock. Is that frowned upon?"
J.J snorted. "Please. Not like anyone reads the crap up there anyway." She read the print, then looked up again. "You're really planning on doing this?"
"Yeah." Callie hesitated. "Why?"
"I'm not sayin' you shouldn't, but these kinds of contests are serious." Jezebel folded the flyer and tossed it so it landed on the dashboard. "I've been dragged along to one or two of these things for, you know, chorus group field trips, and they really are the real deal. Sometimes you even catch people there who've made real names for themselves in R+B."
Callie sighed. "That's what I'm counting on."
J.J leaned forward. "You'll wanna turn there for the parking lot."
"What? There already?" Lorna sat up straighter.
"It was just two blocks, Thorn." J.J looked over Callie's shoulder. "You know anything about the regular acts here?"
Callie made a sharp left into the row of parking spaces. "Unfortunately, that would be a no."
J.J smiled. "Good. Forgive me Lord for speakin' ill of others, but it sure is good to know something someone else needs to."
"Yeah, don't I know it." Callie pulled the Monaco into a corner spot and looked back at her. "Any clue as to who we can expect on a Sunday evening in June?"
Jezebel thought. "Last time I was comin' here on a regular basis, there was two groups you could expect to see playin' there. Can't give you no names 'cause I'm terrible with 'em, but my girls and I always called 'em the family group and the brothers."
"That's real specific," Lorna grumbled.
"And who got Sunday nights?" Callie persisted.
"The brothers," J.J answered with no hesitation. "We'd only see the family group on certain afternoons, but they were getting pretty rare. Boss man was probably getting' ready to fire them anyway."
"Okay then." Callie turned off the car engine and unlocked the doors. "Let's go check out the brothers." She looked back at J.J once more. "To your memory, worth it or not?"
She shrugged. "I'd say worth it. They ain't no Lennon and McCartney, but they're worth a listen."
Lorna gave her a quizzical look as they got out. "I didn't peg you as a Beatles fan."
"I'm not." Jezebel nodded to the building. "But what's playin' inside relates just fine."
Friday night arrives without a suitcase
Sunday morning creeping like a nun
Monday's child has learned to tie his bootlace
See how they ruuuuun
Baby at your breast
Wonders how you manage to feed the reeeeeest…
Callie chuckled at her own late realization of the irony of J.J's Lennon-McCartney joke as the lyrics of the song reached her ears. She motioned to her comrades behind her to follow as she moved closer to the small performers' area.
"Is this them?" she heard Lorna ask J.J
"Yeah, this is them all right," J.J said. "Looks like puberty's done the lead some good since last I've been here."
"Ssh!" Callie commanded. She had her eyes on the pair analyzing and taking note of the nuances of their presence onstage, the one on keyboard in particular. The movements of his hands, arms and fingers were seemingly fluid, very near natural. The slight jerkiness Callie observed was only apparent when his part required a jump in hand position. From the corner of her eye, she could see that Lorna had seen it too."
"Catch that?" she asked.
"Yeah, kinda," Lorna confirmed, still bearing the sympathetic wince. "Little guy's sorta stiff, isn't he?"
Callie matched the wince, then shook her head. "Nah, he'll snap out of it." The stiffness was a trait she'd identified in her own percussive endeavors that she couldn't seem to get rid of. "Beginner." Neutral word though it was, it always stung when it was applied to her. She looked back at the stage. This time it was the boy singing that caught her eye. On first appraisal, she decided Jezebel must have been right—he certainly seemed to be in puberty's good graces. Tall, light brown hair, and a singing voice that she hadn't heard crack yet. A singing voice that also bore a decently close resemblance to the original artist. Callie peered at them over the top of her shades, taking in the performance for a moment with the full effect of the stage lights. She had to admit, they looked good. Her eyes drifted to the keyboardist once more. Most of the stiffness had given way to enthusiasm: he and his brother both had big smiles plastered to their faces for the last song—both with the same lilt and tip of the head. Cute. Cute, but she only needed one of them. The singer was older and would get in her way. The keyboard player though, he was younger, shorter and still a little bit green, like her. As the song's last note and applause reverberated through the place, Callie nodded decisively and crossed her arms. He was the one they needed.
"What'cha thinkin' Cece?"
Callie blinked a few times, her eyes adjusting to the lights on the stage now fading to normal. She flicked a glance at Lorna as she reached absently into her pocket. "Go over to the counter and grab some nachos, 'kay?"
Lorna held out her hand for the money. "Sure. Are they for me?"
"No." Callie gave her a ten. "It's bait. We're catching ourselves a keyboardist. Get drinks or something for you and J.J, then come and find us."
"Okay, kid." Lorna walked away, and Callie looked back in the direction of the stage. She squinted, then delicately wiped a fleck of dust from her glasses. "I told you we were putting a group together, right Jez?"
"Yeah, you said something like that." J.J rolled her eyes. "How could I forget?"
"Well, right now, we've got you, me, and Thorn. A drummer, a singer, and a sax player. To put it bluntly, no matter how good we are we suck, and we're gonna keep on sucking until we get more people who rock." She put her hands in her pockets, clenching and unclenching sweaty handfuls of fabric. "I mean, your choir at the Triple Rock wouldn't be anything at all if you weren't just huge, right?"
"Yeah, you're right," Jezebel admitted, looking sideways at Callie. "And it might be just the air in here, but goin' back home is soundin' pretty fab right now."
Callie grimaced. "Please tell me you're kidding, J.J."
"Of course I'm kidding," said J.J, rolling her eyes. "Not like I'm goin' back home now. I'd end up whipped within an inch of my life and still walkin' down the aisle." She looked where Callie was looking. "So why the shrimp?"
"First of all, watch who you're callin' shrimp." Callie shot J.J a look. "Second, shrimps don't take up much car space, and third, he's the best performer up there. That's why we need him."
"What about the one singing?"
Callie snorted. "Please. I can smell a prima donna a mile away. And besides, we've already got you." She clapped her on the shoulder. "You're not telling me you want a boyfriend, are you?"
J.J made an equally unattractive noise. "Hell no."
"There you go, then." Callie began to walk and motioned her to follow. "Come on, it looks like they're trying to leave."
J.J fell into step behind Callie as she plotted the intercept course. "So now what?"
"We're stopping them. Any suggestions?"
"Yeah. HEY, STOP!" J.J shouted the last two words and pointed at the two boys. The room went quiet around them.
"Was that necessary?" Callie hissed, doing her best not to blush.
J.J continued to point ahead. "You got what you wanted, Cece. They stopped. Now go and talk to them." She turned to the side. "What ch'all lookin' at?" Seeing the onlookers resume their business, she nudged Callie forward. "Go on, Cece, it's not a toenail removal."
"Not for you, Callie grumbled.
"Wow," said the taller boy as the two pairings came face-to-face. "You ladies sure know how to get attention."
Jezebel shrugged. "Just bein' up front. I'm not into the lies."
"Right…" he and the other boy looked at them uneasily. "So anyway-"
"Who are you?" the shorter one asked for him.
"Well-" Callie started.
"We're fans, of course!" Jezebel interrupted. "Big fans." She elbowed Callie in the side and Callie nodded. "You play here every Sunday evening, don't you?"
The taller boy's eyes narrowed. "We do, but I know I haven't seen you here before today."
"Well, we've seen you!" Callie let out a small breath, feeling her power of speech kicking in again. "Yes, I admit we're not every-week loyal, but you two aren't half bad!" She swallowed, fighting her stubborn dry mouth. "Especially you," she added, motioning to the shorter one. "We would love to just sit down and talk with you guys, we're in music too you know, discuss craft…"
"That's nice…" the taller one protectively took hold of the other's shoulder and glanced towards the door. "And as great as it would be to do that, I'm afraid we've got to go. Andy and I haven't eaten in twelve hours."
"Yeah, I'm hungry," Andy assertively tacked on. Callie noted anger and oppression in his tone, feelings she herself recognized all too well, and that she could use.
"Please," she heard Jezebel say, trying to stall. "Just hold on one second, we won't take up too much time-"
"Here we go, guys." Lorna approached them with the armload of food. "Sorry, the line was super long."
"No prob." Callie silently applauded her best friend's perfect timing. "You got a drink for Jezebel, right?"
"Yep." Lorna handed over one of the white Styrofoam cups. "Coke for her, Dew for me, and your nachos."
"Oh yeah." Callie frowned, putting on as convincing of a worried look as she could. "Nachos." She gave Andy a significant look. "You know, I'm really not that hungry anymore…" She saw his eyes getting bigger and knew she was winning. "Do you want them, Thorn?"
"Yes," Lorna started, dodging Callie's side jab, "but I already ate something, and I'm not in the mood for warm cheese."
"Can I have them?" Andy had inched away from his brother and was now halfway between them and him.
Lorna gave him a doubtful smile. "I thought you had to leave."
"Well, that was 'cause we were going to get food, but if it's right here, we can stay, can't we?" He edged closer to Lorna, his eyes still on the food.
"Bad idea, Andy," chided the taller one.
"It's free food, Sam," Andy snapped. "Besides, they don't want to talk to you." He carefully claimed the paper box with his prize. "You guys wanna sit down somewhere quieter?"
Callie smiled easily, lifting one shoulder. "Sure, I mean, if you wouldn't mind…"
"Whatever, no problem!" Andy greedily stuffed two cheese-covered chips in his mouth and continued, spraying a cloud of crumbs at the three girls. "We were mainly going home because of dinner, like I said, but Sam ate before we came and I have food now. We can stay and talk a little, right Sam?"
"Right." Sam looked uneasily at Callie. "Lead the way, Andy."
"Cool!" He pointed ahead of himself as he maneuvered past the three girls and towards the tables. "'Scuse me! 'Scuse me! Band and groupies coming through!"
Lorna grimaced. "Groupies? What exactly does the kid think we want?"
"He's fourteen. He doesn't actually know what professional groupies do." Sam followed his brother's path around the group and turned to face them with his arms crossed. "But I do, and you three obviously aren't groupies, so what do you want from us?"
Callie made a face. "Cut the crap, bigfoot." She brushed past him. "Never said I had any interest in you."
Lorna laughed nervously. "Excuse her. She never played nicely in school." She looked warily after her friend. "Uh, we oughtta follow them, don't you think?" Without checking for approval, she too brushed past Sam.
Jezebel looked at him. "Well, you heard the lady!"
Sam sighed, turning around. "Whatever. Let's go."
When the three of them arrived at the corner booth Andy and Callie were sitting in, they weren't noticed in the least. Callie was calmly smiling and nodding while Andy filled the silence.
"So our mom, she was dead set on us learning to play the piano. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, all those guys. So Sam and I took lessons. I got pretty good at it, but Sam, not so much. Clumsy fingers." He stopped for a nacho. "Not just the piano either. Clumsy on pretty much everything mom and dad tried to teach him. Uncle Steve got to him and he ended up halfway decent on electric bass, but that's about it."
"Better than you," Sam argued, sliding in next to him. "And quit the showoff stuff about uncle Steve. Nobody even knows who he is."
"What's your last name?" Callie asked suddenly.
"Cropper." Andy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "You're a fan, you should know that."
"Right, sorry. Brainfart." Callie wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans. "By any chance, was your uncle Steve your paternal uncle?"
"She means, is he our dad's brother," Sam explained, giving his little brother an annoyed look. He faced Callie. "And yes, Steve Cropper. I take it you're one of the few who know of him."
"He played guitar for Sam and Dave, of course I know him." Callie folded her hands. "In 'Soul Man,' when they say, "play it, Steve!" they mean him. In both the original and cover versions of the song. Totally classic."
Lorna shook her head in wonder as she sat down. "Unbelievable."
"I know, right?" Callie moved over. "We're sitting across from the protégé of a soul legend!"
"Not what I meant, and you know it," Lorna murmured.
"Still riding it as far as I can," Callie muttered back.
Sam cleared his throat. "Well thank you-"
Callie cut him off. "Once again, I'm referring to your brother. Not you." She gave Andy a pseudo-sympathetic look. "I bet you don't get that a lot, huh?"
Andy looked at her seriously. "You have no idea."
Sam put his face in his hands. "Here we go…"
"Shut up, Sam." Andy's forceful tone caught everyone off guard except for Callie. She looked down at the table to hide her victory smile.
"You always tell me that in our act we're equally famous 'cause we do equal work." Andy half-turned to look at Sam. "But you're a liar. You always lie." He looked back at Callie. "He gets all the credit for when we perform 'cause he's the singer. People always come up to him to say good job, and ask us to play other places. Not me."
"That must suck." Callie looked up, maintaining a straight face. "I didn't know singing was such a big deal."
"Hey!" Jezebel started to protest, but Lorna stood up and covered her mouth.
"What the hell?" J.J hissed.
"Watch her work," Lorna replied simply.
"It's not!" said Andy, defensiveness creeping into his voice. "It's just drawn-out talking, like in The Music Man. And Sam only does that because he can't play a real instrument."
"Well, the point is I'm not here speaking with you because of your brother." Callie smiled again. "I'm here because of you."
Andy frowned. "Why?"
"Ah! I was just getting to that." Callie looked at Lorna, then J.J, then back at Andy. "I'd like you to join our band."
"Wait, hold on." Sam stared at Callie in utter confusion. "We went through all that so you could ask my little brother to be in your band?"
"Little is a state of mind, Mr. Cropper," Callie answered smoothly. "Your level of talent is most likely considerable, but so is your brother's, and the open attitude I've been treated to in my conversation with him is not one I've witnessed thus far in you."
Sam looked at her. "So that's it? A one-way invitation?"
Callie winced. "Not quite."
"I didn't think so," Sam confirmed, undertoning smugness. "So tell me, why Andy?"
"Why not me?" Andy slid down an inch to kick Sam in the leg. "You think I can't be anything but your backup band?"
"Since when is one keyboard a whole band?" Sam snapped.
"Since shut up," Andy snapped back, turning to Callie again. "You were saying?"
Callie cleared her throat. "Well, as I was saying, we need a keyboardist." She motioned again to J.J and Lorna as she continued. "The girls and I want to put together a group to compete in the Battle of the Bands competition in a month."
"Battle of the Bands?" Andy said at the same time Sam exclaimed, "In a month?"
"We realize it's a short time," Lorna added, attempting to divert Sam's attention. "That's why we needed to speak with Andy today."
"Right," Callie said, focusing on him. "And get him to come with us and pick out the rest of the group."
"Ssh!" Callie held up a hand to silence the older brother. "So are you in?"
Andy nodded slowly. "One question."
Callie shrugged. "Sure, go ahead."
"What do you mean by me coming with you?"
Callie noted as Lorna averted her eyes and J.J began to fidget. At last, she herself told him. "Exactly what it sounds like. You come with us and be a part of our little soon-to-be-big group here. We all stuff ourselves into my car and drive places to find the rest of the band and play gigs to keep ourselves fed. We practice, and when the day comes, we play Battle of the Bands." She scratched behind her ear. "it's an experimental thing, and I get it if you say no, but I never would've asked if I didn't think there was a chance." She sighed. "So, what do you say?"
"Yes," Andy responded immediately. "Yes." He pushed the empty cardstock container away from him. "I'm not hungry anymore. Let's hit the road."
"You're insane." Sam looked first at Callie, then at everyone in the group. "All of you. You can't be serious. You can't seriously think you're even capable of getting a group together capable of getting through auditions to a Battle of the Bands in one month."
"Told ya," J.J muttered.
Sam took hold of Andy's arm. "And furthermore, you're all psycho if you think I'm going to let my brother go with you."
"Let go of me!" Andy hit Sam. "They asked me. It's my decision."
"You're fourteen," Sam stated, not letting go. "And we have no proof that these people are able to deliver, or are even legitimately musicians."
J.J flared. "What do you think we were trying to do here? Get him out to the car so we could femme gang rape him?"
Sam raised his eyebrows. "Not until now…"
"Well we're not!" said Callie. "No rape, just music. Hear that? Music. I'm a drummer, Lorna plays saxophone, and Jezebel's our vocalist."
"You're a drummer?" Sam chuckled. "How convenient."
Sam smirked. "If I dared you to play something on the set here in the Backbeat, you'd find something wrong with it and refuse. Just further proof you're a fake."
Callie's eyes narrowed. "You just watch who you call a fake."
"Oh, snap!" Andy shouted out.
Sam looked at her, still smiling. "Is that a challenge?"
"That's a challenge accepted." Callie leaned forward. "I can play better than your tenured stage drummer, or anyone else you're likely to find to play here at this kid-infested grease hole, and after I prove it, I'm taking your kid brother with me."
Sam leaned back, crossing his arms. "And if you don't?"
Callie frowned. "What do you mean?"
"If you drop a stick, can't keep time, get booed off the stage, general hell breaks loose. What happens then?"
Callie's face clouded the rest of the way over as she also sat back. "Then…my friends and I will leave, and we won't bother you here again."
"Not here, not outside, not at our house, which you hopefully don't know the location of."
"Whatever, deal." Callie reached out her hand for a shake. "Good?"
"Good." Sam shook on it.
"Sweet." Callie nudged Lorna to let her out of the booth. "What's the general music style in this place?"
"Classic rock," said J.J.
"It's actually pretty flexible, but yeah, like she said, classic rock." Sam put his hands in his pockets as he stood up. "Ergo, Lady Madonna."
"Cool." Callie gave Sam a sly look. "If I play it, will the in-house band back me up?"
He thought about it, then nodded. "Sure. Just tell 'em what you're doing, and they'll follow along."
She continued looking at him. "And will you sing?"
He shrugged. "Why not? I guess we're in this together in the long run anyway, so-"
"Awesome." Callie punched him on the arm and headed for the stage.
"Hey, wait up!" Sam jogged to catch up with her. "What are we doing?"
Callie picked up the drumsticks. "How's your Iron Maiden?"
Sam made a face. "Nonexistent."
"Good, 'cause we're actually doing Van Halen." Callie boosted herself onto the throne and fiddled under the seat for the height adjuster. "That sound more friendly?"
"Well yeah," Sam said, watching her with mild amusement. "So long as it's not Van Hagar."
"Van Hagar?" Callie pulled on the seat lever a little too hard, shooting her abruptly toward the ground. "Is that some kind of bad joke?"
"We all wish it was." Sam looked towards the front. "What song?"
"Hot for Teacher."
Sam whistled. "That's quite a choice."
"I know." Callie spun restlessly side to side in her seat. "Can you handle it?"
Sam gave a short laugh. "The question is, can you handle it?"
"97 percent sure." Callie twirled the stick in her right hand. "Can your in-house drummer?"
Sam thought. "I doubt it," he finally decided.
"So handling's my goal." Callie sat up and poised herself to play. "Ready?"
"Just a sec." Sam cupped his hands over his mouth and called into the audience. "Hey, Andy!"
Andy's voice floated back. "What?"
"We're doing Hot for Teacher, get up here!"
Sam turned back to Callie. "Andy and I share vocals when there's no keyboard part," he explained.
"Got it," Callie said impatiently. "Ready?"
"Whenever you are."
"Okay." She looked side to side at the in-house band that was re-convening around her. "Van Halen, Hot for Teacher, album key," she whispered to who looked to be the lead guitarist. He nodded. "Okay…" Callie repeated to herself. She closed her eyes, counted to three, and opened them. "Let's rock." She started to play. At first, the rhythms seemed unnatural to her, even after she'd added the cymbals, but when the guitar started in, she felt all the beats fall into place. As she rested for the vocal part she felt her adrenaline rise, and as Andy said into the mic, "What do you think the teacher's gonna look like this year?" she picked up again on one of the best drum riffs she'd ever played.
I think of all the education that I missed
But then my homework was never quite like this!
"One and two and three and four and…" Callie thought furiously to herself, fighting to keep the beat instead of speeding up.
I've got it bad, got it bad, got it bad
I'm hot for teacher
I've got it bad, soooooo bad-
I'm hot for teacher…
The applause after the song was unlike anything Callie had experienced before. Everyone on their feet, yelling, cheering, whistling, clapping their hands, all for her. She blushed, embarrassed, sitting back down. It was Sam and Andy the crowd was cheering for. "Selfish," she imagined Mother Mary scolding.
"Selfish, selfish little girl. How do you expect to be liked when you think only about yourself?" "I helped!" she silently argued back. She stood up, brushed herself off, and followed the brothers offstage.
"That was awesome!" Andy had Callie entrapped in a bear hug almost as soon as she caught up with them. He finally let her go and turned triumphantly to his brother. "See? She's not a fake."
"I guess not." Sam shrugged, giving Callie a defeated look. "I was wrong."
Callie waved it off. "What's in the past stays there." She smirked. "Point is, I won. And I'm adding one more condition to my winnings."
Sam looked at her carefully. "I'm afraid to ask."
"Don't be." Callie pointed at him. "You come too."
"Wait. Me? With you guys?"
"But you said I was better!" Andy protested.
"You are," Callie agreed. "That's why you get shotgun when we go out people searching again and Sam gets squeezed in the middle." She looked at Sam for a moment, then back at Andy. "Go find J.J and Thorn, and I'll be there in a sec."
Sam watched his brother go. "So why the change of heart?"
Callie shrugged. "I underestimated you. Simple mistake, and I won't make it again. Showmanship."
"Yeah. That's what you've got that I- we need." Callie started walking. "So are you coming with us?"
"Yeah, Andy and me both. But not tonight."
Callie stopped. "Why not?"
Sam chuckled. "I don't know how you and your entourage got out here, but Andy and I have parents that would freak out if we didn't come back home one night."
"Oh yeah," Callie said. "That."
"And I'm not saying I trust you," Sam said, checking his phone for the time, "but I as of now have no reason to believe you've told us anything but the truth about who you are and what you're doing."
Callie laughed. "In summary, crazy, but not a liar."
"Right." Sam continued walking and Callie followed. "So give me tonight and I'll tell the folks that I'm taking Andy for a long camping trip. I figure that's not too far from then truth, right?"
Callie giggled again. "Right."
When they got back to the group, they found Andy once again the life of the party.
"Yeah, they're really good. You guys and Callie should go and talk to them."
"Can't do anything if we can't find 'em," Lorna informed him.
Andy's face lit up. "Wait! They made business cards once…" he started going through his pockets after something. "I know I have it somewhere…got it!" He pulled out an old, folded cardstock rectangle, stained orange on the corners.
Callie squeezed into the circle next to Lorna. "Ew, what is that?"
Andy looked at her, the excitedly unfolded the card in his hand. "Their number and address!"
"Whose number and address?" Callie asked.
"Caroline and Maxwell Marini," Lorna answered her, putting emphasis on the last name.
"Andy was just braggin' on them 'cause they play here sometimes opposite him and Sam. Come from a musical family too, just like them."
"No kidding." Callie reached out her hand for the card. "Can I see that?"
"Yeah." Andy gave it to her. "You can keep it if you want. I'll ask Max for another the next time we see them."
"Cool." Callie stashed the card in her pocket. "It was an honor jamming with you guys."
"Any time." Sam gave them a small wave. "We'll meet you here tomorrow at nine."
"Nine." Lorna took out a pen and wrote it on herself. "Great. Let's roll." She took hold of Callie's sleeve. "You can gawk at the next-generation Blue Lous when we get to their house. Now let's go."
"43 to HQ, 43 to HQ, copy?"
The commissioner sighed impatiently as she heard the buzz of the walkie-talkie on the corner of her desk. She smiled apologetically at the worried couple facing her. "Excuse me." She picked up the device and turned her back. "43, copy damnit, what do you want?"
"We got plates on that robbery downtown and we can't reach our division. Wanted to know if you could connect us."
"What do I sound like to you, Queen of the Airwaves?"
"But Madam Commissioner-"
"Just keep trying your base of operations 43, I'm working a case for the first time in years and I'm busy!" She turned around, slammed the walkie-talkie down on her desk, collected herself, and then calmly looked back at her guests. "Sorry about that. Now, Mr. and Mrs. James, where were we?"
"You were on finding our daughter," Mrs. James forcefully reminded her.
"Yes, your daughter, Jezebel." The commissioner looked back at her notes. "Seventeen years of age, average height, dark skin, black hair." She looked up at the parents. "Forgive me for saying so, but this is a rather unmarked missing child case. I can't imagine why this was brought to me."
"Now you hush your mouth!" Mrs. James stood up and pointed her finger right between the lady commissioner's eyes. "She's our daughter, and we was told to come to you, so you find her!"
"Mrs. James, please." The commissioner was taken aback. "I never meant for a moment to insult you. I only meant that my current investigations are very specific." She paused. "When the representative at the front desk interviewed you before he sent you to me, were there any points he asked you to clarify? Anything he reacted to?"
Mr. James spoke up. "There was one thing." He swallowed. "Right before we noticed she was gone, I thought I saw a police car parked out front."
She stopped writing. "A police car?"
"A real old one, not like the squad cars you usually see. The guy up front asked us if we were really sure."
"And are you?"
"Then I believe you." The commissioner pulled her case file out of a drawer and flipped it open. On top were the Saint Helen's photos of Callie and Lorna. "Do you recognize either of these two?"
"They was in church with us this mornin'." Mrs. James tapped the picture of Lorna. "Cleophus took a shine to them, her especially. Went on and on about them havin' 'soul'."
The lady commissioner pondered what she'd been told, then asked a final question. "Mrs. James, did Jezebel have any musical talent?"
"She sang like a little angel, but I don't see what that's got to do with-"
"Thank you, that will be all." She closed the file and began to stack her papers. When she was sure the Jameses were out of earshot, she picked up the phone again. "Force operator? Get me Maury Sline, and make sure he knows there's booking involved."
"3217 East eighteenth," Callie repeated, reading the print on the card.
"Good, we got it right!" Lorna rolled down her window and leaned her head all the way out. "Nice little building they've got, too."
J.J got out of the backseat to look. "Not bad."
"Not bad?" Lorna exclaimed, also getting out. "Next to where Callie and I come from, this place could be Shangri-La!" She thought about it. "Except, you know, no Brendan Fraser dying next to his son and two beautiful Asian women who can't die."
"So are we done looking at the outside, or do you two need a moment?
Lorna rolled her eyes. "It's all right, Callie. We can go in now. She went over to the left side of the car to intercept her as she got out. "I was just telling J.J how this place makes Saint Helen's look like a dump."
Now it was Callie's turn to roll her eyes. "The world makes Saint Helen's look like a dump." She looked wistfully up at the tall apartment complex. "But you're right." She looked at Lorna. "What should we say if we have to buzz ourselves up?"
Lorna looked worried. "We didn't think about that, did we?"
Jezebel made a face. "Are you kiddin' me? Buzzing ourselves up? In a fancy place like this?" She shook her head. "We're gonna have to go in and talk to a real person."
"Real people, joy." Callie sighed and stepped over the curb. "Well, since we came all the way here…"
"Let's go." Lorna led the pack up to the glass front door and opened it. Inside the building, the walls were a creamy beige and the floors were a golden yellow, every surface adorned with a texture or work of art.
J.J looked around, tensing. "Where the heck are we, trapped in 50's reception office land?"
"Chill out," said Callie, stepping to the front of the group. "The newest additions to our band might live upstairs somewhere, and anyone who can afford to put themselves up here is useful for resources at the very least." She caught sight of the end of the hall and picked up her pace. The lady behind the reception desk looked up pleasantly as they approached.
"Hello, girls. May I help you?"
Callie cleared her throat. "Do the Marinis live here?"
The receptionist frowned. "Who said that?"
"I did." Callie jumped and propped herself up on the desk surface, lifting her toes a good inch off the floor. "Is one of these apartments occupied by Caroline and Maxwell Marini?"
"Why yes, I believe I know those names." The lady went to her computer and pulled up an occupants list. "Here we are!" she said after a moment. "Suite 5A. I'll give them a ring and let them know they're about to have company!"
J.J frowned. "But-"
"Thanks, ma'am!" Lorna lifted Callie down and began to walk away.
"What just happened?" J.J asked as they stopped to call the elevator.
"To borrow Callie's ethos here, we won. Don't question it." The elevator nearest them dinged and they climbed in. "But now that I think of it, it may not be a good thing that they know we're coming."
Callie laughed. "I can already picture them climbing out the window." She looked around frantically. "Uh…we're not home! Come back in five minutes!"
"Oh, come on, Cece," said Jezebel, scolding her over the fresh peal of laughter. "Granted we don't know anything about them, but I don't think they'd do that to us."
Callie rolled her eyes. "I was joking J.J, okay?"
Jezebel raised her eyebrows. "Really?"
Callie held her ground for a moment, then sighed, defeated. "Not really."
"She's got a point though, Callie." Lorna looked at her seriously. "They get along with Sam and Andy. Sam seems like a pretty ambiguous, easygoing guy to me, but the little guy's different. Anyone who can endure a friendship with that child has got to have patience cubed."
"Plus…" Lorna leaned down close to Callie's ear. "You wouldn't want to miss this puzzle piece in your next-generation game."
"Don't I know it," Callie murmured back. "Talk about luck."
The elevator stopped and its doors opened on the fifth floor. Callie straightened her hat and took a deep breath.
"Come on," J.J urged, nudging her forward. "Out you go…"
Callie stepped hesitantly out of the elevator, then forward to the floor directory. "Suites A through M to the right." She turned the corner, and there it was at the end of the hall. 5A. Slowly once more, she went forward. "Here goes nothing." She knocked.
"One second!" came a female voice from behind the door. There was the sound of quick footsteps, and then a squeak as the door opened a crack and a pair of big brown eyes and a shock of red hair peeked though.
"Company, I presume?" asked the same voice.
Callie nodded. "Yes ma'am."
The door opened wider and their greeter stepped out. She had a seemingly delicate appearance— pale skin, doll-like hands, smallish features, and short, carefully combed ginger locks. She stood in front of her door for a moment, looking them over. After a minute or so had passed, she took three paces forward, standing nose to nose with Lorna.
Lorna flinched away. "Hey, what's you deal?"
The girl took a step back, looking up at the ceiling. "Well, I wouldn't exactly call you tall by my standards, but I suppose most people are, compared to Mrs. Lee." She walked backwards to her door, pushing it all the way open. "Come in."
"Thanks…" said J.J, taking up the rear as they filed inside.
"Bear! Is that company?"
The girl sighed with a smile as she closed the door. "Yes it is, Max."
"How tall is the tall one?"
"Our height," she answered, following the voice to the living area.
"Ha! It figures. We never meet any real tall people. Only posers."
Lorna made a confused face. "Ouch?"
"Nothing personal," 'Bear' said quickly. "We just feel it's a letdown to us that by the outside world's standards, we're only slightly above average in that respect, while in our apartment building run by an old 5'4 lady, we're considered giants."
"And Mrs. Lee is the lady we met downstairs?" Callie asked, leaning on the arm of their L-couch.
Their hostess tapped the side of her head. "Context clues!" She noticed Callie's stance. "Please, all of you, sit down."
"Thanks," J.J repeated, still looking and feeling uncomfortable.
"So…yeah, wow." Callie sat forward, looking dubiously around her. If the rest of the building had been a 50's waiting room, the group had just entered the 60's and hippie paradise. The walls and floors were frog green, accented by the psychedelic posters and spinning wind catchers hanging from the ceiling, and all the furniture, even the couch, was tie-dyed.
"This is a trippy place you've got here," she said at last.
The boy sprawled out across from them in a beanbag chair sat up and smiled. "How groovy of you to say so." He leaned forward, putting his arm out. "Hi, I'm Max."
Callie half-smiled back, shaking his hand. "I'm Calloway."
He tipped his head to the side. "Nice name. Where'd you get it?"
"That's cool." He let go of her hand, looking over at J.J and Lorna. "And look! More people! Care Bear, we have to know them!"
She smiled and shook her head. "Forgive Max, he's got the social tools and skills of a five year-old but still somehow manages to get away with it. I'm Caroline, or 'Care Bear' if you like, and this, as you all know by now, is my twin brother Max."
"Twin brother?" Callie took off her shades. "Do people recognize you two as twins, or is it more of, like, a fun fact that you have to point out?"
Caroline considered. "More of a fun fact, I'd say. It'd probably be easier to tell if Max was ginger or I was blond. But we live with it."
Max scooted forward in the beanbag. "So the rest of you: who are you?"
J.J held up her hand. "I'm Jezebel."
"And I'm Lorna," Lorna added. "Of course, the three of us also go by the rock star names Thorn, J.J, and Cece."
Max laughed quietly. "Rock star names, good one."
"What time is it?" Caroline asked abruptly.
Lorna whipped out her phone. "7:05."
"Tea time." She stood up and brushed herself off. "Anyone else want something while I'm up? Water? Milk? Chocolate milk? Leftover Chinese food?"
"Oh God yes, if you wouldn't mind," said J.J gratefully. "The leftover Chinese food. I don't think any of us ate lunch."
"Sure, no problem." Caroline hurried off towards their kitchen area, light pink silk kimono billowing behind her. "We don't have a lot left, but we're happy to share."
Max gave the group a concerned look. "Why didn't you eat lunch?"
Callie winced. "We were busy. We had so much to do…"
"Shopping," said J.J.
"Driving," said Lorna.
"Official business," Callie finished.
"Speaking of which…" Caroline called over the noise of the microwave, "how did you know to ask for us at the front desk?"
"Pardon?" said Callie.
"Yeah, when Mrs. Lee called us, she said that a black girl, a tall, blond girl and a tiny she-didn't-know-what asked for us and she sent them up." Max looked at Callie. "But you're a girl, aren't you?"
"Yep." She took off her hat, letting her braids fall out.
"Good, that's what I was thinking."
"So how do you know us?" Caroline stopped the microwave and removed the white cardboard boxes. "Or of us." She went into a drawer for forks. "Did someone send you?"
"Sam and Andy Cropper."
Caroline laughed. "Oh, them."
Max chuckled. "It was Andy, right?"
"Right-o." Callie pulled out the business card to show to them.
Max guffawed. "I remember making those! Care Bear, come and see this!"
"What is it?" Caroline, balancing three paper boxes and respective forks in her arms, placed one in front of each guest and turned her attention to the card. "Oh my gosh, we made those almost two years ago."
"And the kid kept it all this time." Max sighed. "Cute kid."
"And Sam's sort of cute too, don't you think?" Caroline sat down and sipped her tea. "But it would never work out between us. Max and I are going away to college in the fall, we own this apartment and we have jobs, and Sam's going to school in state and still lives with his parents."
"You own the apartment?" Callie asked.
"Seriously, kid?" said Lorna. "That's what you got out of that?"
"Yes, we do," said Caroline, addressing Callie. "Our parents gave us the down payment for our birthday, and we've invested enough in the building since then to last us a good while." She sipped her tea again. "I'm sorry, we went and changed the subject on you again. Why'd Sam and Andy send you to us?"
Callie chewed her final bite of crab rangoon and swallowed. "Here's the thing." She folded her hands and shifted in her seat to look between the siblings. "We want to ask you to be in our band." Caroline opened her mouth to speak, but Callie stopped her. "Just hear me out. We obviously only just met, but I see you as very cool, together, and above all very patient people." She kicked Lorna, who was snickering. "The group is the brainchild of Thorn and myself. We picked up J.J early on, and Sam and Andy have also agreed to join us. In a month, we hope to have an R+B group worthy of competing in the Battle of the Bands competition at the Chicago House of Blues."
"We're in," said Caroline.
"We- what?" said Callie, dumbfounded.
"We're in," Caroline repeated. "At least, I am. Max?"
"Nah, me too. We." Max sat up attentively. "Sounds enjoyable."
"Just like that?" said Jezebel, her mouth full of lo mein.
"What have we got to lose?" Max laid back in his chair again.
Caroline shrugged. "He's right. We've had nothing better to do so far this summer, and we've been dying to do a Battle of the Bands ever since we saw School of Rock."
Max put his arm up in the air. "I pledge allegiance, to the band."
Callie grinned. "Awesome! We've got at least half the people we need now."
Lorna closed her box. "So, what instruments do you guys play?"
"All of them," Max deadpanned.
Callie raised an eyebrow. "Seriously?"
"By the loosest definition, it's still not all the way true," Caroline said. "Our dad was a big-time musician, so we were introduced to the concept when we were very little. I wasn't very good on anything but cowbell at that point, but Max could do anything he picked up." She looked ruefully at her brother. "We almost got him into this pretentious music conservatory school in New York, but he bombed his interview because he 'didn't demonstrate a good work ethic.'" She sighed. "But anyway, since then, I've picked up the electric bass, and Max hasn't really settled on a legitimate-"
"Since when is the harmonica illegitimate?" Max asked Caroline, pulling his out of his pocket. "Since when aren't pianos and kazoos allowed to have babies? Love is love."
"He does this all the time," Caroline muttered.
"No, hold on a sec." Callie looked at Max. "Are you any good on that thing?"
Max smiled. "Allow me to demonstrate." He cleared his throat and held the harmonica in his lap. "Turn on the light!" he sang. "Let it shine on me! Turn on your loooooove light! Let it shine on me! Let it shine, shine, shine, let it shiiiiiiine, aaaow!" Then he lifted up his harmonica and began to play. Caroline seemed embarrassed by her brother, but at that moment, she fully believed that Max could play any instrument he picked up. He was good. Everyone applauded loudly when he was finished.
"O-kay!" Callie said, even more cheerful than before. "We now have a new bass and harmonica slash vocalist!"
"Not to blatantly quote Sam Cropper, but, wait. Hoooold on a second." J.J waited for the laughter to die down. "Care Bear hasn't played for us."
"True," Callie allowed. "But neither has Lorna and you haven't sung for us by yourself."
J.J stood up. "Trio. Right now."
"Sit down, J.J," Lorna drawled.
"Besides, that may not have been a good idea anyway," Caroline added. "Most of the other building residents are old people getting ready for bed." She stood up, heading for another corner of the apartment. "On that subject, you three are spending the night."
J.J frowned. "But we didn't ask-"
"Roll with it," Lorna growled.
"You're saving us from our boredom for 30 days and were most likely going to ask us anyway," Max pointed out. "It's the least we can do."
"Here you guys go…" Caroline returned with a giant stack of blankets. "You can set up anywhere except for Max's room."
"Obvious exception," Max agreed.
"Thank you," Callie said. "I'm so sorry about our imposition."
"Chinese leftovers and extra blankets aren't an imposition." Caroline looked at the wall clock. "And sorry to ditch you guys like this, but Max and I play late nights at a club a few blocks from here, so we should be going." She shed her kimono and replaced it with a sparkly jacket from the coat hook. "You coming, Max?"
Max had gone into a corridor and had come back with a large case. "You almost forgot your instrument, Bear!"
"Oh, thanks." She took it. "Ready?"
"Bye!" she called one last time as they left.
J.J shook her head. "Crazy." She stood up. "Excuse me, I'm gonna find a toilet."
"Lorna?" Callie asked after Jezebel had left.
"My box is in the car, right?"
"Sure is, kiddo."
"Under the seat?"
"Is that where you left it?"
"Then it's there."
"Good." Callie flopped to the side. "Dibs on the couch."
"Great." Lorna stood up and looked around. Finally, she took a blanket from the top of the stack and nested herself in Max's Lovesac. "Good night, Callie."
"Night, Lorn." Callie took off her hat and coat and put them on the ground. "Soon Dad, soon." Satisfied, she closed her eyes and fell into a sound sleep.