"Good morning!" Duck sang out. She elbowed open her dusty window. "How are you?" A barrage of birds greeted her, swooping into her room and picking away at the pan of crumbs in her hands. "No, wait – ouch! Stop! Here!" She quickly dropped the pan on the windowsill and watched them peck away. "Yep… some things don't change." She flopped onto her bed, resting her chin in her hands, and watched them. "Guess what? Missy Frank's party last night was killer! Everyone was there… All the coolest people. And they were all dancing. And the music-!" She sighed. "It was really something…" She stood and pulled off her old nightgown and tossed it onto the barren wood flooring. "I mean, how often do rappers come around to give private performances? And DJ Clashho was there! I always love his remixes!"
In the corner of her room, a closet door stood, partially open. She yanked it open and began to sort through the few shirts she had. Her hand brushed against a small white hoodie hidden in the back. She paused, frowning. "I… I wish I could wear that always. Imagine always being Princess Bling. But… then maybe people wouldn't like me anymore. I mean, I'm just Duck. The girl with the silly name. The clutz, right?" She stood there for a moment, clutching her threadbare yellow shirt. "Though it's not like anyone around here is really what you'd call wealthy or famous or anything. But…" She sighed and pulled her shirt on and went over to the wardrobe. On top of the wardrobe sat a necklace hanger. Hanging from it was a simple pendant with a ruby stone. She fingered it absently before unhooking it and fastening it around her neck. "Still."
She thumped down the stairs, not really noticing how dismal her apartment was compared to the homes other people might live in. Dusty scatters of papers and bills crowded the small kitchen table, and dishes teetered in piles in the sink.
"Yeesh…" She cringed as a bug crawled out of a dirty bowl. "I guess I'll have to wash those tonight. Yuck." She pulled a package of Pop Tarts from a cupboard and set them in the toaster. She leaned against the counter, thinking. "But… I have to work tonight, too. If I'm late, Manuel will be angry with me. Though he is pretty lenient." She gave a sigh of irritation. "So much to do tonight!"
She slumped over to the sagging couch and turned on the TV. It was set to a local channel, and it featured several news anchors discussing a party that was to be thrown that night… Her eyes widened as footage of the boy hip hop band The Ebb played in the background. "The Ebb will be performing at a party here in the city – TONIGHT?" She gave a squeal of joy and fell backwards on the couch, clutching a throw pillow. "Eek! I can't believe it!" She sat up and leaned closer to the TV in her excitement. There, next to the leader of the group, was her favorite… Ren. "Oh, Ren. You're so handsome…" She sighed and inched closer to the concert footage of him performing. Those long eyebrows and wide, golden eyes… The way he could command the crowd with his confident smile and voice… "How does he do it?" she pondered with a thoughtful frown. The click of the toaster in the adjacent room alerted her to her finished Pop Tarts.
She hopped up and reached for them. "Youch! Hot!" She wrung her hand, then quickly grabbed and dropped them onto a plate. She took a determined bite out of the one that wasn't quite so warm. "Mm. A party, huh? I wonder… I wonder when it'll take place. I wonder if people will expect Princess Bling to show." Her hand came up to brush her pendant.
Later that morning, she was walking the school halls with her friends Lilie and Pique. "Oh, I can't believe it! Did you hear? The Ebb's going to be at some girl's 18th birthday party! She's so lucky!" Chattered Pique. "Oh, I wonder who'll be there! You know other celebrities are bound to show up! They're one of the wealthiest families in town," Lilie added. "Hm…" Duck frowned absently. "Duck, are you listening? THE EBB! HERE! IN THE QUAD CITIES!" Lilie grabbed her arm and squeezed it. "YOUCH YEAH I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW!" Duck shrieked. "Oh, would you look at that?" gushed Lilie. "She's so excited she can't contain herself!" Pique groaned. "Um, that was mostly because of you, Lilie…" Duck grimaced and rubbed her arm. "Anyways, it's not like anyone we really know would be there… We're not famous or anything…" muttered Duck. "Oh, cheer up, Duck! You know, when there's a will, there's a way!" cried Lilie. "Hm?" Duck's head shot up. "Silly, what does that even mean?" Pique snorted. "Well, it does fit, doesn't it?" retorted Lilie.
Duck looked down the hall, lost in thought. "Does that mean… If I'm determined to go… I can?" The pendant bounced against her neck with each step. "Of course! I can go as… But… I have to work, anyways… And with Mom not around… there's no way I can go." She winced. "Who's throwing the party again?" asked Lilie. "Check it out!" Pique held up a copy of the daily paper. "It's over in Rock Island… Take a look!" She pressed it into Duck's hands. Her eyes scanned the article. "Cate Zeondo? It's her party? Didn't she go to school here? It starts at 8:00 and goes until midnight… Wow, she's lucky. A private concert from The Ebb! And Ren would be there…"
Pique grinned and elbowed Duck. "OHO! You like Ren, eh? I dunno, he's a little girly…"
"WHA? Really?" Duck blushed brick red.
"No, silly, I'm just messing with you! I prefer the leader, Mott… But I guess Ren's okay." Duck's deep red tone subsided. "Oh… heheh. I mean, um…" Her train of thought was interrupted as a girl with dark brown hair brushed by. Their eyes grew wide. "Wow, Rue…" breathed Pique. "She even walks with confidence. And why shouldn't she? She's such an amazing dancer… And we're klutzes. But still! I wonder if she's going to the party…?" Duck stared at the paper. The end of it listed several notable guests, along with the line – 'mysterious local socialite Princess Bling is also invited to attend.'
The bell rang. "Oh, crap, we're late!" shouted Pique. She and Lilie took Duck's arms. "Let's go!" Duck shrieked as they pulled her down the hall. The paper fluttered out of her hands. "No, waittttttttttt-!"
That evening, she was on her hands and knees scrubbing at a mysterious stain in a store. She worked for Manuel's Maintenance and Cleaning as a janitor…. And it wasn't very fun work. She sighed and brushed her bangs out of her eyes. "Another down… Just a few more to go!" She wetted her rag in the bucket of soapy water next to her. "What time is it…?" She checked a nearby clock. "Only seven! If I hurry I can go home and get the dishes done and dust and do my homework and…" Her face fell as she realized how much work she had to do yet that evening. "Aw, man, there's no way I can make that party! Cate will be disappointed… And I won't get to see Ren." She slumped over on the damp floor. "It's hopeless…"
The clank of boots next to her startled her up. She blushed and began to scrub super hard on the floor. "Hi, Mr. Manuel! I'm almost done, so…" She sighed and stopped. "Oh, what's the use?" she whispered. Mr. Manuel, a heavy-set but kind-hearted man, peered down at her for a long moment. "What's the matter, Duck?" Duck sighed again and looked out across the room. "I – I was supposed to be somewhere tonight, but I have so much to do! Mom's still out somewhere, and I've got chores to do and my homework and…" she hid her face in her hands. "I don't know what to do!"
Mr. Manuel was silent for a time. Then he spoke. "Why don't you take the night off? If you have somewhere to be, and so much to do already, you shouldn't be breaking your back for my sake."
Duck blushed. "N-No! I need the money! And you're counting on me, I can't-"
Mr. Manuel's face crinkled in a smile. "I'm not completely helpless, Duck. I can finish up here myself. And you'll still get your full pay. It's alright."
Duck grinned in hope. "Really?"
Mr. Manuel nodded.
Duck flew up and gave an awkward curtsy. "Oh, thank you so much, Mr. Manuel!" She dropped her rag in the bucket and flew out the door, into the warm night. "If I hurry," she thought with determination, "I can get the chores done and be out to the party in a half hour flat!"
Back at home, she struggled to balance the rest of the clean dishes into a cupboard. "There… that's the last of them!" She whirled up the stairs and tore her hoodie off its hanger. She threw off her old t-shirt and pulled on the hoodie along with a pair of loose, dark denim jeans. She then turned to her wardrobe with its old, sturdy mirror and pulled a pair of wings shaped as cups from a drawer. With two rubber bands, she pulled her long hair into compact buns on the sides of her head and pinned the wings over them. In went two gold hoop earrings, the only pair she owned. She was nearly ready…
Duck took a deep breath. With trembling fingers, she slid the pendant off its plain thread and restrung it on a pretty gold chain. She took a few other beads from a dish and snapped them onto the pendant via a clasp on the back. Hands now steady, she clasped the necklace around her neck. And when she looked up at her reflection, the girl she was just moments ago was gone, or rather, enhanced. Her eyes sparkled with a new fire, a confident smile upon her lips.
Princess Bling had arrived.
The cab pulled up outside and honked. With a new swing in her step, she pulled her hood up over her head and climbed inside.
"Where to, miss?" The cabbie asked. He did a faint double take in the rear view mirror. "Wait – are you…?"
"To the Zeondo's residence, please." She smiled.
The bass outside the mansion was ridiculous, so she could only guess at how loud it actually was inside. She thought she recognized the beat, but was unsure as to what the song was. Outside the tall, iron gates, the cab stopped. She handed the cabbie a $20 bill, shook off her hood, and climbed out. The gates were partially open, with bouncers standing guard with clipboards. A long line of people were waiting to enter, all laughing and talking giddily. It didn't take a celebrity to know this was the biggest party of the year. On the right side was a shorter line of people – probably those higher up on the guest list. She glided over and waited patiently.
When it was her turn at the gate, the bored man looked up. His eyes got big once he'd taken in her appearance. "Name?"
"Princess Bling." She smiled.
He gaped. "Really? Well, it's – it's an honor to have you here, Bling." He opened the gate and motioned for her to go in, his arm trembling. Blushing, she entered.
Up the path to the mansion's impressive, glass front doors. Up the stone steps lined with well-trimmed bushes… She'd never been in such an impressive piece of property. "I wonder how much they pay for upkeep…?" she whispered, glimpsing a rose garden and pool in the back yard. There were more bouncers at the front door.
"Name-" the man began to ask, but a girl with blond hair and ridiculously chunky purple earrings burst past him.
"Bl-Bling?" She shrieked.
Princess Bling nodded with a smile. "You are…?"
"Oh, my gosh! It's such a freaking honor to have you here! I'm Cate! The birthday girl!" She took Bling's hand in a surprisingly strong grip and gave it several good shakes. "Come in, come in!" She pulled Bling inside.
The main room was enormous, easily big enough to fit 4 or 5 normal sized houses. It was very dark, lit only by flashing strobe lights and a disco ball that sparkled from the ceiling. It was crowded, too – a very impressive turnout for anyone's birthday bash. To the right, several buffet tables were laden with punch, wine, and dainty snacks. The lights were pulsing to the beat of Lose Control – a song she hadn't heard in ages. Her hips began to bounce to the beat.
"Oh, wow," she breathed. Cate giggled. "You like it? You've probably heard, but – God, I just can't believe The Ebb is performing here!"
Bling's eyes widened. "They're here already?"
"Yeah, they got here a half hour ago to set up. They're so hot!" Cate stage whispered.
Bling turned to the makeshift stage at the back of the room. Sure enough, there were several boys standing atop it, tuning instruments and adjusting microphones. And – she blushed – Ren was there, taking to a man with a headset. Several groupies had already gathered around the edge of the stage, screaming names and waving pieces of paper.
"God, that's sooo embarrassing!" groaned Cate. "I told them to lay off, but I guess the hormones won out."
Bling forced herself to laugh, unable to take her eyes off Ren.
"Wanna get a closer look?" Cate asked slyly, following Bling's gaze. Before she could say no, Cate had her wrist in a death grip and pulled her to the edge of the stage. Although she would've thought they'd surely be lost in the crowd of girls, Cate had them to the front of the mob in no time. A few of the boys looked up, throwing smiles and nods their way. Cate giggled in bashful excitement, but Bling only had eyes for Ren – the boy she'd watched for so long on screen was now right before her. A spark of adrenaline lit in her stomach and traveled up through her veins. Her heart skipped a beat when he looked up at them. His eyes swept over the girls and landed on her and Cate. Cate flung her arm up and waved wildly at him. He laughed but stopped abruptly when he saw Princess Bling. Blushing, Bling lifted her hand and gave it a small shake. Their gaze broke when Cate tugged on Bling's hoodie. "Hey, the show's gonna start in a few minutes! Wanna get a seat?"
Bling looked away from Ren and smiled at her. "Sure."
In the back of the room, several men were setting up folding chairs. The dancers in the middle of the room cleared to the sides to make room for the seating. Cate led her to the closest section of chairs to the stage and they took a seat. Cate giggled and bit her lip. "I'm sorry if I'm too… you know. It's just – God, you're such a local legend! I wasn't even totally sure you existed. I mean, well – you don't go to too many parties, and there aren't any photos of you. You just go in and do your thing! I hear you dance crazy good! How do you do it?" Cate rested her chin in her hands.
Bling blushed and thought for a moment. "Well… Since I was little, I loved to dance, but being in a rough neighborhood, there's really no place to dance safely. Then kids started coming around with stereos and old boom boxes, and I realized… I could dance. And I guess people thought highly enough of my dancing to start inviting me around. Though I still prefer to dance on the street." Her hand flew to her pendant, and she thought miserably, 'Well, I can dance as Princess Bling, but as Duck, no one would want to be around me. I'm always such a clutz when I'm myself… What is it about dressing up like this that changes me?'
"You're so confident…" sighed Cate. A group of girls wandered over to them and took Cate's attention. "Hey, ladies! Guess who's here?" she called, gesturing to Bling. The girls squealed and ran over to crowd her, breaking Bling's train of thought. She was preoccupied until the leader of The Ebb, Mott, turned on the mics and came forward on the stage. The music and strobe lights stopped, and new lights appeared on stage.
"Good evening, everyone. Gentlemen… ladies," he winked. The girls in the room went crazy. "We're here to celebrate Miss Cate Zeondo's 18th birthday. You enjoying yourself, Cate?" he called out, and Cate blushed and managed to nod. "We're going to perform some of our own hits, but we also got a hold of a list of Cate's personal favorites, so we'll cover those too. First we're performing… Pay Up!" He shot his fist into the air, and the crowd went insane. He fell back with the rest of the group, the lights dimmed, and they began to play.
The pounding bass shook the ground, and Bling took an uneasy look around her at the raging fan girls. Perhaps this hadn't been the best idea… She gripped the seat of her chair and tried to relax. Sitting still just wasn't her thing tonight – she'd come to DANCE, after all! But then, she'd known The Ebb would be performing, so what did she expect? Well, more dancing and less screaming, that's for sure. There WERE some kids dancing, but it was more of a grind and jump thing. Not much thought in that.
The song ended soon enough to save her from permanent brain damage, and they started a new track. Bling perked up – what was this song? Didn't she have it on a CD at home? She had a huge collection, though, so it wasn't too uncanny that she didn't recognize it right off the bat.
Ren took the front of the stage, and she unconsciously leaned forward in her seat, eyes huge. His vocal range was a bit higher than Mott's, so he did most of the really strenuous singing. The music started, even louder and more thunderous than in Pay Up, and she cupped her hands over her ears.
"Dear, I fear we're facing a problem," Ren started. Bling's hands slid away from her ears, and she gazed up in awe. How could he sing so… so…?
You love me no longer, I know, and maybe there is nothing that I can do to make you do." He gaze out into the crowd with miserable eyes. Bling felt that spark slid back up her spine…
"Mama tells me I shouldn't bother, that I ought just stick to another girl. A girl that surely deserves me… But I think you do." The bass pounded, and Ren threw his shoulders back in angst. "So I cry, I pray, and I beg! Love me, love me! Say that you love me! Fool, fool me! Go on and fool me! Love me, love me! Pretend that you love me…! Leave me, leave me… Just say that you need me…" Bling felt her face stretch into a wide grin. 'I do love you, Ren...' She thought dreamily. She gave a gasp of surprise at her own thoughts, and clapped her hands over her mouth. 'What? Do I...?' Cate turned to her, eyebrows raised. "It's nothing," Bling assured her, resuming her previous posture. But for the rest of Ren's singing, the spark didn't leave her body. Finally, the song climaxed, and Ren spread his arms, eyes closed with the intensity of his voice.
"Love me, love me!" The guitar strummed violently. His messy brown hair fell across his brow. Bling, along with probably a dozen other girls, couldn't suppress a sigh of desire.
"Fool, fool me! Love me, love me! I can't care about anything but you!" He fell from where he'd balanced on the edges of his toes and collapsed in on himself, looking adorably dejected. The song went on for a few more beats, then fell abruptly. The crowd went wild, screaming themselves hoarse, as Ren took a grateful bow and fell back into his previous spot on the back of the stage.
Bling let out a gasp of withheld amazement. "Wow... He's... he's amazing!"