Welcome, readers young and old. How fortunate of you to come across this mess of a masterpiece! I hope "Soft and Tender the Trigger" gives a pleasurable experience without inducing too much cringe. I put a lot of passion into this piece, so any reviews, comments, favorites, or personal messages would be very appreciated. This is my only shameless plug.
One last thing needs to be mentioned: Because I have an OC, it's obvious that he would be singing along with the cast to certain parts of the OST. Brief references to these songs will be sprinkled now and then, but I'd rather not waste time inserting lyrics and describing what characters do through every phrase.
With all that in mind, let the journey begin!
Chapter One: Pick and Roller
The feeling is simple to describe, yet tougher to acquire than needles from haystacks. I know what it's like, who doesn't? It's that warmth of a young one cuddled underneath the body of its mother; the unforgettable comfort of fuzzy socks and cocoa in front of a classic Broadway broadcast; and the melodies of a nostalgic tune.
What is it not? Rowdiness. Slammed lockers. The chaos which ensued my travels from English to where my Study Hall would lie.
Basketball jocks flew by me with their sweaty athletic reel. Gossip from loud and sassy Juniors rung against my ears. Lockers slammed to and fro, bright lights threatened spotty vision, and the limited space in East High's hallways filled me with claustrophobia.
To say I was taking things in stride would be a massive overstatement.
Hallways were not supposed to be packed. Thirty people weren't supposed to fit in one classroom. I was not supposed to be overwhelmed, and my Strattera never induced this much anxiety.
Long story short, I was bustling through East High and needed to escape the clutches of a meltdown.
A door handle to the music room was my holy grail, seated just around one of the staircases. I trembled towards it, the force of my momentum pushing the door wide open. After stepping inside, I slammed the entry shut, along with all the blinds in my temporary classroom. Finally, privacy.
The tiled floor was hard yet chill enough for me to get my bearings. My eyelids tightened, tears spilling out despite my attempt to calm down. Whatever breathing pattern I had made itself known to me... it's what I needed to focus on slowing down.
I don't know how long it took. Five, eight minutes perhaps. Regardless, I was able to regain control over myself, sprawled next to the single grand piano and its silky black wooden frame. It was definite progress considering how much I was curled up beforehand.
Now in the comfort of something familiar, I began to debate practicing a tune. East High was getting into the second semester, so there was a lack of time to debate what musical programs would suit me best. From private piano lessons to small vocal groups, and even the coveted winter musical production, many options were available in Albuquerque's school. At this point, I needed to cram some practice in, and the piano was going to help.
I opened the lid covering the glossed white and black keys, placed a flimsy notebook filled with ideas on the small and-
A binder fell from where I slid my book, papers splayed all around, each one filled with printed lead and accompaniment sheets for a "Twinkle Towne" musical. My hands instinctively reached for the binder, careful not to rip out any pages. Considering the penmanship crossing out and adding in tidbits of info, there was no doubt for the work to be vital.
"'Scuse me, uhm," called out a young woman.
I gasped, hopping to my feet and slamming the piano lid shut, my booklet falling in front of me. The two of us hopped again at the loud noise I made, and I squeezed the binder instinctively. In front of me was a brunette with glasses and a beret, satchel in hand.
And she was pretty... and quiet... and how did she get inside without me knowing? The blinds that didn't fold away the sun let light linger throughout the room, rows of brightness patterning against the girl. Muffled meandering outside the door was lost to the echoing of the grand next to me. My eyes captured the image of her, thus the first time I've met someone so different at first glance.
I had no clue where to start, trying to get past how she got in the room than what she was here for, "I-I-I I'm sorry, ma'am, is thi-this yours?"
"Yeah..." she nodded along with her soft voice, "It's got my name in the music."
Another quick peek at the first sheet in the binder confirmed her statement. "Kelsi Nielsen? Y-you're the composer?"
"Yes," a tiny smile curled her face, lighting up the definition in her cheeks. She sure did look like a Kelsi, and her attire and packed satchel went well with the likes of a busy person. "That would be for the upcoming winter musical. Auditions are soon, so..."
"So... you need it?" I relaxed my grip on the binder and reached it out toward her. There wasn't a bit of anger in her eyes. I could get used to talking to soft-spoken folks like Kelsi. She reminded me of the quiet tone my mother had.
The girl stepped toward me and slowly took hold of the binder, not without saying her thank you. "What's your name?"
"Eran. Uhm, Eran Raine. I-I should probably let you go to the auditions, yeah?"
"You're welcome to tag along, Eran." Kelsi offered, twisting her shoulders back and forth. "There's no room to sign up, but Miss Darbus will let anyone take a shot... I think."
I could feel the warmth return to my cheeks, maybe a little much warmth. It was an irresistible offer to test myself, but I wasn't cut out yet. "Thanks, but I'm not sure if tha-that's gonna... I haven't even - haven't even seen the words to the first song."
"Relax, it's a high school musical, not Broadway New York." The girl slowly turned a heel, as if she was intending to recede along with her gesture.
My grandfather once taught me to keep a good eye on someone offering you a favor. Somedays, I could still feel his callused farmer's hand slapping me in the back. 'Now, Eran... Since Grandma offered us meat 'n potatoes, you take that offer. If the food is good, you stay. And if it's not, you eat it anyway.'
He said something along those lines more than I actually ate my grandmother's cooking. It was always good and cooked with love, but I was a picky eater back then.
Now wasn't the time to be picky, he wouldn't've been too proud.
"Wait! I'll come along. It's real, right?" My words left my lips before I could make a final decision.
"I would've left two minutes ago if it wasn't."
Moments later, Kelsi and I were grouped with classmates I haven't seen before, headed towards the campus's theater hall. Quite a few other hopefuls were strung along with Miss Darbus. However, the drama teacher was quite moody, deliberate in her steps and pace. It was hard for me to believe I'd have much of a chance in the musical, given how many tunes I've lacked practice with. The director made it clear during our travels.
I took a seat with the other kids when we made our way indoors. Kelsi and Miss Darbus didn't hesitate to take the staircase upstage. The former gave a few claps to quiet the room down.
"This," she called towards everyone in the front seats, arms dramatically opened wide, "is where the true expression of the artist is realized."
What in the seven heavens did I walk myself into?
Her soliloquy was interrupted by the warning bell, shocking everyone including myself, fearful that cell phones would be taken away. Darbus's voice carried forth, enunciating how little time was guaranteed, and the selection process for the many roles needed to be quick.
"First, you will sing a few bars, and I will give you a sense of whether the theater is your calling. Better to hear it from me now than from your friends later." Yeah, this wasn't to be fair for anyone. It didn't take an amateur to figure out the hopefuls for a spot had a potentially rude awakening.
"Our composer Kelsi Nielsen will accompany you and be available for rehearsals before callbacks... Shall we!"
Kelsi bowed slightly, another small smile lighting up the room. I saw her eyes connect with mine, and I couldn't help but smile back a bit. This must have been the woman in a mode of aptitude, confident in her pieces as well as the fate of everyone seated along with me. Her eyes disengaged with us all as she paced towards the upright piano, setting up for the rest of the period to come.
"What I've Been Looking for" was a simple piece for me to memorize, yet everyone upon the stage was... enthusiastic for the most part. It was good, but not enough. Miss Darbus waved away those who couldn't perform well, soon filling up a paper with many quips and notes. Since I didn't sign up for that or with a partner as a pair, my shot at anything had to be backstage. I felt like my soul was coming back to me from the future. It felt bleak.
"Raine, you don't have a partner, but you're still here. Are you going to show us something?" Miss Darbus leaned an arm over the chair she was in, turning to face me. I could see in the corner of my vision Kelsi, who sat patiently on the piano bench. It didn't look like she was moving away soon.
"Sure, Miss Darbus, uhm." My legs moved before I could finish, finding themselves in front of Kelsi without any time to prepare myself. For anyone looking to perform, the true mark of stage-fright was easy to recognize: being in the right place at the right time for something you haven't prepared for.
I heard the quiet tapping of Kelsi's shoe tip against one of the pedals, counting off the tempo before the first chord. "What key?"
"Whichever one you wrote it for." I've heard this song many times, and the melody wasn't out of reach... I just needed to quit the quivering in my legs and arms. Breathe deep. Deep breaths. Connect with the moment the music provided... and remember the words all thirty other kids sang.
"It's hard to believe, that I couldn't see..."
They ebbed and flowed out of me like a wave gracing its shore. I taught myself throughout middle school to sing with warmth and clarity. Sightreading and repeating things by rhythm were a forte of mine. People at music contests did not rate me as a bass, but rather a baritone due to my extensive childhood practice. And the piece Kelsi composed was right where I needed to be.
I've never had a song as good for me as what we were auditioning with. The composer's craftsmanship made the piece simple, but her accompaniment was worth a scholarship to Julliard. It was mastered, out of the way, and very complimentary with the right voice.
I inhaled deeply and glanced towards the pianist, who took her eyes off her sheet music. The quick gaze she gave me was all I needed to know things were okay. I saw a little twinkle from her glasses, brighter than what future I was fearing. The two of us had some hope for something. Perhaps there was another spot on the list.
"Your voice, Jude. It's... real and fresh. I can't put words to it!" Mrs. Darbus exclaimed, her face showing much appreciation before shaking her head and calming down. "You would do very well singing alone, but I don't think you'd be fit for the theater scene."
"Uhm, thanks?" I queried, arms crossed over my torso.
"How you portray yourself is unnatural. You have heart and soul in what you do, that's not intrusive. However, it's out of place for someone looking to be choreographed. Ryan wouldn't be able to work with you as well as someone else."
I saw her excuses just like every other time I sang in front of some officials. They always talked about portrayal, execution, my erratic stature, and little things which took away from my voice. Blind eyes have called it weird. My body language was in the way and skewing communication. It was something I felt to be uncontrollable, one of my many obstacles towards pursuing my dreams.
I didn't fit the status quo...
"Miss Darbus," Kelsi flipped through papers after papers, searching for something of interest, "Twinkle Towne has an intermission between Acts One and Two. Can we give him something to do there?"
"I don't see why not, but we can't expect an audience to stay still, Ms. Nielsen."
"They don't have to be."
The older woman looked between the two of us, scratching her forehead to get her gears turning. Eventually, she sighed. "If you two are willing to figure something out, I'll give Jude until callbacks to present his... something."
How much audacity did Kelsi possess? I was ready to walk off the stage and call it a day, sign up for the choir or some other club... but this woman was insistent that I follow her here and now there was no way out!
I marched to the pianist, scrambling to see eye-to-eye with her. It was better to remain on people's good side, but whatever Kelsi was signing me up for was out of my league. Absolutely.
"Thanks for the idea, b-but I can't do that! Do you expect me to come up with a song just like that?"
The girl adjusted her beret, taking an earnest stand. "What were you looking to do back in the piano room?"
"I..." I couldn't find the words. Surely, I was going to practice for all the music-related activities, but there wasn't a clear direction I wanted to take. "I don't know."
Kelsi's arms fell on her lap from the piano as she turned to face me. I was surprised by how close we were but did not want to scoot back. There was no need for extra tension.
"Eran, if I wasn't the one playing piano, we would have nailed the audition together. You were performing better than any of the other classmates and I - I couldn't let it go to waste." A hand caressed one of Twinkle Towne's pages, slowly and delicately, like a child of her own. They caught her attention once more. "W-we can talk later. The pair auditions are starting soon."
Finding myself on the front row next to Mrs. Darbus, we waited for two blondes to prepare themselves... it looked like they knew exactly what to do, rolling in a radio, other students fumbling with curtains and microphones. They seemed to be going the second mile.
"Who are they, Ms. Darbus?" I inquired.
The woman was leaned over her table, excitement on full display for anyone curious to her new nature. "Sharpay and Ryan Evans. Watch, and they'll show you what I've been looking for."
The brother and sister blew my audition out of the water. Their rehearsal pianist had prepared a full accompaniment with different chord sequences, and the duo managed to choreograph everything from Jazz Squares to twirls and hops. Ryan was having a blast, and there was no embarrassment watching him get into the music.
It just didn't feel original. They were over the top for my tastes, save for a couple of stumbles.
"Well... are there any last-minute signups?" The director stood from her seat, glancing around the room. I saw Kelsi anxiously fiddling with her work before rushing towards Sharpay.
The two girls seemed to be in a heated discussion, but upon further inspection it became horrifically one-sided. Sharpay managed to back Kelsi to her seat, exclaiming at the end some forceful remark. It wasn't fair.
Kelsi managed me a favor, the most I could do was to return it to her. Besides, I don't like a control freak; no one ran things that way back at home.
"Hey, you can't do that to her." My legs carried me up the stairs once more, planting them beside my friend.
"On what grounds, newbie?" Her fiery stubbornness brought its attention towards me.
"Newbie... n-newbie?" I feigned insecurity. Heck, I felt vulnerable in my position, but so did most everyone else auditioning today, "You saw me up h-h-here just moments ago without reading a single wo-word from Kelsi's book. And you knew how good we sounded."
"Ha!" Sharpay flipped her head back with an obnoxiously loud laugh before smirking my way. She lifted two fingers, "They called that 'Im-pro-vi-sa-tion.' Face it, Eran, Kelsi's version lacks direction and you lack flare. I know what I'm doing, and neither of you will stop me. It will always be that way! Are we clear?"
"Yes ma'am- Sharpay!" The brunette replied, her lack of strength subdued towards "her highness."
There wasn't a way around this one. I had to comply before our princess scream. I could have sworn there was a devil on my shoulder, aching to burn Sharpay alive in defiance. "I... I guess."
She sighed, putting on a sickly sweet smile, fake and real all at once. And for the kicker, her microphone went to her lips as she sauntered off. "Nice talking to you!"
The pianist turned to her papers, packing them up and placing them inside quickly. "I said we would talk later," she reminded me dully.
"Later didn't look like a good time."
"And where are we now, any better than we once were?"
"Does that matter, you can't let someone in the same grade kick you out of your place-"
"Eran, I haven't gone anywhere!" She rose her voice, shutting her folder tight and leaving the bench, "I can just start something for the next sem- Woah!"
Kelsi didn't get far, tripping over a piano's wheel and throwing her papers everywhere. The two of us grew silent, her eyes on the mess in front of us... I went too far, and by the looks of it, she felt ashamed as well. This was a good time for the two of us to put aside our differences.
I started for the folder on the ground, heaving a sigh to relieve myself. Not even a second after, another pair of hands appeared next to ours.
"So, you're a composer?" Two people joined us. A darker-skinned girl and a taller guy. The latter addressed Kelsi, who didn't seem to have a thoughtful reaction.
This was Troy Bolton, son of the guys' basketball coach at East High. His being here was surprising to me, as well as the lady who I really couldn't identify. He was too popular to abandon his status as a ballplayer. I couldn't help but ask myself if that's what he came here for.
"You wrote the song Ryan and Sharpay just sang? And the entire show?"
Kelsi nodded weakly, now coming to terms with her contributions. Troy reminded me of my first moments meeting Kelsi, the awe of seeing all the pieces of an entire program in one place. He was very relaxed, that being the difference between the baller and me.
We all stood up, having handed Kelsi her work as Troy continued to address the composer, "Well, that's really cool! I, uh, can't wait to hear the rest of the show. So... why are you so afraid of Ryan and Sharpay? I mean, it is your show."
"It is?" She replied meekly.
I didn't see any fear radiating off of Kelsi until he mentioned the duo. How could have I been so blind? She took pleasure in her work but hasn't owned up to it since she found me. She must have been too insecure to press the truth forward.
"Isn't the composer of a show kinda like a playmaker in basketball?"
"Playmaker?" Kelsi and I replied in unison.
"You know," he shrugged, his friend smiling at his practicality. Troy knew how to be straightforward, "the one who makes everyone else look good. I mean, without you, there is no show. You're the playmaker here Kelsi."
He nodded in confirmation, turning towards me with a hand extended. "And who are you?"
"Eran Raine. Nice to meet you." I took it and gave it a few good pumps. Grandpa taught me very well how to shake someone's hand.
"You should know this one," the other lady said, almost laughing freely at my failure to catch on, "if I recall, the pick and roll is used to help the playmaker score, right?"
"Right, Gabriella! We watched you and Kelsi during your audition. It went hand in hand, like a good move on the court."
I let out a sigh before looking towards the two new faces in gratitude. "Thanks, you two. But, I'm not the best with basketball terminology."
"Do you wanna hear how the duet's supposed to sound?" Kelsi hurried back to the bench with a renewed vigor and opened her folder once more. The piano came to life, the same beautiful accompaniment reverberating through the hall again. I found myself on a knee once more, ready to turn whatever pages she needed, and the rest of us lot stood to her right, getting a good look at the music.
Troy and Gabriella blended like toast and jelly, losing themselves in the music. I was able to catch a few happy looks sent to one another, raising my own questions on how long the two have been friends. Kelsi…
The brunette focused on her song in a manner of unmatched devotion. Nothing would ever come between her heart and the soundwaves she formed. The song was loosely corny and the words were so cheesy, but singing them myself didn't produce that feeling.
"This feeling's like no other. I want you to know…"
I couldn't find myself playing the piano anymore, not if Kelsi was in the same room as I. I've never had someone accompany the way she did. I've never heard someone so delicate like her. My core felt like it was melting to whatever mold her music gave, her royal blue eyes transfixed on that goal.
"Wow… Nice trio," commented Troy.
"Bolton, Montez, you have a callback." Miss Darbus appeared from the back of the auditorium, rushing forward to give instructions. It looked like she's been promoted from director to drill sergeant. "Kelsi, give them the duet from the second act. Work on it with them. Raine, you're staying throughout next Thursday so I can hear your presentation. Have Kelsi's help if you need it."
The pianist launched from her seat, handing out copies of her music to Troy and Gabriella, the former trudging away in what looked to be a state of shock. Whatever relaxed structure he had faded upon the news Miss Darbus gave.
I wondered if he knew how I felt.
"What?" he said to nobody, Kelsi and Gabriella jabbering about plans to meet up and rehearse.
I couldn't help but shake my head, ambling toward the baller and putting a hand on his shoulder. "Welcome to the club, man."
"You can come and work with me anytime… or you can come to my house for breakfast. I have a piano; we can rehearse there. After school, before school, whatever works!"
Kelsi and I were walking down the steps of the front of East High. She insisted that I meet with her before heading home for the evening. With only a week to figure something out, we agreed all the help I could get would be detrimental to my success. Something still bugged me, though.
"Why me?" I hopped to ground level and faced her.
"What do you mean, you?" the girl removed her beret and held above her chest, messing with the hair on her head. She looked thoughtful with her arched brows.
I plopped onto the last step, watching the fountain in front of us. It was tall and majestic, unlike the direction of my thought process. The sun hid behind its concrete form, giving the water a picturesque glow. I wished for the fluid to be warm, something I could stay under until an officer kicked me off grounds.
My blue jeans suddenly felt nice as my hands rubbed up and down its thighs. I had to do this to keep calm. There was no need to let loose in front of a girl you didn't know. "Ever since you found me in that… that silly room, all you've done is offer stuff to me. Don't be so nice."
"Does someone have a problem with nice people?" She followed my lead, setting her satchel away to sit next to me. Kelsi asked me politely, but we could both hear the light tease in her voice.
"Yes," I droned, "how am I supposed to know if you're doing it for kicks?"
The girl smirked and shoved me off balance, causing me to holler before catching myself with my off-hand. "That, Eran, is for kicks. That's what people do when they wanna have a good time."
"You think I enjoy your 'kicks?'" I retaliated, pushing her back. The brunette giggled, also breaking her fall. A bit of her ponytail came loose, falling over her ear. She undid the brace behind it and shook her head until it all covered her ears. Only then did the beret lie on her head.
"Well, I enjoy yours, and almost everything I've seen so far! But… you could use more than that. A friend like me will encourage you, help you, and lead you forward. You could use that, long as you do the same."
"What's making you say that?" I asked quietly.
The pianist looked at the fountain just then, not knowing where to take her eyes. "I had a hunch," she mumbled.
Oh… Oh gosh.
"You… y-you saw it all, didn't you?" The way I stumbled in the piano room, made a mess of myself on the floor, the crying I did, the minutes spent putting myself together. How did I not catch her? I should have known someone would have been there if that dastard folder was.
Despite how I was caught redhandedly, there was no anger within me. Kelsi didn't laugh at me, rather waited until I felt composed.
"I did. I'm sorry," she breathed, "I didn't know what to do – it's just between us, right?"
We stayed on the steps a little longer, watching the waters flow from the top to the bottom of the fountain. East High was a beautiful campus, and the breeze was not too chilled. Ever since I landed in Albuquerque, I've lived for little things like Mother Nature's gentle touches. I wondered if Kelsi did too.
"I should probably get going," my friend stood up, satchel going back over her shoulder, "Homework and composition tweaking to do."
"Same here, no-not the composing or whatever, but – yeah – homework!"
She laughed once more, soft and high pitched, vocal, and pleasant to my ear. A hand dug around her schoolbag before coming out with a slip of paper. "Here's my number and address. It's like I said before: Practice, homework, planning stuff. Anything works… if you just let me know."
I reached out and took the slip, gazing at its bubbly numbers and letters. It was the same penmanship splayed in her folders I found this afternoon. "Same goes to you, I guess. Should I text you?"
Kelsi readjusted her bag, walking toward the fountain before turning around one last time. "Sure… and then you can call me. Miss Darbus tells the truth when she says someone has a nice voice."
Her smile that evening was soft and tender. As infatuated as I was, the comfort in having someone by my side was so reassuring. Though the sun buried itself into the distance, I did not feel cold during my bike ride to my apartment. Having a jacket was one thing, but something inside motivated me to press on. This year was going to be different. My parents were going to be proud every time I called them. No longer would they wait for me to accomplish something scrapbook worthy.
I was going to make flames.
This story shows a lot of promise to me. I hope to always hit over 4,000 words with each submission. It's something that reads easy but is also quite lengthy. Ten chapters later, I would reach 40,000 words. In twenty, 80,000, and so on!
Have a blessed day, everyone. I hope to see you in the next installment!
EDIT 1 - 05/18/2020: Rewording and clarifying certain statements. Eran Raine is not a binder, my friends.