Fast & Loud

 

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Introduction

"You are the music while the music lasts."

—T.S. Elliot

 

"Some people have lives. Some people have music."

—John Green

 

"But I really believe you don't do music because you want to, you do it because you have to."

—Dan Reynolds

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Sneak Peek: Chapter 1

We played our music fast and loud. As far as we were concerned, ‘fast and loud’ wasn’t just a reference to volume and tempo; it was a state of mind. It’s about the way you play the music, not how it sounds to others. Sure, most of our music was fast-paced and rowdy, but that wasn’t what made us who we were.

    We played fast and loud, like we might never get to play again—as if this was the only way music was ever meant to be played.     So, that’s the way I sang and played my guitar, even after we’d been practicing for the past eight hours. I belted every note that danced across a crumbled staff page in Pete’s scrawling handwriting as if I would never get to sing again—in front of these people or otherwise. Contorting my face along with the emotion of the piece, I windmilled my arm, shifting my weight lightly back and forth from foot to foot to keep my momentum going. When we arrived the breakdown at the end of the song, I swung by guitar around to my back, letting the strap hold it against me as I reached for the standing microphone with both hands. The gaudy orange microphone fit in my hands like a part of me, nestling between my fingers as I sang the few ending measures of the piece. My part came to an end all too quickly, and all I could do was let go of the microphone with one hand and turn my head slightly to see my bandmates behind me as the final notes rang out on their instruments.

    The practice room was still buzzing faintly with the disappearing life of the song when Pete laughed out loud, locking his gaze with mine. 

    “What the hell was that?” he demanded, grinning ear to ear. I tried to hide my smile, averting my eyes toward the ground and rubbing the back of my neck slowly. Seeing this, he slapped my shoulder roughly and drew my attention again. “You sound incredible. Have you been practicing?”

    “Only all hours of the day,” Lee grumbled from somewhere off to the side, blocked from my view by Pete. I scowled, leaning around Pete to lock eyes with him as he said, “At night, too. Never letting me get any damn sleep.”

    “You have earplugs. Use them,” I sneered.     Pete slung an arm around my shoulders, spinning me around and leading me away from Lee. “It shows. Keep up the hard work, Laz. We’re only as good as our vocalist.”

    I rolled my eyes but nodded nevertheless; while everything Pete said was completely genuine, he also gave out compliments too easily when it came to the band. I could hardly take his word for it. Lee or River were more likely to give me an honest critique (although it would probably be more honest than I cared to hear).

    “I guess River just isn’t going to show up at all today?” Mara said from behind us as the tell-tale squeal from the stool at her drum set alerted everyone that she had stood. 

    “He probably had to watch his sister,” Marcus suggested, leaving his bass at its stand and rolling his shoulders to stretch them out from the position they’d held for the past hour. 

    “We’ve practiced enough today, anyway. Let’s call it a night,” Pete decided, taking a plastic bag off of the folding table on the far side of the room and digging into it. Inside, he found an assortment of different flavors of Gatorade, and without asking any questions, he promptly tossed the right flavor to each person. Although Lee and Mara caught theirs with ease, Marcus fumbled his a bit, earning amused snorts from his bandmates. I watched on with a faint smirk for a few seconds before Pete elbowed me gently to get my attention. He smiled, pushing a red bottle into my hands.

    “Drink up so we can get going. I think dinner is on River tonight,” he announced, spinning a bottle in his own hand before cracking open the lid and holding it up in a crude cheers toward us. I smiled and followed suit before taking a long drink of the sickeningly sweet liquid. 

    Pete and I leaned back against the folding table behind us and sipped quietly at our drinks as Marcus dialed River’s number. We all listened as he argued with a voice we couldn’t hear on the other end of the phone; as usual, River seemed to be in no mood to take any flack from Marcus, and it didn’t take a genius to see that. The boys were close friends, but that didn’t mean Marcus hadn’t had his ass served to him on a silver platter more than a reasonable number of times.

    “The song is sounding good,” Pete said, quietly enough to not disturb Marcus. It took me a moment to remember what he was talking about—the song we had been practicing all day. He went through phases when writing music came easy or when it was much harder, but none of us wanted to admit that he seemed to be a in a slump. The song that we had been working on since ten A.M. was the first thing he’d written in months, and while I actually quite liked it, I could tell that he wasn’t completely satisfied with it. 

    I nodded, swirling my Gatorade around in the bottle. “Yeah. Your solo’s gotten much better since this morning. You’re really killing it every time now.”

    He shrugged. “It’ll take more practice. I’m just lucky that you give me such a solid foundation to solo on. Now, if only we could get the delinquent to come to rehearsal…”

    Once again, while I appreciated his compliment, I knew that it wasn’t founded on anything. We’d just started working on this song a few days ago, so I was far from mastering the piece. With River missing rehearsal today, too, he was even further behind than me. Since Pete was the best guitarist out of the three of us (by far), he spent a great deal of his time encouraging and looking out for River and me. I could tell without asking him that he wanted one of us to take over soloing for a song eventually, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I doubted the possibility. No matter how good we got, Pete would always been a huge step ahead of us. His compliments often fell on deaf ears; we would never be good compared to him.    “And the others are doing well, too,” he continued, looking out on his bandmates. Lee was sitting against the wall on the left side of the room, drinking his Gatorade with an expression of amusement dancing in his eyes. Across from him, Marcus sat cross-legged on the ground, arguing into the phone as Mara leaned in close to him, trying to hear River on the other end. I watched Pete as he watched them, fascinated by the evident pride that he had in us. 

    “Yeah, they’re really working hard with this song,” I agreed, looking down at the bottle of bright red liquid in my hands. 

    “Marcus’s baseline at the bridge is so crisp. He’s gotten so much better since last year, don’t you think?” Pete asked, but instead of waiting for me to respond, he continued. “And Mara just handles everything we throw at her now. Can you remember the last time she had trouble with a fill? Even her improvisation is spot-on these days. And Lee… well, he’s just as impressive as he’s always been. Kid’s too talented for his own good.”

    I nodded along, sensing that he wasn’t going to give me any time to speak. 

    He opened his mouth to continue, but to all of our surprise, Marcus ended our conversation with a sudden cry of triumph. Apparently, River had given in and agreed to buy everyone dinner. He must have been tired. 

    As the rest of the group celebrated, I rolled my eyes and looked away.

#

When we first arrived at the Korean barbecue place that we often ate at, it was packed, but by the time we left, there was hardly a soul to be seen. Ten P.M. seemed slow at first, but midnight was practically dead, because the last customer disappeared through the front doors long before the hands on the clock spun past the twelve. Luckily, River’s stepfather owned the restaurant, so as long as River promised to lock up and clean everything when he finished, we were allowed to stay as long as we pleased. It had been almost an hour since his step-father had passed us on the way out to his car, so we knew that we really were free.

    “You’re lucky this place is so good. Otherwise, you’d be in trouble for being a cheapskate and not actually buying us dinner somewhere,” Mara said through a full mouth, pointing her fork off-handedly at River. 

    “I am buying you dinner. This comes out of my paycheck,” River snapped. I’d known him for quite a while, so I’d learned not to be offended by his tone; he naturally sounded accusatory, but he usually wouldn't cause a problem over nothing.

    Unfortunately for him, his voice and resting facial expression seemed more confrontational than he was actually was. He certainly was the quickest to anger out of us, but he wasn’t as short-tempered as the aforementioned would suggest. I believed that his eyes were what got him in the most trouble; narrow and intense, and always squinting (you know, the way you squint at someone you’d like to start a fight with). His lips, too, were too often drawn in a resting line, so even when he did smile, he didn’t seem much less intimidating. Still, he was lucky that he was seen as just as handsome as he was harsh. His dark hair was always meticulously combed and styled, and his heart-shaped face narrowed to a perfectly smooth yet strong chin. This dangerous combination of a permanent expression and tone that suggested that he wanted to start a fight and his textbook handsome appearance was enough to make anyone do a double-take, as I’d seen many times before. 

    All this, given the fact that he was a guitarist in a band, gave him almost an unfair advantage. He didn’t even have to be a good guitarist, in the end; he could stand dumbly on stage and simply hold a guitar and he’d probably still be the most popular member of the band. While I sometimes loathed all the attention he got and the slightly blown-out ego he had because of it, I always knew it the back of my mind that his attractiveness played a huge role in our growing popularity in the city. We had a following largely thanks to River for being a handsome jerk, so I supposed I couldn’t hate it too much. 

    “Why don’t you just have one of your rich girlfriends take us out next time, Mar?” Lee asked challengingly, raising an eyebrow in her direction. 

    She scowled for a few moments before breaking out into a subtle smile of approval, like she didn’t appreciate his jab, but she was going to let it slide. 

    Mara was part two of the dangerously attractive ‘thing’ that we seemed to have going in the band. She, however, was a completely different kind of beauty compared to River; he was a safe, text-book handsome, while she had a much edgier, tougher vibe. They shared the slightly intimidating disposition, but while River’s was rooted in his tone of voice, Mara’s came from the way that she carried herself. No matter what she was doing, a certain kind of irresistible confidence radiated from her, and no one could seem to look away. She held an effortless poise that people couldn’t help but notice upon meeting her. Perhaps it wasn’t all thanks to her attitude, but partially her appearance; starting with the jet black hair that she kept buzzed tight on the sides of her head and long on the top, onto the thick smudges of dark eyeliner that permanently stayed around her eyes, and ending with her tall, pale form and the dark, edgy outfits that she dressed herself in. 

    She had perfected the dangerous, bad-ass drummer look, so it was even more amusing at times to think of the contradiction it held to her true personality. Compared to her public image, the way she acted around us seemed like almost a joke; she was quite possibly the kindest, most loyal person I’d ever met. Rather than riding motorcycles and dating rock stars like everyone seemed to think she should, she spent her time mothering the five of us in the band and buying us lunch when we forgot our wallets.

    Like River, she played a vital role in the band’s popularity around the city. Not only was her appearance a huge part of the band’s image, but it was also well-known that Mara was a stunningly talented drummer. She’d been playing for many years, but even for an experienced musician, she was still exceptionally good (to the point of having a career secured in the music industry, if she chose). At times, I even believed that if she had joined a better band, she would already be mind-numbingly rich and famous, living every musician’s dream. 

    I slowly shifted my attention away from Mara, smirking as I watched Marcus continue to mercilessly tear apart what had to be his twentieth chicken leg. We’d been here for more than two hours, and he’d hardly taken a break from eating during that entire time.

    “No one is going to take it from you,” I said, raising an eyebrow at him in the silent question of why he was still eating like it was his last meal.

    Almost as soon as I said this, River reached over and took Marcus’s chicken leg in a lightning fast movement, stuffing in between his teeth before his friend could react. As soon as Marcus realized what had happened, he dived on top of River, knocking both of them out of their chairs and onto the hardwood floor. 

    Marcus certainly didn’t look like much, especially to strangers; the combination of his exceptionally short stature, slightly babyish face, and contagiously bright smile didn’t do wonders for his reputation as a ‘bad-ass’. I’m sure it didn’t help either that he spent so much time with River, and was therefore constantly compared to his endless intensity and swagger. Marcus was handsome, but in a boyish, charming sort of way, and luckily, after so many years of fighting it, he’d finally come to terms with this. After going through phases when he thought he had to keep his hair short to look more ‘manly’, he now had his hair grown out slightly longer than River’s again, the way he liked it—dark and swooping almost over his narrow eyes. Luckily, most of the baby fat had melted off of his face by this time, leaving startling chiseled cheekbones and a strong, squared chin. The highlight of his appearance, though, was surely the asymmetrical smile that curled up more on one side and could instantly brighten a room. He wore this signature expression as often as he wore his favorite gray cardigan—which is to say, a lot.

    Although Marcus was not part of River’s and Mara’s effortlessly gorgeous club, he still had his own sort of image that he took on when he stepped up behind his bass. There’s a known phenomenon where even the homeliest of people can develop an interesting sort of attractiveness and allure by displaying their talent in music. Considering Marcus already had his own sort of charm, it was hardly a challenge to recognize this in him—the way his skill at playing his bass transformed him into a completely different person.

    It took a few minutes of watching Marcus and River struggling on the floor over the chicken wing before Lee finally brought me back to reality by gently elbowing my arm. When I turned my attention to him, he gestured toward the remote at the end of the table. 

    “Let’s see what’s on TV,” he suggested, holding out an open hand toward me. I passed the remote to him and he turned on the small television in the corner of the room near the ceiling, flipping quickly through the channels.     “I can’t believe you even want to watch TV,” I said, nodding toward the ground where Marcus was straddling River’s torso while River held the chicken wing just out of reach and kept a hand on Marcus’s face to keep him away. “You’re not going to find anything this entertaining not there.”

    A faint smirk crossed Lee’s face as he went through the channels, not looking at the boys or at me. It was fairly expected of him; out of the group of us, he was undoubtedly the most reserved. This wasn’t to say that he was shy or quiet, because he was far from both. He was simply not as big as some of us; where River and Marcus were rolling on the ground in a restaurant shouting at each other, Lee was just the slightest bit more restrained. He liked to think that he was more mature than the rest of us, but I believed that he just thought things through much more thoroughly than expected of boys his age. 

    Like Marcus, Lee was not one of the more well-known members of the band, but not because of his talent or appearance. Lee was every bit as handsome as River, and a better musician than any of the rest of us, but for whatever reason, he didn’t exactly connect with people in the same way when he stepped onto the stage. He had the appearance; hair a shade or two lighter than River’s and parted up on top of his head in a simultaneously careful and messy way; a smooth face with gentle curved angles and a vaguely squared jaw; eyes shaped in a slightly asymmetrical but appealing sort of way. And, frankly, his talent when he sat down at a piano was far superior to anyone else’s (even Mara paled in comparison to him, and she was one of the best drummers I’d ever met). He didn’t know how to use these assets to his advantage, though. On stage, he withdrew and kept to himself, even in the more exciting parts of our songs. He could almost appear as if he didn’t care for our music of for performing—which was, unfortunately, totally false, but the fans couldn’t see that. 

    Still, the band and I knew the truth about him. He’d grown up as a piano prodigy who was winning national competitions by the time he was eight years old, and was already hugely favored to have a long, prolific career. He was our generation’s definition of talent. But, after he lost interest in playing classically and gave up piano, it was Pete who gave him a second chance by inviting him into the band. Playing with us gave him back his passion for music, even if it meant that he would never play things that were as impressive as he used to.

    He was a born pianist. One could see the grace in the way his hands moved even while surfing channels on a tiny old TV in an empty Korean barbecue. 

    Pete, however, was often moving too fast to have respect for simpler things, like the way Lee’s hands danced across the buttons on the remote, because while I was fascinated by it, he took my moment of distraction to throw himself onto my lap. I jumped in surprise, staring at him incredulously as he strained to reach the remote that Lee held, intentionally just out of reach. 

    “Go back!” Pete said quickly, not paying me any attention as he dropped his hand onto my thigh to keep his balance, leaning over me. Any other boy would get a fist in his face for falling over me like this, but for Pete, it was nothing new; he was mostly harmless. I only rolled my eyes. 

    “What?” Lee asked. 

    “Go back to the channel you were just on! Hurry!” Pete insisted, loudly enough to gain the attention of even River and Marcus.     Lee made a face at Pete, but nevertheless obeyed and went back through the channels until Pete stopped him. We all watched curiously to see what had captured Pete’s attention so thoroughly. 

    On the cramped television screen was a live broadcast of one of the country’s biggest outdoor concert series—one reserved for only the best of the best. Naturally, we all knew exactly who was playing the moment they appeared, but none of us spoke a word in favor of silently taking in their performance. It was a textbook rock performance—a guitarist that windmilled his arm at the chord progressions and leaned back into the solos, a bassist who stoically bobbed his head to the beat in the background, a drummer whose arms moved loosely and freely as they crashed down in perfect time against the drumheads and crash, a keyboardist who rocked his entire body for momentum as he pounded at the keys, and a vocalist who took the microphone in both hands and made auditory love to the audience. 

    It was the kind of performance that gave nothing-bands like us hope. 

    The last note of the song rang out through the old TV’s buzzing speakers and we were held in rapture, feeling like we were there in that crowd, completely surrendered to the music. It took a few seconds before Pete finally spoke, quieter than I was expecting him to. 

    “That,” he said simply, shaking his head as his eyes remained glued to the screen. “That is what we’re meant to do. That’s gonna be us one day—taking up every square inch of that stage and listening to fans scream our name.”

    One by one, we all turned to face him, and he grinned, still watching the broadcast. 

    “Our name is going to be hanging off of the lips of every one of them. Lost at Sea! Lost at Sea! Lost at Sea!” he muttered, his voice hushed to imitate the roar of a crowd.    I exchanged a glance with Lee, who was smiling despite himself. 

    “Oh, yeah?” Mara challenged, raising an eyebrow. Pete finally tore his attention away from the TV to look at her, and she smirked. “You better start writing us some new music, then.”

    Pete nodded quickly, seemingly talking to himself. “You’re right. That’s what I need to focus on right now. Nothing else matters. I need to go on a writing retreat. I need inspiration. I need a muse. I need to find someone or something…”

    River sighed loudly and rolled his eyes, though his hard expression still clearly showed his amusement at his leader’s words. Since Pete was officially the leader of the band, he felt a particular pressure to continue writing good songs for us to play so that we would eventually get discovered. He always claimed that he needed a ‘muse’—an object, person, or idea that inspired him to write. At first, we almost thought this was a joke, but after sitting in the park with him for three hours one Saturday, searching for a girl to be his new muse, we realized that he was completely serious. He didn’t believe that he could write without something specific to inspire him, and oftentimes, the things that he decided on were completely arbitrary and questionable. One time, he wrote an entire album based off of a particular smoothie that he had in the city—one that was ‘incomparable to all others’. Considering this, I thought he should be able to simply pick up any object and decide to use it as a muse, but apparently this wasn’t how things worked for him. 

    He needed a muse, and there was no way for us to help him find one. The search was exhausting. 

    River reached into the cooler behind him, retrieving a chilled soda and holding it out toward Pete. “Here’s your new muse. Now write.”    Pete waved it away, scowling as Marcus and I couldn’t help but snicker. When it became evident that he wasn’t going to take the drink, I grabbed a bottle opener from the end of the table and popped the cap off, pushing it into his hands. He rolled his eyes slightly, but nevertheless accepted the drink. Once he was taken care of, River passed around sodas to the rest of us.

    When they were distributed, I held mine up in the air. “To our future debut stage and playing until we’re old and senile,” I proposed.

    Everyone laughed, and I couldn’t help but watch Pete out of the corner of my eye, relieved to see the approval in his grin. 

    “And to our jackass leader,” I added, turning fully toward him, smirking. “For being completely insane and making us all better musicians because of it.”

    “I’ll drink to that,” Lee agreed, raising his drink.

    Pete avoided my eyes, clearly embarrassed, but still held up his beer. I clinked my bottle against everyone else’s, holding Pete’s gaze for just a moment before looking away to take a long drink. 

    In honesty, I didn’t normally like soda—too sweet. But there was something about the night and the company around me that made it just a little more tolerable. 

      #

I hated to silence my phone, but when it rang at roughly three in the morning, I believed for a moment that I hated being awake at that time even more. Rubbing my eyes with the heels of my hands, I fumbled around on the armrest of the couch, feeling my way across the rough fabric until my fingers hit the surface of my cell phone. With my face buried deep in my flat pillow, I held the device up to my ear, muttering a muffled, “Hello?”    “Laz, call everyone and get them downtown, now,” Lee said, breathless on the other end. Ordinarily, I would hang up on one of my friends if they called me in the middle of the night proposing to meet up, opting instead to yell at them in the morning. The fact that Lee and I shared the same rooftop apartment, though, made me instead question why he was still out, and way he sounded so out of breath. 

    I sat up quickly on the couch, working to wake myself up properly. Despite my irritation with him, something in the pit of my stomach told me that this was no time for me to ignore him. In fact, the feeling was almost enough to make me sick as worry climbed up into my throat. 

    “Why? What’s going on?” I asked. 

    “Something’s wrong with Pete. He called me and… he—

    When he didn’t continue, I swung my legs off of the couch, pushing myself to my feet. “He what?”

    “Just call everyone, Lazirus. Hurry,” he said quickly. 

    Before I could ask any further questions, he hung up, and I was left in silence in the darkness of our empty apartment. I knew in an instant that something was wrong, so wrong. This tiny, shitty rooftop apartment was never supposed to be this quiet. It was always filled with Lee, Pete, and me, cramped into the tiny space, making noise and playing our instruments all hours of the day. It was wrong for it to be empty, dark, and occupied by only me. 

    Without wasting any time, I grabbed a sweatshirt out of the closet as I rushed toward the door, stuffing my phone and keys in either of the pockets in my pajama pants.     I should have known when I forgot to lock the door that all the signs were laid out before me; something was seriously and terrifyingly wrong, and not matter how fast I ran, I wasn’t going to be able to stop it. 

#

Our voices bounced off of the concrete walls of buildings and empty streets as we rushed through the winding downtown area, shouting Pete’s name as loudly as we could. We were moving in something between a jog and a run, suspending in an uneasy sense of needing to move quickly, but not knowing where to go. Passing under a flickering streetlight, I cupped my hands around my mouth and, for the millionth time since I’d left my apartment, I yelled Pete’s name, like a chant or a spell—like he would appear in front of me if only I was loud enough. Sure, Marcus, Mara, and River were calling him too, but it was me. It was all me. If I could just be a little louder…

    We came hurrying around a corner and into a dark alleyway where the light didn’t reach when we found them. Lee was crouching in the shadows, his back to us, silent and unmoving even when we appeared. Just past him, I could make out the silhouette of a figure lying flat on his back in the dark.

    I suddenly found myself frozen, rooted to the pavement where I was standing as Marcus, Mara, and River rushed forward to join Lee. When they saw him up close, I knew just from their reactions that the boy they were looking at, sprawled out on the ground in an abandoned alley, was Pete. 

    Luckily, from where I was, I couldn’t see the state he was in thanks to the darkness. I couldn’t make out the blood trickling from the open wound on his head, or his muddy green eyes swollen shut and bathed in dark purple, or his fat lips and teeth stained red. I couldn’t see how beaten and bloody and unrecognizable my best friend was.

    And I didn’t want to. 

    River dropped to his knees beside Pete, lifting his wrist and shouting for someone to call the 9-1-1. Next to him, Mara fumbled with her phone, trying to steel her violently shaking hands for long enough to dial the number. When she was finally able to, she backed up a step, turning her back to Pete and stuttering horribly as she attempted to talk with the emergency operator. Meanwhile, Marcus could do little more than stay where he was, a few yards away from them, doubled over his knees as he vomited continuously, sobbing whenever it stopped for a few moments. 

    Through all this, Lee still hadn’t moved; he remained where we found him, kneeling on the cold pavement, holding one of Pete’s limp hands in his own. When I finally found the strength to move, I made a straight line toward Lee, grabbing him by his bicep and dragging him roughly to his feet. He didn’t struggle as I pulled him away from Pete, not even looking up from the ground until I stopped, a few yards away. As soon as I stopped moving and before Lee could ask any questions, I yanked him toward me by his arm, squeezing him to my chest as tightly as I could. 

    I hadn’t been able to make Pete appear unharmed by yelling his name loud enough, so now all I could do was hug Lee to my chest as hard as I could and hope that I could force the pain out of both of us.

     I couldn’t, though. So I held him, shaking and frozen as I stared at Pete now from up close, until his pale body was bathed in flashing red and blue lights and the sound of sirens were burned permanently into my mind. 

 
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