Neil squinted out into the crowd, looking for no one, but looking, nevertheless. He stood with the rest of the senior class, thunderous applause commending them for their dedication, tenacity, talent. Neil’s lips felt dry, his stomach churned. This was his goodbye. An ache in his throat prevented him from swallowing down his guilt, and instead he began to sit as the applause faded and the spotlights dimmed.
“There is, however,” Mr. Hernandez began, holding up an arm to cue the crowd into silence. “One senior that must be specially acknowledged tonight. Over the past year, I’ve gotten to know this student and I’ve admired his skill and determination. He has been an integral part of our wind ensemble, marching band, and jazz band, where he has exceeded expectations and helped our group win first place at the state high school jazz band competition. It’s because of this that he’s being offered a full ride to Palmetto State University to play with their esteemed jazz ensemble. Everyone, please give a round of applause to Neil Josten!”
Neil froze. He only auditioned for Palmetto State because Mr. Hernandez begged him to. He wasn’t anything special, and it wasn’t a good audition. A full ride? No way. Neil couldn’t tell if the humming in his ears was the crowd or his own mind whirring, trying to process the chaos around him.
Against his control, he stood, walked to meet Mr. Hernandez with his saxophone clutched tightly to his chest. He smiled weakly, unable to respond to anything his teacher shouted in his ear.
Neil didn’t get a chance to sit down again before the spotlights went out and the concert ended. His music was still on his stand, but Mr. Hernandez dragged him off stage before he could do anything more than look back at it
“… so proud…” Neil heard through his internal mania, but the rest cut out like static, and he followed Mr. Hernandez blindly.
While all of his classmates put away their instruments and threw their music into messy piles for Mr. Hernandez to sort through later, Neil was led down to the recesses of the band wing. A man was waiting next to one of the airlocks, leaning haphazardly on the door and speaking on his cellphone in a hushed but gruff voice.
“No, Kevin, this isn’t something you need to wind yourself up over,” he growled quickly before noticing the two of them approaching. “Look, I gotta go, just hold the roof down until I get back.” He hung up without any ‘goodbye’.
Neil couldn’t help being nervous. Meeting a strange man in the back of the band hall was almost as bad as meeting someone in a dark alley. He’d had more experience with the latter than he liked to admit.
“Hey, kid. Nice concert,” the man said in greeting. He didn’t hold out his hand, which was probably for the best, because Neil wasn’t sure he would have taken it.
“Neil,” Mr. Hernandez spoke conversationally as he pushed Neil slightly towards the man. Neil gripped his saxophone tighter. “This is David Wymack from Palmetto State.”
“Call me Wymack. Or Coach. I don’t care what you call me, honestly, as long as it’s not Dave.”
Neil laughed awkwardly because he didn’t know what else to do.
“Neil, I came here both to congratulate you and to introduce myself. And of course, paperwork. I understand you graduate in two weeks, so this plane ticket I have is out for three weeks. If that’s an issue, we can reschedule. You’ll be able to get situated in your dorm and start sectional practices, audition for the marching band if you’d like, etc, etc.” He held out a stack of papers for Neil. “I’m just the delivery man, I guess. All I need from you right now is to sign the contract.”
Neil had been fixated on the papers, unsure whether to take them even though he knew he’d never use them. Would it be better to play along until he could leave without a trace like he’d planned, or should he reject the offer outright?
Playing in a college jazz band was exactly the way he could get caught. Winning state in high school had been a close enough call. And now he was being recruited. That meant somehow the press knew where he was. And that meant he was screwed.
He had to go. It was time for a new name, a new face, a new town in a new country. If his mother had taught him anything, it was that if you kept one identity for too long, you died with it. If he was found, that was it. He’d never play again, never live in relative peace again.
But he knew that if he left now, there also was a good chance that he’d never play again. That was the thought that had haunted him for the last month, the deepest ache that came when he thought of leaving. He’d dragged his saxophone around with him through so many lives. It was all he had at times. He’d planned to just leave it in a random storage locker and be gone. The idea made him shudder, and his hand ached with the phantom weight of the case in his hand.
“How about we talk in Hernandez’s office? This feels like an underground deal,” Wymack suggested when Neil did not take the papers.
Neil was mute on the winding walk back to the band room. He weighed his options. He imagined seeing the name Neil Josten go up in flames, a sour memory that was met with sneers. He tried to conjure a new name, a new face, and discovered that he couldn’t settle on one, couldn’t see it clearly in his mind. He tried to think of a new location, but none settled him.
It was a full ride.
Neil never had the luxury of imagining that one day he’d go to college. He’d always wanted to, but after he was on his own it was never an option. Smuggling and scrounging were good enough to keep him alive. That was the best he could hope for.
He shouldn’t have considered it. He should have turned David Wymack away, shouldn’t have even stood when Mr. Hernandez called his name. But hope was a savory thing, it colored his tongue with heat and burned all the way down into his chest. They were almost at the door to the band room, but Neil’s legs jerked beneath him for a moment.
He wanted this, in a way he hadn’t wanted anything ever. It scared him, too.
If he was found, so he was. At least he’d leave his life knowing he’d done something worthwhile with it. Even if it only lasted a couple of months. A couple of weeks.
He’d take what he could get.
When they gathered around each other in the office, Neil cut Wymack off when he began to explain the negotiation.
“You don’t need to go through all that. Not right now. Where do I sign?”
Neil had two bags. His duffle, which was more than half full with his saxophone case, and his backpack. It was all he had, so it was all he brought. Wymack was waiting in the airport terminal, and Neil almost walked right past him, not used to being waited for. The ride to campus - in what Neil assumed was one of the universities school vans, a Mystery Machine-esque bright orange disgrace - was quiet, at least on Neil’s end. Wymack was giving him all the information he should have gotten at a tour or orientation, neither of which Neil planned on attending.
He should have paid more attention, but Neil was too busy trying to not pitch himself out of the van. He shouldn’t be here. He should get away, now. This wasn’t safe.
He had to remind himself that he was never safe, which relaxed him only a bit.
“You probably already figured out that I don’t run my group like most others,” Neil finally tuned in to hear Wymack say. He nodded slightly in affirmation. “You won’t have to do any kind of audition for me, and there are only two chairs for alto anyway. You’re second chair since I wouldn’t let you kick out a senior. If anyone in our group was the Captain, it would be Dan. Out of all of them, she’s got her shit together. So, you’re in good hands with her in first chair. Don’t suck, and it could be yours when she graduates.”
Neil nodded, though he realized the whole situation was highly unlikely. He was unsure whether he should be scared of Dan or not, but he held off his judgment.
“You’re expected to be at every practice I schedule, and then Dan will schedule sectionals outside of that time. I’d be more worried about showing up to those, if I were you. Sectionals will get you class credit, and so does jazz band, so at this point you’d be an idiot to not at the very least minor in jazz and or music. Saxophone performance, composing, whatever, I don’t care, just don’t treat your scholarship as a means to graze over the academics.”
Neil almost saluted Wymack’s abrasive tone. He nodded more vigorously than the previous time.
“None of the kids I have here are pompous assholes whose daddy paid for their spot. They’ve all earned it, one way or another. You’re no different.” Wymack assessed Neil and he had to force himself to not squirm under the gaze. “Despite what you might hear in the press, this isn’t a second chance charity auction. Piss me off enough, and you’re on your own. Got it?”
“Yes,” Neil murmured, taking the lull in conversation to focus his stare out the dimmed window.
They arrived at campus shortly. Neil hadn’t been to many campuses before, albeit that one time he slept in a storage closet of a language department since it was unlocked and he was unable to find anything better. The buildings were more spaced out than he expected, lots of white marble classrooms mixed in with cardboard fashioned dorms. All were seemingly randomly assorted within a dense collection of hills. Furthest away, standing at the peak above all the rest, was a building fashioned like an old Greek edifice.
“That,” Wymack pointed sharply to it, which Neil thought somewhat unnecessary since nothing else was so clearly in sight. “is the music hall. We like to call it the Parthenon, because the designer was an idiot that tried to model the Parthenon but then realized that it wasn’t a good plan for a school facility. It’s a tribute to idiocracy. My jazz band more or less lives in the basement. There are other groups that practice in the Parthenon, despite contrary belief, but we prefer to not associate with them for the most part. Our rehearsal room is down there, the instrument storage room, practice rooms, etc. There’s a small group of old classrooms I had converted into dorms in the west wing. That was mostly because the dorms my kids used to stay in were at the bottom of the hill, and they wouldn’t come to practices because they didn’t want to walk it. Still, you’ll get into shape. There’s no food area in the Parthenon except a vending machine that hasn’t been restocked since the eighties and only has Twinkies in it. So unless you want to starve, the dining hall is on the other side of campus. Though, truth be told, this van is ours, so sometimes the upperclassmen take it for a burrito run. As long as they get me the Loco Toro special, I don’t rat them out.”
Neil didn’t know how to respond, so he didn’t. Wymack sighed.
They pulled up next to the side of the Parthenon and parked jerkily. “Alright. Seth should be here to show you to the dorms. They’re not much, but they do the job. You’ll be in room four with him. Tomorrow I’ll send Dan to show you around a bit more and help you settle in. I only have one rule as far as the dorms, and that’s no instruments. You live next to a dozen sound-proofed well-equipped practice rooms. There is absolutely no need to keep the rest of us up when you have a three a.m. ego attack. Got it?”
“Alright.” Wymack looked like he was about to clap Neil on the shoulder, but quickly decided against it and withdrew his hand. “Seth’s waiting. Don’t be too intimidated by him. He’s gruff, but not as scary as he looks. Well, I don’t think he is, at least.”
Neil turned to find a stocky boy around his age leaning against a column. His arms were thick, and Neil knew they could easily smother him in his sleep. Neil already didn’t trust him. Not that he was familiar with the concept much to begin with.
Neil tried not to feel anxious while he walked the stairs to greet his roommate, but with the other boy’s looming stare studying him, his whole body was tense, ready to flee if needed.
“I’m Seth,” Seth told him and immediately turned away, cutting off Neil’s own introduction. Neil nearly had to sprint to keep up as Seth brusquely led them to the dorms. That didn’t stop him from marveling at the interior, which had been remarkably maintained and the grandeur was not lost on him. It sure beat a cardboard dorm at the bottom of the hill.
Seth led him down a dark, winding path of stairs. Yellowed light bulbs lit the cement halls poorly and he had to squint to see until he was ushered through a heavy door into blinding light.
“This is the girls’ hall. Though Jean’s staying down here because of overflow. It’s still the girls’ hall,” Seth informed him curtly. He turned the corner at the end and took another small set of stairs to a longer hallway. Every four feet or so there was another wood door with a small square window and a sign that read ‘open’. “The practice rooms.”
A larger flight of stairs led them to a hall identical to the girls’. “And the boys’. Room assignments this year are Matt and Nicky in one on the left, the twins’ in two on the right, Jeremy and Kevin in three, and you and I in four. We’re closer to the stairs, so we get out first if there’s a fire. Which has happened before.”
Room one opened at that moment to reveal a muscular boy, only a couple inches taller than Neil. “Speak of the devil,” Seth murmured unhappily, as the boy turned back to see who’d summoned him.
“Oh, is that the newbie?” the boy asked Seth too enthusiastically for Neil’s taste, his lips curling into an amused grin. Seth gave the smallest tilt of his head and crossed his arms. The boy clearly took this as a cue to approach. He held out his hand to Neil.
“Nicky Hemmick, pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Can you keep it in your pants ever? Maybe wait until he’s at least put his stuff down.”
Nicky shrugged. “Gotta seize every opportunity. Carplay Diedem. ”
“That was gibberish.”
“Actually, it was Latin.” Neil saw Seth roll his eyes and look at the ceiling like he was telepathically calling something to come pluck him out of the present encounter. Nicky was unfazed and held out his arms. “I can take your bags, kind sir. And your name?”
Nicky was already grabbing for his duffle before Neil could refuse. “Neil Josten,” Neil swallowed, trying his best to seem unrattled and likely failing.
“Ah, dude, what’s in this bag? A bomb?” Nicky gasped, struggling under the weight.
“A saxophone,” Neil informed him dryly.
“Ugh. If I would have known that I would have never offered to carry it.”
Finally, Seth opened their dorm, which in truth was more of a closet with two beds in it. There were small dressers at the foot of each.
Seth entered first, placing his hand on the larger of the two other appliances present. “This is a mini fridge. It does not work. And this,” he pointed to the smaller, “is a microwave that has been used to heat many unmentionable things. Personally, I would not use it. I also will not allow Hot Pockets in my living area, so don’t buy any. The door here,” he opened the door that was on the long bare wall across from the beds, “goes to the bathroom and study space we share with the twins. I keep the door closed because I choose to associate with them as little as possible. And that’s it, then. Keep your shit on your side and I’ll do the same.”
Neil nodded, which Seth took as agreement enough. He turned to Nicky. “You can leave now.”
“Seth, bud, I was just helping Neil here get settled.”
“He’s settled. Don’t you have marching band practice?”
“Ah, shit. That’s what I was doing.” Nicky dropped Neil’s duffle and waved to him as he left. “See you around, newbie.” With a wink, he was gone.
“Sorry. Nicky is unfortunately permanent. I’ve tried to get rid of him on multiple occasions.
“I’m going to go see if I can find the twins so they don’t shank you in the middle of the night. You can unpack or whatever.”
Seth left, and Neil was alone. He didn’t waste a moment and searched Seth’s bed first. Then both broken appliances, then his bed, then the window. He didn’t want to risk searching the bathroom in case the twins were passing by, but he knew he wouldn’t sleep tonight until he did. Once he’d bought a jacket at a thrift store and found a bug in the hem after wearing it for three days. After that, he’d done a three-month stint in Canada. He hadn’t been so careless since.
Neil climbed up the windowsill, checking the top and running his hands through the curtains.
Unluckily for him, Seth had clearly given up searching for the twins faster than anticipated. While he was feeling around the top edge, he jumped when he heard the door slam.
“What the hell?!” Seth shouted, which prompted Neil to lose his balance completely and fall hard onto the thinly carpeted floor.
Seth shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “Great, they put me with another freak. Just keep the weird shit to a minimum, okay?”
Neil’s reply was muffled through the carpet and his pain.
Seth grumbled several other expletives before grabbing some things from his dresser and leaving again, slamming the door in his wake.
Neil uncurled himself from the floor, sighed, and began to feel the walls for any hollow areas.
He couldn’t be too careful, after all.