“Let’s take it from the top. Five, six, seven, eight…” Charles yelled, exasperated, and ruffled his hair into a mess. He hated how they sounded - not that they were doing bad per se but the sound quality of the room and the microphone always ended up ruining their whole performance. They have been trying to practice for the past 4 years; they first started at their university’s radio studio — Charles had to get “friendly” with the head DJ to let them practice for an hour each week, which meant some Mondays from 5 a.m to 6 a.m. And after they graduated two years ago, they tried to find better and affordable studios and even had hopes for signing a contract with a recording label. But with no jobs and no income at hand, they had to rule out the professional studios. They were mostly stuck with poor quality studios and to them, that felt like a joke so Alex ended up sound-proofing his garage.
“Charles this is the twentieth time—” Raven intervened, lowering her bright red bass, which she called “Ruby”. As she walked next to Charles, he sat down on the amp, looking down on his feet. “We need to find another place.”
“We can’t afford another place, Raven. Do you know how much it costs to rent a studio? Alex was kind enough to open his garage for us - otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to continue with this band, and you know this. But I’m done.”
“I heard some good ones start from $45 per hour. We can split up and afford it. And if we use the studio for 2 hours each week, I think we will be able to actually work this out this time.” Hank said behind the drums, searching Raven and Alex’ eyes. “We can try again. C-Can’t we?” Charles shook his head and got up reaching for his scratch sounding microphone.
“Let’s take it from the top. Five, six, seven, eight…”
“Can we talk?” As they packed up for the day, Raven walked up to Charles who was absentmindedly scrolling through his Instagram feed for the fifth time.
“Ah look, the rock band in my high school signed a record label and they are going to release their album next month. You know those bands that can’t go far beyond Maroon 5’s This Love? Yeah, they were them. The lead singer - Joshua, you see even his name screams trash, couldn’t even hold the pitch. My arse cheeks could sing better than him.” Charles squeezed his teeth in fury at the grinning faces staring at him from the phone screen. “Look how they are. And now look at us,” he looked at his band members who were packing and saying their bitter goodbyes, “we are about to break down. And I hate to see them so… down. Since it is actually my fault. I shouldn’t have lashed out like that. I’m sorry.” He grabbed his jacket and bag and slowly left the garage. Raven followed him.
“You’re being hard on yourself. We all have low days, it is perfectly natural for you to feel this way. And no, it is not your fault—“ Charles stopped in front of her, his expression solemn.
“But it is my fault, Raven. Cain,” he lowered his head and grabbed Raven’s arm to pull her aside, “he is making my life a living hell. Being a part-time teaching assistant doesn’t pay off that well and I have to find money to pay my rent. And now he is breathing down my neck, following my every move and judging me for it. Did you know I had to lie to him to come to the practice tonight? I told him I was going to a girl’s house, he doesn’t even know I’m gay, Raven. I can’t afford a recording studio. Especially right now. Just… give me some time, alright?” Raven gave him one of her private smiles and gave him a small kiss on the cheek.
“You know you can always talk to me - talk to us, right? You made this possible. You formed this band and it is our responsibility to keep it going.
“The X” will never end.” He nodded and hugged her.
“Thank you, darling. I will call you tomorrow.” He put on his jacket and walked away.
His apartment was in the suburbs, away from the city’s heart and much closer to death. He had never hit this low in his life, he realised, and he has been thinking how to rid himself from the pain and pity he’s been having. He had everything settled for him back in New York: A bachelor’s degree in biology at the age of 16 and a bright future ahead, following his late father’s steps. But he wanted something else; something entirely different. When he was only 5 years old, his father introduced him to music and bought a grand piano, replacing all of Charles’ toys. Both his father and mother had strict rules and Charles had to follow them to the letter. The fear of disappointment had always got the best of him. He had to master the piano and violin; because Mr. and Mrs. Xavier’s grand parties loved to see this young boy entertain the guests. Because he is such a delight, Sharon, you are raising such a fine child. And Sharon Xavier was very ecstatic and happy with the result and always told the guests how proud she is of his little Francis. But after the guests had left and the music had stopped, the facade was over. Because he should have hit G#minor instead of F#minor and he ruined the whole song. They were just so… disappointed. So Charles pushed harder. He mastered the violin in less than 3 months and impressed his teacher at the age of 8. A wonder-child! He learned Spanish and French but failed at German even though he studied so hard, mother. Then after graduating from Bard College, he knew he couldn’t take the pressure anymore.
He secretly applied for music faculty as well as genetics and he received a full scholarship in both — even after all this time, he was grateful to his parents for pushing him on learning how to play. His parents wanted him to study genetics and work at his father’s company but he had other plans. So he packed his bags at the age of 17, leaving everything behind and went to Oxford with no money in his pocket.
He learned how to sing and play the guitar. And he was introduced to rock music. Oh, what a joy it had been! His good friend Hank McCoy, a shy lad with clever fingers that made the drumsticks sing, was surprised when he heard Charles never listened to rock music and bombarded him with fresh rock bands, and with that, Charles was hooked. Hank introduced Raven to him, whom he was dating back then. She could play the bass guitar and she knew Alex who played the electro guitar; of course, they had to form a band.
It had been Charles’s idea. Wanting to be a part of the genre, he suggested forming a band - Raven on the bass, Alex the electro guitar, Hank the drums and him as the leading singer of the band. They called the band “The X’s”; they wanted to remain anonymous and all of them got nicknames - Mystique for Raven, who played the bass in a mystical way, Beast for Hank, that shy boy became a beast whenever he took the drumsticks, Havoc for Alex, he wrecked havoc with his electro guitar and Charles as The Prof. He was also a part-time teaching assistant at the music faculty and he was hoping that one day he would be a professor at his own university, teaching the youth about the music magic.
They wrote their own music and played their own melodies; they even recorded a full album into a CD. Like any other rock band, they had dreams of signing a contract with a famous recording company and tour all around the world - reaching fans and sharing the universality of music.
“We will tour and meet our fans,” Charles one day said, trying to look hopeful; that’s what he would do, look into his friends’ eyes and reassure them how things will turn out and that they will never lose their faiths in music, “you just wait and see.”
But lately, he was just not sure anymore.
After graduation, Charles moved into a house and his cousin Cain, who was studying medicine at Oxford, moved in with him. Things were going smoothly at first, Cain was out most nights - he was either at school, doing shifts during the night, or he was out with girls. Charles was quite keen with this arrangement, he liked being alone with his instruments and a glass of Chardonnay. But ever since Cain fell and broke both of his arms, Charles had to be accountable to his little cousin. And now Cain was always asking for Charles to stay by his side. He no longer had his freedom.
“Cain? I’m back.” Charles took off his shoes and the worn-out brown leather jacket that he was obsessed with for the past 10 years and placed it on the clothing hanger. “Cain? I brought food. Chinese.” He shuffled towards the small, open kitchen and took out the still warm takeaway boxes and put them on the roundtable.
He rolled his shirt sleeves and sat down, looking down at his food and pondered. He had yelled at his best friends who were only trying to be there for him. They were trying to fix things before Charles began breaking them, but he ended up being cruel and cold with them. What was happening to him? Sure, he was having money problems and he wasn’t able to balance himself financially. Sure, he had a roommate who followed his every step. Sure, he hasn’t had any sexual/romantic relationship for the past 2 years and he was about to burst in stress and anxiety, and… He shouldn’t be complaining.
“I shouldn’t be complaining,” he muttered to himself. Only to hear soft footsteps march into the kitchen.
“Complaining about what?” Cain hummed and sat across of him, “And you got me my favourite. Thank you, Charlie.”
Charles smiled and watched him eat with full fever; “You’re welcome.”
Next morning, he woke up with a fresh headache and a sandpaper taste on his tongue. After Cain sat in front of his Playstation, Charles had poured himself a glass of brandy and watched the city live and breathe. ‘I want to be on the top of the world. I want people to know me. I want this.’ he thought to himself. The bubblegum dreams were clouding his mind again and he was already feeling like himself again. ‘We could do this. There’s nothing in this world we can’t do if we want to.’ He could save money. Work extra shifts. Find a second job. They had to pursue their dreams because people live for the fire that the hope incites. The world was big, but so were their dreams. Charles was still only 24 years old, nothing was over.
“It’s just the beginning.”
He rolled on his bed and reached for his phone plugged into the charger. He pulled the cord free and unlocked his phone. He squinted his eyes, trying to adjust to the artificial light coming from his phone’s screen. He noticed a text message from Raven and opened it:
‘We have to meet ASAP. I have BIG news. Meet me up at 11 at Alex’s. x’
A soft excitement shook his bones and he got up quickly. It was 9.40 a.m.
He put on his contact lenses and threw himself into the shower. A warm shower and the smell of new shampoo he bought the day before lightened his senses. For some odd reason, he found himself smiling; today was going to be a good day, he felt it.
He stepped out of the shower, fixed his hair, found a pair of fresh jeans; he had bought them last month which he didn’t mean to at first.
“But Charles they look great. Look at your ass!”
“Raven. Please no.”
“Charles. Yes. You need a boyfriend. You can’t find one if you keep wearing those ugly khakis pants. And if you don’t buy them right this instant, I sure will buy them for you and force you to wear them.”
“Fine. Weekends only.”
Charles was easily convinced.
He put on a basic light blue button-down, there was no need to be dress in fancy clothing, after all, he thought.
Cain was still asleep, fallen asleep on the couch, no wonder he fell asleep during the game. Charles rolled his eyes and put the kettle on and had a quick breakfast.
“Where are you going?” A sleepy and groggy American accent muttered as Charles put on his sneakers.
“Raven texted. I’m going to meet up with her. You go back to sleep. Don’t wait for me.”
Charles stopped by at Starbucks on his way to the studio. The barista named Barnes welcomed him with his usual warm smiles, whom Charles adored because of his name and well, his gorgeous hazel eyes.
“Grande, non-fat latte for Charles coming.” Charles reached for his bag.
“And a cappuccino please.”
“For Raven?” Barnes asked, all beaming and flashing vibrant colours. Charles hummed and nodded in approval as he pulled out some cash and handed it to him. “You look great today Charles. Had a fun night?”
Charles chuckled and shook his head as he watched him prepare his drink.
“Quite the opposite actually. I had a very… considerate night. There was brandy involved. Woke up with a killer headache and but now... I think I’m fine.” Barnes handed him his drinks and winked at him, he knew his way around Charles. They went out once but at the end of the day, they realised they were just fine being friends.
Charles gave him a small smile and left the shop and walked towards Alex’s house. All three of them waiting for him, Hank and Alex jumping from one foot to another.
“Charles is here too. Now, please tell us what is going on.” Alex looked bored.
“I need to take Scott to his basketball practice.” And Raven was practically beaming at them.
“Alright. A good friend of mine, Irene, whom I hope you will meet soon, found us a recording company. Apparently, the company owner was a friend of friend’s and they were struggling. The Stradivarius, have you heard of them?” She searched their faces. Charles shook his head.
“No, I don’t recall a recording company with that name.”
“It’s probably because they used to work only for jazz singers and bands. But jazz music is no longer relevant - no don’t look at me like that I know it’s still relevant don’t judge me - it’s no longer that relevant. So the artists are no longer producing music, they can’t count on a recording company any longer.”
Charles frowned and crossed his arms. “So if they no longer want to work with this company, why should we?”
“They have a full on studio Charles. It’s all very tech and high quality. And they agreed to charge us only $25. 25 bucks! We can manage that, can’t we?”
“I’m not sure about this Raven,” Hank muttered, “what if these guys are scamming us?”
“What do we have to lose? We already have Alex’s garage - if we don’t like this place, we can always come back here. Come on, we can’t lose this opportunity. And they need us to survive as we do need them. And maybe… not just practice at their studio, we will be actually able to record there and sign a contract?”
“Raven…” Hank sighed.
“We can be big! You can’t give up now.” She turned to Charles, “You always told us that we have to see the bigger picture - and this is me, giving you the opportunity to be on top of the world. What do you say?”
Charles thought about it. Stopped. Thought about it more. Raven was right - they had nothing to lose.
“Screw it. Let’s get famous.”