cover

 

 

The Next Great Rock Star!

 

By Ann Herrick

 

Digital ISBNs

EPUB 978-1-77362-499-0

Kindle 978-1-77145-785-9

WEB 978-1-77362-500-3

 

Amazon Print 978-1-77362-501-0

 

 

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Copyright 2015 by Ann Herrick

Cover art by Michelle Lee

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

 

* * *

 

Dedication

 

To everyone who ever played in a rock band—or wanted to.

Chapter One

 

 

It all started when I was struck by lightning. Well, almost.

I was standing in front of my dresser mirror in my underwear, rehearsing. First, I imitated an announcer. “Presenting … the next great rock star! Let’s hear it for Jason Blair!” I acknowledged the cheers from the fans, then launched into my first song.

I didn’t worry much about strumming my air guitar or silently lip-synching the words to the latest song I’d written. Instead, I focused on my facial expression. I didn’t have one. At least that’s what Kyle Cabrera, the lead singer of our band, No Frills, said. Layla and Mac said not to worry about it, but I took constructive criticism seriously. Though my last name is Blair, I thought of myself as Blah.

“Jason!” Gramma yelled through my closed door. “Layla’s here.”

“It’s only ten-thirty,” I yelled back. “Practice isn’t until one.”

“It’s something about a cat.” Gramma continued to yell. “I don’t remember exactly. I’ll send her up. She can explain.”

I heard Gramma start to clomp downstairs. “No! Wait! I’ll be right down.”

Sometimes Gramma forgot that Layla and I are fourteen, not four. Even though it was only Layla, I was old enough now to get embarrassed at how messy my room was. Other guys’ mothers clean their rooms for them, but when I hit twelve Mom totally turned it over to me. She said I was old enough to hang up clothes and operate a vacuum cleaner. As long as I kept my door closed, she and Gramma didn’t worry about my room, so of course I always kept my door closed.

I pulled on my jeans and a T-shirt, ignored a zit on my nose, and ran a comb through my hair. Even with all that, I passed Gramma on my way down the stairs. With her arthritis she just slowly creaked along in her purple flowing mu-mu. She had mu-mus in all kinds of colors.

“Oh, here he is,” Gramma said to Layla.

“Hey, Jason.” Layla unfurled three fingers to greet me. She was kind of skinny, so in her green shorts and T-shirt, with her puffy yellow hair, she looked sort of like a dandelion. I could see her eyes focus on the zit on my nose.

“What’s up?” I pushed at my hair. I wanted it to stick up, all cool, but it always fell back on my forehead.

“A cat.”

Layla was a girl of few words, but I knew what she meant. She and her Dad ran a cat-rescue home on their property. They captured feral cats, then Layla and her Dad domesticated them enough to be adopted. Whenever Layla’s Dad couldn’t do a rescue for some reason, Layla took over—as long as it was an easy rescue. Of course, Layla decided they were all “easy.” She simply left out a few details when reporting to her dad if they weren’t.

“Where?”

“Tree in back of Funky Furniture.”

Wait a sec.” Climbing a tree before breakfast? No way. I’d need nourishment. I went to the kitchen and scarfed down a banana. I then snuck a few sips of juice from the carton. When I finished, I grabbed the old leather work gloves. They were about all I had of my Dad. He’d died in a logging accident when I was three, so Mom was not too thrilled whenever I climbed trees. So mostly I just didn’t tell her.

When I was little I used to crawl out my window and climb down the trellis. I thought it was a great shortcut to the back yard. But when Mom realized what I was doing, she grounded me for a week.

As I went back to the front hall, I heard Mom’s piano playing drift in from the back room. If she were giving a lesson, the music would float up from the studio in the fixed-over basement, so I knew she was composing or recording or rehearsing for when she plays at The Lakeside Lounge, where she also sings. I wasn’t supposed to disturb her for anything less than life or death.

That was good, because it meant I could just tell Gramma we were going out. Otherwise, Mom would give me the third degree, then grief for rescuing cats. Besides the tree business, I think she just plain didn’t like animals. Every time I asked about getting a dog, she’d say no before I could even finish my pitch.

“I’m ready,” I said to Layla, and to Gramma, “I’m going out.”

“All right.” Gramma was polishing her crystal ball. She told fortunes in the parlor, using the name Madam Zsusanna. She says our house may be old, but it has proper rooms. Gramma moved in after Dad died to help take care of the house and me.

I thought the fortune-telling was kind of weird, but Gramma had a lot of customers, and they kept coming back. Mom said that the money Gramma brought in sure helped too.

“Jason!” Gramma called after me. “The Crystal Ball says you’re going to have an exciting day!”

“That’s nice,” I yelled over my shoulder. “I already know it’s going to be exciting,” I said to Layla. “A cat rescue always is!”

Layla and I crossed Fifth Avenue, zigged over to Lincoln and zagged to the back of Funky Furniture. There was one big old maple tree spreading its shade over four parking spaces and a dumpster. I didn’t have to look up. I heard the cat yowl as soon as I approached the tree.

“You got The Stuff?” I asked.

“Of course.” Layla handed me the sealed plastic bag filled with balls of The Stuff. It was something her father cooked up. He used cheese, fish, cereal and who knows what. It stunk, which was why it was wrapped up. But even the toughest feral cats couldn’t resist it once they got a sniff. “Be careful.”

Layla was not afraid of much, but she was afraid of heights. Otherwise, she’d have been right up there with me. She stood right next to the tree, holding a burlap bag. We found that was the best way to transport feral cats, who really did not want to cooperate.

I put on my gloves, tucked the bag of The Stuff in my belt, grabbed a low branch and started climbing the tree. I should have looked up before I started to climb. The long-haired creature I was about to “rescue” was the size of a raccoon! “Here, uh, kitty. Come here.”

The cat turned up the volume on his yowls, and threw in a couple of nasty-sounding hisses. As I got closer, I could see the glare in his yellow eyes, and the sharp fangs.

I stopped, opened the plastic bag and pulled out a ball of The Stuff. I held it out for the cat to see and smell. The yowling stopped. The nostrils twitched.

Then, in one swift move, the cat zipped down the branch, snatched the ball of Stuff with his jaws and leaped back to his perch. Three balls later and the cat was still on his perch, only now I swear he was grinning at me. Busted.

“Keep trying,” Layla called to me.

I thought for a minute as I studied the smug look on his face. Then it hit me.

Instead of holding out one ball, I placed a line of balls on the branch in front of me, kind of smooshing them so they wouldn’t fall. Then I waited, hoping the cat was as greedy as he was fast.

For a moment the cat didn’t move. Then, flash! He sprang down the branch, ate the first ball, then ate the second ball. Just as he was reeling in the third with his tongue, I grabbed him.

He hissed. He spat. He twisted. He turned. He scratched my chin.

“Yee-ouch!” The bag of The Stuff fell to the ground, but I held on to the cat, grateful for the leather gloves that kept his claws from shredding my hands.

As soon as I dropped to the ground I stuffed the cat into the open burlap bag. Quick as a sneeze Layla lashed the bag shut. The cat howled and squirmed, but it was no use. We had him.

“Thanks, Jason.” Layla broke into a wide, open smile. “Good job.”

“Thanks.” I basked in the light of her approval. I’d known Layla since we were two years old and I knew she didn’t give it lightly. I touched the scratch on my chin. It stung.

“A wound?” Layla clasped her hands to her chest and faked a swoon. “My hero is wounded!”

I kind of wished she was serious. I mean, who doesn’t want to be a hero, especially to a cool girl like Layla? But I figured she was joking, so I just laughed.

 

* * *

 

That afternoon, I rode my bike to Layla’s on the way to band practice. I had my guitar slung across my back. Layla was waiting with her tambourine, ready to go, when I got there. We headed right off to Mac’s. He kept his drums in his garage, so that’s where we practiced.

“How’s that cat we rescued?” I asked.

“He’s at the vet, getting his shots,” Layla said. “By the way, I’ve been working on the lyrics for the last song you wrote.”

“Yeah? Let’s hear ‘em.”

“Not yet. I haven’t finished.”

I knew better than to argue. Layla wouldn’t share her work until it was not only finished, but polished.

We cut through the park, past the playground equipment and the back of the house with two huge bloodhounds in the yard. They ran and howled as we rode by, but they didn’t go past the invisible property line. I knew they were all howl and no bite, but big dogs made me nervous ever since one taller than me barked right in my face when I was four. Maybe that’s why I preferred smaller dogs, even though Mom wouldn’t let me have even a small one.

When we got within fifty feet of Mac’s garage, we could hear him on the drums, and Kyle singing, “‘Til It’s Time.” That’s one of our songs that we’d rehearsed until we’d really gotten it right. The garage was lined with empty egg cartons, so it was supposed to be sound proof, but in the summer we practiced with the door open.

“You think it’s real,

The way you feel,

But I don’t know,

So let’s just while away the day with music

‘Til it’s time.”

Layla and I took the alley straight to Mac’s garage. Layla shook her tambourine. “Hey, guys. Sounds good.”

“Hey, Jason.” Kyle flipped his black curly hair off his face for a second. He raised his index finger in this kind of salute he does on the rare occasion we have an audience, then winked. “Hey, Layla.”

Despite ears the size of throw pillows, Kyle decided he was the lover-boy of the group. The fact that Layla was just one of the guys didn’t stop him from practicing on her.

“Hullo, fellas,” said Mac. For as long as I’ve known him he’s spoken with a slight Irish brogue, even though he’s never been to Ireland. But when he was little he spent a lot of time with his grandfather, who did move here from Dublin. Maybe that was the reason.

“Ready to do Steppin’ Up?” Mac asked. He peeked at me and Layla through the fringe of red hair that always covered his eyes. Even with us he was shy, and he hid behind his hair, unlike Kyle, who liked to think his mass of dark curls made him look sexy.

“Sure.” I brushed at my hair with my hand, trying to force it up. Didn’t work.

Kyle adjusted his microphone and shook his mass of dark, curly hair. With eyes half-closed he warbled, “Ooh, ooooh, baby.”

Mac poked Kyle with a drumstick. “Let’s get down to business.”

I took my place near the back of the makeshift stage where Mac kept his drums. Layla stood next to me. Kyle was out front. The microphones were all plugged in, and Kyle’s guitar too. I played acoustical guitar. I figured it kept our band real.

“Okay!” Mac started the countdown on his drums. “… and three, two, one.”

“Steppin’ up

To the big time

Gettin’ psyched

For the show

Just as long

As we’re together

We can really make it go.”

I tried a couple of token dance steps, but I found it hard to sing and dance at the same time, even with Mac keeping the beat perfectly. I was always impressed that his playing was steady, yet inspiring.

Kyle’s clear voice filled the garage, and helped smooth over mine, which wasn’t so great. For one thing, I never knew when it might crack. For that reason, I sang pretty quietly on the rare occasions that we performed in public.

I was pretty good at writing music, though, if I do say so myself. Without a decent voice, I probably really wouldn’t get to be the next great rock star. But I could compose the music.

Layla sang softly, as usual, since her voice was only so-so. But she wrote lyrics that kept it real, and she handled the tambourine like a pro.

We went through our whole repertoire four times, which sounds impressive until you realize we have only six songs. We promised each other early on we’d sing nothing but our own stuff.

As a group we’d decided we wanted to create a sound that was simple—no frills—but true. It had to be real and, in Layla’s words (she does the lyrics, after all), positive and straight from the heart.

For four members of the nameless rank-and-file at school, I thought we were pretty good.

We were about to start a fifth round when Mac’s mother came out in her paint-smeared sweatshirt and jeans. She did these abstract paintings that sell all up and down the West Coast. Mac had several hanging on his bedroom walls. He says they’re his college fund.

“Okay, guys. My celestial blue is going to solidify in the tube if you do one more set.”

Which was her way of saying, enough is enough.

We took the hint.

“Same time tomorrow, guys,” Mac said. “We need to get ready for that tryout at the mall. You know, ‘There’s no luck, except where there’s discipline.’“

Did I mention Mac was full of old Irish sayings? And that his brogue got thicker when he used one?

“Same time tomorrow sounds good,” said Layla. “After all, the contest is next week.”

“Just think,” Kyle said. “If we get into the contest and win, we play at the mall all summer. We’ll be famous!”

“Our music would reach all kinds of people,” said Layla.

“And they’ll discover that good music can have a positive message,” I added.

“Uh, right,” Kyle said. Then he took off, supposedly for the town pool to work on his tan. We suspected he used a tanning booth in the winter; he was always a golden, sun-kissed color.

Layla had to go to Dr. Anderson to pick up the cat we lured from the tree. Dr. Anderson was the vet who gave free shots to the cats we rescued.

I slung my guitar on my back and hopped on my bike. I saw it had gotten really cloudy while we were in the garage. The sky was almost black. Wind blew the leaves on the trees so they fluttered like silvery flags.

“‘The windy day is not the day for thatching your roof,’“ Mac called after me in his thickest Irish accent. I assumed that meant I should get home before the wind blew me off my bike.

Or something like that.

Just as I pedaled out of the alley into the park, it started to rain. I was halfway between Mac’s and home, so I started hauling.

I raced along the bike path, out from under the trees and into the open. Suddenly, rain came down in barrels. Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed.

I pedaled faster.

The next thing I knew, I saw a huge brightness in front of me—a blue-orange glow. My eyebrows stood up on end. A rainbow of colors flashed inside my eyeballs.

Then everything went black.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

When I opened my eyes, I heard soft music. A bright shaft of light shined on my face.

Was I on my way to heaven?

“Hey! Hey, everyone! His eyes are open!”

I blinked and focused. The bright light came from a fixture in the ceiling. I glanced toward the voice. It was Kyle. I looked around. Layla, Mac, Mom, and Gramma, were all staring at me.

I was in a room. A hospital room. Well, a clinic, really. I recognized it from the time I broke my big toe playing basketball.

The music, I finally realized, came from a TV. If I knew that, I must be alive. “What—what happened?”

“It was the storm,” Kyle said.

“I found you,” said Mac.

That wasn’t helping.

“I was doing a reading for Mrs. Kowsoncowski,” Gramma said. “The lights went dim, and then I felt a power.” Her voice quivered. “I knew. Harm had come to my Jason!”

I glanced at Mom, who I just noticed was squeezing my hand. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

Layla edged her way to the front of the pack. “Your grandmother had a premonition something was wrong, and called Mac’s mother. She told Mac. He looked for you, and found you in a heap next to a patch of scorched grass.”

It was coming back to me. “Lightning?”

Layla nodded. “Apparently, it struck right in front of you. Sent you flying off your bike. Don’t worry. Your bike’s okay. So is your guitar.”

“And me?”

Layla shrugged. “The doctor said you should be fine.” She leaned in close and examined my face. Her face had never been quite so close to mine before. I noticed for the first time that her green eyes had little flecks of gold in them. “In fact, I don’t know what it is, but you look pretty good. Better than usual.”

“Oh. Gee. Thanks.” I managed to force a small laugh.

“Your voice is deeper, though,” said Layla. “Is it sore?”

I hummed. “Nope. Feels fine.”

“Well, thank goodness,” Mom said. She’d obviously regained her voice.

“How long was I out?”

“About a half-hour,” Mom said.

A nurse bulldozed her way into the room. “There are too many visitors in here! Two’s the limit. Anyone who’s not a blood relative, go back to the waiting area.”

Layla, Mac and Kyle filed out.

“How’s Jason?” my mother asked. “When can he come home?”

The nurse checked my chart. “In about an hour Dr. Taylor’s going to look at him one more time. If all’s well—and I think it will be—he can be checked out of here by four-thirty.”