Status: complete.

Follow My Heart

Band Practice

“Don’t want to tell my story, it’s been told a thousand times
Why don’t you tweet about it?
The headlines blare it all, though leaving out essential rhymes
The masses read about it

I don’t really get it . . .”

My ringtone. Recently set to an Automatic Gunfire song, of course. I wrestle my phone from my front pocket, suddenly shaking, as Luke mutes the TV and watches in anticipation.

“Hello?” God, my voice sounds so stupid.

“Hey, man. Seth, right?”

I can feel my face fall. That’s not Zeke; though it does sound vaguely familiar, the voice at the other end of the line is deeper, huskier than that of our favorite little singer.

It’s 9:35 at night, almost thirty-six hours since I first gave Zeke my number. Luke and I are sprawled over the living room furniture, wallowing in our problems and hoping the pain will fade little by little with each episode of Doctor Who we watch.

“Yeah, it’s Seth. Who’s this?” I ask into the receiver. Luke furrows his brow worriedly beside me, inching closer on the couch.

“It’s Trevor. You know, Automatic Gunfire’s bassist?” He sounds amused.

“Oh, hey dude.” So casual, like I get phone calls from my favorite band every day. That’s right, AG has taken the number one spot on my favorite band list once again. How could they not, considering recent events?

“Hey. Sorry, I’m calling from Zeke’s phone. He’s a little busy right now, but he told me to ask you whether you’d be interested in coming to band practice tonight?”

Luke is mouthing for me to put it on speakerphone, but I hold up a finger and say, “Yeah, sounds great. I’ll be there for sure.”

As I take the eagerly-supplied pen and scrap paper from Luke and proceed to write the address of the practice space as Trevor gives it to me, I can’t help but wonder what would compel someone to invite a dating prospect to band practice for a first date. Private? No. Fun? Probably. Romantic? Maybe it could be, but from what Zeke hinted when I first asked him about Automatic, back when he was unaware I knew his identity, the singer isn’t the most spirited band member in the world. He basically badmouthed his band in front of what he thought was a total stranger.

“All right. Yeah. See you there, bro.”

I end the call.

“Was it Zeke? What happened? What did he say? Where are you going?” Luke bombards me with questions as I stand up and go for my jacket. I briefly consider changing into something classier than jeans and a Mayhem Festival shirt, then shrug and think, Fuck it. If Zeke wasn’t going to suggest a more appropriate first date, then I wouldn’t dress like it was one.

“It was Trevor. He invited me to band practice,” I answer, unable to keep the high-strung emotion I’m feeling from my voice. I present myself to Luke anxiously. “Do I look okay?”

“You look fine,” he chortles, and helps me tie the laces of my Converse, as my hands are too twitchy and nervous to do it themselves.

I stand up and take a final breath before grabbing my messenger bag and plucking my keys from the hook by the door.

“Just remember to treat them like normal people,” Luke counsels wisely. “You’re not a fan anymore, Seth. There’s a possibility you could become Zeke’s boyfriend, which means you’re gonna have to make nice with the other band members as well. From what I know about the family mindset of bands, they’ll want to shelter each other from impending threats. In other words, you.”

I nod as though Luke has any idea what he’s talking about. He sounds confident enough in his own advice, and I’ve got nothing to lose in taking it.

“Breathe in . . . now breathe out.” He guides my breathing to calm me down before slapping my back like a football coach. “Go get ‘em, McMillan!”

“Yeah!” I cheer, and head out the door in a whirl of enthusiasm, the piece of paper with the address written on it held out in front of me.

It doesn’t take long to find the place. It’s in the opposite direction from my apartment as Fording, where the record shops and cafes were, towards downtown. I tap my fingers on the steering wheel as I drive, following the beat of the songs on Automatic’s first album, Dolls and Needles, which has once again taken precedence over any other possible car music. I know I need to get around to buying Follow My Heart. Maybe I’ll get it on vinyl; I’m sure one of my friends, or a family member of one of my friends, has an old record player sitting in their basement for me to borrow.

Soon I’m pulling up into the parking lot of a building complex. I don’t know a lot about rehearsal studios, though I know there probably aren’t any good-quality ones in Cleveland, but I have to admit that the place looks pretty legit. The inside is even more spectacular, decorated with the band posters and vinyl albums and occasional guitar that you’d expect to find hanging on the walls of a place like this. After I give her my name, a helpful woman at the reception desk points me down a narrow hallway.

“Rehearsal room C,” she specifies, and I thank her, feeling so out of place and awestruck by my surroundings.

And then, in no time at all, I’m standing in front of the door. I suddenly feel weak at the knees. Behind this door is my favorite band—all four members, and although I’ve been in their presence before, this is different. It will be just me and them, maybe a few other unimportant onlookers, but the fact remains. They’ll expect me to talk to them.

Sure, I had no trouble (well, almost no trouble) talking to Zeke in the record store yesterday, but that situation is almost incomparable to what I’m about to face. Now I’ll be talking to the rest of the band members as well, two of whom I’ve never interacted with before. And they’ll be playing for an audience of probably no more than two or three, making it a much more intimate show. They’ll most likely make mistakes; the song will jolt to a halt as Joel gets the key change wrong or Glen breaks a drumstick or Zeke, beautiful Zeke, forgets the lyrics to a song he didn’t even write . . .

And they’ll all be staring at me, judging my response to their music, daring me to speak out against it. They’ll already have something against me if Luke’s theories are correct; they’ll feel the instinctive need to protect their own, to guard each member of the family against any possible threat. After all, they don’t know me; they don’t know what strange territory their vocalist has made the puzzling decision to delve into.

What if they already don’t like me?

What if this whole thing is a setup, and they plan to pounce on me and punch the living daylights out of me as soon as I set foot in the room?

What if they recognize me from my fucking YouTube comments on their videos and I’ve somehow offended them?

What if—

Before I can choose between pissing myself, fleeing to the bathroom to have a panic attack, running home with my tail between my legs, and just fucking entering the stupid room already, the door swings inward and Joel Waldron stands before me.

He blinks in surprise to see me standing like a retard in the doorway, and then his eyes soften, he says, “Oh,” and he calls back into the room. “Hey, Zeke? Your guy is here.”

I wonder how he knows who I am. I’ve never spoken with him before. He slides past me and down the hallway, heading in the direction I’ve just come from.

Meanwhile, Zeke appears in front of me, all tussled hair and bright eyes and inked skin much more exposed than usual, and I can’t believe I haven’t melted down into a puddle right on the floor because Zeke fucking Rutherford is smiling softly at me with lips like rose petals.

“Hey,” he says somewhat breathlessly.

“Hey.” My voice is strangled in my ears; my body is surely hovering a few inches above the floor.

“Glad you could come.” He seems excited as he grabs my arm and pulls me into the room behind him, and even after he lets go of me I have to take a moment for the electricity to dwindle from my skin before I can register my surroundings.

I find myself in a simple, yet large, windowless rehearsal room. The walls are the color of a mackintosh apple and the floors are hardwood, but for a few sparsely lain rugs. A few tasteless photographs hang on the walls, close-ups of musical instruments mostly, as well as a few old photographs of forgotten bands that recorded in this same building years ago. Crouching on a platform against the far wall is a drum kit; a step lower is another, larger platform where four stringed instruments stand regally. Music stands, microphone stands, amps, and stools of varying heights are scattered haphazardly throughout the room.

My eyes travel to the band members themselves, most of whom are gathered in a small seating area near the door. Glen Mando lounges on a sofa next to a pretty blonde girl in her twenties; Trevor Cale is wrapped up in a serious-looking conversation with the manager, who is wearing a different vest today. Another girl perches tensely on a stool, slightly apart from the rest of the group, a notebook in her lap and a pen jiggling between her fingers.

And there, reclining on the couch next to Glen like he owns the place, is my very own flesh and blood, Freddy McMillan.

His face splits into a grin when he sees me. “Hey, buddy! So glad you made it!” he crows, his voice louder than all the other individual conversations combined, making everyone in the room pause for a moment and turn to look at me.

I can’t keep the glare from my face, even as I offer a halfhearted wave to the rest of the room before stalking over to my brother.

“What are you doing here?” I hiss when I’m mere inches away from him. Zeke followed me nervously and now stands to the side, rubbing an uneasy hand through his perpetually sexy hair.

Freddy’s eyes travel from me to Zeke, and I realize instantly that he knows everything that’s happened between us. I don’t know how he knows, but he does, and I’m ready to destroy him for being so meddlesome as soon as we’re out of the company of other people.

“You have no right stick your nose in my business,” I whisper even lower. I’m pretty sure Glen is eavesdropping now, as is the girl at his side.

Freddy raises his eyebrows, thoroughly enjoying this. I want to wipe that stupid smirk off his face right then and there for intruding on my first date, if that’s what it is, with the man I’ve spent endless hours fantasizing about. “Calm down, bro,” he soothes. “No need to get snippy with me in the company of such talent.” His eyes flicker again to Zeke, and I suspect that “talent” isn’t the word he’d have used if we were alone. He goes on, “And since when is music your business? Last time I checked, being the sole employee of an ancient, smelly bookstore is your business.”

“Like a rundown, smelly club is any better.”

“Venue, and I own it, silly, I’m not an employee.”

“Since when do venue owners get invited to watch band rehearsal?”

“Since Freddy made nice with said band’s bassist and ended up driving his drunk ass back to the hotel,” Glen cuts in, laughing, and even though I’ve had his face staring down at me from a poster on my wall for months, I have to hold myself back from shooting him a dirty look.

Now Trevor is paying attention as well, which means pretty much everyone in the room has joined in the fun of the brotherly argument. “Hey, I was not that drunk.”

“Dude, you almost molested me when you finally stumbled your way into the hotel room,” guffaws Glen in response. “You thought I was your prom date.”

“Can you blame me, with that hair?”

“Does anyone know where Joel ran off to?” The manager interrupts what is quickly becoming an all-out roast between both band brothers and brothers by blood. “I’ve called his cell four times now.”

“Probably just went out for a smoke,” says Glen, stretching his arms in the air, formidable biceps bulging. “You shouldn’t worry so much, Carlisle.”

Not looking any less worried, Carlisle turns helplessly to the lead vocalist, who has been standing silently beside and a little behind me the whole time. “Zeke, can you call Joel for me? He’ll answer if it’s you.”

“Sure.” Zeke shrugs and pulls out his Android, the same phone I had put my own number into just yesterday. Glen whispers something to the blonde chick, causing her to dissolve into giggles, and both Trevor and Freddy converge around the girl on the stool, who has been scribbling in her notebook ever since the conversation began.

Zeke stands with his phone to his ear and one flawless, bony hip cocked unconsciously in a way that makes my heart sing and my pants uncomfortably tight. It doesn’t help the matter when he places one pinky between his parted lips, concentrating on listening for his band mate to pick up.

Then he puts his hand down, saying, “Joel? It’s me.”

Carlisle immediately snatches the phone from Zeke’s hand and speaks into it curtly. A pause, and a flicker of anger flashes through the manager’s eyes. “What do you mean, you’re at the bar? Joel, do you understand the importance of today’s practice? We need to work out who’s doing the backup vocals for “Wished Away”, because you sure as hell don’t have the voice for it . . .”

I realize suddenly that I’m not angry at Freddy anymore. I’m not angry or nervous or even awestruck by the fact that I’m glimpsing the side of Automatic Gunfire that not many people see; they’re relaxed, laying around the room and chattering and quibbling like the family that Luke knew they were. I’m simply content, watching Glen tickle the woman that must be his girlfriend, and Freddy offer a business card to the girl with the notebook, who takes it shakily, and Carlisle bicker with Joel over the phone.

But I don’t take the time to enjoy it for long.

Because none of that is the reason I’m here.

The reason in question is standing awkwardly to my right, clutching his elbows and staring at some point off to the side, away from everyone else. He chews his lip contemplatively and am I imagining a slight shiver in his tiny frame? Why is he wearing a tank top in the middle of winter, anyway?

It occurs to me that I’ve never once seen him smile. A real smile, one that can reaches his eyes and vanquishes the constant sadness that never fades for more than a few seconds.

I want to be his reason to smile. I need to.

“Hey,” I murmur, sidling up closer to him. “You think you guys are gonna get any practice in in the next fifteen minutes?”

“Probably not.” He glances at the room’s other occupants. “Once they get like this it’s hard to get everyone to focus enough to get through a single song.”

“You wanna go for a walk?”

He looks up at me and nods, a hint of that smile I so wish to see dancing on his features. We slip out the door soundlessly, not that it matters much at this point with the chaos mounting to a climax back in the rehearsal studio.

Once the door closes and the insanity of Automatic Gunfire is silenced behind the soundproof walls, Zeke breathes a sigh of relief and slumps against the wall, eyes closed. I don’t say anything for a few seconds, and just as I’m beginning to wonder if he’s sick, he opens his eyes, sighs, and stands up straight.

“Come on, there are some vending machines up this way,” he says.

Around a corner and up a set of stairs we do indeed find vending machines. We each take out our respective wallets to pay for our snacks, which seems a little stupid to me if we are in fact on a date. Which seemed less and less likely as “band practice” went on, but now that we’re alone my hopes are climbing again. We sit in some plastic chairs all lined up on the wall. I pop the tab of my Coke can; Zeke rips open a package of Skittles. Wild Berry Skittles, if I’m not mistaken.

I can’t deny that Zeke confuses me. A lot. The way he talks and stands and his facial expressions all speak of some inner unhappiness, and it drives me crazy because I’m unable to figure it out, to pinpoint what could possibly be the cause. I know I just met the guy, but I feel like I’ve known him since the summer, when the first notes of “Blurry Atmosphere” came crackling through the speakers of Luke’s boom box. I’ve seen him perform, strutting along the stage and singing his heart out; I’ve watched interviews, where he’s just one of the band members and doesn’t do or say anything to make himself stand out. Never once in all my time of listening and watching have I perceived a hint of depression. Maybe it’s something one can only notice in person.

Most of all I’m confused by the fact that, despite these flaws, if you could even call them that, Zeke is still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on. I’m frustrated that my heart can’t seem to take my warnings. I know I shouldn’t find Zeke’s melancholy manner so attractive, but it’s like he can do no wrong. I would still probably want to fuck him if he was in a mental hospital.

I steal a glance at him now. He’s arranging Skittles by color on his lap, gathering them into groups of purple and pink and green and blue and red on his skinny thighs. His beauty twists my heart; I can feel it trying to wrench itself out of my chest. His eyelashes are almost touching his cheeks as he concentrates on his task; the Skittles bounce and tremble slightly as he jiggles his knee habitually. For the first time I notice, among other things, two wristbands on his right wrist, one paper and one plastic, the kind they give you at festivals so you can get back in. They look faded; I wonder how long he’s kept them there, refusing so sever the mementos of what were probably two very fantastic performances by AG.

We’ve been sitting in silence for maybe two minutes when I know I have to break it.

“Listen,” I say, playing with the tab on my pop can. “I don’t know if I did something, or if maybe there’s something else going on in your life right now, but . . . You’ve seemed completely miserable the entire time I’ve known you, Zeke.” It feels surprisingly weird calling him by his first name to his face; perhaps “Your Majesty” would be more appropriate. But saying it also gives me a warm sense of contentment in my tummy. What would it be like to say his name every day? To repeat it over and over in the night . . .

I shake the thought from my head and go on. “I just want to know if you’re actually interested, or if I’ve somehow completely misconstrued your intentions. If you’ll let me, I—I want to try and help. Whatever it is, I want to do whatever I can.”

I seem to have finally coaxed a response from him; he looks at me suddenly, and the expression on his face jolts me. He looks shocked and afraid and sad and confused, his dark eyes wide and chocolaty all illuminated by the bright fluorescents overhead, and it’s like he’s trying to say something, wants to say something, but it’s caught in his throat, and just as I’m convinced he’s about to burst into tears—not sure how I would get out of that one— Skittles are scattered everywhere, bouncing around the tile with gentle tapping sounds, and his mouth is on mine.

My hands automatically fly to the air, not sure what to do with themselves for a moment before they settle themselves on his cool arms. He’s leaning over the barrier of the thin metal arms of our chairs, supporting himself on them by one arm and cupping my face with the other hand. He tastes sugary, probably from the candy, and I close my eyes and move one hand to touch his silky black hair, almost moaning at the texture I’ve been dreaming of feeling for so fucking long now . . .

When we break apart he sits back, his eyes alight and a half-grin playing about his lips. We pant a little. He says, “You didn’t do anything, Seth. Trust me.”

Maybe it’s silly, but I have to blink back tears when I hear my name, so angelic coming from his mouth.

Then he looks down at the floor forlornly. “Aw. My Skittles.”

But I’m not done yet, not by a long shot, not when I’ve been waiting for this for so long. I take his face in my hands and crash our mouths together in a frenzy. Now it’s his turn to flail his arms before letting his hands come to rest at my elbows and then, without breaking the kiss, he actually climbs over the arms of the chairs and into my lap. It’s so hot I hiss into his mouth and now holy fuck he’s straddling me, knees on either side of my waist and it’s so crammed within the confines of the chair but that makes it so much closer, so much better, because I can feel his slender form wrapping around me. Now I’m holding his hips and he has his fingers tangled in my hair, and he tastes so good and his tongue shakily enters my mouth and then slips back out, again and again.

He breaks apart from my lips now, travelling along my cheek to my ear, where he nibbles my lobe before whispering, “Let’s go back to the hotel,” and I’m positive these six words are more beautiful in my ears than anything he’s ever recorded in the studio or belted out into a mic onstage.