(Same deal as first one: sim credits at the bottom, yada yada. Incidentally, WordPress users, the site decided Part I was published on January 22nd instead of the date it was actually published, February 9th, so the notification got buried. Nah, I’m not salty about it. Part I is here.)
Jazz Deon/Jenny Trevalyn
Jazz/Jenny (they/them) wasn’t sure which name to put on the sign-up sheet. They’d forgotten which one they settled on, actually, by the time Neala called for a Jazz Deon to please enter the audition room.
Jazz approached the audition room’s door as if it were the entrance to a bunker. “Did she just—what just happened in here?”
“Never mind that,” Neala said, hoping Jazz was the soft-and-slow acoustic type. The auditionees were grouped together by instrument, barring those exceptions who told Neala in advance about doctor’s appointments or day job shifts.
Against their better judgement, Jazz tried to look directly into the overhead lights and blinked involuntarily. The lighting’s tint was more blueish than they were used to, which was the sunrise bouncing off Oasis Springs’s orange-orange-and-more-orange rockscape. Jazz didn’t spend a lot of time indoors and certainly not in a place like this. Sterile, they thought the colors were, and clammy. While trying to center themselves, they swiveled on place left and right to get the full 360° experience. To their back right were three guitars—three in one place. Jazz made sure to bring their guitar when they ran away, and couldn’t imagine being lucky enough to have three.
“Are we allowed to use the instruments?”
“Yeah, but,” River narrowed their eyes. “Alright, kid. How old are you?”
“Old enough. I aged up a week ago.”
“… To teen?”
Neala waved. “I hate to point this out, but there are obvious legal issues with having a minor in the band.”
“Please hear me out.” Jazz’s tone was meek but there was desperation in the way their voice sped up. “I need to do this.”
“Alright, alright.” River was raising both hands palms-forward in a praise-be-type expression. Jazz wasn’t actually looking at them, but their eyes were darting from WooWho! poster to WooWho! poster on the back wall, River noticed. They didn’t seem like a kid you’d expect to show up at an audition, the sorry sort that was prodded by stage parents and had internalized the basics of pageantry before they learned not to make a mess in their diapers. Usually these kids were wearing minus-size clothes that would have been cool two generations ago and habitually checked stage left and stage right in search of parental encouragement mid-performance. Jazz, in contrast, looked vacant in a henley that looked like it was plucked fresh off the floor minutes before they left the house, and, as River noticed earlier, needed people to be patient with them because they were still figuring out the eye-contact thing. Something was up; River couldn’t say for sure, but it was. “And how are you doing today?”
“Good.” Jazz paused before answering, which cinched it for River. Clearly they’d wanted to say more and thought better of it.
This was going nowhere, as River expected. They’d push later. “So what brings you here to audition today?”
“Uh, well, I really enjoy playing the guitar,” Jazz had been examining a piece of leftover painter’s tape under the table’s leg and then abruptly caught River’s gaze, “but I’m also a really huge fan. I put on your songs when I’m having a bad day.”
“Glad to know I can help.”
“Your songs make everything make sense. Like ‘Song of Our Own.’ I listen to it every night. I know all the words. It’s nice to know there’s someone like me out there. ‘You’re all you can be, so be it.’ Right?”
Another warning sign. Statements like that, ones professional critics would consider trite, cliché, overplayed, impersonal, cheesy, basic—because if your job is communicating your opinions on music, odds are you’ve got the kind of idyllic past where your role models said these things to you and really meant it—appealed the most to people who rarely heard them. River wrote those lines for people at the thick end of Maslow’s hierarchy. Not rock bottom, like ‘eat food, you need food,’ but close enough to people’s limits that going off the rails was a possibility. Problems with ssolutions that appeared simple to outsiders. “That’s true,” they ended up saying. “So this is something you really gotta do, huh?”
“I don’t know if I’m ready. But I can’t miss the opportunity.” Somehow, noiselessly, the walls moved an inch a minute, converging on Jazz and their rushing heart. No one else was reacting. They scanned corner-to-corner over the oddly aligned WooWho! posters—yep, definitely closing in. The line of judges moved ever closer, taking with them an empty chair that held Neala’s things. Couldn’t they have gotten a fourth judge just for the symmetry?
“So what are you going to play for us?” River’s voice broke through the nightmare enclosure. Jazz blinked. The room had returned to its initial size.
“‘Lonesome Day’ by Bruce Springsteen.” Neala’s relief was audible.
Rhiannon started. “You’re not playing—“
“Nope. ‘Lonesome Day’ by Springsteen.”
Jazz caught the acoustic guitar by its neck. They handled new instruments gingerly, and this made the weight more noticeable when they drew it from its stand. They removed a pick from their pocket and slid the guitar into position, tapping the strings and neck lightly across the new surface, graduating to a couple basic chords, reflecting on the fact they didn’t have a tuner in Oasis Springs, and how it would be nice to have one, and whether or not they should ask. They elected not to.
Rhiannon leaned forward during the long pause Jazz created by not asking for a tuner, a gesture Jazz interpreted as slumping forward out of powerful, tact-defying boredom. Was this a mistake? Clearly. This was clearly a mistake. Jazz could feel the sweat between their fingertips and the strings as they got into position for the first arpeggio, they were sweating from their armpits too, and their forehead burned in the unnatural light, why’d they have to put in that light, anyway it was now or never, even though their brain couldn’t move from the sweat and the heat and let it be and oh goodness River’s actually looking at them, they couldn’t stop it, it was happening, they were playing the entrance they’d drilled and swore at until it was second nature, well, second nature up till now, and it’s supposed to pick up a bit at this part but they’re going to go for the soft acoustic cover anyway, they’ve got an acoustic guitar, they’re soft, do the judges hate it, they all hate it, they hate it, it’s wrong and horrible and amateur, and now Jazz has to sing on top of everything else, ‘thought I knew’ is a bit low, isn’t it, their voice is cracking, they have to keep going, that’s the first rule of an audition you have to keep going and you can’t stop, but now the low part is coming up again on ‘tender touch’ and if their voice cracks again, they can’t, they just can’t—
The song prematurely ended as Jazz smashed their fingers across the strings. “That doesn’t sound like it did in my head.” Jazz’s usual audience consisted of rocks, succulents, remarkably curious lizards. The pillbugs had probably never seen a guitar. They didn’t know what a composer was. They probably thought Jazz was pretty cool. When the song ended, no matter how many notes Jazz missed, the sunset would reflect off of the canyons at the end of the day. Music was something that happened and then it was gone. Gone like Jazz’s chances of nailing the audition.
“Don’t worry. If you’re feeling nervous, that’s because you care. People only feel afraid when there’s something to lose.” River’s face was flat as they said this. They weren’t the life of any party. The people who can get you through a rough time, they rarely are.
“I’m just not used to playing for anyone else.”
“Then play for yourself. Don’t worry about us.”
“I can’t—don’t you hate it?”
“Jazz. Look me in the eye. Can you see me hating anyone?”
“You have to believe me when I say no one here hates you. Everyone behind the judge’s table is rooting for you. You’re the only one who isn’t. So what I want you to do for me today is, I want you to stop caring about what we think. Heck, stop caring about what you think. Don’t place a value on it. Just tell yourself whatever happens is alright.”
The guitar had been at Jazz’s side, them being unable to support the weight with both hands. But this was a direct command from River; this was a voice they’d relied on to get out of bed and maybe practice this and a couple other songs. They repositioned the guitar, this time anticipating the heaviness in their hands, and restarted.
Two lines of vocal warmup and Jazz was beginning to find clarity in the words again. There was a certain way the words filled their throat when sung correctly, and now the room filled with the voice of someone who’s been told they aren’t allowed to have one. Jazz’s fingers were in a full-on muscle memory trance state. Maybe the song they’d picked was repetitive, but with each repetition it was like their fingers started to fade away, so Jazz had one less thing to think about.
They paused on ‘right now.’ Whether it was a reflective pause, or a lapse in concentration, they themselves couldn’t tell. Maybe they could trust their own artistic instincts and say, later, that the song needed a pause there and it was alright. It’s alright. It’s alright. Yeah. Jazz echoed River’s words as they plead, loud and controlled.
Getting to the part Jazz got to rest their voice, they didn’t think about having to pick back up again, like they did in the desert. The melody they chose to highlight descended—and descended, and descended—and then began to rise, slowly, painfully, note by note, a little vibrato and styling at the very top. Their voice came back in, didn’t crack. They were almost there, they were going to find their way through this song. Jazz’s loudness was restrained; they knew not to fight with the guitar, but to meld with it, and there’s only so double-f they can strum without a literal amp wall.
It’s alright. It’s alright. It’s alright. Jazz bounced with the guitar, and although they weren’t paying attention, Neala was bouncing with them. It caught Rhiannon’s eye. Far be it from her to criticize her sister for having a good time, for once, but still. Nerd. The genuine smile on Jazz’s face prevented them from singing, and so the last lines were spoken. It’s alright! It’s alright! It’s alright! One last oooh, and they lowered their instrument to their side.
“Yeah!” Neala yelled, jumping to her feet and clapping hard enough to smash an entire beehive if one were taking an ill-advised approach to garden de-bee-ing. Though if we know anything about sims, it’s that they want bees in their garden, and they want them now, and they also want to be friends with the bees. Even those with zero personal interest in horticulture are brought to their knees by the merciless siren song of the Bee Box.
Watching the judges react caused Jazz’s shoulders to sink toward the floor, though if they were alone they would curl into a fetal position and try to vanish. There was Neala’s standing ovation—could Jazz trust that, or was that a pity ovation?—but River wasn’t following; they were smiling politely and clapping with their usual zen; and Rhiannon’s golf claps, unlike countless genetic experiments, would have spared a fruit fly. Jazz didn’t know what reaction would have satisfied them. If bad was awful and neutral was awful and a standing ovation had to be done out of pity, which was awful, how could they collect the scraps of positive feedback they needed? But Jazz couldn’t see their performance from the judges’ eyes, and so they assumed everyone saw their performance the same way they did, which is to say they hated it. No amount of external prodding could convince them otherwise.
“I’m—I’m sorry. Sorry. I’m so sorry.” Jazz paused to hold back the liquid threatening to spill from their eye sockets and nasal cavity. “I was too loud. I’m sorry about that.”
River shook their head. “Don’t apologize. You were just getting passionate. You did great.”
They didn’t mean that. Obviously. This was more patronizing pity. “No, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come here. I wasn’t ready. This was a mistake.” They had to stop talking. Anything more would release the waterworks.
“But you will respond if we try to contact you, right?”
“Are you just going to yell at me?”
“No.” River’s tone was firm. “But you will respond? Promise?”
Jazz found themselves caught in a paradox: they couldn’t ignore anything curt and negative, and they couldn’t accept any goodwill towards themselves, so what were they to do? “Promise.” They had to follow through on a promise, even one made in confusion. River’s lecturing to keep in touch and Rhiannon’s and Neala’s assurances that they did well and should be happy with themselves bounced off of Jazz’s impenetrable helmet of negativity, not even leaving a dent.
Their parting word came off as little more than a grunt. The judges hated it, hated it, hated it. Hated it. Hated it. Hated it. Hated it. Hated it.
Gorman & Aries Bellingham
“So you two are auditioning… together.” The way Neala glared through the sign-in sheet suggested she was trying to intimidate it into giving up its lies.
“We sure are!” The guy whose mustache kind of looked like a funnel confirmed the sign-up sheet’s veracity. His mustache moved when he talked.
“They’re one of the rhythm-section groups we approved,” said River.
“Thanks for letting us go together. We need all the advantage we can get; I know the bassist is supposed to be the hottest person in the band, but we’re no NSYNC.” He twirled the ‘stache. “Do I have competition? Please either say no or give me their numbers.”
Rhiannon waved a wrinkled Ricky’s receipt with digits scrawled in metallic gel pen. “But I called dibs.”
“Fine. I respect your dibs.”
While Rhiannon’s sister also respected her dibs, she also respected the community center’s strict room reservation policy, which they risked violating if these auditions took too long. “Which one of you is Aries?”
“Me.” Aries (he/him), formerly ‘Stache, raised his hand. “They named me that ’cause I’m ruled by Mars.”
“And so by process of elimination you’re Gorman?”
Gorman (he/him) nodded and answered with a noise most accurately transcribed as dazzzriiight.
“And you’re brothers?”
“Yeah,” Aries clarified, “like that movie.”
Gorman nodded again. “Chill movie.”
“Gorman’s going for that Beard Guy energy,” Aries explained. “You know that cover of Somebody That I Used to Know where they’re all on the same guitar and the guy with the beard is just contemplating the universe and does a twang every once in a while?”
“Mike Taylor!” Neala and Rhiannon jumped up at the same time.
“Walk Off the Earth! Rest in peace.” Rhiannon kissed two fingers and held them to the sky.
“I know I’m the one doing all the talking, but you can tell that’s what it’s like. He’s lucky I love bragging about his hobbies. He does his own microbrews. Right, G?”
“Yeah.” If Gorman got a hangover, it would be from the good stuff and not boxed wine like the narrator.
“It’s actually a super-cute look for him. He trades microbrews with other local artisans. It’s like living in a farmer’s market.” Some of the people he barters with are regulars of the café Juliet’s at now, the scarf-wearers who stare at people when they’re not looking.
“And are you part of this microbrew operation?” River asked.
“As if! That would cut into my yoga time—”
“—And party time.” Aries didn’t react to his brother completing the sentence, which suggested to the judges that it was close to what he was planning on saying anyway.
“I call it re-toxing. Don’t want to get to the Pearly Gates and have them think you’re some kinda prude.”
Rhiannon pointed to the sky again. “I hear that. Mike’s not letting in any judgey people. But wait.” She smirked and tilted her head. “Aren’t you the guy who keeps jumping onstage on Grunge night at Patton’s and getting escorted off by security?”
“That is indeed me, I’m the guy who keeps jumping onstage on Grunge night at Patton’s and getting escorted off by security!” said the guy who, yada yada, you know.
“You’re hilarious! My friends and I are just watching all night to see when you’re gonna do it!”
“Ah, thank you.” He beamed at the compliment, bringing his shoulders to his ears and both hands to his chest. “It’s nice to meet a fan.”
“Can you get me up there?”
“It’s easy. Security doesn’t care. I can give you a boost, I guess, but you just hop on.”
“But I need someone el—“
“—So what’ll you be playing?” Neala finally asked. Land’s sakes, Rhiannon, the time! Think of the room reservation policy!
“‘Antibodies’ by Poni Hoax.” Gorman’s answer was prompt. He gave Neala a nod of understanding; let’s move things along.
“And we have a gimmick! Let me set up the gimmick.” Aries took a timer out of his pocket, pressing 4 twice and 0 once to set it. He placed the timer in front of River. From his other pocket he produced a metronome, setting it to silently count at 125 bpm. “Ok, River, I’m gonna need you to count us in with this,” he indicated the metronome, “and then start the timer.”
“You got it.” River took the metronome. Aries swung back over to his bass.
“Two, three, four.” They hit the button on the timer. Neala could have sworn Aries’s finger bounced off his string at the exact moment the psychedelic spiral on Gorman’s kick drum began to vibrate like a seizure hazard. It was like—Rhiannon couldn’t figure it out. Like if an acid trip had finesse? The series of hammer-ons Aries was performing sounded like a dozen tiny airplanes each taking off, each in a fraction of a second.
The vocal line wasn’t more than four words at a time. Aries still managed to follow his first rule of auditions. Flirt with the judges—all three at once, on the same word if possible, flirt with the bass, flirt with the mic, flirt with the walls. (Not with Gorman.) His voice was caramelized with a hint of salt. Watching him, it was like his heads and hand belonged to two different people.
Gorman had this casual nod going steady even through transitions, doing this misdirection with his sticks that looked like he was going to go haywire at any moment but ended in a controlled, sassy plunk. He had the same introspective look he did when he wasn’t drumming. Aries stopped singing and Gorman’s note density nearly doubled. A single eyebrow waggle confirmed it, he knew he was showing off.
Rhiannon picked up the metronome, flipped it over for no reason, and waved it to get her sister’s attention. It still matched the Bellingham’s beat. It had occurred to Rhiannon that, repetitive as the song was, it was an endurance test. It was a mental marathon. Even a millisecond off and they’d noticeably break away. So while Rhiannon had been hypnotized, she was now totally hogging the metronome, glancing at River and her sister each time the brothers repeated the lick. It kept going. How were they still going?
Bee-bee-bee-beep. Bee-bee-bee-beep. The timer’s first beep coincided with the Bellinghams’ last note, so the first tone was a trade-off into the high Hz range. Pretty jarring, in fact. Somewhat extraterrestrial in the way live music gave way to a mechanical chirp. River pressed a button that told the timer, electronically, to shut up.
Rhiannon waved the metronome that wasn’t hers. “How in the everloving world did you manage that. How.” If she hit the metronome on the edge of the table, she would owe the Bellinghams §20 and an apology. She didn’t, luckily.
“Practice,” Gorman answered. “Practice, practice.”
“We got a bit off-track here, so I forgot to ask.” The nearly identical resumes Neala was holding listed the same three bands with the same three start and end dates. “What were your other bands like?”
Aries squinted up and to his left. “Well, I think there’s four on there: Gluten-Free Jesus—“
“—Some people have Celiac disease, y’know. That was mostly electronica but with some nontraditional instruments, like the organ. There’s Star Hazard, which was more atmospheric—“
“—You’re Telling A Lie. That one was heavier on the vocals. And Hyster—“
“—Hysteresis. Hate to say it, but take everything pretentious about indie bands and take it up to eleven. That should cover it.” Gorman zipped his drumsticks into a carrying case. “Did you want any other details?”
“Yeah, actually.” Neala set down her papers. “Why’d you leave them?”
At this, Aries looked to Gorman for comment. The percussionist shrugged. “Ideological differences.”
“We’re not proud of how we handled some of them. We’re hoping this time’s different.”
“And you know Venus in Retrograde lives and dies on its ideas.” The brothers nodded in sync at River’s statement. Rhiannon was sure Gorman was doing that on purpose. “So I have to ask: what kinds of ideological differences?”
“Uh,” Aries looked behind himself again; Gorman give him strength, “there were a bunch of things I don’t want to repeat, but Gluten-Free Jesus told a lot of jokes at the expense of other people. Think making fun of people’s accents.”
“Not to spoil the ending, but if you politely tell them to stop one too many times, it turns into a screaming match and ends when someone throws a reusable water bottle at you. They didn’t like being called out. And Star Hazard just—I—ugh.”
“I brought my boyfriend to an event. Then the lead guitarist came over and whispered that we had to leave.”
“No.” This was from Rhiannon, although all three judges looked sympathetically traumatized.
“Yes! It was one of the only times I’ve seen Gorman mad. Can you even imagine Gorman being mad?”
“We left with him and never came back. And then You’re Telling A Lie, you remember that thing with Joey Ace? The things he did to that younger vocalist? They still wanted to work with him after that! They had to be one of the only ones. It’s like—they didn’t even believe anything happened in the first place, ‘alleged’ this ‘alleged’ that, and they were saying it wasn’t even that bad, at least—“
“—NO.” Again, Rhiannon.
“That was one of the worse ones. I don’t have to talk about it, but I can show you this.” Aries’s sweater hid a three-inch scar down his right forearm. “And I guess after that, Hysteresis wasn’t so bad, but there’s only so much of it you can take when the frontman won’t listen to anyone else.”
“Like I said, pretentious. Maximally.”
“So I’m not sure if there’s something wrong with us or if we just keep finding these people somehow. We’re seriously hoping this time will be different. River, I read your interview, and those things you have to say? Mwah. Please never change.”
“How can I keep getting better if I never change?”
“See, like, that exactly. Please never stop saying stuff like that.”
Rhiannon lifted her head out of the earthquake-safety-like stance she was doing to protect herself from the sheer amount of garbage she was hearing. “It sounds like there’s nothing wrong with you guys. All of them—ugh! I can’t believe it. But if you can’t stay in a band, then you’re the—“
“—Renegades of Funk?”
“I’ll take it!” Aries swung his pointer finger in what would be a pretty good golf swing if he had a club attached to the end of it.
“Okay then, thank you for your time.” The sign-up sheet couldn’t endure another one of these tangents. “We’ll be in contact.”
“And thank you for yours. We wish you luck in finding the best match.” Gorman guided the door behind him, pressing it into the latch with as little force as possible.
“River.” Rhiannon’s head was fully oriented toward the band’s frontperson. “Can we keep him. Can we keep him please.”
“You know what, maybe we should keep these guys around. Because if they leave, you know you messed up.” River pressed the corners of their lips to their back teeth and shook their head. “Damn.”
“Oh, look at you, you’re like a little doll,” Rhiannon cooed.
“If this were a horror movie, that’s the last thing you’d say.” Chantel Lucas (she/her) flashed her impressively polished stalker expression, then softened almost as quickly. “Nah, I kid. I kid.”
Rhiannon cracked a smile but Neala glossed over that statement as if she’d given some bland hi-I’m-Chantel-type introduction. “I see you have some professional keyboard experience?”
“I suppose,” Chantel admitted. “I guess I’m still doing that, yeah.”
“You don’t seem very connected to it.” River wasn’t going to lecture Chantel about work ethic; they were just perceptive.
“Right. That was Before-Chantel’s deal. You’re talking to After-Chantel right now.”
“Before and after what?” Rhiannon hadn’t read the lyrics in Chantel’s portfolio.
“Before my muse was ripped out of me and who-knows-what came in to fill the void. Before-Chantel knew who she was.” After-Chantel may not. After-Chantel’s directed glare at some opaque point past the judges, maybe past the walls and beyond, said that for her. “Basically all of the technical ability, that’s Before-Chantel, and that,” she gestured to the lyrics sheet in her portfolio, “came from the mind of this sinner.”
“This is pretty extensive.” This was River’s way of saying they hadn’t been able to make it through Chantel’s portfolio either.
“Yeah, there’s some flailing about. Okay, I get that some people are totally in control even though it sounds like they’re flailing about. Not me, I had to pick between vomiting raw emotion or vomiting formulaic drivel, and it wasn’t a choice really. If you’ve read a single word in there,” her portfolio, “you know it’s a no-brainer. I’m all over the place. But name one musician who doesn’t have an axe to grind and I’ll show you a consumerist puppet.”
“Uh. Chantel.” Neala found it easy to picture Chantel flailing around with an axe. Neala had not only read Chantel’s entire portfolio—an accomplishment she was too mature to gloat about in front of the other judges—she’d had time to digest it. According to the date marks, almost all of these lyrics were written in the three days preceding the audition. “Do you spend time on anything else? Besides music, I mean?”
“I’ll treat myself to some food once in a while, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m potty-trained, I understand deodorant, I can hold a conversation in at least one language.” Also photography, it’s worth noting. Mostly candid portraiture. “Besides that—nah, not lately.”
“Let’s just get started,” was Neala’s way of addressing this bizarre comeback. The response seemed like a joke, a lot of what she said did, but was delivered in the soulless tone of a 3-A.M.-drive-thru worker. It’d be a drawl if Chantel didn’t speak so quickly. “So if you can make your way to the instrument provided—“
“—Thanks, but I got the settings just right on these.” Chantel took two keyboards out of her inventory, placing one to her left and one between herself and the judges. She pulled up a stool to the front-facing piano. As the other sims watched, she dug back into her inventory for yet another sampler.
“That’s a lot of gear,” River remarked.
Rhiannon had a stellar view of the leftmost keyboard’s right side. “Girl, are you piloting the Enterprise with that thing?”
“You’ll see.” Chantel tapped her fingertips up and down the keyboard, the idle taps of one remembering a list instead of the practiced taps of a pro synth player. She’d spent the last few hours polishing her routine in the practice rooms. “But before we start, I have to get a couple things together. Hey River,” she nodded, “if you’re picking up what I’m putting down, feel free to join in.”
Dead silence as she hit Record on her sampler. Both Avery sisters, rapt, were monitoring every twitch of Chantel’s fingers. River appeared to examine the scattered portfolios in front of them, but had really started ignoring all signals from the optic nerve. Less need for sight meant more auditory processing power. But the four-bar melody she sang on one syllable, River could recognize from six feet under. Their eyes widened. Chantel finished the phrase, stopped recording, played back and harmonized over her voice. River found themself walking over to the microphone.
Chantel watched River steady the tripod to adjust the mic stand’s height. She smirked. “Knew it!” She was leaving the control panel alone for once. “Chorus backing. What do you want to do? Melody? Lower harmony?”
“If you’re offering, I’ll take the lower harmony.”
Chantel nodded in recognition before hearing the answer. “Yep, the fun part. Figured I’d ask anyway.” The buttons she tapped lit up pleasingly in response, and the light show ended as she hovered her finger above yet another. “Ready? Two, three, four.”
Bring me your love
Bring me your love
River waited to catch Chantel’s eye, but the keyboardist seemed determined to keep them in her peripherals, or close her eyes altogether when the two of them reached a flow. River liked to imagine their voice tracing out a growing bluish-purple line on a black background, rising with the pitch, contracting and expanding with the volume, looping back in on itself; and now the line was accumulating little spikes, spikes because Chantel liked to aspirate the beginning of her vowels. Before, it had been a current. Now it was a heartbeat.
I need your love
Bring me your love
As they finished the verse, Chantel started with her buttons again. “Beautiful. Thank you. So that’s it for now, but I have to do a bunch of boring stuff before the song can actually start. Feel free to kick back during that.”
River didn’t move from the mic. “Mind if I steal this one?”
“Well, I’m not doing a vocal audition. Knock yourself out.”
“Great.” The sound of River’s voice caused the synth player to stop her button operations; instead she rested her hands on the edge of her keyboard. There wasn’t a hint of annoyance in the gesture—having an impromptu jam session with the frontperson of the band you’re auditioning for wasn’t cause to be annoyed—but River could see that becoming a problem in the future, Chantel employing the silent staring micro-strike teachers do when some hooligan in the second row keeps talking over the lecture. Then again, what sim on the planet likes being interrupted? River felt they should continue. Anything to make the pause worthwhile. “You know, it’s a great choice. If you said no, I’d probably be doing it under my breath anyway. But, y’know, it feels a bit slower than usual.”
“Yeah, that’s intentional. You’ll see. I’m not done with the backing vocals yet.” Chantel leaned into the mic, and sung a single word. Paper. “There. Now this is the boring part. Bear with me for a minute.” She started fiddling with the samples, tweaking the volume, start time, some arcane property the judges couldn’t figure out, playing the first second of the same clip until she stopped cringing. Rhiannon opened her phone to a hieroglyphic essay of the previous night’s drama. River was just standing awkwardly with no choice but to pick another sim to watch, and so they alternated between which tech user was ignoring them. And then Chantel smashed a ten-finger chord with such finality it caught the attention of all three judges, Rhiannon having added to the chain twelve copies of that one The Scream emoji before she was interrupted. “Allow me to present: Paper Diver.”
Chantel’s frantic button-mashing and pedal-pushing lifted the judges into the air, chest-first, heels leading, then toes, the hardwood planks dropping one by one beneath, her keyboard whispering how free it was to float, how ephemeral, how small one felt dancing in the majesty of the clouds. It wasn’t the fluid River was expecting. Chantel let her opening reverberate for a moment, left her listeners suspended. The real performance was about to start.
Lean into the left keyboard’s mic. Change settings. Start recording on both keyboards. Funky baseline with the right hand, leaning diagonally. Whistle a melody that Rhiannon seems to recognize. Stop recording on both keyboards. Loop. Drum line comes in on right keyboard. Slight reverb on front mic. Loop drums. Change settings on left keyboard. Hands have a moment to rest before the bridge. Bridge. Drum change. Loop drums, change settings. Loop backing vocals with River lightning-fast before the chorus hits. Each hand plays a different melody. Loop both. Yet another drum line, but on the left hand. Play back paper from earlier. Make eye contact with River for the first time in five minutes and nod right as the chorus ends.
River caught the first verse, leaving Chantel free to sit there and bob her head now that she’d passed the vocal torch and had a machine doing the accompaniment for her. She arched her head back, adjusting the left and right keyboards without looking as her hair swept the floor. There was a slight scramble as River finished the first chorus, one that had Chantel with one hand on each keyboard and stomping her foot on the ground for lack of a kick drum. Chantel joined River on the chorus, rotating her left wrist while making a scissors gesture with her fingers. Trade off. They alternated on the second verse, Chantel’s haunting, transcendent requiem and River’s contemporary-Romantic plea, mourning together for a love gone wrong. She motioned to River to keep going.
This far along, Chantel had little use for the keys. She paused the drums to stomp her foot, starting her chorus before River’s verse was complete. Now River was midway through the hook and her melody had become a response.
“Bridge!” Chantel yelled. More frantic key-mashing as River was broken open again, chased what’s gone with the wind, repeated a proclamation as the bass dropped off—and with a gesture that would have pleasingly swooped the instrumentalist’s cape had she one, so did everything else. Early. Chantel was at her mic before River could process what was happening.
Should’ve known better when they said ‘don’t do it!’
River found themself laughing at the abruptness of Chantel’s transition. “Last chorus,” Chantel announced. She was introducing a third theme, sparse but funky, on the corner where both keyboards met. The downbeat of the final chorus started a flurry of twinkling lights. And as much as River loved this song, they found themselves wishing to hear this meld as a spectator, to admire the fireworks from a distance instead of holding their breath in the smoke and heat as they watched the technician light fuse after fuse. Chantel raised her hand parallel to her instrument only to slowly lower it back. Fade out. Eventually River’s voice was inaudible, and they were once again weightless in the atmosphere. Chantel’s synthesized trumpets landed on Sol. It was over.
Neala broke the silence with her clapping. This prompted Rhiannon to join in, then River. Chantel politely directed her applause at the other performer.
“Again. Again! Again!” Rhiannon, attender of music festivals, designer for music festivals, perpetually ready for the next music festival, lent her expert opinion.
“Great showmanship from both of you,” her sister agreed. “How did you learn to keep track of all that?”
“I press buttons and keep track of time for a living. This is just a little more.”
“I had a—” River interrupted themself. “Wait. I thought you looked familiar.”
“Market Square. Do you ever busk?”
“Yeah, that’s probably me. My folks lived there.”
“Wait. Aren’t you always with that guy who has all those funky glasses and matches them to his outfits? Where was he during the auditions?”
“He’s not—that’s why I moved back in with my folks.” There was a frantic edge to her voice. “He wasn’t here. Was he?”
Five seconds of flipping through the lyrics and Rhiannon, as she said of incendiary gossip, could smell something burning. “Ok, honey. What did the boy do?”
“He cost me everything. Who I was, what I was doing, what I lived for—” she trailed off. No specifics were given. “And now, those lyrics, that’s who I am. After-Chantel. An animal. Lost in rage, scrambling for a foothold. Anything to hold onto ever since he took it away from me. It’s all in there.”
“Alright, alright, my bad for bringing it up.” River finally cracked open the portfolio. There were words you’d black out and not remember writing, then find scrawled on the walls in lipstick. “Okay, it looks like anger is an important part of who you are right now. It looks like you’re channeling it into your music?” Chantel nodded in the affirmative. Clearly. “Is this how you’re getting past it? Is this healing for you?”
“Maybe. At least it shows I can still connect with something.” She gathered her electronics. “But besides that, I have nothing else to say right now. I wish you all the best.”
“Intense.” Neala said this to River.
The cleaning crew did an excellent job of making the community center hallway look temporally static. It was cooler and quieter with only six sims, but otherwise had the same sterile bureaucratic quality as it did yesterday.
“I think ‘Cake By The Ocean’ is our generation’s ‘MacArthur Park.'” Gorman grunted in response to Chantel. “It’s about time we fleshed out the cake-and-water genre.” He let out another grunt, but this time it could have been a laugh.
“Yeah!” Aries and the three other sims had been listening in. “If we’re being called back for the reason I think we are—“
“—There’s no doubt,” Thora said.
“—Anyway, that should be one of our songs.”
“‘Birthday Hydration,'” his brother recommended.
Juliet nodded her head to an imaginary beat. “Go shawty, it’s your birthday, we gonna party like it’s your birthday, we gonna sip some water like it’s your birthday—“
“—Because consuming carbohydrates makes you thirst-ay!” Chantel finished. There had been a time when it was impossible to walk through Spice Market without at least one driver broadcasting that they may be in their car but their heart was In Da Club, all four windows open, and both S.M. locals had been around for 50 Cent’s heyday.
“That’s so wholesome compared to the original,” said Aries. “And it looks like someone had a little too much hydration!” This was in response to Gorman leaving for the bathroom. Aries announced when he was paying a trip to the bathroom; Gorman didn’t, leaving Aries to do it for him. He having left, the conversation faltered.
Juliet turned to Aries. “So you seem pretty fun. Do you do anything outside of music?”
“Oh, aren’t you sweet. I teach a goat yoga class once a week, that’s probably my most interesting side gig.”
“Oh my god, get in there and show me every single picture you have with a goat.”
“Well, since you asked.” There are 294 photos in Aries’ ‘Goat’ album. It wasn’t Jazz’s intention to sit on the Extravert Couch, but here they were, pretending to be above goat pictures while nearly losing their balance leaning to get a better angle of the goat pictures.
“So it’s kind of like—I want it to have a witchy feel, and I want her to be summoning the flesh-beast behind her, but not even looking because she’s too cool to even look at the thing she’s summoning, like yep, this is Tuesday, another inside-out eldritch horror. Like she’s at the DMV and you can barely see her because the thing is so big. That’s what I want for my next solo album cover.”
“Make the hideous flesh-monster look like my ex and I’m on board.”
“Killer. Princess, you’re seriously messed up.”
“This is Moonshine,” Aries pointed to a caprine buddy, “the one getting up in this lady’s face during cat-cows is Tango, and that little troublemaker’s Green Bear.”
“Cute! I’ve thought about getting a pet goat but do they eat paper? Can you leave paper lying around?”
“There’s not a lot of paper lying around during a yoga class, but yeah, they chew on everything.” There would be paper lying around if Aries taught a Mysore Ashtanga class, but Goat Mysore defeats the meditative purpose of the latter four branches so it isn’t a thing. Another reason it isn’t a thing is the goats would eat the practice sheets.
Through a lull in the conversation, the sims heard a murmur growing closer to the community center’s front door. There were snippets they could pick out as it grew louder: the words ‘caffeine’ and ‘night’ emphasized by a baritone, a higher voice saying 6 P.M. was a hard limit but in practice she kicked the monkey off her back daily after her 3 P.M. pick-me-up. Chocolate, except for chocolate, chocolate has a bit of caffeine too. A third voice said they were four minutes late and begged the others to hurry. Aries and Thora shared a look of recognition.
Barely a second had passed between the doorknob turning and Neala launching herself away from the door, River and Rhiannon close behind. The ViR leadership lined up to block the entry. None of them were imposing on their own, and their murmuring suggested a casual mood, but something about people self-organizing into a degenerate triangle screamed authority. The two younger sims got flashbacks to the audition process.
“Sorry we’re late,” said Neala. “So let’s get started. River?”
“Alright! Let’s go!” River clapped their hands to emphasize ‘go,’ shifting their balance from left to right. “So I suppose you’ve figured out why you’re here—“
“—Told you,” said Thora.
“But I suppose it’s nice to hear it officially. You’re all in!” Applause all around. Whooping from Thora. Rhiannon and Aries exchanged shocked faces.
“I see you’ve already met each other in this here hallway, but we’re going to give each one of you a formal introduction. Starting with Scary Lady One and Scary Lady Two.”
Thora smirked. “Which one of us is Scary Lady Two?”
“You fight that out.”
Neala could see Thora opening her mouth to protest Chantel’s unfair advantage; her rings were like brass knuckles. “They’re kidding. Please don’t actually fight in the hallway.”
“Anyway,” River continued. “Moving on. Let’s welcome Thora Shinigami, our lead guitarist. Thora, after that display, we’d be bonkers to let another band have you.”
“This woman’s a speed demon, folks,” Rhiannon clarified.
“I was going for regular demon. But we’ll get there.”
“And next to her is our new synth player, Chantel Lucas. You guys should have seen it, she mixed her entire audition piece live. You gotta have impeccable timing for that. She has impeccable taste, too.”
“Yeah, Scary Two!” Thora yelled over the polite applause.
“And I’m glad we’re keeping in touch because I need to know what happens with your ex,” Rhiannon finished.
Thora raised her hand. “Or to him. Now taking bets for which bridge we’ll find his body under.”
“Crumplebottom Memorial,” Chantel answered with a disturbing confidence. “He’ll get it.”
“Barbie! What the actual hell?! Sitting next to you is the best decision I made today.”
“And now, Gorman and Aries. The Bellinghams. The Brothers B. Aries on bass, Gorman on the drums, perfect sync, not a millisecond off. We’re in good hands.”
“Heck yes you are!” Aries raised his hands, two of the good hands they were in, and formed party fists. “We’re gonna turn it out!” Gorman was turning it out inside his head. Outwardly, he gave a slight nod.
“And lastly,” River swept their hand out towards Juliet, “Juliet Harrison. She’s our cutie for sure. She’s going to be on vocals—don’t worry, we’re not gonna hide that growl—and she also plays a mean jazz flute.”
“I play the bagpipes!” Aries stretched out his hand. “Winds five!” Juliet’s politeness compelled her to high-five him back, but she wasn’t thinking pro-bagpipe thoughts at the moment.
“We’re also bringing Juliet on because she has a lot of energy and new ideas.” Juliet confirmed this by bouncing in her seat. “Neala? I’m handing it over to you.”
Neala produced five clipboards from her inventory. “We have a couple documents for you. The first one is for your contact information, this one is availability for rehearsals, and the next few pages are some basic guidelines for the band agreement. If you could take a moment to fill out the first two now, I’ll collect those. Look over the other pages before our next meeting and we’ll draft out a band agreement.” By the time she finished explaining, she’d handed a clipboard to everyone except Jazz. Panic start to set in as River walked over to them.
“Jazz, you know we can’t let you in the band. You’re a kid.”
“Oh,” Jazz knew this was a mistake. They were invited back just so their hero could mock them. Or worse yet, start asking questions.
“And speaking of that, it’s 10 A.M. Why aren’t you in school?”
“I—” Oh no. The auditions yesterday were also during school hours.
“Jazz. Where do you live?”
“With your parents?”
Jazz’s gaze found the fraying end of their shirt. “Yes, with my—“
“—Jazz.” River glared above their glasses and Jazz knew it was over. No more freedom, no more discovery, no more friendly lizards, no choice but to be trapped in a system that didn’t want them. In a family that didn’t want them. So many do-gooders didn’t understand why it wasn’t as simple as repairing broken bonds when the bonds started off as a noose. And River—they should have been safe. What where they thinking? Adults weren’t safe. Visions of hypothetical consequences flashed through Jazz’s head as River spoke again. “You know I’ve been through the same thing. But I hope you’re not too stubborn to accept help, because I’m gonna do for you what I wish someone did for me. You need food, you need a roof over your head, all you have to do is ask.”
And there it was, treating the symptom instead of the cause. Jazz’s real problem was the self-confidence thing, they knew that, and finding yourself is something other people can’t do for you. Alone, they’d grown into themselves more than when they were suffocated by their alleged support. “No. I’m fine on my own.”
“Ok, well, how about this. I don’t want anything bad to happen to my new assistant.”
“Well, it’d be nice to have someone who helps out the band who gets what we’re trying to do here, right? You’re probably gonna be a live-in assistant. I’m pretty high-maintenance.”
Jazz smiled for the first time in a week. “I guess if it’s a job.”
“Glad you’re on board. Neala’ll work out your salary under the table. But you should know, I have a couple rules I need my assistants to follow.”
“Take care of yourself. Eat well. Go to school.”
“I think i can do that.”
“You hear that, Neala? You’re getting some extra help.”
“Oh, good. I’m going to need it.” Neala had just vetoed Chantel’s and Thora’s preferred contact methods—telepathy and summoning ritual, respectively—and was trying to get their email addresses in actual legible Simlish. Aries had left his seat and had one foot up on a magazine rack, demonstrating that proper stage-climbing technique was all in the upper arms and it helped if you had open hips. Rhiannon and Juliet had several pertinent questions to ask about the distribution of weight in ideal stage-hopping position, questions whose solutions Aries couldn’t demonstrate without introducing several more educational pamphlets to the carpet than there already were. His paperwork was straight-up just on the floor. Neala looked across to Gorman, who gave her a pained look and shrugged.
She muttered, and this time it was inaudible to anyone but herself. “I’m going to need it.”
SIM CREDITS (and here’s a link to the relevant forum discussion):
Neala and Rhiannon Avery — IrishSong
Juliet Harrison — CitySimmer
Thora Shinigami (and her cat Lemmy) — VanPelt81
Jazz Deon/Jenny Trevalyn — Cathy Tea (Jazz has their own story here; this is parallel-universe Jazz)
Gorman and Aries Bellingham — also VanPelt81
Chantel Lucas and River Indigo — some jerk who goes by Dolly Llama
Thanks to everyone who contributed a character!