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The Sound of Us
By Julie Hammerle, Kate Brauning
Entangled Publishing, LLC Copyright © 2016 Julie Hammerle
All rights reserved.
Kiki Nichols @kikeronis:They say there's more than corn in Indiana. I'll let you know!
I, Kiki Nichols, sweatpants enthusiast and perpetual chorus girl, am all dressed up and standing alone on stage in front of fifty strangers.
It's like that scene in the first season of Project Earth where the main character, Dana, goes from being a geeky analyst to, like, a super, major spy babe. She shows up at this nightclub with her close-cropped, natural hair tucked under a sleek black bob and she's wearing this killer red dress — the famous, iconic red dress; even if you've never seen the show, you've seen the dress.
That's me right now. Today I am Dana. But I'm not singing some Madonna karaoke song. I'm doing Mozart.
The auditorium's overhead lights nearly blind me, but I can still make out the people in the first row — the voice teachers. I squint, trying to catch a glimpse of the students sitting behind them. I'm the guinea pig. I'm going first. I can only imagine that the rest of them are staring at me like cows watching their friends navigate a Temple Grandin machine: I'm glad it's not me, but I know I'm next.
I hand my music to the accompanist and stand in the crook of the piano, smoothing down my dress. It's super twee. Twee to the max. It's covered in mewling cat faces, that's how twee. My sister picked it out for me. She said it fit my quirky personality, which I think she meant as a compliment, but everyone knows "quirky" is just a nice way of saying "too weird for polite society."
"Cicero, what will you be singing for us today?" says one of the male teachers, grinning like a Guy Fawkes mask.
"It's 'Keek-er-oh,' actually." I'm trying to not fidget with my arms. "I go by Kiki." My dad was a Latin teacher before he decided to get his MBA and go into college administration. That's why I was named Cicero, after the famous Roman orator who had his head and hands nailed to the rostrum in the middle of the Forum. Most people just assume I was named after the street in Chicago. But then you'd pronounce my name "Siss-er-oh," not "Keek-er-oh," and, yes, I am a nerd.
"And you're related to the legendary Tina Nichols." He's still smiling.
"She's my sister." I roll my eyes slightly. Tina, the legend. If he only knew what she's been doing since graduation — sleeping in, partying, getting fired from waitressing jobs, making me her pet project to stave off boredom. Not that I mind being a pet project. I love music like Dana loves fighting aliens. I want a career in music. I want music as my life. Tina, who was prima donna during her time at Krause, has passed all her opera knowledge on to me. Hopefully it will give me an edge here at camp.
"Well, you have big shoes to fill. What will you be singing for us today?"
"'Un moto di gioia' by Mozart." I stumble over the title, even though I've said it a million times before. Off to a good start.
It was my ex-best friend, Beth, who picked this song for me. She thought it made me seem bubbly and light, two words no one would ever check off on a Kiki Nichols personality questionnaire.
Not everything has to be about pain and heartbreak, Kiki. Sometimes it's okay to just, like, be positive. I agreed to sing the song and spent the past year learning it cold. I've grown to despise it for a few reasons.
1. It's bullshit. The lyrics are something like "Fate and love are not always tyrants," which is a phenomenon I've never experienced in my own life. In Kiki World, fate and love are magnificent, vengeful bastards.
2. But it's not total bullshit. The song also says that sometimes good comes from sorrow, which is kind of my credo. Good art comes from sorrow. The depressing songs written by the angsty lady songwriters who fill my playlists prove that for sure. I kind of hate this song for being right about something.
3. Beth is the personification of love and fate being a total dillweed. Who needs abstract nouns to ruin your life when you have a best friend who's perfectly willing to step in and do it herself?
Case in point: On the drive down to Indianapolis from Chicago this morning, I checked all my social media accounts. First, Twitter. That's where all my real friends are, the TV nerds, the people who understand what I mean when I say I'm dressed like Dana today. Most of them are actual adults who are well above all the high school bullshit you'd find on sites like Instagram. That's where I caught Beth subgramming me this morning.
She posted a picture of herself and her boyfriend, Davis Blankenshaft the Third, standing on Montrose Beach, eating ice cream, the wind blowing through their perfect hair. The caption? "A summer of fun with this hottie. So much better than running away to opera camp because you have nothing else to do. #loser #shellprobablyflunkout #onlytherebecauseofhersister #blessed smiley face emoji, ice cream emoji, pink heart emoji X3."
What Beth conveniently left out of that caption was that she was supposed to be here with me. Six months ago, she and I auditioned for this program with, yes, help from my sister. Beth and I were supposed to room together and practice together and live the college life for six weeks together.
But she didn't get in. After that, she treated me like garbage, claiming that I only got into the program because of my sister. Our friendship deteriorated from there. Then she got a boyfriend and he became her life.
She pretends she's happy with how things turned out, but I know Beth, and my being here without her is killing her. If I win one of the seven scholarships at the end of this camp, I'll have something Beth doesn't. It'll be only the second time that I have ever, over the course of our lifelong friendship, had the upper hand on Beth.
I need to get that scholarship. It's imperative that I kick ass.
"Whenever you're ready," says the Guy Fawkes-ian voice teacher, twirling his mustache.
It's time to be professional.
I take a deep breath and nod toward the accompanist. As she plays the familiar opening bars, I calm down, tricking myself into believing that this performance is no big deal, that it has no bearing on my life or my future as a musician. So what if I'm going first? That just means I can sit back and relax while everyone else sweats over their turn. I can go back to my seat, put my feet up, and send out a few choice tweets while everyone else freaks out.
As I open my mouth to sing, I try to both think of and not think of everything I've learned over five years of voice lessons. I think about hitting the target in my head with my voice, imagining a bull's-eye on the inside of my forehead, but then I let the image go and perform with all the feeling and gioia I can muster. I know this song so well it almost bores me, but I fix a look of joy on my face and stare deeply into the eyes of some imaginary people floating six inches over the voice teachers' heads.
Singing on a giant stage in front of fifty strangers really isn't that bad. Getting up in front of a room full of people you don't know is much easier than doing it in front of your friends or family members or in a small room with only one or two people. Up on a stage like this, it's academic. Clinical. Low-risk, at least emotionally. It comes easy to me, naturally, without much effort, which is something that has always driven Beth crazy. For her, the singing part is hard work. For me it's always been, bam, I've got this, like singing is in my blood or something.
My Mozart song ends before I know it and I stand in place, waiting, in character, for the ringing of the phantom piano chords to die out. When they finally do, I break, smile at the voice teachers, and give them a little bow. Done. Killed it. Phew. Time to tweet.
"Thank you, Kiki," says the teacher with the mustache.
I mutter a thank-you as I cautiously navigate the stairs and shuffle back to my seat.
I pull my phone from my lavender monster-shaped backpack (I call him Chumley) as a guy a few rows in front of me turns around and whisper-shouts, "Good job up there."
"Thanks." I open my Twitter app.
"I'm Norman, by the way," he says.
When I first meet people, I always compare them to movie and TV characters or actors. It's where my pop culture-obsessed mind goes automatically and it helps me paint a better picture for my friends on Twitter. It's like I'm constantly casting the movie of my own life. (Who would play my ex-best friend, Beth? Probably Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit.) Norman's a stockier Mitchell from Modern Family, for sure. Actually, no. Today he's dressed like Mitchell, but his head and body are all Seth Green on Buffy.
I check my phone again. No service. Crap.
I toss it back inside Chumley and look up at Norman again, but he's focused on the stage, where one of the male voice teachers, a Serious Artist type with the hairstyle of every TV mom from 1984 to 1989, is climbing up the stairs. I think Norman actually gasps at the sight. This is the master. This is Greg Bertrand.
Mr. Bertrand is the head of the voice department at Krause University and he taught my sister back when she went here. Mr. Bertrand is considered to be one of the Midwest's premier voice teachers, which is kind of like being named the least annoying Real Housewife, but whatever. It's something. He's the guy everyone wants as their teacher, and he has his pick of the best voice students. Getting into Mr. Bertrand's voice class is Tina's number one rule for how to succeed at Krause University, and getting picked as one of his summer students would put me on the fast track to world (or, well, Indianapolis) opera domination. Everyone knows Bertrand's students are the best. And I need to be one of them.
"I have a better vantage point up here." Mr. Bertrand scans the room. "Who should go next?"
His eyes land on a group of students in the front row. I noticed them the second I entered Krause Hall. There are people in the auditorium who exude "It." Like, without hearing them sing even one note, you can tell, just by the way the lights bounce off of their luminescent skin, that these folks are the Talent. These are the best singers in the room.
Three students in that front row stick out: the girl who reminds me of Rutina Wesley, but with short hair and two lobes full of earrings; Blake Lively's twin sister; and the dude on the end whom I haven't gotten a good look at yet and who keeps running his fingers through his floppy dark brown hair.
Mr. Bertrand's eyes stop on the floppy-haired dude. "Mr. Banks. You're up."
As Mr. Banks skulks up to the piano on stage, I settle into my seat, trying to figure out a way to sneak out and use the bathroom, i.e., see if the internet service is any better out in the Krause Auditorium lobby. I need to let the Twitterverse know I nailed my audition. As a bonus, I know Beth will see the tweet as well. She never posts herself, but she cyberstalks a bunch of celebrities — oh, and me. She doesn't think I know about it, but I do. She even created an anonymous account, @smartsingergirl, which perfectly complements her modest personality.
As Mr. Banks reaches the top step and turns toward the audience, I sit up and forget all about Twitter because I finally get a good look at his face. I think a few other girls do as well, because suddenly a few hoots and woots erupt from the peanut gallery. Mr. Banks is (how do I put this?) a specimen. His skin is russet brown and flawless. His light eyes are framed by dark lashes I know my sister would kill for. I can't even think of a TV character to do him justice, he's so beautiful. I immediately write him off as someone I will never, ever speak to in person.
Mr. Banks hands a copy of his music to the accompanist. The old woman spreads each page across the music stand with an infuriating amount of care. I groan, realizing this is going to be the longest afternoon of my life, sitting here, sans internet, listening to high school kids attempt to sing classical music. At least the scenery is decent. Mr. Banks stands in the crook of the piano, head down, waiting for his music to start.
What feels like an hour later, the accompanist finishes arranging and rearranging the papers. Then she cracks her knuckles. And then, finally, she presses down on the ivories and releases the opening bars of Mr. Banks's song into the auditorium. Like magic, his beautiful face gazes out at us, his eyes dark, brooding. And then he starts to sing and, oh my God, it's like someone took the voices of an angel and Barry White and mixed them together in a cocktail shaker and shoved the resulting concoction inside the throat of the prettiest person on the planet. It's transcendent.
I've listened to a lot of guys sing in high school, in choir, in the musicals. Most of them are trying to reconcile their new "adult" voices with their old prepubescent boy alto voices. But there's none of that awkwardness with Mr. Banks. He is perfection.
When he finishes singing (what song? I have no idea. Something Italian and serious), Mr. Banks bows toward Mr. Bertrand, who says, "Thank you, Seth."
I glance at the other students in the auditorium. Every last one of them gawks at Seth Banks as he strolls from the crook of the piano back to his seat. Three rows in front of me, Norman's jaw has dropped below his sternum. I check my own chin to make sure I don't have the same awed expression on my face.
Mr. Bertrand jumps back on stage from his seat in the front row, and the other high school kids stare at him in fear, probably not wanting to follow Seth Banks. I'm grateful that I've already performed, but I can't help but think, one scholarship down, six to go. Seth Banks is a shoo-in.
Mr. Bertrand scans the auditorium and calls this spritely kid, a pocket-sized Harry Potter, up to the piano. I feel the air in the room relax, like everyone just let out a giant, collective exhale. There's no way this dude will be as good as Seth Banks.
But somehow he is as good as Seth Banks. He's a tenor instead of a baritone and his energy is the exact opposite of Seth's languid poise, but he's good. Scary good.
And so is the next person and the next person and the next person.
Mr. Bertrand keeps calling up the other kids — Norman and the girl with the earrings and everyone else — and we all have to sit there listening to every beautiful voice in turn. It's like some form of singer torture, increasing my self-doubt exponentially with every note uttered. I'm one of the best singers in my high school, objectively, but here I feel like a middle-of-the-pack schlub.
Despite being all dolled up in the dress my sister picked out for me, I feel an intense need to hide. I take my hair down from the bun on top of my head and shake it out so that it covers the sides of my face. I don't have a flannel shirt or sweater to cover my arms, so I draw them up as much as I can inside the cap sleeves of the cat dress.
Beth's words echo in my ears. "You'll always be the girl who plays the aunt, Kiki, and that's okay. You're not star material, but every star needs a supporting cast." She meant it as a compliment, I think. The call sheet had just gone up for the school musical. Beth had gotten the lead, and I had been cast as, yes, her aunt. Her message was clear. No matter how well I sing, or how hard I try, it's pointless.
I'm not star material.
Everyone else in this room is. Maybe Beth was right. Maybe my sister did pull some strings for me.
Despite the dusky lighting in the auditorium, I swap out my normal glasses for my prescription sunglasses.
Blake Lively's doppelgänger is the last to sing.
"Brie." Mr. Bertrand smiles. "Let's hear what you've prepared for us."
Brie glides up to the piano and hands her music to the accompanist. She gazes out at all of us like she possesses the answers to all the questions in the world and she's not about to share them.
Brie nods at the accompanist and waits for her entrance. When she starts singing, she's basically the soprano equivalent of Seth Banks: beautiful and confident and jaw-droppingly talented. She reminds me of Dana in the karaoke episode, actually. It's not as if Brie and Dana look alike. I mean, for starters, Brie's white and Dana's black. It's just that the two of them have this thing, this presence, that makes everyone in the room take notice. For Dana, it worked to her advantage because her partner was able to drag a few aliens out of the club without anyone noticing, because they were too busy looking at her. For Brie, it works to her advantage because it makes me (and probably everyone else in the room) recognize that she's the star here. She's the one to beat, and she knows it. Brie finishes her song and gives a little bow to the voice teachers. Then she prances back to her seat, keeping her grinning, knowing gaze on Seth Banks, who counters with a nod and a half-smile.
I was an idiot to think I could hack it here. I'm never going to get one of those scholarships. I'm the aunt in a room full of stars. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Sound of Us by Julie Hammerle, Kate Brauning. Copyright © 2016 Julie Hammerle. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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