High school was so inconsequential now.
In fact, it was so meaningless that even listening to Mr. Remora discuss the history of African-American music throughout the 70’s couldn’t keep Michael Kay’s attention.
Since he was a kid, Michael had always fidgeted constantly. Lately though, this habit had become much worse.
The afro-headed teen could barely contain his foot tapping and desk shuffling all the way through eighth period. He’d been anxious all week; after all, it was just this past Friday that they had begun their Music Master training regime.
And it was a veritable miracle that Kim hadn’t decided to just drop him like a hat. All of it just made Michael Kay hungrier for more.
His mind darted from thought to thought, and though Mr. Remora continued to drone on like an aardvark with a sinus infection, Michael was too busy thinking about Canned Heat again.
Canned Heat and YMCA, he mentally recounted, unaware of the few students around him now thoroughly annoyed at his fidgeting.
These were the only two songs Michael had tried so far, out of all the hundreds stored in his five- year old music player. Part of him was afraid to try any others for fear of musical suicide, while the other part was beyond eager to do so.
Michael began to go down his mental list of songs to try, when his gaze shifted in class, and he suddenly noticed someone a few desks ahead to the far right.
She was looking out the window, dressed in a white t-shirt, a loose blue checkered blazer and ripped jeans.
This girl seemed to be pondering intently, but what caught Michael’s attention the most was one of her silver lighting bolt-shaped earrings, which he could just spot out of the locks of her long blonde hair.
There was something super familiar about that earring and about her, but between all of the craziness that had happened to him recently, he couldn’t put his finger on exactly where he recognized her from.
Michael almost debated opening his mouth and asking her, but even he wasn’t so oblivious to forget he was in the middle of class.
He stared at the clock instead. Time was clearly crawling along like a Bob Dylan song, to his displeasure.
Michael Kay just buried his head in his arms, praying for this terribly long day to end.
Then just a moment later, as if the angels themselves were answering his prayers, Michael felt a hard buzzing in his left pocket.
Michael glanced up quick. Mr. Remora had turned around, too busy jotting down a chart of famous musicians. With a quick motion, he checked his phone.
It was a text from Kim. She had specifically asked for Michael’s number in the event he ever flaked on her. It was quite a surprise to think she would actually reach out to him like this though.
All the message said said was the following:
– Audio Empire 4 PM don’t be late –
Mr. Remora turned back around, wiping a slime trail from his nose without even the slightest tact. By this time though, Michael had already hidden his phone away.
His huge grin, however, was anything but hidden.
Maybe he could make it through history class after all.
For as long as Michael Kay could remember, Audio Empire had been the place for music in his Washington Heights neighborhood.
In all honesty, it was probably the place for music in the entire Tri-State area. At least, that’s how Michael felt.
No one could resist their selection, not even Kim Ramone. For once, Michael was silent next to her, one orange headphone in his right ear playing his usual music. He watched as she flipped through various vinyls in the old school punk rock section, going with precise speed through the Dead Kennedys and The Clash alike.
“So even you have to be wondering by now why we’re meeting here.” she began, not turning away from her album search for even a second.
“Uh…” Michael replied, though a bit unsure. “…did I mess something up?”
Kim smiled to herself, but she still didn’t turn to face him. “No, you’re fine, actually. This is pretty serious though. I was thinking about those Zero Beat flunkies that came for me in the Dust Bowl. There’s going to be consequences for what happened that night.”
Michael scratched the back of his head in confusion. They were in the farthest corner in the basement of the store. It was relatively empty on a Thursday night, and strangely they had no music playing in the speakers overhead.
“You’re worried about them? We owned them. They wouldn’t think twice about coming back for you after that beatdown!” Michael exclaimed, his tone now excitable.
This time Kim spun around, mostly in response to just how loud Michael had become.
“Lower your voice! You already forget what I said about having a big mouth?!?”
Michael shrugged as he looked around. The basement of Audio Empire was just as empty as when they had arrived.
“What? It’s just us and records down here. You worry way too much, Kim.”
Kim’s patience was clearly lost at this point. She put an accusing finger on Michael’s chest as she addressed him.
“And you don’t worry enough. They might be a joke, but Zero Beat isn’t.”
Michael’s eyebrows raised. He had heard the name before, but had never thought to ask about it.
“Oh yeah. Zero Beat. What is that anyway?” he asked quite nonchalantly.
Kim stared straight at him, now unaware herself just how loud she was getting.
“They’re people that Music Masters don’t mess with. Especially Music Masters who didn’t even have the slightest idea of what they’re doing. And what you don’t realize is that by doing what you did in the Dust Bowl, they’re going to remember you. And they’re not going to stop coming after me and you until they get payback.”
Michael expression dropped at the sound of her words. He gulped audibly, the carefree feeling in his stomach was whisked away in but a moment.
Kim narrowed her eyes, not mincing a word.
“Yes, payback. And that’s why we’re going to keep meeting on Fridays. That’s why I need you to be at the top of your game, so that you can have my back when they decide to show their faces again.”
The reality of the situation was dawning on Michael quickly, and he tried his best to distract himself with the music still playing in one ear. In his nervousness, he picked up a stray vinyl from the rack, twirling it between his fingers in an attempt to relax.
“So this is what I get for helping you, huh?” Michael remarked, the hopeless in his voice now very obvious. “Man, What did I do to deserve this?”
“Hey!” Kim shot back, tired of Michael’s whining. “I didn’t ask for your help. Don’t blame me because you decided to play the hero. And let’s not forget that I could have just left you in the dust awhile ago.”
Michael held the album in front of him, taken a little aback as Kim’s voice got louder still.
“But did I do that, Afroboy? Did I royally screw you over?”
Michael’s voice was low, but audible enough. “No.”
“That’s what I thought. So don’t give me lip. We do things my way, or we don’t do them at all. Am I crystal clear?”
Michael didn’t even answer. He had turned away, looking down at his music player as he allowed his mind to wander.
Kim’s voice was becoming less and less audible with each passing second. Soon enough, Michael just found himself spacing out as Kim berated him.
Perhaps it was a defense mechanism carried on from his younger years of dealing with Colleen, but Michael Kay focused on the only other thing audible besides Kim; his music.
And coincidentally, that music just happened to be Canned Heat.
Everything fell into place so quickly, though not in the way Michael would have wanted.
“Uh, everything alright down here?”
Both Michael and Kim turned at the same time. Kim’s mouth was still agape from all her shouting, but Michael had allowed his subconscious to take hold. In his right hand, he still held up the same record he was twirling before.
Unfortunately, it was now very much burning to a crisp, as the red-orange aura flared brightly over his right hand and Canned Heat played freely in the air.
Standing in front of the two Music Masters was none other than the same girl from Michael’s history class.
Only this time, she was wearing a winter jacket with keys jingling in her hand. Her name tag read “Aeris.”
It was at this time that Michael Kay finally remembered her as the same cashier who rung him up that fateful day when he first emerged as a Music Master.
In a panic, Michael spoke quickly, much to Kim’s chagrin.
“Uh yeah! No problem here! We were just practicing our bit for the school talent show.”
Michael couldn’t be any less convincing with his words. Aeris just ignored him though, her gaze now focused on the burning record in his hand.
Kim closed her fists, hot anger quickly boiling inside her. She couldn’t believe Michael was this stupid.
Noticing the silence, Michael’s gaze followed Aeris. His eyes widened at the sight of the now smoldering vinyl.
“Oh shit.” he said quite loudly, before dropping the record and stomping on it with reckless abandon in an attempt to put out the sudden fire.
Both Kim and Aeris just stood by in relative disbelief. When Michael was finally done, he was breathing heavily, changing his tone in his best attempt to diffuse the situation.
“Wow, talk about spontaneous combustion. What are the odds?” he joked, his grin wide but doing little to hide his nerves.
Aeris finally reacted, looking down at the damage and speaking just as politely as Michael remembered.
“It’s alright. Most of the records down here ain’t worth much in change anyway. No harm done.” she assured, turning around to head to the nearby closet to grab a broom and dustpan.
“An’ I guess I left the music on down here. It’s been a long day.”
Kim’s expression instantly changed at the sound of her words. Michael looked overhead, remembering that the music speakers had been off in the basement since they’d got here.
Kim didn’t try to hide the suspicion in her voice in the slightest.
“Music? What music? I don’t hear anything.”
Aeris stopped in her tracks, frozen with fright once she realized the mistake she had made. It had been bad enough that she’d been working two hours before her shift to cover for her lazy coworkers, but even still she was always good with managing her exhaustion.
Not knowing what else to say, Aeris just continued her cleaning as if nothing happened.
By now, Michael removed his earbud, and his hand had gone cold as Canned Heat no longer played in the air.
Aeris’s continued silence spoke volumes for Kim. She stood over her, arms crossed and her shadow oppressive, but the blond seemed unaffected.
“So what? Now all of a sudden you got nothing to say?”
It took close to a thousand years, but Michael’s eyes widened once he finally clued in to the situation.
“Wait a second. She heard my music? But that means…it means she’s a Music Master too!”
Now the jig was clearly up. Not much of a surprise to Aeris though. This afro-headed guy had forgotten more than once what he was buying from her experience.
Just about finished, she swept the rest of the burnt record into the dustpan. When she stood up to face Kim, her expression was anything but scared.
“That’s my business, not yours. I don’t remember having to tell you my life story, thank you very much.” she shot back, clearly done with being interrogated.
Kim just narrowed her eyes and held her ground. “Just stay out of our way. And forget what you saw if you know what’s good for you.”
Harsh lightning seemed to spark between Kim and Aeris’s eyes, and it was at about this time that Michael finally had the courage to intervene. He quickly got between them, putting a hand on each of their shoulders and throwing on a grin to offset the tension.
“Okay, relax everybody. Nobody is getting in anyone’s way. I mean, it’s not her fault she saw me. It’s my fault for being careless.”
“Save the maturity act, Michael.” Kim commented, clearly unconvinced.
“Don’t mind her.” Michael said, now addressing Aeris. “I don’t know about you, but I’m super new at this Music Master stuff. Kim’s been training me since last week though, so I’m starting to figure it all out.”
“Just tell her everything while you’re at it.”
The venom in Kim’s voice was obvious now, but Michael was anything if not relentless.
“Hey! You should totally join us for training tomorrow night! I mean, the more the merrier, right?”
He looked back at Kim, but she just turned away, clearly aggravated at the whole turn of events.
Aeris, on the other hand, seemed somewhat receptive. Whoever this afro-headed guy was, he didn’t seem even an iota as volatile as his friend. And if she was ousted already like this, than maybe it was such a bad idea to at least try to keep it somewhat under wraps.
Aeris pondered the thought for a moment. Unfortunately, she quickly remembered the old sensation of pain in her palms. The idea of using her song effects again was not a joyous thought in the slightest.
Michael noticed the black fingerless gloves over her hands, and she rubbed her palms together with uncertainty. Despite her doubts though, this was for the best considering the situation. At least, for the time being.
“I’ll come watch. But only if you promise to keep this on the down low. My brothers got enough to worry about as it is.” Aeris told Michael in her most serious tone of voice.
“Hey, I’m the king of down low. You can count on me for sure.” he beamed in response.
“Really? Could have fooled me.” Kim grumbled under her breath.
“My name’s Aeris. Nice to meet you. Well, officially at least. You’re here like every month.” she remarked with a laugh, the effect of Michael’s smile finally eliminating the tension of the whole situation.
“Yeah, I guess I usually am. I’m Michael. We’re in history together.”
At this point, Kim was finished with formalities. She pushed past Michael with a grunt, turning on some music in an attempt to distract her from his boundless stupidity.
He just shrugged in response. “Oh, and that’s Kim. She’s a bit complicated.”
Michael wasn’t going to let her suddenly foul mood kill this chance though. He walked with Aeris out as she finished closing up Audio Empire. Unlike Kim, she didn’t seem to mind him talking her ear off.
It took Aeris a few more minutes to lock up, but that was more than enough time for him to talk about himself, his time with Kim, his uncle Rob, and his top ten favorite disco songs. He neglected to mention their first encounter with Zero Beat however. Even he wasn’t that stupid to scare her off this early.
Michael waited by the front door as she closed the register. He was practically ready to jump out of his skin from all the excitement. Now where there was but one fellow Music Master, there were two. And unlike Kim Ramone, Aeris seemed like she might not just berate him all the time for opening his mouth.
Outside, Kim waited silently as her music blared loudly in her ears. She gave Michael a particularly fierce look of death as he came out with Aeris in tow.
Kim would come around, he thought to himself.
She couldn’t be angry forever after all.
Outside, looking as innocuous as a passerby, a familiar shaggy-haired blond teen watched as Michael, Kim, and Aeris parted ways in front of Audio Empire.
He could only theorize what they were doing together. He knew Michael and Kim were Music Masters for sure now.
As for the cute blond cashier that he’d seen time and time again, to see her in their company that was certainly a surprise.
Aeris was her name, if he remembered right.
He’d have to remember that tomorrow night, at Kim’s usual meet up time in Central Park.
Calvin did want to make a good first impression, after all.