"Now we're talking," Clara told the band after putting down her headphones.
They were back in that run-down building, in a basement room that had only gotten less inviting as fall slowly crept into winter. She had folded up in a free chair with Freddie's laptop on her knees, listening to a re-recording of the band's old songs, a chill creeping down her spine with every beat and every note. It still wasn't perfect, she knew, the mediocre recording equipment bleeding through into the sound; but the mixing was far better, the sound richer and more balanced than it had ever been. This, she thought, was as close to their live sound as they could get right now. This was the band's true potential.
"Much better," she said, smiling at the five pairs of wide, expectant eyes resting on her face. Like a bunch of kids waiting for their teacher to announce the grade on their project, she thought, even though by now she was pretty sure they were all older than her. "Still doesn't make up for the recording equipment obviously, but it's a world of difference. Well done!"
Freddie's eyes grew even wider, his ever-restless face doing a terrible job of hiding his excitement. "You think it's good enough to get us listeners now?"
"Only one way to find out," she replied with a grin. "By the way, did you change up the arrangement too? I could've sworn it was different before."
Freddie lit up. Behind him, Clem let out a low whistle. "Didn't expect you to notice."
"Why make changes if you don't expect the audience to notice them?" Clara retorted, then grinned and reached down to pick up her travel mug of coffee. "Just kidding," she said. "You do remember I used to make music too, right?"
Clem turned to the others. "She's sharper than she looks," he said.
"And you're nicer than you look," she replied without missing a beat.
TJ did a terrible job of muffling his laugh. Dylan cracked up openly. Clem raised an eyebrow at her, then gave her a vaguely acknowledging nod. Somewhere in the depth of his blank eyes, she thought she spotted a hint of amusement.
"Anyway, new arrangement's great," she continued, motioning back to the screen. "Brings out your skills as musicians way better and it sounds more cohesive. What year's the original from again? Three years ago—yeah, this definitely shows your growth." She handed back the laptop. "Good job, boys!"
The others studied her with increasing wonder in their faces, and suddenly she was glad she didn't blush easily. One careless moment, and she had fallen straight back into her old habits from her band days—she still vividly remembered pulling all-nighters working on songs and arrangements, fine-tuning them to sound their best even when no one beside her would notice the changes anymore. Like her various bands had actually aimed for any big goals, she thought. Like they'd actually had a shot at getting a record deal and playing shows outside of the tiny confines of their suburb.
"And I'm sounding like a coach again," she remarked with a wry smile, taking a sip from her travel mug and rising from her chair. "My bad. Do you need anything else here, or…?"
"Yes!" Freddie burst out at the same time as Theo said, "Absolutely. Hang on."
She paused, waiting.
"There's this other song we can't figure out," Theo continued, rummaging through his bag to search for his own laptop. "We didn't like the old arrangement anymore, but we can't agree on the new one. One sec." He held it out towards her. "Version one or two, what do you think?"
Accepting the headphones back, she hit the play button on the first recording, then on the second, pausing and replaying over and over until she had mapped out every single note in her mind. Arrangements unfolded in her head, tracks layered over tracks, untangling and reconnecting, a web of sounds and changes and ever-new possibilities. The world faded into the background. Her eyes were glued to the screen, her body frozen in time, only her finger on the keyboard still tapping along to the beat.
"Okay," she muttered at last, lowering the headphones and shaking off the daze like someone waking up from a dream. "I think I got it."
Five pairs of eyes all rested on her again. She resisted the urge to make a joke about it. Suddenly it really did feel like she was fifteen again, presenting her input to her high school bandmates.
"But first, a question," she added, twisting the headphone cable around her finger. "Can you not decide because you think both versions are good? Or do you think both versions are missing something and you don't know what?"
The band exchanged a look, half puzzled and half impressed. "Just trying to figure out what we're working with here," she said. "Because I could tell you which version I like better, but if you're not fully satisfied with it then it won't be the same."
The others stuck their heads together for a brief muffled debate. "I'm not satisfied," Freddie admitted at length. "Something's missing for me."
"For me too," said Theo. "It doesn't have that…that flavor. It's too bland."
"In different ways," Dylan added. "There are parts I like in the first version and parts I like in the second, but I don't feel like either is it."
TJ looked from one to the other, then he hung his shoulders in defeat. "And we don't like the old arrangement anymore either," he said. "There's gotta be something."
"Yeah…that's what I thought," Clara admitted, turning back to the laptop. "To be honest, it's not your best work so far. Both versions have their strengths, but…" She picked the headphones back up. "Hang on, I need to think."
Freddie leaned into her field of vision. "You have an idea?"
"Not sure, but it's bugging me now. Actually, just send me the recordings," she continued, lowering the headphones and handing back the laptop. "I feel like it's staring me right in the face. Unless—do you mind if—?"
"Nah, have fun with it," Dylan replied, laughing and ruffling her hair. "Some fresh ears could be exactly what we need. Am I right, boys?"
Everyone started talking at once. Clara tried to follow the chatter for a while and quickly gave up, watching them all with a smile on her face and a sense of purpose sharpening her mind. Really just like high school, she thought. Except this band actually had a shot at making it onto the bigger stages.
"You're so good at this," Freddie told her later as they were walking back through the dark streets, her on her way home and him headed to work. "You could become a producer."
Snorting, she buried her hands in her pockets and turned a corner. "I barely did anything," she replied. "All I did was give you some advice."
"And it was good advice," he protested at once. "Don't downplay it—it's like you just understand what we're trying to say! How do you do it?"
Clara laughed. "I'm good with patterns," she admitted, "and I have done this before. Back in high school." They stopped at a red light, watching the cars pass by. "We all knew our band was never going anywhere, but we still couldn't half-ass the songs, right?"
Freddie studied her face, the light of the lamps casting his eyes in an eerie glow.
"What?" she asked. She didn't know why, but suddenly she was nervous under that gaze of his. Like he was seeing too much, even though she had no idea what could be there to see.
He kicked a pebble onto the road. "If you wanted, you could've become a producer," he said. "You have the right attitude. I like it."
Smiling, she kept her eyes on the streets ahead, watching cars and strangers pass in and out of the street lights. "What can I say? I'm just a perfectionist."
His eyes were still resting on her. Too bright, too intense, all-seeing even if she knew it was an illusion. He couldn't actually see anything. She only felt like she was being perceived.
"Then you don't want to become a producer?" he asked, and the traffic light turned green. "You never wanted to be one?"
If only you knew, she thought. You have no idea.
"Not seriously," she said out loud, hurrying across the road. "More like a kid that wants to become an astronaut, I guess."
She could still feel his gaze in the back of her head, so she smirked and added, "Or a rock star."
"But some kids do become astronauts and rock stars," he replied.
She heard what he didn't say. Some always made it. Some were always bound to, if they worked hard, if they tried.
But as for her, she had made her decision.
"I know," she said, breathing life into her hands and smiling. "The ones who are serious about it."
Somewhere in the depths of her chest, her heart felt heavy.
She shook off the feeling, headed home, and thought nothing of it.