"A pair of gray eyes was staring right at me."
:: Travis was on the mic, singing a spaced-out version of D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar.” It was funky and addictive and the bass line allowed me to lose myself in it. I was nodding my head with the music, my fingers slipping easily from note to note, the ridged metal of the strings sliding beneath my calloused fingertips. I closed my eyes, letting the sound wash over me. I was free.
I started playing the bass in the eighth grade. Pops always had it sitting in the hall closet of our living room, just collecting dust. Apparently he’d had a year or two in the early nineties where he thought he was the next coming of Bootsy Collins and never got rid of his bass after regaining his sanity. I remember feeling restless and so heavy I could barely breathe one day. Pops had gotten drunk and as usual, couldn’t control his mouth. He’d told me for what would not be the first or last time, that I was a curse and shouldn’t even have been born, before passing out in his bedroom reeking of cheap whiskey.
I found the bass guitar that night and it’s owned me since then. It came natural as breathing to me, and eventually became just as necessary as air.
It’s actually how Devin and I met. His family moved to the neighborhood the summer before my freshman year in high school and he’d heard me playing in the middle of the day. We only live three houses apart and my house wasn’t exactly soundproofed. When I finally went outside to check the mail, he came running over with that excited look in his eye that I’ve now gotten used to. He showed me his drum set and we’ve been jamming together ever since.
We slipped easily into the last song, our soulful version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” I watched Devin for a minute, letting him find his groove before I began matching his pace. We’ve been playing together for so long now we innately feel where the other person is going to go before it even happens. Our vibe is really the pulse of the band. We’re the bottom of the music, the rhythm that inexplicably gets into your soul before you even realize you’ve heard anything. You don’t just hear the bottom of music—you experience it.
I adjusted my mic, preparing for the hook. I kept thumping the bass as I shrugged out of my hoodie, which I must say is pretty impressive, even though I’ve done it a million times, and stepped up to the mic, letting my voice meld with his smooth baritone on the chorus.
“Does that make me crazy? Does that make me crazy? Does that make me crazy? Possibly…”
I closed my eyes as the second verse came on, prepping for my solo. I’m not the world’s best singer, but I can hold a note. My voice is a little raspy but mellow, and it works well for what I do with the band.
“And I hope that you’re having the time of your life…”
I paused and leaned back, thumping the strings, letting the music catch up with the raw emotion of the song. I stepped up to the mic again, angling my head as I readied myself for the next line. I opened my eyes and nearly messed up the words.
“But think twice, that’s my only advice…”
A pair of gray eyes was staring right at me. They belonged to a face I hadn’t seen before and definitely wasn’t expecting. Even though Devin had teasingly asked Willow if she wanted to come watch us, our rehearsals were generally closed, especially after the groupie incident with Travis and Devin that I don’t care to ever relive again.
The guy was staring at me, his eyes trained on mine, peering at me like he knew me. His look was unsettling, but for some reason, familiar. He was wearing a pair of worn blue jeans and a simple white t-shirt that hugged defined biceps that were decorated with tats which started at the middle of his forearms. His hair was grown out but cut low, not a fro like Devin’s. It too was un-kept, but it was curly. His skin was dark caramel. But those eyes. They were piercing—and beautiful.
He tilted his head a little to the left, still studying me with unbridled interest. I glanced over at Devin who shrugged slightly. Nobody seemed too worried about his presence, so I decided not to be either. I really felt like yelling “cut” and asking who the hell this guy was, but we’re serious about rehearsal. We only halt if it’s absolutely necessary, or one of us hears something that needs to be changed immediately.
I knew it had only been a few seconds, but it felt like he’d been staring at me for hours. It was unnerving. And I hate being unnerved. I wet my lips and I leaned in for the next line, deciding that if gray eyes wasn’t going to break contact, neither was I.
“Come on now, who do you, who do you, who do you, who do you think you are?”
He grinned slightly and I continued, still staring pointedly at him.
“Ha, ha, ha, bless your soul… do you really think you’re in control?”
I tilted my head when I sang that last part, trying to stare him down. He chuckled a bit, but didn’t break eye contact. Travis chimed in with me on the chorus and we finished the song with gray eyes pretty much watching me the entire time. I was sweating a little at this point and I wiped my brow, taking a second to pick up my beer and take a cooling swig. Really, I just needed to break my stare with him without looking like I was trying to break it.
“What’s up Zay!” Travis exclaimed exuberantly, shoving his guitar around so that it hung behind his back as he crossed the room to where gray eyes—or Zay, I guess—was standing. He slapped his hand before wrapping him in a warm hug.
“When’d you get here, fam? Thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow?”
Zay smiled and shook his head. “Nah, decided to head out early, man. How you been, Trav? How’s aunt Lisa?”
Oh. So he was a relative. I know Lisa is Travis’ mom. I half-listened as they chatted about Travis’ mom and little brother, Micha. But mostly I was just watching gray eyes. He was fine as hell. Sexy in a way that made girl’s stupid and panty-less. Intriguing in a way that intimated dudes.
I took another swig of my beer and shot Devin another look. He shrugged again, restlessly tapping his stick on the snare. I knew he was ready to run through it one more time. To be honest, so was I. I’d gotten stuck with the eight a.m. macroeconomics class this semester and needed to go to bed if I wanted to make it to class on time. I didn't have time to be standing around staring at gray-eyed guys who were clearly nothing but trouble.
“Ya’ll this is my cousin, Zay,” Travis spoke up, waving a hand toward all of us. Travis is originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and his thick, rhythmic accent was showing itself. I wondered if that’s where Zay was from as I subtly continued studying him. He looked about our age, but like he’d seen some things in his life. I knew the look well.
He caught me sizing him up and grinned and I automatically looked away. Shit. I didn’t mean to do that. I usually make it a point to never look away first. It’s a sign of weakness.
“What’s up, Bam!” he was saying as he reached over the keyboard to give Bam dap. Of course Bam knew him. He and Travis grew up together in Baton Rouge.
“So Trav finally convinced you this is where you need to be,” Bam said, chuckling.
Zay shrugged easily. “Needed a change.”
Bam nodded his head, fiddling with his keyboard again. “I feel you.”
“What’s up man,” Zay, said, making his way over to Devin.
“What’s up bro,” Devin greeted him, dapping his hand.
“Devin, right?” he said. “Trav told me you’re the one who put the band together.”
Devin nodded and I knew he was quickly sizing him up, the way he did every new person he met.
“That’s what’s up,” Zay acknowledged with an impressed head nod. “You really know how to handle the sticks.”
Devin nodded again. “Appreciate it, bro.” He took another swig of his beer.
I braced myself as he turned toward me.
“Zay,” he said stretching out his hand. I shook it, noting that they were rough and calloused. His voice was raspy and deep, almost like he was a smoker and his drawl was thick and slow.
“Jersey,” I offered, eyeing him. “So it’s Zay as in Isaiah?”
Knowing Travis and his random nicknames his real name was probably actually ‘Adam’ or something.
“Yep.” He was back to staring at me again, a playful grin on his face. “So it’s Jersey as in… New?”
I narrowed my eyes at him slightly. I’d been getting shit about my name since kindergarten. I cocked my head to the side.
“Are you an ass as in… hole?” I retorted innocently, arching one eyebrow as I attempted to stare him down.
He chuckled, his stubbled face falling into an easy, almost boyish grin. Except nothing about him really said “boy.” Something about the way he looked at me had my stomach twisting and it took every ounce of sass I had in me to not break his gaze.
“You’re cute, Kitten.”
He was still smiling as his eyes traveled from my face to my chest, then back up. Heat immediately spread throughout me and I shifted a little. What the hell? I never react like this to guys. Especially ones I barely know.
“Isn’t it a little early for you to be giving me nicknames?” I asked disinterestedly.
“You remind me of Kitten though.”
I frowned. “So Kitten is a person?”
“No. Kitten was a hamster,” he answered. “My hamster.”
I stared at him for a long second. His face was serious.
“Wait… you had a hamster named ‘Kitten’?” It was Bam who asked the question.
“Yep, in the second grade.”
“Why did you have a hamster named ‘Kitten’?” Bam asked confusedly. “Why not just call it ‘Hamster’?”
“Because it looked like a kitten.” Zay shrugged, as if it was the most logical explanation in the world. “Trav, you remember Kitten?”
“No.” Travis rolled his eyes and turned his baseball cap on backward before adjusting his guitar strap over his shoulder.
I shot another glance at Devin who seemed to be enjoying the whole weird ass exchange. Zay was eyeing me again and I backed up a little. This guy was obviously one fry short of a Happy Meal.
“So are you saying I look like a hamster? Or like a damn kitten?”
I blurted the question with more emotion than I intended. But damned if he didn’t have me frazzled. He had just strolled into my rehearsal, given me the death stare for an entire song and then compared me to a freaking rodent? Sexy or not, that shit was disturbing.
He smirked, clearly amused.
“You shouldn’t say ‘damn kitten’—it’s offensive.”
“To who?” I shot back, wrinkling my brow, growing more and more irritated by the second.
“To Kitten,” he replied, looking at me as if I was the mentally-ill one.
I rolled my eyes. This weirdo was clearly bat shit crazy.
“Just don’t call me ‘Kitten,’” I said with finality.
“Okay, Kitten, I’ll try,” he said nonchalantly, ignoring my glare. “But it’ll be hard because you seriously remind me of Kitten. And I really liked Kitten.”
He tapped my nose and I immediately brushed his hand away, which made him chuckle again, a smooth bass sound that seemed to reverberate through him. I looked at Travis who was laughing, shaking his head. I was beginning to feel unsafe.
“Stop messing with her Zay,” Travis warned. “Jersey can probably kick your ass.”
Zay didn’t take his eyes off me. Instead, he let his gaze roam from the crown of my head to the tip of my pink Converses, his playful smirk firmly in place. He was a good six inches taller than my five-four but I stared back at him unflinchingly anyway.
“Is that right?” he asked, meeting my eyes again.
“Yes.” I replied, glaring at him.
He laughed and finally backed up.
“I think I might like to see that,” he said, running his eyes up my legs, causing my heart to start hammering in my chest.
“Cool shorts,” he observed. He winked at me and turned his attention to Travis.
“I’ll be back Trav. Good meeting you, bro,” he said nodding his head toward Devin. Devin returned the nod, already focused on his drums again.
He didn’t look at me again before bounding up the steps. I shook my head and glanced around wondering if anyone else was concerned about Zay’s obviously fragile mental state. But nobody seemed to be bothered. Devin just smiled knowingly at me when I looked at him and tapped his sticks together.
“Let’s run it,” he called out.
So we did.
Happiness in Jersey by Jacinta Howard, Available Now