Mr. Stark, an unfortunate name for a balding high school band teacher, shot me his signature glare even as he kept directing the small group in the pit. He didn’t seem to care that it was about a million degrees down here, which made it impossible to stay in tune. I tightened the grip my lips had on the clarinet mouthpiece and kept playing. The glare moved to my stand partner.
Above me the actors sang “I’ve got a horse right here, the name is Paul Revere” for the third time in an hour. Apparently there were some problems with the choreography. Not that I could tell, being trapped in the pit with all of the other orchestra slaves.
“Cut!” the director yelled.
Mr. Stark cut us off. I lowered my clarinet and the bell tapped Echo.
Echo, my service cat, lifted his head and gave me a “How dare you interrupt my rest time” look.
“Jason, are you planning to join us anytime soon?” Mrs. Larson, the director, didn’t usually yell, but after almost four hours of practicing even she was ready to strangle the actors.
“I don’t feel good,” Jason said.
Mr. Stark sighed. His posture told me that this musical was cursed and we would never get out of here.
Naturally that was the moment my bladder chose to remind me that I’d drank a lot of water over the course of the last four hours.
My best friend, Whitney, looked over her shoulder and rolled her eyes. “Drama people.” She ran her fingers through her long black ponytail and sighed.
“They’re almost as dramatic as you.” How was I supposed to ignore an opening like that?
“Some best friend you are,” Whitney said.
This is what happened when two girls became friends in the second grade and remained so until now.
Everyone around us snorted, which drew the stink eye from Mr. Stark.
I shifted in my seat, trying to alleviate the pressure. How long did we have left?
Muffled conversation floated over us as Mrs. Larson talked at the actors. I reached into my bag and tapped my phone to life. Echo’s ear twitched, but he knew if the instrument case didn’t come out that he wasn’t going anywhere. Only ten minutes before they let us go free.
“Why did I volunteer for this again?” Whitney whispered.
“The senior boys and the cast party,” I said.
My stand partner leaned forward and groaned. I figured he was referring to our discussion, but the grimace of pain on his face told me otherwise.
Echo lifted his head and put his ears back. Even he was annoyed.
“You okay?” I asked my partner.
“I don’t feel good.” He clamped his arms around his middle.
With the heat down here I was surprised it had taken someone this long to get sick. I willed him not to throw up. The only targets were me, our music, my bag, Echo, or the flute section in front of us.
Mr. Stark perked up and stretched his neck to listen to someone above us. He nodded, then glanced down. “That’s it for today. Pack up.”
A collective sigh of relief ran through the pit. I didn’t dare sigh. Despite the lack of space, I disassembled and cleaned my clarinet in record time, threw everything in my bag, and started fighting my way toward the exit. Echo rose, stretched, and followed.
“In a hurry, Everly?” someone asked.
I grunted and climbed the stairs, already plotting my course to the nearest ladies room. Echo followed, dutifully walking next to me.
I bolted down an aisle, leaving Whitney stuck behind the bassoon player, and headed to the bathroom. Echo gave me a distasteful glance as we entered the one place in a high school you should avoid at all costs.
“Sorry, Echo, nature calls.”
Believe me, I got out of there as fast as I could. When I emerged I found Whitney talking to Jason, the lead of the play. He looked at least as pale as my stand partner had, and was hunched over grabbing his stomach.
“I feel like my stomach is trying to eat itself,” Jason said.
Whitney widened her eyes and reached out and touched his arm. “Sounds awful. Do you need a ride home?”
I shouldn’t have been surprised that she’d taken advantage of Jason’s weakness. She’d had her eye on him for a while.
“No.” Jason shook his head. “My dad is coming.”
My phone buzzed, and I grabbed it from my bag. I had a message.
Nerds. Your ride leaves in two minutes.
That would be Wyatt, Whitney’s older brother. I looked up to tell Whitney that we had to go, but Echo caught my attention. He was looking at Jason. The hair on his neck stood on end, and he let out a low growl.
Whitney was still mothering Jason, so neither of them noticed.
“Let’s go home,” I said. Echo knew those words meant he was almost off duty. He gave Jason one last cat glare, then looked at me in anticipation. “Wyatt is outside,” I said to Whitney as I started toward the doors. “You know he’ll leave you.”
She waved me away and spoke to Jason. “Is there anything I can do?”
Any reply got drown out by the rush of fresh air from outside.
Wyatt, Whitney’s older brother, played football, and did his best not to associate with us band nerds at school. Our parents had grown up together, so he had no choice but to hang out for Saturday brunch.
Wyatt and Whitney had the same jet black hair, the same dark eyes, and the same crooked grin. He wore a tank top that would send most of the girls in school swooning. He had a huge following of admirers who didn’t seem to care that he usually drove his family’s old minivan. It probably helped that he’d put a bunch of football team decals in the windows. He’d parked close to the door, and gave me a single head jerk as I approached.
Echo trotted next to me and eagerly entered the van after I slid the back door open. The smell of sweaty boy poured out. He must have come straight from the weight room. I waved my hand in front of my nose.
“Hi kitty,” Wyatt said.
Echo meowed back and let Wyatt scratch his chin twice.
“Traitor,” I muttered. My Bengal cat wasn’t exactly affectionate, but he didn’t mind Wyatt petting him.
Echo jumped onto the seat next to me and began cleaning between his toes.
“Where’s Whitney?” Wyatt asked.
“She trapped Jason outside the boy’s bathroom. She might be a minute.”
Wyatt laughed. He always laughed at my stupid jokes. Like Whitney, I’d known him since I’d been eight and him nine. We were as close as any brother and sister. I worked very hard to remind myself of that instead of fostering the small crush I had on him. “She knows I’ll leave her, right?”
Or at least drive around the back of the school and hide for ten minutes while Whitney complained to their parents over text. “I reminded her.”
“She has thirty seconds.” He put a timer on his phone and started it.
I scratched behind Echo’s ears exactly four times. He got annoyed and turned around. Then he lifted his head and sniffed the air.
“You smell something?” I let Echo off his leash.
The cat jumped down and moved under the first set of seats to the second.
Wyatt, who had forgotten about the timer, watched over his shoulder.
He and Echo played this little game a lot. Wyatt would hide food and Echo would find it.
After a serious sniffing session, Echo moved to the very back. I got on my knees so I could see him. Wyatt’s football bag sat by itself. Echo stalked around it once, went to the zipper, gave one deep sniff, and gagged once. Then again.
“You’re more dramatic than the entire theater club,” I said.
“Good kitty!” Wyatt shook a plastic bag. Echo immediately recovered from his fake round of throwing up and trotted to Wyatt, who gave him a little salmon treat.
“What do you have in there?” I pointed at the bag.
“That would do it.”
I’d trained Echo to sniff out corn. Which, if you’ve never looked, is in almost everything. I’m so allergic to corn that I have an EpiPen on me at all times, along with a bunch of antihistamines. Food that restaurants, and even the school, claimed was corn-free had put me in the hospital three times. I’m also allergic to dogs, the usual pick for a service animal, but for whatever reason I did okay with a Bengal cat.
Now I had him sniff everything that wasn’t made in our house before I ate it. He had a sick sense of humor, and instead of meowing or hissing, he had decided the proper reaction was to pretend to throw up.
Which was delightful when we went out to dinner, or had him check something at the grocery store.
In the past year he’d only been wrong twice, and the dishes were so spicy the poor guy had probably burned the inside of his nose trying to smell it.
“Have you heard about that guy in New York that tried to eat another homeless guy?” Wyatt asked.
Who needed Google when you had Wyatt? He listened to pod casts while he worked out and always kept me informed of current events. “Nope.”
“He said he was so hungry he just started biting anything that looked edible.”
“Was he drunk or on drugs?”
“They don’t think so.”
“That’s creepy,” I said.
“He said his stomach felt like it was digesting itself.”
I frowned. Jason had just said the same thing. Before I could digest, I laughed at my own pun, Whitney, panting and out of breath, threw the passenger door open.
“About time,” Wyatt said. “I’m starving to death.”
Whitney wrinkled her nose. “It stinks in here.”
“It’s musk,” Wyatt said.
I agreed but kept my mouth shut. It wasn’t worth it to get in the middle of one of their fights. Instead I swiped my phone to life and looked up the crazy homeless guy in New York. That way I could freak my parents out at lunch. They loved it when we talked about disgusting stuff while we ate.