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i've been changed (yes really changed)

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“I still don’t know why we all have to be here,” Blair complains, shifting awkwardly in a leather armchair, eventually lying in it completely sideways. “Unlike somebody, I’ve actually been going to school.”

“We’re all here because we’re being supportive of your sister and because this whole ordeal has affected all of us,” Anderson says firmly from his place beside Debbie on the couch.

Sterling can’t help but notice that, despite her sitting in the chair on the other side of the couch, her whole family is acting like she’s not even in the room. Maybe that has to do with the fact that she’s barely spoken a word to any of them since her kidnapping and the Big Reveal, maybe it has to do with the fact that her leaving the lock-in early has led to all of their lives imploding.

The office door opens then and in walks Dr. Roberta Gale, who up to now Sterling has only seen in her Linked-In pictures. A woman who seems like she means business but also has a certain air of tenderness, Dr. Gale smiles warmly at them and approaches to shake the hands of Anderson and Debbie. “Mr. and Mrs. Wesley, it’s so nice to meet you in person,” she says, then looks at Blair, whose head is fully hanging over the side of the chair and who must be getting an upside-down view of the good doctor. “And you must be Blair,” she says, rather astutely.

“Hello,” Blair says, giving her a wave.

That leaves Sterling, who shifts awkwardly when the doctor zeroes in on her. She’s spent the last week and a half avoiding having too much attention on her for a reason.

“And that means you’re Sterling,” Dr. Gale says, her voice taking on an extra warm tone as she cocks her head to the side and smiles at her.

Sterling clasps her hands in her lap. “You got me,” she says, wondering now if maybe she should have just powered through her existential angst and gone to school if this is how things are to be dealt with. AKA, talking about the one topic of conversation she could go through her whole life without delving into.

“Well,” Dr. Gale says, taking her seat in the chair across from them and grabbing a notepad from the desk behind her. “You said on the phone that the family recently went through a traumatic ordeal involving familial kidnapping. How about we start with the story there.”

Sterling zones out as her parents and Blair recount the tale of how she was stupid enough to get in the car with who she thought was her mother but was actually her Aunt Dana the arsonist. Except, it turns out, that Aunt Dana is her mother, and that her parents have been lying to her and Blair their entire lives. They aren’t twins. They aren’t even sisters. 

“—and why she left the lock-in, we do not know because she’s been pretty cagey for the last ten days,” Anderson says when Sterling’s attention briefly fades in, and she really wishes it hadn’t. 

She’s now been reminded that her impossible whirlwind romance with April Stevens crashed and burned before it ever got to soar, all because she’d been stupid enough to pursue a girl whose dad she literally threw in prison.

“Sterling,” Dr. Gale says, grabbing Sterling’s attention away from the memory of crying on that bench outside the school.

“Yeah?” she says.

“I understand that the ordeal you went through is probably still a sore subject for you, so you only have to share as much as you’re comfortable with, but why were you outside the school that night?” Dr. Gale asks, pen at the ready.

Sterling shrugs. “Personal reasons. I didn’t want to be there anymore and then Aunt Mommy picked me up pretending to be Debbie Mom. They’re identical twins, by the way. In case they didn’t tell you that on the phone—they sure as heck didn’t tell either of us.” She crosses her arms and sinks down in the chair. The thought of her entire life being a lie still makes her feel sick to her stomach.

“I’m sorry...Aunt Mommy?” Dr. Gale asks, intrigued.

Sterling looks pointedly at Debbie, making it clear that this one is all hers.

Debbie pats her hands on her thighs. “She’s started calling my sister—her birth mother—that name,” she says.

“And why exactly did you two choose to keep that information from Sterling and Blair? That you adopted Sterling?” Dr. Gale asks, getting right to the money question.

“It...was a lot more complicated than that,” Anderson says, glancing over at Sterling. “Considering the circumstances of her birth and what followed, we thought it best to tell her when she was older.”

“Yeah, well, I’m older and I’m pissed,” Sterling growls. It’s the same excuse she’s gotten over and over again. They were going to tell her when she was older. Except she knows that isn’t true.

“Sterling!” Debbie scolds her.

The doctor makes a simmer down motion with her hands. “It seems like a lot of the tension here is coming from your lack of communication with Sterling regarding her origins. And she’s right, she is older now. So I think maybe a good starting point for the healing process would be for you two to share with her how she came to be part of your family,” 

Anderson and Debbie share a look between them, silently debating whose shoulders this truth bomb will fall upon. They must decide Debbie.

“In true twin fashion, my sister and I gave birth to daughters on the same day,” she starts, and this is honestly news to Sterling, who’d previously assumed they’d just been lying about one of their birthdays. “It was a leap day and all kinds of crazy things were happening. But just after I had Blair and they took her off to the nursery, Anderson and I got a call from a hospital on the East Side saying that my sister had gone into labor a month early with crack cocaine in her system.”

“Holy shit, Sterling’s a crack baby?” Blair says, sitting up straight now.

Sterling, on the other hand, hopes the floor will just swallow her up. She didn’t actually think this could get any worse, and yet it has. “So you adopted your sister’s drug-addicted preemie? Do you even know who my father is?” Sterling asks, disgusted.

“I am,” Anderson says, then follows up with, “Biologically, not just in the Raised You way, though I definitely have done that.” This seems difficult for him to admit, and Sterling can certainly understand why, but Blair beats her to it.

“You had sex with Mom’s sister?!”

“I...I didn’t know it was Dana,” he says and looks bothered enough to get Debbie to take the reins of the story again.

“My sister and I loved to pretend to be each other when we were young, and Dana took it way too far to get money out of Anderson,” she explains. “So Anderson went to the hospital and was there for Sterling’s birth and to take emergency custody of her.”

“And it’s a good thing I did, too! She was going to name her Nevaeh Genesis Culpepper, for Pete’s sake!” Anderson says, crossing his arms. “But while Sterling was detoxing, Debbie and I filed to have Dana’s parental rights terminated, which, with my Daddy’s help, we did and Debbie formally adopted Sterling.”

“And then Dana lost her ever-loving mind and set fire to an abortion clinic,” Debbie says, seeming to conclude the story, at least for now. “All of that before Sterling was even a year old. And the girls had already bonded so much that it just seemed like it would be better to save them from the truth.”

“Yeah, but it’s my truth,” Sterling says, even though she very much wishes it wasn’t. “It wasn’t your right to keep that from me!”

“Or me!” Blair chimes in, never one to let things be about someone other than her for too long. “Did your parents even die in a plane crash or are they just lurking around Nandina somewhere?”

Debbie bites her lip. “No, they are definitely dead, and they did die in a plane crash...of sorts. Deedaw had a heart attack while flying our farm’s crop duster and flew it into the house while Meemaw was inside.”

“Oh my god, a hillbilly private plane,” Blair whispers under her breath.

“Regardless,” Debbie says, clearly not wanting to linger on that memory for too long. “After my parents died, I needed a fresh start and my scholarship to UGA gave me that, but my sister resented me for leaving her behind. So when she found out I had married the man of my dreams and was having a baby, she decided to ruin it for me the only way she knew how, and figured she’d make a quick buck out of it too.”

Sterling scoffs. “Nice to know I ruined your perfect life, Auntie.”

“Don’t you dare call me that,” Debbie snaps. “I have raised you since the day you came home from the hospital. I fed you, I changed at least 75% of your diapers, and I loved you just as much as I loved Blair. You are my daughter and I am your mother and I don’t care if my crackhead sister gave birth to you, you are mine. That’s what I told her then and what I am telling you now.”

Sterling knows she should be moved by her words. She knows she’s supposed to break down into tears and hug her mommy and tell her that nothing’s changed. But everything has changed. “How much longer do we have?” she asks Dr. Gale, who’s been observing quietly this whole time with a great poker face.

“Another 45 minutes,” she says, pointing to her silver watch. “Plenty of time for some more truth-telling.”

Sterling sighs, resting her head on the back of the chair and looking up at the ceiling. This is sure to be the longest hour of her life.


The awkward silence that fills the car on the way home is deafening. Nobody wants to talk about the fact that their family as they knew it before is gone now. In its place are four relative strangers who truly don’t actually know each other. But according to Dr. Gale, only Sterling should come back to see her on a more regular basis. 

Against her better judgment, Sterling turns to Blair, hoping maybe they can have some kind of light conversation in Twinspeak, but it curiously doesn’t happen and they’re left just staring at each other. After a few seconds, she turns away.

“You know,” Anderson says, finally breaking the silence. “I think, all things considered, that went pretty good!”

Debbie turns and scoffs at him. “$300 to be told that we’re bad parents who’ve personally messed up our child? Yeah, that was so positive, Anderson.”

“She did not say that, she said that moving forward, we need to be more honest with the girls and I agree wholeheartedly.” Anderson meets Sterling’s eyes in the rearview mirror and smiles, but she looks away. “Hey, I know,” he says, obviously trying to cheer everyone up. “Who wants a milkshake from Chick-Fil-A?”

“Not meee,” Sterling says in a tone mocking his overly chipper one, really just wanting to go home while also thinking that going to an establishment likely owned by one John Stevens is just rubbing salt in a wound they don’t even know she has. But this earns a smack to her arm from Blair.

“Hey! Don’t be frickin’ rude!” she scolds her. “I would love a milkshake, Daddy.”

“That’s my girl!” Anderson turns the car sharply at the intersection to make their detour. “Now, Sterling, I think this goes without saying, but you’re goin’ to school tomorrow.”

“Actually, I don’t think I am,” Sterling argues. The thought of going back to school and seeing April’s smug face while also dealing with this is perhaps the least appealing thing in the universe to her right now.

“You are going to school if I have to drive you there and drag you into your first-period class myself,” Debbie snaps. “I know you’ve been through a lot and I know this has been hard on you, but sometimes in life, we just have to look to the future and move on.”

“What, like you ‘moved on’ from your sister banging your husband?” Sterling replies, and deep down, she knows she’s gone too far, but there’s no taking it back now that it’s been said.

Anderson slams on the brakes. “Damn it, Sterling Pearl! You do not talk to your mother like that!” he snaps, finally letting go of that chipper demeanor, which Sterling is honestly thankful for. “Now, I will only ever say this one time, but the way you came into this world doesn’t reflect a God dang thing about who your parents are. As far as your mother and I are concerned, what I did with Dana...it wasn’t…” He struggles to find the words that Sterling and Blair both know is the case.

“It wasn’t consensual. She basically raped you,” Blair says, and Sterling notices Anderson recoil.

“...Either way, I don’t want to hear another word of it. Understood?” he says, his voice low.

Sterling nods, but now has another reason to be disgusted with herself and the truth of her existence. She knows she should apologize, if only for being such a brat, but she can’t bring herself to do it. The anger still runs deep, even if she knows her parents had good reason to keep all of this from her. Aunt Mommy currently in jail awaiting trial for kidnapping her should say as much.

“I don’t want to go back to therapy,” Sterling says finally when Anderson starts driving to Chick-Fil-A again.

“We’ll talk about that once you’re back to going to school,” Debbie says.

“...And I want a chocolate milkshake,” Sterling says finally, crossing her arms.

“Are you going to mind your manners?” Debbie asks as if she’s talking to a three-year-old.

Sterling sighs and looks up at the ceiling. “Fine.”


Once they get home, milkshakes in hand, Sterling makes a beeline for the stairs to go to her room. It’s where she’s spent at least 90% of her time since being returned home from Dana’s trailer park from Hell, and her family at least seem to have the good sense to not bother her too much.

All of this has managed to send her over the limit. She doesn’t even feel like the same person as she was when she went to the lock-in. Probably because really, she’s not. She’s her mother’s crack baby niece, which is the thought that’s lingering in her head as she boots up her laptop, initially to watch something on Netflix, but then thinking better of it and going to Google.

Prenatal exposure to crack

She knows this is something to Google if she wants to practically guarantee a spiral, but maybe that’s what she’s going for as she searches it and starts reading Wikipedia pages on the subject. Though truly, it’s crazy to think that her parents have been drilling into her her entire life that drugs are bad and she should never use them when in truth, she already has.

She’s reading an article about how she’s likely to have social problems--which explains a lot, if she’s being honest--when Blair comes in from the bathroom.

“Okay, seriously, you gotta stop this,” she says, coming around to sit on the edge of Sterling’s bed. “I know that we’ve all kind of experienced a real clusterfuck, but it doesn’t really change anything, right? I mean, this is technically who you’ve always been, we just didn’t know it.”

“That’s easy for you to say, Blair,” Sterling says, dismissive. “You aren’t the one who resulted from the worst thing that has ever happened to Mom and Dad.”

“Sterl, that isn’t true…” Blair says, getting up and putting a comforting hand on Sterling’s shoulder, which she shrugs away from.

“Yes, it is! I wouldn’t exist if Dana wasn’t an absolute psycho who thought she could blackmail Dad by having a baby with him, and if Mom and Dad hadn’t gotten custody of me, she wouldn’t have lost her marbles and threw a molotov cocktail into an abortion clinic! All of the stuff they’ve gone through over the years is because of me,” Sterling can feel the tears in the corner of her eyes, and she wipes them away with the sleeve of her shirt. “So please just...leave me alone.”

She thinks for a minute that Blair might argue, but instead, she silently gets up from the bed and goes to the door, where she stops. “Hey, there’s one bright side to all this craziness if you squint.”

Sterling sighs, knowing this is about to be something very dumb. “And what is that?”

“Now we know you were just a preemie and that I didn’t actually try to eat you in the womb like Mom and Dad said.”

Sterling reaches for a pencil on her desk, which she attempts to throw at Blair, but her sister manages to shut the bathroom door behind her just in time. She crosses her arms and leans back in her desk chair. To think that two weeks ago, the biggest problem in her life was her sudden crush on her childhood nemesis.

Thinking of April right now was a mistake because now that’s what she’s fixating on. How, on top of the absolute mess that is her identity crisis, she’s also still coping with the fact that she lost the best thing that has happened to her in a very long time. She knows April is far from perfect, but the connection they shared in only a few days together meant something and April was willing to just throw it all away at the drop of a hat.

Maybe she’s just being a masochist now, but for the heck of it, Sterling opens up Instagram on her phone. She goes to April’s page, which she is somewhat surprised to find she is no longer blocked from seeing. There’s a new story, and Sterling can’t help but click on it.

“Good morning, everyone! So you might have noticed that I’m a little extra dolled up for school today,” April says, standing in front of the full-length mirror in her room with her phone pointed at it to show off her freshly pressed school uniform (the black blazer one) and carefully curled hair. “Well, that’s because something exciting is happening today, but I can’t give you too many details yet. I’d hate to jinx it, but I would appreciate it if everyone could send good vibes and prayers my way, and I will keep you updated,” April finishes the story by pointing the phone back at herself and blowing a kiss at the camera, which is enough to give Sterling war flashbacks to their last good conversation, and she closes out of the app.

Sterling wishes she could go back to how she thought of April before the forensics tournament. She was just a spoiled brat busybody who liked causing drama whenever it benefitted her. An honestly deplorable person who said outstandingly ignorant things for someone as intelligent as she is. But now she’s just April, and Sterling knows that most of her abrasiveness is to hide the fact that she’s scared and lonely.

Against her better judgment, Sterling opens the app and clicks into the story to watch it again.



April

The fact that April has managed to make it all the way to seventh period without being completely overcome by nerves is nothing short of a miracle. From a logical standpoint, she knows there isn’t really a reason to be nervous about school musical tryouts—she’s gotten the lead before, just last year as Maria in The Sound of Music—but still, she can’t stand the thought of being relegated to a side character or worse, ensemble. She knows she would have one hell of a time explaining that kind of epic failure to her father, who doesn’t have any appreciation for the arts as it is.

All of this anxiety has her a bit distracted from Ellen’s...frankly bizarre lesson for Bible class.

“Okay y’all, so as you can see, I have my friend Lazarus here,” Ellen says, holding up a doll of some sort wrapped head to toe in gauze like a mummy. “He’s still in his grave-clothes, as you can see, but we as a class are gonna work through that. I want y’all to give me a verse from John Chapter 11, and for each one you get correct, ol’ Lazarus here will lose a bandage.”

No hands go up immediately, so April rolls her eyes and raises hers, to Ellen’s delight when she calls on her. “‘I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.’” It’s perhaps the most badass quote in all of the book of John, and April hears a few people voice their frustration at the idea that she stole their own favorite quote.

“Very good, April!” Ellen praises her, writing that onto the dry erase board before going to where she placed Lazarus in an office chair. She pulls off the piece of gauze covering one of Lazarus’ arms and casts it aside. “Okay, who’s next?”

Luke excitedly raises his hand, and Ellen calls on him. “‘Jesus wept,’” he says proudly, and April rolls her eyes.

Ellen smiles and nods. “Yep! Shortest verse in the Bible, but yep!” she says, then takes the gauze off of Lazarus Doll’s foot.

Ellen goes around the room getting verses from people until all that’s left is the gauze covering the doll’s head—and judging from the fact that it’s oversized on a soft body, April is going to go ahead and assume it’s a Cabbage Patch Kid. “Alright, last one. Someone give me a good one,” Ellen says, looking around the room and eventually calling on April again, who is practically standing up at her desk at this point.

“‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who has to come into the world,’” she recites perfectly, knowing it’s the most important verse that hasn’t been said yet.

“Excellent job, April!” Ellen says, opening her drawer and grabbing a Tootsie Roll to toss at April’s desk before making the dramatic reveal of Lazarus’ head. Which is indeed the terrifying visage of a wild-haired blonde Cabbage Patch Kid—which is also naked. The only thing worse than this is when her dad bought her (without prompting) John McCain and Sarah Palin ones during the 2008 election.

“I get that he was wrapped up but why is he naked?” Luke whispers the money question to Franklin next to him.

“Lazarus has risen!” Ellen says dramatically, gesturing at the thing like she’s Will Smith. Then she laughs at her own weird sense of humor while the rest of the class stays silent. “I’m just kiddin’, that’s just my old friend Benny. But y’all did a fantastic job in helping me recount the last miracle performed by Jesus before the crucifixion, and it brings me to an exciting announcement! As those of you in drama class already know, this year our school musical is…” she does a drum roll with her hands on her desk. “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar!”

This isn’t a surprise to April, but it still renews her excitement. She had to campaign hard against Godspell .

“And unless you’ve missed the flyers posted around the school since last Monday, auditions are this afternoon at 4:00, so if you can sing or just wanna have some fun, or maybe would like a few extra credit points for this class, I encourage you to join us,” Ellen says, concluding her PSA just before the school bell rings signaling the end of the regular school day. “Alright y’all, I want you to read John 12 tonight and we can have a class discussion tomorrow. Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”

Nobody hesitates to file out of the room once Ellen’s dismissed them—especially not April, who now has 30 minutes to kill before auditions start, but she plans to make the most of them.

“So, do you have your audition song perfected yet or do we need to have an emergency mutual coaching sesh?” Ezekiel asks as they leave the classroom and head in the direction of April’s locker.

“I’d like to think I have it down, yeah,” April says, at least having the knowledge that this is a song she’s been singing since she was 10. She unlocks her locker and primps her hair in the mirror she added to the door.

“Me too. I’m doing “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen,” Ezekiel says, seeming quite proud of himself and his impressive tenor range. “I was thinking about doing "You Will Be Found" but that seemed like a guaranteed way to get cast as Jesus.”

April frowns, confused. “Why wouldn’t you want to be cast as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar?”

“Because Judas is objectively the best role and because I don’t think these white folk here are ready for a Black Jesus whose legs could literally fall off during the crucifixion,” Ezekiel explains, never one to pass up on playing the ‘no legs’ card.

“Well, then we can only pray for some kind of miracle because I don’t think any of the other guys in drama are capable of doing it either.”

Ezekiel purses his lips and nods in agreement. “But wouldn’t it be ridiculous to watch Franklin attempt “Gethsemane" and make the audience cry?”

April doesn’t know if the ensuing tears would be funny or sad. The drama department lost most of the heavy-hitting male vocalists in last year’s graduating class; including Jackson Sutcliffe, the Captain von Trapp to April’s Maria.

He had his obnoxious tendencies (like most boys), but April supposes that if any boy had to be her first kiss, she’s glad it was him. Though now that she’s kissed someone in a non-musical context, she guesses he doesn’t count anymore, Sterling does.

Sterling, who hasn’t been to school in over a week, and now even Blair’s gone today. The school’s rumor mill has been having an absolute field day with this whole thing. It’s gone from ‘I heard she had a nervous breakdown at the lock-in’ to ‘No, I heard she was smoking outside the lock-in and got kidnapped...by Al-Qaeda!’ to ‘No I thought it was she wigged out at the lock-in and then flew to Syria to join ISIS’ to ‘Guys, guys. Have a little respect. Sterling’s dead.’

April would like to think that none of those things have even a modicum of truth to them, but she hasn’t actually built up the courage to text her and ask. And it didn’t help matters that before she too disappeared, Blair was making it a point to confirm every single variation of the Sterling rumors to anyone with the balls to ask her. Well...except for the Sterling being dead one. That cropped up only today in Blair’s absence.

“Either way, I’m pretty sure you’re a guarantee for the female lead. Nobody’s about to downgrade Maria von Trapp to ensemble,” Ezekiel says, bringing April back to the conversation at hand.

“I’d like to think so,” April says, nodding. “But I always have to keep in mind that I have been relegated to playing the little brother in Peter Pan before.”

Ezekiel rolls his eyes. “Because we were freshmen. And you were lucky you weren’t kicked out of the production altogether after you got bitchslapped by Linda Chatterjee for saying she wasn’t the ‘right kind of Indian’ to be playing Tigerlily.”

April sucks in air through her teeth at the mention of that. “Not one of my finest moments, I’ll admit,” she says quietly. “Regardless, I absolutely deserved Wendy but class politics dictated that I had to be given a smaller role in favor of a junior or senior, so Ellen cast Brianna Wilkes.”

“Yeah, and that’s how you ended up playing her step-mother in The Sound of Music after you had your dad write something to the school about age discrimination,” Ezekiel says, rolling his eyes. “You know, you’re an absolutely crazy bitch, but I love you for it.”

April smiles, touched. “Aww, thanks, Z.” She looks around the hallway for the other member of their trio, as it’s rare when she and Ezekiel are apart for too long. “Where’s Hannah B.? I thought she’s gonna try to at least go for the ensemble?”

“She’s doing vocal warmups in the choir room,” Ezekiel says, dismissive, and both he and April laugh. Sure, they might be absolute jerks for making fun of their friend’s singing abilities—or lack thereof—but that’s just what true friendship is all about. “Actually, I should probably go look for her or she’ll be doing May Me My Mo Moo until the janitor goes home for the night.”

April nods. “Good idea. I’ll save you guys seats in the auditorium?”

“You better,” Ezekiel says, and then he’s off, wading through the stream of students trying to leave the school while he goes deeper into it.

Once he’s gone, April retrieves her messenger bag from its hook and loads it with all the books she’ll be needing for homework tonight. She wants to make a clean getaway and go home for her post-audition rituals as soon as they’re done. Bubble bath, a Star Wars novel, maybe some of her mom’s low-fat ice cream if she’s feeling indulgent…

She’s daydreaming about the concept of reaching the closest she is capable of getting to zen when she feels someone’s presence behind her.

“Uh, hey April,” Luke’s voice says, and she turns around to face him, somewhat confused. She thought they had really been hitting it off the day of the lock-in, but he has barely said two words to her since—probably for the same reason she’s been feeling out of sorts since then. The lack of Sterling at school really does make all the difference.

“Hi?” April says. “What’s up?”

“Uh, so I thought at the lock-in it seemed like you and Sterl were maybe friends again, and-”

“Well, we’re not,” April snaps, and it is not even a lie.

“Yeah I get that, I’m just getting kind of worried about her and was wondering if you’d heard from her at all? She’s had me on read for like, ten days,” he says, looking like a kicked puppy, and April almost feels sorry for him. Almost.

“Well, if she’s reading your texts, then we can only assume she’s not dead or in the custody of any terrorist organizations…” April trails off, trying to be funny, but Luke isn’t laughing. “Anyway, I’m sure she’ll turn up soon. She might just be sick and gave it to Blair.”

Luke nods at this perfectly reasonable explanation. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ve come to terms with our break-up but I still care about her, you know?”

April nods. She knows that feeling all too well. “Yeah. That’s really sweet of you,” she says, somewhat disingenuously, as she puts her hand on his arm and smiles encouragingly at him in an attempt to end this conversation and get to her audition. “Anyway, I’d love to stay and chat, but I have to get to the auditorium,” she says, gesturing over her shoulder with her thumb and turning around. She thinks she’s in the clear, but she hears his Sasquatch footsteps follow her and he eventually is walking beside her.

“Uh, you mind if I walk you there?” he asks.

April side-eyes him...diagonal-eyes him? Either way, he’s too damn tall. “I guess not…?”

“Cool cool,” Luke says, nodding. “So, let me guess. You’re auditioning for the musical.”

April hums. “How did you guess?”

“Well I know you’re like, an awesome singer and stuff…” he says awkwardly. “You always got the solos in music class.”

“That was elementary school,” April reminds him. “But thank you. I’d like to think I’ve only improved since the Shirley Temple concert.”

Luke giggles. “I still know the words to Good Ship Lollipop.”

“Me too,” April says, walking up to the door of the auditorium.

“Hey, April?” Luke asks before she can go in.

April thinks that this conversation might be going somewhere dangerous and she feels the need to get out of it as quickly as humanly possible. “Luke, I’m really sorry, but I have to get to my audition,” she says curtly and goes in, leaving the oversized toddler in the hall.

“Oh April, thank goodness you’re here,” Ellen says as April walks down the aisle and takes a seat next to her. “I’m worried our turnout this year won’t be quite what it usually is. I was only able to round up two dedicated boys from woodshop for our sets, and I barely have enough other techies to print some dang flyers.”

“I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, Ms. Johnson, but the graduating class of 2022 is mostly made up of uncultured swine, and the TikTok generations below us are no better,” April says, knowing Ellen is the only teacher she can talk like this about her fellow students with.

Ellen giggles. “Yeah, you’re tellin’ me. But I was hoping you could maybe get your daddy’s help with some promotional funds.”

April nods. If there’s one thing she can get her dad to do with little prompting, it’s give her money. “I can do that.”

“Now, I know you like going last, but try not to upstage everyone else too much, okay?” Ellen asks, nudging April playfully with her elbow.

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” April says, rolling her eyes. “Thank you for taking my show suggestion into account, by the way. I know this show can be somewhat controversial.”

Her teacher smiles mischievously at this. “Yeah, I know, but what’s life without a little risk? Plus, this is a Christian school and it is a musical about Christ. And, thanks to John Legend, I think we’ll get some butts in seats for it.”

“We can only pray,” April agrees. She looks around at the other students starting to gather in the auditorium. Mostly drama kids, but also a few choir people and some dance team girls. It’s not the worst group she’s ever seen, at least as far as the girls go, but there is really only one female role, and the boys leave...something to be desired when the most talented among them (aside from Ezekiel) is Darren Boggs, followed by Franklin and Jennings.

April’s assumptions about all of these things prove correct as she watches the auditions themselves unfold. Mediocrity at best from the girls, absolute tone-deafness from most of the boys, and the three that don’t totally suck (turns out Franklin’s shrieky voice makes him a fair countertenor) aren’t enough to fill all of the roles that need to be. This is honestly worrisome to her when it’s finally April’s turn and she goes up on stage to give the pianist (a senior named Asa) her sheet music from her bag. She only gets a limited time to prove herself worthy of Ellen’s high expectations, so she tells him to start at the middle of Sondheim’s “Moments in the Woods” and goes from there.

The song is admittedly not the hardest thing April could sing, though doing the end guarantees her an opportunity to show the high end of her range. She chose it weeks ago because she didn’t want to be a cliche, and she didn’t want to sing something from the great big ingénue ‘do not sing’ list, which eliminates most anything by Jason Robert Brown, among others. So Sondheim seemed safe.

But as she sings through the lyrical epiphany of the Baker’s wife, she can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. Theatre is her happy place, but she finds the Baker’s Wife’s quandary over what to think about her affair with the Prince hitting...a bit too close to home. Though perhaps that only serves to enhance her performance.

“First a witch, then a child, then a prince, then a moment. Who can live in the woods? And to get what you wish, only just for a moment, these are dangerous woods! Let the moment go, don’t forget it for a moment, though…” April had her chance at being who she always wanted to be with Sterling, but it was over after only a few days. And now here she is, right back to where she was at the beginning of the year. Alone, lying to the world and herself about who she is and who she wants.

“Now I understand! And it’s time to leave the woods!” She finishes the song, drawing out the long high notes, and earning a standing ovation from Ellen when Asa hits the last note on the piano (and dirty looks from every other girl in there except for Hannah B.).

As she leaves the stage, April notices for the first time that Luke slipped into the theater at some point and took a seat in the back, meaning he’s waited for her for well over a half-hour. It’s as flattering as it is creepy, and she’s about to go back there and confront him when Ellen notices his presence as well.

“Oh, Luke! You came to audition as well?” she says excitedly. One thing April’s learned over her years in the drama department is that a popular kid is almost as valuable in a cast as a talented one, and the tall, handsome captain of the golf team is certainly one of those things.

“No, I just…” he starts, but then looks to April and suddenly changes his tune. “Yeah! Yeah, I came to audition,” he says, grabbing his guitar from the seat next to him and taking it up onto the stage.

“Ellen, I thought auditions were over,” April tries to protest, not particularly liking the idea of having her coveted last audition spot taken from her.

“Oh, don’t be silly, April. They ain’t over 'til the tall boy sings,” Ellen says, settling back into her seat and forcing April to join her in a huff. “Go ahead, Luke,” Ellen says, and he nods, then clears his throat as he checks his guitar’s tuning.

“I haven’t gotten the strumming pattern quite right yet, but-“

“Just sing the dang song, Creswell!” Franklin yells at him.

“Okay, jeez!” Luke shouts back, then starts to play a few chords on his guitar. “I’ve heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord, but you don’t really care for music, do ya?”

It may just be because the lower notes at the beginning of this particular song compliment Luke’s voice better than that shrieky ‘Sterling’ song he sang at the memorial for Mr. Koontz, but even April has to admit that he sounds...decent. Which, based on the overjoyed look on Ellen’s face, is about as good as if he were John Legend.

Luke plays through two verses before he stops, allowing the last note of the guitar to fade.

“That was very good, Luke!” Ellen praises him as he comes down off of the stage and she pats him on the back. “Alright, y’all. I’ll be posting the cast list at the end of seventh period on Friday. Be gracious if you get a lead, and don’t be disappointed if you don’t. Every single person on that stage will make the show great. So with that said, have a good night everyone and I’ll see you tomorrow!”

April notices Ezekiel practically drag Hannah B. out the door before Ellen could even finish her closing speech, which is a little odd, but she doesn’t think too much of it as she gathers her things to leave. She, unfortunately, doesn’t do this fast enough to avoid Luke, however, as he manages to get away from Franklin and Jennings and comes to hand her the messenger bag she was just about to reach for.

“Thank you, Luke,” she says politely and puts it on over her shoulder. “You did great, by the way. I didn’t know you were interested in drama,” she says pointedly, knowing she’s the only reason he’s here right now and not at home playing Xbox or whatever it is boys do after mandatory school hours.

“Oh, I’m totally into drama,” he lies to her face. “My parents took me to see that Lion King musical when I was a kid. The puppets were awesome.”

April’s honestly surprised he has even that much experience with live theater, so she has to give him kudos for it, and for the fact that he’s actually trying to impress her with it. “Yeah, you have to love Julie Taymor,” she says and leads him out of the auditorium into the hall, which is now empty except for them and the other musical kids. “I’m sorry, but what exactly is it that you wanted to talk to me about so badly that you inadvertently joined the cast of the school musical?” She can’t help but be amused as they head out to the parking lot.

“I just thought we were having a good time at the lock-in, and the whole Sterl being missing thing sort of threw me off. I didn’t even get my hair cut, see?” he says, pointing to his still shaggy hair that seems to fall more and more into his eyes every day.

“Well, if Ellen casts you as Jesus, you might have to keep that up for a while,” she notes as they go out to the parking lot. Her eyes scan for where Hannah B. parked this morning in Ellen’s spot, but the car is gone, and she suddenly realizes what they’ve done. “Those bitches…” she says under her breath.

“What happened?” Luke asks, looking around, confused.

“My friends ditched me so now I have no ride home,” April says, knowing this is exactly their evil little plan to get her alone with Luke. Well, actually, it has Ezekiel written all over it.

“I can drive you home if you want?” Luke offers, jingling his keys for emphasis.

A part of April wants to be stubborn and get an Uber, but she knows that would hurt Luke’s feelings, and like Sterling, he has a way of making her not want to do that. She sighs. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble for you.”

Luke’s face lights up. “Not at all!” He practically jogs to his Jeep, where he opens the passenger door for April. “Do you still live over in-”

“Buckhead, yeah. On Paces Ferry,” April says, getting in and buckling herself in. The one time she let Sterling drive her home has left her a bit traumatized and she isn’t going to chance anything.

“I remember going to your birthday party when we were 12, I think?” Luke says as he starts up the Jeep. “You definitely made a point of not inviting Sterl.”

April scoffs. “Well yeah, she was my arch enemy,” she says sarcastically.

“I just really remember your house being a lot bigger than mine,” Luke says, turning on the radio to a country station currently playing an old Taylor Swift song. “Do you want me to change it?”

“God no,” April says perhaps too quickly, but it doesn’t seem to bother Luke.

“Good, because I love this song,” he says, turning it up and starting to quietly sing along, and after much struggle, April joins him.

“Our song is the way you laugh, the first date man and I didn’t kiss her and I should have. And when I got home, ‘fore I said ‘Amen,’ askin God if he could play it again,” April notices her volume steadily increasing until she’s singing over Taylor for the last part of the chorus, but so is Luke.

They finish that and a Carrie Underwood murder song before Luke is driving up April’s long gravel driveway and stopping in front of the house.

“Thank you for the ride,” April says, genuinely having not had a horrible time. Even while singing slightly off-key to girl power country songs, Luke is a surprisingly safe driver.

“I’m honestly kinda glad your friends ditched you,” Luke admits, then awkwardly asks, “Uh, April, would you maybe...want to go out with me sometime?” 

The question doesn’t come as necessarily a shock to April, given Luke’s behavior since the end of seventh period, but it does surprise her that she doesn’t immediately want to say no. In fact, she realizes that if she’s to be trapped in a lie for her father’s sake, there could certainly be worse people to do it with. At the very least, Luke has great taste in music and was willing to audition for the school musical on the spot just to impress her.

“Yeah, okay,” she agrees. “Could be fun.”