“NOAH came by last night after you left, you know, Kai. He sort of snuck in wearing a black hoodie, with the hood up, naturally, loitered around in the back by the men’s room, leaned up against the wall like he was too cool to drink coffee, and watched the crowd for a while, and then he skulked out, without even ordering a lousy cup of anything.”

“Skulked, Mandy? What does that word even mean?” Mandy had a flair for the dramatic, which every now and then reared its ugly head. And somehow, I felt it was my job to tone it down.

She rolled her eyes. “Jesus, Kai… he had his head down, back all slumped over, creeping around super slowly… looked more like he was casing the joint than actually walking—you know, skulking.” Then, as if she hadn’t just rocked my world with that juicy tidbit of information, she fanned out her fingers in the space between us, examining her fresh-from-the-manicurist fingernails like they were Andy Warhol’s soup can series. “Do you like this color? It’s called Power Trip… and I gotta say, I’m feeling it.”

I fought the urge to roll my own eyes. I didn’t need to go getting into a habit that further encouraged gay stereotypes. “First of all, you don’t need any more power, chica; you’re a little bit too commanding just the way you are. And second, Noah has every right to come in here and skulk. As long as he doesn’t start skulking around outside my house every morning like he did before.” Yeah, I repeat: Mandy’s little disclosure had me feeling a bit out of sorts, but she didn’t need to know that.

I dropped my ass down on the stool and tried to smile. Thankfully, the portable keyboard in front of me was begging to be played. I just needed to focus on the music. Nothing, and I meant nothing I’d ever done, except for, maybe, play with Sheila, was as much fun as this little Yamaha. All I had to do was touch a button, and presto! I had myself a baby grand—and I was the piano man! (And not that money was the motivating factor, but the tips really rolled in on piano ballad nights.)

Mandy followed me to my stage. “I can’t help the way I feel. Noah Griffin just gives me the heebie-jeebies. Anyways, the coffee is calling.” Mandy turned to make tracks but glanced back once more over her shoulder. “Don’t forget to play Norma Jean for me, ’kay?”

I nodded at her with a tolerant shrug. Tonight’s playlist was to be on the mellow side, focusing mainly on piano ballads that people got into, no matter how many times they heard them. My list included a little bit of Billy Joel, some John Lennon, a couple of classic Queen tunes, and the crowd always got a thrill when I did some Bruce Hornsby and the Range. Of course there would be Elton John, or Mandy wouldn’t speak to me for the rest of the night. And between those crowd pleasers, I’d throw in some of my own instrumental stuff, which always got me pumped.

But I’ve been told my top selling point was my willingness to play just about any freaking piano ballad the audience requested. If I could hear it in my head, I could play it with my fingers. I was a natural raspy tenor, and no, my vocal pipes weren’t nearly as stellar as my instrumental talent, but I could carry a tune better than most. At least, I hadn’t ever received any complaints about my singing from the peanut gallery in Coed Joe’s, where I’d been playing since I turned sixteen. And when each and every piano night was said and done, my tip jar was always filled to the brim, which probably spoke louder than words.

As I pounded and crooned my way through my first set of ballads, I noticed Jamie the Snooty strutting back and forth past the stage, and if I wasn’t totally off base, he was making a major-league effort to never so much as allow his head to turn even slightly in my direction.

Shit, if that was how he wanted to play it, then I was totally over him.

I broke into my last number of the set, “Mad World,” with the goal of creating the same magical aura that Adam Lambert had generated when he’d performed the hell out of it on American Idol a few seasons back, when I was in middle school. And that’s when something twisted happened. As soon as I began to sing about a mad world where kids felt lost and hopeless, always waiting for happiness that never came their way, Jamie stopped, turned to me, and basically froze in place, which happened to be over at the bar, halfway through pouring what might’ve been a mocha. Those brazen eyes of his first found my fingers on the keyboard and then lifted slowly to meet up with my own eyes. I couldn’t make sense of his expression, although I gave it my best shot.

And when I looked directly at him and sang that I found it kind of strange and sad that the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had, I noticed that Jamie was studying me with the same full-on intensity he had on that night a couple of weeks ago when I’d played “Angel.” Now, I wasn’t the type to go creating made-up shit in my head, so I wasn’t gonna say that his eyes were wet with tears or anything on that line. No, it was too dark, and he was too far away from me to have possibly drawn that sappy-as-hell conclusion. But I do know that in one split second Jamie morphed from spellbound to AWOL; he must’ve realized he was staring at me like I was the dude who’d just dropped the A-bomb. He snapped around like a deserting soldier and made a beeline to the men’s room.

Had I messed with his mind by singing “Mad World”? Had my song somehow hit him too low or too hard? I wanted answers. So after the song was finished, I left the stage to the generous sound of applause, but since my mind was otherwise occupied, I didn’t take the time to let it go to my head. I was already on my way to the men’s room to find Jamie.

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