"The Ladies of Catville," by Jamison Cole McLean, is the First Place winning story in the young adult fiction category for the Tenth Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year's awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2015 issue of Writer's Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Eleventh Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusives, you can read McLean's winning entry.
The Ladies of Catville
by Jamison Cole McLean
“No, ‘Cinderella Pie’ has to go into ‘Tomorrow Land,’” Nina pleads, spinning her drumsticks between her fingers. “It gives the set a retro-futuristic feel.”
“A Disney retro-futuristic feel,” Lynn argues. “I say we stick to the original set list.”
“The original’s stale!” Nina flares back.
I’ve been staring at the same scrap of yellowed notebook paper for the past forty-five minutes, and I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m wearing my little brother’s coonskin hat, but my brain is starting to hurt. The same four songs stare back at me. Our set. Our shot. These next four songs determine our fate. No wonder we’re obsessing about the order.
But I guess that’s what you get with an all-girl band: over-analyzing and obsessing. “We’re ending with ‘Cinderella Pie.’” My voice has the weight of finality as I speak.
“We’ll start with ‘Ray-Ban Baby,’ do a slow fade into ‘Lana,’ then go into ‘Tomorrow Land,’ and end with ‘Cinderella Pie.’ Happy, Nina? It’s like reverse retro-futurism, which I’m sure no one’s ever tried, ruling out the stale thing.”
Both Nina and Lynn nod in agreement.
“I just wish we had a dude to do the prince parts,” Cleo comments, her purple hair hiding her face as she tunes her guitar. “It’d be freaking genius as a duet. Wes would love it.”
We collectively sigh. In three hours, we’ll be playing for Wes Anderson. The only reason we entered this “battle of the bands” cliché is because the prize is that Wes Anderson will direct the winning band’s first-ever music video, which will be aired on MTV. It’s some promo crap the radio station’s putting on for Wes’ next movie (as if Wes Anderson needs promotion). I made the band go see Moonrise Kingdom with me a few years back, and now, like me, they’re all obsessed. Since it’s a Halloween showcase, we all dressed like characters from his movies. Nina’s wearing a red tracksuit; Lynn got a bellhop uniform from only Lord knows where; Cleo went with the less obvious, wearing black-framed reading glasses and a t-shirt with kites all over it; and in addition to my coonskin hat, I’m wearing my old girl-scout’s getup, which I have to keep pulling down because it’s scandalously short.
Lynn passes me a thermos of peppermint tea (something I hated when she first started making me drink it before gigs, but now feels almost superstitious) just as her cell starts buzzing.
“Are they calling us for soundcheck?” Nina asks excitedly, dropping a stick.
Lynn simply waves her hand in an attempt to disperse the noise before it reaches her. “Yeah, hi,” she says into the phone. “Nope, she’s right here. Let me see if I can rouse her from her drunken stupor. Oh, Holiday!” She tries to hand me the phone. “Who is it?” I whisper sharply.
She smiles deviously. “Butler White.”
“Lynn!” I snap. “Why the heck would you tell him I’m passed out drunk?!”
She rolls her eyes. “Oh, please. It’ll do wonders for your street cred. Right now, everyone thinks you’ve never had a drink in your life.”
Because I haven’t had a drink in my life, I think. My fingers clumsily wrap around Lynn’s dinosaur of a flip phone.
I take a deep breath and force my voice out steadily. “Butler?”
“Yeah. Hey, Holiday. Did I wake you?”
“No, just sitting here drinking tea. What’s up?” I answer lightly, forcing myself not to get lost in the plush velvet of his voice. That voice sounds like scruff and guitar riffs and shy boy eyes. Gosh, that voice drives me crazy.
“So, I know you’ve got a gig today.” He clears his throat, and I can almost hear the blush. “Well, actually, I saw Lynn load her bass in her mom’s van, so I assume you’ve got a gig. We’ve got a gig tonight, too. That’s actually why I called.”
“Oh really?” I ask breathlessly.
“Yeah. This girl Nicki Stevens was supposed to do backup for us, but she got mono. So I was wondering if you’d sit in with us.”
He noticed me. He heard me. A tiny tremor goes through my whole body. Butler’s two years older than me, and the only reason I’ve ever had the excuse to talk to him is because he lives across the street from Lynn. Their parents are friends.
He’s dark and tall, and he could be a football player if he wanted to. He’s got the body. But Butler’s a true-blue musician, and that makes him all the more appealing. Sometimes he leaves his bedroom window open while he’s working on a new song. The notes spill out into the beige air, coloring as they go, and mix with mine as we practice in Lynn’s garage. When that happens, for just a second, I feel like we’re connected. Like maybe the brilliant lead guitarist of Blank Slate would want to make music with me. But then, I just brush it off because it’s too crazy to be true.
And now, it is true on the worst possible day in the history of worst days. On the day Ladies of Catville has a chance to play for Wes Anderson. Has a chance to break away. “Hang on a sec,” I answer finally. “It’s hard to hear in here.”
I step between the tangle of my bandmates’ legs as I try to escape the cramped corner we claimed as our turf amongst all the other competing musicians in the bar. Cleo wriggles her eyebrows, and Nina and Lynn make kissy faces, knowing the massive crush I have on Butler, which makes me feel like a pile of crap for what I’m considering.
“Okay,” I say once I’m safely inside the grime-covered bathroom. “Let me get this straight. You want me to play with Blank Slate?”
“Not the whole time. There’re a few duets I want to try out. I’m trying to convince the band we need more ballads.”
“And you want me?”
He pauses. “Holiday, do you even know how good you are?” he asks, and he sounds almost in awe. “When you’re voice wafts in through my window, it’s like…”
“Like what?” I ask, trying not to show how desperate I am to know.
“It’s gonna sound so cheesy.”
“Okay,” he says hesitantly. “It sounds like how I imagine my music. Like, when I write a duet, it’s your voice that answers me.”
I’m melting, melting, melting. How can I tell him no, now? He hasn’t just noticed me. He’s heard me even when I’m not singing. And suddenly, Wes Anderson doesn’t seem so important.
“I need to talk to the girls,” I say, deciding that this is the right step.
“Of course. We do soundcheck at eight, so just let me know.”
“Okay,” I agree, and hang up before he can change his mind.
“What did White Butt want?” Nina asks in a singsongy voice as I return to our corner. Her jet black hair’s back in a tiny bun, and her fingers seem especially itchy. We’d better do a soundcheck soon, or she’ll start drumming on just about anything.
“Did he ask you to marry him?” Lynn asks with mock sincerity. Even Cleo smirks at that, momentarily breaking her brooding streak.
“No,” I answer. “He asked me to sit in with Blank Slate tonight.”
All three of them jerk into silence. I’ve never seen it happen so fast. Not even when I told them that I’d never been kissed.
Cleo pushes her fluorescent hair out of her face and looks at me squarely. “What’d you tell him?”
“That I’d have to talk to you guys.”
Lynn’s the next one to question. “What time do they go on?”
“Soundcheck’s at eight.”
Nina audibly groans. “Holiday, our slot’s at three in the morning. You’d be MIA right in the middle of our soundcheck, and if we miss soundcheck, we forfeit. I know you like Butler, but I mean, come on, Holiday! Wes Anderson!”
I sigh and idly stroke the raccoon tail dangling from my hat. Nina’s right, and I know it. I mean, Wes Anderson. Enough said.
But just when I’m about to convey this to the girls, Lynn cuts me off.
“You should go,” she says, looking at the ground. “Blank Slate’s a big deal.” Then she looks at me. “Butler’s a big deal.”
“You should go, Holiday,” Cleo confirms solemnly, sincerely. They both look to Nina, who just huffs and nods her consent.
And just like that, knowing what they’d give up for me, I wouldn’t be anywhere else. “No,” I say. “Ladies of Catville is a big deal. Give me the dinosaur, Lynn, so I can call Butler back and tell him to find someone else.”
Nina hugs me excitedly, Cleo gives me an approving smirk, and Lynn looks genuinely surprised.
“Are you sure, Holiday?” she whispers even though Nina and Cleo can still hear her. “I mean, saying no to him like this…he probably won’t ask again.”
“I know,” I say sadly as I pry the clunky phone from her fingers, turning to make the grim pilgrimage to the bathroom before they see the tears in my eyes.
Adjusting the mic in its stand, I try to shake the gloom. Despite my brave face, turning Butler down was harder than even I could’ve imagined. He’d sounded disappointed. Genuinely disappointed.
Cleo’s guitar hook starts winding down, and I know it’s my cue to transition into “Lana.” But as I sing my song about being a girl who likes a guy who likes a girl named Lana, all I can think about is that, at this very moment, I could be singing with the guy I like…who wanted to sing with me, too. And I can’t help resentfully thinking that Ladies of Catville is that other girl, keeping me away from him. That awkward mutual friend that brought us together and is tearing us apart. Because the band is what brought us together.
Right after Ladies of Catville was formed, Lynn invited us all over to her house for a band-bonding sleepover. She promised raw cookie dough, trash reality TV, ridiculous 80’s makeovers, the works. We even made a plan to show up at Lynn’s house in our sketchiest pj’s. So as I waited on her front porch in my Betty Boop booty shorts and “Who’s Your Daddy?” Darth Vadar t-shirt, the last thing I expected was a gorgeous, high school boy to answer the door.
“Um, may I help you?” he asked through an amused grin. That’s when I noticed his threadbare dark-wash jeans, rumpled Vampire Weekend t-shirt, and scuffed checkerboard Vans.
His dark hair curled naturally away from his face without the aid of hair product, and it might have been his proper grammar (using may instead of can), but taking him all in like that, he wasn’t just some indie wannabe street urchin. I accepted his authenticity on site.
“Yeah, uh, hi,” I answered floridly. “I’m here for Lynn?”
Right on cue, the languid hostess bounced into the doorway. “Holiday! Those shorts are positively skeevy, darling!” Lynn proclaimed in a ridiculous British accent, kissing me on both cheeks. I swear I saw the mystery boy blush as his eyes skimmed my bare legs. “I totally spaced! My parents are having the Whites over tonight. Apparently it’s been planned for ages, but you know I’m only ever half listening to anything my parents say. We’ll start the festivities after they leave. Well, what are you waiting for? Come in! Come in!”
I raised my eyebrows and subtly nodded to the ignored boy still standing in the doorway. “Hmm? Oh, him! Holiday, this is Butler. He’s one of the Whites. Butler White.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Butler White,” I said formally. He smirked. “And it’s nice to meet you, Betty Vadar.”
Nina and Cleo were equally unhappy with the unexpected company when they arrived. Nina was decked out in a button-down Hello Kitty top, Hello Kitty drawstring bottoms, and slippers to match. And Cleo was dressed in a flannel plaid nightshirt and Flintstone boxers (which warranted the nickname “Pebbles”, which we still use on occasion). We were all pretty sulky as Lynn danced around in normal clothes, chatting with the Whites sans humiliation. It wasn’t until Nina whined that she was going to have her mom come pick her up that Lynn raced upstairs and made good on the bargain.
She did this sexy walk down the stairs in footed pajamas that turned her into a cotton candy colored Care Bear. It even had a hood with ears! So when she finally made it to the bottom of the stairs, she crossed her arms over the rainbow on her stomach and shouted, “Ha! I win! None of you can possibly look as sketchy as me.”
The grownups were setting up for karaoke, and when Lynn popped in to let her parents know we were going upstairs, they insisted we join them. Lynn fought it like a rodeo bull, but when I saw Butler sitting on the brick hearth as he prepped to endure tone-deaf renditions of Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper, I convinced Lynn that we should stay for one or two songs.
Lynn’s dad took on the role of Ryan Seacrest and started announcing dramatically. “Cleo versus Butler, first! Battle of the guitarists!”
“You’re a guitarist?” I quietly asked Butler, shifting on the hearth. The brick scraped against my bare thighs.
“Blank Slate,” he answered back with a shrug. No wonder he had looked so familiar. I had seen Blank Slate around a half a dozen times. They were one of the only bands I could abide at the showcases, open-mic nights, and house parties Lynn was always dragging me to. I not only abided Blank Slate, though. I loved them. I relentlessly replayed their EP, and rumor had it that the love was not restricted to our city. Apparently, an indie movie was using one of their songs in the end credits.
“No way,” Cleo answered churlishly. “I hide behind my ax for a reason. Make Holiday duel. She’s the one with the pipes, and she can play guitar, if that’s an issue.”
I shrugged sheepishly as Lynn shoved Butler and me into position behind the monitors. She selected “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and hopped back to her seat on the leather couch, hugging her knees to her chest in anticipation. In fact, everyone seemed to be particularly eager for the performance.
“Popcorn?” Lynn’s mom asked excitedly. “I think we need popcorn! Hang on, you two!”
She bustled off to the kitchen, calling over her shoulder for Lynn to come help her. “Sorry,” I whispered to Butler as the room filled with the soft hum of conversation while everyone waited.
“It’s cool,” he answered nonchalantly. “I actually don’t mind singing. I mean, usually there’s a radio involved. I’m not too big on singing in front of people. But don’t worry about it.
“So you’re the lead singer of Lynn’s band?”
“Yeah,” I admitted.
“Well, then, this should be interesting. You any good?”
“Lynn says I am, but she’s a little biased. We’ve been friends since kindergarten.”
“Huh,” he said, looking thoughtful. “Consider this an audition. If you’re any good I might steal you for Blank Slate. Betty Boop is kind of our mascot.”
I shot him an incredulous glance, but before I could say anything, Lynn’s mom was bustling back into the room with heaps and heaps of popcorn, gesturing for us to begin.
And from the first, “Turn around, bright eyes,” I knew that the reason Butler wasn’t the lead singer of Blank Slate wasn’t because he couldn’t sing. He was aces better that their lead singer. His voice branched somewhere in John Mayer and Jeff Buckley’s vicinity. But his eyes stayed glued on the monitor, and he was gripping the microphone so hard that his knuckles were white. Butler didn’t sing because he couldn’t. He didn’t sing because he was shy.
And knowing that, I melted. I was hooked, and even now, squinting as the tech dudes try out different strobe lights for tonight, I wish I could be there to give him the strength to try out his new music…his new wings.
“Hey, girls, can I have a minute?” a guy with a beard and a clipboard asks just as we’re winding up into “Tomorrow Land.” We all stop playing. “So Wes’s running late. His flight was delayed. He’s on route now, but there’s a chance he won’t even be here tonight. You’ve got a brutal slot, I’m not gonna lie to you, so if you want to bail, we’re cool. If he doesn’t show we’ll have to reschedule anyway.”
I yank the coon hat off my head. No Wes Anderson? No Wes Anderson! Which means this wasn’t the most important night of the band’s life. Which means I could’ve sat in with Blank Slate!
The girls must be thinking the same because they all stare at me sympathetically. “What do you want to do, Holiday?” Lynn asks quietly.
“A gig’s a gig. We’ll play,” I say to the bearded guy with inked arms. He nods and walks away, no doubt to talk to the bands that go on after us.
The girls keep staring at me, so I just nod to the sound guy and, turning to the girls, say, “You about ready to try out that reverse retro-futurism, Nina?”
Cleo and Nina smirk and get back to their instruments, but Lynn keeps looking at me.
She knows how bad this stings. But I’m not in the mood to wallow yet, so I turn back to the mic and wail out the first lines of “Tomorrow Land.”
The set’s almost over. No Wes Anderson. The crowd’s great, though. Like one of those static electricity machines. It’s amazing what adrenaline will do to four in the morning.
“Thank you,” I breath into the mic as “Tomorrow Land” ends. “I’m Holiday Norman. Cleo’s on guitar. Lynn’s on bass. And Nina’s on drums. As you already know, we are the Ladies of Catville. It’s been a blast with you guys tonight, but this is our last song.” The crowd lets out loud, collective no’s, which is encouraging. “Thank you. You guys have been awesome. This is ‘Cinderella Pie.’ Eat up.”
Cleo wrings this crying, mournful sound out of her Danelectro, and Nina comes in with this totally 80’s-vibe downbeat, as Lynn does magic with the bass. I close my eyes and start singing. When I look back on this night in my memory, I want to remember the sound of us and the crowd merging into one. It’s beautiful, electric. Some of the people near the stage must’ve heard us before because they’re singing along.
“Sitting here - eating my - bittersweet - Cinderella pie. I lost my shoes - I lost my heart - the way you moved - boy, was an art. It’s half-past twelve - the sink is full - I need you now - so hot and cool. But you’re not here - if you were you’d say:”
I open my eyes to sing “the prince part,” and standing before me, completely engrossed, is none other than Wes Anderson. His hair sweeps his shoulders just like in every picture I’ve ever seen of him, and in true Wes Anderson fashion, his suit is an eggplant color. The sight of him is so wonderful that the words, my words, fly right out of my head. My mouth goes dry. Nothing, nothing, nothing. And just when all hope is lost because Cleo’s improvising riff won’t last forever, another voice fills the speakers.
“It’s all right - to misbehave. I’ve got my mustang - right outside - leave your work - come for a ride.” Butler emerges from the crowd and swings up onto the stage, mic in hand. He must’ve come straight here after Blank Slate’s show. There’s no way he’s not exhausted, but he came all this way in the middle of the night to sing with me. And I find the words to answer him.
“I’ve got the keys - the dress ain’t mine - but I don’t care - we’re wasting time.”
“I don’t know - what you think - but the way you look - brings me to the brink,” he sings back. He’s singing my lyrics right to me, looking me square in the eye.
And I smile as we both sing, “Stay with me. Stay with me. Oh, be my wish. Be my dream. Stay with me. Oh, stay with me. Be my wish. Be my dream. Oh, stay with me. Stay with me. Stay with me. Stay with me.”
The crowd is roaring, and when I look down, Wes Anderson is smiling. But across from me, Butler is breathlessly still looking only at me, honest and beautiful, even in the glare of the stage lights. And knowing what he must have gone through to get here to sing one song with me after I said no to him, he’s more perfect than ever before. Before I even realize what I’m doing, I reach out, lace my fingers behind Butler’s neck, and kiss him. The crowd goes berserk. But he doesn’t pull away, even though there’s a guitar between us. He wraps his arms around me, too.
And whether we win or lose tonight doesn’t matter. As Cleo strums out an impromptu wedding march that sounds more like Hendricks’ National Anthem at Woodstock, taking any chance for bandmate hazing, I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that nothing can steal this moment from me. No one will be able to rob me of the night I stuck with my friends and played just for the sake of the music, and ended up getting my first kiss…in front of Wes Anderson. No one will be able to get the shouts of Encore! Encore! out of my head.
And as Butler and I finally break apart, he asks me, “You’re gonna start a riot, Lady Norman, if you don’t give these people an encore. How ‘bout it?”
I take off my guitar and hand it to him. “Got any duets you wanna try out?”
He smiles and fishes a folded up wad of notebook paper out of his back pocket, handing one to me, Cleo, Lynn, and Nina who haven’t stopped laughing since he showed up.
He turns to the mic and introduces himself. “Hi, I’m Butler White. For tonight, I’m an honorary Lord of Catville. I hope that’s okay with you guys. The Ladies were good enough to let me try out some new stuff I wrote with Ms. Holiday Norman in mind. So, here goes.”
From the first few notes, I know that this is nothing like Blank Slate’s stuff. It’s pure, cutting straight through me. And when the first line comes out of his mouth, part of me wants to cry. Not in a cliché, girly way, but in a way that tugs at something so deep inside you that you don’t have a choice but to let a little salt spill from your eyes.
Looking right at me, he sings, “You had turned to the dark side, but you’re eyes were so bright. Couldn’t keep my eyes off your legs as we sang in the monitor light. It’s been a few years coming, but I hope it’s okay if I ask you out one of these days. We’ll run away like Suzie and Sam. Shanghai canoes and find our own island. It’s been a long time coming, but I hope it’s all right if I ask you out one of these nights.”
And looking down at the piece of crumpled notebook paper Butler shoved in my hand, there’s only one word written. “Yes.”