I glanced in horror at the cowbell, then back to Jax, my eyebrows raised with disbelief. "You’ve got to be kidding. What am I supposed to do with this?"
His face erupted in a broad grin. "You’re supposed to bang the hell out of it."
I gave a wry grin. "Yeah, right. I’ve been to this show a few times now, remember? There’s no cowbell in the encore."
"There will be tonight. Thanks to you." He looked dead serious.
The thought of getting to play as a rock star for a few minutes was thrilling, but suddenly, the magnitude of the crowd noise struck me, and I felt a wave of dizziness as I thought about making a fool of myself in front of an audience of thousands.
Shaking my head, I held the cowbell at arm’s length, trying to hand it back to Jax. "No. Hell no. I can’t play any instruments."
Jax crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Maybe so, but I’m not going back on stage for the encore—not unless you’re coming with."
"I can’t believe you’re trying to pull a trick like this during a show," I said, gritting my teeth.
Scattered shouts pierced the applause: "ENCORE!" "BRING JAX BACK!"
He lifted his eyebrow at me and tilted his head toward the crowd noise. "What trick? Let’s go. Your public is waiting."
As the crowd’s calls for an encore got louder, Kev, Chewie and Sky emerged from the dressing room, now in their crazy silver-and-gold finale costumes. Sky spotted the cowbell in my hand instantly, and her face lit up. "Oh my god!" she said, her eyes wide. "You’re coming with us?"
"Nope," I said, directing an exaggerated grimace toward the cowbell. "No sense of rhythm. Believe me, you don’t want me out there."
Jax laughed. "It’s a bell, just ring it," he said. "If you f**k it up, who cares? It’s the encore, everyone’s going nuts. No one will notice."
Was this some kind of a trick? "Don't toy with me like this," I said to Jax. "I'm not going to make an ass out of myself on stage in front of thousands of people just so you can have a laugh."
Jax wrinkled his eyebrows. "Toy with you?" He said, shaking his head. "I just wanted to show you a taste of what being a rocker is really like."
I narrowed my eyes at him. Was he telling the truth? Or was he playing another game? Turning to Chewie and Sky for help, I was dismayed to find Chewie already nodding vigorously with Jax.
"It’s just like he says, Rye," Chewie said. "No one cares about the encore. Besides, what happens in Vegas . . ."
In the auditorium, the screams of the audience were becoming heated. Kev said, "I don’t want to be a drag, but we have to get on stage, or people are going to start thinking the show’s over."
I studied Jax’s face again. His eyes looked completely different than they did when he left me in the hot tub last night. I saw no insincerity, no guile—if he was trying to play a game, I had no idea what it could be. I sighed. "Fine, I’ll go. But remember: if they hate it, this was your idea."
He smiled. "Deal." Grabbing my hand, he walked on stage and pulled me along behind. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that with my musical incompetence, it was sure to be a disaster. I’d try to stay as invisible as possible—at least then I couldn’t screw it up for the band.
As we walked past the curtain, I could barely see at all.
After spending the entire show in the darkness of backstage, the spotlights were so blindingly bright that they hurt my eyes. How do they do this every night?
Then Sky’s bassline started, funky and deep, and the audience, which I could barely see through the glare, roared in ecstasy. My eyes still adjusting, I tentatively rang the cowbell.
I heard nothing but the noisy crowd.
Just before the first verse started, Jax looked over at me and smirked. When he saw me tapping the cowbell lightly, he just shook his head with a half-smile, then started singing.
My eyes narrowed. If he didn’t like my playing, it was his fault I was out here in the first place. I shook the cowbell again, harder. This time, I could hear the metallic clank over the crowd . . . but barely.
The encore number always got the crowd to sing along. As their voices swelled for the chorus, I realized they probably couldn’t hear the bell, either. The crowd was so excited that they’d have cheered for—and sung along with—a mariachi band, as long as Jax had been out in front.
And if that was the case, it meant I could at least have fun without worrying about making a fool out of myself.
I started pounding on the bell every third beat out of four: one-two-THREE-four, one-two-THREE-four. I didn’t keep time perfectly, but I didn’t need to. I turned toward Jax as I pounded away, and he caught my eye. Instead of avoiding me, he came over and bumped the side of his hip against mine, mid-verse.
My hips started swinging with the beat, tapping against Jax’s rhythmically, and I realized that like the rest of the band, I was jamming with the music. Sky, riffing on her bass, walked closer to me, then knelt down with the bass and played like she was worshipping the cowbell. I laughed.
Bolstered by her strong backing vocals, I started to sing out with the chorus. As the song built to its final climax, Jax went to the front of the stage, high-fiving crowd members. The next time he looked back to me, I was doing exactly what he’d told me: banging the hell out of the cowbell. When he smiled, I smiled back—and I had one more thing I wanted to do.
Following his lead, I walked downstage and reached out a hand to the first audience member I could. I felt first one palm shaking mine, then another, then another. It seemed like the mass of people went on forever, a dark tangle of bodies that went back as far as I could see. No one seemed to care that I wasn’t part of the band. They just wanted to touch a person who was on the stage, to bridge the gap between the show and its stars.
Just for tonight, I was one of those stars. And it was all because of Jax.
The final guitar chord went off, and with it, a pyro blast exploded from both sides of the stage. I felt radiating warmth from the firework against my face for a fraction of a second, and then the audience burst into its biggest round of applause of the night.
"Thank you, Las Vegas, and good night!" Jax shouted into the microphone.
The lights went down—and I realized that for the first time all night, I didn’t want the show to end.
Under the dim lights, I turned to see Sky, Chewie and Kev walking off the stage, probably heading to the green room. As the curtain fell in front of the stage separating us from the audience, I started to follow them toward the wings. I felt exhilarated, but a voice in the back of my head wouldn’t be quiet. Why had Jax given me the chance to play the cowbell? He was being hot and cold in a way I hadn’t seen before, and I couldn’t put my finger on what was going on.