All Hail Dungeonlord Racetrack
They're my boys. I get free reign to call them that now, because I'm Center Snare. Honestly, I don't know how I got here. It seems like just yesterday I received my Drumline name at initiation. It's still so clear in my memory.
Traffic, the Center Snare when I was a freshman, brought the whole Drumline to my house at two in the morning. That ice-bath was so awful. I bet my parents still don't forgive me for all the noise they made; even in the backyard one could still hear all the bizarre things they were yelling and all the other-worldly noises they were making. That seems to be a thing, making weird noises. Everybody in Drumline has always done it.
But after a few hours of being interrogated while duct taped to a chair, and after they made me take off my shirt and then collectively painted a deranged array of pictures on my chest with finger paint, I was given my nickname.
Racetrack. In honor of the summers in which I avidly dirtbike.
"Oy! Racetrack!" A tall, Asian senior called to me from across the band room, "Bus leaves in five!"
"Thanks, Blink!" I replied.
Blink. My best friend since freshman year. He has ADD, a Redbull tolerance and even more natural hype to boot. By the way he acts, you could think he's crazy. By the way he drives, you could think he escaped from a mental hospital.
I was just finishing helping one of the frosh get their quints packed up before we loaded them into the bus. The single most important day of all our lives rested before us. It certainly was the biggest day of mine, because today it was I who would be leading our Drumline to eternal glory.
The State Percussion Festival was the around which our entire year revolved. Annually, Drumlines from high schools all over the state bussed to the Thomas Vertun Arena keep their sticks rattling, their cadences tight and their blood boiling. And we brought home the dough every year for an eleven year streak. I would be breaking the dozen, hopefully.
Undoubtedly, we would end up in the finals against the Whitaker Drumline, our long-time rivals. Again, our purple and red would pit against their blue and gold. And I would break my sticks over my knee if I were to let them beat us.
"Hop on the bus, Boots, we're bouncing out." I patted the freshman on the back.
"But I forgot my iPod-"
"Shut up, you'll be okay without it."
Boots. Newbie freshman with a legendary knack for getting lost and losing his stuff. He's the kid who ends up in places that none of the rest of us even know how to get into. It's almost as though he drifts around. Like he's in his own little world. His boots were certainly made for walking.
Boots' eyes were as dark as his skin, and as vacant as the ancient hotel on the corner. He blinked a few times and then scurried off, waddling awkwardly with the cumbersome weight and size of his quints. I followed him, shutting the door outside behind me.
A white-blonde head appeared by my side a I walked toward the yellow, dust-covered bus. She carried her snare on one shoulder, surprisingly strong for her small frame.
"Fourteen on board. Where's Boots? Oh, he's right there. All fifteen accounted for." She said.
"Thanks, Hack." I leapt onto the bus behind her.
Hack. The only girl on the Drumline. Without lying, she's one of the hottest girls I've ever seen. White-blonde hair, blue eyes, trademark blood red lipstick. Every guy on Drumline has tried to date her at one point and every guy has failed miserably. She's impossible. While she's a great right-hand-man, so to speak, but she can be infuriatingly sarcastic and snarky. And belligerent. Nevertheless, she's become one of the boys like the rest of us.
I climbed into the front seat of the bus and dropped onto the gray leather. Across from me sat Checkers, his unruly, straw-colored hair and glasses barely visible behind the giant book he had buried himself in, as usual.
"Good book, Check?" I asked. His brown eyes darted up quizzically.
"Huh? What? Oh, yes. Thanks." He muttered, quickly digging back into his literature.
I glanced back over my Drumline. "Guys getting pumped? Ready to bring home the gold, Drumline?!"
Their cumulative yell filled the bus deafeningly.
"Drumline for life!"
I pumped my fist into the air. "That's what's up!"
Before I sat down, I noticed the one drummer who wasn't smiling or cheering. Near the back, a freshman nicknamed Scuff leaned on the window. I stood, wobbled down the aisle of the moving vehicle and sat beside him.
"Hey, Kid Scuff, what's up?" I asked, slapping his shoulder. Scuff sniffed.
"Hi, Racetrack." He sighed, "Racetrack? How do I get girls to like me?"
I laughed. He's just a frosh. A scrawny little Hispanic fourteen year old. By senior year, he'll be a looker for sure. "Dude. Show them your poetry. Girls die for things like that. Is this still about Rosey?" He nodded. I chuckled again. "Show her your poetry. And your paintings. She'll fall for you like that." I snapped my fingers. Scuff gave me a shy, sad smile.
The voice came from over my shoulder and I turned around to address my ripped, stocky and very Scottish friend and lead bass drummer. Scotty. Stubborn as a mule and daring as anything. But also usually pugnacious. He's going directly into the military after he graduates this year.
"When we win we're goin' to my house, alright?" He announced.
"Um, no. As cool a guy as you are, you do have a reputation." I said, standing up to return to my seat.
"What?" Scotty exclaimed.
"He means he doesn't want us all getting wasted, Scotty."
Trudge. Feathery shortish brown hair, a Newsie hat that he never took off, and a mind as sharp as a tack. He was smart. Not quiet, bookish, grade-driven smart like Checkers, but quick and witty like a fox. He was probably the most arrogant in our group, because of his ability to play multiple instruments and sing like a god, but when it came down to the wire he really was a good kid. Trudge was hilarious, but often his jokes came at the expense of another person. Usually Scotty.
"Everyone knows what happens at your parties, old boy." Trudge laughed, grinning.
"What happens?" Interjected Boots.
Hack rolled her eyes and glared at Trudge, who grinned guiltily. "Nothing that you will ever do, Boots."
"Until you're 21!" Blink shrieked from across the bus where he had obviously been eavesdropping, "And then you can get hammered all you want! Yay, college! Woah, check out that dog out there!"
"We can go to my house." Boots suggested.
"Sure, what's your address?" Hack took out her phone to write it down. Boots looked confused for a moment.
"I can't remember." He said, "I know where it is, but I don't know my house number."
"We can just go to Checkers' house like after the band trip." I stood up, "Checkers? We're going to your house afterwards!"
"Okay, just don't break anything." He consented, not looking up from his book.
Trudge peeked over his seat. "Hey, Checkers? You ready to show off your party trick?"
"More than ready." He held up one stick, still not bothering to cast his eyes in our direction.
I moved back to my seat and sat down, shouting at a few frosh to quiet down in the back and stop tapping their sticks on the windows. Checkers read his book. Trudge and Scotty argued. Hack stared out the window. Scuff scribbled another poem into his little notebook. Boots had somehow moved to another seat. Blink was talking nonstop to nobody in particular. A few of the frosh talked about video games and the bass drummers quoted YouTube videos.
This was how almost all the bus rides went. So out we rolled to the college. And I was so pumped.
The college, Cinderblock University of the Drumline Festival as we called it, is certainly a most attractive school. Every building on campus is a lovely gray box made out of cinderblocks and arranged into a creative shape of a giant square. It's about as visually interesting as walking a pet rock.
Nevertheless to us it looked like a gleaming pillar of glass above a plaque reading "Hutton High: First Place." I was so ready to win.
I was also terrified.
Center Snare is a heavy duty to bear. The weight of the Drumline's victory rested on my shoulders. I hadn't even been bestowed with the sacred name that's always given to the leader. I had to prove myself.
I took a deep breath and stood up. "Alright, Drumline, listen up!" Every head turned to me, "Get all your stuff off the bus. Freshman, that means your garbage."
Blink hollered from his seat, "Froooooooooooosh."
"Blink, shut up." I went on, "Be careful unloading your gear, especially quints. You guys know the drill. Hutton Drumline for life!"
"Hoo-rah!" My boys yelled in response. The bus lurched to a stop and I almost flipped over the back of my seat. I got back to my feet. "Trudge, grab the door!"
Trudge nodded and walked to the very back of the bus, past our equipment, unbolted the door and swung it open.
"Okay, boys and Hack, start unloading!" I shouted, exiting the bus and running to the back to help catch things. I heard Trudge's battle cry.
"When the light goes green, pull the 'chutes!" He leapt dramatically out, landing and rolling to his feet. The rest of them followed, tearing up their vocal chords with screams of excitement. Scotty stayed inside to hand equipment down.
With all our gear unloaded, I turned to my boys and began relating our band teacher's orders off a paper he had given to me. He would be arriving on the second bus that was coming but expected us to get stuff done, which we did without fail.
"We're in room C-251 for warm ups and we're on at 2:00."
"We only have an hour for warm ups?!" A sophomore quint player exclaimed.
I nodded. "We'll have to deal with it. We're heading against Whitaker, so get your game-faces ready."
Luckily, we parked near the drab building in which we would be warming up, so it only took us a few minutes to get into the room and unload. The drums came out. Scotty lovingly polished his bass, Blink stretched his wrists, Boots began meandering toward the door until Trudge grabbed him by the collar of his uniform and pulled him back inside. In the corner, Checkers shook his right hand at an extremely quick rate. Scuff laughed.
"Check, your trick never gets old. I'm so excited to see it again." He said. Checkers smiled wordlessly and continued his exercises.
I turned to start putting on my harness, its familiar uncomfortable awkwardness only getting me more psyched for our session.
"I'd watch my trap if I were ye!"
I glanced over my shoulder. Trudge and Scotty were on their feet, a bunch of the underclassmen staring with no idea how to deal with the situation.
"Why? I've never been scared of you, Scotty." Trudge retorted, spinning his hat on his finger. "Unlike most people."
"At least I don't give them a reason to hate me."
Trudge looked insulted. "Oh, what reason is that?! Forgive me if I don't rely on my funny accent to get attention."
"Yer right," Scotty snorted, "Ye rely on the assumption that everyone likes ye, which they don't."
Trudge swung at Scotty, and I lunged in between them, grabbing the lanky junior's arm as Hack threw the door open, rushed in and seized Scotty by the collar.
"What is this?!" I exclaimed, practically throwing Trudge into the back wall, "We go on in fifteen minutes! And you two are already fighting?! What are you thinking?! We won't win if we don't all work together. All of us. I know you guys butt heads a lot, but we can't win if we can't get along. You know those movies where the bad guys try to pit all the good guys against each other so they destroy one another? That's how Whitaker is going to win if we don't pull ourselves together. Got it? Now let's work this out. "
Trudge huffed and started for the door. "Screw that." I let him leave this time, and Scotty punctuated his departure with a subtle eye-roll.
"Scotty, what happened?" I inquired. The rest of the boys seemed to lose interest and go back to what they were previously doing. Scotty sighed.
"I'm sorry, mate. I said something about my family and I think he took it the wrong way." He explained, beginning to cool down. I nodded and followed Trudge's lead out the door.
I found him in the restroom down the hall. He was leaning over one of the sinks, splashing water onto his face.
"Hey. What happened in there?"
He dried his face with the inside of his shirt and pulled his hat back on. "I don't know. Scotty's always taunting me with how great his family life is. Maybe he wasn't this time, but I'm.."
He paused, blinking his green eyes and staring blankly into the mirror before him. I patted his shoulder.
"I got you, Trudge. Scotty's got you too, you know. If you just talk to him." I suggested.
"Scotty doesn't have a dead sister and an alcoholic mom and a dad in prison, Racetrack!" His voice broke, "He really doesn't get it!" Knuckles white, he continued gripping the sides of the sink.
"I know. We'll hang out soon and you can talk to me if you want, 'kay? But for now you need to get along with Scotty-"
"Until we win the trophy. I know." He laughed.
"You're going to be Center next year, Trudge. You'll be a great one. But you need to learn to handle your emotions. Okay. We're on. Let's do this thing!" I shoved him toward the door and went to meet the rest of the Drumline.
Hack met me right on the inside of the door. "Talk to Trudge?"
"Yep. Talk to Scotty?"
"Mm hmm. Family?"
"Yeah. Alright, it's about to go down. Drumline!" I turned to my boys as I lifted my snare harness over my head and onto my shoulders, "We're going to go watch the last cadence of the last round, and then we're on the field. Everybody take seats in the stands. And don't drum on the seat in front of you, frosh."
I sat in the front on the cold plastic chairs and analyzed the competition. The line that was performing had nothing on us, to be honest. I felt my confidence rise a little.
Someone tapped my shoulder. I craned my neck around to see Scuff grinning at me. "Look," he whispered, pointing behind him toward the top of the stands.
Sitting in the very back of the group, Blink had his arm around Hack who was leaning happily into his shoulder. His face was drawn into a contented grin.
I laughed. "When did that happen?"
"He's liked her for the whole year." Scuff said, "It wasn't really hard to figure out."
"Wasn't hard to figure out?" I replied, "He's my best friend, we hang out like every weekend!"
Scuff shrugged. "He probably didn't want you to know because she's your right-hand-man, sorta. Plus, you know how badly things went with her and Checkers, he was probably scared."
I laughed again. "You are so insightful, Scuff. Keep it up. You'll make a fantastic Center one day."
The Drumline on the field was done playing soon enough and we loaded up our harnesses, heading down the long flight of cement stairs to the grass of the football field.
"Where's Boots?" Hack yelled from behind me.
"He's way over there." Scotty said.
"Boots! Get over here!"
I was the first to step onto the grass, and my boys gathered into a huddle as soon as all fifteen of us were there. "Okay, boys, bring it in. We have two sets we're playing. The first is the marching cadence, so we'll play Duck, and then we have one song of our choice, so we're playing something loose. How does everyone feel about Swerve?"
"Yes." Trudge blurted, "Swerve. My body is ready."
"Okay, Swerve it is. Remember, for Duck, keep it tight and clean and use your game face, but for Swerve loosen it up. Check?"
"After the all-bass part." He responded, adjusting his glasses and shaking out his wrist. I nodded.
"Okay, boys. Here we go."
Marching formation is easy. The Drumline performing is supposed to march to their position, and after weeks of practice we had every shoe in step, every eye focused and every position locked in our muscle memory.
Tap. Tap. Roll-tap.
Tap. Tap. Roll-tap.
After several measures of marching beat we reached our positions. Hack stood at my right, Trudge at my left. None of us made eye contact but we all communicated subtly. Everyone's sticks clutched in their hands, save mine, which struck out our rhythm on my old snare.
Tap. Tap. Tap, tap, tap-tap-tap-tap
The hits rang out like gunshots through the stadium, echoing off the stands and back to our ears. Through the trampled grass I could feel the surge of the bass drums as I pounded away on my snare. The quints hit every note on time and in tune and for lack of a better word it was delicious. I got that familiar chill down my back when all the snares' rolls are synched and tight and sharp.
It was over so quickly. Cadences that last only two minutes seem to take so much less time than they really do. Our last note snapped perfectly and it took tremendous effort to keep my neutral game face intact. Beside me I could practically feel Trudge shaking with excitement.
The audience applauded uproariously as usual. I nervously watched the judges scribble notes down. After an eternity of silence, the main judge nodded to us and I looked around at my line. Here comes the fun part.
I held my sticks in the air and called our cadence.
My boys responded with the same deep-throated holler. "Swerrrrrrrve!"
Tap. Tap. Tap, Tap, tap-tap-tap-tap
Swerve is almost entirely bass and quints. We snares throw in a few gunshot cracks and a couple sick rolls, but the low voice is so heavy you can feel your bones shake. But then there's my favorite part, the yelling. All of us know when to start it.
"Hey-ooooooh, hey-ooooooooh, hey-ooooooooh,"
We get to dance around too. I smirked as I looked around at my line. They were certainly all enjoying themselves, or were certainly good at faking it.
The bass drums indulged themselves in a brief solo, and just before they were done, Checkers stepped forward from the line, one stick in his right hand and the other held in his teeth.
And he proceeded to do a one-handed roll. His hand became a blur as it spun with blinding speed, his drumstick rapping with the machine gun sound of a regular two-handed beat.
I savored the look of surprise on the faces of the judges as we broke into the rest of the cadence. Just a few more seconds of thick bass before...
"Hoo-rah!" Our deep battle cry rattled with the last hit of the song.
The judges wrote some more and behind us the Drumline following us exploded into cheering. I held my sticks in the air and the boys followed my lead as I marched off the field. As soon as our feet reached the cement we became a crazy jumping, screaming horde.
"What's up! What's up! That's how we do it!" I hollered. Hack practically tackled Blink, who lifted her into the air, subsequently opening his voice-tube to the dismay of us all.
"Did you guys hear that? Oh my God, the bass was all like 'boom' and I was like 'awwww yeah' and then Checkers did his spinny magic thing and then I was all dancing and the judges must've been like 'woah, dey gon win, beeotch' and holy crap that was amazing and Racetrack, where's the bathroom, I totally have to pee-"
Walking across the group, I slapped Checkers' back, "Dude, that was the best I've ever heard you do it! That was amazing! You rock!"
"Thanks, Racetrack." His normally placid face broke into a warm, bright smile that lit his brown eyes behind the square frames of his glasses.
Lifting my harness off, I stood up on the short cement wall. "Bring it in, Drumline!" They obliged, "We played well. We haven't won yet, though. We are going to go back to the bus, load our stuff, and get to back to the stands for the announcement of who really did win."
"It's us." Scotty yelled.
"Let's hope so!" I replied, "Hutton Drumline for life!"
We returned to the bus, all the drummers talking excitedly. I was nervous. It was Center Snare's job to carry the Drumline to the gold, and although our teacher had told me hundreds of times that it wasn't on my shoulders if we didn't win, I felt the air around me grow heavy. I really wanted to win. I needed to find out how well I could lead.
In moments, we were back looking down onto the grass of the stadium from the bleachers. All the other Drumlines had gathered there as well, all uniform colors pitting against one another. Across the crowd, I made eye-contact with the Center of Whitaker, and we shared a brief nod of acknowledgement.
Somehow, Boots wound up on the other side of the crowd, and Scuff responsibly went to go get him. As I watched them across the stands, I was suddenly distracted by a male voice over the announcing system.
"Welcome, percussionists!" He said, "Welcome to the 28th annual State Percussion Festival. Today we have seen plenty of talent-"
Blah, blah, blah. Somehow, they haven't realized yet that their audience is entirely teenage drummers who collectively have the attention span of a biscuit. I leaned over and muttered snarky comments with Trudge as they gave endless speeches about the future and all that jazz.
"Just get on with it!" Scotty grumbled impatiently.
And they did. From his pocket the man removed a white envelope. "And now, the moment you have all been waiting for." He struggled with the paper for a moment. "In third place, with a 90%, Fergoh High School!"
Cheering. And more cheering. We clapped because we're polite.
"In second place, with a 97%,"
Oh, no. We'd never gotten higher than a 95. There was no way we would win. My entire back sagged.
"Whitaker High School!"
Well, at least they didn't win. But still, my heart sank into my gut. We weren't that good.
"And the winner of this year's Festival is....."
All the sticks came out and a thunderous drumroll rose from where everyone rolled on the seat in front of them. Every muscle in my body was taught as a drawn bow string. I bit my tongue so hard my teeth almost drew blood. As he opened the envelope a third time, the rolling stopped, replaced by a deafening silence. The air was so tense you could wring molasses out of it.
Four hundred kids held their breaths.
"With a 99%..."
Blink looked like he was going to pee himself. Boots was actually shaking.
I could hear my heart in my ears.
"Hutton High School!"
I have never screamed so loudly in my life. My line all leapt to their feet, erupting into cheers so loud my ears felt like they were bleeding. The applause was drowned out by our own yelling. Trudge threw his hat into the air. Scuff was almost crying. Hack really was crying. Blink turned confusedly to her and she laughed, grabbing his uniform-front and kissing him full on the mouth. The frosh made disgust-noises and I rolled my eyes.
Suddenly I felt a shove at my back. Scotty stood behind me.
"Go get the trophy, mate!" He said.
I ran as quickly as I could down the stands and onto the grass. With a bored sort of smile, the judge handed me the beautiful glass pillar and certificate and shook my hand. I turned to the crowd, found my boys and held up our prize, evoking more cheer from the whole crowd.
We were dismissed. My Drumline almost crushed me under the weight of their tremendous group hug. It was Hack who began the chant.
"Racetrack! Racetrack! Racetrack!"
Trudge and Scotty lifted me onto their shoulders and carried me, trophy in hand, all the way to the bus.
"Twelve years in a row!"
"Hutton Dumline for life!"
The back door of the bus was still open when we got there, and I decided to make my speech.
"Hutton Drumline, we just won the most prestigious award in the state. For the twelfth time." I began. They cheered more. "We did this. Not me. I wouldn't be anything if it weren't for all of you. Seniors, juniors, sophomores and frosh, we wouldn't be anything without everyone. Even the freshmen. I'm sad I don't get to be here to see you all become great drummers. You should all be proud of yourselves. You deserve this. I am honored to have worked with such a great Drumline."
"And we're honored to be lead by the world's best Center Snare." Trudge said, removing his hat.
Scotty stepped forward, clapped Trudge's shoulder and brought two fingers to his forehead. "All hail Dungeonlord Racetrack."
"All hail Dungeonlord Racetrack!"
"All hail the grandmaster of the underworld where dwell the drummers!"
"Long live King Racetrack Cthulhu and his hive of percussionites!"
Dungeonlord Racetrack. I finally had been bestowed the name given to every Center before me. Why? I'm not sure. It seems a weird thing to call someone. But this is Drumline, and things are never normal. And you can bet that whenever strangeness is needed, Hutton Drumline for life.