The Sampling: Catch a Falling Star

By Eileen Merriman

The Sapling is running a Summer Excerpt Series showcasing the junior and young adult titles from the 2023 Storylines Notable Book Awards. Catch a Falling Star (read a review here) is the prequel to Eileen Merriman’s Catch Me When You Fall (read the review, extract, or interview with Merriman).

Chapter 1

The day I found out I was a donkey was one of the best days of my life.

‘I’m a donkey!’ I ran down the stairs and twirled my mother around the kitchen. ‘I’m a donkey, I’m a donkey!’

‘Jamie!’ Mum protested, but she was smiling. ‘Who’s Shrek?’

‘Who cares? Donkey’s the coolest character.’ I released her and got down on all fours. ‘“Wake up and smell the phero- mones”,’ I said, in what I thought was a very good rendition of Eddie Murphy’s Donkey voice. I tossed my head, a blond forelock falling over my eyes. Did Donkeys have forelocks? Anyway, whatever. ‘Tickets go on sale in a couple of weeks, show’s end of November.’

Her forehead wrinkled. ‘Aren’t your exams in November?’ ‘It’ll be fine. I might not even have to sit exams if I get enough credits.’

I went through to the lounge, where I sat down at the piano to play the opening chords of ‘The Music of the Night’, which was from my favourite musical of all time, The Phantom of the Opera. I’d sung the song in my first audition, complete with my phantom mask, which covers half the phantom’s horribly disfigured face. I sang the song all the way through and lifted my hands. Someone was clapping. Mum? No, it was Vaughan, who was standing in the doorway between the dining room and the lounge, a cycle helmet on his head and a squash racquet slung across his back.

‘Shit,’ I said.

‘Jamie Orange, don’t say “shit”!’ Mum said. ‘Don’t say what?’

‘Don’t— Oh, for goodness’ sake.’

Vaughan grinned. ‘That wasn’t, um . . . anyway, it was good. Hope you get the part.’

‘No, I mean—’ I gestured at the racquet. ‘I kind of forgot.’ ‘Clearly,’ he said, eyeing up my school uniform. ‘Come on, I’m not going without you. We’re meeting Ari and Frankie, remember?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, although it had completely slipped my mind. ‘Hey, Mamma, I’ll be late for dinner.’

‘I’ll leave you the dishes,’ Mum said. ‘How are you, Vaughan? How’s school?’

He took his helmet off. ‘Pretty meh, and it’s only the second day of term. It’s all downhill from here.’

‘You two are a depressing lot,’ she said. ‘Remember, schooldays are the best days of your life.’

‘Oh man, I’m doomed,’ Vaughan howled, and we exited the lounge, laughing and shoving each other. It was always a competition to see who could be the most dramatic.

‘Dude,’ he said once we got into the garage, where my bike was leaning against the wall, ‘aren’t you going to get changed?’ ‘Oh yeah. Back soon.’ I jogged upstairs. My room was as I’d left it that morning, the bed unmade, the curtains still drawn. I’d slept in again, leaving only twenty minutes to shower, dress and shove a piece of bread in my mouth as I ran out the door. My laptop was on my desk, open to the email where I’d found I had one of the main parts in the Youth Theatre musical.

I sang the Phantom of the Opera theme song in a low voice, while unbuttoning my shirt. Under the bed were a pair of trackpants; my favourite t-shirt was draped over my desk chair. It was orange, like my surname, with a Biohazard symbol on the front — four interlinking circles.

I was about to return to the garage when I glimpsed the notebook on my desk. Of course! How could I have forgotten? I’d had an idea for a musical the night before, one centred around a time-travelling vampire. I could just imagine the soundtrack.

‘Jay-mie!’ Vaughan hollered from below.

‘Oh — yeah, sorry.’ I closed the notebook and ran down the stairs, jumping over the last four steps.

‘What were you doing, perfecting your make-up?’ Vaughan asked when I climbed onto my bike.

I zipped up my windbreaker, batting my eyelashes at him. ‘Only for you, sweetheart. Ow! Don’t hit me while I’m cycling, will you? I can’t multi-task.’

‘Cycling while being hit isn’t multi-tasking,’ he shot back. ‘Yeah, but flirting is.’

‘You should be so lucky,’ Vaughan growled as I sped off in front of him. I couldn’t wait until I turned sixteen so I could get my learner’s licence, although that was still almost eight months away. My father had given me driving lessons around a car park last time I’d visited him up in Auckland, and it had seemed super-easy.

‘Come on, where’s the fire?’ Vaughan yelled, puffing behind me, so I took pity on him and slowed down.

Lately it seemed as though I’d been doing that a lot. Slowing down for other people, I mean.

Ari and Frankie were already inside the squash courts when we arrived, whacking the ball around. I stopped for a moment to watch. Frankie’s reddish-brown hair was swept up into a ponytail, and she was wearing sneakers without socks.

‘Stop checking out her butt,’ Vaughan said, behind me. ‘I’m not checking out her butt, fool.’ I’d moved on to her thighs, actually.

‘Yeah, right.’ He took his helmet off.

‘She’ll be checking out my butt soon,’ I said, slapping my posterior, and Vaughan let out a guffaw. Ari turned around and beckoned us in with his racquet. He was wearing rugby shorts and a First XV shirt with his surname on it: Maka. I couldn’t imagine being in the First XV — I’d never watched a game of rugby in my life — let alone having a shirt with my ridiculous last name on it. Maka sounded much cooler than Orange.

‘What took you so long?’ Ari asked when we entered, the door slamming behind us.

‘I was doing my make-up,’ I said. ‘While composing a musical.’ Well, half of that was true.

Frankie plucked a squash ball out of the corner. ‘You’re so weird.’

‘I thrive on being weird. Hey, congratulations.’ ‘On what?’ Clearly she hadn’t seen the email.

‘Well, you don’t look that green, so maybe it was wrong.’ I peeled the cover off my squash racquet.

Her eyes widened. ‘The cast list is up?’ She let out a squeal.

‘What are you, Kermit the frog?’ Vaughan asked.

‘No, dumb-arse, I’m Princess Fiona!’ Frankie hugged Ari, then me. She smelt like vanilla. ‘How about you?’

I spread my arms. ‘“Before this is over, I’m gonna need a whole lot of serious therapy”,’ I said in a southern American accent. ‘ “Look at my eye twitchin’ ”.’ I winked.

‘Donkey,’ the other three chorused. Frankie squealed again. ‘That is so cool!’

‘Awesome.’ Ari hit the ball against the wall.

Vaughan slid his squash glasses over his nose. ‘Before you say anything,’ he said, holding up his hand, ‘my dad made me sign an affidavit before I left to say these would be glued to my face the whole time.’

‘What’s an affidavit?’ Ari asked.

‘A fancy legal sort of promise,’ I said. Vaughan’s old man was an ophthalmologist, and thought squash balls were evil, something to do with a vacuum effect they had if they collided with eyes.

‘They look kind of cool,’ Frankie said. ‘All right, are we warmed up?’ She bent over, sticking her butt out and waving her racquet in front of her. It was very distracting. Pity she’d been Ari’s girlfriend ever since my birthday party last year, when my theatre friends (including Frankie) had met my schoolmates (including, unfortunately for me, Ari).

‘I haven’t even hit the ball yet,’ Vaughan complained. ‘So? You don’t hit it very often, anyway,’ Ari said.

Vaughan shoved him. ‘We can’t all be as co-ordinated as you, Maka.’

‘Warm-ups are for old people,’ I said. ‘Come on, let’s get going. I’ve got some butt to kick.’

‘You’re obsessed with butts,’ Vaughan said, and I resisted the urge to lob a ball at his head, or maybe his glasses to see if they were really as strong as he thought.

‘Batter up!’ I hollered, and served, while wondering whether Noah Winter, who’d got the role of Shrek, would get to kiss Frankie. I wondered if that kind of stuff made Ari jealous, or if he was too secure for that, with his muscly arms and torso and super-deep voice.

Thwack! I staggered and went down on my, yeah, butt, holding the side of my face.

‘Oh no, are you all right?’ Frankie crouched beside me, while Vaughan, ever-paranoid, yelled ‘Is his eye still there?’, and Ari said, ‘Would you get with the programme, Orange?’ ‘Yes, yes, and maybe,’ I groaned, lying down and waving my arms back and forth, a dust angel.

‘Ugh, you’re such a prima donna,’ Ari grumped.

‘You know me so well,’ I warbled, borrowing a line from yet another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and Vaughan dropped another ball on my belly.

‘You’re loopy, Orange,’ he said.

That evening, I lay stomach-down on my bed, alternating between doing my science homework and writing the script for my musical. After solving three chemistry equations, I returned to my anti-hero, Billy Raven, who was about to be turned into a time vampire by a mysterious girl from the future named Aurelia Nightingale. He needed a song; something powerful.

I was contemplating going downstairs to fool around on the piano when my laptop dinged. The email was from school, a reminder that we needed to get our subject choices for next year in by the end of the month. That reminded me of the other email, the one with the cast list. I opened it again, pleasure coursing through me once more when I saw my name beside Donkey. It had been no great surprise to see Noah Winter’s name next to Shrek. At seventeen, he

was one of the older members of the cast. Everyone knew he was going to make it big on Broadway one day.

I skipped out into the hallway — if I were Ari, I’d take manly strides, but whatever — singing the Smash Mouth song ‘All Star’, which was the first song on the Shrek soundtrack.

Mum emerged from the bathroom, clutching her electric toothbrush. ‘I’m not going to hear anything else for the next four months, am I?’

‘Nope.’ I did a dance shuffle. ‘Frankie’s going to be Princess Fiona.’ ‘That’s Ari’s girlfriend, isn’t it? She’s a nice girl.’ ‘Nice,’ I said, ‘is not how I’d describe her.’

Getting to sleep after that was impossible. Not that I’d been sleeping that much recently anyway, because my brain wouldn’t shut up. All I could think about was how acting alongside Frankie Collins was going to be both a pleasure and a curse.

You’re not meant to have crushes on your friend’s girlfriends. It’s something that I could have done without. But Frankie was the only girl who gave as good as she got, who could silence me with a good dose of sarcasm, or crack me up with her wit.

At 1 a.m., I gave up on trying to sleep and went downstairs to play the piano with the practice pedal on to muffle the sound. I started with all the major and minor scales I knew, followed by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Grieg’s March of the Dwarfs. After that I segued into some show songs, including from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Chicago and, of course, The Phantom of the Opera.

I was so caught up in what I was doing that I didn’t even notice Mum until she squeezed my shoulders.

I jumped. ‘Jesus!’

‘Jamie, language.’ Mum crossed her arms over her nightie. Her blonde hair was all mussed up and her freckles were more prominent than usual, probably because she’d washed off her make-up. ‘Do you know what time it is?’

That’s when I realised that although the practice pedal was on, I’d been singing, and not too quietly either.

‘Um, sorry.’ Damn it. I hadn’t even started on trying to compose a song for Billy Raven.

‘It’s two o’clock,’ Mum said in Norwegian, because she always slipped into her native language when she was angry. ‘In the morning.’

‘Sorry,’ I repeated, standing up. ‘I guess I lost track.’

Mum shook her head at me and thudded back up the stairs. After a large glass of water, I returned to bed, where I tossed and turned for what seemed like ages — until I fell into a dream about me and Frankie. In my dream, Frankie was Aurelia from the future, and I was a caped genius, the Phantom of the Opera.

I woke before I had a chance to kiss her.

Catch a Falling Star

By Eileen Merriman

Published by Penguin Random House

RRP: $22.00

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