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Authors: Laura Langston

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Stepping Out (10 page)

BOOK: Stepping Out
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“And don’t worry about that second routine,” Mom adds. She’s been so busy praising me, she’s hardly touched her veal parmesan. “It’s not easy doing two routines back to back like that.” She smiles. “You watch. Tomorrow will be easier.”

I hope she’s right. I go to bed that night with Mom’s words on my mind, and I’m still thinking about them the next morning when I get up to shower and dress. I spend extra time on my hair and makeup. I even wear a red top with my jeans, hoping Carly’s right and it’ll energize me and the audience.

“You didn’t invite anyone either?” Andrew asks when I walk into the dressing room just before eleven. We’re allowed to invite friends or family to be backstage with us today. Judging by the number of people in the room, most contestants have. The place is packed, and the mood is loud and upbeat.

“No.” We grab the last two chairs, at the far end of the room by the makeup stations.

“I’m too nervous to want anybody here,” Andrew admits.

My stomach is twisted into a million knots. “Me too.” I’ll see people in the theater as we wait for the results. The winners in both categories will be announced at the same time. Thankfully, our category is second, so we won’t have long to wait. Andrew and I sit quietly and watch the people around us until he’s called to go on. He’s up first.

“Good luck,” I say. But as I watch him walk through the door, I feel small and petty and deceitful because a part of me doesn’t mean it. There’s only so much luck to go around, and I want it all.

When it’s my turn to follow the usher down the hall, I’m so light-headed I’m almost dizzy. I force myself to stare at the weave on the back of his burgundy shirt, to think about everything Mr. Roskinski has taught me, everything I know.
Concentrate. Own the stage. Talk slowly. Use the silence. Engage the audience.

Time seems to speed up. It feels like only seconds later that I’m in the wings watching Robyn finish her routine. And then the announcer calls my name.

My breath jams my throat. Ignoring it, I start to walk. Fear isn’t allowed. Neither is panic or doubt or second thoughts.

I’m in this to win. I can’t let people down.

“I would’ve come out here at a run,” I say when I reach the microphone, “but I wanted to build suspense.” I get a laugh. A good, solid one. Thank God.

My heart is so loud in my chest, I worry the microphone will pick up the sound. “It’s kind of like when I took driving lessons last year and kept the instructor in suspense too.” I realize I’m talking too fast, and I force myself to slow down. “We’d be coming up to a stop sign and he’d be telling me to brake, and it would take me a while, but I’d get to it eventually.” Sweat trickles down my spine. Man, the lights seem hotter today. “A couple of times I even managed to do it before the middle of the intersection.”

There’s another round of laughter, and it lasts longer this time. Glancing over the audience, I say, “Trouble was, I like to speed. I figure if I can’t walk fast, I may as well drive fast, right?”

A couple of hoots and a smattering of laughter. “Slow down, my instructor kept saying.
One day he told me I had a lead foot.” I wait, let the silence build. “Thanks for clarifying that, I told him. I always wondered what was wrong.”

And the theater erupts.

I laugh too. I’m doing well. I can feel it. I talk about driving alone for the first time and going to the supermarket. “They need to rename those self-checkout counters. You get in line to check yourself out, and seconds later a bell beeps and there’s some kind of screwup and somebody comes to help, and then an item doesn’t have a code, so another person comes to figure that out, only they need the manager because the item is on sale, so he comes to do a manual override, and pretty soon you have an entire team of people beside you.” The laughter comes again, which is good because I’m talking too fast. “It’s the supermarket’s new version of the express line.”

I end with my bit about my name and how it means “servant” while my sister got the better deal because her name means she’s always on the move and she doesn’t have to answer to anybody but God. Before I know it, I’m walking off the stage, shaking but happy. I’ve left the audience laughing. I did the best I could.

I just hope my best was good enough.

Back in the theater, I quietly take my seat between Hunter and Carly. A couple of people give me a thumbs-up. Mr. Roskinski mouths, “Great job.” I hardly hear a word of the last two performances. Instead, I’m reliving every word I said onstage, hearing every laugh all over again.

By the time the judges take the stage to announce the winners, I’ve bitten three nails.

Carly slaps my hand as I start on the fourth one. “Stop!”

Raven Prest steps forward to speak into the microphone. Blood pounds in my ears. “We’ve seen an incredible amount of talent this year, which has made the decision-making especially difficult.” The oversized gold hoops in her ears shimmer under the bright lights. “And we’d like to offer our sincere congratulations to all the contestants for making it this far. But, unfortunately, there can only be one winner in each category.” She pauses. “In the straight stand-up comedy category, the winner is Alexander Stein.”

There’s a shout about ten rows ahead. Not Jacob, I realize as I join in the clapping. Poor guy.

The clapping fades. “And now for the video comedy category,” Raven Prest says.

My heart’s hammering. I lean forward, grip the edge of my seat.
Please let me win. Please.

“In that category, the winner is Robyn Paul.”

The air disappears from my lungs. There’s a shriek somewhere off to my right. I slump into my chair. Tears feather the back of my throat, a nasty mix of disappointment, shame and humiliation.

I lost. There’ll be no agency representation. No trip to New York. No ten grand for me or the school. I catch Brooke’s eye. She smirks and then turns to one of the twins. I almost cry. Around me, my friends and family offer their support.

Carly: “I don’t get it. You’re better than her.”

Mom: “We think you’re a winner.”

Grandpa: “Those damned judges screwed up.”

Hunter: “You’ll win next year for sure.”

I nod and smile and thank them. But it doesn’t matter what they say. I gave it my best shot, and I lost. I let everybody down. And I let myself down too.

After a while I manage to sneak away to the bathroom. I hide in a stall and let the tears fall. People come and go. Toilets flush. Hands get washed. Just about everybody talks about the contest. Someone even mentions my name. She says I was pretty good.

I hold that comment close. I pretend I’m my own best friend. I tell myself I was brave to go out there in the first place, especially when I was so freaking scared. I remind myself that I’m not meant to be onstage anyway. YouTube is where it’s at. YouTube is where I belong.

When I’m finished crying and the bathroom is quiet, I open the door and come out.

Brooke is leaning against the vanity. Bottle rockets go off in my chest. She watches me walk to the sink. “I told Mom I’d come and see if you’re okay.” Her voice is almost gentle.

She cares. The tears are back, crowding the back of my throat. I retrieve a paper towel and look at us in the mirror. She’s tall blond perfection, and I’m short red frizz. But in spite of everything,
we are sisters. And finally I’m looking at the sister I remember from when I was really little. “Thanks.” I swallow my tears and moisten the paper towel under the tap. “I’m okay.”

She crosses her arms. “Mostly I wanted to tell you you’re not funny.” Her voice hardens. “You’re an embarrassment. And now you’re a loser. How do you think that makes me look?”

“Huh?”

“You heard me.”

Heat hits the back of my neck. With it comes that black pit of self-hate. The one that started in elementary school when Brooke laughed with the mean boys. I blot my swollen eyes. “This isn’t about you.”

Her lips thin. “Yeah, it is. You’re my sister. You limp. And for months you’ve been making an ass of yourself trying to get people to laugh.”

I don’t try. I do it.

“People talk,” she continues. “And I hate it.”

The heat climbs into my cheeks. I cover them with the paper towel. I put everything I had into this contest. I took a huge risk putting myself out there. And all Brooke can think about is herself? Unbelievable. My shame hardens to anger.
“I’m sorry you feel that way.” I manage, just barely, to keep my voice steady.

“It’s time you gave this whole comedy thing up.”

No way. For a minute when I lost—okay, maybe for two minutes—I thought about it. For sure I wanted to hide under a rock somewhere. But give up? Not gonna happen. “I’m not stopping. Comedy is a part of me. Like my limp is.” It’s the first time I’ve said that to my sister. It actually feels good.

Brooke’s eyes, flat with anger, meet mine in the mirror. That’s when I realize today’s loss doesn’t matter. Even if I’d won, Brooke would be mad. I’m a disappointment to her. And I always will be.

“You are such a freak,” she says.

I’m totally sick of that word. But this time my anger is mixed with sadness. I can’t believe how bitter and hateful Brooke is. It must suck to carry all that negativity around. To be her. “We all have our freakish bits.” I drop my soiled paper towel into the wastebasket.

She looks confused.

“At least mine are on the outside,” I tell her as I head for the exit. “It’s better than having them on the inside like you.”

And I slam the door behind me.

Fifteen

“D
on’t be so hard on yourself,” Carly says a couple of hours later as we walk down the hall to the theater’s administration offices. Contestants have to sign release papers to allow the
ITCF
to use photographs or footage for future promotions. I was so upset after the exchange with Brooke, I almost forgot. “The fact that you made the finals is huge.”

“I guess, but I’m never doing stand-up again.” I’ll give Brooke that much.

“Never say never,” Carly says.

I glare at her. “Never.”

She rolls her eyes.

“I appreciate you and Hunter nominating me, but walking across that stage”—
limping across
that stage—
“was torture.” And Brooke calling me an embarrassment later was torture too.

She rolls her eyes. “Oh my god, don’t be such a drama queen.”

We stop beside the door to the administration office. Inside, two contestants from the other category are standing at a long counter, signing papers. I don’t know them, and I’m glad. I don’t want to talk to anybody. I don’t even want to take the bus back home. I’m driving back with Mom and Dad instead. “Wait here,” I tell Carly. “I’ll just be a minute.”

At the counter, a plump, middle-aged woman with her hair pulled into a tight bun is flipping through a stack of beige envelopes. “Your name?” She doesn’t even look at me.

“Paige Larsson.”

Her fingers stop moving. Her head rises. There’s a curious look in her eyes. “One minute, please.” She disappears into the back. I glance at Carly, but she’s on her phone and not paying any attention.

“Paige Larsson.”

The voice is vaguely familiar, but I don’t realize who’s speaking until I turn back and see
the woman standing there. My breath catches. I stare at her. “Raven Prest?”

Her laugh is low and husky. “The one and only.” She gestures behind her. “Come on back. I’d like to talk to you for a minute.”

My knees feel all rubbery as she leads me around the counter and down a hall. Raven Prest wants to talk
to me?
Stunned, I follow her into a small boardroom. Half a dozen black padded chairs frame an oval table.

“Have a seat.”

I take the chair beside her. I’m close enough that I could touch her. The thought leaves me speechless. I want to tell her I love her work, that I’m a huge fan. That I know I’m lousy at stand-up, that it was my friends who nominated me. But all I can do is stare and think stupid, dumb thoughts like, She has a really, really long neck, and, God, that diamond she’s wearing on her finger is practically the size of a chicken nugget.

“I’ve seen your YouTube videos.” She crosses one booted leg over the other. “You’re good. You have great timing and a funny way of looking at the world.”

There’s a whooshing sound in my head. Raven Prest thinks I’m
good
? “Thanks.” My voice comes out in a stammer. I sound like a fool.

“But you almost didn’t make the final round.”

Am I dreaming? First she says I’m good, and then she says I almost didn’t make the final. “I didn’t?”

“No. Your second routine almost got you disqualified.”

I knew it was bad. “I had trouble with it.”

She nods. “That was obvious. But instead of reaching for something everybody could relate to, you fell back on your disability. I suspect that’s your default place to go, making fun of yourself?”

She’s right. Hunter hated it too. I nod.

“Well, if you’re going to get anywhere in the world of comedy, you need to focus on a broader picture. It’s one thing to comment on your disability like you did in your driving routine, but don’t make it the focus. The world doesn’t need more ‘poor me’ stuff.”

BOOK: Stepping Out
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