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Authors: Laura Langston

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BOOK: Stepping Out
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Heat hits my cheeks. I guess I could have been more tactful about it. “This’ll be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s bad enough that a pile
of kids from school will see me walk out on that stage. I don’t want you and Dad seeing me too.” Or Brooke.
Especially
Brooke.

My limp was never an issue for her when we were really little. But everything changed when we ended up in a split class together in elementary school. Instead of sticking up for me when some of the grade-five boys teased me, Brooke was embarrassed. She told me to quit walking around so much. By the end of the year she was laughing right along with them. I never knew you could love someone and hate them at the same time. But you can. I’ve felt that way about my sister since I was ten.

“Oh, Paige.” Mom bites her lip. “I wish you didn’t feel that way. I’m so sorry, honey.”

There’s a trace of guilt in her blue eyes. It’s a look I’m familiar with. My disability isn’t anything genetic. It’s because Mom was low on amniotic fluid when she carried me and I hardly moved while I was in utero. Clearly my life goal to nap whenever possible was also problematic for my right foot, because I apparently squished the crap out of it for the entire nine months, and it never
developed properly. Mom shouldn’t feel guilty about that. I was the one sleeping on the job.

“You don’t have to accept this,” Mom adds. “Just because it’s a terrific opportunity doesn’t mean it’s the right opportunity for you.” She gives the pan a final rinse and hands it to me. “I’ll support you whatever you decide. Whether you opt in or opt out. You know that, right?”

“I do. But I can’t say no to this. I live for comedy. You know that.”

I wait for her to give me the
comedy isn’t a reliable way to make a living
speech, but instead she simply nods and pulls the plug from the sink.

“Winning for video comedy at the
ITCF
will get me agency representation,” I tell her. “It’ll open doors for me that I’d never be able to open myself.”

“Just as long as you’re sure,” she says.

“I’m sure.” I’m already thinking about what I’ll do for my two new video bits.

She reaches for the towel. “Don’t worry so much about walking out onto that stage. Concentrate on your material. Make it the best it can be. And have fun spending the money Grandpa gave you too.”

“I will.” He’s given me three hundred dollars for clothes and to get my hair cut. “Don’t worry about me, Mom. I’m going to win. And thanks to Grandpa, I’ll be a winner who looks good too.”

Five

I
’m so stoked to work on my new material that it’s still dark outside when I wake up Saturday morning. I throw on a pair of sweats and go to the kitchen, where I quietly make toast and peanut butter and nuke a cup of hot chocolate. Back in my room, I lose myself for the next couple of hours working on a
First Paige Monday
vlog and then outlining a new video for the contest. By the time I’m finished, the smell of bacon is wafting underneath my bedroom door, and it’s almost ten o’clock.

Ready for company and a second breakfast, I wander down the hall to the kitchen. I’m almost to the doorway when I hear my sister say, “I can’t believe you’d let her do this.”

I stop. Brooke knows I’ve been shortlisted. Of course, she’s choked. She hates it when I get more attention than she does. When we were little and I had all those surgeries, she would get mad when people brought me gifts and stuff. Maybe she felt left out. I don’t know.

“It’s Paige’s decision,” Mom says. “Not ours.”

“She’ll totally make an ass of herself.”

Really? That’s what she thinks?

“I certainly hope not,” Mom says.

“She’d better not say anything about me. Home stuff is off-limits.”

“Paige knows that.”

I do, but like Grandpa said, I’m either in it to win or I’m in it to lose. And since comedy is all about weirdness, of course I’ll use my family. That’s another reason I don’t want Brooke or my parents there.

“Nobody thinks she’s funny,” Brooke says. “Some kids call her the freak.”

The freak
. My insides turn to mush. Brooke is the one who calls me the freak. Nobody else. I start to tremble.

“I certainly hope you stop them,” Mom says sharply. “That’s unacceptable.”

“Of course I stop them.”

Yeah right. If anybody called me a freak, my sister would probably agree. I know I should turn around and go back to my bedroom. But I don’t. Instead I walk the last few steps and stop in the kitchen doorway. “Time out.”

They turn to look at me. Brooke’s eyes widen. Mom goes white.

I stroll to the counter, exaggerating my limp because I know it pisses my sister off. “Even freaks need their morning coffee.” I pause for a heartbeat. “Hey, that could be a bumper sticker. I should get on that.” And I laugh.

Because if you’re laughing, you can’t be sad.

Mom never gets involved in our fights.
You girls need to work things out yourselves,
she’s always said. But this time when Brooke offers me a grudging apology, I figure Mom made her do it. I’m fine with that. I’m also fine with the fact that Brooke avoids me for most of the weekend.

That afternoon I pull out some old material that never made it to YouTube to see if anything
can be rejigged for the contest, and I spend an hour commenting on a few other YouTube vlogs. It’s fun to see what other people are doing, and it’s a great way to boost my profile. At the mall on Sunday, I study people. It’s a comedian’s job to notice stuff (that’s according to Chris Rock, who used a different word for
stuff
), so I spend hours observing, jotting down notes and thinking about my new routines.

I almost manage to bury Brooke’s hurtful words. And so what if she doesn’t think I’m funny? That’s nothing new. She hasn’t laughed at one of my jokes since I was ten. Anyway, Hunter believes I’m funny. I think about that when he honks his horn to pick me up for school Monday morning. Carly does too. They wouldn’t have nominated me for the
ITCF
otherwise.

“Hey,” he says when I open his car door. The smell of dark roast wraps around me like a hug.

“Hey, yourself.” I slide into the passenger seat, toss my knapsack on the floor and buckle up.

He gestures to the cups in the holder between us. “I bought you an Americano when I bought mine.” He shoves his rusty old Hyundai into reverse and backs out of our driveway.

“Thanks.” I pop the lid on my coffee and wait for the steam to subside.

“How was your weekend?”

“Good.” I look at him, and my heart does a tiny somersault. Hunter has the profile of a Roman god: perfect cheekbones, full lips, those overgrown bushy brows. Okay, so maybe the Roman gods were manscaped, but two out of three isn’t bad. “How about you?”

There’s a nasty grind when he puts the car into first and steps on the gas. “The same.” And then he clears his throat.

Oh geez. I clutch my coffee. When he did that on Friday, he dropped a bombshell. “What?” I ask.

The light turns amber. He coasts to a stop and picks up his coffee. “You weren’t at Molly’s party Saturday night.”

He noticed! “Nope. I was kinda busy, thanks to you and Carly.” I flick a piece of lint from my jeans. “April 3rd is is only two weeks away. Do the math. That’s something like 330 hours. Take away sleeping and school, and that doesn’t leave much time to prep my material, figure out my clothes or work on my act.” Plus, Brooke was going to that party. I didn’t need that kind of hassle.

He studies me over the rim of his cup. “I figured it was because Brooke was there.”

I can’t lie to Hunter. He sees through me every time. “That was part of it,” I admit. “But honestly, the whole idea of this competition is freaking me out. I really need to focus.”

“You’ll be great.” The light turns green. He sticks his coffee back in the holder and steps on the gas. “I totally believe in you, Paige. I wouldn’t have nominated you if I didn’t.”

“I’m glad.” And I am. But honestly? If I had to choose between Hunter MacRae believing in me or being into me—in that
you make me want to explode
kind of way—it’d be no contest. I’d go with the explosion any day of the week.

Apparently Hunter isn’t the only one who believes in me. When I get to school, I’m shocked to see a huge red-and-blue
See Paige Win
banner hanging in the foyer. And by the time I get to my locker, at least a dozen people have stopped to congratulate me.

“You’re a star,” Carly says when I see her on the way to math. “The whole school is behind you.”

The whole school minus one. My sister.

I have drama after math, and the mood in that class is over-the-top excited.

“I can’t believe you’ll get a one-year contract with Endless Field,” says Annalise as she sprawls on the risers, waiting for the teacher to call the class to order.


If
I win,” I remind her.

“Of course you’ll win,” she says.

“And that means ten grand for the drama department too,” says Liam. “Don’t forget that.”

“I know, right?” But as we break into small groups to refine the short pantomimed scenes we’re working on, I can’t miss the envy in their eyes. I get it. This is my tribe. We share the same need to step into another person’s shoes, to get a reaction from an audience, to be in the spotlight. In their position, I’d be envious of my opportunity too.

“Paige,” Mr. Roskinski calls when the class ends. “Can I have a word?”

“Sure.”

“I don’t have to tell you how thrilled I am for you,” he says when he pulls up a chair beside me. With his shiny, bald head and spindly arms
and legs, Mr. Roskinski has an unfortunate frog-like appearance.

“Thanks.”

“But two weeks isn’t much time. Especially since you need three stand-up routines.”

My stomach flutters.

“And doing stand-up isn’t like taping a YouTube video in your room. You can do those over and over until you’re happy with them. In stand-up, you get one shot. You need to make sure you’re on the mark with timing and transitions and delivery and stage presence. It’s a lot to manage.”

The flutter turns to a nauseous roll. Like I need the reminder? “I can do it.” I
have
to do it.

“I believe you can, and I’ve arranged to have you excused from gym so you’ll have extra time to work on your material.”

“Oh wow. That’s great. Thanks.” Anything to miss gym. I hate that class.

“There’s a lot at stake here, Paige. It’s a huge opportunity for you and for the school.”

Yeah, ten thousand dollars’ worth of huge.

“Having a live audience is an important part of this,” he adds.

Don’t remind me
. “I understand that. And I need to include them.” I’ve studied enough comedians to know this. “If I exclude them, I’m dead.”

He nods. “Right. But the good thing is that the audience can do half the work for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Live comedy is participatory,” he says. “It relies on audience interaction. Their laughs dictate your timing. You use them to get into the flow.” He lets that sink in, and then he adds, “In the meantime, I want you to use the time you’d spend in gym to develop four stand-up routines.”

“I only need three.”

“You need three good ones.” He emphasizes the word
good
. “And because you can’t always tell what will work with a given audience, you need backup material in case you need to switch gears mid-act.”

That makes sense. “Okay.”

“Once you get your routines down, we’ll hold a trial performance here in drama. We’ll do it next Monday. We’ll invite some of the classes who won’t be able to get to the actual competition in Portland. I’ll tape you too, so you can play it back afterward, analyze your performance and see how you did.”

My insides drain away. “I don’t need to rehearse in drama.”
In front of my friends
. “I’ll be fine.”

“Of course you’ll rehearse.” He stares at me, his buggy eyes bulging even more than usual. “Fine isn’t good enough, Paige. You need to be spectacular.”

Bad choice of words. I open my mouth to explain, but Mr. Roskinski isn’t finished. “Think of this as an opportunity to get on top of your stage fright.” He smiles. “And what better place to learn to handle it than in front of your friends.”

BOOK: Stepping Out
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