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Authors: Laura Langston

Tags: #JUV031000, #JUV013070, #JUV039150

Stepping Out (7 page)

BOOK: Stepping Out
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“That was great!” Carly says when she and Hunter come up to me afterward. A few students are hanging out talking, but the rest have left. Mr. Roskinski is sitting at his desk, writing something. Carly nudges Hunter. “Right?”

“Yeah. You did great.” But his voice is flat, his face weirdly blank. And he just cleared his throat.

I stare at him. “What’s wrong? And don’t tell me nothing, because that would be a lie.”

A hit of color blooms high on his cheeks. “It was a cheap shot, that’s all.”

Irritation prickles the back of my neck. “Oh come on! You know what Brooke’s been saying about me. You heard her on Saturday. What I said about her today was nothing.” Especially compared to what I plan to say about her at the competition.

“I’m not talking about Brooke,” Hunter says. “She’s just being a jealous bag.”

A bag, yes. Jealous? I don’t think so.

“I’m talking about you,” he adds. “The way you made fun of yourself. It was stupid.”

My breath catches. “It wasn’t stupid. The audience laughed. That means it worked.”

“Whatever.” But he won’t meet my gaze. “I thought it was dumb.”

There’s a funny pressure behind my eyes. Dumb? Really? Before I can answer, he turns away. I spot Mr. Roskinski walking toward me.

“You did great,” Carly mouths. She gestures to Hunter’s back. “He’s wrong.”

Carly’s right. It wasn’t dumb. I’m onstage to get laughs. No matter what it takes.

Nine

C
omedy isn’t just telling a joke. It’s timing, it’s setup, it’s facial expressions, it’s choosing the right topic. Over the next few days I eat, sleep and breathe my routines. I watch the sessions Mr. Roskinski taped so many times I can practically recite them in my sleep. I analyze every word I speak, every pause I make, every beat of laughter I get back. I try out new lines and tweak the existing ones. I visualize a perfect delivery. I try on my stage clothes, pack and repack my suitcase. Wednesday, I email my two video submissions to the contest organizers. Thursday, I do another dry run in drama, only this time I do it after school and Mr. Roskinski is the only one watching, which is weird because he doesn’t laugh once, but I have to pause anyway, as if he is.

“Remember to breathe, to take your time and to let the energy build as you get into your set,” Mr. Roskinski says after I finish. “Now go home and get a good night’s sleep so you’re well rested for tomorrow’s drive to Portland.”

Since I was pretty much born to sleep, I don’t expect to have trouble sleeping Thursday night. And I don’t. I fall asleep soon after I go to bed, and it’s all good until my eyes fly open and I wake up in a cold sweat at 3:37
AM
.

I’m competing in the
ITCF
. And I cannot fail.

It takes me hours to doze back off. And then I sleep through my alarm, which means I’m still in bed when Hunter comes to the door to pick me up. Hunter can’t stick around, but luckily Mom has the day off so she gets my breakfast, helps me pack my toiletries and drives me to school. I spend block one in math pretending I’m concentrating, and block two in the library pretending I’m reviewing my material. In reality, I’m obsessing. All I can think of is how big a deal this is and how scared I am. Finally, at ten to eleven, I put my material away and head for my locker.

Where R U?
Carly texts as I check and recheck the bag I checked and rechecked last night and
again this morning. I’m terrified I’ve forgotten my antiperspirant. No way do I want to sweat peaches on stage again.
Hurry up
,
she adds.

I glance at my watch. We’re leaving at eleven. I still have five minutes.
Relax
,
I text back
.
Roskinski’s not on board yet anyway
.
I see him down the hall, standing outside the office talking to Ms. Vastag.

Hunter saved you a seat. :)

In that case…I zip up my bag, slam my locker shut and head down the hall. As I pass the office, Ms. Vastag looks over and smiles. Whoa. I almost stumble. Last time she smiled, I was in grade eight. “Good luck, Paige.”

Paige? Now she’s calling me
Paige
?

“We’re all rooting for you.”

It’s the nicest thing Vastag has ever said to me. It’s also the scariest. Because it tells me how much is riding on my win.

Outside, a light drizzle is falling—the misty, barely there kind that does a real number on my hair. I tuck as much of it as I can under my raincoat and hurry down the sidewalk to the yellow bus waiting at the end of the drop-off zone.
I’m not even to the back of the bus when the cheering starts. “Larsson, Larsson…”

My face flames.
Oh God, kill me now.

When I reach the side of the bus, I see it: a six-foot-long paper banner taped to the side windows. Huge red letters say
Comedy star Paige Larsson goes for the win.
And
ITCF
rules!

Comedy star? Seriously? It’s not enough that I’m about to potentially humiliate myself onstage in front of hundreds of strangers, but I have to humiliate myself for three hours on I-5 getting there?

Smiling, the driver takes my bag and stows it with the other luggage. I take a deep breath and step onto the bus. The claps and whistles start. I spot Annalise and Liam. More buddies from drama. Hunter and Carly. Everybody’s smiling. My throat tightens. These guys are my friends. And they’re totally, 100 percent behind me. I’m lucky. I grin. “Gimp coming through.”

“Larsson, Larsson!” The cheers keep coming.

How embarrassing. “Shut up, guys, you’re violating the noise bylaws.” I make my way down the aisle. “They’re already getting calls in
the office.” Clearly nobody believes me, because the cheers keep coming. I slide into the empty seat beside Hunter. An open bag of potato chips sits on his knees.

Across the aisle, Carly is grinning like a crazy fool. “Oh my god, Paige, I can’t believe this day has finally come!” She fist-pumps the air.

“Yeah. It’s amazing how Friday comes after Thursday.” I start to pull my jacket off. “I can hardly believe it myself.”

Carly rolls her eyes. Hunter sets aside his chips to help me with my sleeve. There’s a chip crumb on his lower lip. I wonder what it would be like to kiss it away. Or have the guts to tell him how I feel. The thought makes me hot.

“Sleep much?” he teases.

“As much as possible.”

He laughs. “At least you’re relaxed about everything.”

“I’m so relaxed, I can barely keep my eyes open.” I open my mouth to fake a yawn, and a real yawn takes over.

Carly leans over and sticks her phone under my nose. “I told you you’d hit that ten-thousand mark.”

I stare down at the screen. It takes me a second to make sense of what I’m seeing. My YouTube channel has ten thousand subscribers. Before I was shortlisted for the
ITCF
, I had five thousand. “Wow.” My mouth is suddenly dry. “This whole thing has been totally worth it.” All the practicing, all the stressing.

“Of course it’s been worth it,” Hunter says.

“And it’s only the beginning,” Carly says. “Because you’re going to win, and you’ll go to New York, and you’ll be a star.”

Annalise leans over from the seat ahead of us. “And the drama department will get ten grand out of the deal too!” she says.

My heart lurches. “I know. It’s gonna be great!” As long as I win. If I lose, I let everybody down.

A few minutes later, Mr. Roskinski boards the bus and the driver slides into his seat. After a reminder about proper bus etiquette (no cheering, no standing, no walking around) and an announcement that we’re stopping for lunch in Centralia, which is midway between Seattle and Portland, we head off.

But by the time the bus hits I-5 south, I almost forget about the
ITCF
. Partly because the stupid
springs on the bus seats make thinking impossible and partly because I’m sitting beside Hunter and the lack of springs means we’re constantly bumping shoulders.

And shoulder bumping Hunter as we drive down I-5 is enough to make any girl forget her worries.

Everything’s good until we reach Portland.

“In another minute or so, we’ll be driving by the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall,” Mr. Roskinski says. “It’ll be on the right-hand side of the street.”

I stare out the window. The traffic on Southwest Broadway is heavy. We’re barely creeping along.

“There it is,” someone shouts.

I spot the long green
Portland
sign attached to the side of the building. It looks like a giant pen. As the bus inches forward, the marquee comes into view:
The International Teens in Comedy Festival. Welcome to America’s Newest & Funniest. Sponsored by Acacia Communications.

My stomach erupts. Not into dainty butterflies but into a mess of rabid bats. This is really happening.

“You guys are headliners,” Carly says. “That’s so cool.”

“Hey.” Hunter nudges me. “Isn’t that your dad by the entrance?”

“No way.” I lean forward so I can see around Carly’s shoulder. “It can’t be.”

I blink once, twice, three times. It’s Dad, all right. He’s standing in front of the marquee, one arm around Mom and the other around Grandpa, a big smile on his face.

Oh no. No, no, no. This can’t be happening.

And then I spot the person taking the picture, and all hell breaks loose in the bat kingdom of my stomach. It’s Brooke. She’s standing between Twin One and Twin Two.

Ten

“G
randpa insisted on it,” Mom says about thirty minutes later when we’re sitting on butter-yellow leather chairs in the hotel lobby. Across from me, Grandpa beams with pride. “He made all the arrangements,” Mom adds. “He booked our rooms at the hotel. He contacted the festival office to make sure we’d have tickets waiting at the box office. He even arranged to borrow Jerry’s nine-seater van so we could all drive down together.”

Grandpa is a make-it-happen kind of guy. Normally I love it. Today, not so much.

The lobby is crowded. People are clustered by the tour desk, the entrance to the bar, the gift shop. There’s a steady stream of bodies coming through the circular front doors and heading for the check-in
desk too. Most of them are around my age. Most of them are trailing suitcases. And most of them have that same
is this for real?
look of panic in their eyes.

My competition.

“We wanted to show up and surprise you!” Grandpa says.

Surprises like this I don’t need. I’d literally just finished checking in—I hadn’t even been to my room yet—and when I turned around from reception, there they were. At least, Mom, Dad, and Grandpa were there. Brooke and the twins were in the gift shop.

“We haven’t been taking your comedy aspirations seriously enough.” Dad rubs his eyes. I can tell the drive from Seattle has exhausted him. Grandpa’s a terrible backseat driver. “We wanted to be here to support you.”

“And I know you’re nervous and you’d rather we didn’t watch, but just don’t think about us being in the audience.” Mom picks up my hand and gives it a squeeze. “Okay?” When I don’t answer, she squeezes my hand a second time and says, “You’ll do great, Paige.”

“Yeah, great.” I drag the word out—
griiiiiiiiiit
. Maybe they’ll think I’m pretending to be southern
and not realize I’m having trouble talking between gritted teeth. I clutch my welcome package and force myself to look happy. They mean well. They do.

I just wish they could mean well from home.

“You’re staying on the concierge floor.” Mom smiles. “We tried to get on your floor, but they wouldn’t let us.”

Thank God for small mercies. “The tenth floor has been reserved for contestants.” Having my own room is a perk and probably a blessing too, although it would have been fun to room with Carly. But she and Hunter and the other kids are two floors down.

“And the hotel has a shuttle,” Dad adds. “So you won’t have to walk to and from the concert hall. Your mother checked.”

“I know. They told me.”

“But we can’t let you take the shuttle tomorrow morning,” Grandpa says. “We’ll drive you ourselves.”

“You don’t need to do that.”

“Of course we don’t, but we will.”

I’m actually relieved. Going into the theater tomorrow morning will be scary, and it’ll be nice
to have my family beside me. My mind flashes on Brooke. Okay,
some
of my family beside me.

“We want to be there every step of the way,” Grandpa adds.

Nodding, I glance around the lobby. A slim woman wearing leather pants and a royal-purple cape jacket is coming through the circular doors. Something about her looks familiar. She turns to the man beside her and laughs. My heart skips a beat.

Holy crap, it’s Raven Prest!

She saunters toward the reception desk, a soft-sided leather bag slung over one shoulder, chatting casually to her companion. She’s taller than I expected and totally glammed out with poppy-red lipstick and sleek, short black hair.

“…join us for dinner tonight,” Grandpa is saying. The elevator in my stomach bottoms out. Oh no. I look back at him. “Your mom and dad. Brooke and the twins. I’ve made a reservation at a local steak house. My treat, of course.”

“I have the reception at the concert hall. They’re sending shuttles to pick us up at five thirty.” We’re expected to tour backstage so we’ll know what to expect tomorrow, and the sponsors and judges are being introduced afterward.

“It ends at seven,” Grandpa says. “I asked. So I made the reservation for eight.”

I don’t want to see my family afterward. Being around them—around Brooke—will totally throw me off. “I’m seeing Hunter and Carly after,” I tell him. “But thanks.”

“They can come too,” Grandpa says. “I’m sure the restaurant can accommodate a few extra people.”

Oh man. A mixture of love and exasperation rolls through me. “Thanks, Grandpa, but Carly’s picked out a place she wants to try.” I’m desperate enough to lie.

Grandpa throws up his hands. “Well then, I’ll cancel the steak house and we can go where Carly wants.”

Why does he have to be so easygoing? “It’s a sushi place,” I blurt out. Grandpa and Dad hate sushi. “That’s all they have—a
ton
of sushi.” I need to text Carly and bring her up to speed before she runs into Grandpa in the hall and blows my lie out of the water.

BOOK: Stepping Out
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